I faxed my story from Sacramento as my Editor, Sam, gave me the word.
"Jake, I want you to head for Oregon. We got a tip about a really mysterious construction in the desert up there."
"What kind of construction?"
"The tipster says---are you ready for this?---that it's a copy of the `Face' on Mars. He says it was built by..." Sam hesitated. Was he listening to someone in the office, or trying hard not to laugh? It wasn't easy to convince Sam about the stuff he hired us to convince our readers about.
"Martians," I supplied.
"Almost. By a contractor they hired. I'm not kidding---a contractor! And if that ain't enough for ya, get this: it's supposed to be a warning."
"A warning," I echoed.
"Yeah. `Stay away from Mars, you Earth people.'"
At this point, he should have at least chuckled to show that he took this fantasy about as seriously as the rest of our "alien" stories. He didn't.
I rarely argue with my editor, but I couldn't help trying to toss this one over the side.
"Sam, we've done the Face, already, a couple of times. This angle sounds like something Gina would come up with. She's good at doing sci-fi stuff."
"I know. But this is for real. The tip was dropped on me by none other than The Man, himself. He didn't just hint; he said get on it right away.... You got the picture?"
"The Publisher? That's crazy. He doesn't get involved in stories... does he?"
"He hasn't for a long time. Somebody really got to him about this one. There's probably more here than meets the eye."
At this point, I just couldn't stop myself. Fortunately, Sam and I go way back.
"Well, if it's so damned significant, why did they give it to us?"
There was a short silence that was characteristic of Sam. It was like he was trying to figure that one out for himself and formulate a good reply. His reply showed he hadn't figured it out yet.
"Because we're the serious tab, Jake. What else?" He spoke in that ironic-indulgent voice he sometimes uses on reporters and subeditors who are slow to get the point.
"Yeah, sure. That must be it," I replied, in kind.
"Are you Duane?" I asked the husky, suntanned kid who came out to the pumps.
"Yeah. You the reporter?"
"That's me: Jake Weissmeyer." I stuck out my hand. He shook it perfunctorily, as if he were afraid of catching something. Infected city feller was I.
"Park it behind the station. We have to take my buggy. The road to Scotty's place is too rough." He pointed. "Scotty" was the guy I was supposed to see about the "construction." I parked and got out.
"Over here," he called. I stared at his "buggy." It gave me a bad feeling. It was a bunch of metal tubes wrapped around an engine and two bucket seats.
I wanted, in the worst way, to ask Duane to slow down, but I knew it wouldn't do any good. When he was driving Sand Devil IV, he was in a different world from mine. (That was the name painted on the big rollbar. I wondered what happened to the other three Devils. Went straight to hell, I supposed.)
"What do---you know---about the---Face?" I yelled. My words came out in clots as I was shaken and bounced around.
"The professor'll tell you about it," he yelled back.
`Professor'?... Duane sounded like he'd been told to keep quiet. I went back to watching the scenery and holding on tightly.
The road was mostly sand and small gravel, but rocky in spots where it was eroded. I guessed it rained here sometimes. The one-lane road followed the rolling terrain like a glove and looked like it had been used a lot lately. It was a shallow roller coaster, but rougher. I recalled that Charlie Manson and his gals liked to tool around in dunebuggies. I resolved not to question Duane any more. But I changed my mind when we came to a fork.
As we pulled off to the left, I noticed that the road to the right had borne most of the traffic. Our track got smoother as we began to climb higher ground, ahead.
I pointed to the right. "Where does that go?"
"To the Face," he replied, keeping his eyes on the road. "The dump trucks used it."
"Oh---oh---oh," I replied, as we took a series of corrugated bounces off some rock ribs across the road. As we crested the rise, Duane took the CB mike and keyed it.
"Yo! Scotty! Sand Devil here. I got the guy."
There was a long pause. Then, from the speaker, a reply. "Ten-four, Devil. Bring him on in."
I could tell from the voice that Scotty was an oldtimer, but shading my eyes and squinting ahead, I couldn't see where in that wilderness of rock, sand, and sagebrush he might be.
Sand Devil IV skidded to a dusty stop on a canted spot in front of a not-so-old cabin that drew my gaze. In a rocking chair on the porch was a grizzled, bearded older man. He looked like Gabby Hayes with spectacles. All he needed was a corncob pipe and that funny hat. Instead, a cigarette dangled from his mouth. It looked homemade.
