By ERIK FENNEL
All this time we’ve kept quiet as a whole cageful of mice. And with good reason. During the Big Scare, while everyone was afraid that the Exclusion Ultimatum meant the Martians wanted an interplanetary war, the Earth Governments would have been only too ready to hang, shoot, stab, gas, electrocute, freeze, burn, poison, impale and/or defenestrate the dastardly culprits responsible. If they could have discovered who did what to whom. They didn’t savvy Marties then—and still don’t.
But we are lucky. The Marties never explained why they called home their Cultural Emissaries, abandoned space travel, cut off Luminophone contact and excluded Earthmen and Earth ships from Mars. They couldn’t, because they themselves weren’t sure what had happened. And amid the confusion on Earth the last Mars transit of the spaceship Banshee escaped official attention, which was largely due to Polly’s good sense in making Mike see he’d better keep his big mouth shut. Our story would only have caused us trouble, even after the Scare died down.
All that was five years ago, but we still thought it best to keep still when this rather surprising diplomatic angling for resumption of Martio-Terran relations began just recently. The five of us were closer to what caused the Malignant Inertia Complex than all the big-name psychologists who have written books of wrong guesses since it disappeared, and we could see no danger of it starting up again. Mike was sure the Martian Thing had lost its grip. So we were willing to let the new treaty come up for a popular vote, as all interplanetary treaties must under the Earth Governments charter, without sticking our oars in or our necks out.
But last night Wild Bill Harrigan and I bumped into Miu Tlenow, a North Venus cat-man and veteran space-hopper who had just brought the Venusian diplomatic intermediaries from Mars to Earth for more treaty talks.
Naturally Bill and I were curious about what cooked on Mars. Tlenow talked, openly puzzled, while Bill and I looked at each other and remembered.
I’m not mad at anyone. Not even at the Thing. Mike swears the Thing meant no harm and the Cultural Emissaries couldn’t help themselves, and I believe him. In fact I feel rather sorry for the poor Marties themselves. It must be tough on them to have to live with themselves and each other.
The psychos would probably name the Marties’ current condition Acute Virulent Mass Burke-itis and laugh it off. But the psychos don’t know Mike as Bill and I do. So Bill insists it’s our duty as Earth citizens to divulge everything, and I’m inclined to agree. The thought of a whole planetful of Marties obsessed with Mike’s sense of humor is appalling.
Telling this really should be Mike’s job—he’s the only human who ever made contact with the Martian Thing—but he and Polly live at Venus Central now and the Professor is out there now visiting his grandchildren, Mike, Jr. and Bridget Dorrene. So I’m stuck. But I still think Bill ran in his own dice when we rolled to see which of us had to write this.
The Malignant Inertia Complex started while we were in space and was already pretty widespread when Bill and Mike and I brought the Banshee in from a Venus haul, and during the three weeks we spent getting ready for the Mars transit and installing the Professor’s latest special equipment I had the creeping geevils constantly. There was a sour, stagnant undercurrent to life in Spaceport City. For once the rowdy place was actually quiet, dead in fact, and although there were a dozen ships in, the Ursa Major Tavern was almost deserted.
Day and night the telaudio jabbered about the Complex, mostly learned doctors issuing statements that it was a purely psychological phenomenon, a sort of hysteria induced by this, that and the other factor in a civilization altering too rapidly for human minds to adjust.
Most of them followed the line that the disease would cure itself soon, but behind their seven-jet words they seemed a bit uneasy themselves. And I’ll never forget the particularly learned gent who suffered an attack right in the middle of his broadcast speech. He was talking reassuringly when all of a sudden his voice petered out. His eyes got all glazed and his face took on an empty look, and he sat there staring at the mike until the control room cut him off. It gave me the shivers.
It was like that all over Earth. Each day more and more people got longer spells where they’d do absolutely nothing. It was raising the very devil with organized civilization and nobody could do anything about it. And the worst of it was that the victims didn’t seem to mind. Everything was slowing down, and it made it plenty tough to do business with the outfits that furnished our supplies. People kept acting more and more like zombies—or Martians. But nobody thought of connecting the Complex with the Cultural Emissaries.
The whole thing hit me right in my pet phobia.
Then it was blast-off morning, with me trying to keep my mind off my phobia and those nagging fears that had nothing to do with space-hopping. I cornered the Professor in the Banshee’s control room.
“The power drain of this widget of yours has me worried,” I complained. “The secondaries are already running overloaded.”
As pilot-engineer, power was my responsibility.
Professor Tim Harrigan looked around, but not in his usual quick, birdlike way, and his eyes were dull.
“I’m sorry, Olsen.” His voice sounded as though something were missing. “I haven’t been able to reduce input requirements yet. The circuit changes keep eluding me.”
Worms started squirming inside me. If the Professor, with his brilliant brain, were getting the Complex—
“Polly will tell Mike to be careful of power,” he tried to reassure me.
