“We Martians are telepathic,” said the cold blue mask. “We are in contact with one of your towns across the dead sea. Have you listened on your radio?”
“My radio’s busted.”
“Then you don’t know. There’s big news. It concerns Earth—“
A silver hand gestured. A bronze tube appeared in it.
“Let me show you this.”
“A gun,” cried Sam Parkhill.
An instant later he had yanked his own gun from his hip holster and fired into the mist, the robe, the blue mask.
The mask sustained itself a moment. Then, like a small circus tent pulling up its stakes and dropping soft fold on fold, the silks rustled, the mask descended, the silver claws tinkled on the stone path. The mask lay on a small huddle of silent white bones and material.
Sam stood gasping.
His wife swayed over the huddled pile.
“That’s no weapon,” she said, bending down. She picked up the bronze tube. “He was going to show you a message. It’s all written out in snake-script, all the blue snakes. I can’t read it. Can you?”
“No, that Martian picture writing, it wasn’t anything. Let it go!” Sam glanced hastily around. “There may be others! We’ve got to get him out of sight. Get the shovel!”
“What’re you going to do?”
“Bury him, of course!”
“You shouldn’t have shot him.”
“It was a mistake. Quick!”
Silently she fetched him the shovel.
At eight o’clock he was back sweeping the front of the hotdog stand self-consciously. His wife stood, arms folded, in the bright doorway.
“I’m sorry what happened,” he said. He looked at her, then away. “You know it was purely the circumstances of Fate.”
“Yes,” said his wife.
“I hated like hell to see him take out that weapon.”
“Well, I thought it was one! I’m sorry, I’m sorry! How many times do I say it!”
“Ssh,” said Elma, putting one finger to her lips. “Ssh.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I got the whole Earth Settlements, Inc., back of me!” He snorted. “These Martians won’t dare—“
“Look,” said Elma.
He looked out onto the dead sea bottom. He dropped his broom. He picked it up and his mouth was open, a little free drop of saliva flew on the air, and he was suddenly shivering.
“Elma, Elma, Elma!” he said.
“Here they come,” said Elma.
Across the ancient sea floor a dozen tall, blue-sailed Martian sand ships floated, like blue ghosts, like blue smoke.
“Sand ships! But there aren’t any more, Elma, no more sand ships.”
“Those seem to be sand ships,” she said.
“But the authorities confiscated all of them! They broke them up, sold some at auction! I’m the only one in this whole damn territory’s got one and knows how to run one.”
“Not any more,” she said, nodding at the sea.
“Come on, let’s get out of here!”
“Why?” she asked slowly, fascinated with the Martian vessels.
“They’ll kill me! Get in our truck, quick!”
Elma didn’t move.
He had to drag her around back of the stand where the two machines stood, his truck, which he had used steadily until a month ago, and the old Martian sand ship which he had bid for at auction, smiling, and which, during the last three weeks, he had used to carry supplies back and forth over the glassy sea floor. He looked at his truck now and remembered. The engine was out on the ground; he had been puttering with it for two days.
“The truck don’t seem to be in running condition,” said Elma.
“The sand ship. Get in!”
“And let you drive me in a sand ship? Oh no.”
“Get in! I can do it!”
He shoved her in, jumped in behind her, and flapped the tiller, let the cobalt sail up to take the evening wind.
The stars were bright and the blue Martian ships were skimming across the whispering sands. At first his own ship would not move, then he remembered the sand anchor and yanked it in.
The wind hurled the sand ship keening over the dead sea bottom, over long-buried crystals, past upended pillars, past deserted docks of marble and brass, past dead white chess cities, past purple foothills, into distance. The figures of the Martian ships receded and then began to pace Sam’s ship.