The Tantalus Death by Ross Rocklynne

Published Categorised as Adventure, Science Fiction, Short Story
Cover image retrieved from Project Gutenberg April 3rd, 2020
31 min read

“Give us water, or we perish!” But the Conclave
of Nations denied the Red Planet’s frantic plea.
So began the Reign of Terror … a Martian judgement
that plunged the Earth into hideous chaos.


The Master Conclave of the Sectional Governors of the World State was in its first day of session. The Speaker, about to call for a motion of adjournment, rose, looked about the packed tiers of seats as if searching for someone. Relief came to his face—and was replaced by annoyance as the huge, double doors swung open.

A being, resplendent in colorful uniform, of human shape but twelve feet tall, entered.

In the resigned silence that followed, the doorman announced,

“Olduk, the Martian ambassador!”

All eyes followed the massive, wrinkled old form as it made its way slowly through the aisles.

The Speaker bit his lip. He said, “The Conclave welcomes you, Olduk. We had feared that you would not be present.”

Olduk paused and bowed. He said, in his guttural, unnatural tones, “Olduk thanks you.”

“You wished to speak before the assembly?”

“Yes, please. The rostrum may I use?”

“Yes,” said the Speaker, “the rostrum you may use.”

A titter of laughter spread through the tiered seats.

Olduk paid none or small attention, even to the whisperings of two secretaries that his receptive, large ears picked up.

“Why does he keep up with this farce?” one asked. “Every year he gets up on the rostrum, and makes a speech, asking, as usual, for water. He’s been denied exactly ten times.”

“He’ll get it in the neck this time,” Olduk heard the other say knowingly. “The Spanish and Japanese Sectional Governors have had several bills thrown out this session, and they’re spoiling for an argument. And whatever they say, they’ll be speaking for the world.”

Olduk—called jokingly the Old Duck—wended his way between the aisles toward the rostrum, drawing his cape about him. The cape was not an affectation. He realized that as a Martian he possessed several unhuman appendages which human beings did not care to look upon.

He faced the session, his wrinkled old face expressionless, though his double-lidded eyes conveyed the seriousness with which he faced his problem.

“Honorable Speaker,” he said, bowing to the Speaker. “Honorable fellow delegates,” he added, and bowed low. “I drink to you.” He seized a beaker of water in a horny hand, and drained it in a single gulp.

He set the beaker down. His reddish eyes swept the assembly.

He said, “I am ever thankful you me to speak allow. Think, I will tell you what I wish, fellow delegates.

“Difficult me to talk this language, though here I have lived on Earth twenty years, making friends with Earthmen. I am not as I was in leaving Mars. I am changed with sundry operations, that I may live here well. Thus my voice is hard to speak, and harder still to learn difficult language. Laughing I will not like, please?”

He paused. His abnormally receptive ears again picked up the whisperings of the two secretaries.

“He’s said exactly the same thing the past five sessions.”

Olduk said in his impersonal voice:

“Before I make my plea for the water my planet needs, let me tell a myth that I read with enjoyment. It is the story of Tantalus, fellow delegates. Tantalus was placed by the gods in a river of purest water; when he wished to drink, recede the water would. So his thirst for ages tortured him.

“Poor Tantalus,” said Olduk.

He seized the refilled beaker, and drained it at a single gulp.

“Shall Mars be Tantalus? Or shall Earth be Tantalus?”

“Mars is Tantalus,” a whisper floated from the gallery.

The laughter came again, a little insolently this time.


The Japanese Sectional governor rose, and said, sucking in his breath, “Why does not the thirsty Olduk speak, instead of drinking all the Speaker’s water?”

This time the laughter was more open. The speaker rapped with his gavel, and order was restored.

Olduk said, “There is more water on Earth than five billion Olduks could drink.

“But I will speak, as I have spoken years in and years over.

“I shall review the history of things. Forty-five years ago great swarms of Martians descended on Earth and engaged in war. They wished to conquer Earth. Fortunately succeeded not. There became a hatred between the two peoples. This hatred has endured, without reason.”

