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They were outside, unlashing the Mars lander, when the storm blew up.

With Johnboy and Woody crowded against his shoulders, Thomas snipped the last lashing. In careful cadence, the others straightened, lifting the ends free of the lander. At Thomas’s command, they let go. The metal lashing soared away, flashing in the harsh sunlight, twisting like a wounded snake, dwindling as it fell below and behind their orbit. The lander floated free, tied to the Plowshare by a single, slim umbilicus. Johnboy wrapped a spanner around a hex-bolt over the top strut of a landing leg and gave it a spin. Like a slow, graceful spider leg, it unfolded away from the lander’s body. He slapped his spanner down on the next bolt and yanked. But he hadn’t braced himself properly, and his feet went out from under him in a slow somersault. He spun away, laughing, to the end of his umbilicus. The spanner went skimming back toward the Plowshare, struck its metal skin, and sailed off into space.

“You meatballs!” Thomas shouted over the open intercom. The radio was sharp and peppery with sun static, but he could hear Woody and Johnboy laughing. “Cut it out! No skylarking! Let’s get this done.”

“Everything okay out there?” asked Commander Redenbaugh, from inside the Plowshare. The commander’s voice had a slight edge to it, and Thomas grimaced. The last time the three of them had gone out on EVA, practicing this very maneuver, Johnboy had started to horse around and had accidentally sent a dropped lugnut smashing through the source-crystal housing, destroying the laser link to Earth. And hadn’t the commander gotten on their asses about that; NASA had been really pissed, too—with the laser link gone, they would have to depend solely on the radio, which was vulnerable to static in an active sun year like this.

It was hard to blame the others too much for cutting up a little on EVA, after long, claustrophobic months of being jammed together in the Plowshare, but the responsibility for things going smoothly was his. Out here, he was supposed to be in command. That made him feel lonely and isolated, but after all, it was what he had sweated and strived for since the earliest days of flight training. The landing party was his command, his chance for glory, and he wasn’t going to let anybody or anything ruin it.

“Everything’s okay, Commander,” Thomas said. “We’ve got the lander unshipped, and we’re almost ready to go. I estimate about twenty minutes to separation.” He spoke in the calm, matter-of-fact voice that tradition demanded, but inside he felt the excitement building again and hoped his pulse rate wasn’t climbing too noticeably on the readouts. In only a few minutes, they were going to be making the first manned landing on Mars! Within the hour, he’d be down there, where he’d dreamed of being ever since he was a boy. On Mars.

And he would be in command. How about that, Pop, Thomas thought, with a flash of irony. That good enough for you? Finally?

Johnboy had pulled himself back to the Plowshare. “Okay, then,” Thomas said dryly. “If you’re ready, let’s get back to work. You and Woody get that junk out of the lander. I’ll stay out here and mind the store.”

“Yes, sir, sir,” Johnboy said with amiable irony, and Thomas sighed. Johnboy was okay but a bit of a flake—you had to sit on him a little from time to time. Woody and Johnboy began pulling boxes out of the lander; it had been used as storage space for supplies they’d need on the return voyage, to save room in Plowshare. There were jokes cracked about how they ought to let some of the crates of flash-frozen glop that NASA straightfacedly called food escape into space, but at last, burdened with boxes, the two space-suited figures lumbered to the air lock and disappeared inside.

Thomas was alone, floating in space.

You really were alone out here, too, with nothing but the gaping immensity of the universe surrounding you on all sides. It was a little scary, but at the same time something to savor after long months of being packed into the Plowshare with three other men. There was precious little privacy aboard ship—out here, alone, there was nothing but privacy. Just you, the stars, the void . . . and, of course, Mars.

Thomas relaxed at the end of his tether, floating comfortably, and watched as Mars, immense and ruddy, turned below him like some huge, slow-spinning, rusty-red top. Mars! Lazily, he let his eyes trace the familiar landmarks. The ancient dead-river valley of Kasei Vallis, impact craters puckering its floor . . . the reddish brown and gray of haze and frost in Noctis Labyrinthus, the Labyrinth of Night . . . the immense scar of the Vallis Marineris, greatest of canyons, stretching two-thirds of the way around the equator . . . the great volcanic constructs in Tharsis . . . and there, the Chryse Basin, where soon they would be walking.

Mars was as familiar to him as the streets of his hometown—more so, since his family had spent so much time moving from place to place when he was a kid. Mars had stayed a constant, though. Throughout his boyhood, he had been obsessed with space and with Mars in particular . . . as if he’d somehow always known that one day he’d be here, hanging disembodied like some ancient god over the slowly spinning red planet below. In high school he had done a paper on Martian plate tectonics. When he was only a gangly grade-school kid, ten or eleven, maybe, he had memorized every available map of Mars, learned every crater and valley and mountain range.

