Science Fiction short. "Duel on Syrtis" by Poul Anderson. Science Fiction Classic from Planet Stories and Project Guttenberg.
DUEL ON SYRTIS BY POUL ANDERSON
Bold and ruthless, he was famed throughout the System as a
big-game hunter. From the firedrakes of Mercury to the ice-crawlers of
Pluto, he'd slain them all. But his trophy-room lacked one item; and
now Riordan swore he'd bag the forbidden game that roamed the red
deserts ... a Martian!
* * * * *
The night whispered the message. Over the many miles of loneliness it
was borne, carried on the wind, rustled by the half-sentient lichens
and the dwarfed trees, murmured from one to another of the little
creatures that huddled under crags, in caves, by shadowy dunes. In no
words, but in a dim pulsing of dread which echoed through Kreega's
brain, the warning ran--
_They are hunting again._
Kreega shuddered in a sudden blast of wind. The night was enormous
around him, above him, from the iron bitterness of the hills to the
wheeling, glittering constellations light-years over his head. He
reached out with his trembling perceptions, tuning himself to the
brush and the wind and the small burrowing things underfoot, letting
the night speak to him.
Alone, alone. There was not another Martian for a hundred miles of
emptiness. There were only the tiny animals and the shivering brush
and the thin, sad blowing of the wind.
The voiceless scream of dying traveled through the brush, from plant
to plant, echoed by the fear-pulses of the animals and the ringingly
reflecting cliffs. They were curling, shriveling and blackening as the
rocket poured the glowing death down on them, and the withering veins
and nerves cried to the stars.
Kreega huddled against a tall gaunt crag. His eyes were like yellow
moons in the darkness, cold with terror and hate and a slowly
gathering resolution. Grimly, he estimated that the death was being
sprayed in a circle some ten miles across. And he was trapped in it,
and soon the hunter would come after him.
He looked up to the indifferent glitter of stars, and a shudder went
along his body. Then he sat down and began to think.
* * * * *
It had started a few days before, in the private office of the trader
"I came to Mars," said Riordan, "to get me an owlie."
Wisby had learned the value of a poker face. He peered across the rim
of his glass at the other man, estimating him.
Even in God-forsaken holes like Port Armstrong one had heard of
Riordan. Heir to a million-dollar shipping firm which he himself had
pyramided into a System-wide monster, he was equally well known as a
big game hunter. From the firedrakes of Mercury to the ice crawlers of
Pluto, he'd bagged them all. Except, of course, a Martian. That
particular game was forbidden now.
He sprawled in his chair, big and strong and ruthless, still a young
man. He dwarfed the unkempt room with his size and the hard-held
dynamo strength in him, and his cold green gaze dominated the trader.
"It's illegal, you know," said Wisby. "It's a twenty-year sentence if
you're caught at it."
"Bah! The Martian Commissioner is at Ares, halfway round the planet.
If we go at it right, who's ever to know?" Riordan gulped at his
drink. "I'm well aware that in another year or so they'll have
tightened up enough to make it impossible. This is the last chance for
any man to get an owlie. That's why I'm here."
Wisby hesitated, looking out the window. Port Armstrong was no more
than a dusty huddle of domes, interconnected by tunnels, in a red
waste of sand stretching to the near horizon. An Earthman in airsuit
and transparent helmet was walking down the street and a couple of
Martians were lounging against a wall. Otherwise nothing--a silent,
deadly monotony brooding under the shrunken sun. Life on Mars was not
especially pleasant for a human.
"You're not falling into this owlie-loving that's corrupted all
Earth?" demanded Riordan contemptuously.
"Oh, no," said Wisby. "I keep them in their place around my post. But
times are changing. It can't be helped."
"There was a time when they were slaves," said Riordan. "Now those old
women on Earth want to give 'em the vote." He snorted.