Naturally Polly was scheduled to handle the ground end. She usually did whenever we were testing one of the Professor’s inventions. In some ways she was more like a partner than a daughter to him. The set in the Professor’s laboratory was rigged for her, while the Hustic aboard ship was adjusted to Mike’s brain-wave pattern.
That’s right. The thing we were going to test en route to Mars was the Harrigan Unimodulate Subetheric Telepathic Interspatial Communicator. Yes, I know that officially the Hustic wasn’t invented until nearly a year later. Keeping it under wraps after what it did was one of our security measures. We were afraid someone might add two and two and get us hanged, shot, stabbed, defenestrated, etc.
That first set was a bulky, power-hogging, spit-and-solder job very different from the perfected, foolproof, universal-type transceivers that have now replaced the clumsy old Luminophones on all interplanetary routes.
Terence Michael Burke, our red-headed astrogator, was standing as close to Polly as he could get, and from the gleam in his eye he was quoting some more of his abominable romantic poetry at her. But she wasn’t responding as usual. Not even blushing. She just stood there looking pale and wan, frozen up inside. Typical symptoms of the Complex, and it made me wince.
Mike looked around, missed something, and turned to me.
“Where’d you put my books?” he demanded.
“Cargo hold,” I growled at him. “Had to use that space for the Hustic modulator.”
“Barbarian squarehead!” he yelped.
“If you’d gas off to sleep like a human being—!” I squawked right back at him. The Wilsons weren’t warming yet, but already my nerves were tightening up in anticipation.
“Come on, Polly,” he said. But she didn’t follow him until he took her hand.
Mike was born in San Francisco, but he’s a professional Irishman. Red Irish. And a prolifically lousy poet. Had a picture of himself as the spiritual descendent of Fin McCool and Francois Villon and Robin Hood and Sir Henry Morgan and all the other poet-adventurers and troublemakers of history. He was one of those romantics—and still is.
When he and Polly came back a few minutes later he had his bag of books under one arm, a smear of lipstick across his mouth, and a worried expression on his face. That was unusual. Ordinarily Mike was too slugnutty to worry about anything. On Polly’s much prettier countenance there was no expression at all. And that was all wrong.
Wild Bill, Professor Harrigan’s younger but larger brother and skipper of the Banshee, came up from checking the drive room.
“Final tests,” he said.
So we built up the secondaries until the whole ship howled and shrieked with their noise. Then when the needles came over without indicating radiation leakage we cut them to idling again.
Polly had snapped out of her daze and was clinging to Mike.
“I’m scared,” she shouted in his ear, not realizing the noise had died. “Think nice thoughts to me on the Hustic, Michael dearest.”
Mike’s arms tightened around her. “Of course, my one and only love, pearl of my universe and lodestar of my life. Every day.”
I didn’t like that “every day” stuff. I never approved of running secondary power-packs to the limit. But before I could say anything Bill glanced at the chronometer.
“Clear out and dog down,” he ordered.
Mike grabbed Polly and kissed her thoroughly, but she had gone back into her trance and he might as well have been kissing a rag doll. That was all wrong, too. She usually wasn’t that way at all, not with Mike. Finally the Professor shook his head as though clearing away a mental fog, grabbed his daughter and led her out through the airlock.
Outside, at the edge of the spaceport, one of the Martian Cultural Emissaries was watching. Just watching. He wasn’t excited or even particularly interested by the Banshee about to blast off for his home planet, as far as Bill and I could see as we tugged on the heavy circular door. Just standing there as though about to take root. That’s all the three hundred Cultural Emissaries who had come in from Mars a few months before ever did. Stood around.
That’s all the Marties did on Mars, too. The first Earthmen to ground on the Red Planet thought the Marties were incredibly dull and stupid because of their slow reactions. They began to change their minds after a few months contact, when the Marties copied our spaceships, adapting them to their own peculiar physical requirements, and displayed a disconcerting savvy in trading. But still their thoughts were alien, and we didn’t understand them.
When the red hand touched fifteen Bill Harrigan was already in his cushions with a sleep mask over his craggy face. I envied him, but it was my turn to ride the chair out. Mike was in the other set of pneumatic cushions, but he hadn’t gassed out. He grinned at me.
Then the red hand came straight up. I gritted my teeth and tripped the master throttle of the multiplex. The seven big Wilsons hit with a soundless shock and the Banshee went out.
The first few shifts were routine. Nasty, of course. The only pleasant part of spaceflight before the Halstead-Jenkins Mass Diminutors replaced Wilson drivers two years ago were the off-shifts when you could crawl into the cushions and turn on the sleep gas. Every sane and normal spacehand gassed out as much of the time as possible. It was safest.
For the Wilsons radiated supersonics with a frequency somewhere in the neighborhood of a fingernail scratching down a blackboard. Only amplified a million, billion, jillion stinking times.
