By Mark Kodama
The one hundred rockets dropped from the thin Martian sky, individually, in bunches and finally by dozens before they slammed against the red dirt, like a fireworks show, first isolated bursts of light, then simultaneous bursts of light until silver space ships filled the sky, glimmering in the sun.
Governor William Thomas shaded his blue eyes as he scanned the red-tinted sky, his hawk nose burned by the sun. Thomas expected only one ship, carrying Bert Edwards, his wife and four daughters. Thomas had three sons. They were to seed future generations and save humankind from extinction. Thomas was apprehensive, then angry and finally resigned.
“How stupid of me,” Governor Thomas mused to his 12-year-old son Timmy. “Why did I worry about the government shooting down our rocket?” he asked, almost to himself. The people in charge, the official responsible, had no time to shoot us down. They were too busy fleeing Earth and saving their own skins.”
Governor Thomas tousled Timmy’s hair. “Never mind,” he told his son, laughing.
“They are here,” Timothy said earnestly.
“They certainly are,” Governor Thomas said.
“No, I mean the Martians. I can see them. They are watching the landings.”
“Over there,” Timothy said, his right hand sweeping across the buttes.”
“I don’t see them,” Governor Thomas said.
William Thomas and Timothy – dressed in heavy winter coats and ski masks – drove the land rover to pick up the new arrivals – men, women and children of all ages from the far corners of earth. But these were no ordinary refugees – the poor, the tired, the hungry. These new arrivals were the political and military elites, industrialists and scientists and their families, survivors of the nuclear holocaust they instigated and then escaped.
The rest of the people – the average people who fought the war and paid the taxes to finance the war – perished in the nuclear inferno. If the bombs did not kill them, then the radiation and nuclear winter did. The ones killed instantly were lucky.
Most of the new arrivals assembled, near the old Parkhill Diner. Old Sam Parkhill dreamed of making his millions selling hotdogs to miners making their fortunes in the resource rich mountains. Parkhill died too along with his wife.
Many of the new colonists walked to the new camp themselves. They were exhausted after 55 million kilometers and six months of space travel. Scientists carried the DNA of most of the plant and animal species with them in frozen test tubes.
Man – the two-faced god, creator and destroyer – finally destroyed all that had been bestowed upon him. The arrogant fools.
The red dust of Mars swirled as the spaceships landed, exposing the smooth purple rocks called blueberries that formed the Martian crust.
Bert Edwards radioed William Thomas telling his friend that his ship was off course. Edwards was crash landing in the mountains, near Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on the planet and the third largest in the entire solar system.
Upon landing, Edwards reported he was badly wounded and the rest of his family suffered minor injuries. He radioed his coordinates.
William Thomas and young Timothy helped set up a temporary camp for the thousand new arrivals, all that remained of earth’s eight billion people. Father and son helped drive the new arrivals to the formerly abandoned city of New Los Angeles.
President Clevinger lost his mind. The president, whisps of his white hair blowing in face, repeatedly said as it was a mantra: “It’s all my fault.”
On earth, Clevinger was fat and pretentious, so full of himself. Now he was a broken old man: thin and sick, a shadow of his former self. His his thick white handlebar mustache now drooped. Dandruff powered the shoulders of his dark suit with white. “Ghost, ghosts – all I see are ghosts,” he mumbled to no one in particular.
General Baker assumed command of the government. When Vice President Stephens tried to give orders, General Baker arrested him and put him under guard. “I’m the elected representative of the people,” Stephens said. “We are still a nation of laws.”
General Baker was a tall man with a square face and square shoulders. He was a simple, practical man who knew little of political philosophy. “If you had listened to me,” the general said “none of this ever would have happened. You are just a bunch of demagogues more interested in yourselves than the people you ostensibly served; the people you misled; the people you killed.”
William Thomas simmered silently in anger. The nuclear dust has yet to settle and they are at each others’ throats. He had to be careful. He had his family to protect.