"Well, times are changing," repeated Wisby mildly. "When the first
humans landed on Mars a hundred years ago, Earth had just gone through
the Hemispheric Wars. The worst wars man had ever known. They damned
near wrecked the old ideas of liberty and equality. People were
suspicious and tough--they'd had to be, to survive. They weren't able
to--to empathize the Martians, or whatever you call it. Not able to
think of them as anything but intelligent animals. And Martians made
such useful slaves--they need so little food or heat or oxygen, they
can even live fifteen minutes or so without breathing at all. And the
wild Martians made fine sport--intelligent game, that could get away
as often as not, or even manage to kill the hunter."
"I know," said Riordan. "That's why I want to hunt one. It's no fun if
the game doesn't have a chance."
"It's different now," went on Wisby. "Earth has been at peace for a
long time. The liberals have gotten the upper hand. Naturally, one of
their first reforms was to end Martian slavery."
Riordan swore. The forced repatriation of Martians working on his
spaceships had cost him plenty. "I haven't time for your
philosophizing," he said. "If you can arrange for me to get a Martian,
I'll make it worth your while."
"How much worth it?" asked Wisby.
* * * * *
They haggled for a while before settling on a figure. Riordan had
brought guns and a small rocketboat, but Wisby would have to supply
radioactive material, a "hawk," and a rockhound. Then he had to be
paid for the risk of legal action, though that was small. The final
price came high.
"Now, where do I get my Martian?" inquired Riordan. He gestured at the
two in the street. "Catch one of them and release him in the desert?"
It was Wisby's turn to be contemptuous. "One of them? Hah! Town
loungers! A city dweller from Earth would give you a better fight."
The Martians didn't look impressive. They stood only some four feet
high on skinny, claw-footed legs, and the arms, ending in bony
four-fingered hands, were stringy. The chests were broad and deep, but
the waists were ridiculously narrow. They were viviparous,
warm-blooded, and suckled their young, but gray feathers covered their
hides. The round, hook-beaked heads, with huge amber eyes and tufted
feather ears, showed the origin of the name "owlie." They wore only
pouched belts and carried sheath knives; even the liberals of Earth
weren't ready to allow the natives modern tools and weapons. There
were too many old grudges.
"The Martians always were good fighters," said Riordan. "They wiped
out quite a few Earth settlements in the old days."
"The wild ones," agreed Wisby. "But not these. They're just stupid
laborers, as dependent on our civilization as we are. You want a real
old timer, and I know where one's to be found."
He spread a map on the desk. "See, here in the Hraefnian Hills, about
a hundred miles from here. These Martians live a long time, maybe two
centuries, and this fellow Kreega has been around since the first
Earthmen came. He led a lot of Martian raids in the early days, but
since the general amnesty and peace he's lived all alone up there, in
one of the old ruined towers. A real old-time warrior who hates
Earthmen's guts. He comes here once in a while with furs and minerals
to trade, so I know a little about him." Wisby's eyes gleamed
savagely. "You'll be doing us all a favor by shooting the arrogant
bastard. He struts around here as if the place belonged to him. And
he'll give you a run for your money."
Riordan's massive dark head nodded in satisfaction.
* * * * *
The man had a bird and a rockhound. That was bad. Without them, Kreega
could lose himself in the labyrinth of caves and canyons and scrubby
thickets--but the hound could follow his scent and the bird could spot
him from above.
To make matters worse, the man had landed near Kreega's tower. The
weapons were all there--now he was cut off, unarmed and alone save for
what feeble help the desert life could give. Unless he could double
back to the place somehow--but meanwhile he had to survive.
He sat in a cave, looking down past a tortured wilderness of sand and
bush and wind-carved rock, miles in the thin clear air to the glitter
of metal where the rocket lay. The man was a tiny speck in the huge
barren landscape, a lonely insect crawling under the deep-blue sky.
Even by day, the stars glistened in the tenuous atmosphere. Weak
pallid sunlight spilled over rocks tawny and ocherous and rust-red,
over the low dusty thorn-bushes and the gnarled little trees and the
sand that blew faintly between them. Equatorial Mars!
