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I’ve been involved in the exploration of space for two years longer than NASA.

I became a space enthusiast when I was in junior high school and made my first visit to the Fels Planetarium, in Philadelphia. I got hooked on the grandeur and mystery of the vast starry universe. So much so that I began to read everything I could about exploring space. This got me interested in the fields of astronomy and astronautics.

I also found that there were fictional stories about going to the Moon and Mars and other worlds in space. That’s how I discovered science fiction.

When the United States announced that it would attempt to place an artificial satellite in orbit, I jumped from newspaper reporting to the company that was building the launching rocket. I became a technical editor on Project Vanguard in 1956. Then came Sputnik, the Space Race, and the creation of NASA in 1958.

Most of the fiction I’ve written about space exploration and development has been based as solidly as possible on the known facts. When I write about factories on the Moon, you can depend on the accuracy of the physical facts. When I wrote my novel Mars, I made it as realistic as humanly possible.

A couple of years ago, however, while I was writing an essay about the history of our exploration of Mars, I was struck by a wave of nostalgia.

Back when I was sitting in the darkened dome of the Fels Planetarium, there were still arguments raging about whether or not Mars actually was crisscrossed with canals. Most professional astronomers said no, but there were enough dissenters to allow dreamers (like me) to hope that perhaps there truly were intelligent engineers on Mars, desperately struggling to bring water from the polar ice caps to the desert cities of the planet.

Well, the pitiless advance of knowledge squelched those dreams. No canals on Mars. No cities. No intelligent Martians.

But as I sat thinking about my youthful dreams, it occurred to me that the solar system was much more interesting back before NASA started exploring it. Not only could we imagine intelligent, canal-building Martians, but there was the possibility that Venus was a steaming Mesozoic jungle beneath its perpetual cover of clouds.

Just for fun, I started tinkering with a story in which my teenaged view of the solar system was right, and NASA’s data was all wrong.

Again, the bare idea was not enough to make a story. I had to figure out why NASA and the scientific establishment were feeding us wrong information. And who might be hurt by this conspiracy.

Or helped.

“I’M NOT EXACTLY SURE WHY,” said Roy Huggins. “When I asked for another eye checkup, they sent me here.”

“To see me,” said Professor Schmidt, chuckling a bit.

“Yessir,” Huggins replied. He was totally serious; he did not even notice the professor’s little pun.

A silence fell over them. The athletically slim Huggins, sandy-haired and boyish-looking in his sweatshirt and jeans, seemed quite honestly puzzled. Herb Schmidt, chairman of the astronomy department, was a chunky, white-bearded Santa even down to the twinkle in his baby blue eyes. A Santa in a dark three-piece suit, sitting behind a desk covered with thick reports and scattered memos heaped high like snowdrifts.

The professor eased back in his creaking old swivel chair and studied his student thoughtfully. 

How many times had they met in this stuffy little office? Ever since Huggins had taken his first class in astronomy, back when he’d been an undergraduate. Now the boy had turned into a man: a youthful, vigorous man with a fine intelligent mind that had been sharply honed.

Was he enough of a man to accept the truth? And to keep the secret? The next few minutes would decide.

“Why were you having your eyes checked?” the professor asked innocently.

Huggins had to clear his throat before he could answer, “I seem to be . . . well, seeing things that aren’t there.”

“Ghosts?” asked the professor smiling to show he did not mean it. “Elvis Presley, perhaps?”

The younger man shook his head. “At the telescope,” he said in a low, unhappy voice.

“Let me see now.” Schmidt made a pretense of searching through the papers scattered across his desk. “Your time at the facility is on . . .” He let the sentence hang.

“Mars,” Huggins whispered. “I’ve been observing Mars.”

Schmidt had known that all along. He stopped leafing through the papers and leaned back in his chair again, lacing his fingers together over his ample belly.

“Mars, eh?”

“I see—” Huggins swallowed again, “—canals.”

“Canals?” the professor echoed.

“Well . . . markings. I—I checked with some of the maps that Lowell drew—just as a lark, you know.”

“Percival Lowell? Way back then?”

Huggins’ answer came out as a tortured moan. “They match. My drawings match Lowell’s almost perfectly. A whole network of canals, all across the face of Mars.”

“But the photos you’ve taken don’t show any canals. I’ve seen your photographic work.”

“There aren’t any canals on Mars!” Huggins blurted. “You know that! I know that! We’ve sent spacecraft probes to Mars, and they proved there are no canals there! Lowell was crazy!”

