The Marshies flicked in and out of sight so rapidly that you had to be looking right where they appeared to see them at all, most of the time.
The small red sun was still low over the horizon when they checked through the locks, and they threw a long gray shadow over the dust as they rode toward the hills.
by Terry Carr

On the tenth day of the construction job out on the edge of Syrtis Major they found a Marshie watching them. He might have been there ever since they'd trucked in their equipment and thrown up a bubble and temporary toilets, but they never did find out.

The Marshies flicked in and out of sight so rapidly that you had to be looking right where they appeared to see them at all, most of the time. They hopped around like fireflies, stopping for two seconds or two minutes, standing almost still with their angular birdlike heads cocked to one side, and then they'd be gone, turning up almost instantly fifteen feet away, still with their heads cocked looking at you. They were unnerving to most of the Earthmen, and a couple of years back one nervous kid in Iguana, near the Bald Spot, had taken a shot at one of them—missed him and burned hell out of one wall of a building. The Marshies hadn't been around the Earth towns much since then.

Not that they had ever been especially chummy. The Marshies were partially telepathic and they could manage the Earth languages well enough, but they seldom bothered. For the most part they just didn't seem interested. Every now and then you'd see one of them pause for a minute in the settlements, and maybe he'd say, "Hi, Harry," or "Nice weather this year," but they never stopped to talk about anything. The Earthmen had been on the planet for over ten years, but all the government could tell you about the Marshies was that they had some towns out in the mountains somewhere, they were trisexual, and their life-span was about thirty years.

Walt Michelson had been wondering about them ever since he'd landed on the planet back with the first wave, when he'd come with his parents. Michelson had been twelve then, busy looking around and asking questions every time his eyes lit on something. When he was fourteen he saw a Marshie—one of them landed right next to him at his brother's funeral and stood completely still for almost ten minutes while the service droned on. It had been out on the flatlands, where the heavy brown dust was sometimes two inches deep and you had to raise your voice to be heard in the thin air. The Marshie had watched the interment rites silently, standing off to one side, and when it had all been over he had looked at Michelson and said, "Yes," and disappeared.

Michelson's father had been a building contractor … a pretty good one, successful enough that he could have sent Walt back to Earth by the time he was eighteen. But Walt hadn't wanted to go; all he remembered of Earth was how crowded it was, how many policemen there were, how many laws and taxes and taboos built up over the centuries. When he'd been on Earth his father hadn't had much money, and that colored his feelings toward the home planet too, but basically he liked Mars because there was room here … no walls, real or legislated, to keep a man standing still. So he'd stayed on Mars, and learned the building trades, and he was a foreman this year and would be more next year. He didn't give a damn about Earth.

Now he was working on building a town out here at the base of the hills, on a site which somebody had decided would be an important trade outpost. Some of the drainage from the icecap reached this area, too, so there might be some chance for agriculture. The city had been planned in detail back at Dry Puget, but nobody had thought that there were any Marshies in the area.

They'd noticed him first by the puffs of dust rising in a line leading from the foothills straight to the building site. The Marshies traveled in a peculiar half-leaping half-flying fashion, and when they touched down and jumped off again they kicked up small clouds of dust. One of the workmen saw those clouds coming toward them and reported to Michelson, who got his binocs and watched the Marshie coming. He wasn't long in arriving.

He lit right outside the bubble and stood looking for a minute, then disappeared and skipped right in through one of the airlocks where they were removing the dirt from the diggings inside. He turned up next to the big shovel for a few seconds, disappeared when one of the men suddenly yelled, reappeared over by the lumber yard next to the foundation work going on in the south quarter, then outside the truck depot, and finally at the door of the contractor's office where Michelson had been going over the drawings for the street layout. Michelson looked up at him and the Marshie cocked his head and stared back.

The Marshie was a faded orange in color, his body covered with a heavy fur through which the powerful muscles showed clearly. His eyes, large and liquid black, were set on the sides of his head, and his nose and mouth were almost indistinguishable under the fur of the face. He had long legs, thin but powerful, giving him a stature of over seven feet; his large brown wings folded down over his back softly like a cloak. He was indistinguishable from any other Marshie that Michelson had ever seen, but that was undoubtedly because the Marshies were so seldom around.

As the Marshie continued to stand silently looking at him Michelson was struck with the humor of the tableau, and he grinned and nodded. "Welcome to our humble diggings," he said.

