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´╗┐Title: A Gift For Terra
Author: Holden, Fox B.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Gift For Terra" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                            A GIFT FOR TERRA

                            BY FOX B. HOLDEN

                        Illustrated by Paul Orban

[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from If Worlds of Science
Fiction September 1954. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


[Sidenote: _The good Martian Samaritans rescued Johnny Love and offered
him "the stars". Now, maybe, Johnny didn't look closely enough into the
"gift horse's" mouth, but there were others who did ... and found
therein the answer to life...._]


His head hurt like blazes, but he was alive, and to be alive meant
fighting like hell to stay that way.

That was the first thing returning consciousness told him. The next was
that his helmet should have been cracked wide open when the bum landing
had wrenched the acceleration hammocks out of their suspension sockets
and heaved his suited body across the buckled conning deck. It should've
been, but it wasn't.

The third thing he knew was that Ferris' helmet had been smashed into a
million pieces, and that Ferris was dead.

Sand sifted in a cold, red river through the gaping rent in the side of
the ship, trying to bury him before he could stand up and get his
balance on the crazily tilted deck. He shook loose with more strength
than he needed, gave the rest of the muscles in his blocky body a try,
and there wasn't any hurt worse than a bruise. Funny. Ferris was dead.

He had a feeling somewhere at the edge of his brain that there was going
to be more to it than just checking his oxygen and food-concentrate
supply and walking away from the ship. A man didn't complete the first
Earth-Mars flight ever made, smash his ship to hell, and then just walk
away from it. His astrogeologer-navigator was dead, and the planet was
dead, so a man just didn't walk away.

There was plenty of room for him to scramble through the yawning rip in
the buckled hullplates--just a matter of crawling up the river of red
sand and out; it was as easy as that.

Then Johnny Love was on his feet again, and the sand clutched at his
heavy boots as though to keep him from leaving Ferris and the ship, but
it didn't, and he was walking away....

       *       *       *       *       *

Even one hundred and forty million miles from the Sun, the unfiltered
daylight was harsh and the reflection of it from the crimson sand hurt
his eyes. The vault of the blue-black sky was too high; the desert plain
was too flat and too silent, and save for the thin Martian wind that
whorled delicately-fluted traceries in the low dunes that were the only
interruption in the flatness, there was no motion, and the planet was
too still.

Johnny Love stopped his walking. Even in the lesser gravity, it seemed
too great an effort to place one booted foot before the other. He looked
back, and the plume of still-rising smoke from the broken thing that had
been his ship was like a solid black pillar that had been hastily built
by some evil djinn.

How far had he walked; how long?

He turned his back on the glinting speck and made his legs move again,
and there was the hollow sound of laughter in his helmet. Here he was,
Johnny Love, the first Martian! and the last! Using the last of the
strength in his bruised body to go forward, when there was no forward
and no backward, no direction at all; breathing when there was no
purpose in breathing.

Why not shut off the valves now?

He was too tired for hysteria. Men had died alone before. _Alone, but
never without hope! And here there was no hope, for there was no life,
and no man had ever lived where there was not life!_

But he had come to see, and he was seeing, and in the remaining hours
left to him he would see what no man had seen in a half a million years.

Harrison and Janes or Lamson and Fowler would not be down for twenty
days at the inside; that had been the time-table. Twenty days, twenty
years ... he heard himself laugh again. Time-table!

He and Ferris first. Then Harrison and Janes. Then Lamson and Fowler,
all at twenty-day intervals. If all landed safely, they would use
Exploration Plan I, Condition Optimum. If only two crews made it down,
Plan II; Condition Limited. And if only one made the 273-day journey
from the orbit of Terra--that would be Plan III; Condition Untenable,
Return. The twenty-day interval idea had come from some Earth-bound
swivel-chair genius who had probably never even set foot in a Satellite
operations room. Somebody had impressed on him when he was young that
egg-carrying was a safer mission with a multiplicity of baskets; it was
common sense that if anything happened to Mars-I touching down, at least
it wouldn't happen to II and III at the same time.

Common sense, Johnny thought, and he laughed again. Space was not
common, and it was not sensible. And nobody had ever taught it the rules
men made.