“Without reason?” said the Japanese governor.

“Doubtless,” said Olduk, “you have neglected to follow history, of own people and of what occurred before Martians made war. Not until after the war did Martians know that Earthmen could be peaceful. Before the war, Earthmen slaughtered great numbers of Martians. So Martians did not feel bad when they wished to slaughter numbers of Earthmen.”

“There was the second war,” sarcastically.

“The second war the war of water, as the first. Earth no good for us, see? Wished water only. The second war we fought because Earth would not sell us water any price at; so we would conquer her and levy water tribute. Fortunately did not succeed. Try more friendly means, which is why I, Olduk and seven of associates, changed by operations from real Martians, are here.”

Olduk paused. He resumed carefully, cocking his massive head to one side.

“Come to Earth, I and seven. Give Earth scientific secrets. Learn Earth language and customs. Prove friendliness for water.”

The Spanish governor rose, cleared his throat. “Bribes!” he said loudly.

“Bribes?” said Olduk.

“Bribes! Gentlemen, Olduk has made his plea for ten years, and for ten years, in the best interests of the World State, we have refused him. Why? Because if you sell the Martians water, their population will increase to the point where they are able to conquer Earth. Remember that it was our numbers and not our science that won out over the Martians in the two wars.

“This question has been an annoyance! From now on, I vote no on the subject, and move to have this question off our hands for good. Furthermore, I move that the Act which gave the Martians the right to sit on the Master Conclave be stricken out of the World Constitution!”

Olduk said, “My people will die—” when every member of the Conclave rose and shouted out his agreement with the Spanish governor.

Olduk drew his cape tighter around his twelve-foot body.

He said, “Then I have been refused forever. But I have no feelings of enmity. Allow me fully to explain situation once more, so that you may possibly feel sorry for my people. We are million in number—ideal, yes? Not canned like sardines on Earth, yes? Million enough, fortunately. But without water, in century, none. See? Our birth rate falls.

“But no, my people do not suffer of thirst. There become less people to drink. But it is cruel of Earth to kill a race because they hate. Therefore, all read story of Tantalus—interesting, see?

“Poor Tantalus,” in his expressively expressionless voice. “Poor Tantalus. Many persons of Earth would not like to be Tantalus, thus receive justice reserved for poets.”

Olduk walked over to the Speaker and said something to him. The Speaker frowned, and then resignedly signaled an orderly.

“A gallon of water for Mr. Olduk.”

The session erupted with a wave of general laughter.

The water was brought. Olduk placed the beaker to his thin lips, tossed the contents off.

He swept the assembly with his eyes.

His left arm—or what appeared to be a left arm, so covered with the cape was it—fumbled at his right wrist.

He said once more, gutturally, “Yes, poor Tantalus.”

He stepped down from the rostrum, and with slow dignified step left the conclave room.


The hundred odd members of the Conclave settled back in their seats after Olduk had gone. The session was resumed.

The Speaker, listening to the monotonous reading of a bill, reached absently for the water carafe, tilted it. The water did not pour. The Speaker tilted the carafe further—and further—suddenly the water made its exit.

It fell from the carafe, the entire contents, struck against the glass, knocked the glass over, bounced off the table into the air, and thence to the floor.

There the water, a half-gallon of it, tightly rolled into a neat, compact sphere, bounced up and down several times, and then subsided on the floor as clear and flawless as crystal glass.

The Speaker stared at it.

The members of the conclave stared at it.

The Speaker turned to the gaping orderly.

“That’s a glass ball,” he said harshly, accusingly.

“No, it isn’t,” the orderly chattered. “That’s water! I filled the carafe with water.”

The Speaker looked at it again, and then walked to the sphere, the Conclave watching him in fascination.

The Speaker scooped up the ball in two hands. Then he tried to drop it. He couldn’t. His fingers seemed curled around the ball, crushed close together. His hands couldn’t draw apart.