We had rounded a hill spur and, suddenly, there it was: Scotty's Place. I almost expected to see the words on a sign above the porch. The cabin was halfway up a long, steep rise. Although there was a flat expanse of sagebrush and scrub at the bottom of the rise, the road swung up closer to the cabin.
We were here in one piece. A miracle.
I mean I had arrived. Duane and Scotty were already around here. Whoever they were, they sure didn't look like Martians.
"Glad to meetcha, Jake. My name's Gordon MacReddy, but everybody calls me Scotty."
I stood before his rockingchair, shaking his calloused hand. There was chair next to his, but he didn't invite me to sit. Duane went inside for a beer.
"Like Death Valley Scotty?"
"Yeah. And this is my castle." He grinned, broadly.
Up close, he looked less like Gabby Hayes than one of those older college professors who's put in a lot of field time before settling down into academia. His full beard was neatly trimmed and served to frame a gold tooth, which flashed as he talked. That must have marked him well on campus.
He was a little overweight, poundage probably gained while lecturing and relaxing with the old boys in the faculty lounge, and not lost during an occasional field trip. He was wearing chinos, a lumberjack flannel shirt, and a denim vest. His tough hiking boots showed a lot of wear.
"Did it used to be Professor MacReddy?" I asked.
"It did: Geology Department. But I got a better offer."
"This?" I swept out an arm.
"This project, Jake. I consider it an honor to be the field man and caretaker for the Company's property."
"Martians---crazy as it sounds. At least, that's what I was told. And I believe it."
"Tell me about 'em. That's what makes this story special."
He arose, leaving his chair rocking like a decaying pendulum.
"In good time, Jake. Let's take a little hike up the hill, first."
I hadn't noticed the foot trail which ran from the cabin to the top of the rise, behind. It was a steep, but I was in good shape. I stayed that way because I was a legman. I used to be athletic in college, and I didn't want to sit behind a desk and go soft while dreaming up tabloid crap. As the mag ran more and more "serious" feature stories, I went out after them. Investigative reporter---it sounds good, especially to the women I meet on the road. I know I'm not in the Watergate League; but it's a start.
I tried to question Scotty on the way up the trail, but he put me off and pushed well ahead of me. I felt like I was chasing a mountain goat. After a few minutes, he reached the crest and looked back down at me. He held out his arms as if to say, "This is it." I scrambled up beside him.
And gawked. This was it: the Face. A Face, anyway.
"Wow!" I was struck by its artistic out-of-placeness.
In a kind of shallow bowl surrounded by low hills was a miniature replica of the Face on Mars. It stared back at me with its deep, shadowed eyes. It was a huge pile of carefully-arranged rocks, about a hundred feet long and just high enough to mimic the mysterious Red Planet phizz.
Scotty broke my awed silence. "The one on Mars is a kilometer long. They made this one to scale, but much smaller. It won't be overlooked, though. I guarantee it." (He pronounced guarantee "gahrn-tee.")
"It's a pile of rocks," I said, casually stating the obvious, but meaning that the one on Mars was probably one big, humongous rock.
"It would have been too much trouble to carve up a mountain, Jake. But the contractor did a pretty good job of simulation. You can't see it from here, but where the stones had to make a vertical or a steep slope, they mortared 'em or put 'em in gabions---wire boxes. Neat job.... Whaddya think?"
"It looks good. Better, maybe, from above."
"I'll give you an aerial photo," said Scotty. "From the right altitude, it looks just like the real one, but not so fuzzy. So they didn't carve it. That would have taken too long, anyway. The Company was in a hurry to send the government a message."
I asked Scotty to stand where I could photograph him with the Face in the background.
"What message?" The one Sam had told me, no doubt.
"`Stay away from our planet. This is how easily we can get to you.'"
"How is the government supposed to get that message?" I snapped the pic.
"You're going to deliver it, Jake."
I started by rocking out of phase with Scotty, but soon ended up going back-and-forth along with him. Duane sat on the porch steps, drinking another beer and looking bored. The sun was dropping low in the sky, and it was getting colder. This wasn't summer, and it probably got pretty frigid at night, here. Not that I had any intention of staying over.
"Have you actually seen these Martians?" I asked, bluntly.
"Naw. I deal with Jim Morrisey, their attorney and main advisor. He's the one who hired me. Most of what I know about the Company, he told me. He deals with the Marties, but he won't describe 'em. I figure they've got him scared. Hell, I would be too." His green eyes twinkled behind his steel-rimmed specs.