He kept walking, seeing, thinking and breathing.

For a long time. He fell once or twice and picked himself up again to
walk some more, and then he fell a final time, and did not get up. Red
sand whispered over him, danced lightly, drifted....

       *       *       *       *       *

The flat, wide-tracked vehicle swerved in a tight arc, throwing up low
ruby-colored clouds on either side. Its engines throbbed a new note of
power, and it scuttled in a straight line across the desert floor like a
fleck of shiny metal drawn by an unseen magnet. Behind it rose a
thinning monument of green-black smoke, and between its tracks was a
wavering line of indentations in the sand already half-obliterated by
the weight of their own shallow walls. But they became deeper as the
vehicle raced ahead; and then at length they ended, and the vehicle
halted.

There was a mound of sand that the winds, in their caprice, would not
have made alone, for they sculptured in a freer symmetry. And the
child-like figures seemed to realize that at once.

With quick precision they levelled the mound and found Johnny Love. They
took him into their vehicle, and deftly matched and replenished the
waning gas mixture in the cylindrical tanks on his back.

Then they drove away with him.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Ferris?"

"Ferris was your astrogeologer-navigator. He died when you crashed."

"Harrison ... _Janes_?"

"Harrison and Janes are not due for nine more days. But you are in no
danger."

There was darkness and warmth; his throat was dry and it burned. It was
hard to talk, and Ferris was dead. Harrison and Janes were not due for
nine more days. Somebody said so. Nine more days and then everything
would be--

Panic shook him, sent blood throbbing to his head and brought
consciousness back hard. His eyes opened and he was suddenly sitting
bolt upright.

"But Lamson, you were twenty days behind--" And the racing thought froze
solid in his fumbling brain. Then there was a torrent of thoughts and
memory overran them, buried them, and red desert was rushing up to
engulf him. He screamed and fell back with his hands clawing at his
eyes.

"You are in no danger. You had thought our planet lifeless; it was an
error. We live underground, John Love. That is why you did not see us,
or surface indications of our existence. A group of us speak your
language, because for eleven days we have been studying your brain and
analyzing your thought-patterns."

Johnny was bolt upright again, and now his eyes were wide and his hands
were knotted, and where there had been only light and shadow before
there was full sight now. Swiftly he was off the low cot and on his feet
looking for the speaker, arms ready to lash out and hit.

But he was alone in the small, sterile-looking chamber, and his muscles
were so much excess baggage. He tried to recover his balance: he had
forgotten about the slight gravity. He tried too hard, and his body
crashed, confused, into a wall. A--damn them, a _padded_ wall!

He regained his feet. Stood still, and raced his eyes about him. There
it was--above the cot. A small round, shuttered opening--some sort of
two-way communication system. He wondered if they could see him, too. If
they could, that part of it worked only one way.

"All right, whoever you are, so you've analyzed me!" He had to direct
his sudden anger at something, so he shouted at the shuttered aperture.
"Now what...."

There was silence for a tiny eternity, and he could feel them probing,
evaluating him, as a human scientist would study a rare species in a
cage. The feeling ignited a new anger in him, and made him want to curse
the teachings that had conditioned his lifetime of thinking to the
belief that Man _was_ more than an animal.

He'd been sold short....

"Damn you! God damn you, what are you going to do to me?"

In a corner of his mind he was aware of a gentle hissing sound, but he
did not listen. The fear and terror had to be broken. Make them tell,
_make_ them tell....

His muscles grew heavy and his face was feverish with his effort, and
his eyes stung. Something ... like roses. But there were no roses on
dead planets--

"Earthman, can you still hear?"

"I can hear," Johnny said. It was suddenly easier to talk. Even easier
to understand. They had done something....

"We are surprised that your state of shock was not more severe. In the
process of analyzing you, we discovered that you were totally unprepared
for Space-flight, and therefore--"

"Unprepared? What do you think all those months of physical conditioning
were for? Yeah, and all those damned textbooks? You think that barrel I
cracked up was built in a Kindergarten class--"

"Space-flight requires but a relative minimum of those things, Earthman.
Required most is psychological and philosophical conditioning."

