Madness from mars, p.1

Madness from Mars, page 1


Madness from Mars

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Madness from Mars

  Madness from Mars

  Clifford D. Simak

  Short story published in Thrilling Wonder Stories (April 1939).

  The fourth, and only, spaceship to return from Mars holds an insane crew and a Martian "furball".

  Clifford D. Simak

  Madness from Mars

  The Hello Mars IV was coming home, back from the outward reaches of space, the first ship ever to reach the Red Planet and return. Telescopes located in the Crater of Copernicus Observatory on the Moon had picked it up and flashed the word to Earth, giving its position. Hours later, Earth telescopes had found the tiny mote that flashed in the outer void.

  Two years before, those same telescopes had watched the ship's outward voyage, far out until its silvery hull had dwindled into nothingness. From that day onward there had been no word or sign of Hello Mars IV — nothing until the lunar telescopes, picking up again that minute speck in space, advised Earth of its homecoming.

  Communication with the ship by Earth had been impossible. On the Moon, powerful radio stations were capable of hurling ultra-short wave messages across the quarter million miles to Earth. But man as yet had found no means of communicating over fifty million miles of space. So Hello Mars IV had arrowed out into the silence, leaving the Moon and the Earth to speculate and wonder over its fate.

  Now, with Mars once again swinging into conjunction, the ship was coming back — a tiny gnat of steel pushing itself along with twinkling blasts of flaming rocket-fuel. Heading Earthward out of that region of silent mystery, spurning space-miles beneath its steel-shod heels. Triumphant, with the red dust of Mars still clinging to its plates — a mote of light in the telescopic lenses.

  Aboard it were five brave men — Thomas Delvaney, the expedition's leader; Jerry Cooper, the red-thatched navigator; Andy Smith, the world's ace cameraman, and two space-hands, Jimmy Watson and Elmer Paine, grim old veterans of the Earth-Moon run.

  There had been three other Hello Mars ships — three other ships that had never come back — three other flights that had collided with a meteor a million miles out from the Moon. The second had flared briefly, deep in space, a red splash of flame in the telescopes through which the flight was watched — the fuel tanks had exploded. The third had simply disappeared. On and on it had gone, boring outward until lost from sight. That had been six years ago, but men still wondered what had happened.

  Four years later — two years ago — the Hello Mars IV had taken off. Today it was returning, a gleaming thing far out in space, a shining symbol of man's conquest of the planets. It had reached Mars — and it was coming back. There would be others, now — and still others. Some would flare against the black and be lost forever. But others would win through, and man, blindly groping, always outward, to break his earthly bonds, at last would be on the pathway to the stars.

  Jack Woods, Express reporter, lit a cigarette and asked:

  'What do you figure they found out there, Doc?'

  Dr. Stephen Gilmer, director of the Interplanetary Communications Research Commission, puffed clouds of smoke from his black cigar and answered irritably:

  'How in blue hell would I know what they found? I hope they found something. This trip cost us a million bucks.'

  'But can't you give me some idea of what they might have found?' persisted Woods. 'Some idea of what Mars is like. Any new ideas.'

  Dr. Gilmer wrangled the cigar viciously.

  'And have you spread it all over the front page,' he said. 'Spin something out of my own head just because you chaps are too impatient to wait for the actual data. Not by a damn sight. You reporters get my goat sometimes.'

  'Ah, Doc, give us something,' pleaded Gary Henderson, staff man for the Star.

  'Sure,' said Don Buckley, of the Spaceways. 'What do you care? You can always say we misquoted you. It wouldn't be the first time.'

  Gilmer gestured toward the official welcoming committee that stood a short distance away.

  'Why don't you get the mayor to say something, boys?' he suggested. 'The mayor is always ready to say something.'

  'Sure,' said Gary, 'but it never adds up to anything. We've had the mayor's face on the front page so much lately that he thinks he owns the paper.'

  'Have you any idea why they haven't radioed us?' asked

  Woods. 'They've been in sending distance for several hours now.'

  Gilmer rolled the cigar from east to west. 'Maybe they broke the radio,' he said.

