Authors: Robert A. Heinlein
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Classics, #Life on other planets, #Mars (Planet), #Boys
Copyright ©1949 by Robert A. Heinlein
The thin air of Mars was chill but not really cold. It was not yet winter in southern latitudes and the daytime temperature was usually above freezing.
The queer creature standing outside the door of a domeshaped building was generally manlike in appearance, but no human being ever had a head like that. A thing like a coxcomb jutted out above the skull, the eye lenses were wide and staring, and the front of the face stuck out in a snout. The unearthly appearance was increased by a pattern of black and yellow tiger stripes covering the entire head.
The creature was armed with a pistol-type hand weapon slung at its belt and was carrying, crooked in its right arm, a ball, larger than a basketball, smaller than a medicine ball. It moved the ball to its left arm, opened the outer door of the building and stepped inside.
Inside was a very small anteroom and an inner door. As soon as the outer door was closed the air pressure in the anteroom began to rise, accompanied by a soft sighing sound. A loudspeaker over the inner door shouted in a booming bass, ‘Well? Who is it? Speak up! Speak up!’
The visitor placed the ball carefully on the floor, then with both hands grasped its ugly face and pushed and lifted it to the top of its head. Underneath was disclosed the face of an Earth-human boy. ‘It's Jim Marlowe, Doc,’ he answered.
'Well, come in. Come in! Don't stand out there chewing your nails.’
'Coming.’ When the air pressure in the anteroom had equalized with the pressure in the rest of the house the inner door opened automatically. Jim said, ‘Come along, Willis,’ and went on in.
The ball developed three spaced bumps on its lower side and followed after him, in a gait which combined spinning, walking, and rolling. More correctly, it careened, like a barrel being manhandled along a dock. They went down a passage and entered a large room that occupied half the floorspace of the circular house plan. Doctor MacRae looked up but did not get up. ‘Howdy, Jim. Skin yourself. Coffee on the bench. Howdy, Willis,’ he added and turned back to his work. He was dressing the hand of a boy about Jim's age.
'Thanks, Doc. Oh—hello, Francis. What are you doing here?’
'Hi, Jim. I killed a water-seeker, then I cut my thumb on one of its spines.’
'Quit squirming!’ commanded the doctor.
'That stuff stings,’ protested Francis.
'I meant it to.’
'How in the world did you do that?’ persisted Jim. ‘You ought to know better than to touch one of those things. Just burn ‘em down and burn ‘em up.’ He zipped open the front of his outdoor costume, peeled it off his arms and legs and hung it on a rack near the door. The rack held Francis's suit, the headpiece of which was painted in bright colours like an Indian brave's war paint, and the doctor's suit, the mask of which was plain. Jim was now stylishly and appropriately dressed for indoors on Mars—in bright red shorts.
'I did burn it,’ explained Francis, ‘but it moved when I touched it. I wanted to get the tail to make a necklace.’
'Then you didn't burn it right. Probably left it full of live eggs. Who're you making a necklace for?’
'None of your business. And I did so burn the egg sac. What do you take me for? A tourist?’
'Sometimes I wonder. You know those things don't die until sundown.’
'Don't talk nonsense, Jim,’ the doctor advised. ‘Now, Frank, I'm going to give you an antitoxin shot. ‘Twon't do you any good but it'll make your mother happy. Long about tomorrow your thumb will swell up like a poisoned pup; bring it back and I'll lance it.’
'Am I going to lose my thumb?’ the boy asked. ‘No. But you'll do your scratching with your left hand for a few days. Now, Jim, what brings you here? Tummy ache?’
'No, Doc. It's Willis.’
'Willis, eh? He looks pert enough to me.’ The doctor stared down at the creature. Willis was at his feet, having come up to watch the dressing of Frank's thumb. To do so he had protruded three eye stalks from the top of his spherical mass. The stalks stuck up like thumbs, in an equal-sided triangle, and from each popped a disturbingly human eye. The little fellow turned around slowly on his tripod of bumps, or pseudopeds, and gave each of his eyes a chance to examine the doctor.