Lonely or not, the man had a gun that could spang death clear to the
horizon, and he had his beasts, and there would be a radio in the
rocketboat for calling his fellows. And the glowing death ringed them
in, a charmed circle which Kreega could not cross without bringing a
worse death on himself than the rifle would give--
Or was there a worse death than that--to be shot by a monster and have
his stuffed hide carried back as a trophy for fools to gape at? The
old iron pride of his race rose in Kreega, hard and bitter and
unrelenting. He didn't ask much of life these days--solitude in his
tower to think the long thoughts of a Martian and create the small
exquisite artworks which he loved; the company of his kind at the
Gathering Season, grave ancient ceremony and acrid merriment and the
chance to beget and rear sons; an occasional trip to the Earthling
settling for the metal goods and the wine which were the only valuable
things they had brought to Mars; a vague dream of raising his folk to
a place where they could stand as equals before all the universe. No
more. And now they would take even this from him!
He rasped a curse on the human and resumed his patient work, chipping
a spearhead for what puny help it could give him. The brush rustled
dryly in alarm, tiny hidden animals squeaked their terror, the desert
shouted to him of the monster that strode toward his cave. But he
didn't have to flee right away.
* * * * *
Riordan sprayed the heavy-metal isotope in a ten-mile circle around
the old tower. He did that by night, just in case patrol craft might
be snooping around. But once he had landed, he was safe--he could
always claim to be peacefully exploring, hunting leapers or some such
The radioactive had a half-life of about four days, which meant that
it would be unsafe to approach for some three weeks--two at the
minimum. That was time enough, when the Martian was boxed in so small
There was no danger that he would try to cross it. The owlies had
learned what radioactivity meant, back when they fought the humans.
And their vision, extending well into the ultra-violet, made it
directly visible to them through its fluorescence--to say nothing of
the wholly unhuman extra senses they had. No, Kreega would try to
hide, and perhaps to fight, and eventually he'd be cornered.
Still, there was no use taking chances. Riordan set a timer on the
boat's radio. If he didn't come back within two weeks to turn it off,
it would emit a signal which Wisby would hear, and he'd be rescued.
He checked his other equipment. He had an airsuit designed for Martian
conditions, with a small pump operated by a power-beam from the boat
to compress the atmosphere sufficiently for him to breathe it. The
same unit recovered enough water from his breath so that the weight of
supplies for several days was, in Martian gravity, not too great for
him to bear. He had a .45 rifle built to shoot in Martian air, that
was heavy enough for his purposes. And, of course, compass and
binoculars and sleeping bag. Pretty light equipment, but he preferred
a minimum anyway.
For ultimate emergencies there was the little tank of suspensine. By
turning a valve, he could release it into his air system. The gas
didn't exactly induce suspended animation, but it paralyzed efferent
nerves and slowed the overall metabolism to a point where a man could
live for weeks on one lungful of air. It was useful in surgery, and
had saved the life of more than one interplanetary explorer whose
oxygen system went awry. But Riordan didn't expect to have to use it.
He certainly hoped he wouldn't. It would be tedious to lie fully
conscious for days waiting for the automatic signal to call Wisby.
He stepped out of the boat and locked it. No danger that the owlie
would break in if he should double back; it would take tordenite to
crack that hull.
He whistled to his animals. They were native beasts, long ago
domesticated by the Martians and later by man. The rockhound was like
a gaunt wolf, but huge-breasted and feathered, a tracker as good as
any Terrestrial bloodhound. The "hawk" had less resemblance to its
counterpart of Earth: it was a bird of prey, but in the tenuous
atmosphere it needed a six-foot wingspread to lift its small body.
Riordan was pleased with their training.
The hound bayed, a low quavering note which would have been muffled
almost to inaudibility by the thin air and the man's plastic helmet
had the suit not included microphones and amplifiers. It circled,
sniffing, while the hawk rose into the alien sky.
Riordan did not look closely at the tower. It was a crumbling stump
atop a rusty hill, unhuman and grotesque. Once, perhaps ten thousand
years ago, the Martians had had a civilization of sorts, cities and
agriculture and a neolithic technology. But according to their own
traditions they had achieved a union or symbiosis with the wild life
of the planet and had abandoned such mechanical aids as unnecessary.
The hound bayed again. The noise seemed to hang eerily in the still,
cold air; to shiver from cliff and crag and die reluctantly under the
enormous silence. But it was a bugle call, a haughty challenge to a
world grown old--stand aside, make way, here comes the conqueror!