“He was—enthusiastic. That’s a kinder word.”

Huggins nodded unhappily and chewed on a fingernail.

Schmidt heaved a big sigh. “I can see why you’re upset. But it’s not so bad. So you’ve got a problem with your eyesight. That doesn’t matter so much nowadays, what with all the electronics—”

“There’s nothing wrong with my eyes! I can see perfectly well. I had an eye test back home during the Thanksgiving break and I checked out twenty-twenty.”

“Yet you see nonexistent canals.”

Huggins’ brief flare of anger withered. “It’s not my eyes. I think maybe it’s my mind. Maybe I’m having hallucinations.”

The professor realized the game had gone far enough. No sense tormenting the poor fellow any further.

“There’s nothing wrong with your mind, my boy. Just as there is nothing wrong with your eyes.”

“But I see canals! On Mars!”

Stroking his snow-white beard, Schmidt replied, “I think it was Sherlock Holmes who pointed out that when you have eliminated all the possible answers, then the impossible answer is the correct one. Or was it Arthur Clarke?”

Huggins blinked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Did you ever stop to think that perhaps there really are canals on Mars?”

“Wha—what are you saying?”

“I am saying that Mars is crisscrossed by an elaborate system of canals built by the solar system’s finest engineers to bring precious water to the Martian cities and farmlands.”

Half-rising from his chair, Huggins pointed an accusing finger at his professor. “You’re humoring me. You think I’m crazy, and you’re humoring me.”

“Not at all, my boy. Sit down and relax. I am about to entrust you with a great and wonderful secret.”

Huggins plopped back into the chair, his eyes wide, his mouth half-open, the expression on his face somewhere between despair and expectation.

“You understand that what I am about to tell you must be kept totally secret from everyone you know. Not even that young woman you intend to marry may know it.”

The young man nodded dumbly.

Schmidt leaned his heavy forearms on his littered desk top. “In 1946,” he began, “an experimental spacecraft crash-landed in the Sonoran Desert of New Mexico. Contrary to the rumors that have arisen every now and again, the crew was not killed, and their bodies have not been kept frozen in a secret facility at some Air Force base.”

“No . . . it can’t be . . .”

Smiling broadly, the professor said, “But it is true. We have been in contact with our Martian brethren for more than half a century now—”


“A very small, very elite group. A few university dons such as myself. The tiniest handful of military officers. Four industrial leaders, at present. The group changes slightly as people die, of course. Three of our members are living on Mars at the present moment.”

“You’re crazy!”

“Am I?” Schmidt opened his top desk drawer and drew out a slim folder. From it he pulled a single photograph and handed it wordlessly to the goggle-eyed Huggins.

Who saw three figures standing in a dripping dank jungle. Only the one in the bush hat and moustache was human. They were standing in front of the enormous dead carcass of something that looked very much like a dinosaur. Each of them was holding a rifle of some unearthly design.

“Do you recognize that man?”

Huggins shook his head as he stared hard at the photograph. The man looked vaguely familiar.

“Howard Hughes, of course. Taken in 1957. On Venus.”

“Venus?” Huggins’ voice was a mouse’s squeak.

“Venus,” repeated the professor. “Underneath those clouds it’s a world of Mesozoic jungles, almost from pole to pole.”

“But Venus is a barren desert! Runaway greenhouse! Surface temperature hot enough to melt lead!”

“That’s all a bit of a subterfuge, I’m afraid,” said Schmidt. “Just as our erasure of the Martian canal network. A necessary deception.”

“What . . . why?”

Schmidt’s expression grew serious. “When the first Martians landed, back in ’46, it quickly became clear to those of us privileged to meet them that Mars was ahead of the Earth technologically—not very far ahead. A century, perhaps. Perhaps only a few decades.”

“How can that be?”

Ignoring his question, the professor went on, “They needed our help. Their own natural resources were dwindling at an alarming rate, despite their heroic efforts of engineering. And conservation, too, I might add.”

“They came to take over the Earth?”

“Nonsense! Pulp-magazine twaddle! Their ethical beliefs would not allow them to step on a beetle. They came to beg for our help.”

Huggins felt a tiny stab of guilt at his fear-filled gut reaction.

“It was obvious,” Schmidt went on, “that the Martians were in desperate straits. It was even more obvious to the tiny group who had been brought together to meet our visitors that the people of Earth were not prepared to face the fact that their planetary neighbor was the home of a high and noble civilization.”