'Get me up a cup of Java, Jim,’ commanded the doctor, then leaned over and made a cradle of his hands. ‘Here, Willis, upsidaisy!’ Willis gave a little bounce and landed in the doctor's hands, withdrawing all protuberances as he did so. The doctor lifted him to the examining table; Willis promptly stuck out legs and eyes again. They stared at each other.
The doctor saw a ball covered with thick, close-cropped fur, like sheared sheepskin, and featureless at the moment save for supports and eye stalks. The Mars creature saw an elderly male Earthman almost completely covered with wiry grey-and-white hair. The middle portion of this strange, unMartian creature was concealed in snow-white shorts and shirt. Willis enjoyed looking at him.
'How do you feel, Willis?’ inquired the doctor. ‘Feel good? Feel bad?’
A dimple showed at the very crown of the ball between the stalks, dilated to an opening. ‘Willis fine!’ he said. His voice was remarkably like Jim's.
'Fine, eh?’ Without looking around the doctor added, ‘Jim! Wash those cups again. And this time, sterilize them. Want everybody around here to come down with the pip?’
'Okay, Doc,’ Jim acknowledged, and added to Francis, ‘You want some coffee, too?’
'Sure. Weak, with plenty of cow.’
'Don't be fussy.’ Jim dipped into the laboratory sink and managed to snag another cup. The sink was filled with dirty dishes. Nearby a large flask of coffee simmered over a Bunsen burner. Jim washed three cups carefully, put them through the sterilizer, then filled them.
Doctor MacRae accepted a cup and said, ‘Jim, this citizen says he's okay. What's the trouble?’
'I know he says he's all right, Doc, but he's not. Can't you examine him and find out?’
'Examine him? How, boy? I can't even take his temperature because I don't know what his temperature ought to be. I know as much about his body chemistry as a pig knows about pattycake. Want me to cut him open and see what makes him tick?’
Willis promptly withdrew all projections and became as featureless as a billiard ball. ‘Now you've scared him,’ Jim said accusingly.
'Sorry.’ The doctor reached out and commenced scratching and tickling the furry ball. ‘Good Willis, nice Willis. Nobody's going to hurt Willis. Come on, boy, come out of your hole.’
Willis barely dilated the sphincter over his speaking diaphragm. ‘Not hurt Willis?’ he said anxiously in Jim's voice.
'Not hurt Willis. Promise.’
'Not cut Willis?’
'Not cut Willis. Not a bit.’
The eyes poked out slowly. Somehow he managed an expression of watchful caution, though he had nothing resembling a face. ‘That's better,’ said the doctor. ‘Let's get to the point, Jim. What makes you think there's something wrong with this fellow, when he and I can't see it?’
'Well, Doc, it's the way he behaves. He's all right indoors, but outdoors—He used to follow me everywhere, bouncing around the landscape, poking his nose into everything.’
'He hasn't got a nose,’ Francis commented.
'Go to the head of the class. But now, when I take him out, he just goes into a ball and I can't get a thing out of him. If he's not sick, why does he act that way?’
'I begin to get a glimmering,’ Doctor MacRae answered. ‘How long have you been teamed up with this balloon?’
Jim thought back over the twenty-four months of the Martian year. ‘Since along toward the end of Zeus, nearly November.’
'And now here it is the last of March, almost Ceres, and the summer gone. That suggest anything to your mind?’
'You expect him to go hopping around through the snow? We migrate when it gets cold; he lives here.’
Jim's mouth dropped open. ‘You mean he's trying to hibernate?’
'What else? Willis's ancestors have had a good many millions of years to get used to the seasons around here; you can't expect him to ignore them.’
Jim looked worried. ‘I had planned to take him with me to Syrtis Minor.’
'Syrtis Minor? Oh, yes, you go away to school this year, don't you? You, too, Frank.’
'I can't get used to the way you kids grow up. I came to Mars so that the years would be twice as long, but it doesn't seem to make any difference—they spin faster.’
'Say, Doc, how old are you?’ inquired Francis.