"How do you know he isn't just shucking you, Scotty?"
"I don't. I guess I take it on faith because I want to believe. Like a UFO enthusiast. And besides, I'm being well-paid to act like I believe it---a lot more than my college pension."
I generally try to avoid expressing skepticism when I'm working on a story. It's better to humor people. You get more for your story that way. Professor MacReddy seemed convinced---so that was that. I'd check up on James Morrisey, of course, but I didn't expect to learn much useful. Scotty wanted me to keep Morrisey out of my story, anyway.
He continued, "Let me start at the beginning, Jake."
"Sure. Go ahead."
"These Martians aren't native to the Red Planet. When they came there a long time ago from somewhere else, they found the Face. It's just a freak of erosion, but they worshiped it as an idol. Something in their ancient religion, Jim says. Later, some of 'em left Mars, and some stayed. The ones that stayed were called the Cult of the Face by the ones that left. There aren't a lot of 'em, but they're fanatics. And they've got a big claim on that planet, being the only people there."
I interrupted. "Where do they live: underground?"
"That's right. There's not much air on Mars, you know. Those people live underground, and except for a few disguised structures, they treat the surface as an environmental preserve---holy ground. Well, when our Viking spacecraft showed up and photographed their world, they got right annoyed. And when the Lander touched down and started poking in their soil, they went paranoid, so to speak. They hadn't figured we'd get there so soon. They're determined we aren't going to horn in.... You know about the '93 Mars Observer?"
"Yeah. It went dead. Mechanical trouble." I smirked at Scotty. "You're saying the Face Cultists zapped it?"
"Jim thinks they did. And since we're planning to send more Observers and Landers---and later, a manned ship---they've decided it's time to send us a warning. They know we're teamed up now with the Russkies. It's become an interplanetary thing. They've been watching us and listening for a long time. They've learned our ways well enough so a few of 'em could come here and set up the Company. It's called the Burnt Hills Land Company; you can check. They bought four square-mile sections of land and hired a local contractor to build the Face--- Jim Morrisey's brother-in-law, Phil. It's all set up legally, and deniably, if you know what I mean. They figure that if your paper... magazine...?"
"Whatever," I replied. I was scribbling as fast as I could.
"Well, no regular newspaper would look at this story seriously. But it's the kind of thing yours does, so the Company feels that giving it to you is the quickest way to bring it to the attention of the Powers That Be."
I looked over at Duane. He gave me a look that said, "Don't ask me. I just work here."
"So you want me to put everything you've told me in my story, except for Jim Morrisey."
"Right. The Company figures building the Face isn't enough. They've got to tell why. Those guys in Washington need a two-by-four upside their heads, like mules do." (He pronounced it "Worshington.")
"Your bosses figure the government will just read my story, take it seriously, and cancel the Mars program. Right?"
Scotty took a big drag on his home-rolled cigarette and puffed out his sage reply.
"If you want my honest opinion, Jake, I kinda doubt it'll have much effect on the Mars program. I hate to say that---me being a part of the effort, and all. But the Company's decided on that approach. You see, they figure that if they mailed NASA a piece of the first Lander and a warning not to send any more, that'd just get everybody stirred up and we'd take it as a challenge. You know: declare war on Mars, or something. So the Company's trying a hint, first."
"And what'll happen if Washington doesn't take the hint?"
"Well, I don't really know. But I wouldn't want to be one of the guys to land on Mars, then. I can tell you that, for sure."
On the way back to the gas station, I tried to think this story through, but it wasn't easy. Duane was three-beers-in-a-hurry to get back before dark---and I thought he was in a hurry coming out here. He said he didn't like being around the Face, after dark. I could have laughed, but it made me think. A lot of people might believe in this thing.
Scotty was a Good Old Boy, but he hadn't given me a dime's worth of proof to back up his fantastic story. He was right about one thing: the Company knew my mag would buy it, anyway. It was the kind of story our less-"serious" competitors ginned up out of thin air. At least, I had the Burnt Hills Land Company, a scaled-down Face, and some real people to hang my story on.
Even though I remained skeptical about the whole business, the government might not be. If they knew something about Mars they weren't telling us, they might come down on this "project" like a ton of bricks. They couldn't hurt us at the mag, but they might crucify Scotty and Morrisey. They could frame them and get them to change their story, to soothe the public. Because, if they didn't recant, it'd be a tipoff that something was churning.
