“Attention, Inner-Flight ship! Attention! You are ordered to land at the Control Station on Deimos for inspection. Attention! You are to land at once!”
The metallic rasp of the speaker echoed through the corridors of the great ship. The passengers glanced at each other uneasily, murmuring and peering out the port windows at the small speck below, the dot of rock that was the Martian checkpoint, Deimos.
“What’s up?” an anxious passenger asked one of the pilots, hurrying through the ship to check the escape lock.
“We have to land. Keep seated.” The pilot went on.
“Land? But why?” They all looked at each other. Hovering above the bulging Inner-Flight ship were three slender Martian pursuit craft, poised and alert for any emergency. As the Inner-Flight ship prepared to land the pursuit ships dropped lower, carefully maintaining themselves a short distance away.
“There’s something going on,” a woman passenger said nervously. “Lord, I thought we were finally through with those Martians. Now what?”
“I don’t blame them for giving us one last going over,” a heavy-set business man said to his companion. “After all, we’re the last ship leaving Mars for Terra. We’re damn lucky they let us go at all.”
“You think there really will be war?” A young man said to the girl sitting in the seat next to him. “Those Martians won’t dare fight, not with our weapons and ability to produce. We could take care of Mars in a month. It’s all talk.”
The girl glanced at him. “Don’t be so sure. Mars is desperate. They’ll fight tooth and nail. I’ve been on Mars three years.” She shuddered.
“Thank goodness I’m getting away. If--”
“Prepare to land!” the pilot’s voice came. The ship began to settle slowly, dropping down toward the tiny emergency field on the seldom visited moon. Down, down the ship dropped. There was a grinding sound, a sickening jolt. Then silence.
“We’ve landed,” the heavy-set business man said. “They better not do anything to us! Terra will rip them apart if they violate one Space Article.”
“Please keep your seats,” the pilot’s voice came. “No one is to leave the ship, according to the Martian authorities. We are to remain here.”
A restless stir filled the ship. Some of the passengers began to read uneasily, others stared out at the deserted field, nervous and on edge, watching the three Martian pursuit ships land and disgorge groups of armed men.
The Martian soldiers were crossing the field quickly, moving toward them, running double time.
This Inner-Flight spaceship was the last passenger vessel to leave Mars for Terra. All other ships had long since left, returning to safety before the outbreak of hostilities. The passengers were the very last to go, the final group of Terrans to leave the grim red planet, business men, expatriates, tourists, any and all Terrans who had not already gone home.
“What do you suppose they want?” the young man said to the girl. “It’s hard to figure Martians out, isn’t it? First they give the ship clearance, let us take off, and now they radio us to set down again. By the way, my name’s Thacher, Bob Thacher. Since we’re going to be here awhile--”
The port lock opened. Talking ceased abruptly, as everyone turned. A black-clad Martian official, a Province Leiter, stood framed against the bleak sunlight, staring around the ship. Behind him a handful of Martian soldiers stood waiting, their guns ready.
“This will not take long,” the Leiter said, stepping into the ship, the soldiers following him. “You will be allowed to continue your trip shortly.”
An audible sigh of relief went through the passengers.
“Look at him,” the girl whispered to Thacher. “How I hate those black uniforms!”
“He’s just a Provincial Leiter,” Thacher said. “Don’t worry.”
The Leiter stood for a moment, his hands on his hips, looking around at them without expression. “I have ordered your ship grounded so that an inspection can be made of all persons aboard,” he said. “You Terrans are the last to leave our planet. Most of you are ordinary and harmless-- I am not interested in you. I am interested in finding three saboteurs, three Terrans, two men and a woman, who have committed an incredible act of destruction and violence. They are said to have fled to this ship.”
Murmurs of surprise and indignation broke out on all sides. The Leiter motioned the soldiers to follow him up the aisle.
“Two hours ago a Martian city was destroyed. Nothing remains, only a depression in the sand where the city was. The city and all its people have completely vanished. An entire city destroyed in a second! Mars will never rest until the saboteurs are captured. And we know they are aboard this ship.”
“It’s impossible,” the heavy-set business man said. “There aren’t any saboteurs here.”
“We’ll begin with you,” the Leiter said to him, stepping up beside the man’s seat. One of the soldiers passed the Leiter a square metal box.
“This will soon tell us if you’re speaking the truth. Stand up. Get on your feet.”
The man rose slowly, flushing. “See here--”
“Are you involved in the destruction of the city? Answer!”
The man swallowed angrily. “I know nothing about any destruction of any city. And furthermore--”
“He is telling the truth,” the metal box said tonelessly.
“Next person.” The Leiter moved down the aisle.