The animal suddenly loped forward. He had a scent. Riordan swung into
a long, easy low-gravity stride. His eyes gleamed like green ice. The
hunt was begun!
* * * * *
Breath sobbed in Kreega's lungs, hard and quick and raw. His legs felt
weak and heavy, and the thudding of his heart seemed to shake his
Still he ran, while the frightful clamor rose behind him and the
padding of feet grew ever nearer. Leaping, twisting, bounding from
crag to crag, sliding down shaly ravines and slipping through clumps
of trees, Kreega fled.
The hound was behind him and the hawk soaring overhead. In a day and a
night they had driven him to this, running like a crazed leaper with
death baying at his heels--he had not imagined a human could move so
fast or with such endurance.
The desert fought for him; the plants with their queer blind life that
no Earthling would ever understand were on his side. Their thorny
branches twisted away as he darted through and then came back to rake
the flanks of the hound, slow him--but they could not stop his brutal
rush. He ripped past their strengthless clutching fingers and yammered
on the trail of the Martian.
The human was toiling a good mile behind, but showed no sign of
tiring. Still Kreega ran. He had to reach the cliff edge before the
hunter saw him through his rifle sights--had to, had to, and the hound
was snarling a yard behind now.
Up the long slope he went. The hawk fluttered, striking at him,
seeking to lay beak and talons in his head. He batted at the creature
with his spear and dodged around a tree. The tree snaked out a branch
from which the hound rebounded, yelling till the rocks rang.
The Martian burst onto the edge of the cliff. It fell sheer to the
canyon floor, five hundred feet of iron-streaked rock tumbling into
windy depths. Beyond, the lowering sun glared in his eyes. He paused
only an instant, etched black against the sky, a perfect shot if the
human should come into view, and then he sprang over the edge.
He had hoped the rockhound would go shooting past, but the animal
braked itself barely in time. Kreega went down the cliff face, clawing
into every tiny crevice, shuddering as the age-worn rock crumbled
under his fingers. The hawk swept close, hacking at him and screaming
for its master. He couldn't fight it, not with every finger and toe
needed to hang against shattering death, but--
He slid along the face of the precipice into a gray-green clump of
vines, and his nerves thrilled forth the appeal of the ancient
symbiosis. The hawk swooped again and he lay unmoving, rigid as if
dead, until it cried in shrill triumph and settled on his shoulder to
pluck out his eyes.
Then the vines stirred. They weren't strong, but their thorns sank
into the flesh and it couldn't pull loose. Kreega toiled on down into
the canyon while the vines pulled the hawk apart.
Riordan loomed hugely against the darkening sky. He fired, once,
twice, the bullets humming wickedly close, but as shadows swept up
from the depths the Martian was covered.
The man turned up his speech amplifier and his voice rolled and boomed
monstrously through the gathering night, thunder such as dry Mars had
not heard for millennia: "Score one for you! But it isn't enough! I'll
The sun slipped below the horizon and night came down like a falling
curtain. Through the darkness Kreega heard the man laughing. The old
rocks trembled with his laughter.
* * * * *
Riordan was tired with the long chase and the niggling insufficiency
of his oxygen supply. He wanted a smoke and hot food, and neither was
to be had. Oh, well, he'd appreciate the luxuries of life all the more
when he got home--with the Martian's skin.
He grinned as he made camp. The little fellow was a worthwhile quarry,
that was for damn sure. He'd held out for two days now, in a little
ten-mile circle of ground, and he'd even killed the hawk. But Riordan
was close enough to him now so that the hound could follow his spoor,
for Mars had no watercourses to break a trail. So it didn't matter.
He lay watching the splendid night of stars. It would get cold before
long, unmercifully cold, but his sleeping bag was a good-enough
insulator to keep him warm with the help of solar energy stored during
the day by its Gergen cells. Mars was dark at night, its moons of
little help--Phobos a hurtling speck, Deimos merely a bright star.