Drowsily, his thoughts drifted even further back, to that day in the attic of the old house in Wrightstown, near McGuire Air Force Base—the sound of jets taking off mingling with the lazy Saturday afternoon sounds of kids playing baseball and yelling, dogs barking, lawn mowers whirring, the rusty smell of pollen coming in the window on the mild, spring air—when he’d discovered an old, dog-eared copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

He’d stayed up there for hours reading it while the day passed unnoticed around him, until the light got so bad that he couldn’t see the type anymore. And that night he’d surreptitiously read it in bed, under the covers with a pencil flashlight, until he’d finally fallen asleep, his dreams reeling with giant, four-armed green men, thoats, zitidars, long-sword-swinging heroes, and beautiful princesses . . . the Twin Cities of Helium . . . the dead sea bottoms lit by the opalescent light of the two hurtling moons . . . the nomad caverns of the Tharks, the barbaric riders draped with glittering jewels and rich riding silks. For an instant, staring down at Mars, he felt a childish disappointment that all of that really wasn’t waiting down there for him after all, and then he smiled wryly at himself. Never doubt that those childhood dreams had power—after all, one way or another, they’d gotten him here, hadn’t they?

Right at that moment the sandstorm began to blow up.

It blew up from the hard-pan deserts and plains and as Thomas watched in dismay, began to creep slowly across the planet like a tarp being pulled over a work site. Down there, winds moving at hundreds of kilometers per hour were racing across the Martian surface, filling the sky with churning, yellow-white clouds of sand. A curtain storm.

“You see that, Thomas?” the commander’s voice asked in Thomas’s ears.

“Yeah,” Thomas said glumly. “I see it.”

“Looks like a bad one.”

Even as they watched, the storm slowly and relentlessly blotted out the entire visible surface of the planet. The lesser features went first, the scarps and rills and stone fields, then the greater ones. The polar caps went. Finally even the top of Olympus Mons—the tallest mountain in the solar system—disappeared.

“Well, that’s it,” the commander said sadly. “Socked in. No landing today.”

“Son of a bitch!” Thomas exploded, feeling his stomach twist with disappointment and sudden rage. He’d been so close . . .

“Watch your language, Thomas,” the commander warned. “This is an open channel.” Meaning that we mustn’t shock the Vast Listening Audience Back Home. Oh, horrors, certainly not.

“If it’d just waited a couple more hours, we would have been able to get down there—”

“You ought to be glad it didn’t,” the commander said mildly. “Then you’d have been sitting on your hands down there with all that sand piling up around your ears. The wind can hit one hundred forty miles an hour during one of those storms. I’d hate to have to try to sit one out on the ground. Relax, Thomas. We’ve got plenty of time. As soon as the weather clears, you’ll go down. It can’t last forever.”

Five weeks later, the storm finally died.

Those were hard weeks for Thomas, who was as full of useless energy as a caged tiger. He had become over-aware of his surroundings; of the pervasive, sour human smell; of the faintly metallic taste of the air. It was like living in a jungle-gym factory, all twisting pipes and narrow, cluttered passages, enclosed by metal walls that were never out of sight. For the first time during the long months of the mission, he began to feel seriously claustrophobic.

But the real enemy was time. Thomas was acutely aware that the inexorable clock of celestial mechanics was ticking relentlessly away . . . that soon the optimal launch window for the return journey to Earth would open and that they must shape for Earth then or never get home at all. Whether the storm had lifted yet or not, whether they had landed on Mars or not, whether Thomas had finally gotten a chance to show off his own particular righteous stuff or not, when the launch window opened, they had to go.

They had less than a week left in Mars orbit now, and still the sandstorm raged.

The waiting got on everyone’s nerves. Thomas found Johnboy’s manic energy particularly hard to take. Increasingly, he found himself snapping at Johnboy during meals and “happy hour,” until eventually the commander had to take him aside and tell him to loosen up. Thomas muttered something apologetic, and the commander studied him shrewdly and said, “Plenty of time left, old buddy. Don’t worry. We’ll get you down there yet!” The two men found themselves grinning at each other. Commander Redenbaugh was a good officer; a quiet, pragmatic New Englander who seemed to become ever more phlegmatic and unflappable as the tension mounted and everyone else’s nerves frayed. Johnboy habitually called him Captain Ahab. The commander seemed rather to enjoy the nickname, which was one of the few things that suggested that there might actually be a sense of humor lurking somewhere behind his deadpan façade.

The commander gave Thomas’s arm an encouraging squeeze, then launched himself toward the communications console. Thomas watched him go, biting back a sudden bitter surge of words that he knew he’d never say . . . not up here, anyway, where the walls literally had ears. Ever since Skylab, astronauts had flown with the tacit knowledge that everything they said in the ship was being eavesdropped on and evaluated by NASA. Probably before the day was out somebody back in Houston would be making a black mark next to his name in a psychological-fitness dossier, just because he’d let the waiting get on his nerves to the point where the commander had had to speak to him about it. But damn it, it was easier for the rest—they didn’t have the responsibility of being NASA’s token Nigger in the Sky, with all the white folks back home waiting and watching to see how you were going to fuck up. He’d felt like a third wheel on the way out here—Woody and the commander could easily fly the ship themselves and even take care of most of the routine schedule of experiments—but the landing party was supposed to be his command, his chance to finally do something other than be the obligatory black face in the NASA photos of Our Brave Astronauts. He remembered his demanding, domineering, hard-driving father saying to him hundreds of times in his adolescent years, “It’s a white man’s world out there. If you’re going to make it, you got to show that you’re better than any of them. You got to force yourself down their throats, make them need you. You got to be twice as good as any of them . . ” Yeah, Pop, Thomas thought, you bet, Pop . . . thinking, as he always did, of the one and only time he’d ever seen his father stinking, slobbering, falling-down drunk, the night the old man had been passed over for promotion to brigadier general for the third time, forcing him into mandatory retirement. First they got to give you the chance, Pop, he thought, remembering, again as he always did, a cartoon by Ron Cobb that he had seen when he was a kid and that had haunted him ever since: a cartoon showing black men in space suits on the moon—sweeping up around the Apollo 58 campsite.