A thin, bald-headed man stood up nervously. “No, sir,” he said. “I don’t know a thing about it.”
“He is telling the truth,” the box affirmed.
“Next person! Stand up!”
One person after another stood, answered, and sat down again in relief.
At last there were only a few people left who had not been questioned.
The Leiter paused, studying them intently.
“Only five left. The three must be among you. We have narrowed it down.”
His hand moved to his belt. Something flashed, a rod of pale fire. He raised the rod, pointing it steadily at the five people. “All right, the first one of you. What do you know about this destruction? Are you involved with the destruction of our city?”
“No, not at all,” the man murmured.
“Yes, he’s telling the truth,” the box intoned.
“Nothing-- I know nothing. I had nothing to do with it.”
“True,” the box said.
The ship was silent. Three people remained, a middle-aged man and his wife and their son, a boy of about twelve. They stood in the corner, staring white-faced at the Leiter, at the rod in his dark fingers.
“It must be you,” the Leiter grated, moving toward them. The Martian soldiers raised their guns. “It must be you. You there, the boy. What do you know about the destruction of our city? Answer!”
The boy shook his head. “Nothing,” he whispered.
The box was silent for a moment. “He is telling the truth,” it said reluctantly.
“Nothing,” the woman muttered. “Nothing.”
“I had nothing to do with blowing up your city,” the man said. “You’re wasting your time.”
“It is the truth,” the box said.
For a long time the Leiter stood, toying with his rod. At last he pushed it back in his belt and signalled the soldiers toward the exit lock.
“You may proceed on your trip,” he said. He walked after the soldiers.
At the hatch he stopped, looking back at the passengers, his face grim.
“You may go-- But Mars will not allow her enemies to escape. The three saboteurs will be caught, I promise you.” He rubbed his dark jaw thoughtfully. “It is strange. I was certain they were on this ship.”
Again he looked coldly around at the Terrans.
“Perhaps I was wrong. All right, proceed! But remember: the three will be caught, even if it takes endless years. Mars will catch them and punish them! I swear it!”
For a long time no one spoke. The ship lumbered through space again, its jets firing evenly, calmly, moving the passengers toward their own planet, toward home. Behind them Deimos and the red ball that was Mars dropped farther and farther away each moment, disappearing and fading into the distance.
A sigh of relief passed through the passengers. “What a lot of hot air that was,” one grumbled.
“Barbarians!” a woman said.
A few of them stood up, moving out into the aisle, toward the lounge and the cocktail bar. Beside Thacher the girl got to her feet, pulling her jacket around her shoulders.
“Pardon me,” she said, stepping past him.
“Going to the bar?” Thacher said. “Mind if I come along?”
“I suppose not.”
They followed the others into the lounge, walking together up the aisle.
“You know,” Thacher said, “I don’t even know your name, yet.”
“My name is Mara Gordon.”
“Mara? That’s a nice name. What part of Terra are you from? North America? New York?”
“I’ve been in New York,” Mara said. “New York is very lovely.” She was slender and pretty, with a cloud of dark hair tumbling down her neck, against her leather jacket.
They entered the lounge and stood undecided.
“Let’s sit at a table,” Mara said, looking around at the people at the bar, mostly men. “Perhaps that table over there.”
“But someone’s there already,” Thacher said. The heavy-set business man had sat down at the table and deposited his sample case on the floor.
“Do we want to sit with him?”
“Oh, it’s all right,” Mara said, crossing to the table. “May we sit here?” she said to the man.
The man looked up, half-rising. “It’s a pleasure,” he murmured. He studied Thacher intently. “However, a friend of mine will be joining me in a moment.”
“I’m sure there’s room enough for us all,” Mara said. She seated herself and Thacher helped her with her chair. He sat down, too, glancing up suddenly at Mara and the business man. They were looking at each other almost as if something had passed between them. The man was middle-aged, with a florid face and tired, grey eyes. His hands were mottled with the veins showing thickly. At the moment he was tapping nervously.
“My name’s Thacher,” Thacher said to him, holding out his hand. “Bob Thacher. Since we’re going to be together for a while we might as well get to know each other.”
The man studied him. Slowly his hand came out. “Why not? My name’s Erickson. Ralf Erickson.”
“Erickson?” Thacher smiled. “You look like a commercial man, to me.” He nodded toward the sample case on the floor. “Am I right?”
The man named Erickson started to answer, but at that moment there was a stir. A thin man of about thirty had come up to the table, his eyes bright, staring down at them warmly. “Well, we’re on our way,” he said to Erickson.
