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The secret of the ninth.., p.13
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       The Secret of the Ninth Planet, p.13

           Donald A. Wollheim
 
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  Chapter 11. _Martians Don't Care_

  "I don't like the looks of this at all," said Lockhart finally. "Isuspect a trap. Yet we've got to land and get at that base. I'm going totake the ship out into the desert beyond the city and let a scoutingsquad go in first."

  The _Magellan_ lifted back into the sky, then moved out over the ocherwasteland that was the barren desert of the red planet. Slowly the shipdropped again until its pointed nether end hung about twenty feet abovethe cold shale and time-worn sand.

  Captain Boulton and Ferrati were selected to do the initial survey. Burland Haines helped them climb through the packed spaces of the outerhold. The jeep was swung out to the lowermost cargo port, and thespaceship's cargo derrick lowered the compact army vehicle to theground.

  The two scouts then put on altitude suits with oxygen masks, slungwalkie-talkies about their chests, took light carbines in hand andpistols in belts and went down the rope ladder from the cargo port. Theyclimbed into the sturdy jeep with its specially-designed carburetor andpressurized engine. The vehicle had been prepared to operate in thelight atmosphere of Mars, as thin as the air on a Himalayan mountaintop,and low in free oxygen.

  Burl and Haines, clad in pressure suits themselves, sat in the open portand watched the jeep set off. The engine kicked over and barked a fewtimes in the strange air. Then Boulton at the wheel threw in the clutch,stepped on the gas, and the squat little car, painted in Air Force blue,rolled off over the flat rocky surface, kicking up a light cloud of sandas it went.

  On Haines's lap sat a walkie-talkie. Boulton and Ferrati kept up arunning commentary as they approached the city. Ferrati described theground and the appearance of the oncoming city.

  The jeep was now a small object merging with the dark mounds of thecity's outermost buildings. "We haven't met any Martians yet," cameFerrari's voice. "Apparently they aren't interested in investigating useven now. And here we are rolling right up to the city limits." Therewas a pause.

  The walkie-talkie emitted a series of squeaks and squawks, and Ferrati'svoice came through now with distortion. "We're crossing the citylimits--there's a sort of hard, plastic pavement that begins at the veryedge. Now we're going down an intersection between the buildings."

  The squawks became increasingly louder. They could hear only a word ortwo. Haines asked whether he was getting through to them, but he couldnot make out an answer because of the racket.

  "It's the Sun-tap station. It's generating distortion. We'll have towait until they return," said Burl.

  Haines nodded and turned off the set which had begun to utterear-piercing howls. The two men waited quietly for about half an hour.Only a phone call from the curious men in the control room interruptedtheir vigil.

  Then finally Burl spotted a little cloud of dust on the horizon. "Therethey are!"

  The two men stood up as the little jeep made its way back over thedesert to the ship. As it drew closer, they saw a third occupant sittingin the back with Ferrati. Haines opened the walkie-talkie. "Wait tillyou see this fellow," Ferrati's comment came through.

  The jeep drew up to the ship and stopped. Ferrati waved them down. A fewseconds later they were joined by Lockhart and Clyde, also in pressuresuits.

  The creature in the back of the jeep was a Martian. They stared infascination. It was about three feet long with a small, oval-shaped headand two very large, many-faceted eyes. A small, beaklike mouth andshort, stubby antennae completed its face. The head was attached by ashort neck to a body that consisted of three oval masses joined togetherby narrow belts, much like the joints of an insect. A pair of arms,ending in long three-fingered hands, grew from the first segment. A setof long, thin legs grew out of each of the two other segments. Aglistening grayish-blue shell, its skin, covered it from head to foot.

  At the moment, this particular Martian was tightly restrained by astrong nylon net, and was obviously the captive of the two explorers.

  "Why, it looks like a giant insect!" exclaimed Burl.

  "More like a kind of lobster," was Ferrati's answer. "But this is it.This is one of the city dwellers."

  Lockhart shook his head. "I don't like this. We shouldn't do anything toantagonize the Martians. Taking one prisoner like this may be a badfirst move."