He tried to shake the sphere away. He tried harder, and then violently, working himself into a sudden frenzy. The sphere of water clung to his hands, and his hands were locked as effectively as if handcuffs had been placed around the wrists. He got control of himself and turned to face the Conclave, white-faced.

“It can’t be water,” he said hoarsely, “but I think it is!”

And looking at the glass ball, he was conscious of a sudden thirst; but he knew he couldn’t drink, although he held in his hands four times more water than he needed to quench his thirst.


In the Martian Legation Building, Olduk faced his seven associates.

“It is done,” he said, in the Martian dialect of his native state. “The Earthmen have chosen their hell and will soon experience it. You have your tickets? Then go at once.”

The youngest of the attaches said pleadingly, “Sir, we can’t go and leave you. Who knows how long the Earthmen will hold out?”

“All that will happen will happen to Olduk. Go, before you are refused permission to leave. Tell our people they are to be relentless, until the Earthmen give in. Now go.”

The attaches no longer questioned his commands. Olduk was left alone.

The gong sounded on his television screen; Olduk threw the switch. The face of the manager of World Broadcasters appeared.

“You will appear and speak in two minutes,” he said. Olduk stood before the television screen, waiting until the proper second. He had planned the time of this speech and the “hell” chosen by Earth would not begin until he was well into it. The Speaker of the Conclave had not yet thirsted. The moment came, and Olduk was introduced briefly, as his image broadcasted.

“Olduk, the Martian ambassador, speaking for his people—”

Olduk said gutturally, “Olduk greets you, people of Earth, and regrets that he cannot drink with you.

“All read story of Tantalus, people of Earth. An old Grecian myth it is, come true. Interesting, see?

“Olduk is sorry. Will you believe Olduk? He is sorry. Olduk says, please do not touch water. Please do not touch water….”


The diving champion of the world puffed out his chest, feigning complete nonchalance as five thousand admiring people looked up at him where he stood as resplendant as an angel on the diving platform.

“Ladeeeeeees and gentlemannnnnnnn!” the loudspeaker blared. “Pedro Morestes, the handsomest man in the world, and the most perfect physical specimen by the Olivar Test, is about to break the world’s diving record of all time. Four hundred feet lie between him and the glistening surface of this world-famed pool!

“Watch him, hold your breath, ladees and gentleman, there he goooooooosssss—”

Pedro Morestes ran with light graceful steps toward the end of the diving board. The board flung him upward, and he seemed to stop for an infinitesimal second, poised like a bird, with the pool far below, and gasping people staring upward.

One of those people watching had his wrist radio tuned to World Broadcasters.

“Please,” said Olduk’s clearly audible radio voice, “do not touch water. If things strange happen to water, do not touch, please?”

Pedro Morestes began his dazzling drop downward, twisting, twining, going through all the intricate convolutions that four hundred feet would allow him.

Now! A loop, a twist, straighten out for the last fifty feet, cut the water as clean as an arrow cutting the air.

Pedro Morestes eyes popped. A hoarse scream escaped his lips.

Where was the flat surface that should receive him?

Where were the little wavelets that usually betokened the presence of water?

Why did the entire pool bulge up in the middle, and drop at the sides?

Why was it that the whole pool had been replaced by an immense hemisphere of glass?

Pedro Morestes screamed, squirmed, twisted, came down with a bone crushing shock on the bulging surface, his posterior foremost.

He bounced upward for fifty feet, fell again, bounced again, fell, bounced, fell—and was locked, flat on his back, by an invisible vise that not only held him rigid, but threatened to crush him from all sides.

The crowd stared in pure fright. The pool of water had become—a hemisphere of glass? And Pedro Morestes, world’s diving champion, lay atop that gleaming sphere, ribs and one leg broken, unable to move a muscle….


“Damn that kid,” said Sam, throwing his newspaper to the floor.

“I wanna drink,” wailed the damned kid, from the bedroom.

“All right, keep your pants on,” growled Sam surlily. He went out to the kitchen, leaving the radio on. It had been jabbering for some time, something about Olduk.

