But nobody was yelling.
The captain gave a quiet order. One of the men ran into the ship and brought forth food tins which were opened and dished out without much noise. The men were beginning to talk now. The captain sat down and recounted the trip to them. They already knew it all, but it was good to hear about it, as something over and done and safely put away. They would not talk about the return trip. Someone brought that up, but they told him to keep quiet. The spoons moved in the double moonlight; the food tasted good and the wine was even better.
There was a touch of fire across the sky, and an instant later the auxiliary rocket landed beyond the camp. Spender watched as the small port opened and Hathaway, the physician-geologist—they were all men of twofold ability, to conserve space on the trip—stepped out. He walked slowly over to the captain.
“Well?” said Captain Wilder.
Hathaway gazed out at the distant cities twinkling in the starlight. After swallowing and focusing his eyes he said, “That city there, Captain, is dead and has been dead a good many thousand years. That applies to those three cities in the hills also. But that fifth city, two hundred miles over, sir—“
“What about it?”
“People were living in it last week, sir.”
Spender got to his feet.
“Martians,” said Hathaway.
“Where are they now?”
“Dead,” said Hathaway. “I went into a house on one street. I thought that it, like the other towns and houses, had been dead for centuries. My God, there were bodies there. It was like walking in a pile of autumn leaves. Like sticks and pieces of burnt newspaper, that’s all. And fresh. They’d been dead ten days at the outside.”
“Did you check other towns? Did you see anything alive?”
“Nothing whatever. So I went out to check the other towns. Four out of five have been empty for thousands of years. What happened to the original inhabitants I haven’t the faintest idea. But the fifth city always contained the same thing. Bodies. Thousands of bodies.”
“What did they die of?” Spender moved forward.
“You won’t believe it.”
“What killed them?”
Hathaway said simply, “Chicken pox.”
“My God, no!”
“Yes. I made tests. Chicken pox. It did things to the Martians it never did to Earth Men. Their metabolism reacted differently, I suppose. Burnt them black and dried them out to brittle flakes. But it’s chicken pox, nevertheless. So York and Captain Williams and Captain Black must have got through to Mars, all three expeditions. God knows what happened to them. But we at least know what they unintentionally did to the Martians.”
“You saw no other life?”
“Chances are a few of the Martians, if they were smart, escaped to the mountains. But there aren’t enough, I’ll lay you money, to be a native problem. This planet is through.”
Spender turned and went to sit at the fire, looking into it. Chicken pox, God, chicken pox, think of it! A race builds itself for a million years, refines itself, erects cities like those out there, does everything it can to give itself respect and beauty, and then it dies. Part of it dies slowly, in its own time, before our age, with dignity. But the rest! Does the rest of Mars die of a disease with a fine name or a terrifying name or a majestic name? No, in the name of all that’s holy, it has to be chicken pox, a child’s disease, a disease that doesn’t even kill children on Earth! It’s not right and it’s not fair. It’s like saying the Greeks died of mumps, or the proud Romans died on their beautiful hills of athlete’s foot! If only we’d given the Martians time to arrange their death robes, lie down, look fit, and think up some other excuse for dying. It can’t be a dirty, silly thing like chicken pox. It doesn’t fit the architecture; it doesn’t fit this entire world!
“All right, Hathaway, get yourself some food.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
And as quickly as that it was forgotten. The men talked among themselves.
Spender did not take his eyes off them. He left his food on his plate under his hands. He felt the land getting colder. The stars drew closer, very clear.