World Science Fiction Convention
Labor Day, 1962
Fred sat in the suite's bedroom and sipped his beer. A hot, muggy Midwestern early autumn day was dying outside, but he didn't think he'd gone more than a block from the hotel since he'd arrived. It had been a wild ride of a con: Nobody wanted to talk about anything but the pictures from the Russian probe on Venus, of course. Dinosaurs and Neanderthals and beautiful blond cave-princesses in fur bikinis... although excitement was building about what the American lander would find on Mars.
He hadn't wanted to talk about anything but the Russian probe on Venus—except what the American probe was going to find on Mars. Orbiters and telescopes over the last few years had seen what looked like structures and cities. There had been evidence as far back as Lowell's investigations in the nineteenth century, and spectroscopes had hinted at free oxygen in the air as far back as the 1920's, but it was all a whole lot more credible after what had been found on Venus. The entire world was holding its breath and waiting, when it wasn't babbling.
Nineteen sixty-two: the year everything changed.
But as his agent had told him, the publishers weren't going to pay him to burble, and he had his rent and groceries to buy regardless of whether or not Mars turned out to have intelligent life. Plus, fiction of his sort was going to get a lot more difficult; it had already, in fact. Extrasolar stuff, that was the ticket... from now on, books set on Mars and Venus were going to be a variety of...
Westerns, he thought. They'll be like Westerns—like the penny dreadfuls they wrote while the Old West was still going on.
He'd heard somewhere that Kit Carson had read dime novels about his own supposed adventures while he was really a scout and Indian fighter out in the Rockies. And Buffalo Bill had been taking his Wild West show around Europe before the last Indian wars had been fought.
And our astronauts... no, our planetary explorers... will be reading about themselves while they do it; probably watching movies and TV about themselves while they do it. Louis l'Amour and James Mitchner will horn in on our territory. I don't think the President meantNew Frontierquite so literally, but that's the way it's turning out.
"Come on, Fred, Carol! They're about to switch from the talking heads to the real pictures!"
He picked up his Tuborg—Poul had brought in a case, saying that the occasion required actual beer, rather than Schlitz—and they walked through into the lounge of the suite. It was crowded, but virtually none of the fans were there. Not today, though that young friend of Beam's was off in a corner, the one doing surveys of the writers for Boeing and the Pentagon.
Someone kicked a footstool over, and he sank his long, lanky frame down on it; Ted had the seat in the middle, right in front, but then he was Guest of Honor. There was an awesome amount of talent in the room now, all the way from Jack—who'd sold his first story to Gernsback in the 20's, for God's sake!—through the Big Bull Gorillas like Bob and Arthur to the post-War crowd of Young Turks like him and Poul and first-timers like young Larry from LA.
"Amazing we've gone from the first satellite to this in only a little over ten years," Isaac said, looking like a balding Jewish leprechaun as he grinned and rubbed his hands.
"We had the incentive, once they proved Mars had an oxygen atmosphere back in '47," Bob replied. "That's why we had von Braun hard at work from the day we caught him, and the Russkis were slave-driving their Krauts too. Without that to push us, we might still be waiting for the first manned mission to orbit, or even the first satellite."
Then, softly: "But we do have the motive. A whole world."
"Two," his red-headed wife said sharply. "We're not going to let the Reds have Venus all to themselves, even if they did get the first probe there."
"What's really bloody amazing is that we're going to watch it on TV. In color, worldwide, no less," another writer said, in excruciatingly British tones. "Which is like Ferdinand and Isabella watching Columbus land in a newsreel at the cinema."
"Hell, Arthur, you predicted it fifteen years ago," Poul replied, and they all chuckled. "Or at least you predicted transmission satellites for TV."
"Prediction is becoming less and less attractive, with actual reports from other planets expected daily. I think I'll stick to writing historicals and time-travel from now on and leave the Solar System alone," one tall distinguished-looking man with a goatee quipped.
"You lie, Spreggie," Catherine said crisply. "You won't be able to resist it."