The Marshie disappeared, leaving two deep footprints in the dirt outside the door where he had kicked off. Michelson got up and went to the door, saw the alien light a couple of times going across the large inner yard, and then he apparently hopped out through the airlocks again. Michelson raised his binocs from the strap around his neck, but he was unable to track the Marshie's dust-clouds in their erratic jumps out on the flat. They seemed to head toward the hills again but he couldn't be sure.

Michelson shrugged and turned back to the plans on the desk. The Marshie was no immediate problem to him; if he continued to show up there might be trouble among the construction workers—the Marshies appeared and disappeared so abruptly that they could upset a whole crew in a few hours—but for the moment Michelson wasn't going to worry about it. He had a more pressing problem.

One of the field men had found that the northeast quarter was right over a large water-deposit and it would require some pretty drastic structural modifications or maybe even abandoning that part of the site altogether. There was bedrock not too far down, and the yearly icecap drainage collected there; the water wasn't enough to be useful as a supply for the planned city, but the pocket was large enough to undermine any foundations they might try to put in there.

He'd already checked the specifications and found that any pumping system they could install to periodically drain the pocket would be in a cost bracket making it necessary to get an okay from the builder clear back in Dry Puget … and that could hold up the work long enough to make them miss their deadline. No, there had to be some way to block the seepage before the water got to the pocket, so that it could be drained once and for all.

Dammit, it was just his luck to run into trouble with water on Mars, where that was the last thing you expected. Well, tomorrow he'd get together with a couple of the surveyors and see what could be done.

· · · · · 

The Marshie was back the next day, shortly after the sun rose darkly over the low hills. There was so little light at that early hour that no one saw him coming and the first thing they knew of his presence was when he landed for a moment in an airlock and a driver slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting him—which wasn't really necessary, since the Marshie had jumped off again immediately, but a human driver's muscular reactions weren't geared for Marshie pedestrians. The Marshie skipped on in through the interconnecting locks.

He came down beside Michelson as he was going across the yard toward the diggings, and Michelson stopped. He turned and cocked his head at the alien, mocking his stance, and after a moment said, "I'll give you a gate pass if you want."

The Marshie regarded him with his big dark left eye and shook his wings lightly. "Hello, Walt," he said, and skipped off. Michelson shrugged and went on across the yard, but the Marshie came back a minute later, touched down and said, "They aren't so humble," and disappeared again.

Mike Deckinger, who was in charge of the trucks, was nearby and he came over frowning. "He's going to drive us nuts if he keeps that up," he said. "We could tighten up the airlock sequence and maybe keep him out that way."

Michelson shook his head. "That would just slow down the works. Leave him alone; he's just looking."

"Yeah, but why?" said Deckinger, and walked off.

Harris and Loening, the two surveyors, were waiting for Michelson at the diggings. They were good men, both in their thirties and well-trained both on Earth and this planet. Harris was heavy-set, with a ruddy, swarthy face and close-cropped black hair; Loening was taller, broad-shouldered, with bony, angular features and dark eyes that seemed to peer out from shadowed caves. Michelson explained the problem to them.

"I want to go outside and see if we can trace the drainage," he concluded. "Find a place where we can dam or rechannel it."

"That'll involve drilling," Loening said.

Michelson raised an eyebrow at him. "Probably. Unless you want to try a dowsing rod." Loening grunted disgustedly.

"Well, let's take a walk out there first anyway," Harris said. They started back across the yard toward the north airlocks. Since they might be out for some time, they each donned facemasks and picked up small tanks of oxygen before they checked through.

The Marshie hopped through ahead of them.

He passed them in the second lock and was waiting for them when they emerged onto the flat outside. He stood off about twenty feet, ruffling his wings in a way which seemed impatient to Michelson, and skipped back and forth past them as they set off toward the low hills, following the line of the water as closely as it had been traced in the preliminary survey. Loening walked stolidly, his head down and frowning, but Harris didn't seem to pay any attention to the alien. Michelson watched for him as he walked, and thought.

This hop-guy seemed a lot more interested in the construction works than the Marshies had ever been before. What was that he had said back in the compound? "They aren't so humble." What did that mean?

He'd come in from the hills, and the Marshies were supposed to live somewhere in a mountainous area. This one, maybe? Perhaps the Marshies were taking a definite interest in this site because the Earthmen had finally started getting near their own area.

And if so, just what kind of an interest were they taking?

