Water, Water—Nowhere

YOUNG Dillon Stover woke easily and good-humoredly, as usual. He knew he was in bed, of course—but was he? He felt as though he were floating on a fleecy cloud, or something.

He stretched his muscular long legs and arms, yawned and shook his tawny-curled head. He felt light as a feather, even in the first waking moment. He was alert enough to remember now. This was Mars, where he weighed only forty percent of what he weighed at home in the Missouri Ozarks. He’d come here to carry on the scientific labors of his late grandfather, which labors he’d inherited along with old Dr. Stover’s snug fortune. For the first time in his life Dillon Stover had fine clothes, independence, money in his belt-pouch—and responsibility.

That responsibility had brought him to Pulambar, Martian City of Pleasure, for study and decision.

He sat up on the edge of his bed, looking around the sleeping room. Its walls were of translucent stuff like ground glass. Upon them, delicate as dim etchings, rippled a living pattern of leaves and blossoms that waved in the wind—a sort of magic-lantern effect from within, he decided. Such leaves and blossoms had once existed on Mars, long ago before the planet began to dry and choke with thirst.

Somebody looked in. It was Buckalew, his grandfather’s old friend, to whose care Dr. Stover had entrusted his grandson’s Martian wanderings in a posthumous letter of introduction.

Robert Buckalew was a man of ordinary height, slender but well-proportioned, with regular, almost delicate features that seemed never to change expression. Like most society sparks whose figures were not too grotesque, he wore snugly tailored garments and a graceful mantle. He looked very young to have been a friend of Stover’s grandfather. His dark hair was ungrayed, his expressionless face unwrinkled. What kind of man was Buckalew? But Dr. Stover had died—suddenly and without indication of the need to die—and his grandson must trust to that letter of introduction.

“Good morning,” Buckalew greeted Stover. “Good afternoon, rather, for it’s a little past noon. Sleep well?”
Again the young man from Earth stretched, and stood up. He was taller than Buckalew, crawling with muscles. He grinned, very attractively.

“I slept like a drunkard without a conscience,” he said. “That flight in from Earth’s tiring, isn’t it? When did I get here? Midnight? Thanks for taking me over like this.” He glanced around. “Am I in some de luxe hotel?”

“You’re in my guest room,” replied Buckalew. “This is a tower apartment. I’m in what they call the ‘High-tower Set’, living ’way above town. Come to breakfast.”

The meal was served in the parlor, a dome-ceilinged chamber with rosy soft light and metal chairs that were as soft as the bed had been. Or was that more Martian gravity? The servant was a clanking figure of nickeled iron with jointed arms and legs and a bucketlike head with no face except a dimly glowing light bulb. Stover had seen few robots at home on Earth, and he studied this one intently.

“A marvelous servant,” he commented to Buckalew as the metal creature went kitchenward for more dishes. “I’ve never been served better.”

“Thank your grandfather,” replied Buckalew, who was not eating, perhaps having had a meal earlier. “Dr. Stover made all these very successful machine-servitors now in use throughout Pulambar.”

Stover had heard that. But his grandfather had ceased his robot building long ago. Why? Perhaps it was because his latest work, the problem of the Martian water shortage, had absorbed him.

“They aren’t exactly alive, are they?” the young man asked Buckalew.

Buckalew’s dark head shook, rather somberly. “No. They’re only keyed to limited behavior-patterns. This one is good for personal service, others as mechanics’ helpers, some of the best as calculators or clerks. But—” He broke off. “Where do you want to go first? I’m at your service, Dillon.”

Stover wiped his mouth. “I suppose that business had better come before any pleasures. I’m here to look at drought conditions. Can you help me there?”

“Of course.” Buckalew went to a wireless telephone instrument at the wall. “Short-shot rocket,” he ordered into it, and led the way out upon the front balcony.

By bright daylight Stover now saw Pulambar spread far below the tower in which Buckalew lived.

Martians built Pulambar long ago at the apex of that forked expanse of verdure called Fastigium Aryn by Earth’s old astronomers. Their world was dying in spite of science and toil, and in a pleasure city the doom might be forgotten. Pulambar had its foundations in the one lake left on Mars—canals for streets, open pools for squares, throngs of motorized gondolas and barges.

This was all the more wondrous since the rest of the planet fairly famished for water. Above towered clifflike buildings of every bright plastic material, rimmed with walks, strung with colored lights, balconied with gardens, spouting music and glare and gaiety, and crowded with tourists of all kinds and from all planets. If the laughter was a trifle hysterical, so much the better.

Above this massed roar and chatter rose towers and spires from the blocky masses of buildings. Here was Pulambar’s upper segment—Tower Town, where wealth and society reigned. A world of its own, as Stover saw it, the highest peaks a good two miles from ground level and strung together with a silvery web of wire walkways and trolley tracks. Independent of the coarser turmoil below, it needed no such turmoil, having plenty of its own. It had its own law, sophistication; its own standard, glitter; its own ruler, bad but brilliant, Mace Malbrook.