“The emotional shock would be too much for our people?” Huggins asked.

“No,” said the professor in a sad and heavy voice. “Just the opposite. The shock would be too much for the Martians. We humans are driven by fear and greed and lust, my boy. We would have ground the Martians into the dust, just as we did with the Native Americans and the Polynesians.”

Huggins looked confused. “But you said the Martians were ahead of us.”

“Technologically, yes. But by no more than a century. And ethically they are lightyears ahead of us. Most of us, that is. It is the ethical part that would have been their downfall.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Can you imagine a delicate, ethically bound Martian standing in the way of a real-estate developer? Or a packager of tourist trips? The average human politician? Or evangelist? To say nothing of most of the military. They would have been off to nuke Mars in a flash!

“The fragile Martian civilization would have been pulverized. No, we had to keep their existence a secret. It was the only decent thing to do. We had to cover up the truth, even to the point of faking data from space probes and astronomical observatories.”

“All this time . . .”

“We’ve had some close calls. The National Enquirer and those other scandal sheets keep snooping around. Every time a Martian tried to make contact with an ‘ordinary’ human being, as their ethical code insisted they should, the affair was totally misunderstood. Sensationalized by the tabloids and all that.”

“What ordinary human beings?” Huggins asked.

“You see, the Martians are not elitists. Far from it! From time to time they have tried to establish contact with farmers and sheriff’s deputies and people driving down country roads at night. You know the results. Scare headlines and ridiculous stories about abductions.”

“This is getting weird.”

But Schmidt was not listening. “We even had one writer stumble onto the truth, back in the late forties. Someone named Burberry or Bradbury or something like that. We had to wipe his memory.”

“My god!”

“It wasn’t entirely effective. We’ve learned how to do it better since then.”

“Is that what you’re going to do to me? Wipe out my memory?”

Leaning back in his chair again, Schmidt resumed his beneficent Santa expression. “I don’t think we’ll have to. We recruit only a very, very few young men and women. I have believed for some time that you have what it takes to be one of us.”

“What does that mean—being one of you?”

Positively beaming at his student, Schmidt answered, “It means helping the Martians to use the abundant resources of Venus to maintain their own civilization. It means helping the people of Earth to gradually grow in their ethical maturity until they can meet the Martians without destroying them.”

“That may take generations!” said Huggins.

“Centuries, more likely. It is one of the motivations behind our starting the environmental movement. If we can only get the great masses of people to treat our own planet properly we’ll be halfway to the goal of treating other worlds properly. And other people.”

“And in the meantime?”

Schmidt heaved a great sigh. “In the meantime we maintain the pretense that Mars is a barren desert, Venus is a greenhouse oven, and there’s nothing out there in space to be terribly interested in—unless you’re an egghead of a scientist.”

Huggins began to understand. “That’s why the space program was stopped after the landings on the Moon.”

“Yes,” the professor said. “A sad necessity. We’ve had to work very hard to keep the uninformed parts of the government—which is most of them—from moving our space program into high gear.”

“Can—” Huggins hesitated, then seemed to straighten his spine and asked, “May I meet the Martians?”

“Of course! Of course you can, my boy. Their representative is waiting to meet you now.”

Schmidt pulled himself up from his chair and came around the desk. “Right this way.” He gestured toward the side door of the office.

His heart hammering beneath his ribs, Huggins got up and followed his professor’s burly form.

Schmidt grasped the doorknob, then stopped and turned slightly back toward his student. “I must warn you of two things,” the professor said. “First, our Martian visitor obviously cannot run around the campus in his native form. So he has disguised himself as a human. Even so, he has to be very circumspect about allowing himself to be seen.”

A tingle of doubt shivered in the back of Huggins’ mind. “He’ll look human?”

“Completely. Of course, if you wish, he will remove his human disguise. We want you to be absolutely certain of what I’ve told you, after all.”

“I see.”

With a satisfied nod, Schmidt turned the knob and pushed the door open.

Huggins was asking, “What else did you want to warn me . . .”

Before he could finish the sentence he saw the disguised Martian sitting in the darkened little side room. Huggins’ jaw fell.

“That’s the other thing I meant to warn you about,” said Professor Schmidt. “The Martians also have a rather odd sense of humor.”

Huggins just stared. At Elvis Presley.

(With apologies to Ray Bradbury.)

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