By S. A. Lombino
Only one question seemed important in this huge space venture:
Who was flying where?
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, May 1952
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The only sound was the swish of the jets against the sand as the bigship came down. Slowly, nose pointed skyward, a yellow tail streamingout behind the tubes, it settled to the ground like a cat nuzzling itshaunches against a velvet pillow.
Dave Langley peered through the viewport.
"I feel kind of funny," he said.
A tremor of excitement flooded through Cal Manners' thin frame. "Mars,"he whispered. "We made it."
Gently, the fins probed the sand, poking into it. Cal cut the power andthe big ship shuddered and relaxed, a huge metal spider with a conicalhead.
Cal peered through the viewport, his eyes scanning the planet. Behindhim, Dave shrugged into a space suit, gathered up his instruments.
"I'll make the tests," Dave said. "Keep the starboard guns trained onme."
Cal nodded. He walked Dave to the airlock and lifted the toggles on theinner hatch. Dave stepped into the small chamber, and Cal snapped thehatch shut.
He walked quickly to the starboard guns, wiggled into the plastic seatbehind them and pitched his shoulders against the braces. Outside, likea grotesque balloon, Dave stumbled around on weighted feet, taking hisreadings.
What's out there? Cal wondered. Just exactly what?
He tightened his grip on the big blasters, and trained the guns aroundto where Dave puttered in the sand. Dave suddenly stood erect, waved atCal, and started lumbering back toward the ship. Cal left the guns andwent to the airlock. He stepped into the chamber closed the toggles onthe hatch behind him, and twirled the wheel on the outer hatch. He wasready to move back into the ship again when Dave stepped through theouter hatch, his helmet under his arm.
"It's okay, Cal. Breathable atmosphere. And the pressure is all right,too."
Cal let out a sigh of relief. "Come on," he said. "Get out of thatmonkey suit. Then we'll claim the planet for Earth."
They went back into the ship, and Dave took off the suit, hanging itcarefully in its locker. Both men strapped on holsters and drew stunguns from the munitions locker. They checked the charges in theirweapons, holstered them, and stepped out into the Martian night.
It was cold, but their clothing was warm and the air was invigorating.Cal looked up at the sky.
"Phobos," he said, pointing.
"And Deimos," Dave added.
"Ike and Mike."
"Yeah." Dave smiled.
"How do you feel, Dave?" Cal asked suddenly.
"How do you mean?"
"Mars. I mean, we're the first men to land on Mars. The first, Dave!"
They were walking aimlessly, in no particular hurry.
"It's funny," Dave said. "I told you before. I feel kind of—"
The music started abruptly, almost exploded into being, tore throughthe silence of the planet like the strident scream of a woundedanimal. Trumpets blasted raucously, trombones moaned and slid, bassdrums pounded a steady tattoo. Tubas, heavy and solemn like old menbelching. Clarinets, shrill and squealing. Cymbals clashing.
A military band blaring its march into the night.
Dave's mouth hung open. He stared into the distance.
There were lights, and the brass gleamed dully. A group of men weremarching toward them, blowing on their horns, waving brilliant bannersin the air.
"People," Cal said.
"And music. Like ours. Music just like ours."
The procession spilled across the sand like an unravelling spool ofbrightly colored silk. Children danced on the outskirts of the group,hopping up and down, screaming in glee. Women waved banners, sang alongwith the band. And the music shouted out across the sand, a triumphalmarch with a lively beat.
A fat man led the procession. He was beaming, his smile a greatenamelled gash across his face. The music became louder, closer,ear-shattering now.
"Welcome," the shouts rang out. "Welcome."
"English!" The word escaped Dave's lips in a sudden hiss. "For God'ssake, Cal, they're speaking English."
"Something's wrong," Cal said tightly. "This isn't Mars. We've made amistake, Dave."
The fat man was closer now, still grinning, his stomach protruding, agold watch hanging across his vest beneath his jacket. He wore a whitecarnation in his buttonhole. A homburg, black, was perched solidly atophis head.