"To what?"

"To all things unreal. Because they are the most real; infinity applies
to probability and possibility far more directly than to simple Space
and Time. But--are you calm now?" The voice was growing deeper, and
seemed almost friendly. Johnny tried his muscles; they weren't
paralyzed--he could move easily, and his head was clear. And there was
no anger, now. No "shock."

"Go ahead," he said.

"Our examination of you has indicated that your race is a potentially
effective one, with a superior survival factor. We feel that, properly
instructed and assisted, such a race might be of great value as a friend
and ally. In short, we receive you in peace and friendship, Earthman.
Will you accept us in like manner?"

Johnny tried to think. Hard thoughts, the way men were supposed
to think. What kind of game was it? What were the strings? The
angles ... the gimmicks. What did they really want?

His lips were dry and barely moved over his teeth, but the words came
easily. "Who says you're a friend?"

"We would have learned as much about you by examining your corpse,
Earthman."

So he was alive, and that had to prove something. And it might have been
a lot of trouble to keep him that way. The hell of it was you couldn't
_know_ ... _Anything_ ... you couldn't know anything when you were
tossed into the middle of the impossible. He felt the skin on the back
of his neck chill and tighten.

But who held out their hand like this?

Whoever did anything like that?

No.

"We wish to help you, Earthman, and your race. We have observed your
kind at close quarters, yet we have never landed among you nor attempted
communication because of fear for ourselves. But with proper help, there
need be no fear between us. We offer you friendship and progress."

"You keep talking about what _we_ get out of it." Johnny stared upward
at the ceiling, got his eyes off the little shuttered aperture. He
wished he had a cigarette. "You sound too damned much like a
politician."

"Perhaps at this point you should be informed that your ship is
completely repaired, and ready for your return to Earth whenever you
desire."

"So, it's--You said Harrison and Janis would be here in nine days! That
means I've been out for nearly two weeks! For a nap that's a long time,
but nobody could get that bucket back in one piece in eleven days! Not
after what I did to it--"

"Your ship is completely repaired, Earthman."

Johnny knew somehow that the voice wasn't lying. So maybe when you got
off of Earth miracles did happen. He just didn't _know_ enough.

"We wish to give you data to take back to your Earth which will banish
disease for you--_all_ disease. Data which will give you spacecraft that
match our own in technical perfection. Data that will make you the
undisputed masters of your environment. We offer you the stars,
Earthman."

He shut a thousand racing thoughts out of his head. "Maybe I'll believe
this fairy tale of yours on one condition," Johnny said, "because I
can't intelligently do otherwise."

"And that--condition?"

"Tell me _why_."

There was a pause, and it was as though something forever unknowable to
men hung in the silence.

"Picture, if you can, Earthman," the answer came at last, "several small
islands in the center of a great sea; all without life, save two. The
men on one have learned to build boats which can successfully sail the
sea within certain limits--they can visit the other islands, but are too
frail and too limited in power to venture past the horizon. It is
infinitely frustrating to them. The only places to which they may go are
dead places. Save for one--only one, and it becomes magnified in
importance--it becomes an entire _raison d'etre_ in itself. For without
it, the men with the boats sail uselessly....

"We are old, Earthman. We have watched you--waited for you for a long
time. And now you have grown up. You have burst your tiny bubble of
human experience. You have set out upon the sea yourselves...."

"You guys should give graduation talks. I didn't ask for a scaled-down
philosophy. You tell me that you want to give us every trick in your
hat--for free, no questions asked. So I asked why. And the question
isn't changing any."

"The answer should be self-evident, Earthman. We are old. And we are
lonely."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a logic at work somewhere in his brain even during the dream.
It told him that he was exhausted from the day's tour with the
child-like men of Mars, and that the dream was only the vagaries of a
reeling, tired mind of a badly jarred subconscious. It told him that the
things he had seen had been too alien for his relatively inflexible
adult Earth mind to accept without painful reaction, and this was the
reaction.

This, the dream. That was all it was; his logic said so.