That’s why space wasn’t crowded in those days, and why some of the earlier ships didn’t come back. Wilsons did something to a man’s nerves and emotions. A crew might be good friends on the ground, but that constant barrage of driver supersonics made them hate each other as long as they were in transit. Occasionally some poor guy would crack wide open, go space-batty, and when that happened the victim almost always wanted to kill his crewmates and wreck the controls. Earplugs were useless, for you don’t hear supersonics. They sneak in through your pores and get under your toenails and even come down through the hairs of your head. They get in everywhere.
Whenever the auto-timer cut the gas on me and I had to go on watch I always felt as though all the fiends of hell were digging at my nerves with red-hot power tools. I itched inside and couldn’t get at the itches to scratch. But I was used to that.
Then, on one of my watches, the meters showed a heavy drain on the secondaries. I wrote a note asking Mike to limit his test calls with the Hustic, and then rewrote it six different times to keep it from sounding too nasty. That’s how you get with Wilsons running.
On my next time up I found a sketch of myself wet-nursing the power packs fastened to the bulkhead, and an alleged poem that was mostly putrid puns. Mike’s idea of humor.
Out of curiosity I put on the electrode-studded Hustic helmet and turned the set to receive.
Wham! Stars wheeled and comets fizzed and vague dark shapes glided and circled and balls of fire grew and exploded in showers of multicolored sparks.
I yanked the helmet off. But quick.
There’s really no excuse for what I did then, except that I wasn’t thinking clearly and ten days of supersonics will bring out all the petty meanness in anyone. And I thought that for once the Professor had missed the boat and the Hustic was a floperoo. It didn’t bring in thoughts. Just stuff, and I wasn’t going to have such a no-good gadget draining the power-packs all the way to Mars and back. I forgot that first Hustic wasn’t like a radio or these new universal models the space liners all carry. That experimental set had to be adjusted to the individual brain wave pattern of the operator. But I didn’t remember that.
So I disconnected one of the power leads and removed three parts. A curved metal bar, a small condenser, and the shield of one of the intricate little tubes.
I went back to sleep thinking Mike would wake me to get the parts and we could write notes back and forth to settle the matter, forgetting entirely how stubborn he could be.
It was a dirty trick, but I’m glad now I did it. It helped save Earth.
Before I was fully awake I knew something was really wrong. Mike was shaking me roughly and there was a wild gleam in his eyes. A glance showed me he’d pulled off Bill’s sleep mask too.
“—— —— ——!” Mike yelled, but of course I couldn’t hear him. In those Wilson-drive spaceships it was utterly impossible to talk between blast-off and landing.
Then he shoved a pad under my nose.
“MARTIANS TAKING OVER!!! EARTH IN DEADLY PERIL!!!” he had written.
Little slimy bugs with ice-cold, prickly feet marched up and down my spine. Every man has his private, personal phobia, something that throws him into an irrational panic, and mine has always been lunatics. Ever since I can remember I’ve had a morbid fear of mental disorders, which is why the Malignant Inertia Complex had had me so thoroughly frightened. And now I knew the supersonics had driven Mike space-batty.
I didn’t for a moment believe what he had written. I’d been to Mars before, seen Marties in their home environment, slow-moving and lethargic, entirely without initiative, completely unwarlike.
“DISCOVERED PLOT VIA HUSTIC,” Mike scribbled.
The bugs on my spine quit parading and started running. I grabbed the pad.
“IMPOSSIBLE,” I wrote. “HUSTIC NOT WORKING. NO GOOD. DISCONNECTED.”
Mike dived across the cabin in the light gravity, hauled himself up neatly on a handgrip and raised the cover of the selector unit. Then he thumbed his nose at me.
Bill and I took a good look. That stubborn, crazy Irishman had made a new bar to replace the one I’d hidden and cut down an empty food can as a tube shield.
“GOT TO TURN BACK, WARN EARTH,” Mike wrote. “THE CULTURAL—”
Bill and I looked at each other. Swinging a ship in mid-transit can be done, but it’s hardly safe or good practice. Mike was no puny infant, and we knew we had to get him before he became really violent.
Mike read our faces and started to draw back, but he was too late. Bill pinioned his arms in a bear hug and I slipped a sleep mask over his face. He struggled and tried to hold his breath, but the gas got him at last and he went limp.
Sadly we loaded him into the pneumatic cushions and placed the air-release valve out of his reach. Few victims of space-battiness ever recovered, and both of us were feeling pretty sick. Mike had been space-hopping with us for three years, and despite his screwballisms we liked the big lug. And we knew Polly was going to take it awfully hard.
The rest of that transit was twelve on and twelve off for Bill and me, and every minute I was awake I was afraid I might follow Mike down Lunacy Lane. Or that he might get loose. A couple of times we brought him awake, but each time we were glad we’d turned extra air pressure into his cushions. He struggled, and by watching his lips we knew he was still raving.
