I, Captain Daniel J. Hanley, chief meteorologist of the General Rocket Corporation, had no intention of going to Mars when I stepped into the new space car and pressed gently but with finality on the gravity-screen lever.
I was conscious only of a great urge to get as far away as possible from a certain young woman who had—but why go into details about that? It is enough that I didn't fully realize what I was doing.
And as a result, here I was, the first man ever to pass beyond the stratosphere of Earth, actually hovering a scant mile above a Martian landscape, trembling with suppressed excitement and giving not a thought to the girl who had driven me to my mad, premature plunge into space.
I faced infinity with reckless abandon, and found that I liked it. What did it matter if the end came in a day, week, or month? Why, there were no days, weeks, or months in interplanetary space! Only eternal, blazing noon on one side of my tiny craft and everlasting midnight on the other, while countless galaxies gleamed upon me in new glory from all sides.
That I landed on Mars, instead of some other planet, was due solely to chance. In hurling my tiny craft madly, blindly away from Earth I happened to set it on an orbit that brought it closer to Mars than to any other heavenly body. As I drew nearer, the planet grew in size and in interest, until it entirely filled the great lens of my wide-angle scope. Its mountain ranges and peculiar canals became plainly visible.
I manipulated my rocket blasts a bit and swung closer. There was no indication that the canals were man-made. Rather they seemed furrows caused by glancing blows of meteors. And there were many craters which, though small like those of the moon, appeared to be the result of head-on meteoric impact.
As the planet grew still larger, I could see that there were no oceans and continents in the sense that we know them on Earth. Nevertheless, the divisions between the ice caps, polar seas, solid vegetation belts, canal-irrigated sections, and finally the vast and eternally dry, red equatorial belt, were clear and sharp. The northern and southern hemispheres, widely divided by this belt, seemed duplicates.
"Why not inspect the planet at close range?" I asked myself.
So here I was, easing down over a countryside such as no man of Earth had ever seen.
Through the forward port I gazed upon a country of scrubby, dwarfed, cactus-like trees and shrubs, stretching away drably to where a ribbon of water—one of these much discussed "canals" sparkled. To my left, toward the equatorial belt, the vegetation became more dwarfed and sparse, until its pale, yellow-green blended into the deeper, reddish tint of the arid desert.
To my right, a rolling plain swelled into distant hills heavily covered with the yellow-green foliage. On the horizon, a range of gaunt, jagged mountains flashed and shimmered like crystal in the pale, cool sunlight.
"Quartz!" I muttered. "They must be pure quartz!"
I brought my craft gently down on the bank of the little river that meandered along the "canal" or valley. With trembling fingers I opened the valve of one of the test chambers and watched the pressure gauge.
I had feared an uncomfortably rare air, but the gauge registered a pressure no less than that of mountainous regions at home. There was more carbon dioxide and more hydrogen, but the oxygen content was about the same as on Earth! I could leave my little metal shell and walk around on a new planet!
Excited, I threw back the hatch at the top of my little hemispherical craft and leaped out joyously. I landed, not where I expected-but fifteen or twenty feet beyond. I had forgotten that I would weigh only about a third as much as on Earth.
But with a little practice, I found I could gauge my muscular effort instinctively to the desired distance. It was a delightful amusement, leaping twenty-five or thirty feet with the effort of an eight or ten foot jump. But finally I gave some consideration to my position.
"And now," I told myself, "here I am on an utterly strange planet. I have no idea what dangers I may have to face. I don't know whether intelligent beings live here or, if they do, what their attitude toward me might be. It might be just as well to have an ace in the hole. I'll hide my ship, mark the spot well, and then if by any chance things should get too hot for me, I'll have the means in reserve to do a fade-out."
I studied the banks of the stream. Obviously the little river was at high-water mark. That was good. There would be no more powerful current than this to wash my ship away then, for it was my intention to sink her in the middle of the stream.
Again I climbed aboard, closed the hatch. Letting my space car drift a few feet above the water, I maneuvered over the center of the stream and then submerged. The ship went about ten feet below the surface. I had previously unloaded the equipment I meant to use, so nothing remained but to put everything in order, enter the airlock, adjust the pressure, and dive down and out through the port.
I realized, as I donned my woolen shirt, leather breeches and puttees, that the sun did not shed as much warmth on Mars as on Earth. It seemed scarcely more than half the size to which I was accustomed. As I rolled up my blankets, I had little doubt I would need them after nightfall.
As yet I had seen no sign of animal life. But there were many spots on Earth where a visitor would find none for miles. So that proved nothing. I strapped a heavy automatic to my thigh, clasped on a cartridge belt. As an extra precaution, I slipped a smaller automatic in a shoulder holster which I put on under my shirt. For the rest, I thought, my hunting knife and short-handled axe might prove serviceable.
Marking the position of my submerged spacecraft by carefully sighting the distant mountain peaks on crossed lines, I shouldered my light pack and hiked toward the gleaming, flashing mountain range.
It was glorious to weigh no more than about sixty pounds, and yet have muscles that had been accustomed to carrying one hundred seventy. Walking did not give them the exercise they demanded after the long period cooped up in the little space ship, so I ran with exhilarating lightness, practicing long and high leaps as I went and shouting, at times, from sheer, unrestrained joy.
I had gone about five miles when I first saw her.
The scrubby undergrowth had given way to another cactus-like type of vegetation, the trees of Mars, slim and tall with stubby, blunt branches. They bore no leaves. Rather, both trunks and branches seemed to be leaves in themselves, pale yellow-green and semi-transparent. A thin syrupy sap ran freely from one, which I scored with my axe.
The sudden flash of a movement somewhere ahead of me arrested my eye. Abruptly I halted, standing motionless, alert. I saw nothing but the yellow-green trees. I shifted my axe to my left hand. Quietly my right fist rested on the butt of my automatic. I advanced, poised for instant action.
From somewhere ahead came a metallic twang. I ducked. A heavy missile thudded into the trunk of a tree directly behind me. Then a girl stepped confidently forth, about twenty feet away.
Evidently she thought she had hit me, for her first reaction was to start back at the sight of me standing there. Hastily she dropped the four-foot tube she held in her hand, and in something like a panic, tugged at a kind of quiver or a sheath slung across her shoulder until she held another tube pointed straight at me. For some moments we stood motionless, gazing at each other in amazement.
I had rather expected to find life of some sort on Mars, and was even hoping to find intelligent creatures of some sort. But to find a pretty, golden-haired Amazon, in green kilts, soft leather leggings and loose, sleeveless blouse that did not by any means conceal her slender form—well, that took my breath away!