  Nevertheless there were little lines of worry on his face. The fact that there had been no messages from the Hello Mars IV troubled him. If the radio had been broken it could have been repaired.

  Six hours ago the Hello Mars IV had entered atmosphere. Even now it was circling the Earth in a strenuous effort to lose speed. Word that the ship was nearing Earth had brought spectators to the field in ever-increasing throngs. Highways and streets were jammed for miles around.

  Perspiring police cordons struggled endlessly to keep the field clear for a landing. The day was hot, and soft drink stands were doing a rushing business. Women fainted in the crowd and some men were knocked down and trampled. Ambulance sirens sounded.

  'Humph,' Woods grunted. 'We can send space-ships to Mars, but we don't know how to handle crowds.'

  He stared expectantly into the bright blue bowl of the sky.

  'Ought to be getting in pretty soon,' he said.

  His words were blotted out by a mounting roar of sound. The ear-splitting explosions of roaring rocket tubes. The thunderous drumming of the ship shooting over the horizon.

  The bellow from the crowd competed with the roaring of the tubes as the Hello Mars IV shimmered like a streak of silver light over the field. Then fading in the distance, it glowed redly as its forward tubes shot flame.

  'Cooper sure is giving her everything he has,' Woods said in awe. 'He'll melt her down, using the tubes like that.'

  He stared into the west, where the ship had vanished. His cigarette forgotten, burned down and scorched his fingers.

  Out of the tail of his eye he saw Jimmy Andrews, the Express photographer.

  'Did you get a picture?' Woods roared at him.

  'Picture, hell,' Andrews shouted back. 'I can't shoot greased lightning.'

  The ship was coming back again, its speed slowed, but still traveling at a terrific pace. For a moment it hung over the horizon and then nosed down toward the field.

  'He can't land at that speed,' Woods yelled. 'It'll crack wide open!'

  'Look out,' roared a dozen voices and then the ship was down, its nose plowing into the ground, leaving in its wake a smoking furrow of raw earth, its tail tilting high in the air, threatening to nose over on its back.

  The crowd at the far end of the field broke and stampeded, trampling, clawing, pushing, shoving, suddenly engulfed in a hysteria of fear at the sight of the ship plowing toward them.

  But the Hello Mars IV stopped just short of the police cordon, still right side up. A pitted, battered ship — finally home from space — the first ship to reach Mars and return.

  The newspapermen and photographers were rushing forward. The crowd was shrieking. Automobile horns and sirens blasted the air. From the distant rim of the city rose the shrilling of whistles and the far-away roll of clamoring bells.

  As Woods ran a thought hammered in his head. A thought that had an edge of apprehension. There was something wrong. if Jerry Cooper had been at the controls, he never would have landed the ship at such speed. It had been a madman's stunt to land a ship that way. Jerry was a skilled navigator, averse to taking chances. Jack had watched him in the Moon Derby five years before and the way Jerry could handle a ship was beautiful to see.

  The valve port in the ship's control cabin swung slowly open, clanged back
against the metal side. A man stepped out — a man who staggered jerkily forward and then stumbled and fell in a heap.

  Dr. Gilmer rushed to him, lifted him in his arms.

  Woods caught a glimpse of the man's face as his head lolled in Gilmer's arms. It was Jerry Cooper's face — but a face that was twisted and changed almost beyond recognition, a face that burned itself into Jack Wood's brain, indelibly etched there, something to be remembered with a shudder through the years. A haggard face with deeply sunken eyes, with hollow cheeks, with drooling lips that slobbered sounds that were not words.

  A hand pushed at Woods.

  'Get out of my way,' shrilled Andrews~ 'How do you expect me to take a picture?'

  The newsman heard the camera whirr softly, heard the click of changing plates.

  'Where are the others?' Gilmer was shouting at Cooper. The man looked up at him vacantly, his face twisting itself into a grimace of pain and fear.

  'Where are the others?' Gilmer shouted again, his voice ringing over the suddenly hushed stillness of the crowd.

  Cooper jerked his head toward the ship.

