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The Terror Birds

Part of: Other World Life
From: Pharaoh's Broker

"They must have thought the projectile was another chunk fallen from
Phobos!" I exclaimed; "and now they can't make out why it should fly
back to the satellite again."

"The more we mystify them, the more they will fear us," said the doctor.
"I am going to make a swift downward swoop now, as if we would crash
through the midst of them. Then perhaps they will let us alone till we
are ready for them."

He had scarcely finished speaking when we shot down in a long curve,
like the swing of a pendulum, apparently making directly for the group
of Martians. They were not seized by any quick panic; they were too
phlegmatic for that. But just as the projectile threatened to smash into
them, they seemed to realize the danger, and to grasp the idea that it
was being operated and directed by some power and mind inside. Then they
turned, scrambling clumsily over each other, and fled with the awkward
precipitation of a rhinoceros in a hurry. Our pendulum motion swung us
up a little before we would have struck them, but they had scattered and
were scurrying to hiding-places behind the walls of the masonry
telescopes. We continued our flight to the edge of the plateau, whence
we could get a better view of the city and hold a more commanding

"None of these who have seen our aerial evolutions are likely to trouble
us again," remarked the doctor. "But they will quickly spread the news
to the city, and we must be where we can watch everything that goes on
there, and hurriedly prepare for the worst they can do to us. We will
seek the principal approach to the plateau and defend it."

His ideas had suddenly become altogether warlike. I liked the excitement
of it so far, and hastened to agree with him. We came to land in a
sheltered part of the main road leading to the plateau, and prepared to
emerge and set up our telescope where it would sweep the city.

"Shall we try this air on the dog before you go out?" inquired the
doctor in all seriousness.

"Try it on the rabbit if you wish, but not on Two-spot."

He put Bunny into the discharging cylinder and pushed him out. The meek
little animal seemed quite delighted at being released. He hopped about
playfully, skipping much higher and farther at each hop than I had ever
seen him do before.

This reassured me, and I put on the helmet again, and opened the
port-hole. As the rarer Martian air swept in, my suit swelled and puffed
to its fullest capacity, by the expansion of the denser air within it. I
was so blown up that I could scarcely squeeze myself out of the
port-hole. It was like a red misty day outside, though there were no
clouds. The sky was a perfectly cloudless dull red, and the coppery sun
was shining almost overhead. His orb looked less than two-thirds the
size it did from the Earth, and one could look at its duller light
fixedly without hurting the eyes. Phobos was also faintly visible,
steering his backward course across the ruddy sky. The thermometer
showed a temperature just above freezing, but I was perfectly warm
within the diver's suit and its envelope of air. The red haze and utter
lack of breeze added a deceptive appearance of sultry heat.

I was gazing back toward the Gnomons, when suddenly a group of the
Martians we had first seen came around a turn of the road and over a
knoll into full view of us. They were plainly surprised beyond all
measure by my strange appearance. My puffed and corpulent figure, my
bulging face of glass, my two long rubber tentacles extending back into
my shell, must have made them think I was a very curious animal! Also
they were probably surprised at seeing any living thing come out of the
mass, which they must have thought had fallen from their moon, for she
was always shying things at them. And I now had my first chance to
study their appearance closely.

"Doctor," I said softly, to see if he could hear me through the
connecting tubes. As I had hoped, they proved to be very good
speaking-trumpets, and I heard his answer noisily.

"Speak lower; I hear you easily," I said. "There is a party of them
coming down this road to descend to the city. They have stopped upon
seeing me. They are nothing but men like ourselves. I see no wings,
horns, tails, or other appendages that we have not. They are just fat,
puffy, sluggish men, very white and pale in colour, and covered with a
peculiar clothing that looks like feathers. I seem to be a far greater
freak to them than they are to me."

Had he been a million miles away, I should have known that it was the
doctor answering, from his unsurprised and matter-of-fact tone. I
imagined I could see the exact expression of his face as he said,--

"After all, then, man is the most perfect animal the Creator could make.
From a mechanical standpoint he needs nothing that he has not, and has
nothing that he does not need. However you change him, you would make
him imperfect. Physiologically he may be much the same on all the
planets, but there is room for the widest variations on the intellectual
and spiritual side."

