The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vii Part 86
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The pilot made a final check of Monk's G suit and straps. Then he clapped the industrialist on the shoulder and strode off.
Twenty minutes later, when they were ready for blast-off, a warning bell sounded throughout the s.h.i.+p.
With a deafening roar of its rocket motors, the great vessel lifted itself laboriously from the ground, squatting on flame, filling Fletcher Monk's mind with the first real sense of fear since he learned the grim facts of his ailment in Rostov's office.
Then the acceleration began, and in less than a minute, Monk knew a taste of h.e.l.l.
His vision blurred as the crus.h.i.+ng force of naked speed pasted him against the contour seat. Consciousness began to leave him, but not soon enough. For there, in the tortured imaginings of his pain-constricted brain, came the ugly black bird again, shrieking horribly and perching itself on his chest. Its huge claws raked his ribs, and its dripping beak fastened itself on his throat. Now he recognized the species for what it was: a vulture, a bird of prey, unwilling to be robbed of its Earth victim; trying to pinion him to the planet with the strength of its anger. Its great wings flapped, flapped, flapped, beating against his body, flooding it with unrelieved anguish-- Then Monk gasped.
Gone! The bird was gone! A moment's peace, a moment's peace, a moment's freedom from torment-- No! The vulture returned, bent on its evil purpose. It wouldn't be denied; it raked its razor-sharp claws across Monk's shoulder; dug its beak into his chest; flapping, flapping-- Fletcher Monk screamed.
He opened his eyes, admitted a rush of clean air gratefully into his lungs.
"It's a miracle," said Bill Christy. "Nothing more. You were in a bad way, Mr. Wheeler, but you'll be okay now."
"Thank you, thank you!" panted Fletcher Monk.
"We're well on our way now. We'll reach the Big Bird in a matter of minutes--"
"The Big Bird?" said Monk in horror.
Christy smiled. "That's what we call the s.p.a.ce Station. We'll pick up some supplies and fuel there, and then we'll take off again. But you won't have to be concerned about the acceleration on the second blast-off. You can take that easily."
"Are you sure?" said Monk anxiously.
"Positive. There won't be any gravitational pull to overcome this time. You'll be fine."
"I appreciate this, Christy. I won't forget your help."
"That's okay, Mr. Wheeler. It makes my wife happy."
"Yes." Monk felt well enough now to give the pilot a sardonic smile. "She's a wonderful girl, Diana. A wonderful girl."
"You're telling me?" said Bill Christy.
The s.p.a.ce suit that Fletcher Monk had been a.s.signed before the descent on Mars was a little tight-fitting for his comfort. He wondered what life would be like in this eternal bulky costume. But he was comforted by the picture of the Mars Colony he had received back on Earth; a labyrinth of airtight interiors, burrowing their way over and into the planet, served by gigantic oxygen tanks. The network of buildings had been expanding every year, until now it covered some hundred miles of the planet's surface. He'd spend most of his time safely indoors, he promised himself, where he wouldn't need the c.u.mbersome trappings of s.p.a.ce clothing. His life had been an indoor affair anyway, back on Earth.
The pa.s.sengers were led into the Quarantine Section, where they would spend their first three days on Mars.
It was a relief to Monk to shed the heavy s.p.a.ce-suit in the air-filled room. And it was a revelation, for with helmet and boots removed, he found himself almost floating with each step he took, moving feather-light over the ground. He was surprised, and a little unnerved at first, but then he remembered that this feeble gravitation was the preserver of his health--and he laughed aloud.
"Something funny?" said the man at the front desk. He was a young man, about thirty, but there was an ageless competence in his features.
Monk smiled. "Just feeling good, that's all." He patted the brown leather bag in his hand.
"Well, it will be listed as Wheeler...."
The official scanned the list. "Here it is. Ben Wheeler." He looked up at Monk curiously. "How old are you, Mr. Wheeler?"
"Fifty," said Monk.
