The thin air of Mars was chill but not really cold. It was not yet winter in southern latitudes and the daytime temperature was usually above freezing.
The queer creature standing outside the door of a dome-shaped building was generally manlike in appearance, but no human being ever had a head like that. A thing like a coxcomb jutted out above the skull, the eye lenses were wide and staring, and the front of the face stuck out in a snout. The unearthly appearance was increased by a pattern of black and yellow tiger stripes covering the entire head.
The creature was armed with a pistol-type hand weapon slung at its belt and was carrying, crooked in its right arm, a ball, larger than a basketball, smaller than a medicine ball. It moved the ball to its left arm, opened the outer door of the building and stepped inside.
Inside was a very small anteroom and an inner door. As soon as the outer door was closed the air pressure in the anteroom began to rise, accompanied by a soft sighing sound. A loudspeaker over the inner door shouted in a booming bass, “Well? Who is it? Speak up! Speak up!”
The visitor placed the ball carefully on the floor, then with both hands grasped its ugly face and pushed and lifted it to the top of its head. Underneath was disclosed the face of an Earth-human boy. “It’s Jim Marlowe, Doc,” he answered.
“Well, come in. Come in! Don’t stand out there chewing your nails.”
“Coming.” When the air pressure in the anteroom had equalized with the pressure in the rest of the house the inner door opened automatically. Jim said, “Come along, Willis,” and went on in.
The ball developed three spaced bumps on its lower side and followed after him, in a gait which combined spinning, walking, and rolling. More correctly, it careened, like a barrel being manhandled along a dock. They went down a passage and entered a large room that occupied half the floorspace of the circular house plan. Doctor MacRae looked up but did not get up. “Howdy, Jim. Skin yourself. Coffee on the bench. Howdy, Willis,” he added and turned back to his work. He was dressing the hand of a boy about Jim’s age.
“Thanks, Doc. Oh—hello, Francis. What are you doing here?”
“Hi, Jim. I killed a water-seeker, then I cut my thumb on one of its spines.”
“Quit squirming!” commanded the doctor.
“That stuff stings,” protested Francis.
“I meant it to. Shut up.”
“How in the world did you do that?” persisted Jim. “You ought to know better than to touch one of those things. Just burn ’em down and burn ’em up.” He zipped open the front of his outdoor costume, peeled it off his arms and legs and hung it on a rack near the door. The rack held Francis’s suit, the headpiece of which was painted in bright colors like an Indian brave’s war paint, and the doctor’s suit, the mask of which was plain. Jim was now stylishly and appropriately dressed for indoors on Mars—bare naked save for bright red jockey shorts.
“I did burn it,” explained Francis, “but it moved when I touched it. I wanted to get the tail to make a necklace.”
“Then you didn’t burn it right. Probably left it full of live eggs. Who’re you making a necklace for?”
“None of your business. And I did so burn the egg sac. What do you take me for? A tourist?”
“Sometimes I wonder. You know those things don’t die until sundown.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Jim,” the doctor advised. “Now, Frank, I’m going to give you an anti-toxin shot. ’Twon’t do you any good but it’ll make your mother happy. Long about tomorrow your thumb will swell up like a poisoned pup; bring it back and I’ll lance it.”
“Am I going to lose my thumb?” the boy asked.
“Nope. But you’ll do your scratching with your left hand for a few days. Now, Jim, what brings you here? Bellyache?”
“No, Doc. It’s Willis.”
“Willis, eh? He looks pert enough to me.” The doctor stared down at the creature. Willis was at his feet, having come up to watch the dressing of Frank’s thumb. To do so he had protruded three eye stalks from the top of his spherical mass. The stalks stuck up like thumbs, in an equal-sided triangle, and from each popped a disturbingly human eye. The little fellow turned around slowly on his tripod of bumps, or pseudopeds, and gave each of his eyes a chance to examine the doctor.
“Get me a cup of Java, Jim,” commanded the doctor, then leaned over and made a cradle of his hands. “Here, Willis—upsi-daisy!” Willis gave a little bounce and landed in the doctor’s hands, withdrawing all protuberances as he did so. The doctor lifted him to the examining table; Willis promptly stuck out legs and eyes again. They stared at each other.
