by Robert Moore Williams:
Ronson came to the Red Planet on the strangest mission of all … he only knew he wanted to see Les Ro, but he didn’t know exactly why. It was because he knew that Les Ro had the answer to something that had never been answered before, if indeed, it had ever been asked! For Les Ro traded new lamps for old—and they were the lamps of life itself!
On Mars, the dust is yellow, and microscopically fine. With the result that it penetrates to the sensitive lung tissues of a human being, causing distress. Crossing the street toward the dive set into the towering wall of the cliff overhead, Jim Ronson sneezed violently. He wished fervidly that he might get another glimpse of what Robert Heinlein, two centuries before, had nostalgically called The Cool Green Hills of Earth, and again smell air that had no dust in it. Deep inside of him a small voice whispered that he would be very lucky if he ever saw the green hills of Earth again.
Somewhere ahead of him, in the granite core of the mountain, was something that no human had ever seen. Rumors of what was here had reached Jim Ronson. They had been sufficiently exciting to lift him out of an Earth laboratory and to bring him on a space ship to Mars, feverishly sleep-learning the Martian language as he made the hop, to investigate what might be here in this granite mountain near the south pole of the Red Planet. Some Martians knew what was here. In Mars Port, Ronson had talked to one who obviously knew. But the Martian either could not or would not tell what he knew.
Across the street, squatting against the wall, were a dozen Martians. One was segregated from the rest. They watched the human get out of the dothar drawn cart that had brought him from the jet taxi that had landed on the sand outside this village, pay his fare, and come toward them. Taking a half-hitch around his courage, Ronson moved past them. He glanced down at the one sitting apart from the rest, then averted his eyes, unease and discomfort rising in him. The Martian was a leper. Ronson forced himself to look again. The sores were clearly visible, the eyes were dull and apathetic, without hope. As if some of the leper’s hopelessness were communicated to him, Ronson felt a touch of despair. In this place, if the rumors were true, how could there be a leper? How—He paused as one of the Martians squatting on the sidewalk rose to bar his way.
On the Red Planet, humans were strictly on their own. If they got themselves into trouble, no consular agent was available to help them. If they got killed, no representative of Earth law came to ask why or to bring the killers to human justice. No amount of argument or persuasion on the part of delegates from Earth had ever produced a treaty guaranteeing the lives or even the safety of humans who went beyond the limits of Mars Port. The Martians simply could not see any reason for protecting these strange creatures who had come uninvited across space. Let humans look out for themselves!
The Martian who rose in front of Ronson was big and looked mean. Four knives hung from the belt circling his waist. Ronson did not doubt that the fellow could stab very expertly with the knives or that he could throw them with the accuracy of a bullet within a range of thirty feet. In the side pocket of the heavy dothar-skin coat that he wore, Ronson had a zen gun which he had purchased before leaving Mars Port. The little weapon threw an explosive bullet guaranteed to change forever the mind of any human or any Martian who got in the way of it. Ronson did not doubt that he could draw and fire the gun before the Martian could use one of the knives but he also knew that he did not want to start a fight here in the street. What was inside the mountain was too important to risk.
“Happy wind time,” Ronson said. This greeting was good manners anywhere on Mars. He bowed to the Martian. As he bowed, the fellow snatched his hat, held it aloft as a trophy.
Laughter echoed through the watching Martians. Only the leper was unmoved. The Martian put the hat on his own head, where it sank down over his ears. He wiggled his scalp and the hat danced. The laughter grew stronger.
Ronson kept his temper. “I’ll take my hat back,” he said, politely.
“Ho!” the Martian said. “Try and get it.”
“I want my hat back,” Ronson said, a little less politely. Inside, he was coming to a boil. Like a stupid child, this Martian was playing a silly game. To them, this was fun. To the human, it was not fun. A wrong move on his part, or even no move, and they might be on him like wolves, endangering the purpose that had brought him here. Or had Les Ro, catching wind somehow of his visit, set these stupid creatures across his path? At the thought, the anger rising inside of him became a feeling of cold.
Another squatting Martian rose. “I’ll take his coat,” the second one announced.
A third was rising. “Me for his breeks!”