On the way back, the setting sun turned the Burnt Hills red. Except for the sagebrush, it was a good'nuff likeness of Mars, I thought. Before I got in my car, I looked at the sky. I could see the Red Planet. (I think it was Mars. It looked reddish.) Maybe I wanted to see it too much, though, and my brain obliged.
From this perspective, there sure didn't seem to be anything to be concerned about. It just looked like another far-away red star--- not some nearby world where a bunch of cult fanatics were shaking their fists at us and sending us a warning.
I guessed wrong about my story.
I worked it up really good. But it landed with a thud, anyway. Our mail didn't even take a jump. Just the usual believers, happy to have their ideas verified. Everybody important, like the big media and the govs in "Worshington," must have taken it as a joke. Or more likely, didn't even read it.
Then, the next Mars Observer satellite went dead, too.
It was launched to replace the previous one which failed. NASA had its usual "Who---us?" excuses ready, but now I was inclined to doubt them. The media still ignored our story, but an FBI guy came around to ask questions. I told him what I knew, and he left after asking me to keep his visit under my hat.
Sam said, "What the hell. It was a flop story. Nobody important will believe it, no matter what we print. Besides---if your guy, Scotty, is really telling the truth---then we've done all we can. If anything important develops, the big boys will grab the story and run with it."
I decided to visit the Burnt Hills again if I got the chance. Sure enough, Sam sent me to Utah on a backwoods Mormon polygamy story, and afterwards, I took a quick side trip up to Oregon. I just had to find out what had happened to the Company and its expensive Face.
When I got to the gas station that morning, I found that Duane had lit out for parts-unknown right after the FBI showed up. The guy on duty said I could drive out to Scotty's, myself---the road had been improved. The place was now an advertised tourist attraction.
I had no trouble finding the turnoff. There was a big sign there.
The road had been widened to two lanes and had been graded, but it was still unpaved and upsey-downsey. This time, I had the distinct satisfaction of driving it at a leisurely pace. In a way, though, I missed the thrill of racing across the sand after a wild story. The mystery wasn't all gone, though. I still had a few questions for Scotty.
This side of the fork in the road, there was a short fence-and-gate. A shack had been built as a gatehouse. As I got closer, I could see Scotty sitting on its porch, reading a book.
"Well, Jake, we did it." he proclaimed, with satisfaction.
I squatted next to his rocking chair. Nobody drove up while I was there. ("They come mostly on the weekends," Scotty said.)
"What did we do, Scotty?"
"What we were supposed to do: deliver the warning."
"It didn't seem to have much effect."
"I figured it wouldn't. You remember me saying that?"
"But we played our part. If the government didn't take it seriously enough... well, that's their mistake.... You heard what happened?"
"The second Mars Observer?"
"Yep. Another dead soldier. I knew there'd be trouble."
I wanted to remind him that Observer II might have just had a simple component failure, but I saw no reason to spoil the mood. I wasn't sure, myself, now. Things looked too suspicious.
"Did the FBI question you?" I asked Scotty.
"Yep, twice. When your story came out, a Special Agent---whatever that means---gave me a going-over. Oh, he was polite, but I could tell he really wanted to know about the Face Company. I told him everything I knew---even showed him all the papers I have. Then, after the second `malfunction,' two more of 'em came out here and asked me the same damn questions. But this time, they copied my papers. Had a portable copier they plugged into their car's lighter socket. One of 'em wanted to know if my home-rolled was marijuana." (Scotty pronounced it mare-you-wanna.) "Can you beat that? Just politely asked me. He seemed annoyed when I held it out for him to puff. Wrote something in his little notebook."
"`Investigate for possible violation of blah-blah-blah,'" I joked.
"Something like that, I guess," he said, pulling a face.
"What about Morrisey?"
"Well, I gave 'em Jim's address, but I never heard anything from them, or Jim. Looks like he's gone into hiding. I don't figure I'll be hearing from him anytime soon."
I smiled. Scotty seemed too genuine to scoff at and too gullible to take seriously. He believed the Mars story more than ever---and as he might have said, "damn it all to hell"---I wasn't sure whether I did or not.
"Do you think they'll send astronauts to Mars, now?"
"I don't know, Scotty. NASA needs more data from unmanned spacecraft before they send guys. And with all these failures, it looks like they ain't gonna get much.... On the other hand, if they get mad enough, they might just send 'em, anyway. You know the government."
"What do you think'll happen when they get there, Jake?"
"I figure there'll be big trouble."
"So do I," he agreed. "So do I."