“We’re losing Houston again,” Woody said. “I jes cain’t keep the signal.” He turned a dial, and the voice of Mission Control came into the cabin, chopped up and nearly obliterated by a hissing static that sounded like dozens of eggs frying in a huge iron skillet. “. . . read? . . . not read you . . . Plowshare . . . losing . . .” Sunspot activity had been unusually high for weeks, and just a few hours before. NASA had warned them about an enormous solar flare that was about to fold half the solar system with radio noise. Even as they listened, the voice was completely drowned out by static; the hissing noise kept getting louder and louder. “Weh-ayl,” Woody said glumly, “that does it. That solar flare’s screwing everything up. If we still had the laser link”—here he flashed a sour look at Johnboy, who had the grace to look embarrassed—“we’d be okay, I guess, but without it . . . weh-ayl, shit, it could be days before reception clears up. Weeks, maybe.”

Irritably, Woody flipped a switch, and the hissing static noise stopped. All four men were silent for a moment, feeling their suddenly increased isolation. For months, their only remaining contact with Earth had been a faint voice on the radio, and now, abruptly, even that link was severed. It made them feel lonelier than ever and somehow farther away from home.

Thomas turned away from the communications console and automatically glanced out the big observation window at Mars. It took him a while to notice that there was something different about the view. Then he realized that the uniform, dirty yellow-white cloud cover was breaking up and becoming streaky, turning the planet into a giant, mottled Easter egg, allowing tantalizing glimpses of the surface. “Hey!” Thomas said, and at the same time Johnboy crowed. “Well, well, lookie there! Guess who’s back, boys!”

They all crowded around the observation window, eagerly jostling one another.

As they watched, the storm died all at once, with the suddenness of a conjuring trick, and the surface was visible again. Johnboy let out an ear-splitting rebel yell. Everyone cheered. They were all laughing and joking and slapping one another’s shoulders, and then, one by one, they fell silent.

Something was wrong. Thomas could feel the short hairs prickling erect along his back and arms, feel the muscles of his gut tightening. Something was wrong. What was it? What . . . ? He heard the commander gasp, and at the same time realization broke through into his conscious mind, and he felt the blood draining from his face.

Woody was the first to speak.

“But . . .” Woody said, in a puzzled, almost petulant voice, like a bewildered child. “But . . . that’s not Mars.”


The air is thin on Mars. So thin it won’t hold up dust in suspension unless the wind is traveling at enormous speeds. When the wind dies, the dust falls like pebbles, fast and all at once.

After five weeks of storm, the wind died. The dust fell.

Revealing entirely the wrong planet.

The surface was still predominantly a muddy reddish orange, but now there were large mottled patches of green and grayish ocher. The surface seemed softer now, smoother, with much less rugged relief. It took a moment to realize why. The craters—so very like those on the moon both in shape and distribution—were gone, and so were most of the mountains, the scarps and rills, the giant volcanic constructs. In their place were dozens of fine, perfectly straight blue lines. They were bordered by bands of green and extended across the entire planet in an elaborate crisscrossing pattern, from polar icecap to polar icecap.

“I cain’t find anything,” Woody was saying exasperatedly. “What happened to everything? I cain’t even see Olympus Mons, for Christsake! The biggest fucking volcano in the solar system! Where is it? And what the fuck are those lines?”

Again Thomas felt an incredible burst of realization well up inside him. He gaped at the planet below, unable to speak, unable to answer, but Johnboy did it for him.

Johnboy had been leaning close to the window, his jaw slack with amazement, but now an odd, dreamy look was stealing over his face, and when he spoke, it was in a matter-of-fact, almost languid voice. “They’re canals,” he said.

“Canals, my ass!” the commander barked, losing control of his temper for the first time on the mission. “There aren’t any canals on Mars! That idea went out with Schiaparelli and Lowell.”

Johnboy shrugged. “Then what are those?” he asked mildly, jerking his thumb toward the planet, and Thomas felt a chill feather up along his spine.


A quick visual search turned up no recognizable surface features, none of the landmarks familiar to them all from the Mariner 9 and Viking orbiter photomaps—although Johnboy annoyed the commander by pointing out that the major named canals that Percival Lowell had described and mapped in the nineteenth century—Strymon, Charontis, Erebus, Orcus, Dis—were there, just as Lowell had said that they were.

“It’s got to be the sandstorm that did it,” Thomas said, grasping desperately for some kind of rational explanation. “The wind moving the sand around from one place to another, maybe, covering up one set of surface features while at the same time exposing another set . . .”

