One, two, three. Sam counted. The Martian ships closed in.
“Elma, Elma, I can’t hold them all off!”
Elma did not speak or rise from where she had slumped.
Sam fired his gun eight times. One of the sand ships fell apart, the sail, the emerald body, the bronze hull points, the moon-white tiller, and all the separate images in it. The masked men, all of them, dug into the sand and separated out into orange and then smoke-flame.
But the other ships closed in.
“I’m outnumbered, Elma!” he cried. “They’ll kill me!”
He threw out the anchor. It was no use. The sail fluttered down, folding unto itself, sighing. The ship stopped. The wind stopped. Travel stopped. Mars stood still as the majestic vessels of the Martians drew around and hesitated over him.
“Earth man,” a voice called from a high seat somewhere. A silverine mask moved. Ruby-rimmed lips glittered with the words.
“I didn’t do anything!” Sam looked at all the faces, one hundred in all, that surrounded him. There weren’t many Martians left on Mars—one hundred, one hundred and fifty, all told. And most of them were here now, on the dead seas, in their resurrected ships, by their dead chess cities, one of which had just fallen like some fragile vase hit by a pebble. The silverine masks glinted.
“It was all a mistake,” he pleaded, standing out of his ship, his wife slumped behind him in the deeps of the hold, like a dead woman. “I came to Mars like any honest enterprising businessman. I took some surplus material from a rocket that crashed and I built me the finest little stand you ever saw right there on that land by the crossroads—you know where it is. You’ve got to admit it’s a good job of building.” Sam laughed, staring around. “And that Martian—I know he was a friend of yours—came. His death was an accident, I assure you. All I wanted to do was have a hot-dog stand, the only one on Mars, the first and most important one. You understand how it is? I was going to serve the best darned hot dogs there, with chili and onions and orange juice.”
The silver masks did not move. They burned in the moonlight. Yellow eyes shone upon Sam. He felt his stomach clench in, wither, become a rock. He threw his gun in the sand.
“I give up.”
“Pick up your gun,” said the Martians in chorus.
“Your gun.” A jeweled hand waved from the prow of a blue ship. “Pick it up. Put it away.”
Unbelieving he picked up the gun.
“Now,” said the voice, “turn your ship and go back to your stand.”
“Now,” said the voice. “We will not harm you. You ran away before we were able to explain. Come.”
Now the great ships turned as lightly as moon thistles. Their wing-sails flapped with a sound of soft applause on the air, The masks were coruscating, turning, firing the shadows.
“Elma!” Sam tumbled into the ship. “Get up, Elma. We’re going back.” He was excited. He almost gibbered with relief. “They aren’t going to hurt me, kill me, Elma. Get up, honey, get up.”
“What—what?” Elma blinked around and slowly, as the ship was sent into the wind again, she helped herself, as in a dream, back up to a seat and slumped there like a sack of stones, saying no more.
The sand slid under the ship. In half an hour they were back at the crossroads, the ships planted, all of them out of the ships.
The Leader stood before Sam and Elma, his mask beaten of polished bronze, the eyes only empty slits of endless blue-black, the mouth a slot out of which words drifted into the wind.
“Ready your stand,” said the voice. A diamond-gloved hand waved. “Prepare the viands, prepare the foods, prepare the strange wines, for tonight is indeed a great night!”
“You mean,” said Sam, “you’ll let me stay on here?”
“You’re not mad at me?”
The mask was rigid and carved and cold and sightless.
“Prepare your place of food,” said the voice softly. “And take this.”
“What is it?”