Then all sound died; even breathing seemed hushed. The little crackle as someone sucked on a cigarette and added to the blue haze of smoke under the ceiling sounded loud. Walter Cronkite was pontificating on the screen; for once, his solemnly portentous tones matched the occasion, probably for the first time since D-day. Werner von Braun was beside him, looking like a cat with little yellow feathers stuck to his lips... well, a man might, when the US Government was giving him ten percent of its budget to play with on a lifetime basis. It might be twenty percent, after this, or more.
Fighting over Berlin is starting to look a lot less important. To both sides.
Behind him, a model of the Mars Viking Lander dropped down a hypothetical trajectory and settled on long spidery legs. Half the fans at this convention were wearing Viking helmets with horns. Poul grumbled that the horns weren't historical. A lot of them had added little propellers on top, too.
Bob began: "You know, I had this idea for another Mars book a couple of years ago, about an orphan adopted by Martians, but then the preliminary orbital telescope reports came in and I didn't dare—"
"Now!" someone else said. "Everyone shut up!"
The color screen flickered, showed snow. A groan started, then cut off abruptly as the picture cleared save for a few rastor lines; smoke faded away, blown by a stiff wind. Someone swore softly. The ground in front of the lander was a plain covered in low-growing reddish-green plants.
"Mars, Commie-Colored Cabbage Planet," someone said.
That brought a brief nervous chuckle. The ground cover did look a little like splayed-open cabbages with thick waxy reddish-green leaves. Here and there was a reddish-gray shrub covered in white flowers. Neither seemed to want to burn; the circular fire set by the rockets died quickly.
The vegetation rippled in the wind, and there was a haze like dust on a horizon that shaded up to a sky that was pink as much as blue. Low rocky hills showed in the distance. Between the lander and them was...
"It's a canal! If only Edgar could be here!"
"Hell with Burroughs, if only Lowell—"
It was a canal; about fifteen yards wide, sweeping from left to right and then turning so that it dwindled out of sight like a perspective drawing, curving to follow the contour of the land, for all the world like one in California or Arizona... except that it was covered in an arched roof of some transparent stuff so clear it was barely visible at all. The banks were reddish man-high stone or concrete, sloping away from the interior and covered in abstract figures something like hieroglyphics, ancient and crumbling and faded.
A low black shape like a flattened turtle that must be the size of a Volkswagen crawled over the crystal roof without visible means of support, unless there was something like a snail's foot beneath the carapace.
"Guess that settles the question of whether those structures we saw from orbit were the product of intelligence or not," Isaac said dryly.
"That... turtle, beetle, whatever it is... could be something like a giant social insect," Frank said stubbornly. "Beavers build dams. That... whatever it is could be doing it."
"Beavers don't carve hieroglyphs on them and neither do ants. The hominids—well some of them—on Venus looked awfully damned human, which means we're not reasoning from a sample of one any more. Panspermia and parallel evolution—"
The audio pickups were transmitting a soft whistling of wind, accompanied by a murmur of commentary from the technicians at Cape Canaveral. There was something in the sky, something distant and moving slowly—but too quickly for the pickup to track it with the time-lag factor, so they didn't try. They waited, and not much happened. A shout went up as a small-and-fuzzy animal hopped by, but it was gone too quickly to see details except that it precisely matched the color of the leafy ground cover and jumped on its hind legs.
"Camouflage," Beam noted; he'd come into the field in the fifties, but looked older than he must be. "When you're small and at the bottom of the food chain, you want to be invisible."
More of the whatevers hopped around, and turned out to look like desert rats with tufted tails and squashed-in faces; some of them had miniature versions of themselves clinging to their backs. A reading of temperature and atmospheric density came up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
"So at Martian sea-level the air's a little thinner than Denver," Poul commented, taking a pull on his beer. "The interior highlands must be like Tibet or the Bolivian altiplano."
"Yeah, but with lower gravity—"
"The dropoff will be slower, yes. Where Viking came down it's chilly and very dry, but you or I could be comfortable there with a good warm coat."
"So much for wearing oxygen masks and skating on the canals," Bob said, and chuckled ruefully.