The doctor saw a ball covered with thick, close-cropped fur, like sheared sheepskin, and featureless at the moment save for supports and eye stalks. The Mars creature saw an elderly male Earthman almost completely covered with wiry grey-and-white hair. The hair was thin on top, thick on chin and cheeks, moderately thick to sparse on chest and arms and back and legs. The middle portion of this strange unMartian creature was concealed in snow-white shorts. Willis enjoyed looking at him.
“How do you feel, Willis?” inquired the doctor. “Feel good? Feel bad?”
A dimple showed at the very crown of the ball between the stalks, dilated to an opening. “Willis fine!” he said. His voice was remarkably like Jim’s.
“Fine, eh?” Without looking around the doctor added, “Jim! Wash those cups again. And this time, sterilize them. Want everybody around here to come down with the pip?”
“Okay, Doc,” Jim acknowledged, and added to Francis, “You want some coffee, too?”
“Sure. Weak, with plenty of cow.”
“Don’t be fussy.” Jim dipped into the laboratory sink and managed to snag another cup. The sink was filled with dirty dishes. Nearby a large flask of coffee simmered over a Bunsen burner. Jim washed three cups carefully, put them through the sterilizer, then filled them.
Doctor MacRae accepted a cup and said, “Jim, this citizen says he’s okay. What’s the trouble?”
“I know he says he’s all right, Doc, but he’s not. Can’t you examine him and find out?”
“Examine him? How, boy? I can’t even take his temperature because I don’t know what his temperature ought to be. I know as much about his body chemistry as a pig knows about patty-cake. Want me to cut him open and see what makes him tick?”
Willis promptly withdrew all projections and became as featureless as a billiard ball. “Now you’ve scared him,” Jim said accusingly.
“Sorry.” The doctor reached out and commenced scratching and tickling the furry ball. “Good Willis, nice Willis. Nobody’s going to hurt Willis. Come on, boy, come out of your hole.”
Willis barely dilated the sphincter over his speaking diaphragm. “Not hurt Willis?” he said anxiously in Jim’s voice.
“Not hurt Willis. Promise.”
“Not cut Willis?”
“Not cut Willis. Not a bit.”
The eyes poked out slowly. Somehow he managed an expression of watchful caution, though he had nothing resembling a face. “That’s better,” said the doctor. “Let’s get to the point, Jim. What makes you think there’s something wrong with this fellow, when he and I can’t see it?”
“Well, Doc, it’s the way he behaves. He’s all right indoors, but outdoors—He used to follow me everywhere, bouncing around the landscape, poking his nose into everything.”
“He hasn’t got a nose,” Francis commented.
“Go to the head of the class. But now, when I take him out, he just goes into a ball and I can’t get a thing out of him. If he’s not sick, why does he act that way?”
“I begin to get a glimmering,” Doctor MacRae answered. “How long have you been teamed up with this balloon?”
Jim thought back over the twenty-four months of the Martian year. “Since along toward the end of Zeus, nearly November.”
“And now here it is the last of March, almost Ceres, and the summer gone. That suggest anything to your mind?”
“You expect him to go hopping around through the snow? We migrate when it gets cold; he lives here.”
Jim’s mouth dropped open. “You mean he’s trying to hibernate?”
“What else? Willis’s ancestors have had a good many millions of years to get used to the seasons around here; you can’t expect him to ignore them.”
Jim looked worried. “I had planned to take him with me to Syrtis Minor.”
“Syrtis Minor? Oh, yes, you go away to school this year, don’t you? You, too, Frank.”
“I can’t get used to the way you kids grow up. It was just last week I was painting your thumb to keep you from sucking it.”
“I never sucked my thumb!” Francis answered.
“No? Then it was some other kid. Never mind. I came to Mars so that the years would be twice as long, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.”
“Say, Doc, how old are you?” inquired Francis.
“Mind your own business. Which one of you is going to study medicine and come back to help me with my practice?”
Neither one answered. “Speak up, speak up!” urged the doctor. “What are you going to study?”
Excerpted from Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein. Copyright © 2006 by Robert Heinlein. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.