No one moved.
The white man was tall and straight but a deep weariness was m his face. He had not shaved this day, and his eyes were as old as the eyes of a man can be and still be alive. His eyes were colorless; almost white and sightless with things he had seen in the passing years. He was as thin as a winter bush. His hands trembled and he had to lean against the portway of the ship as he looked out over the crowd.
He put out a hand and half smiled, but drew his hand back.
No one moved.
He looked down into their faces, and perhaps he saw but did not see the guns and the ropes, and perhaps he smelled the paint. No one ever asked him. He began to talk. He started very quietly and slowly, expecting no interruptions, and receiving none, and his voice was very tired and old and pale.
“It doesn’t matter who I am,” he said. “I’d be just a name to you, anyhow. I don’t know your names, either. That’ll come later.” He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and then continued:
“Twenty years ago you left Earth. That’s a long, long time. It’s more like twenty centuries, so much has happened. After you left, the War came.” He nodded slowly. “Yes, thebig one. The Third One. It went on for a long time. Until last year. We bombed all of the cities of the world. We destroyed New York and London and Moscow and Paris and Shanghai and Bombay and Alexandria. We ruined it all. And when we finished with the big cities we went to the little cities and atom-bombed and burned them.”
Now he began to name cities and places, and streets. And as he named them, a murmur rose up in his audience.
“We destroyed Natchez . . .”
“And Columbus, Georgia . . .”
“We burned New Orleans . . .”
“And Atlanta . . .”
“And there was nothing left of Greenwater, Alabama.”
Willie Johnson jerked his head and his mouth opened. Hattie saw this gesture, and the recognition coming into his dark eyes.
“Nothing was left,” said the old man in the port, speaking slowly. “Cotton fields, burned.”
Oh, said everyone.
“Cotton mills bombed out——”
“And the factories, radioactive; everything radioactive. All the roads and the farms and the foods, radioactive. Everything.” He named more names of towns and villages.
“That’s my town,” someone whispered.
“That’s mine,” someone else said.
“Memphis. Did they burnMemphis?” A shocked query.
“Memphis, blown up.
“FourthStreet in Memphis?”
“All of it,” said the old man.
It was stirring them now. After twenty years it was rushing back. The towns and the places, the trees and the brick buildings, the signs and the churches and the familiar stores, all of it was coming to the surface among the gathered people. Each name touched memory, and there was no one present without a thought of another day. They were all old enough for that, save the children.
“I remember Laredo.”
“New York City.”
“I had a store in Harlem.”
“Harlem, bombed out.”
The ominous words. The familiar, remembered places. The struggle to imagine all of those places in ruins.
Willie Johnson murmured the words, “Greenwater, Alabama. That’s where I was born. I remember.”
Gone. All of it gone. The man said so.
The man continued, “So we destroyed everything and ruined everything, like the fools that we were and the fools that we are. We killed millions. I don’t think there are more than five hundred thousand people left in the world, all kinds and types. And out of all the wreckage we salvaged enough metal to build this one rocket, and we came to Mars in it this month to seek your help.”
He hesitated and looked down among the faces to see what could be found there, but he was uncertain.
Hattie Johnson felt her husband’s arm tense, saw his fingers grip the rope.
“We’ve been fools,” said the old man quietly. “We’ve brought the Earth and civilization down about our heads. None of the cities are worth saving—they’ll be radioactive for a century. Earth is over and done with. Its age is through. You have rockets here which you haven’t tried to use to return to Earth in twenty years. Now I’ve come to ask you to use them. To come to Earth, to pick up the survivors and bring them back to Mars. To help us go on at this time. We’ve been stupid. Before God we admit our stupidity and our evilness. All the Chinese and the Indians and the Russians and the British and the Americans. We’re asking to be taken in. Your Martian soil has lain fallow for numberless centuries; there’s room for everyone; it’s good soil—I’ve seen your fields from above. We’ll come and work itfor you. Yes, we’ll even do that. We deserve anything you want to do to us, but don’t shut us out. We can’t force you to act now. If you want I’ll get into my ship and go back and that will be all there is to it. We won’t bother you again. But we’ll come here and we’ll work for you and do the things you did for us—clean your houses, cook your meals, shine your shoes, and humble ourselves in the sight of God for the things we have done over the centuries to ourselves, to others, to you.