"They're human," Dave whispered.
The fat man stopped before them, raised his hands. The music ceased asabruptly as it had begun. He stepped forward and extended his hand.
"Welcome home," he said.
Welcome home! The words seared across Cal's mind with suddenunderstanding.
"There's some mistake ..." he started.
"Mistake?" The fat man chuckled. "Nonsense, nonsense. I am MayorPanley. You're back in New Calleth, gentlemen. The city is yours. Theworld is yours! Welcome home."
"You don't understand," Cal persisted. "We've just come from Earth.We've just travelled more than 50,000,000 miles through space. We'refrom Earth."
"I know," the mayor said, "I know."
"But of course. Isn't it wonderful?"
The crowd cheered behind him, telling the night how wonderful it was.
Cal blinked, turned to Dave. The mayor put his arms about the two men."We've been watching your approach for weeks. I'll have to admit wewere a little worried in the beginning."
The mayor began chuckling again. "Why yes, yes. Not that we didn'tthink you'd make it. But there were some who ... ahh, here are thetelevision trucks now."
The trucks wheeled across the sand, just like the thousands of trucksCal had seen back on Earth. The television cameras pointed down atthem, and the men stood behind them with earphones on.
"Smile. Smile," the mayor whispered.
Cal smiled. Dave smiled, too.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Mayor Panley said to the cameras, "It is thedistinct honor of New Calleth...."
The crowd raised their voices, drowning out his voice. The bannerswaved, yellow, red, blue, orange. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
"... the distinct honor of New Calleth to be able to welcome home BobbyGalus and Gary Dale."
"Galus! Dale!" the voices sang, "Galus! Dale!"
"Just a second," Cal interrupted. "You don't understand at all. Thosearen't our...."
"Four years in space," the mayor continued, "four years among thestars. To Earth and back, fellow citizens, for the glory of Mars."
"You've got that twisted," Cal said. "We didn't...."
The mayor took Cal's elbow and turned him toward the cameras.
"You were in space for four years, weren't you Captain Galus?"
"Yes, we were. But it wasn't...."
"Space!" the mayor gushed. "Limitless space. The first men to land onEarth."
Again the cries of the crowd split the night.
"Across the stretches of sky," the mayor continued. "Across theunchartered wilderness above, across the...."
There were banquets and more banquets, and women of every size andshape. The city of New Calleth went all out to welcome the spacetravellers. Bobby Galus and Gary Dale.
At the end of a week of festivity, the mayor came to Cal and Dave.
"Have you enjoyed your stay, boys?" he asked.
"It was swell," Cal said, "but you've got things all...."
"I was wondering when you planned on leaving for the capitol. Don'tmisunderstand me. We'd like you to stay as long as you want to, but...."
"For God's sake," Cal snapped, "will you please listen to me?"
Mayor Panley was visibly shaken. "Why, of course, Captain Galus. Ofcourse. Why, certainly."
He lapsed into silence.
"I'm not Bobby Galus," Cal said. "And this isn't Gary Dale."
The mayor nodded his head. "You're ... not ... Galus and Dale," he saidslowly.
"That's right," Cal said. "We didn't go to Earth. We came from there.This is the first time we've ever been on Mars. Do you understand?We're Earthmen."
"Earthmen?" The mayor considered this for a second and then burst outlaughing. "Why, that's preposterous. Absolutely preposterous!" Hislaugh rose in volume to a bellow. "Oh, you're joking. I should haveknown. You're only joking."
"We're not joking. This is all some kind of a horrible mistake. We'rethe first men to land on Mars. You've got to understand that," Davepleaded.
The mayor was still laughing. He walked to the door and opened it. "Allright, boys, have your little joke. You've earned the right to it. I'llmake arrangements for you to leave for Dome City in the morning." Heshook his head and chuckled again. "Earthmen. Tch-tch." And then he wasgone.