"Pretty old for the Colony, aren't you, Mr. Wheeler?"
Monk smirked. "The first thing we have to do is get rid of that Wheeler business, young man. My name is Monk. Fletcher Monk."
The official looked puzzled. "I don't get it. Why the phoney name?"
"I used an alias for reasons of my own. Now I'm telling you my real name. Monk."
The man shrugged and wrote something on the manifest.
"I don't expect you to cheer," said Monk sarcastically. "But you could show some reaction."
"What does that mean?"
Monk flushed. "Don't tell me you've never heard of me. I'm Fletcher Monk. I own half of this place."
"What do you mean 'so?' My firm controls thirty percent of the mineral rights of the Colony. We s.h.i.+p you practically all of your Earth supplies. We can buy or sell this place at the drop of a quotation!"
"Listen, bud." The young man seemed annoyed. "If you're trying to impress me, forget it. And if you're threatening my job, you can take it!"
"Insolence!" Monk raged. "Who's your commanding officer? I want to see him right away!"
"My pleasure," the official grinned. "Hey, Gregorio!" he called to the man at the desk behind him. "Call Captain Moore. Gentleman here wants a word with him."
Monk took a seat while the other pa.s.sengers went through the initial formalities. He sat there, fuming, until a tall man with an untrimmed beard entered the room. He took off his helmet and spoke briefly to the young man at the front desk, then looked over at Monk and came to his side.
"Mr. Monk?" he said. "I'm Captain Moore."
"Nice to meet you, Captain. I've just had a little conversation with your official greeter." He smiled, man-to-man. "Not a very friendly chap."
"We forget a lot about manners up here," said the captain, not smiling back. "We're kept pretty busy."
"I realize that, of course," said the industrialist. "But I would expect a little common courtesy--"
"You'll earn the right to courtesy out here, Mr. Monk," the captain snapped. "The Mars Colony lives on labor, and that's our first consideration. Courtesy comes about last on our list. We're in a battle here, twenty-four hours and thirty-seven minutes a day. We've got to fight to keep alive, and we've got to wrestle with a whole new planet if we want to unearth its secrets. Courtesy is a distinct privilege on Mars, Mr. Monk."
Monk bristled. "I don't quite get your meaning, Captain," he said indignantly. "But don't expect to pull rank or a holy att.i.tude on me. In case you didn't realize it, I'm in a position to exert a great deal of influence over your little colony--and don't think I won't use it!"
The captain shrugged. "Use it," he said. "Go on. See if your influence really holds up here. Remember, Mr. Monk--you came to us of your own volition, and you can always turn around and go back."
"Impossible," said Monk, blanching. "I'm going to live here--for good."
"Then you'll have to adjust to our way," said the captain grimly. "You'll have to learn our way of doing things and cooperate a hundred percent. And the first thing you'll have to do is take a work a.s.signment--"
"Work?" Monk gasped. "Why should I? You can't force me to work for you--"
"Remember Captain John Smith, Mr. Monk? He said the same thing to his colonists that I'm going to say to you now. If you don't work--you don't eat."
"But what could I do? I'm no scientist. I'm no--"
"There's plenty to do," the captain interrupted. "And most of it is dirty, physical labor. We have a thousand minerologists, chemists, geologists, botanists, physicists, meteorologists, and a lot more technical people at work on this planet. They can use all the help they can get. Don't worry about that!"
"But I'm Fletcher Monk!" the industrialist said. "I won't go grubbing around this filthy place! You can't enslave me like some chain-gang prisoner--"
"You'll do what you have to do," said the captain, "and you'll probably even like it. There's a wonderland outside this door," he said enthusiastically. "A crazy, wild, improbable wonderland, where we never see a rain-fall, where the plants grow scarlet, and clouds chase you down the street! We're uncovering marvelous things here. We have to fight and sometimes die to do it, but frankly, we enjoy the work."
He gave Monk his first smile. "n.o.body's a prisoner on Mars, Mr. Monk. We're all volunteers."