That was probably because of the Mars book he had written back in the early 50's.
"It's northern-hemisphere summer there now, though. Betcha winter is a sockeldanger," Ray put in. "And twice as long as ours, don't forget."
"Wait, what's that?"
People jostled towards the screen, then sat back with self-conscious control. A dot was coming up the long stretch beside the canal, growing until details could be seen...
A land-yacht, he thought as a wordless cheer rang out, then corrected himself when the scale snapped into his perception. No, a land-ship.
Six long outriggers with giant wheels supported it; they dipped and returned as they rode over irregularities in the land, keeping the boxy hull nearly level.
"Good suspension system," Sprague said. "Pneumatic? Or efficient springs. Even in one-third gravity. The sails look transparent. I'd love to know what they're made of; it doesn't really look like cloth."
Two masts and yards supported huge gossamer sails that looked like lanteens but weren't. Galleries and windows ran around the hull; if the builders were sized anything like human beings, that meant the landship was at least a hundred and fifty feet long. As it grew closer they saw a figurehead at the front below the bowsprit, some sort of gruesomely fanged beast...
"Now we know something about the local wildlife. Something bad," Jack quipped.
"Either that, or they've been reading Clark Ashton Smith, Jack."
It might be mythological, Fred thought, over the hammering of his heart. Don't jump to conclusions.
Closer still, and there was writing behind the figurehead—symbols at least, with a generic family resemblance to the ones on the canal banks. Figures moved on the decks, bending to incomprehensible tasks.
"It's heading towards the lander!"
It did, the front pair of outriggers turning, then the hull foreshortening as the prow swung towards the camera. The sails twisted and did something; Poul liked messing about in boats, and he murmured about pointing into the wind.
"Beat-up old... whatever-it-is," Fred heard himself say.
Closer to they could see that most of the structure was made out of some dense close-grained reddish wood, intricately carved but worn and patched and replaced in places. But other sections like the outriggers were strange, glossy and looking like metal or crystal or some unearthly—
Watch it! he told himself.
The sails came down neatly as the craft coasted to a halt. They couldn't see all of that, for it was too close now; they could see how the big wheel at the end of one of the outriggers effortlessly climbed over a boulder, the tire deforming and springing back as it did so.
"That wheel looks as if it were spun somehow, out of resilient crystalline wire," Bob commented. "Nice engineering. It must grip like fingers. Do we have anything that could do that? They may be ahead of us in some fields."
"But they're using sails for propulsion," the editor of Astounding said.
His head pushed forward pugnaciously, and he crushed out a cigarette. "I refuse to believe we're not the most advanced species in the Solar System. We're going to them, after all, not them to us."
"Mars is smaller than Earth," Bob replied. "There may not be any fossil fuels or fissionables. Our rockets burn hydrogen cracked with power from burning coal, or oil, or more and more from nuclear power. We're testing atomic-powered rockets for deep-space work, for the manned missions, to get us out there in person—" he nodded at the screen. "Lack of power sources would push Martian development into other paths."
Beam drew thoughtfully on his pipe, a minor affectation. "Or they may have come to us first... but a very long time ago, and then they had a Dark Age or two. And to Venus. That would account for—"
"Lookatthat!" Larry cried joyfully.
A ramp dropped from under the snarling figurehead, and a dozen figures descended.
"Martians," someone said reverently. "Men from Mars."
"Humanoids from Mars, at least," someone else murmured with the abstracted air of a man taking mental notes. "Bilaterally symmetrical bipeds... hard to tell more with the way they're muffled up, there might be tails under those robes... their joints bend the same way as ours... look, four fingers and a thumb on the inside! Definitely hominid, like the ones on Venus!"
"And those are weapons," Beam said. "Rifles, pistols..."
"And they're all wearing swords," Sprague commented. "And one of them has a bow. Unless they're very primitive firearms, muzzle-loaders, you'd expect edged weapons to go out of use fairly quickly."
"Could be some sort of honor code. Maybe Burroughs got that right too! Gentlemen don't use a gun if the other guy draws a sword."