The water had been traced back to the foot of the hills, but no further. On foot in the low Martian gravity the Earthmen made it that far in about half an hour. There was a thin, cold wind out here which cut through their heavy jackets and ruffled Michelson's light hair, but it didn't stir the dust very much. The air on Mars lacked body; once you got used to it you could breathe it well enough if you didn't exert yourself, but if you wanted to smoke a pipe you had to do it when you were inside a bubble or it would go out every time.

They stopped and rested at the base of the first hill, where dry rocks had tumbled down the slope during the ages and collected at the bottom. Loening loosened his pack and swung it off his shoulder to the ground. He nodded up at the rising hills and said, "The first thing to do is scout around there and chart the rock stratifications."

"Do you think the drainage comes through the mountains?" Michelson asked him.

"Might; can't tell offhand. We've been walking on solid rock for a mile or more—that means the water is under rock for a ways out there, and the channel could turn off anywhere. Maybe it skirts the hills; that's one thing I want to check. If the stratifications here show that these hills rose during an upheaval, the chances are that the water channel does go around them."

Michelson nodded. "Well, we can get the preliminary scouting down faster if we split up. I'll try going through the pass up there."

Loening and Harris rose with him, and they set off separately. As Michelson started up the slope he heard Harris call to him, "If you see our Marshie again, ask him where the hell the water comes from."

Michelson grinned back down at him. "I think I will," he said.

He climbed slowly up the rough slope, now and then cutting in his oxygen supply for a few breaths. The rocks here were bulky and weathered—the kind of weathering that happened, on Mars, only with the passage of ages. They stood out like silent gray beasts against the morning shadows. Michelson was soon out of sight of their starting point, but he followed the natural pass and made a rough map as he went, noting the rock formations and what he could see of the stratifications. It was all a jumble, as far as he could tell; some of the sheer rocksides seemed to show evidence of having been pushed up as Loening had suggested and others didn't. And the direction of the stratifications varied apparently without pattern. Well, figuring out the pattern would be the surveyors' job.

At a small level spot he stopped to rest, and as he sat looking over his rough-sketched map he heard a sound and the Marshie said beside him, "Most of these hills have been here for two million years."

Michelson looked up, carefully registering no outward surprise. "Whose years?" he said. "Yours or mine?"

The Marshie shook his wings and hopped a little way to one side, still regarding him with one dark eye. "We do not count years."

Michelson nodded at him. "Do you have names?"

"No," said the Marshie, and disappeared. Michelson waited for him to show up again, but after a few minutes he shrugged and stood up to go. It looked like there was still a lot of area to be covered up here.

The Marshie landed again. "I am faster than you," he said.

"That's true," Michelson said. He started walking on upward through the rocks. "Do you live near here?"

"Perhaps," said the Marshie. "I am faster than you."

"Near" could mean fifty miles to a Marshie, Michelson reflected. Well, it had been a fair answer then.

"Where does the water come from?" he said.

The Marshie disappeared.

He didn't show up again for the rest of the day. Michelson followed the pass up into the hills for a mile or two, and then he retraced his steps back down to the point of departure. Loening was waiting for him, and Harris returned shortly. They set off again back across the dusty flat to the bubble.

"It's a mess," Loening said. "The rocks vary in age from maybe a couple thousand years to God knows how old, and there are fifty different types. It doesn't tell us much." He ran his fingers through his dry brown hair, frowning.

"Our hop-friend told me they were mostly a couple of million years old," Michelson said. "At least in the area where I was."

"Yeah?" said Harris. "Did he say anything else?"

Michelson shook his head. "I asked him about the water, but he wouldn't answer me; he just shoved off and disappeared. You can't hold a conversation with someone who's liable to be gone at any moment. You get to stuttering."

"I never talked with a Marshie," Harris said. "They're telepathic, aren't they? —maybe they take one look into me and don't like me."

"Don't try to understand them," Loening said over his shoulder as he walked on ahead through the dust. "The only good thing about the damn Marshies is that they stay away from us most of the time."

"I don't know about that," said Michelson, and the three men fell silent, conserving their breath for walking.

But Michelson was thinking about the Marshie. Harris was right—they didn't usually talk with Earthmen. They would hop around and watch interestedly, and sometimes they would say a word or two, usually only enough to acknowledge your existence, but there was no communication between the two species. Yet this one was, comparatively, talking a blue streak. Why?