They sat alone in the hotel room. It looked like any Earth hotel they'dever been in. A big soft bed. A wall telephone. Two dressers. Twoarmchairs. A big mirror over one of the dressers. A television set onthe other dresser.
"This is screwy," Dave said. "Is it possible we're back on Earth? Is itpossible the joke is on us? Maybe everyone is just ribbing us. Maybewe've been going around in circles for four years. Maybe...."
"No," Cal said. "We're on Mars all right. I don't know exactly how toexplain it, but I've got an idea."
"What's that?" Dave asked.
Cal shrugged. "Probably all wrong, of course. But it has something todo with comparable development of cultures on different planets."
"You mean Mars is in exactly the same state of development as Earth?"
"Something like that. You know the theory. Give two different placesthe same materials to start with, and their cultures will run parallelto each other for the rest of their existence."
"Sure," Dave said. "But these guys Galus and Dale. How the hell couldwe possibly be mistaken for them?"
"I don't know." Cal leaned back on the bed and stared at the ceiling."Maybe we'll find out in Dome City."
"Maybe," Dave repeated hollowly.
The president of the planet greeted their ship in Dome City. There weremore parades, banners, bands, banquets, reporters, cameras, confetti,women, speeches, presentations.
And at last, they stood before the President's desk, two bodyguardsstanding on either side of him. He was a thin man, slightly balding,with rimless glasses.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I don't have to tell you how pleased I am."
Cal took a deep breath. "We've been trying to tell Mayor Panley," hesaid, "that we are not Galus and Dale."
The President smiled. "I know. He told me of your little joke."
"It's not a joke."
The President cocked an eyebrow. "No?" He looked at his bodyguards."Has space affec ... did you feel any ill effects in space?" he asked.
Cal grimaced. "Oh great! Now he thinks we're psycho. Look, can't youget this through your heads? We are from Earth. We never heard ofGalus and Dale. My name is Calvin Manners, and this is David Langley."
"Very interesting," the President said. He tapped his finger on theback of his other hand and stared at the two Earthmen.
He reached over toward the intercom on his desk then and pressed abutton.
"Yes?" a woman's voice asked.
"Miss Daniels, will you bring in the photos of Capt. Galus and Lt.Dale, please?"
The President turned to the two men again. "Those are your ranks, arethey not?"
"Yes, but we're in the United States Army."
"The United States Army. The United States is a country on Earth."
"Really? Now we're getting somewhere. What else does Earth have? Whatis it like? Are the inhabitants intelligent?"
"Yes, we are. We're Earthmen, can't you understand that?"
"I think you're carrying this joke a little too far, gentlemen. A jokeis a joke, but we've spent millions of dollars on your trip. Really,this is no time for banter."
Cal opened his mouth, ready to protest, just as the outside door swungwide. An attractive blonde in a smart suit stepped into the room andwalked to the President's desk. She kept her eyes glued to the twoEarthmen, dropped two large photographs on the desk, and turned. Shestared over her shoulder at Cal and Dave until she was gone.
The President smiled knowingly. "The women are falling all over youtwo, I imagine."
"We're both married," Cal said drily. "We don't care for all this...."
"Married?" The President was shocked. "I thought we'd distinctlychosen unmarried men for the job. Strange."
"We've got wives on Earth," Dave said.
"Ah-ha," the President said. "Then they are intelligent beings. Pity,pity."
A twinge of anticipation curled up Cal's spine. "Pity? Why a pity? Whydo you say that?"
"Well, you know. Surely you realized this was the only flight we couldafford."
"For the meantime, anyway. We may attempt another flight in fiftyyears, sixty perhaps, maybe more. But you've already proved spacetravel, Capt. Galus. The achievement is ours. All we need now is moneyto...."
"Damn it, I'm not Capt. Galus," Cal shouted. "And we've got to get backto Earth. I've got a kid, Mr. President. He's six years old and...."Cal stopped abruptly. "Oh, this is all nonsense. Why am I arguing withyou? Can't you understand that we are Earthmen?