  Boulton stepped out of the jeep. "There wasn't anything else we coulddo. Besides, who said that Martians were ever our friends?"

  "We got into the city," he went on, "and drove around the streets. Therewere plenty of these fellows around, going about their business.Hundreds of 'em. Do you think they stopped to look at us? Do you thinkthey were curious? Do you think they talked to us? Called the police?Did anything at all?

  "No," he answered himself. "They just walked around us as if we were astick of something in the way. They don't say anything to each other.They just go on about their affairs, dragging things, carrying food,herding young ones, and not a darn word.

  "They looked at us, and didn't even act as if they saw us. When westopped one, it squirmed out of our grasp and walked away. Finally wetook this fellow, simply grabbed him off the street, tied him up,stuffed him in the jeep and kidnaped him. And do you think anybody caredor turned in an alarm or tried to help him? No!"

  Lockhart looked at the prisoner a moment. The Martian stared at him outof his unwinking multiple eyes. "Are you sure these are the engineers ofthe canals, the builders?"

  Boulton nodded. "Definitely. We saw some of them at work. They wererepairing a house and they used tools and fire. They have machines, andthey use them. They've got their city working and well laid out, but Idon't know how they do it. They must communicate in some way, but theyact as if they had been drilled in their jobs and were going through anelaborate and complicated pantomime. Even the young don't utter a peep."

  Lockhart stepped back a bit. "Untie this fellow. Let's see what hedoes."

  When the Martian had been released from the enveloping net, it made noeffort to communicate. It turned slowly around, a little wobbly atfirst, and wandered off, paying no attention to the men, the ship, orthe jeep. Then it started walking at a rapid pace. The men watched as ittrotted into the desert--away from the city!

  It seemed to wander around as if lost, and then set out in anotherdirection, but still one that would not take it to the city which wasquite plainly in view.

  The Martian disappeared from view behind a series of small hummocks,still bound for nowhere.

  The men were lost in amazement. Russell Clyde uttered a low whistle."Burl's right. It must be a sort of insect."

  "This whole civilization seems to be insectlike, if you ask me," saidBurl. "It's like a huge anthill, or a big bee-hive. It seemscomplicated, and the creatures go through complex activities, and allthe time it's something they were born with."

  Ferrati nodded. "Now that you mention it, that's exactly what the citywas like. Nobody gave orders--everybody just did what they were supposedto do. Nobody was curious about us because it wasn't their business."

  "And, individually, they haven't intelligence," Clyde added. "Thatone--the one you took away from his work--plainly is lost. He doesn'tknow how to go about getting back. He has no curiosity about us ... hemay not even have much of a brain. Individual ants have no brain--only asort of central nerve center. Collectively, they perform wonders;individually, they are quite helpless."

  Lockhart interrupted the discussion. "Well, then, let's get on with it.Obviously, the Sun-tap builders placed their station in this citybecause it was a safe spot, protected by the Martians themselves, andbecause the Martians would never think to interfere with them. So youmen can go back, take your stuff, dig out the station and put it out ofcommission. Get going."

  Haines and Burl climbed into the jeep with Boulton and Ferrati. RussellClyde insisted on joining them, and Lockhart gave his consent. Off theywent, rumbling over the sand toward the city of instinct.

  Burl was excited and curious about the Martians. They presented astrange mixture of contradictions. "How," he asked Russ, "could theyhave built a wor
ld-wide network of canals, set up pumping stations, laidout plantations, mastered hydraulic and power engineering, if they aremere creatures of instinct? Surely there must be brainy ones somewhere?A thinker species?"

  "Not necessarily," said Russ. "Remember, these creatures are operatingwithout opposition--they are really the highest type of life here. Theneed to conserve water and continue their hive life forced them to learna practical kind of engineering. Nobody knows how the ants and beesformed their complex societies--there are none among them with anylarger brains than the rest, and they do not talk. But somehow ants andbees communicate and somehow they act as a mass. Figure it on aworld-wide scale, driven by the threat of their world drying up, andthese creatures built up a mechanical civilization to meet it. But italso accounts for why they have never flown, not through the air and notthrough space, why they haven't attempted radio communication withEarth, and why they don't understand what the Sun-tap station is doingto them. Their world is being killed, and they literally haven't thebrains to understand it."