He faltered to a stop, seeing the holes in that argument even as Johnboy snorted and said. “Real good, sport, real good. But Olympus Mons just isn’t there, a mountain three times higher than Mount Everest! Even if you could cover it up with sand, then what you’d have would be a fucking sand dune three times higher than Everest . . . but there don’t seem to be any big mountains down there at all anymore.”

“I know what happened,” Woody said before Thomas could reply.

His voice sounded so strange that they all turned to look at him. He had been scanning the surface with the small optical telescope for the Mars-Sat experiments, but now he was leaning on the telescope mounting and staring at them instead. His eyes were feverish and unfocused and bright and seemed to have sunken into his head. He was trembling slightly, and his face had become waxen and pale.

He’s scared, Thomas realized, he’s just plain scared right out of his skull . . .

“This has all happened before,” Woody said hoarsely.

“What in the world are you talking about?” Thomas asked.

“Haven’t you read your history?” Woody asked. He was a reticent man, slow-voiced and deliberate, like most computer hackers, but now the words rushed from his mouth in a steadily accelerating stream, almost tumbling over one another in their anxiety to get out. His voice was higher than usual, and it held the ragged overtones of hysteria in it. “The Mariner 9 mission, the robot probe. Back in 1971. Remember? Jes as the probe reached Mars orbit, before it could start sending back any photos, a great big curtain storm came up, jes like this one. Great big bastard. Covered everything. Socked the whole planet in for weeks. No surface visibility at all. Had the scientists back home pulling their hair out. But when the storm finally did lift, and the photos did start coming in, everybody was jes flat-out amazed. None of the Lowellian features, no canals, nothing—jes craters and rills and volcanoes, all the stuff we expected to see this time around.” He gave a shaky laugh.

“So everybody jes shrugged and said Lowell had been wrong—poor visibility, selector bias, he jes thought he’d seen canals. Connected up existing surface features with imaginary lines, maybe. He’d seen what he wanted to see.” Woody paused, licking at his lips, and then began talking faster and shriller than ever. “But that wasn’t true, was it? We know better, don’t we, boys? We can see the proof right out that window! My crazy ol’ uncle Barry, he had the right of it from the start, and everybody else was wrong. He tole me what happened, but I was jes too dumb to believe him! It was the space people, the UFO people! The Martians! They saw the probe coming, and they whomped that storm up, to keep us from seeing the surface, and then they changed everything. Under the cover of the sandstorm, they changed the whole damn planet to fool us, to keep us from finding out they were there! This proves it! They changed it back! They’re out there right now, the flying saucer people! They’re out there—”

“Bullshit!” the commander said. His voice was harsh and loud and cracked like a whip, but it was the unprecedented use of obscenity that startled them more than anything else. They turned to look at him, where he floated near the command console. Even Woody, who had just seemed on the verge of a breakdown, gasped and fell silent.

When he was sure he had everyone’s attention, the commander smiled coldly and said, “While you were all going through your little psychodrama, I’ve been doing a little elementary checking. Here’s the telemetry data, and you know what? Everything shows up the same as it did before the sandstorm. Exactly . . . the . . . same. Deep radar, infrared, everything.” He tapped the command console. “It’s just the same as it ever was; no breathable air, low atmospheric pressure, subzero temperatures, nothing but sand and a bunch of goddamn rusty-red rocks. No vegetation, no surface water, no canals.” He switched the view from the ship’s exterior cameras onto the cabin monitor, and there for everyone to see was the familiar Mars of the Mariner and Viking probes: rocky, rugged, cratered, lifeless. No green oases. No canals.

Everyone was silent, mesmerized by the two contradictory images.

“I don’t know what’s causing this strange visual hallucination we’re all seeing,” the commander said, gesturing at the window and speaking slowly and deliberately. “But I do know that it is a hallucination. It doesn’t show up on the cameras, it doesn’t show up in the telemetry. It’s just not real.”

They adjourned the argument to the bar. Doofus the Moose—an orange inflatable toy out of Johnboy’s personal kit—smiled benignly down on them as they sipped from bags of reconstituted citrus juice (NASA did not believe that they could be trusted with a ration of alcohol, and the hip flask Woody had smuggled aboard had been polished off long before) and went around and around the issue without reaching any kind of consensus. The “explanations” became more and more farfetched, until at last the commander uttered the classic phrase mass hypnosis, causing Johnboy to start whooping in derision.

There was a long, humming silence. Then Johnboy, his mood altering, said very quietly. “It doesn’t matter anyway. We’re never going to find out anything more about what’s happening from up here.” He looked soberly around at the others. “There’s really only one decision we’ve got to make: Do we go on down, or not? Do we land?”

Even the commander was startled. “After all this—you still want to land?”

Johnboy shrugged. “Why not? It’s what we came all the way out here for, isn’t it?”

“It’s too dangerous. We don’t even know what’s happening here.”

“I thought it was only mass hypnosis,” Johnboy said slyly.

“I think it is,” the commander said stoutly, unperturbed by Johnboy’s sarcasm. “But even if it is, we still don’t know why we’re having these hallucinations, do we? It could be a sign of organic deterioration or dysfunction of some sort, caused by who knows what. Maybe there’s some kind of intense electromagnetic field out there that we haven’t detected that’s disrupting the electrical pathways of our nervous systems: maybe there’s an unforeseen flaw in the recycling system that’s causing some kind of toxic buildup that affects brain chemistry. The point is, we’re not functioning right; we’re seeing things that aren’t there!”