“Please,” said the radio voice of Olduk, “do not touch water. Tell your friends, my friends, not to touch water….”

Sam got a glass out of the cupboard, held it under the faucet, turned the faucet on.

The water came out, well enough, but it wasn’t water.

“What the hell,” Sam said incredulously.

A big drop was suspended from the faucet, was growing bigger as the faucet fed it.

Sam watched while it became six inches, a foot in diameter.

The glass fell from his paralyzed fingers. “What the hell!” he yelled hoarsely.

“I wanna glass of water,” the damned kid wailed.

Olduk said, clearly and distinctly, “I am sorry you are not able to drink, see?…”

“All right, you’ll get your water,” Sam panted excitedly, only vaguely conscious that the radio was going.

He watched the spheroid grow and grow. Still suspended from the faucet, it touched the sink. Then the “drop” grew up around the faucet until the faucet was completely enclosed.

The drop began to overlap the sink, still maintaining a spherical shape. Suddenly there was a loud, metallic pop. The drop broke away from the faucet, of its own weight, fell to the linoleumed floor with a dull barrrrooooommmmmmm.

It was three feet in diameter; and another one was growing from the faucet.

“I wanna drink of water,” said the damned kid, waddling into the kitchen, rubbing its eyes.

Those eyes brightened as they saw the gleaming sphere. A grimy hand reached out and touched it. Against his will, the whole arm of the kid was drawn against the sphere, and the rest of the body was drawn with it, legs snapped together, one arm locked to its side, the other curled to the breaking point over its head.

Sam roared but he was too late. The bewildered kid’s nose touched the sphere, and his whole face was drawn, in, so that all air was cut off.

Sam grabbed hold of him, and pulled frantically, madly, until he was panting. Then he let go, screaming, and ran for the cupboard. It was some seconds before he found an ax. By the time he got back, the second drop had fallen, had merged with the first, forming a sphere five feet in diameter, with the kid plastered against it.

Sam swung the ax. The sharp blade hit, actually penetrated the sphere. Sam yelled. The ax was literally sucked in. Sam refused to let go, and his hands went into the water after the ax. There was a terrible contratcile force on his wrists. Then something seemed rushing up his arms. The something enclosed his body with the speed of a striking snake.

The next thing he knew, water had smothered his nose, his mouth, and he was inside, looking out.

He was staring into the smothered face of the damned kid.

Shortly after that he drowned. He couldn’t get out. Another drop fell, another, and another, another, another, adding themselves to the original mass….


On the high seas, the S.S. Wilcox battered through rising, flooding seas.

The captain stood on the bridge, yelling orders to his men below.

The first mate flung water from his face, gritted, “We’ll never make port.”

A sailor came up the companionway, steadying himself on the handrail.

“There’s water pouring through a hole in a forward section,” he gasped hoarsely. “We can’t caulk it. She’s sinking at the stem.”

“Mr. Jones,” said the captain, “sound the signal to abandon ship.”

The first officer said to himself, “In these seas?” But he obeyed and went down to the cargo hold where the alarm apparatus was stationed. Above the roar of the elements sounded seven short hoarse blasts, and a long one. The “all hands on deck” signal vibrated through the ship.

The captain watched while sailors donned lifebelts, jumped to boat stations. Boats were swung out, and eased down by the rail. Passengers, herded by calm officers, came on to the deck. The ship gave another sickening roll. A lifeboat was dashed to matchsticks.

“It’s no use,” the quartermaster said hoarsely. He gripped the rail, staring out over the raging sea, where mountainous waves were sending the S.S. Wilcox to her doom.

The captain said slowly, “I wish I were what Cadmus wished he was. I wish I could command the waves of the sea to vanish.”

… An astounding thing happened.

As if a gigantic beer skimmer had been run over the surface of the sea in all directions, the tops of the waves seemed abruptly to round. The troughs filled, the crests dropped. The roar of water against the flanks of the ship ceased. The waves ceased, though the wind still roared, and whined.