Michelson was becoming more and more sure that the Marshies had a settlement somewhere nearby. Back in the hills, probably—and Michelson was almost willing to bet that the water drainage ran right through those hills. It figured that the Marshies would settle somewhere where water was handy; on Mars that would be a prime requisite for the Marshies as well as the Earthmen. And if the Marshies were up in those hills, what did they think of the new Earth city being built right on the edge of the flat?

Maybe they hadn't decided yet.

The Marshies, come to think of it, knew a lot more about the Earthmen than they knew about the natives. The Marshies had stayed away from the Earth settlements, watching, and now the Earthmen were accidentally forcing a meeting between them; that must be shaking up the hoppers. And so, apparently, they were taking a final look at the Earthmen … and maybe soon they'd made a decision. He wished he knew what their alternatives were.

· · · · · 

They took a landcar out the next day, loaded with a burn-drill. The small red sun was still low over the horizon when they checked through the locks, and they threw a long gray shadow over the dust as they rode toward the hills. There had been no sign of the Marshie yet today, but Michelson was watching for the puffs of dust which would herald his arrival.

They set up the drill half a mile from the hills. It worked on the same principle as their blasters, boring a small hole straight down through the dirt and rock and, by the resistance offered, registering the various strata through which it passed. They found the water fifty feet down, under the layer of rock which formed the floor of the desert here.

They moved on to the base of the hills and again drilled, and again they found the water. Loening drew a straight line on a map of the area, and it passed directly from the building site through the two drilling-points. Extended, it would run through the mountains.

"We'll have to take the drill up into the hills," Loening said. "Flex your muscles—it's heavy."

They mounted it on rollers and made the ascent, and when they had got it to the first level spot in the pass they were all puffing with exertion despite the oxygen-masks they had donned. They sat and rested while Harris and Loening debated whether to drill here or try moving the drill further back into the hills. And the Marshie arrived.

He came down the pass in three quick hops and stopped next to the drill, which he regarded for a moment in his cocked-head stance. Then he skipped away and came back a few minutes later, landing next to Michelson.

"It is not a weapon," he said.

"No, it's a drill," Michelson said. "We're looking for water."

"Yes," said the Marshie, and hopped twenty feet back up the pass. There he stood motionless, looking at the Earthmen. Marshies could stand still for hours, completely unmoving, when they felt like it; only the Marshie's liquid-dark eyes moved, flicking from one to another of the Earthmen in turn, and continually back to rest on the drill which sat before them. Harris sat staring back at him, but Loening coldly ignored his gaze, looking almost sullenly down at his feet. Michelson rose and walked slowly toward the creature.

"We're trying to find the path of the water," he said. "Can you help us?"

The Marshie's head jerked to one side and the big, dark eye focussed on Michelson. After a moment he said, "I know where the water is."

"We want to dam the water, to keep it from our city," Michelson said. "If you help us, we can be sure we don't divert it from your own use."

The Marshie hopped to one side, paused, and hopped off the slope out of sight. Michelson waited for several minutes, but he did not return. Michelson shrugged and went back to his companions.

"I think you've frightened him," Loening said. "They don't play our games."

"They haven't so far," Michelson admitted. "But I think they live in these hills, and they're going to have to take notice of that city we're building. It's about time we started cooperating with each other."

"Whether we like it or not?" said Loening.

Michelson nodded. "If that's their attitude—or ours. Personally, I think we might have a lot to offer each other; this could be the first step."

"The Marshies don't step," Loening said. "They hop. They skitter around like grasshoppers." His mouth was drawn back in a disgusted grimace. He took a breath and stood up. "Anyway, you can go on talking about cultural exchange with grasshoppers, but I think we'd better lug this drill up a bit further if we want to get anything concrete done today.

The three men began to attach the pulling-straps to their shoulders, but before they started their further ascent the Marshie came back. He landed beside them and said immediately, "I can tell you where the water is. You want to be friends."

Michelson dropped the strap and looked at the Marshie, wondering for a moment if the creature was serious. But of course it was useless to try to see what was in a hopper's mind, as Loening had said. At any rate, no matter how difficult it was to communicate with the Marshies, they did not lie.

He turned to Loening and said, "You and Harris take the drill back down to the landcar—the grasshoppers have landed."