He started to leave, but Monk stopped him.
"Wait," he said, licking his lips. "I have one more thing to say." He lowered his voice. "I can make a deal with you, Captain. A deal like you never had in your whole life." He patted the brown leather bag. "Name your price," he said. "And don't be shy about the figure."
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I'm talking about, Mr. Moore. Money. Real, hard, Earth dollars. Just name the amount it would take to buy a few small creature comforts around this place--and the right to live my own life."
"You can't buy your way out of working, mister--"
"Don't give me that! You'll sing a different tune when I tell you how much is in this bag. All you have to do is quote a figure--and it's yours!"
"Sorry, Mr. Monk," said the captain tersely.
"What do you mean by sorry?"
"I'm on a lifetime a.s.signment here, and so are practically all the members of the Colony. It's a job that can barely be completed in a lifetime. And the economy we operate under doesn't call for money. Your dollars are so much excess baggage on Mars."
"What are you talking about?" Monk rasped. "I'm offering you a fortune. Money is money, you fool!"
"You can paper the walls of your quarters with it," said the officer sharply. "See if it helps keep out the Martian cold. That's about all the usefulness it has up here."
Wildly, Fletcher Monk unlocked the bag and dipped inside. His hand came out with a fistfull of green bills. "Look!" he cried. "I'm not joking about this! Look at it! Doesn't the sight of it mean anything to you?"
"It brings back some memories," said the captain smiling. "That's about all. Now you better go back to the desk and get your quarantine instructions."
He saluted the industrialist casually, and turned away.
"Okay, Mr. Moneybags," said the young official as the captain left. "Let's get acquainted."
A year later, Captain Harlan Moore presided at the dedication of the first fully-equipped hospital erected on the planet Mars. It was an impressive affair, despite the fact that it took place in a small, crowded chamber, and that the attending a.s.semblage were still begrimed by their day's work.
When the ceremonies were completed, Captain Moore made an inspection of the new medical center, and one of his first stops was the bed-side of Fletcher Monk.
"We knew he wasn't a well man," said the young physician who stood by the bed, taking Monk's pulse. He watched as the captain picked up the chart hooked to the edge of the bed.
"Yes," said Moore. "He was a very sick man when he first came to the Colony. In more ways than one," he added.
The doctor looked perplexed. "But this illness still surprises me," he said. "I've examined him almost monthly for the past year, and frankly, I would have bet on his survival. He began to improve rapidly--physically, anyway. It might have been the lesser gravity, or the healthier life." He looked at the captain curiously. "Yet he wasn't a.s.signed to any over-strenuous duties?"
"You know he wasn't," said the captain. "We don't want anybody to undertake work they can't handle. His labor was hardly physical. He worked in the geological and botanical groups, but not in the field. He did cla.s.sifying and clerical work."
"Then that wouldn't account for the trouble--"
"Perhaps it does, in a way," The captain bent over the puffy, chalk-white face of the industrialist, listening to his shallow breathing. "He was never happy doing it. He had different ideas about himself than we did. He never understood what we were doing or why."
"It's the greatest mystery of them all," said the physician, shaking his head.
"The human body. It's incredible how much we've learned about the physical world, and even the physical features of our own construction. But there's still a mystery we haven't penetrated--"
The captain smiled. "That doesn't sound like you."
"I know," the young physician answered. "But when I see a case like this--a man breathing his life away for a reason I really can't understand--" The doctor rubbed the back of his head. "I know it's crazy, and old-fas.h.i.+oned, and doesn't make the least bit of sense in these scientific times, Captain. But if anyone were to ask me--off the record, and completely unofficially--I could only give them one honest diagnosis of this case. I think this man is dying of a broken heart."
BY GEORGE O. SMITH.
There are--and very probably will always be--some Terrestrials who can't, and for that matter don't want, to call their souls their own....
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vii Part 86
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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vii Part 86 summary
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