Dark and cold and empty. The rockhound had burrowed into the loose
sand nearby, but it would raise the alarm if the Martian should come
sneaking near the camp. Not that that was likely--he'd have to find
shelter somewhere too, if he didn't want to freeze.
_The bushes and the trees and the little furtive animals whispered a
word he could not hear, chattered and gossiped on the wind about the
Martian who kept himself warm with work. But he didn't understand that
language which was no language._
Drowsily, Riordan thought of past hunts. The big game of Earth, lion
and tiger and elephant and buffalo and sheep on the high sun-blazing
peaks of the Rockies. Rain forests of Venus and the coughing roar of a
many-legged swamp monster crashing through the trees to the place
where he stood waiting. Primitive throb of drums in a hot wet night,
chant of beaters dancing around a fire--scramble along the hell-plains
of Mercury with a swollen sun licking against his puny insulating
suit--the grandeur and desolation of Neptune's liquid-gas swamps and
the huge blind thing that screamed and blundered after him--
But this was the loneliest and strangest and perhaps most dangerous
hunt of all, and on that account the best. He had no malice toward the
Martian; he respected the little being's courage as he respected the
bravery of the other animals he had fought. Whatever trophy he brought
home from this chase would be well earned.
The fact that his success would have to be treated discreetly didn't
matter. He hunted less for the glory of it--though he had to admit he
didn't mind the publicity--than for love. His ancestors had fought
under one name or another--viking, Crusader, mercenary, rebel,
patriot, whatever was fashionable at the moment. Struggle was in his
blood, and in these degenerate days there was little to struggle
against save what he hunted.
Well--tomorrow--he drifted off to sleep.
* * * * *
He woke in the short gray dawn, made a quick breakfast, and whistled
his hound to heel. His nostrils dilated with excitement, a high keen
drunkenness that sang wonderfully within him. Today--maybe today!
They had to take a roundabout way down into the canyon and the hound
cast about for an hour before he picked up the scent. Then the
deep-voiced cry rose again and they were off--more slowly now, for it
was a cruel stony trail.
The sun climbed high as they worked along the ancient river-bed. Its
pale chill light washed needle-sharp crags and fantastically painted
cliffs, shale and sand and the wreck of geological ages. The low harsh
brush crunched under the man's feet, writhing and crackling its
impotent protest. Otherwise it was still, a deep and taut and somehow
The hound shattered the quiet with an eager yelp and plunged forward.
Hot scent! Riordan dashed after him, trampling through dense bush,
panting and swearing and grinning with excitement.
Suddenly the brush opened underfoot. With a howl of dismay, the hound
slid down the sloping wall of the pit it had covered. Riordan flung
himself forward with tigerish swiftness, flat down on his belly with
one hand barely catching the animal's tail. The shock almost pulled
him into the hole too. He wrapped one arm around a bush that clawed at
his helmet and pulled the hound back.
Shaking, he peered into the trap. It had been well made--about twenty
feet deep, with walls as straight and narrow as the sand would allow,
and skillfully covered with brush. Planted in the bottom were three
wicked-looking flint spears. Had he been a shade less quick in his
reactions, he would have lost the hound and perhaps himself.
He skinned his teeth in a wolf-grin and looked around. The owlie must
have worked all night on it. Then he couldn't be far away--and he'd be
As if to answer his thoughts, a boulder crashed down from the nearer
cliff wall. It was a monster, but a falling object on Mars has less
than half the acceleration it does on Earth. Riordan scrambled aside
as it boomed onto the place where he had been lying.
"Come on!" he yelled, and plunged toward the cliff.
For an instant a gray form loomed over the edge, hurled a spear at
him. Riordan snapped a shot at it, and it vanished. The spear glanced
off the tough fabric of his suit and he scrambled up a narrow ledge to
the top of the precipice.
The Martian was nowhere in sight, but a faint red trail led into the
rugged hill country. _Winged him, by God!_ The hound was slower in
negotiating the shale-covered trail; his own feet were bleeding when
he came up. Riordan cursed him and they set out again.
They followed the trail for a mile or two and then it ended. Riordan
looked around the wilderness of trees and needles which blocked view
in any direction. Obviously the owlie had backtracked and climbed up
one of those rocks, from which he could take a flying leap to some
other point. But which one?