"Do not forget that my patriarchal ancestors record that God made man
in His own image, upon which there could be no improvement," I put in.

"Yes, but modern scientists would have us believe that your patriarchs
would have written a different fable if they had understood the theory
of evolution. It appears that man is really a little lower than the
angels, by being material and ponderable and visible, but the general
image may be the same. Perhaps upon the various planets it may be that
the same lines of differences prevail, as between the heathen tribes and
the civilized people on earth. There at least we are sure that
physiologically no marked difference exists between the lowest savage
and the wisest sage."

"Except, perhaps, that the savage may have the best digestion," I added.
"Those look as if they had but few troubles and plenty to eat. I see no
wrinkles or hard lines. Their forms and features are gracefully rounded.
Their eyes are larger and stronger, with a liquid depth suited to this
soft and weaker light. None of them wear beards, and very little hair is
visible. I must say they do not look at all warlike. If we could only
make them understand that we are friendly, I think they would gladly bid
us to a feast of freshly-cooked meats and good wines, and ask us,
chuckling, for the latest after-dinner stories that are current on

"Make friendly signs to them, and see how they behave," he suggested.

I slowly waved my hand to them to approach, and extended my arm as if to
shake hands. While talking with the doctor I had stood perfectly still,
and they had been warily watching me all the time. When I moved and
stretched out my arm, they took fright and fled precipitately.

"I have scared them away, as if they were a lot of roe deer!" I

"Then let us hasten preparations while they are gone," he replied. "If
you can stand the pressure I have given you, it will be safe to throw
off the helmet and suit."

Upon lifting the cover from my head, I caught a draught of fresh cold
air that was unspeakably invigorating. I drank it in deep breaths, and
felt like skipping about for joy. Kicking off the suit that trammelled
me, I put it and the helmet back inside and closed the port-hole. Then
the doctor pulled away the bulkhead and breathed the mixed atmosphere,
half-Martian from my compartment and half-Earthly from his. He suffered
no inconvenience from the sudden half-way step toward a lower density,
and presently he emerged into the exhilarating air with me.

"This atmosphere has a stimulation in it like thin wine, and it gives me
an appetite. I feel strong and virile enough to tip Mars topsy-turvy," I
said. "At least, let me get some cigars to smoke while we are arming our

When I went in for the guns, I put a handful of Havanas in my vest
pocket, and emerging, I laid the rifles handy and proceeded to light a
weed. I was watching the bright flame of the match, and puffing with
gusto at the fragrant smoke, when from another direction a second squad
of Martians came into view very near us. They immediately halted and
gazed at us in open-mouthed wonder, which soon changed to a look of
horror. Remembering the pipe of peace among the American Indians, I drew
out a cigar, and hastily striking a match upon my trousers, I held the
weed and flame toward them. Not a man of them stayed to see any more.
Their flight was more precipitate than the other party's had been.

"It was your smoke they were afraid of," said the doctor. "Whenever you
puffed, I saw them looking at each other blankly and dropping back a
little. They have taken you for a fire-eater and a smoke-breather, and
when you drew the flame from your lungs it was too much for them. But
all this serves our purpose of frightening them. They will spread
strange stories in the city below!"

I helped him carry out the telescope, and we placed it in a commanding
position. Then we propped up the broad shields, so that each of us could
crouch behind one, and I laid a broadsword and rifle handy to each. Then
we put on the linked-wire shirts under our coats, buckled the revolvers
about us, and, as it was rather cold, we each put on a thick pair of
gloves and a heavy topcoat.

The doctor, who was carefully watching things down in the city through
the telescope, cried out to me presently,--

"There is wild commotion and great excitement down yonder by the great
palace. The news has reached them! They are preparing to come in force
to take us!"

"I wish I knew what their sign of peace is, we might save a conflict,"
said I. "Perhaps our fire-arms won't harm them."

"More likely they will blow them all to pieces," answered the doctor.
"But we must not fire unless it becomes absolutely necessary to defend
ourselves, for if we kill any of them, they will then have cause to deal
with us as dreadfully as they can. We cannot hope to overcome them all.
It will be enough to demonstrate our supremacy, so that they will allow
us to live among them. Therefore, let us simply defend ourselves and do
nothing offensive, thus showing that we are peaceably disposed."