The calculations for landing spiral made us sweat. We’d left the astrogation to Mike so completely we’d gotten rusty. We missed him even more making contact. I had to handle both throttles and calculator while Bill took the cumbersome Luminophone mechanism. It took hours to line up the color-modulated beam, and then in typical Martian fashion more hours for them to answer with a landing clearance. But at last the Banshee scrunched into the red desert just outside T’lith, and as the Wilsons died Bill and I wiggled our fingers in our ears to get them back to normal.
Within a few minutes a dozen Martians were striding toward us from the beehive-domes of their city. They came straight as though walking ruled lines, not hurrying and not lagging, semi-human in outline and size.
A couple of hundred feet from the ship they deployed and began to watch. Then we could see their bulging, faceted eyes, their puckered, three-lipped mouths and the two rodlike antennae that waved slowly back and forth on their greenish foreheads. We didn’t know then why they watched, or who—or what—told them to watch. But always there were a dozen on hand whenever a spaceship landed, watching in a passive, detached way with neither approval nor disapproval in their manner. They watched, just as the Cultural Emissaries on Earth kept an eye on everything that happened without asking a single question or interfering in any way that we could see.
Bill opened the port and gobbled at the watchers in their own language, telling them we wanted to pick up a cargo of rhudite ore and had Earth gadgets to exchange. They didn’t give any sign they heard us, but we didn’t expect them to. The answer, if it came at all, would come minutes or even hours later. We didn’t know why. Not then. We’d never heard of the Thing.
Bill pulled his head in again, and while we waited we turned off Mike’s sleep gas once more. This time we really had a faint hope that with the Wilsons off he’d be himself.
But his first words were, “Will you damned fools turn me loose? I’m not crazy! We’ve got to do something, and quick. Hell, I don’t want to be like a damned Martie! They don’t get any fun out of life.”
He started to kick and squirm, so we gassed him out again. It seemed the only merciful thing to do.
“Olsen,” Bill said thoughtfully. “We can’t leave him alone and one of us has to rustle up a cargo.”
“You’re elected. You know the lingo better than I do.”
“You don’t mind?”
I snorted. I wasn’t any first-tripper who had to go sight-seeing. The bleak domes of T’lith were no different from those of M’nu or V’rad or any of the other cities. And the Marties themselves weren’t my idea of jolly companions.
So Bill packed the saddlebags of the little sandcycle and went sputtering off to question Marties about other Marties who might know of still other Marties who might know what rhudite was and perhaps with enough patient prodding might divulge some method for making a trade and getting the stuff to our ship. And each question would take ten minutes, minimum, for an answer. The three hundred Cultural Emissaries had been admitted to Earth on the theory that they might pick up Earth ideas that would facilitate trading. At least that’s the story the peculiarly nebulous Martian government had given the Earth authorities.
After Bill left I checked Mike’s pulse. It was weakening slighty from over-anaesthesia so, much as I dreaded having a lunatic awake in the ship with me, I had to let him recover consciousness.
He glared at me and fought against the pneumatic cushions that held him gently but tightly.
“You fool!” he raved. “You abysmal idiot! Don’t you realize you’re dooming Earth to an eternity of Martianization?”
It gave me a squirmy feeling to hear him talk that way.
“There is no war,” I said soothingly, trying to reason with him. “It’s all in your head. If the Martians were attacking Earth it’s only logical they’d jump on us here and now. But you’ll snap out of it when we get you back home.”
“It isn’t that kind of a war,” he insisted irritably.
Finally he calmed down. But his eyes, crazy and wild, kept following me around the room. That made me so nervous I went down and tinkered with the engines.
“Hey, Swede!” Mike’s voice reached me after a while. “I’m thirsty.”
So I brought him a drink and fed him a sandwich bite by bite.
“I’m okay now,” he said when he had finished. “I know I blew my top, but I’m all over that. How’s about turning me loose?”
I shook my head unhappily. He didn’t even argue.
“Then how’s about reading to me?”
“What would you like?” It was the least I could do for the poor fellow.
So I read some of Donn Byrne’s things, stuff that looks like prose but is really poetry. Then he wanted Shakespeare’s sonnets, but when I started reading he recited them from memory, his voice half a word ahead of mine.
He slept a while and later I fed him again. He seemed resigned now to staying in the cushions.
“How’s about letting me try the Hustic again?” he asked. “The Professor wanted a planet-to-planet test, and the helmet cable will reach over here.”
I hesitated and he glowered at me.
“I know that Martian stuff was all a delusion,” he insisted. “I’m sane now, but if you don’t let me prove it to myself once and for all I might go off the deep end again.”
That got me. I wanted to be sure he had every chance.
“Put back the parts you took out,” he directed.
I did. Then I stuck the helmet on his head and warmed the tubes.