The quartermaster’s eyes widened in startled terror, and he looked askance at his captain.

The captain said blankly, “God or the Devil or me!”

The waves were gone. The S.S. Wilcox ceased pitching. A sailor came up and told the captain that although the hole was still there, the water of the open sea visible through it had seemed to turn into a rigid surface that wouldn’t let the water in. The ship was no longer sinking.

As far as the eye could see the Atlantic Ocean was a calm smooth stretch of water, with the inflexible rigidity of glass….


The champion of the world was saved by the bell. His excited, panic-stricken manager picked up a pitcher of water, and threw the entire contents in the heavy-weight’s face. The entire contents was in the form of a hard sphere of water. The sphere struck the dazed, almost unconscious fighter on the forehead. It was the only case on record of a fighter being knocked out between rounds….


“I am sorry you are not able to drink, when there is so much water around you. But you must not touch it, see? Olduk must not touch it either. Tell all your friends. Thank you,” Olduk concluded.

He bowed and turned away, leaving the station manager to do the rest.

Then he placed his twelve foot body into a specially made chair, and waited. The waiting was not long. A knock came on the door, and the door was thrust open. Five men in civilian clothes stood there.

“You, Olduk,” said one in an ugly tone. “You’re under arrest.”

The five men circled him.

Olduk drew his cape tighter about him. “Very well,” he complied, and led the way out of the room, thinking wistfully of his native planet.


He was taken before the chief of the secret service of the World State. The Speaker of the Master Conclave, and the Japanese and Spanish sectional Governors were there. He was forced to a seat.

Olduk’s eyes rested on the sphere of the water in the Speaker’s hands. His eyes flickered briefly. The Speaker glared at him wildly.

“The longer I hold this thing,” he whispered, panting, “the thirstier I get. And I can’t drink! What will I do?”

Olduk said emotionlessly, “Honorable sir, you will have to hold it until there is an agreement to give my people water. Now we are all Tantaluses.”

The iron-gray individual who was the chief of the secret service, ran his tongue around in his dry mouth.

“You did this?” he said huskily.

“Yes,” said Olduk.

The man took a paper off his desk, unfolded it in front of Olduk’s eyes.

Olduk read the headline emotionlessly:


“I did that, yes,” said Olduk quietly. “Many people will die. Tantalus, yes? But there is a Tantalus on Mars, too.”

The iron-gray man struck him harshly across the mouth.

“How did you do it?” he rasped.

“A water-tight ship lies buried ten miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. A simple radio signal started the mechanism that eventually released the force.”

“What force?”

“The force that will make it impossible for people of Earth to drink, honorable sir.”

“What signal will make the mechanism stop?” Again Olduk was struck across the face, harshly, brutally. A thin yellow ichor started to run down Olduk’s impassive face.

“The signal is known only to my people on Mars. Thus it was arranged.”

“You’re a liar, Olduk!”

The man lit a cigar, and while the Speaker turned away, sickened, he brought it closer to Olduk, meanwhile talking rapidly.

“Liners are stranded in the ocean, unable to move. Their passengers can’t drink. The power house at Niagara is useless; the water comes over the falls in drops as big as houses. People are beginning to suffer from thirst. I know a Martian named Olduk who’s going to burn alive if he doesn’t tell us how to stop the mechanism.”

The cigar contacted, lingered. There was a sulphurous odor.

Tiny muscles on the Martian’s face began to tense. Sweat broke out on his face.

“You cannot harm me,” he said steadily. “Can only kill me. If you kill me, mankind die. We of Mars have then a planet of water to ourselves. That’s my warning. Heed me.”

Fifteen minutes passed. Olduk’s face was a mass of blood and burns. Every nerve in his body was quivering. He had answered none of the questions hurled at him. He had refused to divulge the location of the buried ship. Finally his muscles relaxed, and his double-lidded eyes sagged shut.

The chief of the secret service said ragingly, “Throw him into a cell, the dirty—! We’ll work on him later!”

After Olduk was taken away, the iron-gray man looked at the Speaker.