  They reached the city. All about was a silent hustle and bustle ofenigmatic, shining, shelled creatures. Superficially, it looked like anintelligent civilization. There were wheeled carts driven by some sortof steam generator. Steam-driven engines ran factories.

  The Martians made way for the jeep with unconcern. Never had they seencreatures as large as themselves that were not of their own kind on hivebusiness. Hence, none such could exist. This was a world totally withoutindividualism, a civilization without a spoken language, without names,without banners. Wherever or however the mass knowledge was located ortransmitted, no individual of another species could ever hope to know.It would be forever as remote from human explorers as the farthest staron the farthest galaxy.

  They drove to where the Sun-tap masts rose from the ground. The menparked the jeep out of the way of the silent traffic, climbed out andwalked into the rounded door of a building. Its architecture was notlike that of the other buildings. Inside the chambers were dark.

  "These creatures have no lights," remarked Boulton. "They must use theirfeelers indoors."

  "Ah, but look," said Burl, reaching out a hand to a little globe set ona pole in the floor. He touched it and the globe lighted up. "TheSun-tap builders needed light and put in their own fixtures here. Irecognize their style."

  The five men followed a hallway that sloped down into the ground, andcame out into a large underground cellar--several hundred feet wide. Itwas the Sun-tap station. There were the now-familiar globes and rods,the force fields, the controls, the pedestals and the ends of therotating masts.

  They made their recordings, and Burl got ready to turn off the station.Ferrati and Haines uncrated a small, tactical atomic bomb they hadcarried with them--one of the smallest perfected by the Army during thepast half dozen years. They laid it down in the center of the equipmentand set the timer for a half hour away.

  Boulton found the alarm globe and prepared to blow it up. Then Burl tookthe control panel and switched off the station. They heard the thud of acrumbling mast. Boulton fired a shot into the alarm globe which hadbegun to turn red. It smashed.

  "All right, men," snapped Haines, "let's go!"

  As they moved toward the exit, Boulton hesitated. "Hey," he said,"there's one globe still in action!"

  The others turned in time to see Boulton stride over to a very smallglobe which was glowing pale yellow against the wall near the doorway.

  The Marine captain drew his pistol, aimed and fired. The globe burst,but as it did so, a level bolt of yellow light shot back along the pathof the bullet. For a split second, Boulton was outlined in yellow fire.There was a flash like lightning.

  Each man reached for his weapons, but the underground station remaineddark and dead. Their flashlights turned on Boulton. The stocky Marinewas lying on the ground.

  They ran to him. "He's alive!" cried Haines, as he saw that Boulton wasstill breathing, his breath whistling back and forth through the oxygenmask. Quickly Haines examined him. "His heart's all right. He's justbeen knocked unconscious."

  Ferrati and Haines picked up the captain by his arms and legs. Though hewould have been heavy on Earth, his weight on Mars was very slight, andeach man knew he was capable of carrying great loads with hisEarth-attuned muscles. Then, in single file, they left the cellar andcame out of the doorway of the building.

  As they emerged they were stopped short. Surrounding them was atremendous and growing crowd of Martians. A solid wall of shell-likefaces stared at them, and a small forest of short antennae waved andflickered in great agitation.

  As they pushed their way with great difficulty toward the jeep, thecrowd began to sway, as if in anger. Now, for the first time, they heardthe creatures make a noise--a sort of humming and buzzing like angeredbees.

  "They see us now," muttered Haines. "I don't like it."

  "The Sun-tap builders did it," said Burl. "They must have booby-trappedthe place against intruders. The globe that got Boulton must have setoff some sort of vibration that enrages these creatures. And it looksas if we're the victims."

  As they reached their jeep, the encircling mass of Martians movedforward. The humming rose to a higher pitch, and then the mob, with theberserk ferocity of a swarm of bees, lunged toward them.

 
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