“Send,” he said. I flipped the switch up and he lay there concentrating.
“Receive,” he said, his face taking on a listening expression.
“Tighten the chin strap, please,” he asked. I did it.
“Send.” More concentration.
A fatuous grin lifted across his face.
“It’s Polly,” he whispered.
That made me uneasy. I thought it was just another delusion. I’d tried the Hustic once and it hadn’t worked at all.
“See,” I said. “There aren’t any Martians in there. They aren’t making war on Earth.”
“Stop interrupting,” he snapped.
How much of what happened next was his own idea and how much he got from Polly I still don’t know. For minutes at a time he’d think into the machine. Then I’d switch over and he’d lie there and grin. Finally he lay there listening so long and so quietly I thought he’d gone to sleep. I began to relax.
Then Mike screamed and I came out of my chair like a shot.
“Take it off! Take it off!” he shouted. “The Martians are after me!” He shook his head but the helmet stayed on, held by the chin strap.
I cut the main switch and the tubes went dark.
“It’s all right, Mike!” I yelled across his screaming. “It’s off now!”
“No! No! No!” he gibbered. “They’re coming through the helmet! Take it away! Take it away!”
I knew I had to get that helmet off, much as I didn’t like getting near him. I reached for the buckle, but he kept whipping his head about so I had trouble catching it and had to bend over him.
Suddenly a long arm snaked around my neck and jerked me off balance. Then a ham-sized fist clipped my chin before I could even get my guard up.
When I came to I was in the cushions with the air turned on full. The release valve wasn’t in my hand where it should have been.
“Mike!” I yelled.
He put his tongue between his lips and made a rude noise. He was patching the rubberized fabric of the other set of cushions, the ones in which he had been confined, and on his face was that wild look I had seen before when a good brawl was in prospect.
“Mike!” I pleaded. “You can’t do this to me!”
“No? If Polly hadn’t reminded me of this I’d be in there yet.”
He held up the shamrock good luck pin Polly had given him, a little thing he kept pinned to his coveralls at all times. He had managed to unfasten it and puncture the pneumatic cushions.
But I had no good luck pin. I lay there helpless with all the stories I’d ever heard about the supernormal cleverness of lunatics running through my brain. I knew it would be three days, maybe four, before Bill returned. No chance of help from him.
Mike opened the Hustic case, whistling off key as he moved around, and replaced the original bar and tube shield and condenser with his homemade parts. Then he got to work on the bar with my delicate and expensive set of instrument files ruining them completely on the soft copper alloy.
“Be quiet, lunatic!” he barked every time I protested.
He spent hours filing on that bar, putting on the helmet and testing, then filing some more. And there was absolutely nothing I could do. He had so much air pressure in my cushions I couldn’t even squirm.
At last he tested once more, and this time snapped the set off almost at once with a smile of satisfaction.
Next he started tracing the secondary power circuits, but he didn’t get very far. Every time the Professor had come up with a new idea we had rewired the Banshee, running new leads through the bulkheads but leaving the old circuits in place. The original wiring diagrams were nothing but propaganda by now, with the up-to-date dope all in my head and Bill’s.
I must have been getting hysterical from being pinned there so helplessly with a lunatic at large, for when he got into the metal rat’s nest behind the meter panel I laughed. Then I wished I hadn’t.
“Swede,” he said earnestly. “I want to double the voltage and step up the amperage by eight on the direct current. I want the frequency of the AC boosted to at least 850 cycles, and I need at least two thousand ehrenhafts on the magnetic flux leads.”
I blinked at those figures.
“Now Mike,” I said, trying to be calm. “Let me out of here and we’ll talk this over.” I had my eye on a heavy wrench I hoped I could grab in time.
“Oh no, Swede. You’re insane. I couldn’t possibly let you loose.”
He chuckled at his own stupid joke. “Tell me how to rig it,” he demanded.
“No soap. That much overload would probably blow the packs and the whole ship with it.”
“That’s a chance we’ll have to take. For all Earth’s sake,” he said, really serious this time. “There’s no other way. Now tell me.”
I shook my head.
Instead of arguing he got out a soldering iron and started it heating.
“You scared of me?” he asked ominously.
“No, Mike. Of course not. We’re shipmates.” But it was a lie, a damned big lie. He knew it and I knew it, and I knew that he knew it.
He touched a wet forefinger to the iron. It sizzled.
“My!” he said, sounding like the smooth menace from some telaudio spooky-show. “What a nice red nose you’re going to have—if you don’t start talking!”
“Mike!” I begged. “You can’t do that to me! We’re old friends! Remember?”
But he did it. The tip of the iron on the tip of my nose, and it hurt. I yowled, mostly in utter panic rather than pain. My phobia was working overtime.
“Enough?” he asked. “I’ll keep it up if I have to.”