“What do we do now?”

The Speaker looked in horror at the sphere of water in his hand. “We’ll have to give in—”

“Damned if we will,” the other snarled, pacing up and down. “If we could find out where that ship is, we could send a super-tension ship down and blow it to—” He stopped, his eyes lighting. He wheeled. “Didn’t Olduk say ‘ten miles’ below the surface? Damn! There aren’t many places that deep—” He snapped his fingers, and reached for a phone.


Three hours later, a bullet-shaped rocket ship, able to withstand thousands of tons’ pressure, and reinforced with an intangible force-field, fled away from the continent, bound for the Maracot Deep; for such was the first choice, and, as it happened, it was the last.

High above the ocean, the pilot turned the craft nose-down, and poured full power into his jets.

The craft plunged for the surface of the hard ocean, at frightful velocity; struck; penetrated; was under, velocity broken almost in three by the terrific impact. The ship bored down, powerful searchlights playing on swarms of startled fishes. Down, down. The pilot made an exclamation, grinned his triumph. Here, ten miles down, they saw the hulk of the ship that was causing such destruction in the world above.

The pilot signaled one of his subordinates. The man pulled a lever. The craft’s entire load of super-explosives sank downward toward the menace.


The pilot sent his ship blasting for the surface. Seconds later he heard and felt the tremendous vibration that, he knew, heralded the end of the menace. He went toward the surface, and when within fifty feet of it, sent a blast of power into his jets.

The ship struck something, like a wall, hard, unyielding, and the pilot and his assistants were thrown against the instrument board. They recovered their senses.

The pilot looked at the other men.

“Ten tons of helio-hydrogen didn’t do the trick,” he said softly. “What will? You know, I almost forgot. The science of the Martians is way ahead of ours. Naturally, that ship wouldn’t be exactly tender….”

He knew it was useless. He had no more explosives. He shoved every atom of power he had into his jets, but the ship could not move more than forty miles an hour under water. For a moment it seemed the blunt nose of the ship was going to penetrate the incredibly tough under-surface of that film, but no….

The pilot said, grinning crookedly, “Say your prayers, boys, and here’s hoping they give the Old Duck what he wants—quick.”

Two days passed. Three billion people stared into the face of eternity. Rivers, lakes, oceans were full. There were reservoirs of clear, sparkling water, from which laboring pumps could take water, pumping it to homes, making it accessible, forcing it out of faucets.

But it was untouchable. The water came out in impenetrable spheres.

They lay like jewels in the homes of most people. People stood around and stared at them, longingly, yet not daring to touch them. They had heard several stories about people who had touched them.

Within the spheres, the water was clearly visible for what it was; which made it all the harder to resist. The world now knew, by the word of scientists, that nothing but a thin surface of molecules, strengthened by a million times, lay between them and the water their bodies thirsted for. Surface tension, acted upon by a strange force, broadcasted from a mechanism ten miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic.

Another day passed. The mills of industry, working by steam, and the things that depended on water, came to a halt. Power was weak, for it was fed from fast depleting accumulators. The tide machines were useless, for the ocean no longer fell or rose more than a foot in any one place.

Numberless ships were stranded on the oceans, their screws able to turn, but their bows unable to push against the enormous contractile force that the surface of the ocean possessed.

Crowds roved through the streets, aimless, purposeless, their voices dry, racking, their eyes bloodshot, cheeks sunken. Beer and soft drinks, the only drinkable liquids that were not affected, were selling for ten dollars a bottle. The supply was fast dwindling, and the price was being jacked up.

Water was all around them, but they were the children of Tantalus.

Newspapers began to demand, in stringent tones, that the situation be remedied. Crowds gathered outside the World Administration Building, shouting for water, and they were fully willing to go to the extreme of meeting the demands of the Martians to get it.


The Speaker of the Master Conclave, and the Japanese and Spanish sectional governors, stood in a room on the upper floor of the World Administration Building.

The room was a kitchen.

On the floor lay a huge, polished, glistening drop of water.