Faith spread out before the undisciplined eye of his dreaming brain, and
the near-conscious instant of logic faded. The fertile plains that once
had been yellow desert-land mounted golden fruits to a temperate sun,
and beyond the distant green of gently-rolling hills spread the
resplendent city, and there were other cities as gracefully civilized
beyond the untroubled horizon.

And in the dream, these were all things men had done, as though sanity
had invaded their minds overnight. It was the Earth that men had
intended, rather than that which they had built.

The sun dimmed. The air chilled, and the grains and fruits wilted, and
the rolling hills were a darker hue than green as the shadow lengthened,
spread to the gleaming cities beyond and then as it touched them and ran
soundlessly the length and breadth of their wide malls, there were other
changes....

Skeletons, reaching upward to a puffy, leaden sky.

The horizon split into jagged, broken moats of dark flame, and Earth was
no longer what men had built, but what they eternally feared they must
one day create....

Then Johnny Love was suddenly awake bolt upright in his cot and his eyes
were open wide. His muscles were taut and cramped. And he was afraid
although the men of Mars had offered friendship and told him that there
was nothing for him to fear.

Slowly, he lay down again. And gradually, the cold perspiration that had
encased him vanished; his body relaxed, and the fear subsided.

The day's tour had been exhausting both mentally and physically, and
there was the excitement of knowing that in five more days Harrison and
Janes would land. If they did not, his own ship would carry him safely
back to Earth on the day following, for the little men had miraculously
repaired it; they had shown him. They had shown him, and he wanted to go
home.

Johnny Love rolled over on the wide, soft cot, sighed, and went back to
sleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

"_He sleeps again, Andruul._"

"_Yes, but the damage is probably done._"

"_No, or he would not sleep again so easily. His kind do not have such
emotional control._"

_The two turned away from the fading transparency of the sleeping-room
wall, and their short, thin bodies were in incongruous contrast to the
spaciousness of the metal-sheathed corridor down which they walked._

"_Psychoanalysis showed up the difference in his brain structure--that
apparently accounts for the poor efficiency our screens are showing.
What does Kaarn say?_"

"_He says we should never have allowed the theft._"

_Andruul cursed. "Allowed it! Those nomadic scum are like flies! No
matter how many you exterminate, they never fail to come back in double
their number. And they strike at the precise moment you are certain the
bones of the last one are sinking beneath the sand. Somehow Central
Patrol has got to get that unit back._"

"_You're certain it was a theft, then?_"

"_Don't be an idiot. Since when can those gypsies build anything more
complex than a crude electrical generator? Let alone a psibeam unit?
They've forgotten what little their civilization ever knew._"

"_They are clever enough at evading directed over-surface missiles._"

_Andruul muttered something, and lapsed into silence._

"_Well there is one thing for certain at any rate.... A psibeam unit is
unaccounted for, and despite our protective screening, the Earthman was
visibly disturbed in his sleep. His encephalotapes show that clearly.
They know about him, Andruul, and they're making their bid. Central
Patrol had better be quick and certain this time._"

_Andruul kept his silence. But he thought. He thought Central Patrol was
getting less efficient and more stupid every day._

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a strange feeling; a feeling with which no human was emotionally
equipped to deal.

Johnny looked at his flawlessly renovated ship, poised like a snub-nosed
bullet against the blue-black brittleness of the Martian sky, and then
looked behind him at the crescent-shaped formation of tracked vehicles
that had escorted him back across the sucking red sand to this place.
With each heavy-booted step away from them he closed the short distance
between them and his ship, and there was not enough time to think about
the feeling. Or about the heavy sealed tube they had given him to take
back to his people.

Usually, when a man ventured beyond the bounds of familiar existence,
there was conflict. Either a struggle to win, or, immediately
recognizable success, with no struggle or hint of conflict at all.

But not this. Not this success that seemed--what was the _word_?
Hostile? That was ridiculous. These people were friendly. _But
somehow--there was an empty ring--_

Hell! They had saved his life. Rebuilt his ship. Given him the tube that
contained transcriptions, in his own language, of every scientific
secret his people could ever hope to learn for themselves in the next
thousand years! And, they had even buried Ferris....

