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Duel on Syrtis

17th September 2017
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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 voice.

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 hills.

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 rested.

He didn’t laugh again. The sound had echoed too hollowly in his helmet.

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 inevitable death.

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 in again.

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 pump now—

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 air.

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 him.

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.

 

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