'Never mind. Which one of you is going to study medicine and come back to help me with my practice?’
Neither one answered. ‘Speak up, speak up!’ urged the doctor. ‘What are you going to study?’
Jim said, ‘Well, I don't know. I'm interested in areography*, but I like biology, too. Maybe I'll be a planetary economist, like my old man.’
'That's a big subject. Ought to keep you busy a long time. You, Frank?’
Francis looked slightly embarrassed. ‘Well, uh—shucks, I still think I'd like to be a rocket pilot.’
'I thought you had outgrown that.’
'Why not?’ Francis answered. ‘I might make it.’
'On your own head be it. Speaking of such things, you younkers go to school before the colony migrates, don't you?’ Since Earth-humans do not hibernate, it was necessary that the colony migrate twice each Martian year. The southern summer was spent at Charax, only thirty degrees from the southern pole; the colony was now about to move to Copais in Utopia, almost as far to the north, there to remain half a Martian year, or almost a full Earth year.
There were year-around establishments near the equator—New Shanghai, Marsport, Syrtis Minor, others—but they were not truly colonies, being manned mainly by employees of the Mars Company. By contract and by charter the Company was required to provide advanced terrestrial education on Mars for colonists; it suited the Company to provide it only at Syrtis Minor.
'We go next Wednesday,’ said Jim, ‘on the mail scooter.’
'Yes, and that's what worries me about Willis. What ought I to do, Doc?’
Willis heard his name and looked inquiringly at Jim. He repeated, in exact imitation of Jim, ‘What ought I to do, Doc?’
'Shut up, Willis —’
'Shut up, Willis.’ Willis imitated the doctor just as perfectly.
'Probably the kindest thing would be to take him out, find him a hole, and stuff him in it. You can renew your acquaintance when he's through hibernating.’
'But, Doc, that means I'll lose him! He'll be out long before I'm home from school. Why, he'll probably wake up even before the colony comes back.’
'Probably.’ MacRae thought about it. ‘It won't hurt him to be on his own again. It's not a natural life he leads with you, Jim. He's an individual, you know; he's not property.’
'Of course he's not! He's my friend.’
'I can't see,’ put in Francis, ‘why Jim sets such store by him. Sure, he talks a lot, but most of it is just parrot stuff. He's a moron, if you ask me.’
'Nobody asked you. Willis is fond of me, aren't you, Willis? Here, come to papa.’ Jim spread his arms; the little Martian creature hopped into them and settled in his lap, a warm, furry mass, faintly pulsating. Jim stroked him.
'Why don't you ask one of the Martians?’ suggested MacRae.
'I tried to, but I couldn't find one that was in a mood to pay any attention.’
'You mean you weren't willing to wait long enough. A Martian will notice you if you're patient. Well, why don't you ask
? He can speak for himself.’
'What should I say?’
'I'll try it. Willis!’ Willis turned two eyes on the doctor; MacRae went on, ‘Want to go outdoors and find a place to sleep?’
'Willis not sleepy.’
'Get sleepy outdoors. Nice and cold, find hole in ground. Curl up and take good long sleep. How about it?’
'No!’ The doctor had to look sharply to see that it was not Jim who had answered; when Willis spoke for himself he always used Jim's voice. Willis's sound diaphragm had no special quality of its own, any more than has the diaphragm of a radio loudspeaker. It was much like a loudspeaker's diaphragm, save that it was part of a living animal.
'That seems definite, but we'll try it from another angle. Willis, do you want to stay with Jim?’
'Willis stay with Jim.’ Willis added meditatively, ‘Warm!’
'There's the key to your charm, Jim,’ the doctor said dryly. ‘He likes your blood temperature. But
keep him with you. I don't think it will hurt him. He may live fifty years instead of a hundred, but he'll have twice as much fun.’
'Do they normally live to be a hundred?’ asked Jim.
'Who knows? We haven't been around this planet long enough to know such things. Now come on, get out. I've got work to do.’ The doctor eyed his bed thoughtfully. It had not been made in a week; he decided to let it wait until wash day.