“Do you realize what this is?”

“What, sir?”

“This is no celebration,” replied the captain tiredly. “This is no banquet. These aren’t government representatives. This is no surprise party. Look at their eyes. Listen to them!”

Nobody breathed. There was only a soft white move of eyes in the close room.

“Now I understand”—the captain’s voice was far away—“why everyone gave us notes and passed us on, one from the other, until we met Mr. Iii, who sent us down a corridor with a key to open a door and shut a door. And here we are … ”

“Where are we, sir?”

The captain exhaled. “In an insane asylum.”

It was night. The large hall lay quiet and dimly illuminated by hidden light sources in the transparent walls. The four Earth Men sat around a wooden table, their bleak heads bent over their whispers. On the floors, men and women lay huddled. There were little stirs in the dark corners, solitary men or women gesturing their hands. Every half-hour one of the captain’s men would try the silver door and return to the table. “Nothing doing, sir. We’re locked in proper.”

“They think we’re really insane, sir?”

“Quite. That’s why there was no hullabaloo to welcome us. They merely tolerated what, to them, must be a constantly recurring psychotic condition.” He gestured at the dark sleeping shapes all about them. “Paranoids, every single one! What a welcome they gave us! For a moment there”—a little fire rose and died in his eyes—“I thought we were getting our true reception. All the yelling and singing and speeches. Pretty nice, wasn’t it—while it lasted?”

“How long will they keep us here, sir?”

“Until we prove we’re not psychotics.”

“That should be easy.”

“I hope so.”

“You don’t sound very certain, sir.”

“I’m not. Look in that corner.”

A man squatted alone in darkness. Out of his mouth issued a blue flame which turned into the round shape of a small naked woman. It flourished on the air softly in vapors of cobalt light, whispering and sighing.

The captain nodded at another corner. A woman stood there, changing. First she was embedded in a crystal pillar, then she melted into a golden statue, finally a staff of polished cedar, and back to a woman.

All through the midnight hall people were juggling thin violet flames, shifting, changing, for nighttime was the time of change and affliction.

“Magicians, sorcerers,” whispered one of the Earth Men.

“No, hallucination. They pass their insanity over into us so that we see their hallucinations too. Telepathy. Autosuggestion and telepathy.”

“Is that what worries you, sir?”

“Yes. If hallucinations can appear this ‘real’ to us, to anyone, if hallucinations are catching and almost believable, it’s no wonder they mistook us for psychotics. If that man can produce little blue fire women and that woman there melt into a pillar, how natural if normal Martians think we produce our rocket ship with our minds.”

“Oh,” said his men in the shadows.

Around them, in the vast hall, flames leaped blue, flared, evaporated. Little demons of red sand ran between the teeth of sleeping men. Women became oily snakes. There was a smell of reptiles and animals.

In the morning everyone stood around looking fresh, happy, and normal. There were no flames or demons in the room. The captain and his men waited by the silver door, hoping it would open.

Mr. Xxx arrived after about four hours. They had a suspicion that he had waited outside the door, peering in at them for at least three hours before he stepped in, beckoned, and led them to his small office.

He was a jovial, smiling man, if one could believe the mask he wore, for upon it was painted not one smile, but three. Behind it, his voice was the voice of a not so smiling psychologist. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“You think we’re insane, and we’re not,” said the captain.

“Contrarily, I do not think all of you are insane.” The psychologist pointed a little wand at the captain. “No. Just you, sir. The others are secondary hallucinations.”

The captain slapped his knee, “So that’s it! That’s why Mr. Iii laughed when I suggested my men sign the papers too!”

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray