Mars special: Red, but not dead

It's the near future and, for a small band of colonists, the most important day in the history of Mars. But out in the arid wastelands, the British ambassador has just made an extraordinary discovery that could change everything ...
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"Stanley is outside, taking a walk," Lady Unity Beckford said to the Chief Under-Secretary. "The visitors arrive today," the Under-Secretary replied. "I expect he knows that, Henry," said Lady Unity, keeping the edge from her voice. "And there's a terrorist warning from the US Zone," Henry said. She sighed. "I thought we'd escaped all that up here." "Well, today would certainly be the right day to create an incident."

Indeed, Sir Stanley Beckford, Ambassador to the British Zone, Planet Mars, was aware that visitors were expected. It was for this reason that, sealed into his suit, he was taking a stroll on the arid surface of Mars ­ the crapout, as it was known. He climbed a low hill and surveyed the land over which he was the nominal head.

His own offices, and the offices of the entire British administration, were housed in a windowless metal box with rounded edges. The box was also home to vehicles and the oxygen plant. A street, of a kind, was formed by three habitation units, also boxlike, standing opposite the administrative building. Behind them, the dome of the Nourishment Unit showed.

To one end of the street stood a taller box. This was the barracks, housing a detachment of British military; a metal Union Jack flew above its roof.

Such was almost the entire extent of the British Martian Zone, apart from a rectangle of crapout behind the barracks, where a space had been cleared of stones, and a suited version of football was played.

The Zone was lit by the distant sun. It was now full twilight. Beckford liked his Zone. He was a connoisseur of desolation. More distantly, he could see the clutter of the Russian and Chinese zones. Both much resembled his fiefdom. Only the American Zone, standing apart, aspired to grandeur. The reduced gravity had prompted architects to go for tall, spindly buildings.

Unity's voice sounded inside Stanley's helmet, urging him to return into "airspace", as they called it.

"I'll be in soon. It's glorious out here."

"Henry reminds me that you'll have to wear your uniform today."

The scene was glorious to Stanley's eyes: not a blade of grass grew. He turned his back on the buildings to stroll farther into the crapout. Nobody else was here. For most Mars residents, this was a place to be avoided, even feared.

He had walked a hundred metres across the crapout when he observed an object lying against a rock. Stanley stood over it, not attempting to touch. A symbol had been carved on the rock and painted over with some reflective material. Stooping, he photographed it with his helmet camera.

"Hello," he said. "I apologise for barging in on your world. I would welcome direct communication, if that is possible."

He expected no answer. He would not touch the symbol. It had not been there when last he walked this way. But for the ambassador, it served as further confirmation of his theory: that the Red Planet was home to a population of what could only be described as ghosts ­ albeit shy, benevolent ones.

Before he turned back to his airspace, he addressed the empty landscape once again. "I know the Americans plan to terraform Mars. It will wipe you out of existence. I'm so sorry. There's little I can do to stop them..."

Henry was driving Stanley and Unity in a balloon-wheeled vehicle to the reception in Marsopolis ­ the official name of the US base. The township was protected by motorised marines. Their British insignia allowed Henry to drive through without interruption, although they saw a Chinese contingent being questioned.

Bright adverts for Coca-Cola and other products abounded. American and UN flags were everywhere, and armed replicants. The display of firepower was a reminder of the destruction that one, well-aimed ground-to-air missile could bring, breaking into the buildings' eggshell of breathable air.

Stanley was still preoccupied with his Martian ghosts. "Suppose that, millions of years ago, there was life here. But conditions were deteriorating ­ Mars is too distant from the Sun to support anything like the complexity of Earth's biomass. So the creatures with intellect slimmed down and finally vanished."

They were driving slowly down a street. In Marsopolis, there was more than one.

"You mean they died out," said Unity.

"No. They became ethereal. They learned to live without food, using the electrostatic forces of the planet. They still exist invisibly, like ghosts ­ but more involved with the present than ghosts."

"Perhaps you should write a paper, and send it to Nature," Unity said. "I need more proof ­ don't want to seem more of a crank than I am," he replied. She hugged him...

 

In Marsopolis, at Government House, they were greeted by Chris Wilder, the American de facto governor of the planet, and his young wife, Phoebe May Wilder. Chris was solidly built, pale of hair, pale of face. Phoebe May was dark and plump.

Chris and Stanley shook hands and engaged in mild banter.

"Nice to see you here, Stan, on this so-called great occasion." "Anything helps to break the monotony." "Let's hope the visitors will help liven things up in our little multinational community." "We're happy to join in the pretense that the States doesn't own Mars." "Now, Stan! Think of the taxes our multitudes are forking out to keep us here." "Well that's about to change. I hear you're letting the French in!" Chris laughed. "Why not? As long as they bring food and wine ­ oh, and goat's cheese for Phoebe May. Another zone would help with the taxes. I'm a very unpopular man in Washington right now."

He gestured to a replicant, who came forward with glasses of Californian wine. Wine was a luxury available only to governors: it came in plastic barrels at immense cost from the Florida station.

"Plenty in the midst of extremest poverty!" said Chris, and Phoebe May echoed him with a toast, lifting her glass high: "Here's to good old democracy!"

Stanley mentioned the hundred indentured labourers he still hoped to import to the British Zone to work on new outbuildings. "You know we can't permit that, Stan," said the governor. "Bring in indentured labour, you bring in terrorists."

"I have started to do some research into this planet's indigenous population. We need a sheltered space in which they..."

"Stan, I have every respect for your hobbies, but the last thing we need up here is goddammed Martians. Sorry. Let me refresh your drink." The British ambassador placed a broad hand over the top of his glass and shook his head.

