Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Mission to Mars!

by Dave Weaver



Zac and Janey lay in the purple grassland that fringed the lake, staring lazily across its flat surface at the stilted village that poked out of its farthest shore. The lake was a pale yellow, reflecting the cloudless sky above their heads. Janey let out a deep sigh of contentment that made Zac turn his head.

"Don't get too settled there. We have to relieve the others before sunset."

Janey rolled over onto her back and shut her eyes. "I know, but isn't this just too dreamy? I never realised that Mars was going to be like this."

"How could we have foreseen? It was a blind jump into the unknown. We didn't even know if there'd be people, well creatures, here. I guess we struck lucky."

"I guess we did." She rolled over again until her face was next to his. He put an arm around her waist and they kissed. "Oh Zac..." They kissed again, more deeply.

"Janey darling..." Their rubber spacesuits made slithering noises as they rubbed together.

Suddenly there was a loud beep as their communication devices went off in tandem.

"Damn! What do they want?"

"Can't we just pretend we're out of range?" Jane asked him, her voice heavy.

"They can still see us with their scanners. I'll have to answer." He picked the flashing phone from his utility belt and pushed the red button. "Zac here, Chief, over."

"Zac," a deep voice replied. "You and Jane come down to the village straightaway. There's something funny going on with the Martians. Doc says they're talking about the end of the world or something. Over."

"What the heck does that mean, Chief? Over." Zac held his own scanner up to his eyes. In the stilted village blue figures were darting from hut to hut in panic.

"We don't know son, but something's sure spooked them. You two get back here now -- and that's an order. Over and out."

"What is it, Zac?" Janey's voice sounded tense.

"Chief says the Martians are leaving. We've got to get back there now. Said something about 'the end of the world' It sounds crazy..." He thrust the scanner at her. "Here, take a look." But then he pulled her up to her feet before she had a chance to. "No time for that now honey, let's go!"

"Oh Zac, what do you think has happened? Are we in any danger?"

Zac turned to Janey long enough to brush a stray hair away from her face. "Don't worry kid, I'll look after you. Depend on it."

"Okay, Zac, I'm scared..."

But Zac was already cutting a purple swathe away from her towards the village.

They found the Chief and the other two crew members, Johnny and Frank, in the middle of the village standing wryly looking on amidst a whirlwind of activity. The little blue-skinned beings who'd welcomed them into their community with such innocent effusion only a few short months previously now rushed hither and thither grabbing their families and belongings and stuffing them into the funny little carts the Martians used to transport their produce to market. Each cart had a large armour-plated Dob-Dob, a docile rhinoceros-like beast of burden, between its prongs. Many Martian oaths filled the air as they banged into each other, panic lending a teeth-grinding quality to their already shrill voices.

An old male with a tail considerably whiter than the others fixed them with all three of his eyes and spat out what sounded like a curse.

"Yaksparak gedoddle bagatelle, Earthlings!" He looked around angrily with a sweeping gesture of his short stubby arms encompassing the round half-shell dwellings of mud and purple reeds that made up the Martian village. "Zizall spedioikaput!" He seemed to be staring directly at Zac now, although it wasn't so easy to tell. "Stoopeedokidz!"

He spat on the ground at Zac's feet then charged passed the group with as much speed as his two trunks could muster to be lost in the melee of blue that pushed through the main gates and over the bridge. The crowd continued to spread out across the lush sweeping valley, until eventually it was nothing more than a collection of blue dots swallowed up by a hazy horizon.

The crew of the Adventurer stood and watched them go, hands on hips in astonishment at such a sudden turn of events.

"Well..." Janey broke the gathering silence. "They could at least have warned us they were going. Or even said goodbye nicely."

Captain Muldare raised a flat hand to his eyes as if giving the scattering Martians a delayed salute. "They're heading due south. I wonder what spooked them?"

At his words a small balding man in a white rubber space suit with a red cross on its breast pocket ducked his head out of the nearest hut.

"They're scared, Captain. I heard what the old chief said to you."

"My Martian's not so good, Johnny. Mind telling us what the little guy was banging on about?"

Johnny looked around at them all with a strange expression of foreboding. "He said that we should go home, now. That out science had brought death to them all."

"Our science? Did he mean the water purification tablets we gave them, or the ray-guns we trained them to use against those filthy marauding Twak-Twak things that try to eat their children, or the solar radiation lamps which lit up their darn village at night?"

"And what about the church we built for them?" Janey added, not unreasonably. "How ungrateful can you be?"

Captain Muldare turned to regard his daughter. "I was afraid something like this might happen. Maybe your mother was right: space is no place for a girl."

Janey ruffled. "Daddy, I'm a trained marine biologist and you know you needed someone to run tests on all those canals. Besides, I'm as good as any man at my job...what was that?"

Somewhere off in the distance came a loud crack. It sounded again as a plume of white clouds breasted the distant hills and swept down towards the empty village.

"I've heard that noise before, on one of my Earth expeditions," Johnny told them, his brow furrowing in alarm. "But it can't be, not here on Mars."

"What do you mean, what did you think it was?" Zac asked.

Johnny looked around at their bemused faces. "Iceflows!"

A wave of cold air hit them, grabbing at their throats so that they could barely breathe.

"What in God's name...? Doc, Frank, grab the spacelids from the Rover. Get them on everybody, before we all suffocate." Captain Muldare's voice sounded surprised but still in complete control of the situation.

Zac wondered fleetingly if he'd manage to be so calm and collected in an emergency when he got his own ship. Being the old man's son-in-law was going to be a tough one.

The two men ran to the bubble-tyred vehicle and pulled a number of transparent domes out of one of the hatches. By the time the others had reached them they had primed the air lock seal on each one. Zac pulled his over his head and twisted the catch. There was a hissing noise then the captain's metallic voice, a little breathless in his ears.

"Is everyone okay?"

Everyone nodded except Frank, who was still struggling into his. The catch seemed to have caught somewhere.

Johnny strode over and gave the top a thump with his fist. There was a snapping sound then Frank gave them all the thumbs up.

"Good," continued Captain Muldare, "Then let's get the Rover started and head back to the ship. Whatever it is that's coming for us I'm pretty sure we can outrun it in Betty." He patted the giant vehicle's padded side. "Don't let us down now, old girl."

The five of them took up their positions, Johnny behind the wheel and the rest sitting two abreast behind him in the open-top passenger compartment. The ship's pilot gunned the engine.

Nothing.

He pushed the red button again. It gave a spineless whir then died.

"She's cold."

"We haven't used her for a while, I guess." Zac replied.

"No, I mean she's really cold. Look." He pointed at the hood. Ice had started to form on the thin metal covering. A freezing mist had crept up around them so that even inside their airtight gloves their fingers were starting to go numb.

The Captain jumped down again and ripped open the covering. "Johnny, keep turning her over. You lot, get on top of the hood with me. We've got to transfer some of our residual body heat to that engine."

The four spacemen (and one woman) scrambled up on top of the engine. They looked not unlike a troop of performing seals in their black rubber spacesuits. After a nerve-racking few minutes it took and coughed into life. But now they were surrounded by a thick clinging whiteness that froze up their glass bell jar helmets.

"Everyone back in?" Zac heard Captain Muldare's voice and saw a shape twist around in front of him.

"Affirmative, Sir!" they all shouted. Frank nodded.

"Frank?"

"He's here sir!" Zac told him, putting a hand out to tap Frank's silhouette next to him.

"Right. We're flying blind on this one, so let's hope you remember where the darn bridge is Johnny. Put your foot down man and get us out of here!"

The five ghostly figures had been trundling through an invisible landscape for half a Martian hour before the three giant metal fins of the spaceship loomed up out of the white blanket that had surrounded them since their hair-raising departure from the village. They'd never know how close Johnny had actually come to missing the bridge, but the sudden air-like spinning of the back right wheel then crunching jolt as it made contact had been a clue.

They all slithered down from the frozen machine, Janey missing her footing and landing with a bump on the icy surface.

"Ouch!"

"Janey, what is it? Are you okay?"

She looked down at her hand. The glove had been cut away by a frozen shard of what had once been grass but now stuck in her wrist like a stiletto, its clear surface reflecting a watery sun that hung dimly somewhere up above the teeming clouds of mist. The blood dried on her spacesuit before it could drop to the ground.

Zac scrambled to her side, his boots crunching on the brittle grassland as bits of it snapped off and dug themselves into his legs.

"Darn it, those things hurt! What the hell is happening to this place?"

Janey reached out to touch a beautiful butterflug that perched on a giant Zobweed in front of her. It dissolved to powder under her fingers and the Zobweed shattered.

She cried out in shock. "Zac, please...get me out of here..."

She collected her wits at the brusque sound of her father's voice. "Into the ship now, everybody. The ladder's down and Johnny's got the hatch open. Quick, or we'll all be snowmen."

Zac and Janey saw his figure waving to them beneath a pale green light that fought its way through the mist to them. They grabbed each other's arms and half-stumbled towards it. The ladder's rungs were treacherous, with icicles already forming on them as they climbed.

Finally they passed up through the hatch into the airlock, Johnny's strong hands pulling Zac up while the Captain lifted Janey through with surprising tenderness for such a big man.

"Everyone on board." He yelled at them in a tense voice.

Zac looked around. "Frank's not here, sir!"

They all rushed over to the portal. A figure stood alone in the field of glass below the ship. It raised its head up to look at their faces, then the next moment seemed to shatter apart into a million shiny black splinters.

"Good God!" Captain Muldare exclaimed. "Poor Frank, he never stood a chance. Too damn curious -- had to stop to observe, and when he finally tried to move..." He stalked over to the control console. "Get that hatch sealed, Zac. Johnny, get us up fast! Strap in, everyone."

The pilot pushed levers and twisted knobs. Nothing happened.

"What the hell...? Johnny, what's going on?"

"Captain!" Janey was still at the portal, pointing out at the Martian landscape.

"Not now, Janey!"

"But daddy, look..." The hysterical edge to her voice made them all turn.

Outside, the clouds of white vapour had disappeared, along with the glass shards of the fields. Now the sky was clear with a bright pinkish hue, the ground nothing but cracked rock, red and blistered. There was nothing else on the undulating plain before them.

"I'm sorry guys."

All eyes switched to Zac.

"I can't pretend to you anymore. This is what Mars is really like." He began quoting from his astronomy text book. "Average temperature minus sixty-three degrees centigrade, air pressure one percent of Earth's, atmosphere point one three percent oxygen and ninety-five percent carbon, surface water vapour..."

"What the hell are you talking about, space cadet?" The Captain broke in angrily.

"...point one percent." Zac finished. "Like I said, I'm sorry. I never meant things to go this far, but I can't hold it back any longer."

"Hold what back, Zac?" Janey asked in a small voice.

"The truth. Here..." He unzipped the breast pocket of his spacesuit, pulled out a comic and put it down on the consol. It had a drawing of The Adventure on the front cover, its three giant fins casting their shadow over purple fields, its sharp pointed nose aimed at the stars.

Captain Muldare picked it up. "Mission to Mars!" He read aloud the lurid banner title then began flipping through the pages. "This is us...this is me!" He showed them all the last page, a drawing of Captain Muldare holding a kid's magazine, the words '...this is me!' suspended next to his mouth in a white speech bubble.

"Guys, I've really got to go." Zac told them.

"But what about us Zac? What are we going to do now?"

He looked around at the three of them. "You'll be all right. Look, under the picture."

They looked. There was a white box with the legend 'More next week...!' in excited italics.

"See." He told them. "You'll be fine. Just push the red button."

"Which one?" Johnny searched around the console in desperation.

"You'll find it guys. There's always a red button..."

"Zac, are you ready yet?"

"Coming mom." He placed the rolled up comic on the bookshelf and put the school text books lying across his bed into his school satchel.

"Have you finished your Science homework yet?" His mother's voice came again from downstairs. "Janey will be here soon. Mr Muldare's giving the two of you a lift to the movies, remember?"

"Almost..."

He heard her feet on the stairs then she put her head around the door.

"Almost? You've got to start taking your work seriously Zac if you want to go to college like your brother Johnny."

"I am, mom." His eyes went to the comic book then back to her. "Really, I am."

Her expression softened. "Fantasia, isn't it. I hear it's a wonderful picture. Perhaps I should tag along? Don't worry..." She held up a hand. "I know you guys want to be alone."

She left and Zac got up to follow her then paused. He looked at a small framed picture by his bedside, a young man in an army uniform, his features fuzzy and indistinct.

Zac gave the picture a quick salute and smiled. "At ease, Corporal Frank. See you later dad."

THE END


© 2011 Dave Weaver

Bio: Dave Weaver is a graphic designer living in St Albans. He is a member of the Verulam Writer's Circle. Dave's 'Finding Uncle' short story was published in Hert's University's 'Visions' anthology. His most recent Aphelion appearance was Ticket To Samarkand, December 2011 / January 2012.

E-mail: Dave Weaver

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