· · · · · 

He spent hours following the Marshie through the hills, back over five miles into the rocky, desolate terrain. There was silence in those mountains—not just the silence of a thin atmosphere, but the silence of emptiness, of desertion. The gray shadows fell along their path like dull pastel silhouettes, and the Marshie hopped back and forth past Michelson, silent but seemingly impatient. There was an air of excitement about this fur-covered creature—an almost childlike eagerness in his rough, inhuman voice when he occasionally stopped and said, "We will be friends, Walt, when I show you the water."

Well, of course he was interpreting the creature's attitude in his own terms, and it probably didn't make sense. But the Marshie hurried him along the rocky path.

They came down into a small hollow among the rocks, and the Marshie said, "Here is the water." There was an expanse of mud—the heavy brown dust of Mars, with water flowing slowly through it. It covered the floor of this tiny valley, and on its surface Michelson saw a thin green mosslike growth. It was like an expanse of quicksand, like an antiseptic swamp—for there were none of the heavier forms of vegetation of Earth, no insects skimming the surface. Here amid the chill dark rocks of Mars was a branch of the annual drainage of the icecap, and it seemed pitifully anticlimactic to Michelson.

"You can stop the water here," said the Marshie. "We are friends?"

Michelson looked around him, across the muddy expanse at the hills which rose again immediately beyond. "Your home is back there?" he asked.

"Yes." The Marshie hopped once, twice, twenty feet at a time, and hopped back again. "We are friends?" he said again.

"Of course," Michelson said. And then a thought came to him and he said, "Do you know what friendship is?"

The Marshie's eye regarded him softly for a moment. "We know something of it. But we do not have a word for it."

Michelson was suddenly aware that this small, muddy valley was a strangely unimpressive scene for a meeting of races. He felt alone and unimportant standing amid the ages-old rocks of this world with the furry Martian. This was not, after all, his world; he had lived most of his life here, and had come to think of it as his home far more than he thought so of Earth, but here in the quiet gray rock-shadows he felt fully for the first time that this desolate world belonged to the hoppers—to the Martians. And without quite realizing what he was doing he cut in his oxygen supply, though he wasn't really short of breath.

The Marshie hopped away without a word, leaving him alone there.

· · · · · 

Harris and Loening surveyed the area thoroughly in the days that followed, and Michelson sent some men out to begin construction of a dam there, meanwhile making preparations for draining the waterpocket beneath the city. It kept him busy for several days, and it wasn't until two weeks later, when the dam-construction was started, that he began to wonder seriously why the Marshie had not been around again. No one had seen him out at the dam site either.

Michelson took an aircar out to the site soon after and checked the progress of the work there. They had moved machinery in and set up temporary quarters there for the work-crew; the area was bustling with activity. Michelson looked at the footprints of the workmen in the Martian dust, heard the noise of the machines and the voices around him, and thought of that silent day when he had stood here alone with the Marshie. Two weeks ago … it seemed like months.

He left, and took the aircar up to scout the area. The Marshies' city was supposed to be somewhere farther up the pass; he hoped he could spot it from the air. He flew low, droning through the massive rocky crags, watching the ground through binocs. He had penetrated fifteen miles further into the mountains and was almost ready to give up when he found it.

The dwellings were cut into the rock, in vertical lines up and down the cliffside. There were perhaps twenty or twenty-five of them; certainly no more. He landed the aircar at the base of those cliffs and approached slowly.

He needn't have bothered; they were empty. Some things had been left behind—a few small objects, delicately carved from stone, some pelts of the Marshies' own fur which had perhaps been used for added warmth during the winter, one or two pieces of what might have been furniture—but the area was definitely deserted. He couldn't tell offhand how long the Marshies had been gone, but he was sure it was no more than two weeks.

He left the dwellings untouched, not even picking up any of the small stone carvings to bring back with him. Perhaps later they could send out a government expedition to catalog and study what had been left. He walked slowly back to his aircar, looking at the depressions in the floor of the canyon left by the Marshies' footprints.

A fluttering behind him caused him to turn in surprise, and he saw a Marshie regarding him calmly. This could have been the same one, but he seemed a bit more heavily built, his fur somewhat darker.

"Hello," Michelson said. "We are friends?"

The Marshie continued to look silently at him for a moment, his heavy, dark wings folded like shadows around him. Then he said, "Some of us too are insane." And he disappeared with a quick jump and flutter of brown wings.

After a while Michelson turned and continued walking to the aircar, leaving the footprints of his boots behind him in the dust.

The End


© 1962 by Terry Carr. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November 1962.