The Project Gutenberg eBook of The foxholes of Mars

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Title: The foxholes of Mars

Author: Fritz Leiber

Illustrator: E. Joseph Dreany

Release date: January 31, 2023 [eBook #69919]

Language: English

Original publication: United States: Standard Magazines, Inc, 1952

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at




[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Thrilling Wonder Stories June 1952.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The wars of the far future will be fought with giant spaceships, but it will still take the infantryman to hold down the planets. And some of the thoughts bred in the foxholes of Mars or Alpha Centauri Duo or Rigel Tres will be fully as bitter as some of those dredged up in the foxholes of Earth.

Ever inward from the jagged horizon the machines of death crept, edged, scurried, rocketed, and tunneled towards him. It seemed as if all this purple-sunned creation had conspired to isolate, to smash him. To the west—for all planets share a west, if nothing else—the nuclear bombs bloomed, meaningless giant fungi. Invisibly overhead the spaceships roared, distant as gods, yet shaking the yellow sky. Even the soil was treacherous, nauseated by artificial earthquakes—nobody's mother, least of all an Earthman's.

"Why don't you cheer up?" the others had said to him. "It's a mad planet." But he would not cheer up, for he knew what they said was literally true. Soon they would fall back and the enemy would retake the mangled thing they called an objective. Was it the sixth time? The seventh? And did the soldiers on the other side have six legs, or eight? The enemy were pretty haphazard as to what troops they used in this sector.

Worse was the noise. Meaningless, mechanical screeches tore at his skull, until thoughts rattled around in it like dry seeds in a dry pod. He started to lift his hands to his ears, then checked the gesture, convulsed with soundless laughter and tearless weeping, bitter memories and searing hatred. Once there had been a galactic society—a galactic empire—and he had played an unnoticed part on one of its nice quiet planets ... but now? Galactic empire? Galactic horse-dung! Perhaps he had always hated his fellow men as much as he did now. But in the prewar days his hatred had been closely bound and meticulously repressed. It was still bound, tighter than ever—but it was no longer repressed.

The deadly engine he tended, silent for a moment, began again to chatter to those of the enemy; its voice was nearly drowned by their booming ones, like a spiteful child in a crush of complacent adults....

It turned out that they had been covering a withdrawal of Martian sappers, and must now escape as best they might. They began to retreat. The officer running beside him fell. He hesitated. The officer cursed a new, useless joint that had appeared in his leg. All the others—including the black-shelled Martians—were ahead. He glanced around, fearfully, tormentedly, as if he were about to commit a hideous crime. Then he lifted the officer and staggered on, reeling like a top at the end of its spin. He was still grinning in a spasmic way when they reached the security of lesser danger; even when the officer thanked him with curt sincerity, he couldn't stop grinning. Nevertheless, they gave him the Order of Planetary Merit for that.

He stared at the watery soup and meat-shreds in his mess-tin. The cellar was cool, and its seats—though built for creatures with four legs and two arms—were comfortable. The purple daylight was pleasantly muted. The noise had gone a little way off, playing cat and mouse. He was alone.

Of course life had never had any meaning, except for the chillingly sardonic one perceptible to the demons in the nuclear bombs and the silver giants in space who pushed the buttons; and he had no stomach to aspire to that. They'd had ten thousand years to fix things, those giants, and still all they could tell you was go dig yourself a hole.

In the old days the possibility of relaxation and petty self-indulgence, against the magnificent sham background of galactic empire, had permitted him to pretend life had a meaning. Yet at a time like this, when such an illusion was needful, it ran out on you, jeered at you along with the lesser lies it had nurtured.

A three-legged creature skipped out of the shadows, halted at a distance, and subtly intimated it would like food. At first he thought it must be some Rigelian tripedal, but then he saw it was an Earth-cat lacking a leg. Its movements were grotesque, but efficient, and not without a certain gracefulness. How it could have got to this planet, he found it hard to imagine.

"But you don't worry about that—or even about other cats. Three-legs," he thought bitterly. "You hunt alone. You mate with your own kind, when you can, but then only because it is most agreeable. You don't set up your own species as a corporate divinity and worship it, and yearn over the light-centuries of its empire, and eat out your heart because of it, and humbly spill your blood at its cosmic altar.