“None of that stuff matters,” Johnboy said. He leaned forward, speaking now with great urgency and passion. No one had ever seen him so serious or so ferociously intent. “We have to land. Whatever the risk. It was hard enough funding this mission. If we fuck up out here, there may never be another one. NASA itself might not survive.” He stared around at his crewmates. “How do you think it’s going to look, Woody? We run into the greatest mystery the human race has ever encountered, and we immediately go scurrying home with our tails tucked between our legs without even investigating it? That sound good to you?”

Woody grunted and shook his head. “Sure doesn’t, ol’ buddy,” he said. He glanced around the table and then coolly said, “Let’s get on down there.” Now that he was apparently no longer envisioning the imminent arrival of UFO-riding astronaut mutilators, Woody seemed determined to be as cool and unflappable and ultra-macho as possible, as if to prove that he hadn’t really been frightened after all.

There was another silence and, slowly, Thomas became aware that everyone else was staring at him.

It all came down to him now. The deciding vote would be his. Thomas locked eyes with Johnboy, and Johnboy stared back at him with unwavering intensity. The question didn’t even need to be voiced; it hung in the air between them and charged the lingering silence with tension. Thomas moved uneasily under the weight of all those watching eyes. How did he feel? He didn’t really know—strange, that was about the closest he could come to it . . . hung up between fear and some other slowly stirring emotion he couldn’t identify and didn’t really want to think about. But there was one thing he suddenly was certain about: They weren’t going to abandon his part of the mission, not after he’d come this far! Certainly he was never going to get another chance to get into the history books. Probably that was Johnboy’s real motive, too, above and beyond the jazz about the survival of NASA. Johnboy was a cool enough head to realize that if they came home without landing, they’d be laughing stocks, wimps instead of heroes, and somebody else on some future mission would get all the glory. Johnboy’s ego was much too big to allow him to take a chance on that. And he was right! Thomas had even more reason to be afraid of being passed over, passed by: When you were black, opportunities like this certainly didn’t knock more than once.

“We’ve still got almost three days until the launch window opens.” Thomas said, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I think we should make maximum use of that time by going down there and finding out as much as we can.” He raised his eyes and stared directly at the commander. “I say we land.”


Commander Redenbaugh insisted on referring the issue to Houston for a final decision, but after several hours of trying, it became clear that he was not going to be able to get through to Earth. For once, the buck was refusing to be passed.

The commander sighed and ran his fingers wearily through his hair. He felt old and tired and ineffectual. He knew what Houston would probably have said, anyway. With the exception of the commander himself (who had been too well-known not to be chosen), de facto policy for this mission had been to select unmarried men with no close personal or family ties back home. That alone spoke volumes. They were supposed to be taking risks out here. That was what they were here for. It was part of their job.

At dawn over Chryse, they went down.


As commander of the landing party, Thomas was first out of the lander. Awkward in his suit, he climbed backward out of the hatch and down the exterior ladder. He caught reeling flashes of the Martian sky, and it was orange, as it should be. His first, instinctive reaction was relief, followed by an intense stab of perverse disappointment, which surprised him. As he hung from the ladder, one foot almost touching the ground, he paused to reel off the words that some P.R. man at NASA had composed for the occasion: “In the name of all humanity, we dedicate the planet of war to peace. May God grant us this.” He put his foot down, then looked down from the ladder, twisting around to get a look at the spot he was standing on.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered reverently. Orange sky or not, there were plants of some kind growing here. He was standing almost knee-deep in them, a close-knit, springy mat of grayish-ocher vegetation. He knelt down and gingerly touched it.

“It looks like some kind of moss,” he reported. “It’s pliant and giving to the touch, springs slowly back up again. I can break it off in my hand.”

The transmission from the Plowshare crackled and buzzed with static. “Thomas,” said the commander’s voice in his ear, “what are you talking about? Are you okay?”

Thomas straightened up and took his first long, slow look around. The ocher-colored moss stretched out to the orange horizon in all directions, covering both the flat plains immediately around them and a range of gently rolling hills in the middle distance to the north. Here and there the moss was punctuated by light clusters of spiny, misshapen shrubs, usually brown or glossy black or muddy purple, and even occasionally by a lone tree. The trees were crimson, about ten feet high; the trunks glistened with the color of fresh, wet blood, and their flat, glassy leaves glittered like sheets of amethyst. Thomas dubbed them flametrees.

The lander was resting only several hundred yards away from a canal.

It was wide, the canal, and its still, perfectly clear waters reflected the sky as dark as wine, as red as blood. Small yellow flowers trailed delicate tentacles into the water from the edging walls, which were old and crumbling and carved with strange geometrical patterns of swirls and curlicues that might, just possibly, be runes.

It can’t possibly be real, Thomas thought dazedly.

Johnboy and Woody were clambering down the ladder, clumsy and troll-like in their hulking suits, and Thomas moved over to make room for them.

“Mother dog!” Woody breathed, looking around him, the wonder clear in his voice. “This is really something, ain’t it?” He laid a gloved hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “This is what we saw from up there.”