Of all these things Stover had only dreamed in the simple and sober surroundings of his boyhood. Orphaned at six, he had gone to dwell with his grandfather, the doctor, at the laboratory farm in the Ozarks. Study, exercise, health—all those his grandfather had supervised, making him into a towering athlete and something of a journeyman scientist. But the old man had always discouraged long jaunts even to such places as St. Louis, the World Capitol, let alone to other planets. Well, thought Stover, he was able all the better to savor the excitement of the great Pleasure City of Mars.

“I’m certainly pro-Pulambar,” he said to Buckalew, and he meant it.

“Here’s our rocket cab,” replied Buckalew, as a cartridge-shaped vehicle swam to the balcony railing. They entered the closed passenger compartment at the rear. “Tour us over the desert,” Buckalew ordered the pilot through a speaking tube.

Away over the complex glitter of Pulambar they soared, turning their stern-blasts to the fork of scrubby vegetation that cuddled the lake-based city. Beyond and below Stover could see the desert, rusty red and blank.

“Looks as if it needs a drink bad,” he said to Buckalew. “No wonder nobody lives in it.”

“Oh, people live in it,” surprisingly replied Buckalew. “Martians aren’t as numerous as Terrestrials, but there’s not enough good land for what there are.” Again he addressed the speaking tube: “Pilot, go lower and slower.”

The rocket dipped down. Stover could see the desert features more plainly, dunes, draws, expanses of red sand.

Buckalew pointed.

“You see that dark blotch like mold down there?” he asked. “It’s a sign of life. Set us down by that hutch, pilot.”

A minute later the cab dropped gently to the sand. Buckalew and Stover emerged.

Stover looked curiously at the blisterlike protuberance a few yards away. It rose perhaps five feet from the sand, and was twice that in diameter. At first sight it seemed of dull dark stuff, but then he saw that it was a semi-transparent shell, with clumpy vegetation inside.

“Come close,” said Buckalew, and they walked up to the blister. “This is the desert camp of a Martian.”

Inside the hummock grew a single bush or shrub. Its roots were deep in the sand, its broad-leafed branches spread out inside the shell to receive the sunlight.

Beneath those branches sprawled what looked something like four big, limp spiders.

“Martians,” said Buckalew.

Stover stared. The few Martians he had seen on Earth wore braces and garments to hold them erect in semi-Terrestrial posture. These, naked and unharnessed, showed as having soft bladder-bodies, each with six whip-like tentacles. Their heads, pink and covered with petal-like sense organs, all turned close to the big shrub. Stover saw that each of the Martians held a long pipe or tube in its tentacles, one end in the mouth orifice among the face petals. The other end of the pipe quested among the leaves of the shrub.

“They are probing for water to keep them alive,” Buckalew explained.

Then Stover understood. The shrub’s roots, deep and wide in the sand, drew to themselves all surrounding moisture. It concentrated in the leafage, a droplet at a time. These wretched creatures sealed the plant in lest the precious damp be lost by evaporation.

“Martians make such enclosures from the glassy silicates in the sand,” Buckalew was saying. “A Martian doesn’t need much food—a few ounces of concentrate will last for ever so long. What they need is a little water, and the plant can give that for a time.”

“For a time?” repeated Stover, staring again. “What happens when the plant’s water-production gives out?”

“The Martians die.”

“That must happen pretty often,” said Stover soberly, unconsciously quoting Through the Looking-Glass.

It may be that Buckalew was deliberate in rejoining, from the same work:

“It always happens.”

He stepped close to the sealed shelter, tapping on it with his knuckles. A Martian wriggled toward them. Buckalew held up something he had brought in the rocket—a clayware water jug, stoppered carefully, holding about two quarts. The Martian inside made frantic, appealing gestures.

Buckalew set the jug close to the foot of the glass wall, and the Martian burrowed quickly under, snatching it.

Stover turned away, almost shuddering, from the sight of all the creatures crowding around that pitiful container of water.

“We go back now,” said Buckalew, and they re-entered the cab.

Stover was somewhat pale under his healthy skin.

“This is ghastly,” he said at last. “They have to suck up to that poor plant—ugh!”

“That is but one little encampment of many such,” Buckalew told him. “Shall we stop at the fringe of Pulambar when we go back? To see the water-lines?”

“Water-lines?” repeated Stover. “Are they like bread-lines used to be on Earth?”

“Very much like that. Long processions of wretched poor, coming to get half-pint rations.”

“I don’t want to see that,” Stover told him. “Let’s get back to something gay.”

“Back to my apartment,” Buckalew told the pilot. To Stover he said: “We’ll visit the Zaarr tonight—best public house in Pulambar.”