“Hello, Mara.” He pulled out a chair and sat down quickly, folding his hands on the table before him. He noticed Thacher and drew back a little. “Pardon me,” he murmured.
“Bob Thacher is my name,” Thacher said. “I hope I’m not intruding here.” He glanced around at the three of them, Mara, alert, watching him intently, heavy-set Erickson, his face blank, and this person. “Say, do you three know each other?” he asked suddenly.
There was silence.
The robot attendant slid over soundlessly, poised to take their orders.
Erickson roused himself. “Let’s see,” he murmured. “What will we have?
“Whiskey and water.”
The bright slim man smiled. “The same.”
“Gin and tonic.”
“Whiskey and water for me, also,” Erickson said. The robot attendant went off. It returned at once with the drinks, setting them on the table.
Each took his own. “Well,” Erickson said, holding his glass up. “To our mutual success.”
All drank, Thacher and the three of them, heavy-set Erickson, Mara, her eyes nervous and alert, Jan, who had just come. Again a look passed between Mara and Erickson, a look so swift that he would not have caught it had he not been looking directly at her.
“What line do you represent, Mr. Erickson?” Thacher asked.
Erickson glanced at him, then down at the sample case on the floor. He grunted. “Well, as you can see, I’m a salesman.”
Thacher smiled. “I knew it! You get so you can always spot a salesman right off by his sample case. A salesman always has to carry something to show. What are you in, sir?”
Erickson paused. He licked his thick lips, his eyes blank and lidded, like a toad’s. At last he rubbed his mouth with his hand and reached down, lifting up the sample case. He set it on the table in front of him.
“Well?” he said. “Perhaps we might even show Mr. Thacher.”
They all stared down at the sample case. It seemed to be an ordinary leather case, with a metal handle and a snap lock. “I’m getting curious,” Thacher said. “What’s in there? You’re all so tense. Diamonds?
Jan laughed harshly, mirthlessly. “Erick, put it down. We’re not far enough away, yet.”
“Nonsense,” Erick rumbled. “We’re away, Jan.”
“Please,” Mara whispered. “Wait, Erick.”
“Wait? Why? What for? You’re so accustomed to--”
“Erick,” Mara said. She nodded toward Thacher. “We don’t know him, Erick. Please!”
“He’s a Terran, isn’t he?” Erickson said. “All Terrans are together in these times.” He fumbled suddenly at the catch lock on the case. “Yes, Mr. Thacher. I’m a salesman. We’re all salesmen, the three of us.”
“Then you do know each other.”
“Yes.” Erickson nodded. His two companions sat rigidly, staring down.
“Yes, we do. Here, I’ll show you our line.”
He opened the case. From it he took a letter-knife, a pencil sharpener, a glass globe paperweight, a box of thumb tacks, a stapler, some clips, a plastic ashtray, and some things Thacher could not identify. He placed the objects in a row in front of him on the table top. Then he closed the sample case.
“I gather you’re in office supplies,” Thacher said. He touched the letter-knife with his finger. “Nice quality steel. Looks like Swedish steel, to me.”
Erickson nodded, looking into Thacher’s face. “Not really an impressive business, is it? Office supplies. Ashtrays, paper clips.” He smiled.
“Oh--” Thacher shrugged. “Why not? They’re a necessity in modern business. The only thing I wonder--”
“Well, I wonder how you’d ever find enough customers on Mars to make it worth your while.” He paused, examining the glass paperweight. He lifted it up, holding it to the light, staring at the scene within until Erickson took it out of his hand and put it back in the sample case.
“And another thing. If you three know each other, why did you sit apart when you got on?”
They looked at him quickly.
“And why didn’t you speak to each other until we left Deimos?” He leaned toward Erickson, smiling at him. “Two men and a woman. Three of you.
Sitting apart in the ship. Not speaking, not until the check-station was past. I find myself thinking over what the Martian said. Three saboteurs. A woman and two men.”
Erickson put the things back in the sample case. He was smiling, but his face had gone chalk white. Mara stared down, playing with a drop of water on the edge of her glass. Jan clenched his hands together nervously, blinking rapidly.
“You three are the ones the Leiter was after,” Thacher said softly. “You are the destroyers, the saboteurs. But their lie detector-- Why didn’t it trap you? How did you get by that? And now you’re safe, outside the check-station.” He grinned, staring around at them. “I’ll be damned! And I really thought you were a salesman, Erickson. You really fooled me.”
Erickson relaxed a little. “Well, Mr. Thacher, it’s in a good cause. I’m sure you have no love for Mars, either. No Terran does. And I see you’re leaving with the rest of us.”
“True,” Thacher said. “You must certainly have an interesting account to give, the three of you.” He looked around the table.