"Nobody's that honorable," Sprague said. "Not in the real world... worlds. Not for long; the cheaters win too often. This place the probe's in could be the equivalent of, oh, nineteenth century India or Africa, and the weapons are imported from elsewhere—a transitional phase."
"Hey, look, the one with the bow doesn't have a nose—or at least it's a real stub under that headdress. Look, he's turning his head again—you can see it when he's in profile."
"They're not primitive guns," Beam said flatly; he was an expert, and a crack shot himself. "I can't make out the mechanisms but the barrels are too slender and too precisely formed for that."
Fred peered more closely. The figures cautiously approaching the lander were swathed in clothing—the basic garment seemed to be a loose wide-sleeved and calf-length robe a bit like an Arab burnoose with an attached headdress that hid everything but a slit over the eyes... or what were presumably eyes. Beneath that he could see baggy pants and boots, and gloves that covered quite humanlike hands. Broad belts and body-harnesses of worked leather carried tools and weapons—long curved knives with carved hilts, swords whose guards were intricately worked cages of some glossy stuff, holsters with slender-barreled pistols and fanciful grips.
One had a bandolier of rope and a grappling tool looped over one shoulder. All of them had something like a cargo hook clipped to their body harness. Another bore something that looked roughly like a rifle as well, with a long thin barrel and a short bulbous body and a skeletal stock. The archer had a quiver over the shoulder and a strung bow, a complex-looking recurved thing that reminded him a little of pictures he'd seen of Chinese archery.
The robe of the figure in the lead was a dusty rose-color edged with black, and there were jewels and goldwork on the harness. The ones behind ranged from someone nearly as gorgeous to plain brown patched cloth.
"The captain and officers and crew," someone murmured. "Or something like that."
They came closer and closer, until eyes showed through the slits in their headdresses—humanlike, but detail was frustratingly absent. All were tall and slim despite the muffling cloth; Fred estimated the leader as most of the way to seven feet. The leader... might as well call him the Captain... drew his sword. Light shimmered off the metal; it was double-edged and looked disconcertingly sharp, but not exactly like steel.
"Cut-and-thrust blade," Sprague said. "More thrust than cut. A good deal like some seventeenth-century European types."
Everyone caught their breath as the captain turned and spoke to his... men? The voice sounded human, perhaps a little high-pitched, but the language was wholly unfamiliar. It sounded ripplingly musical with an occasional staccato burst...
"Tonal and monosyllabic, I think, like Chinese," Sprague went on, as two of the robed humanoids turned and trotted back towards the ship. "Maybe. Difficult to learn, if it is. I'll bet the grammar is analytic, too."
The captain turned back and prodded the lander, reaching up; they could all hear the tunk... tunk... as the point of the blade prodded the light-metal hull.
The television spoke. "We are attempting to communicate. The message shall be: We come in peace for all mankind."
"Some advertising man thought that up," Fred said, and there was a nervous chuckle; everyone knew how he felt about them.
Minutes passed, and the English words sounded, tinny and strange through the pickup in the thin Martian atmosphere. The Martians jumped back; the one with the bow turned and ran. A rifle came up and fired—there was no bang, no flash or smoke, just a slight hsssst sound, but the lander rang under an impact.
The Captain didn't run. Instead he shouted something in the musical language and waved the long blade at his followers. One hurried back up the ramp and returned with a folded tarpaulin; the Martians threw it over the lander, and then the screen went dark. Creaking noises followed.
Poul broke the long silence with a guffaw. "They're putting it on board, by God! They swung a yard over and tied it up in a sack and they're hoisting it on deck!"
Walter and Werner came back on, both looking sandbagged and starting to stammer explanations that couldn't possibly have anything behind them.
"I knew it!" Leigh shouted, punching her fist into the air. "I told you sons of... sons what it would be like years ago!"
A rebel yell cut loose, and suddenly the room was a babble of voices.
Several years later, the captain's words were determined to be in the Tradeship dialect of Demotic Modern, and tentatively translated:
"It's alive! Those fools at the Scholarium will pay a fortune for this!"
Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>