Sweat which he couldn't wipe off ran down the man's face and body. He
itched intolerably, and his lungs were raw from gasping at his dole of
air. But still he laughed in gusty delight. What a chase! What a
* * * * *
Kreega lay in the shadow of a tall rock and shuddered with weariness.
Beyond the shade, the sunlight danced in what to him was a blinding,
intolerable dazzle, hot and cruel and life-hungry, hard and bright as
the metal of the conquerors.
It had been a mistake to spend priceless hours when he might have been
resting working on that trap. It hadn't worked, and he might have
known that it wouldn't. And now he was hungry, and thirst was like a
wild beast in his mouth and throat, and still they followed him.
They weren't far behind now. All this day they had been dogging him;
he had never been more than half an hour ahead. No rest, no rest, a
devil's hunt through a tormented wilderness of stone and sand, and now
he could only wait for the battle with an iron burden of exhaustion
laid on him.
The wound in his side burned. It wasn't deep, but it had cost him
blood and pain and the few minutes of catnapping he might have
For a moment, the warrior Kreega was gone and a lonely, frightened
infant sobbed in the desert silence. _Why can't they let me alone?_
A low, dusty-green bush rustled. A sandrunner piped in one of the
ravines. They were getting close.
Wearily, Kreega scrambled up on top of the rock and crouched low. He
had backtracked to it; they should by rights go past him toward his
He could see it from here, a low yellow ruin worn by the winds of
millennia. There had only been time to dart in, snatch a bow and a few
arrows and an axe. Pitiful weapons--the arrows could not penetrate
the Earthman's suit when there was only a Martian's thin grasp to draw
the bow, and even with a steel head the axe was a small and feeble
thing. But it was all he had, he and his few little allies of a desert
which fought only to keep its solitude.
Repatriated slaves had told him of the Earthlings' power. Their
roaring machines filled the silence of their own deserts, gouged the
quiet face of their own moon, shook the planets with a senseless fury
of meaningless energy. They were the conquerors, and it never occurred
to them that an ancient peace and stillness could be worth preserving.
Well--he fitted an arrow to the string and crouched in the silent,
flimmering sunlight, waiting.
The hound came first, yelping and howling. Kreega drew the bow as far
as he could. But the human had to come near first--
There he came, running and bounding over the rocks, rifle in hand and
restless eyes shining with taut green light, closing in for the death.
Kreega swung softly around. The beast was beyond the rock now, the
Earthman almost below it.
The bow twanged. With a savage thrill, Kreega saw the arrow go through
the hound, saw the creature leap in the air and then roll over and
over, howling and biting at the thing in its breast.
Like a gray thunderbolt, the Martian launched himself off the rock,
down at the human. If his axe could shatter that helmet--
He struck the man and they went down together. Wildly, the Martian
hewed. The axe glanced off the plastic--he hadn't had room for a
swing. Riordan roared and lashed out with a fist. Retching, Kreega
Riordan snapped a shot at him. Kreega turned and fled. The man got to
one knee, sighting carefully on the gray form that streaked up the
A little sandsnake darted up the man's leg and wrapped about his
wrist. Its small strength was just enough to pull the gun aside. The
bullet screamed past Kreega's ear as he vanished into a cleft.
He felt the thin death-agony of the snake as the man pulled it loose
and crushed it underfoot. Somewhat later, he heard a dull boom echoing
between the hills. The man had gotten explosives from his boat and
blown up the tower.
He had lost axe and bow. Now he was utterly weaponless, without even a
place to retire for a last stand. And the hunter would not give up.
Even without his animals, he would follow, more slowly but as
relentlessly as before.
Kreega collapsed on a shelf of rock. Dry sobbing racked his thin body,
and the sunset wind cried with him.
Presently he looked up, across a red and yellow immensity to the low
sun. Long shadows were creeping over the land, peace and stillness for
a brief moment before the iron cold of night closed down. Somewhere
the soft trill of a sandrunner echoed between low wind-worn cliffs,
and the brush began to speak, whispering back and forth in its ancient
The desert, the planet and its wind and sand under the high cold
stars, the clean open land of silence and loneliness and a destiny
which was not man's, spoke to him. The enormous oneness of life on
Mars, drawn together against the cruel environment, stirred in his
blood. As the sun went down and the stars blossomed forth in awesome
frosty glory, Kreega began to think again.