“But it’s impossible,” Thomas said.

Woody shrugged. “If it’s a hallucination, then it’s sure as hell a beautiful one.”

Johnboy had walked on ahead without a word, until he was several yards away from the ship; now he came to a stop and stood staring out across the moss-covered plain to the distant hills. “It’s like being born again,” he whispered.

The commander cut in again, his voice popping and crackling with static. “Report in! What’s going on down there?”

Thomas shook his head. “Commander, I wish I knew.”

He unlashed the exterior camera from the lander, set it up on its tripod, removed the lens cover. “Tell me what you see.”

“I see sand, dust, rocks . . . what else do you expect me to see?”

“No canals?” Thomas asked sadly. “No trees? No moss?”

“Christ, you’re hallucinating again, aren’t you?” the commander said. “This is what I was afraid of. All of you, listen to me! Listen good! There aren’t any goddamn canals down there. Maybe there’s water down a few dozen meters as permafrost. But the surface is as dry as the moon.”

“But there’s some sort of moss growing all over the place,” Thomas said. “Kind of grayish-ocher color, about a foot and a half high. There’s clumps of bushes. There’s even trees of some kind. Can’t you see any of that?”

“You’re hallucinating,” the commander said. “Believe me, the camera shows nothing but sand and rock down there. You’re standing in a goddamn lunar desert and babbling to me about trees, for Christ’s sake! That’s enough for me. I want everybody back up here, right now. I shouldn’t have let you talk me into this in the first place. We’ll let Houston unravel all this. It’s no longer our problem. Woody, come back here! Stick together, dammit!”

Johnboy was still standing where he had stopped, as if entranced, but Woody was wandering toward the canal, poking around, exploring.

“Listen up!” the commander said. “I want everybody back in the lander, right now. I’m going to get you out of there before somebody gets hurt. Everybody back now. That’s an order! That’s a direct order!”

Woody turned reluctantly and began bounding slowly toward the lander, pausing every few yards to look back over his shoulder at the canal.

Thomas sighed, not sure whether he was relieved to be getting out of here or heartbroken to be going so soon.

“Okay, Commander,” Thomas said. “We read you. We’re coming up. Right away.” He took a few light, buoyant steps forward—fighting a tendency to bounce kangaroolike off the ground—and tapped Johnboy gently on the arm. “Come on. We’ve got to go back up.”

Johnboy turned slowly around. “Do we?” he said. “Do we really?”

“Orders,” Thomas said uneasily, feeling something begin to stir and turn over ponderously in the deep backwaters of his own soul. “I don’t want to go yet, either, but the commander’s right. If we’re hallucinating . . .”

“Don’t give me that shit!” Johnboy said passionately. “Hallucinating, my ass! You touched the moss, didn’t you? You felt it. This isn’t a hallucination, or mass hypnosis, or any of that other crap. This is a world, a new world, and it’s ours!”

“Johnboy, get in the lander right now!” the commander broke in. “That’s an order!”

“Fuck you, Ahab!” Johnboy said. “And fuck your orders, too!”

Thomas was shocked—and at the same time felt a stab of glee at the insubordination, an emotion that surprised him and that he hurried uneasily to deny, saying, “You’re out of line, Johnboy. I want you to listen to me, now—”

“No, you listen to me,” Johnboy said fiercely. “Look around you! I know you’ve read Burroughs. You know where you are! A dead sea bottom, covered with ocher-colored moss. Rolling hills. A canal.”

“Those are the very reasons why it can’t be real,” Thomas said uneasily.

“It’s real if we want it to be real,” Johnboy said. “It’s here because of us. It’s made for us. It’s made out of us.”

“Stop gabbing and get in the lander!” the commander shouted. “Move! Get you asses in gear!”

Woody had come up to join them. “Maybe we’d better—” he started to say, but Johnboy cut in with:

“Listen to me! I knew what was happening the moment I looked out and saw the Mars of Schiaparelli and Lowell, the old Mars. Woody, you said that Lowell saw what he wanted to see. That’s right, but in a different way than you meant it. You know, other contemporary astronomers looked at Mars at the same time as Lowell, with the same kind of instruments, and saw no canals at all. You ever hear of consensual reality? Because Lowell wanted to see it, it existed for him! Just as it exists for us—because we want it to exist! We don’t have to accept the gray reality of Ahab here and all the other gray little men back at NASA. They want it to be rocks and dust and dead, drab desert; they like it that way—”

“For God’s sake!” the commander said. “Somebody get that nut in the lander!”

“—but we don’t like it! Deep down inside of us—Thomas. Woody—we don’t believe in that Mars. We believe in this one—the real one. That’s why it’s here for us! That’s why it’s the way it is—it’s made of our dreams. Who know what’s over those hills: bone-white faërie cities? four-armed green men? beautiful princesses? the Twin Cities of Helium? There could be anything out there!”

“Thomas!” the commander snapped. “Get Johnboy in the lander now. Use force if necessary, but get him in there. Johnboy! You’re emotionally unstable. I want you to consider yourself under house arrest!”

“I’ve been under house arrest all my life,” Johnboy said. “Now I’m free.”

Moving deliberately, he reached up and unsnapped his helmet.

