Charlie Holmes lost touch with reality amid rending and shattering sounds that lingered dimly. Blackness engulfed him in a wave of agony.
He was not sure exactly when the possibility of opening his eyes occurred to him. Vaguely, he could sense--”remember” was too definite--much tugging and hauling upon his supine body. It doubtless seemed justifiable, but he flinched from recalling more clearly that which must have been so extremely unpleasant.
Gently, now, he tried rolling his head a few inches right, then left. When it hurt only one-tenth as much as he feared, he let his eyes open.
“Hel-lo!” rasped the bulbous creature squatting beside his pallet.
Charlie shut his eyes quickly, and very tightly.
Something with a dampish, spongy tip, probably one of the grape-red tentacles he had glimpsed, prodded his shoulder.
“Hel-lo!“ insisted the scratchy voice.
Charlie peeped warily, was trapped at it, and opened his eyes resignedly.
“Where’n’ell am I?” he inquired.
It sounded very trite, even in his confused condition. Sections of the dark red skin before him, especially on the barrel-shaped belly, quivered as he spoke.
“Surely,” grated the remarkable voice, “you remember something?”
“The crash!” gasped Charlie, sitting up abruptly.
He held his breath, awaiting the knifing pain it seemed natural to expect. When he felt none, he cautiously fingered his ribs, and then a horrid thought prompted him to wiggle his bare toes. Everything seemed to be in place.
He lay in a small room, on a thin pallet of furs. Floor and walls of slick, ocher clay reflected the bright outside light pouring through a wide doorway.
“What’s all the sand?” he demanded, squinting at the heatwaves outside.
“You do not recognize it? Look again, Earthman!”
Earthman! thought Charlie. It must be real: I can still see him. What a whack on the head I must have got!
“You are in pain?” asked the creature solicitously.
“Oh ... no. Just ... I can’t remember. The crash ... and then--”
“Ah, yes. You have not been conscious for some time.” His reddish host rippled upward to stand more or less erect upon three thick tentacles. “Even with us, memory is slow after shock. And you may be uneasy in the lighter gravity.”
Light gravity! reflected Charlie. This can only mean--MARS! Sure! That must be it--I was piloting a rocket and cracked up somewhere on Mars.
It felt right to him. He decided that the rest of his memory would return.
“Are you able to rise?” asked the other, extending a helpful tentacle.
The Earthman managed to haul himself stiffly to his feet.
“Say, my name is Holmes,” he introduced himself dizzily.
“I am Kho Theki. In your language, learned years since from other spacemen, I might say ‘Fiery Canalman.’”
“Has to be Mars,” muttered Charlie under his breath. “What a bump! When can you show me what’s left of the ship?”
“There will be no time,” answered the Martian.
Bunches of small muscles twitched here and there across the front of his round, pudgy head. Charlie was getting used to the single eye, half the size of an orange and not much duller. With imagination, the various lumps and organs surrounding it might be considered a face.
“The priestesses will lead the crowd here,” predicted Kho. “They know I took an Earthman, and I fear they have finished with the others.”
“Finished with--What?” demanded the Earthman, shaking his head in hopes of clearing it enough to figure out what was wrong.
“It has been an extremely dry season.” Kho rippled his tentacles and moved lissomely to the doorway, assuming a grotesquely furtive posture as he peered out. “The people are maddened by the drought. The will be aroused to sacrifice you to the Canal Gods, like the others who survived.”
“Canal gods!” croaked Charlie. “This can’t be right! Aren’t you civilized here? I can’t be the only Earthman they’ve seen!”
“It is true that Earthmen are perfectly safe at most times.”
“But the laws! The earth consul--”
Kho snapped the tip of a tentacle at him.
“The canals are low. You can feel the heat and dryness for yourself. The crowds are inflamed by temple prophecies. And then, your ship, flaming down from the skies--”
He snapped all this tentacle tips at once.
From somewhere outside, a threatening murmur became audible. It was an unholy blend of rasping shouts and shriller chanting, punctuated by notes of a brassy gong. As Charlie listened, the volume rose noticeably.
Kho reached out with one tentacle and wrapped six inches about the Earthman’s wrist. When he plunged through the doorway, Charlie perforce went right with him.
Whipping around a corner of the hut, he had time for a quick squint at the chanters. Kho alone had looked weirdly alien. Two hundred like him--!