He did not hate his persecutor, but the grimness of Mars was in him.
He fought the war of all which was old and primitive and lost in its
own dreams against the alien and the desecrator. It was as ancient and
pitiless as life, that war, and each battle won or lost meant
something even if no one ever heard of it.
_You do not fight alone_, whispered the desert. _You fight for all
Mars, and we are with you._
Something moved in the darkness, a tiny warm form running across his
hand, a little feathered mouse-like thing that burrowed under the sand
and lived its small fugitive life and was glad in its own way of
living. But it was a part of a world, and Mars has no pity in its
Still, a tenderness was within Kreega's heart, and he whispered gently
in the language that was not a language, _You will do this for us? You
will do it, little brother?_
* * * * *
Riordan was too tired to sleep well. He had lain awake for a long
time, thinking, and that is not good for a man alone in the Martian
So now the rockhound was dead too. It didn't matter, the owlie
wouldn't escape. But somehow the incident brought home to him the
immensity and the age and the loneliness of the desert.
It whispered to him. The brush rustled and something wailed in
darkness and the wind blew with a wild mournful sound over faintly
starlit cliffs, and it was as if they all somehow had voice, as if the
whole world muttered and threatened him in the night. Dimly, he
wondered if man would ever subdue Mars, if the human race had not
finally run across something bigger than itself.
But that was nonsense. Mars was old and worn-out and barren, dreaming
itself into slow death. The tramp of human feet, shouts of men and
roar of sky-storming rockets, were waking it, but to a new destiny, to
man's. When Ares lifted its hard spires above the hills of Syrtis,
where then were the ancient gods of Mars?
It was cold, and the cold deepened as the night wore on. The stars
were fire and ice, glittering diamonds in the deep crystal dark. Now
and then he could hear a faint snapping borne through the earth as
rock or tree split open. The wind laid itself to rest, sound froze to
death, there was only the hard clear starlight falling through space
to shatter on the ground.
Once something stirred. He woke from a restless sleep and saw a small
thing skittering toward him. He groped for the rifle beside his
sleeping bag, then laughed harshly. It was only a sandmouse. But it
proved that the Martian had no chance of sneaking up on him while he
He didn't laugh again. The sound had echoed too hollowly in his
With the clear bitter dawn he was up. He wanted to get the hunt over
with. He was dirty and unshaven inside the unit, sick of iron rations
pushed through the airlock, stiff and sore with exertion. Lacking the
hound, which he'd had to shoot, tracking would be slow, but he didn't
want to go back to Port Armstrong for another. No, hell take that
Martian, he'd have the devil's skin soon!
Breakfast and a little moving made him feel better. He looked with a
practiced eye for the Martian's trail. There was sand and brush over
everything, even the rocks had a thin coating of their own erosion.
The owlie couldn't cover his tracks perfectly--if he tried, it would
slow him too much. Riordan fell into a steady jog.
Noon found him on higher ground, rough hills with gaunt needles of
rock reaching yards into the sky. He kept going, confident of his own
ability to wear down the quarry. He'd run deer to earth back home, day
after day until the animal's heart broke and it waited quivering for
him to come.
The trail looked clear and fresh now. He tensed with the knowledge
that the Martian couldn't be far away.
Too clear! Could this be bait for another trap? He hefted the rifle
and proceeded more warily. But no, there wouldn't have been time--
He mounted a high ridge and looked over the grim, fantastic landscape.
Near the horizon he saw a blackened strip, the border of his
radioactive barrier. The Martian couldn't go further, and if he
doubled back Riordan would have an excellent chance of spotting him.
He tuned up his speaker and let his voice roar into the stillness:
"Come out, owlie! I'm going to get you, you might as well come out now
and be done with it!"