Thomas started forward with an inarticulate cry of horror, trying to stop him, but it was too late. Johnboy had his helmet completely off now and was shaking his head to free his shaggy, blond hair, which rippled slightly in the breeze. He took a deep breath, another, and then grinned at Thomas. “The air smells great,” he said. “And, my God, is it clean!”

“Johnboy?” Thomas said hesitantly. “Are you okay?”

“Christ!” the commander was muttering. “Christ! Oh my God! Oh my sweet God!”

“I’m fine,” Johnboy said. “In fact, I’m terrific.” He smiled brilliantly at them, then sniffed at the inside of his helmet and made a face. “Phew! Smells like an armpit in there!” He started to strip off his suit.

“Thomas, Woody,” the commander said leadenly. “Put Johnboy’s body into the lander, and then get in there yourselves, fast, before we lose somebody else.”

“But . . .” Thomas said, “there’s nothing wrong with Johnboy. We’re talking to him.”

“Goddamn it, look at your med readouts.”

Thomas glanced at the chinstrap readout board, which was reflected into a tiny square on the right side of his faceplate. There was a tiny red light flashing on Johnboy’s readout. “Christ!” Thomas whispered.

“He’s dead, Thomas, he’s dead. I can see his body. He fell over like he’d been poleaxed right after he opened his helmet and hemorrhaged his lungs out into the sand. Listen to me! Johnboy’s dead—anything else is a hallucination!”

Johnboy grinned at them, kicking free of his suit. “I may be dead, kids,” he told them quizzically, “but let me tell you, dead or not, I feel one-hundred-percent better now that I’m out of that crummy suit, believe it. The air’s a little bit cool, but it feels wonderful.” He raised his arms and stretched lazily, like a cat.

“Johnboy—?” Woody said, tentatively.

“Listen,” the commander raged. “You’re hallucinating! You’re talking to yourselves! Get in the lander! That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir, sir.” Johnboy said mockingly, sketching a salute at the sky. “Are you actually going to listen to that asshole?” He stepped forward and took each of them by the arm and shook them angrily. “Do I feel dead to you, schmucks?”

Thomas felt the fingers close over his arm, and an odd, deep thrill shot through him—part incredulity; part supernatural dread; part a sudden, strange exhilaration. “I can feel him,” Woody was saying wonderingly, patting Johnboy with his gloved hands. “He’s solid. He’s there. I’ll be a son of a bitch—”

“Be one?” Johnboy said, grinning. “Ol’ buddy, you already are one.”

Woody laughed. “No hallucination’s that corny,” Woody said to Thomas. “He’s real, all right.”

“But the readout—” Thomas began.

“Obviously wrong. There’s got to be some kind of mistake—”

Woody started to unfasten his helmet.

“No!” the commander screamed, and at the same time Thomas darted forward shouting, “Woody! Stop!” and tried to grab him, but Woody twisted aside and bounded limberly away, out of reach.

Cautiously, Woody took his helmet off. He sniffed suspiciously, his lean, leathery face stiff with tension, then he relaxed, and then he began to smile. “Hooie,” he said in awe.

“Get his helmet back on, quick!” the commander was shouting. But Woody’s medical readout was already flashing orange, and even as the commander spoke, it turned red.

“Too late!” the commander moaned. “Oh God, too late . . .”

Woody looked into his helmet at his own flashing readout. His face registered surprise for an instant, and then he began to laugh. “Weh-ayl,” he drawled, “now that I’m officially a corpse, I guess I don’t need this anymore.” He threw his helmet aside; it bounced and rolled over the spongy mass. “Thomas,” Woody said, “you do what you want, but I’ve been locked up in a smelly ol’ tin can for months, and what I’m going to do is wash my face in some honest-to-God, unrecycled water!” He grinned at Thomas and began walking away toward the canal. “I might even take me a swim.”

“Thomas . . .” the commander said brokenly. “Don’t worry about the bodies. Don’t worry about anything else. Just get in the lander. As soon as you’re inside, I’m going to trigger the launch sequence.”

Johnboy was staring at him quizzically, compassionately—waiting.

“Johnboy . . .” Thomas said, “Johnboy, how can I tell which is real?”

“You choose what’s real,” Johnboy said quietly. “We all do.”

“Listen to me, Thomas,” the commander pleaded; there was an edge of panic in his voice. “You’re talking to yourself again. Whatever you think you’re seeing, or hearing, or even touching, it just isn’t real. There can be tactile hallucinations, too, you know. It’s not real.”

“Old Ahab up there has made his choice, too,” Johnboy said. “For him, in his own conceptual universe, Woody and I are dead. And that’s real, too—for him. But you don’t have to choose that reality. You can choose this one.”

“I don’t know,” Thomas mumbled, “I just don’t know . . .”

Woody hit the water in an explosion of foam. He swam a few strokes, whooping, then turned to float on his back. “C’mon in, you guys!” he shouted.

Johnboy smiled, then turned to bring his face close to Thomas’s helmet, peering in through the faceplate. Johnboy was still wearing that strange, dreamy look, so unlike his usual animated expression, and his eyes were clear and compassionate and calm. “It calls for an act of faith, Thomas. Maybe that’s how every world begins.” He grinned at Thomas. “Meanwhile, I think I’m going to take a swim, too.” He strolled off toward the canal, bouncing a little at each step.