"Nor are you hoodwinked when the dogs bark about the greatness of humanity under a thousand different moons, or when the dumb cattle sigh from surfeit and gratefully chew their cuds under red, green and purple suns. You accept us as something sometimes helpful. You walk into our spaceships as you walked up to our fires. You use us. But when we're gone, you won't pine on our graves or starve in the pen. You'll manage, or try to."

The cat mewed. He tossed it a bit of meat, which it caught in its teeth, shifting about cleverly on the two good hind legs. As he watched it daintily nibble (though scrawny with famine), he suddenly saw Kenneth's face, just as he had last seen it on Alpha Centauri Duo. It seemed very real, projected against the maroon darkness towards the other end of the cellar. The full tolerant lips lined at the corners, the veiledly appraising eyes, the space-sallow skin were all exactly as they had been when they roomed together at the Sign of the Burnt-Out Jet. But there was a richness and a zest about the face that he had missed before. He did not try to move toward the illusion, though he wanted to. He only looked. Then there came the sound of boots on the floor above, and the cat bounded away, humping its hind quarters quite like a tripedal, and the vision quickly faded. For a long time he sat staring at the spot where it had been, feeling a strangely poignant unhappiness, as if the only worthwhile being in the world had died. Then he started to eat his food with the vague curiosity of a two-year-old, sometimes pausing with the spoon half-way to his mouth.

It was night, and there was a ground mist through which the wine-colored moons showed like two sick eyes, and anything might have been moving in the shadows. He squinted and peered over the rim of the trench, but it was hard to make out the nature of any object, the landscape was so torn and distorted. Three men came out of the place of underground concealment to the left, joking together in hushed, hollow voices. One whom he knew well (a stocky soldier with big eyes and smirking lips and reddish stubble on his chin) greeted him with a friendly jibe about easy jobs. Then they wormed their way up and over, and started to crawl toward where enemy scouts (six legs or eight?) were supposed to lie. He lost sight of them very quickly. He held his weapon ready, watching for the sight of the enemy.

Why did he hate the soldiers of the enemy so little? No more than a Martian hunting sand-dragons hates sand-dragons. His relationship with them was limited, almost abstract. How could he hate something so different from himself in form? He could only marvel that it too had intelligence. No, the enemy were merely dangerous targets. Once he had seen one of them escape death, and it had made him feel happy; he had wanted to wave in a friendly way, even if it could at best have only wriggled a tentacle in return—

But as for the men who fought side by side with him—he hated them bitterly, loathed their faces, voices, physical mannerisms. The way this one chewed and that one spat. Their unchanging curses, cliches, and jokes. All unendurably magnified, as if his nose were being rubbed in offal. For they were part of the same miserable, lying, self-worshipping galactic swarm as himself.

He wondered if he had hated the men at the office on Altair Una in the same way—

Almost certainly. He recalled the long smoldering irritations over trifles that had seemed tremendous in the hours between the violin-moans of the time clock ... but then there had been the safety valves and shock absorbers that make life tolerable, and also the illusion of purpose.

But now there was nothing. And everybody knew it.

They had no right to joke about it and continue the pretense.

He was shaking with anger. To kill indiscriminately would at least demonstrate his feelings. To focus death on the backs of men charging with inane hysteria. To toss a nuclear fizz-bomb into a dugout where men sought secret escape in dreams and repeated like prayers their rationalizations about galactic empires. Dying at his hand, they might for a moment understand their own vicious hypocrisy.

From out ahead, one of death's little mechanisms spoke concisely, rapidly. It seemed like a bugle call that only he could hear.

Ruby moonlight slid suddenly across the grotesquely tortured ground. He raised his weapon and took aim. Its sound pleased him because it was like a soft groan of agony.

Then he realized he had fired at the abruptly-revealed shadow because it was that of the stocky soldier who had jibed and crawled away....

The moonlight blacked out as if a curtain had been drawn. His heart pounded. He ground his teeth and grinned. His feelings were fierce, but not yet determinate. He became aware of the smells of the ground and of the chemicals and metals; strong, sharp, interesting smells.