  'In there,' he whispered and the whisper cut like a sharp-edged knife.

  He mumbled drooling words, words that meant nothing. Then with an effort he answered.

  'Dead,' he said.

  And in the silence that followed, he said again:

  'All dead!'

  They found the others in the living quarters back of the locked control room. All four of them were dead — had been dead for days. Andy Smith's skull had been crushed by a mighty blow.

  Jimmy Watson had been strangled, with the blue raised welts of blunt fingers still upon his throat. Elmer Paine's body was huddled in a corner, but upon him there were no marks of violence, although his face was contorted into a visage of revulsion, a mask of pain and fear and suffering. Thomas Delvaney's body sprawled beside a table. His throat had been opened with an old fashioned straight-edge razor. The razor, stained with blackened blood, was tightly clutched in the death grip of his right hand.

  In one corner of the room stood a large wooden packing box. Across the smooth white boards of the box someone had written shakily, with black crayon, the single word 'Animal'. Plainly there had been an attempt to write something else — strange wandering crayon marks below the single word. Marks that scrawled and stopped and made no sense.

  That night Jerry Cooper died, a raving maniac.

  A banquet, planned by the city to welcome home the conquering heroes, was cancelled. There were no heroes left to welcome back.

  What was in the packing box?

  'It's an animal,' Dr. Gilmer declared, 'and that's about as far as I would care to go. It seems to be alive, but that is hard to tell. Even when moving fast — fast, that is, for it — it probably would make a sloth look like chain lightning in comparison.'

  Jack Woods stared down through the heavy glass walls that caged the thing Dr. Gilmer had found in the packing box marked 'Animal'.

  It looked like a round ball of fur.

  'It's all curled up, sleeping,' he said.

  'Curled up, hell,' said Gilmer. 'That's the shape of the beast. It's spherical and it's covered with fur. Fur-Ball would be a good name for it, if you were looking for something descriptive. A fur coat of that stuff would keep you comfortable in the worst kind of weather the North Pole could offer. It's thick and it's warm. Mars, you must remember, is damned cold.'

  'Maybe we'll have fur-trappers and fur-trading posts up on Mars,' Woods suggested. 'Big fur shipments to Earth and Martian wraps selling at fabulous prices.'

  'They'd kill them off in a hurry if it ever came to that,' declared Gilmer. 'A foot a day would be top speed for that baby, if it can move at all. Oxygen would be scarce on Mars. Energy would be something mighty hard to come by and this boy couldn't afford to waste it by running around. He'd just have to sit tight and not let anything distract him from the mere business of just living.'

  'It doesn't seem to have eyes or ears or anything you'd expect an animal to have,' Woods said, straining his eyes the better to see the furry ball through the glass.

  'He probably has sense-perceptions we would never recognize,' declared Gilmer. 'You must remember, Jack, that he is a product of an entirely different environment — perhaps he rose from an entirely different order of life than we know here on Earth. There's no reason why we must believe that parallel evolution would occur on any two worlds so remotely separated as Earth and Mars.

  'From what little we know of Mars,' he went on, rolling the black cigar between his lips, 'it's just about the kind of animal we'd expect to find there. Mars has little water — by Earth standards, practically none at all. A dehydrated world. There's oxygen there, but the air is so thin we'd call it a vacuum on Earth. A Martian animal would have to get on very little water, very little oxygen.

  'And, when he got it, he'd want to keep it. The spherical shape gives him a minimum surface-per-volume ratio.

  'This makes it easier for him to conserve water and oxygen. He probably is mostly lungs. The fur protects him from the cold. Mars must be devilish cold at times. Cold enough at night to free carbon dioxide. That's what they had him packed in on the ship.'

  'No kidding,' said Woods.

  'Sure,' said Gilmer. 'Inside the wooden box was a steel receptacle and that fellow was inside of that. They had pumped out quite a bit of the air, made it a partial vacuum, and packed frozen carbon dioxide around the receptacle. Outside of that, between the box and the ice, was paper and felt to slow up melting. They must have been forced to repack him and change air several times during the trip back.