Thomas stood unmoving, the two red lights flashing on his chin-strap readout.

“They’re both going swimming now,” Thomas said dully.

“Thomas! Can you hear me, Thomas?”

“I hear you,” Thomas mumbled.

They were having fun in their new world—he could see that. The kind of fun that kids had . . . that every child took for granted. The joy of discovery, of everything being new . . . the joy that seemed to get lost in the gray shuffle to adulthood, given up bit by incremental bit.

“You’re just going to have to trust me, Thomas. Trust me. Take my word for it that I know what I’m talking about. You’re going to have to take that on faith. Now listen to me: No matter what you think is going on down there, don’t take your helmet off.”

His father used to lecture him in that same tone of voice, demanding, domineering . . . and at the same time condescending. Scornful. Daddy knows best. Listen to me, boy, I know what I’m talking about! Do what I tell you to do!

“Do you hear me? Do not take your helmet off! Under any circumstances at all. That’s an order.”

Thomas nodded before he could stop himself. Here he was, good boy little Tommy, standing on the fringes again, taking orders, doing what he was told. Getting passed over again. And for what?

Something flew by in the distance, headed toward the hills.

It looked to be about the size of a large bird, but like a dragonfly, it had six long, filmy gossamer wings, which it swirled around in a complexly interweaving pattern, as if it were rowing itself through the air.

“Get to the lander, Thomas, and close the hatch.”

Never did have any fun. Have to be twice as good as any of them, have to bust your goddamn ass—

“That’s a direct order, Thomas!”

You’ve got to make the bastards respect you, you’ve got to earn their respect. His father had said that a million times. And how little time it had taken him to waste away and die, once he’d stopped trying, once he realized that you can’t earn what people aren’t willing to sell.

A red and yellow lizard ran over his boot, as quick and silent as a tickle. It had six legs.

One by one, he began to undo the latches of his helmet.

“No! Listen to me! If you take off your helmet, you’ll die. Don’t do it! For God’s sake, don’t do it!”

The last latch. It was sticky, but he tugged at it purposefully.

“You’re killing yourself! Stop it! Please. Stop! You goddamn stupid nigger! Stop—”

Thomas smiled, oddly enough feeling closer to the commander in that moment than he ever had before. “Too late,” he said cheerfully.

Thomas twisted his helmet a quarter turn and lifted it off his head.


When the third red light winked on, Commander Redenbaugh slumped against the board and started to cry. He wept openly and loudly, for they had been good men, and he had failed all of them, even Thomas, the best and steadiest of the lot. He hadn’t been able to save a goddamned one of them!

At last he was able to pull himself together. He forced himself to look again at the monitor, which showed three space-suited bodies sprawled out lifelessly on the rusty-red sand.

He folded his hands, bent his head, and prayed for the souls of his dead companions. Then he switched the monitor off.

It was time to make plans. Since the Plowshare would be carrying a much lighter-than-anticipated return cargo, he had enough excess fuel to allow him to leave a bit early, if he wanted to, and he did want to. He began to punch figures into the computer, smiling bitterly at the irony. Yesterday he had been regretting that they had so little time left in Mars orbit. Now, suddenly, he was in a hurry to get home . . . but no matter how many corners he shaved, he’d still be several long, grueling months in transit—with quite probably a court-martial waiting for him when he got back.

For an instant, even the commander’s spirit quailed at the thought of that dreadful return journey. But he soon got himself under control again. It would be a difficult and unpleasant trip, right enough, but a determined man could always manage to do what needed to be done.

Even if he had to do it alone.


When the Plowshare’s plasma drive was switched on, it created a daytime star in the Martian sky. It was like a shooting star in reverse, starting out at its brightest and dimming rapidly as it moved up and away.

Thomas saw it leave. He was leaning against his makeshift spear—flametree wood, with a fire-hardened tip—and watching Johnboy preparing to skin the dead hyena-leopard, when he chanced to glance up. “Look,” he said.

Johnboy followed Thomas’s eyes and saw it, too. He smiled sardonically and lifted the animal’s limp paw, making it wave bye-bye. “So long, Ahab,” Johnboy said. “Good luck.” He went back to skinning the beast. The hyena-leopard—a little bit larger than a wildcat, six-legged, saber-tusked, its fur a muddy purple with rusty-orange spots—had attacked without warning and fought savagely; it had taken all three of them to kill it.

Woody looked up from where he was lashing a makeshift flametree-wood raft together with lengths of wiring from the lander, “I’m sure he’ll make it okay,” Woody said quietly.

Thomas sighed. “Yeah,” he said, and then, more briskly, “Let me give you a hand with that raft. If we snap it up, we ought to be ready to leave by morning.”

Last night, climbing the highest of the rolling hills to the north, they had seen the lights of a distant city, glinting silver and yellow and orange on the far horizon, gleaming far away across the black midnight expanse of the dead sea bottom like an ornate and intricate piece of jewelry set against ink-black velvet.

Thomas was still not sure if he hoped there would be aristocratic red men there, and giant four-armed green Tharks, and beautiful Martian princesses . . .

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