Then he found himself staring at a whitish patch that never got more than eight inches off the ground. Slowly it approached out of the darkness, like the inquisitive head of a huge ghost worm. It became a face with big eyes and smirking lips, fretted with red stubble. Mechanically he reached out a hand and helped the man down into the trench.

"Were you the one that winged him? That lousy spider would have gotten me sure. I didn't see him until he fell on me."

This then was the end. Hereafter he would give in to the mob, run with the hounds, die purposelessly like a lemming when the time came. Never again would he aspire to the darker, icy insight that gave life a real though horrible meaning. He was a ridiculous little communal animal in a lemming-horde racing across the galaxy, and he would live like one.

He saw the small black object falling swiftly through the mist. The stocky soldier did not. There was a deafening blast, that slapped the skin. Looking up he saw the stocky soldier still standing there. Without a head. As the body stumbled blindly forward, tripped and fell, he began to laugh in little hissing gusts through his teeth. His lips were drawn back, so that his jaw muscles twitched and pained him.

He felt contemptuous amusement at the blond soldier. The blond soldier had been to a third-rate nuclear technics school of some sort and believed it had been a serious mistake to put him in the infantry. Nevertheless the blond soldier was ambitious and took an unusual interest in the war.

They stood alone at the crest of a ridge thick with violet and yellow-spotted vines. In the valleys on either side, their units were pushing forward. Trails of dust and tracks of mashed vines extended as far as the eye could see. Various huge engines trompled forward, carrying men, and other men ran fussily about, freeing engines that had met with some stop or hindrance, as if the two were inextricably united in an unimaginable symbiosis. Small machines bearing messengers went swiftly to and fro like centaurs, a superior type of individual. Other machines spied watchfully overhead. It was like some vast, clumsy monster feeling its way; cautiously putting out pseudopods or horns like a snail's; withdrawing them puzzledly when they touched anything hurtful or strange; but always gathering itself for a new effort. It did not flow, but humped and hedged and scuttled. Like an army of Rigelian roaches. Or the driver ants of Earth that were so like miniature Martians, with their black-weaponed soldiers, foragers, scouts, butchers, pack-carriers.

And they were truly neither more nor less than ants. He was no more than an epidermal cell in a monster that was dueling with another monster, very careful of its inner organs but careless about its epidermis. There was something comfortingly abstract and impersonal about the idea of being united in such a way with many other men, not because of any shared purpose, but merely because they belonged to the same monster, a monster so large that it could readily do duty for fate and necessity. The fellowship of protoplasm.

The blond soldier murmured two or three words, and for a moment he thought the whole army had spoken to him. Then he understood and made the necessary adjustment in the instrument they were setting up.

But those two or three words had plunged him with breathtaking abruptness into the worst sort of inner misery. What was abstract had become personal, and that was bad. To conceive a monster made of men was one thing; to feel the insensate, inescapable prod of a neighboring cell and realize the stifling, close-packed pressure of the whole, was another. He lifted his hand to his collar. The very air seemed to convey to his skin the shoving and jostling of distant, invisible individuals. The nudge of the galactic horde.

They were at the end of the crest now, atop a little hillock, and he stared ahead to where the unknown objectives lay and where the air was clearer. He felt as if he were suffocating. His new mood had come as utterly without warning as most of his moods now came, gushing up explosively from some wild, alien, ever-expanding dimension within him.

Then, in the broad expanse of fantastically clouded sky ahead of him, he saw his friends' faces again, orderly and side by side, but gigantic, like a pantheon of demigods. Just as he had in the cellar and several times since, only now altogether. The only faces that meant anything in the cosmos. Black George, with the wide grin, that looked, but was not, stupid. Hollow-cheeked Loren, peering up with shy canniness, about to argue. Dark Helen, with her proud, subtle lips. Sallow Kenneth again, with his veiledly appraising eyes. And Albert, and Maurice, and Kate. And others whose features were blurred, heartbreakingly suggesting friends forgot. All transfigured and glowing with warmth and light. As meaningful as symbols, yet holding each within itself the quintescence of individuality.