Chris said, "I'm making a speech at the launch, Stan. I can't let you make one. If you did, the Chinese and Russians would insist on making one too." He shrugged. "There's not a great deal to be said on these occasions ­ but it could be positive for my image, Stateside..."

 

The tourist rocket arrived on schedule, and went into orbit about the planet. A ferry brought the 200 visitors down from the ship into the space station. Since the visitors were all in cryosleep as yet, following the six-month journey from Earth, they were driven straight to hospital to be revived and checked over. The only way to cross between the planets, conserving oxygen, food and space, was to lay the passengers out cold.

This brave company represented the beginnings of tourist traffic to the Red Planet. The Mars Olympia Hotel had been specially built for them. They were closely guarded. The fee for the visit was suitably astronomical, but these first 200 were hoping their names would go down in history.

The event they had come to witness was embodied in a giant ship ­ not a rocket ship, but a nuclear ship ­ standing at one side of the space station, pointing out into infinity.

While the British contingent were enjoying drinks in the governor's lounge, Unity and Phoebe May were chatting. Both ladies complained that they were missing their children. They were not allowed on Mars until they were 15, to protect natural bone development and prevent the osteitis that was proving to be a common complaint among adult Martians.

Unity occasionally phoned their son Graham, currently sitting the Baccalauréat in Paris ­ referred to by Graham as "the bacchanalia" ­ but conversations were impossible because of the 20-minute lapse while signals crossed from one planet to the other.

"Life will be simpler when and if terraforming ever gets into action," said Phoebe May. "I dream of walking outside with no suit. Maybe having a dog. I'd like a Borzoi..."

"I thought the program was scheduled to start last year," Unity said.

Phoebe May leaned towards her friend. "Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but the project is shelved ­ terraforming is just too expensive. If the tourist industry gets going, things might change."

Unity concealed her delight; the news would please Stanley. She said merely, "Stan thinks that terraforming would spoil the crapout."

"I can't imagine where that dreadful word comes from," said Phoebe May, who was apt to turn slightly religious at times.

"It's from the French. Crapaud is French for toad."

Unity started to explain her husband's theory about the ghosts. "You never know, they could become a tourist attraction. People always like the notion of alien life."

Phoebe May almost upset her drink in horror. "For God's sake! Don't mention ghosts or no one will want to come here, ever! The American public thinks ghosts are a British thing. Remember, we bill this as the Scientific Planet!"

"Stan's ghosts are purely scientific. They're not dead people." "A ghost is a ghost in any man's language..."

 

The British ambassador and his wife drove out with the American governor and his wife to the space station, where Russian and Chinese delegates joined them. A television crew followed closely, beaming its message to a satellite geostationary above Marsopolis.

They entered a specially constructed cubicle of reinforced glassite, which commanded a view of the whole field ­ the giant new nuclear ship and the terminal, into which the now revived visitors were flocking excitedly.

"They look pretty perky, considering the trip they've made," Stanley said. "Not to mention the cash they've paid out," said Chris, with a wry grin. "If the French and Germans finally decide to build their own locations here, that will help bring down costs by a few percentage points."

"At least the price of the journey helps to keep out terrorists."

"Well... I've got a CIA report on my desk saying Al Q are now as rich as California..." The suited crew of the new ship, the Space Beagle, were ascending its gleaming sides by elevator and entering the ship. Countdown continued. A band played.

Chris Wilder stepped to the microphone. His words were relayed into the terminal to the waiting visitors.

"This is a time of Ave Atque Vale, my friends. Greetings first of all to our visitors, who have made the monumental journey between planets, regardless of danger and discomfort, to be with us on this memorable day in the capital city of our Red Planet. Your sons and daughters ­ and indeed the many nations which you represent ­ will honour your courage and your presence on this historic occasion.

"So, greetings to you and farewell to the crew of this mighty ship, Space Beagle, which is about to blast off into the unknown. But not the entirely unknown. The intellects of many men and women have been engaged for generations in piecing together knowledge of Jupiter and, in particular, Jupiter's moons. And one moon especially, Europa, now renamed Oceania."

He paused, staring out at the scene, where searchlights were reinforcing the dim sunlight.

"We hope to find life and, at the least, a habitation for humanity, either on Oceania or its neighbouring satellites such as Ganymede ­ which is a heap larger than the planet Mercury. There, we can be beyond the uncertainties of Earth, with its intense and growing heat and its diseases. Not to mention its terrorism.

"This beautiful ship is about to join its nuclear engine, which is at present in orbit above us. When the component parts are united, the Beagle will embark on the longest journey by far that humanity has ever contemplated.

"You, my listeners, know how distant is Earth. You have felt that distance. But Jupiter is more than three times farther away still.

"Only in a nuclear-powered vessel could this journey be made. The Beagle marks a great advance in technology. When it sets off, it sets off not only for the satellite Oceania, but for the possible future of mankind itself.

"This is why you intrepid visitors are here ­ to act as witnesses. You know in your hearts that this hour marks a turning-point in world history, and the history of the West. And Mars is ­ must be ­ its stepping stone."

He ceased, to tremendous applause from the visitors, which was relayed to Earth. At a given signal, the Beagle lifted into a sugar-pink sky to join its nuclear motor, before heading away from the Sun, towards Jupiter and its beckoning satellites.

In the terminal, cheers and tears mingled freely.

Unity clutched Stanley. Her eyes, too, were moist. "I suppose progress must continue," she said, almost to herself.

"Without progress, we're dead ducks," her husband said. He thought of the millions starving on Earth, fading as probably the Martians had faded ­ to nothing.

Chris took Phoebe May's hand. Forbidding her to weep, he continued: "And here's where we live ­ on nothing more than a stepping stone..."

© Brian W Aldiss 2003

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