I thought it over. Crazy as he was, he might throw a dead short across the secondaries. Fission packs won’t stand that without exploding. So I talked. Once I tried to give him a bum steer that would cut down the current, but he sensed it and waved the soldering iron at me again.
When he had all the dope he needed he took time out to smear ointment on my nose. It made me look cross-eyed and I still wanted to touch the burn, but he refused to reduce the pressure even enough for me to work one arm loose.
“Sorry, Swede,” he chuckled. “It’s for your own good. You’re insane, so I can’t take chances.”
“Me?” I bellowed, for a moment forgetting even my blistered nose. I called him several names.
Mike laughed—like crazy.
“Now to get Bill back here. We’ll even leave the port open for him.”
I thought that was good, until he removed a tank of sleep gas from its brackets and dragged it to the entry.
“You can’t reach Bill on the Hustic,” I reminded him. “Use the radio.”
“And let him know who’s making like a caterpillar in a cocoon?” Once more I thought of the supernormal cleverness of lunacy.
He made some painstaking adjustments on the Hustic and flicked the changeover switch to send.
Through the open port I could see three of the Marties watching the Banshee. If they’d been humans I’d have yelled for help, but with Marties I’d have been wasting my breath.
Mike kept stepping up the power. His lips were tight and his eyes squinted in concentration. And then I saw one of the Marties move. Actually make an aimless movement. He shifted from one foot to the other. The second turned his hand from side to side as though uneasy. The third took a few steps back and forth. And Martians just didn’t act like that.
“Secondary effects,” Mike grunted. “I’m not tuned on them, but the wave spills over.”
Mike didn’t answer. He just sat there thinking into the Hustic.
An hour passed that way. Then I heard a sound like a whole forest full of infuriated parrots. It came from the direction of T’lith, and it grew louder by the minute.
Mike looked up. “Bill should be here soon.”
He was right. I heard the sandcycle, and then the squeal of its brakes below the entry port.
“Olsen!” Bill was yelling as he scrambled in. “Hell is loose out there! The Marties—”
I was at the mercy of a lunatic—and the Marties waiting outside!
“Look out!” I yelled, but too late. Bill was panting and didn’t have a chance to hold his breath as Mike slapped the sleep mask over his face. Mike caught him as he fell and loaded him into the other cushions.
There must have been at least a hundred green-skinned Marties milling about outside. They’d followed Bill from T’lith and they were really milling in a most un-Martian fashion.
“What have you done, Mike?” I cried, then I understood what the word “aghast” really means. That’s what I was. Aghast.
Mike slammed and dogged the port, but even through the insulated hull I could hear the uproar outside.
Bill opened his eyes, gave me one look of utter disgust, and started struggling.
“Mike!” he roared. “Get us the hell out of here! Turn me loose! All the Martians have gone crazy! They chased me, damn it!”
Mike just grinned, but tensely.
“You let me out of here at once!” Bill bellowed. “Damn it all, this is mutiny!”
“Oh no,” Mike protested. “I’m not responsible. I’m crazy. You put it in the log that way yourself.”
Wild Bill’s face went purple. “Then blast us out of here yourself, before they kill us all,” he yammered. “You were right! They’re on the warpath!”
“No!” Mike refused flatly. “I’m not finished yet.”
Bill’s language grew luridly unprintable, and when he refused to quit shouting Mike finally gassed him out again.
Then he went back to the Hustic. Mostly he kept it on send, but every few minutes he’d flip over to receive for just a second or two. Then he’d make another infinitesimal adjustment.
Once he froze in his chair. One of his arms was half raised and it stayed that way, unnaturally motionless. He looked like a statue—or a Martie—or someone who had the Malignant Inertia Complex.
“Mike!” I yelled, more frightened than ever.
He shook his head dizzily and flipped the switch out of the receive position.
“Thanks, Swede,” he said. “That Thing almost had me that time, but now I’ve got it.”
He twisted the power knob full over. The transformers howled under the overload. He jammed the helmet down more firmly on his head and stood up, staring blankly at the bulkhead as though looking through the solid steel.
“Listen, Thing!” he growled.
I shivered. Sheer lunacy.
“Get every thought and word of this! You will cease interfering with Earth immediately—or I’ll blow Mars and you both clear out of the universe!”
Paranoia, I thought, delusions of grandeur. Somehow this was worse than anything that had gone before, though that had been bad enough.
“I can blast Mars out of the Universe at will—and if there is any further interference with Earth minds I shall do so. You are afraid of me!
“Now get this, Thing. All of it. Individuality, the freedom of independent, individual action, is the right of every living creature! That includes Martians as well as Earthmen.
“You are going to stop being what you have become. You will make no more decisions for anyone. You will become once more what you were intended to be, a source of information only. You will make no more decisions, dominate no more activities, and will give out information only when it is requested.
“You will forget entirely the ideas with which you have become imbued, particularly the idea that the elimination of all activity not absolutely essential for survival is the goal of existence.