He stood stock-still, beginning to tremble, feeling great guilt. How had he neglected and deserted them? His friends, the only ones deserving his loyalty, the only island for him in the cosmos-choking sea of humanity, the only ones with worth and meaning; compared to which race and creed and humanity were without significance. It was as self-evident and undeniable as a premise in mathematics. Heretofore he had seen only the masks of reality, the reflections, the countershadows. Now, at a bound, he stood beside the gods in darkness who pulled the wires.

The vision faded, became part of his mind. He turned, and it was as if he saw the blond soldier for the first time. How had he ever believed that he and the other soldier might have anything in common? The gulf between them was far greater than if they had belonged to different species. Why had he ever given two thoughts to such a silly, squinty-eyed, bustling little organism? He never would again. It was all very clear.

"We'll get them this time," the other soldier said with conviction. "We've got the stuff now. We'll show the bugs. Come on!"

It was wonderful, hysterical, insufferable. Yesterday, spiders. Today, bugs. Tomorrow—worms? The other soldier really believed it was important and noble. He could still pretend there was that kind of meaning and purpose to that sort of slaughter.

"Come on. Get the beta cycling," said the other soldier impatiently, nudging him.

It was all very clear. And he would never lose that clarity. By one action he would cut himself off from the galactic pack and cleave forever to the faces in the sky.

"Come on," ordered the other soldier, jerking at him.

He unsheathed his weapon, touched a button. Silently a dull black spot, not a hole, appeared in the back of the blond soldier's head. He hid the body, walked down the other side of the hill, and attached himself to another unit. By morning they were retreating again, the monster badly hurt and automatically resisting disillusion.

He was an officer now.

"I don't like him," said a soldier. "Of course, they all try to scare you, whether they know it or not. Part of the business. But with him it's different. I know he doesn't talk tough, or threaten or act grim. I know he's pleasant enough when he takes time to notice you. Even sympathetic. But there's something there I can't put my finger on. Something cold-blooded. Like he wasn't even alive—or as if we weren't. Even when he acts especially decent or thoughtful toward me, I know he doesn't give a damn. It's his eyes. I can read meaning in the eyes of a Fomalhautian blind-worm. But I can't read anything in his."

The soaring city seemed alien, though it had once been home. He liked it the better for that. Civilian clothes felt strange against his skin.

He whisked briskly along the sidewalk, taking the turns aimlessly when it split at the pedestrian cloverleafs. He looked at the passing faces with frank inquisitiveness, as if he were at a zoo. He just wanted to enjoy the feeling of anonymity for a little while. He knew what he was going to do afterwards. There were his friends—and there were the animals. The fortunes of his friends were to be advanced.

Beside the next cloverleaf was a speaker, and a little crowd. There had been a good deal of that sort of stuff since the truce. Curiously he listened, recognized the weakness of the words. They were sloshed with ideas, tainted with unprofitable, poorly-selected hatreds. The call to action was tinged by an undercurrent of bitterness that argued inaction would be better. They were civilized words, and therefore useless to one who wanted to become an animal trainer on a galactic scale. What a zoo he'd have some day—and every single beast in it advertised as intelligent!

Other words and phrases began to ooze up into his mind: "Thinkers! Listen to me ... cheated of what you deserve ... misled by misled men ... the galactic run-around ... this engineered truce ... the creatures who used the war to consolidate their power ... the Cosmic Declaration of Servitude ... life—to lose ... liberty—to obey ... and as for the pursuit of happiness—happiness is a light-millenium ahead of all of us ... our universal rights.... Free Martia! Terra for All! Revenge...."

These unspoken words, he felt, were the harbingers of leadership. Alexander had done it. Hitler had done it. Smith had done it. Hrivlath had done it. The Neuron had done it. The Great Centaur had done it. All murderers—for only murderers won. He saw the brilliant light-years of his future ahead, endlessly. He saw no details, but it was all of the same imperial color. Never again would he hesitate. Each moment would decide something. Each of his future actions would drop like a grain of sand from an ancient hour glass, inevitable as time.

Profound excitement seized him. The scene around him grew and grew until he seemed at the center of a vast, ominous, spellbound crowd that filled the galaxy. The faces of his friends were close, eager and confident. And from a great distance, as if from beyond the stars, he seemed to see his own face staring back at him, pale, skull-eyed, and insatiably hungry.