Use the brains of a mature man, Johnny Love! You've pulled it off
without even trying! The most stupendous thing any man in any age has
ever pulled off ... without even trying! For God's sake don't
question--don't question things you don't understand! Take the credit
and let the soul-searching go!

He looked behind him again. They were still there. A special, smiling
farewell escort, watching a single, solitary figure cross a short
expanse of sand to a towering, glistening thing of power.

He raised a booted foot to the bottom fin-step, hauled himself up by the
stern mounting rungs, hammered the outer lock stud with his gloved fist
and the hatch swung open. Like a trap.

He could feel the skin at the back of his neck tighten but he forced
himself to ignore it. The lock cycled up to thirteen psi and the inner
port swung automatically inward, and then he was inside, clambering up
the narrow ladder past the titanium alloy fuel tanks and the spidery
catwalks between them to the tiny control room in the forehull.

He would not be waiting for Harrison and Janes. He would get the hell
out of here and then radio them and let them make all the decisions from
there. Earth for him. Home. He ached for it.

He strapped himself in the hammock, punched the warming studs for each
engine, and there was a dull, muffled throb below him as each jumped
into subdued life. The banks of dials that curved in front of him glowed
softly, and he started an almost automatic blast-off check. It took
twelve precious minutes.

Then he was ready. Scanners on, heat up ... ready.

The Martian sky was like frozen ink above him and his hands were wet
inside his gloves and there was a choking dryness in his throat.
_Now...._

And he could not move. There was a sudden, awful nausea and his head
spun, and before his eyes there spread a bleeding Earth; the sun dimmed,
and fertile plains were cast in sudden shadow.... The air chilled, the
shadow spread, and there were skeletons reaching upward to a puffy,
leaden sky!

_And Earth was no longer what Men had built!_

Then the horror in his head was gone, and he felt an awful pressure on
each side of it. His hands ... he had been pressing with insane strength
at both sides of his skull as if to crush it with his bare hands.... His
face was wet, and he was breathing, choking, in strangling gulps.

A scanner alarm clanged.

He forced his eyes to focus on the center screen.

"Earthman! Emergency! There has been a flaw discovered in the repair of
your ship! Do not blast off! Do not...."

The other image caught him as his arm was in mid-flight toward the
control bank. Sweet and warm ... the fertile plains mounting their
golden fruits to a mellowed sun, and beyond the distant gently-rolling
hills spread the resplendent city, and there were other cities....

But his arm kept going, its muscles loose, and it fell. Heavily.
Squarely on the stud-complex toward which its fist had been aimed a
split-second before.

The engines roared, and the ship lurched upward from the red sand.

       *       *       *       *       *

_The command flicked into the Captain's brain like a lash of ice._

"_Slaazar! Converge, sheaf!_"

"_Converging, sir...." It would be no use, of course. If the high brass
had been content to rely on the beams rather than on their own subtlety
in the first place, the Earthman would never have fallen prey to the
Nomads, even for a second. But they had wanted to be as forthright as
possible--force, they said, would only arouse suspicion. Psibeam units
only as a last resort.... The lowliest Patrol Lancer could have told
them the folly of that!_

_Hastily, Slaazar issued orders to his battery crews tracking the
ascending Spaceship, their units already nearing overload potential. But
the desert-scum would see some real psi-power now! They'd see it wasted
completely if they saw it at all.... Because they'd outmaneuvered the
brass again!_

"_Convergence impossible, sir._"

_As he had expected._

"_Colonel Truul, this is Captain Slaazar. Target has passed critical
planetary curvature. Convergence impossible. Standing by, sir._"

_For several moments after that, the thin atmosphere of Mars was warmed
a little...._

       *       *       *       *       *

Acceleration blackout had not been total; leaving Mars was even easier
than leaving the surface of Earth for the orbits of the Stations. But
there was a period of no-thought, no-time, no-being. And then full
consciousness seeped back slowly. But not as it was supposed to.

Johnny Love knew he had come to because he could see the banked
instruments glowing palely before him; because he could realize from
reading them that his ship was doing its job to perfection. Almost ready
to complete the blast-off ogee, and--

Angrily he belted the scanner switches off and the dull red sphere faded
from the viewplates.