“That’s what it is, gentlemen,” said the Speaker. “A drop of water, just what you’d expect if the surface tension of water increased a million times. The surface film acts like a tight skin or jacket surrounding a drop of water, and the jacket contracts down to the least possible area, a sphere. If you put your hands on it—the way I’ve got my hands on this damned thing—you increase the ‘coastline,’ and the surface film doesn’t like that. It tries to decrease the coastline formed by your fingers, so your fingers are crushed together. If you managed to actually penetrate the film, and get your hands wet, the terrific capillary action of the molecules would cause the surface film to literally envelop you, and you’d be inside, and you couldn’t get out…. What are we going to do about it?”

His face was drawn and haggard and sunken.

The Spanish Governor said hoarsely, “We couldn’t give in, could we?”

“No!” the Japanese Governor lashed out savagely; but in a moment a fleeting smile crossed his face. “Send for Olduk,” he said.

Olduk entered the room, unsteadily, supported by two plain-clothesmen. His face was clean of blood, but the little, horrible marks inflicted on him were all too evident.

“You wished to see me?” he said in a hoarse whisper. His eyes were bloodshot.

“Yes. What do you want of Earth, explicitly?”

“Water, honorable sir. Water for my people. As much as we wish, when we wish it, at a reasonable price; and we also desire friendship, so that we may help each other.”

The Japanese sucked in his breath, quivering angrily. “You want our friendship. Yet you do this to our people!”

“You do no less to my people, honorable sir. Olduk is sorry, see?” He weaved, caught onto a chair to support himself. His leathery, parchment face seemed more wrinkled and bloodless than ever before. His reddish eyes held a deep, pleading hope.

“We are children of Tantalus, all,” he whispered. “It is not right that we live in a mythical Hades, see, honorable sirs? Give my people water—”

He pitched forward on his face. The Speaker started toward him, his eternal sphere of water in his hands, but the Japanese stopped him, held him back from the sprawling, twelve-foot figure.

He said, “Have you ever studied Martian psychology?”

“N-no,” said the Speaker, puzzled.

“The theory is that they are incapable of dishonesty, and therefore they do not believe it exists. Of course, it’s only a theory, and nobody believes it, but why couldn’t we try it out?”

The Speaker was startled. “You mean we should give them our word, and then back out on it?”

“Yes,” the Japanese sucked in his breath. He saw the hesitation on the Speaker’s face, and said with icy, mocking disdain, “Are you going to give water to a race whose sole purpose will be to increase their population so they can conquer Earth? Think, fool! Do you want to hold that sphere of water in your hands forever?” He smirked. “In the interval of peace, we can go to the Maracot Deep, lift that sunken ship out without having to worry about a surface film. We can take it to dry land, and with a little work, cut the ship open, destroy the mechanism. With that destroyed—”

His contempt, and his reference to the maddening sphere of water the Speaker held, wilted the Speaker.

“We’ll do it,” he said slowly, casting an uneasy look at the sprawled Martian.


Thirty minutes later, the three men watched the sphere of water in the Speaker’s hands. A radiogram had been sent across 126,000,000 miles to Mars. Mars’ answer, if it was affirmative and entirely trusting, would come not in the form of a radiogram but in the immediate return of Earth to its natural fluid state.

They watched the rigid sphere in fascination. Even now, the radio signal that would cause the mechanism to cease might be winging its way across space between two planets.

When the sphere broke, if it did, three billion thirsty human beings would drink with the maddening impatience of Tantalus himself, released from his eternal doom.

… The sphere seemed to quiver. Suddenly it sagged, flattened out without a sound, its sphericity gone. The Speaker uttered a cry, and dashed his hands to his face, gulping in as much of the precious stuff as he could before it dribbled away from his hands. The Japanese and Spanish Governors turned rapidly to faucets, and the water, clear, sparkling, normal, streamed out….

For a short time the three of them were like animals. Then, gradually, they stopped drinking, and stood back, slightly ashamed.