"You cry peace, but look at the great army they are sending against us!"
I exclaimed. "There are four companies of foot soldiers marching through
the streets, and each man is armed with a very long cross-bow and wears
a brightly-coloured bird-wing on his forehead. The streets are filling
with people to see them pass. Now three more companies wheel out of the
palace, but they have no cross-bows. They are whirling something around
their heads."

The doctor anxiously awaited his turn at the telescope, and as he looked
he clutched his pistol though they were still several miles away.

"Those are slings they are whirling about their heads," he said. "And
the commander of each company rides an ambling donkey, and wears a heavy
plaited beard and long braided hair, without head covering."

"But look further back, coming out of the palace now!" I cried. "What
are those strange, stately animals far behind the soldiers? I can see
them with the naked eye."

"Donnerwetter! what towering birds!" he muttered under his breath.
"Like ostriches in form, but as tall and graceful as a giraffe! There is
a man riding astride the neck of each of them, yet he could scarcely
reach half-way to their heads!"

"Are those monstrous things birds?" I demanded. "Let me look. What long
and bony legs they have! They would stride over us without touching our
heads; but how they could kick!"

"And how they could run!" put in the doctor. "See, they stride easily
over seven or eight feet with a single step. They must be messenger
birds, for there are only four of them, and their riders are not

"They may have hundreds more of them in reserve, and they could fight
far more viciously than the men. See what a wicked beak and what a long
muscular neck they have. They could crush a skull in a twinkling with
one swift swoop of that head! I will fight the men, but I will take no
chances with those birds!"

Although these strange, small-winged creatures had started long after
the soldiers, they had quickly passed them, and were now beginning to
mount toward our plateau. They were making swift detours at intervals,
as if to reconnoitre. We were hidden behind our rocks and shields, and
the riders could not see us, and they had evidently not yet seen the
brass barrel of our telescope. It would be folly for them to attempt to
come up the road we were guarding, for we could easily heave boulders
over and crush them. I had already put my shoulder to an immense rock
near the brink, to see if it was as heavy as it looked. I found it
porous and crumbly, and no heavier than so much chalk. Up the roadway
the great birds climbed with wonderful ease. Their riders were evidently
looking for us without any idea where we were.

"I won't see those elephantine bipeds come any nearer to me!" I
exclaimed, and rushing to the boulder, which was certainly four feet in
diameter, I toppled it over the brink, and expected to see it carry
everything down before it. It rolled slowly down the steep bank, with
hardly a third the force and speed of the same mass on Earth. This
discouraged me, but I watched for it to reach the foremost bird. He was
surprised by it, but made one step sideways, and, lifting his great
right leg, the stone rolled under him without any damage. He gave a
queer, guttural croak, accompanied by a most violent motion of the head
and neck. The other birds, thus warned, dodged quickly sidewise, and
avoided the slowly rolling boulder; but all three of the riders were
thrown by the swift lateral movement of the birds. The astonished men
picked themselves up slowly from the bushes and approached their birds.
But they could scarcely reach with their hands the lower part of the
neck where they had sat.

"Unless they are good jumpers, they cannot mount again without a
ladder!" said the doctor.

"Jumping is easier than standing still here," I interrupted. "I can jump
ten feet high with no trouble."

"Yes; but these Martian boobies haven't your muscles. Aber Blitzen!
did you see that fellow mount his bird again?"

I had seen it, and I do not remember anything more wonderful than this
operation, which was repeated for each rider. The man went in front of
his bird, turned his back, and stooped forward. The bird then curved his
long neck to the ground, and put his head and neck between the legs of
the rider, who clutched tightly with his arms and legs. With a swift,
graceful swing, the bird lifted its head on high, carrying the rider as
if he were nothing. When the great neck was again erect, the man slid
carefully down it to his place, much as one might slip down a telegraph
pole. Then two of the birds turned back to the city as swiftly as they
could go, and the other two took separate side trails and soon

Next: The Armies Of Mars

Previous: Why Mars Gives A Red Light

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