“Here is the data which you will release to all Martians upon their mental request. But you will release it as information only and will not make their decisions as to conduct.“
Then, while the Martians jabbered and howled outside the Banshee, while Bill snored away in one set of shock cushions and I lay pinned helplessly in the other set, Terence Michael Burke stood with the Hustic helmet on his head and recited from memory all the poetry he had ever written—and there was a lot of it. Too much, and all of it highly emotional. Most of it was about either romantic love or epic battles, or both.
When that was finished he began to read every scrap of printed matter we had aboard, even the astrogation tables and a set of seven place logarithms. I hadn’t realized until then what a complete but heterogeneous library Mike had managed to stash away in various nooks and crannies around the ship. There were volumes of history and treaties on economic theory, some drama, a textbook on psychology, a cockeyed work on ethical thought. Then he dragged out my standard engineering references, including the manuals on Wilson drivers and fission power-pack operation.
After that he got into the novels, and I think that’s what did most of the damage. Most of them were either wild adventure stuff or incurably romantic, and almost all of them had been written by Irishmen who saw the world in a keyed-up and highly emotional way, just as Mike himself did. Naturally there was a complete set of Donn Byrne’s works, for Mike swore that Byrne was the greatest writer who had ever lived.
And there was a reprint of something called WARLORD OF MARS, written by a fellow named Burroughs way back in the days before spaceflight. When the novels were exhausted there came a bunch of science-fiction magazines, mostly the copies of PLANET STORIES he had missed while we were out on that long Venus haul.
Finally there was a newspaper we’d brought aboard at the spaceport just before blast-off. He read it page by page and column by column, including the advice to the lovelorn section, the comics, the editorials, and all the ads. His voice droned on for hours, while the Hustic transformers whined and the air in the ship misted with the acrid fumes of overheated insulation and I soaked myself in cold sweat. The whole scene had the irrationality of a nightmare. But I was awake and knew it, and just wished I were dreaming the whole thing.
Then, inevitably with that overload, the Hustic spouted black smoke. The line surge that flashed back up the cables bent the meter needles around their stop pegs, and down in the belly of the ship the power packs sizzled and crackled. But somehow they didn’t explode.
Mike staggered and covered his face with his hands. He dropped to his knees and for an instant I thought the current had followed the helmet cable and electrocuted him.
But he grasped a stanchion and pulled himself upright. His face was haggard and gaunt, but there was a wildly triumphant gleam in his bloodshot eyes and a twisted grin on his lips.
Then I got my worst scare of all as he lurched toward me, fumbling in his pocket for the spring-opening knife he always carried. I closed my eyes and waited for the end.
But he didn’t stab me. Instead the air swooshed out of my cushions as he ripped the fabric. Then he turned and yanked the sleep mask from Bill’s face.
I scrambled out. My legs felt rubbery from being pinned in the cushions so long but I managed to stagger over and twist Bill’s air release valve just as Mike crumpled to the deck.
Bill opened his eyes. “What the—?”
Then he remembered what had happened, and heard the Marties still howling outside in a most unpleasant way.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” he bellowed.
We went out with Bill on the throttles and me down in the drive room with the portable emergency power-pack and a handful of wires to get the Wilsons firing. Mike was out cold on the control room floor. We went out with a swish and a swoop on an uncontrolled skew curve, and only the low .38 gravity and 3.1 mile per second escape velocity of Mars kept us alive.
As soon as we straightened out of the escape spiral Bill and I hustled Mike into the cushions. It wasn’t necessary to gas him, for although he had recovered consciousness he did not resist at all. Instead he fell into a long normal sleep, twice around the clock as though completely exhausted.
That trip still haunts my nightmares. Everything powered off the secondaries—which meant nearly everything but the main drivers—was dead. Mike had really fixed that.
Then one of the Wilsons burned a liner, and with grave misgivings we had to turn Mike loose. We didn’t like the notion of spacing a trajectory on power settings plotted by a crazy man, but the calculations for unbalanced drive needed his astrogating skill. With the mechanical astroplotter out of action it was too much for Bill and me.
He didn’t get violent, so after that we gave him the run of the ship, though of course we never left him on watch alone. He seemed harmless enough, and spent most of his time at a typewriter he had rebuilt to operate in variable gravity. He wrote a few poems to and about Polly. The usual mush.
Then he wrote a story. Maybe I’ve mentioned before that he collected rejection slips. Bill and I laughed when we read it, because it was much too farfetched for publication. All about a mysterious artificial brain—he didn’t specify whether animal, vegetable or mineral—invented to serve as a combination integrating calculator and reference library, working on a form of telepathy. But the creatures for whom it was built kept using it more and more to solve their problems instead of working them out for themselves. After a few generations the creatures became nothing but eyes and hands for the brain, letting it do all their thinking and make all their decisions.