  'Apparently he hadn't had much attention the last few days before they got here, for the oxygen was getting pretty thin, even for him, and the ice was almost gone. I don't imagine he felt any too good. Probably was just a bit sick. Too much carbon dioxide and the temperature uncomfortably warm.'

  Woods gestured at the glass cage.

  'I suppose you got him all fixed up now,' he said. 'Air conditioned and everything.'

  Gilmer chuckled.

  'Must seem just like home to him.' he replied. 'In there the atmosphere is thinned down to about one-thousandth Earth standard, with considerable ozone. Don't know whether he needs that, but a good deal of the oxygen on Mars must be in the form of ozone. Surface conditions there are suitable for its production. The temperature is 20 degrees below zero Centigrade. I had to guess at that, because I have no way of knowing from what part of Mars this animal of ours was taken. That would make a difference.'

  He wrangled the cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other.

  'A little private Mars all his own,' he stated.

  'You found no records at all on the ship?' asked Woods. 'Nothing telling anything at all about him?'

  Gilmer shook his head and clamped a vicious jaw on the cigar.

  'We found the log book,' he said, 'but it had been deliberately destroyed. Someone soaked it in acid. No chance of getting anything out of it.'

  The reporter perched on a desk top and drummed his fingers idly on the wood.

  'Now just why in hell would they want to do that?' he asked.

  'Why in hell did they do a lot of things they did?' Gilmer snarled. 'Why did somebody, probably Delvaney, kill Paine and Watson? Why did Delvaney, after he did that, kill himself? What happened to Smith? Why did Cooper die insane, screaming and shrieking as if something had him by the throat? Who scrawled that single word on the box and tried to write more, but couldn't? What stopped him writing more?'

  Woods nodded his head toward the glass cage.

  'I wonder how much our little friend had to do with it,' he speculated.

  'You're crazier than a space-bug,' Gilmer snapped. 'What m blue hell could he have had to do with it? He's just an animal and probably of a pretty low order of intelligence. The way things are on Mars he'd be kept too damn busy just keeping alive to build much brain. Of course, I haven't had much chance to study it yet. Dr. Winters, of Washington, and
Dr. Lathrop, of London, will be here next week. We'll try to find out something then.'

  Woods walked to the window in the laboratory and looked out.

  The building stood on top of a hill, with a green lawn sweeping down to a park-like area with fenced off paddock, moat-protected cliff-cages and monkey-islands — the Metropolitan Zoo.

  Gilmer took a fresh and fearsome grip on his cigar.

  'It proves there's life on Mars,' he contradicted. 'It doesn't prove a damn thing else.'

  'You should use a little imagination,' chided Woods.

  'If I did,' snarled Gilmer, 'I'd be a newspaperman. I wouldn't be fit for any other job.'

  Along toward noon, down in the zoo, Pop Anderson, head-keeper of the lionhouse, shook his head dolefully and scratched his chin.

  'Them cats have been actin' mighty uneasy,' he declared. 'Like there was something on their minds. They don't hardly sleep at all. Just prowl around.'

  Eddie Riggs, reporter for the Express, clucked sympathetically.

  'Maybe they aren't getting the right vitamins, Pop,' he suggested.

  Pop disagreed.

  'It ain't that,' he said. 'They're gettin' the same feed we always give 'em. Plenty raw meat. But they're restless as all git-out. A cat is a lazy critter. Sleeps hours at a stretch and always takin' naps. But they don't do that no more. Cranky. Fightin' among themselves. I had to give Nero a good whoppin' the other day when he tried to beat up Percy. And when I did he made a pass at me — me, who's took care of him since he was a cub.'

  From across the water-moat Nero snarled menacingly at Pop.

  'He's still got it in for me,' Pop said. 'If he don't quiet down, I'll give him a raw-hidin' he'll remember. There ain't no lion can get gay with me.'

  He glanced apprehensively at the lion-run.

  'I sure hope they calm down,' he said. 'This is Saturday and there'll be a big crowd this afternoon. Always makes them nervous, a crowd does, and the way they are now there'll be no holdin' 'em.'

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