And he could feel the sweat start again all over his body. No, the
returning consciousness was all wrong.... All wrong, and the image
wouldn't go away....

Red desert he had seen before, yet had not seen. There were dark ridges
of brown-green at its horizon; oddly-formed crater-places that might
once have held placid lakes. And on all the vast surface there was no
hint of the Patrol tracks, no sign of--anything.

But he had to descend to the place.

He did not know how to locate it, but the image told him that it did not
matter. The image said merely that he must begin cutting his power.

There was no strength in his arms and hands, yet they moved in front of
him as though things detached from his body; skillfully, surely, playing
deftly across the colored studs.

Scanners on. Scanners on, kid....

He watched the screens again, unconscious of what his fingers did on the
panels. The dull red sphere loomed large once more. The picture was
off-center; without knowing what he did he rectified course with the bow
jets; it was centered again. But it was a different place. Still the
desert, but with ridges of brown-green at its horizon; oddly-formed
crater-places....

It was coming up fast, now; faster, until the horizon was only a gentle
arc against a thin span of blackness, and the rest was cold red.

Hardly knowing what he did, his fingers suddenly raced over the control
console, even before the scanner-alarms began their ear-splitting
clanging!

The ship lurched into a direction-change that threatened to wrench the
hull apart, and the picture in the scanner reeled crazily. He knew his
own brain was not dictating the commands of control to his fingertips,
nor was it evaluating for itself the madly fluctuating values indicated
on the panels. A human brain could not have done it, he knew that....

He had cut power. At least there was no power. He was falling at a crazy
angle and the desert was rushing up now, hurtling up to smash him.
They'd hit him, then, yet he'd felt nothing....

It was getting hot. His hull must be glowing, now, even in the thin
atmosphere of Mars--it was a long fall. Slower than a fall on Earth,
through thinner air layers, yet he was glowing like a torch.

The ocean of sand rushed up.

And suddenly his left hand rammed the full-power stud.

It was as though he'd been hit from behind with all the brute force of
some gigantic fist, and there were two things. There was the
split-second glimpse of a crescent formation suddenly wheeling toward
him and there was the clang of the scanner-alarm. There were those two
things his brain registered before the titanic force of full power
squeezed consciousness from it and left him helpless.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was running. In a nightmare of a dead planet that was not dead, he
ran, away from something.

That was how his consciousness returned. While he ran. He stopped,
stumbling, turned to look behind him.

And the ship was there. Landed perfectly, stubby bullet-nose pointing to
the sky. And above it--

_Run!_

The command hit his brain with almost physical force. A will that was
not his own took hold of his whole being, and he was running again,
plowing his way through the sucking sand with strength summoned from a
well of energy within his body that had never been there before.

Through the thin glassite walls of his helmet he could hear the _thuk,
thuk, thuk_ of his boots as they pounded somewhere below him, and there
was another pounding, a deadly rhythmic bursting pressure in his chest.
And a whine in his ears....

The wind-strewn sand stretched flat and infinitely before him. Then
leaped at him headlong and there was no horizon; there was only the
sudden awful wrench of concussion, a tremor of pure sound which would,
in denser atmosphere, have destroyed him with the inertia of his own
body.

He could not move. Only cling to the shifting desert floor that rocked
sickeningly beneath his outstretched body ... cling to it for dear life.

There was no thought, no understanding. Only a sensation which he could
not comprehend, and the sure knowledge that none of this was real. Not
real, but the end of survival nonetheless.

       *       *       *       *       *

Pain, and seeing two bright objects transiting the darkness at which he
looked; seeing something then between.

His brain began identifying. The darkness; sky. The bright objects;
Diemos, Phobos.... And the something between--

It was a transparency of some sort; curved, or he would not have been
able to detect it at all. A vaulted ceiling through which he could
see....

His full consciousness came flooding back, then. He tried the muscles
in his neck, they hurt, but they worked, and he could move his head from
side to side. There was the same transparency, as though he were covered
by some huge, invisible bowl.

And there were men. Big, muscular creatures, yet thin, tall.... Not like
the others at all....