“We still have an hour or so of travel. Sometimes it gets dull, this Mars-Terra run. Nothing to see, nothing to do but sit and drink in the lounge.” He raised his eyes slowly. “Any chance you’d like to spin a story to keep us awake?”
Jan and Mara looked at Erickson. “Go on,” Jan said. “He knows who we are. Tell him the rest of the story.”
“You might as well,” Mara said.
Jan let out a sigh suddenly, a sigh of relief. “Let’s put the cards on the table, get this weight off us. I’m tired of sneaking around, slipping--”
“Sure,” Erickson said expansively. “Why not?” He settled back in his chair, unbuttoning his vest. “Certainly, Mr. Thacher. I’ll be glad to spin you a story. And I’m sure it will be interesting enough to keep you awake.”
They ran through the groves of dead trees, leaping across the sun-baked Martian soil, running silently together. They went up a little rise, across a narrow ridge. Suddenly Erick stopped, throwing himself down flat on the ground. The others did the same, pressing themselves against the soil, gasping for breath.
“Be silent,” Erick muttered. He raised himself a little. “No noise.
There’ll be Leiters nearby, from now on. We don’t dare take any chances.”
Between the three people lying in the grove of dead trees and the City was a barren, level waste of desert, over a mile of blasted sand. No trees or bushes marred the smooth, parched surface. Only an occasional wind, a dry wind eddying and twisting, blew the sand up into little rills. A faint odor came to them, a bitter smell of heat and sand, carried by the wind.
Erick pointed. “Look. The City-- There it is.”
They stared, still breathing deeply from their race through the trees.
The City was close, closer than they had ever seen it before. Never had they gotten so close to it in times past. Terrans were never allowed near the great Martian cities, the centers of Martian life. Even in ordinary times, when there was no threat of approaching war, the Martians shrewdly kept all Terrans away from their citadels, partly from fear, partly from a deep, innate sense of hostility toward the white-skinned visitors whose commercial ventures had earned them the respect, and the dislike, of the whole system.
“How does it look to you?” Erick said.
The City was huge, much larger than they had imagined from the drawings and models they had studied so carefully back in New York, in the War Ministry Office. Huge it was, huge and stark, black towers rising up against the sky, incredibly thin columns of ancient metal, columns that had stood wind and sun for centuries. Around the City was a wall of stone, red stone, immense bricks that had been lugged there and fitted into place by slaves of the early Martian dynasties, under the whiplash of the first great Kings of Mars.
An ancient, sun-baked City, a City set in the middle of a wasted plain, beyond groves of dead trees, a City seldom seen by Terrans--but a City studied on maps and charts in every War Office on Terra. A City that contained, for all its ancient stone and archaic towers, the ruling group of all Mars, the Council of Senior Leiters, black-clad men who governed and ruled with an iron hand.
The Senior Leiters, twelve fanatic and devoted men, black priests, but priests with flashing rods of fire, lie detectors, rocket ships, intra-space cannon, many more things the Terran Senate could only conjecture about. The Senior Leiters and their subordinate Province Leiters-- Erick and the two behind him suppressed a shudder.
“We’ve got to be careful,” Erick said again. “We’ll be passing among them, soon. If they guess who we are, or what we’re here for--”
He snapped open the case he carried, glancing inside for a second. Then he closed it again, grasping the handle firmly. “Let’s go,” he said. He stood up slowly. “You two come up beside me. I want to make sure you look the way you should.”
Mara and Jan stepped quickly ahead. Erick studied them critically as the three of them walked slowly down the slope, onto the plain, toward the towering black spires of the City.
“Jan,” Erick said. “Take hold of her hand! Remember, you’re going to marry her; she’s your bride. And Martian peasants think a lot of their brides.”
Jan was dressed in the short trousers and coat of the Martian farmer, a knotted rope tied around his waist, a hat on his head to keep off the sun. His skin was dark, colored by dye until it was almost bronze.
“You look fine,” Erick said to him. He glanced at Mara. Her black hair was tied in a knot, looped through a hollowed-out yuke bone. Her face was dark, too, dark and lined with colored ceremonial pigment, green and orange stripes across her cheeks. Earrings were strung through her ears.
On her feet were tiny slippers of perruh hide, laced around her ankles, and she wore long translucent Martian trousers with a bright sash tied around her waist. Between her small breasts a chain of stone beads rested, good-luck charms for the coming marriage.
“All right,” Erick said. He, himself, wore the flowing grey robe of a Martian priest, dirty robes that were supposed to remain on him all his life, to be buried around him when he died. “I think we’ll get past the guards. There should be heavy morning traffic on the road.”