And because the Thing was aware of every sensation of a whole planetful of creatures it grew very tired of processing irrelevant information and began to propagate the idea that any thought or action not absolutely essential for survival was wrong and should be suppressed, and that emotions—which interfered with transmission of factual data—were unthinkably degenerate, to be shunned at all costs. After a few more generations the creatures did not even realize they were being controlled by the Thing, had even forgotten its existence and believed its thoughts and decisions were their own.
That was the story.
Then he got to fooling with the burned-out ruins of the Hustic and made a sheaf of graphs, all in five and six colors. They were too complex for Bill or me.
A few days out from Earth, a worried Bill got me up in the middle of my off-shift and motioned to the forward view-plate. There, coming toward us from the inviting blue-green ball of Earth, were thirty closely grouped orange specks. Spaceship driver flares.
Mike took a look too, then held both hands to his forehead with index fingers protruding and wiggled them at us. When I got the idea I wasn’t happy about it. The wiggling fingers meant antennae. Martians.
Bill and I gnawed our fingernails. The poor Banshee could neither run nor fight. But the Martian ships went right on by without even trying to contact us on the Luminophone. Mike just grinned through it all.
We landed rough, on account of the burned-out driver, but when things stopped bouncing we were all in condition to limp away.
Mike saw the car pull up outside and had the hatch open before we could stop him.
Polly met him with open arms and a kiss that would have been censored on any telaudio show. She wasn’t the pale, subdued, inertia-ridden girl of a few months before. Not at all.
The Professor was dancing up and down with excitement behind her, trying to shake one of Mike’s hands.
“You did it, darling!” Polly released her lips long enough to say. “They’re gone, every one of them! And so is the Complex.”
“Huh?” Bill and I stared.
Then Bill grabbed his brother.
“You mean Mike isn’t—?” he began.
“Of course not,” the Professor snapped. “He never was.” Then he turned to Mike.
“What capacitance were you using when you picked up the Thing’s radiations?” he demanded. “What power factor? What wave form? Sine wave or flat top or sawtooth? Did you have the transportation grid shielded or were you getting a reinduction feedback?”
“Father!” Polly said sternly. “Later!”
Mike reached in his pocket and handed his fancy graphs to the Professor, who seemed to understand them at a glance.
“Oh,” he said. “There’s just enough similarity of wave form here so the telepathic inertia influences directed at the Cultural Emissaries would heterodyne in their receiving organs and be re-emitted exactly on a generalized human brain-wave pattern.
“And that makeshift capacitance bar you rigged just happened to sensitize the set to the Thing’s own wave form.”
We listened, but right then Mike was more interested in Polly. About that he displayed good sense.
Bill’s Banshee III and my Thor are between-trips at the same time, so it was only natural that we got together last night. And when we met Miu Tlenow, the Venusian cat-man, it was also natural that we head immediately for the Ursa Major Tavern.
“Mewargh!” Tlenow purred, extending and retracting his clawlike fingernails with pleasure as the second drink took hold. “Really it is good to get away from that madhouse.”
“What madhouse?” Bill asked.
We sat up straighter. Somehow in the five years that had passed without authentic news from the Red Planet we had taken it for granted that things there had settled down once more to a slow, lethargic normality. We hadn’t realized the full impact of Mike, as amplified by the Hustic.
“Those Martians!” Tlenow mewled, his whiskers twitching in agitated disgust. “They are crazy. All crazy. They mate, but they use no sense in how they mate. Like Earthmen. Such complications! They have many different governments with a hundred different political parties, and they talk and talk, vote and vote. They argue.
“Things like Earthmen’s gloves they make. Of course they will not fit Martian hands and they carry them only to hit in each other’s faces. Then they fight duels.
“They make liquor and drink it, and how crazy-drunk they get. Then, Great Space, they even try to sing!
“They make jokes and play pranks, too, something they never did before.”
Tlenow was slit-eyed with amazement at such illogical Martian behavior.
“They do this one day, do that the next. Always they grow more like Venusians or Earthmen, only with not so much sense. What they will do on any tomorrow one can never tell.”
He finished his drink and leaned forward.
“They make writing—too much writing—everything in writing—and all of it funny kind. What you Earthmen call—I think—poetry. Yes, that is it. Poetry. And each day gets worser. They never make like that before. By the Seven Black Comets, how they get that way?”
That was when Bill and I knew we had to break our silence.
So the Marties have not yet learned to think for themselves. Five years, after all, is a very short time. Perhaps some day. In the meantime they’re nothing but reflections of the more uninhibited and generally screwy aspects of Terence Michael Burke’s personality. And I’m afraid they’ll share his disturbing ideas of humor.
Do we want anything to do with them? Frankly, I don’t know. That’s up to you, Citizens of Earth, when you vote on the new treaty.
But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
This story originally appeared in Planet Stories, Spring 1950.