He sat bolt upright, and they did not move. It was not the same as
before. No small room. No voice that he could not see. They had not even
removed his suit or his helmet, and he was lying on a hard, cold
substance.

Then he saw what they were doing. There were two of them apart from the
others, working to bring a compact-looking machine into position near
him. A gleaming, short cylinder, swung on gymbals between slender forks,
mounted on a thin wheeled standard. They were aiming it at him.

"No! _No_--" He tried to get to his knees, but it was as though there
were no muscles in his body.

"Man of--Earth! We are friendly. Is that understood?"

The thought-words formed in his brain as the strange images had before,
and then he knew. _Should have guessed it_, part of his mind was telling
him in a fantastically detached way, _the dreams ... the compulsions
over which he had had no control in the ship.... This--thing. It
probably--_

"You are quite astute, Earthman. But it is not our technology which
created this device. To save you and the civilization which you
represent--and ultimately, our own--it was necessary for us to steal it.
It cost six lives."

"Steal...."

"From your former captors. It is their invention, as are so many things
with which they destroy. With this instrument, they have succeeded in
taking one of Nature's more subtle phenomenon--psychokinesis--and
amplifying its energies nearly a million-fold. Those stepped-up energies
can then be projected in a tight or fanned beam at will.

"They can make a man 'dream,' as you did--or they can destroy him
outright, depending on which of the 'psi' factors, ESP or PK, is given
dominance during projection. But we are not skilled in its
operation--they detected our use of it on you while you slept, and from
that moment on you were so well screened that even at the risk of
burning this unit out, we were not able to project powerfully enough to
do more than merely touch your brain--"

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a strange calm in his mind, now. He understood the words
and accepted them as matter-of-factly as they were given. Even now
they were manipulating him like some intangible puppet, yet he was
convinced it was not a malevolent manipulation. Convinced. The
conviction--manipulation, too....

"Only partly, Earthman. We said we are friendly, and we are. We have
calmed you and erased your fear. From this point on, we will use this
instrument only for communication."

And then he felt the fear in him again, gnawing, and his body was again
damp and cold. But he had control, now. Control enough to speak.

They stood before him, immobile, watching.

Somewhere, Johnny Love found his voice.

"Look, I've been through this 'friendly' act before...." He hesitated,
and they did not try to interrupt him. "Well don't just stand there!"
The fear was suddenly turning to the bitter anger of frustration, they
had him whipped, and he was tired. "Tell me why! You stick that thing
into my head when I'm blasting for home. You force me to drop back. You
blow up my ship. Real friendly! Real sports!" For a moment he had run
out of words, and again they made no effort to answer him. "All right! I
don't understand you--I don't know what you want. But nobody is trying
to hurt you, nobody's after your little desert paradise. We had an idea,
that's all. We thought we could make it work. People have been talking
'go to Mars' on my planet for longer than most of 'em can remember. So
we finally gave it a whirl! Sorry!"

He looked at them hard, then, and thought that there was something
almost like a smile on the face of one. Smile, then, damn you....

"We want nothing, Earthman, but to prevent from happening on your planet
the thing that happened on this. If they succeed in destroying you as
they have us, then this System will always be under their heel, and we
shall never be rid of them. Understand, their numbers were too few ever
to conquer a planet with a civilization as large and as highly organized
as that of Earth, by physical means.

"Knowing that, we--they call us gypsies, nomads, desert-scum today--we
were not too alarmed when they landed here two centuries ago. We were
glad to take from them, without paying a price. We were awed by their
gifts. Their papers and their books, which would show us how to rebuild
our waning civilization--advance us a thousand years in less than fifty;
restore to us our lost arts.... And compared to you, we were so very
few.

"In return, they said that all they wanted was permission to set up a
research site. They told us they were a scientific expedition from far
out-System. Aldeberan, they said. Part of a vast exploratory program
which they had been conducting for centuries.

"We believed them--why not? One day, we thought, we too will be in
Space. And with that day would begin one of the greatest projects of
exploration that our race had ever known. So we agreed, and gladly."