The Spanish Governor said, suggestively, “We’d better get that ship fished out before the Martians realize they are not going to get water after all. Otherwise—”

The Speaker nodded. He turned away, to go into his study, when he stumbled over the prone body of Olduk, the Martian. A twinge of guilt assailed him. He stooped and turned Olduk over.

Olduk’s double-lidded eyes were open. Olduk’s skin was as dry as his native sands. Olduk was either dead or dying.

The Speaker troubledly called a doctor. The doctor made a brief examination, handling the body distastefully. Suddenly he stifled an exclamation.

“I can’t believe this!” he said hoarsely. He got to his feet, stared first at the Speaker, then at Olduk again.

“Do you know what he died from?” he stammered. “Do you know, gentlemen!”

And the Speaker knew.


The Master Conclave was again assembled, for the fourth and last day, its members well-watered, and well satisfied with themselves.

The Speaker said, standing on the rostrum where Olduk had stood four days before, “I want to make a short talk, and call for a standing vote.

“Earth has water again. We acquired it by a simple trick, that of dishonesty. I was fully to blame. Men are now at work in the Maracot Deep, in super-tension ships raising the Martian ship to the surface. There is no reason to doubt that a means to destroy the mechanism that caused so much trouble will be found. We won’t have to keep our agreement with the Martians. I want to know if this action of mine meets with your approval.”

The entire body stood to its feet.

“We were forced to it,” the Japanese Governor said to the assembly at large.

The Speaker waved them to their seats again. “I did not call for a standing vote, yet. I have more to say before I ask for your filial decision.”

He resumed carefully, giving each word its proper significance.

“The Old Duck was a Martian—but in body he was not a Martian. He told us that. He had been changed with ‘sundry operations,’ so that he could live in this climate, so different from that of Mars. Air pressure, oxygen content, moisture, content gravity. To each he was acclimated by surgical operations.

“Yes,” continued the Speaker, something catching in his voice, “he was changed in such a way that the terrific amount of moisture in the atmosphere of the Earth could be taken care of by his body. In order to make that possible, his twelve-foot body was given a capacity for water proportionately three times greater than that of any Terrestrial!

“Gentlemen,” said the Speaker, while an air of startled tenseness grew in the tiered seats, “Olduk died of thirst.”

He was silent.

He said strainedly, “I wanted to know if my action of deceit met with your approval. I require a standing vote.”

The Japanese Governor rose slowly. He had to. He sent a look at the Spanish Governor. The Spanish Governor kept his seat.

The Japanese Governor stood alone, like a monument to the thoughtless guilt of the others.


The Speaker sat that night before his desk, drinking a glass of water.

He said to the shadows, “I drink with you, Olduk!”

He slowly wrote out a treasury requisition, and in the space marked REASON FOR APPLICATION wrote: “For the free transportation of a gift of ten million gallons of water to the Martians, as a gesture of friendship from Earth.”

About the Author

Ross Rocklynne (February 21, 1913 – October 29, 1988) was the pen name used by Ross Louis Rocklin, an American science fiction author active in the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Born in 1913 in Ohio, Rocklynne was a regular contributor to several science fiction pulps including Astounding Stories, Fantastic Adventures and Planet Stories. He sold his first story “[a]fter four years of spasmodic writing”. Despite his numerous appearances and solid writing, Rocklynne never quite achieved the fame of his contemporaries Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov. His well-known stories include 1938’s “The Men and the Mirror,” which was part of his Colbie and Deverel series, and 1941’s “Time Wants a Skeleton”, which has been reprinted in several anthologies, including Asimov’s Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction.

Rocklynne partially retired from writing in the late 1950s, but made a notable return in the 1970s when his novelette “Ching Witch!” was included in Harlan Ellison’s original anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions (1972).

Rocklynne died in Los Angeles, California at the age of 75. He was survived by his two sons, Keith and Jeffrey.

[Excerpt from Wikipedia (, retrieved April 3rd, 2020]

About this Edition

This edition is based on Planet Stories Spring 1940. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.