The echoes took it up, flying back and forth between the naked crags,
trembling and shivering under the brassy arch of sky. _Come out, come
out, come out--_
The Martian seemed to appear from thin air, a gray ghost rising out of
the jumbled stones and standing poised not twenty feet away. For an
instant, the shock of it was too much; Riordan gaped in disbelief.
Kreega waited, quivering ever so faintly as if he were a mirage.
Then the man shouted and lifted his rifle. Still the Martian stood
there as if carved in gray stone, and with a shock of disappointment
Riordan thought that he had, after all, decided to give himself to an
Well, it had been a good hunt. "So long," whispered Riordan, and
squeezed the trigger.
Since the sandmouse had crawled into the barrel, the gun exploded.
* * * * *
Riordan heard the roar and saw the barrel peel open like a rotten
banana. He wasn't hurt, but as he staggered back from the shock Kreega
lunged at him.
The Martian was four feet tall, and skinny and weaponless, but he hit
the Earthling like a small tornado. His legs wrapped around the man's
waist and his hands got to work on the airhose.
Riordan went down under the impact. He snarled, tigerishly, and
fastened his hands on the Martian's narrow throat. Kreega snapped
futilely at him with his beak. They rolled over in a cloud of dust.
The brush began to chatter excitedly.
Riordan tried to break Kreega's neck--the Martian twisted away, bored
With a shock of horror, the man heard the hiss of escaping air as
Kreega's beak and fingers finally worried the airhose loose. An
automatic valve clamped shut, but there was no connection with the
Riordan cursed, and got his hands about the Martian's throat again.
Then he simply lay there, squeezing, and not all Kreega's writhing and
twistings could break that grip.
Riordan smiled sleepily and held his hands in place. After five
minutes or so Kreega was still. Riordan kept right on throttling him
for another five minutes, just to make sure. Then he let go and
fumbled at his back, trying to reach the pump.
The air in his suit was hot and foul. He couldn't quite reach around
to connect the hose to the pump--
_Poor design_, he thought vaguely. _But then, these airsuits weren't
meant for battle armor._
He looked at the slight, silent form of the Martian. A faint breeze
ruffled the gray feathers. What a fighter the little guy had been!
He'd be the pride of the trophy room, back on Earth.
Let's see now--He unrolled his sleeping bag and spread it carefully
out. He'd never make it to the rocket with what air he had, so it was
necessary to let the suspensine into his suit. But he'd have to get
inside the bag, lest the nights freeze his blood solid.
He crawled in, fastening the flaps carefully, and opened the valve on
the suspensine tank. Lucky he had it--but then, a good hunter thinks
of everything. He'd get awfully bored, lying here till Wisby caught
the signal in ten days or so and came to find him, but he'd last. It
would be an experience to remember. In this dry air, the Martian's
skin would keep perfectly well.
He felt the paralysis creep up on him, the waning of heartbeat and
lung action. His senses and mind were still alive, and he grew aware
that complete relaxation has its unpleasant aspects. Oh, well--he'd
won. He'd killed the wiliest game with his own hands.
Presently Kreega sat up. He felt himself gingerly. There seemed to be
a rib broken--well, that could be fixed. He was still alive. He'd been
choked for a good ten minutes, but a Martian can last fifteen without
He opened the sleeping bag and got Riordan's keys. Then he limped
slowly back to the rocket. A day or two of experimentation taught him
how to fly it. He'd go to his kinsmen near Syrtis. Now that they had
an Earthly machine, and Earthly weapons to copy--
But there was other business first. He didn't hate Riordan, but Mars
is a hard world. He went back and dragged the Earthling into a cave
and hid him beyond all possibility of human search parties finding
For a while he looked into the man's eyes. Horror stared dumbly back
at him. He spoke slowly, in halting English: "For those you killed,
and for being a stranger on a world that does not want you, and
against the day when Mars is free, I leave you."
Before departing, he got several oxygen tanks from the boat and hooked
them into the man's air supply. That was quite a bit of air for one in
suspended animation. Enough to keep him alive for a thousand years.
Exaltation. A Levels Story. Science Fiction. By John Pirillo. "Heck with a Stargate! I'll take the whole pyramid, thank you!"
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