"Hold it, hold it! 'They'--who the hell are 'they'? You can spare the
suspense...."

And then there was no more words. The pictures formed in his mind as
before, only stronger, now, and there were no details left out.

The weapons of war had been built, not by the out-System men, but by
their hosts. The plans had not proven too difficult to follow....

The new knowledge was not hoarded, was not held under jealous guard by
those who had given it, but by those to whom it had been given. One man
from another; one group of men from another. States and nations from
each other.

Until there was no trust left on all the planet.

There were the wars, then.

And when they were over, the new masters had established their first
beachhead in the new System.

"But, it was only a beachhead, and had been only intended as such--" The
pictures broke off; the unspoken words resumed. "Your planet was the
ultimate target, but at first, your civilization was not adequately
advanced to fall prey to their technique. Their weapon is knowledge, but
the potentialities of that knowledge must be understood by a people
before it can be effectively used to destroy them.

"The rest must be self-evident. After we destroyed ourselves, they sank
their infectious, hollow roots into our planet. And from then,
investigated your Earth from time to time ... and waited....

"Waited, because they knew you would be coming. And they knew what kind
of men you would be. Strong men, with the light of the stars in your
eyes. Yet confused, weak men, with the darkness of suspicion and
jealousy still in your souls. Such are humans, after all....

"That is why we stopped you, Johnny Love. Once your blast-off ogee had
carried you beyond the curvature of their horizon and brought you over
us, our psibeam was effective and theirs were not. We are sorry about
your ship. Once they realize that you were under our influence, and were
returning rather than taking their precious data to your people, they
zeroed-in with those damnable guided juggernauts--"

"It wasn't you, then. You mean they--"

"There is little that they cannot do. Destruction is their forte. They
could not keep us from preventing your taking their 'gift' to your
people, but they could keep that 'gift' from falling into our hands--and
they did. They do not always win. But they never lose."

"But I--" Johnny's thoughts raced. The ship, gone. And Harrison and
Janes, Lamson, and Fowler. They would be landing in a few days. They--

"Yes," the thoughts of the true Martians before him answered. "And they
will be given a 'gift' for Terra as you were. If your friends return
successfully to your planet with that 'gift'--then--"

The thought was not completed. But it did not have to be.

A beachhead was one thing. These scattered, struggling people who had
once been masters of Mars might one day unseat it, for they were not yet
beaten people, and their will to survive was yet strong. But beyond
that--

Earth taken, the System taken.

There it was.

There was a sudden coldness inside him now that the fact had
crystallized, had become real. Here was no fantasy; no wild surmise.

They left him in silence while he thought, their psibeam turned away,
now.

Harrison and Janes. Lamson, and Fowler. Had to stop them. Stop them, and
then somehow, get home. He ached for home.

He thought about Ferris, who had given his life for this thing.

No, Ferris would not be going home. Ferris was dead.

He signalled for the psibeam to be turned toward him again.

"You'd have to know their positions out there to make contact, wouldn't
you?" They did not answer. He worked to get the words formed, and there
was a fleeting thought of a green, lush planet far away, its wide
streets and rolling fields bathed in warm sunlight. "I can figure 'em,"
he said. "I know blast-off schedules, speeds. I know the works! _Those_
things they had in the books. Then you guys can do the rest with--that
thing. Right?"

They answered him, then.

"Thank you," they said. And that was all.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Answer me!" the General barked again. "You, Janes! Lamson!
Fowler--Harrison! For the last time, what happened out there?"

The four stood silently before the nervous figure of their commander,
and it was Fowler who finally spoke.

"Plan III, sir, as we've already said. Condition Untenable--Return...."

"That is all you can say?"

"That is--all, sir."

The General turned away. There was frustration and anger in his face,
and it hid the fear beneath it like a mask. Plan III. It would be Plan
III for a long time yet.

It was the thing he saw in the faces of the four men that told him that.
There had been too many giant steps, too fast. He had seen this thing in
the faces of men before, but never so nakedly.

One day, perhaps, men could think of Plan I again. One day, but not now.

He turned back to the four, and looked once more into their faces.

Plan III. Condition Untenable.

"Dismissed!" the General said.





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