William Thomas, his son Timothy, Dr. Blanc and Capt. Ishiguru set out to bring the Edwards family back home. Thomas knew Dr. Blanc and Capt. Ishiguru from his days as governor. Both were good and reliable men.
Dr. Blanc was an athletic man in his sixties but appeared to be ten years younger. Captain Ishigura, the head of state security, was about thirty. Dr. Blanc was a single man. Captain Ishigura brought his wife Maiko and two boys – 16 and 12.
Thomas, Ishiguru, Dr. Blanc and Timothy stopped at Marlin Village to refuel their two land rovers and restock their food and water supply. There would be no water in the Martian desert. Thomas radioed his wife Lisa reporting all that had happened.
They drove down the main street of the ghost town by the rocket port, the black loam beneath the launch pad, scorched from the fleeing rockets. The rocket port was encircled by a black chain-link fence. The people were in such a rush to return to Earth they left the gate wide open.
Giant pumps from the pump station sucked up mud from the Martian mantle, and then extracted water from the mud. Minerals were separated from the dirt and oxygen released into the air.
The shops and businesses were lit, the doors of the businesses swung wide in the exodus. A pack of feral dogs roamed the streets. The men stopped at the beauty shop. The front door was open like the rest of the businesses, the colorful magazines were scattered on the floor, their pages flapping in the wind. Death filled the air.
The skeletal remains of a woman dressed was stretched out in a reclining chair. She was dressed in a wedding gown with a half-eaten box of chocolates in her hand. Governor Thomas shielded Timothy’s eyes with his body.
“What should we do?” Captain Ishiguru asked.
“We will find Bert and his family,” Governor Thomas said. “We can bury her later.”
Captain Ishiguru covered her body with a blanket. Governor Thomas said a prayer.
In the morning, they left for Olympus Mons by way of the Valles Maraneris, a giant ancient canyon once filled with a great river when the surface of Mars flowed with water. Thomas called Edwards on the radio but did not receive a response.
They soon came upon a homestead made from stone. Outside the stone house, two boys and a girl played. Inside the stone house, a woman baked a pie.
The robot family mechanically waved to the travelers as they passed by. Five headstones, halfway covered by red dust rose from the yard like the spine of a dragon from the desert. A large granite memorial marked the gravestones. “The Hathaways,” it said.
They had driven all day, covering many miles. Night would e soon fall. The two moons were already out.
The two land rovers – the first driven by Thomas and second by Captain Ishiguru stopped. “We should push on,” Governor Thomas said. “Bert Edwards is badly injured and his family is in the mountains.”
“We need to stop for the night,” Captain Ishiguru said. “We cannot help the Edwards if we are dead.”
“We should stop, Bill,” Dr. Blanc said. “Your boy is tired and we are too.”
“I’m okay,” Timothy said.
“There is a house on top of the hill,” Dr. Blanc.
“Looks creepy,” Timothy said.
“That is the House of Usher,” Governor Thomas said. “A crazy man named Stendahl built the house.”
“They are here,” Timothy said. “The Martians are here, watching from the windows.”
“Ah, I heard about this house,” Dr. Blanc said. “It was modeled after the House of Usher.”
“The House of Usher?” asked Governor Thomas.
“Yes,” Dr. Blanc said. “A book by Edgar Allan Poe. But that was before your time – before the government burned all his books.”
“I see,” Governor Thomas said.
“Those were the days when there was real freedom of thought . . . or at least more than what followed,” Dr. Blanc said. “The war would never had happened if we still had free thought and free exchanges of ideas.
“Well, it was not really just the government’s fault,” Dr. Blanc said. “Many people supported government suppression of free speech and most people simply did not care.
“The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant urged people to think for themselves. Alas, they were too lazy.”
“Regretting the past is a luxury we cannot afford,” Governor Thomas said. “We are starting anew. This time we can do everything right.”
“We need to hole up there for the night,” Captain Ishiguru said. “We can start out first thing in the morning.”
The House of Usher was like a museum – with wax figures representing characters from lost works of literature – Odysseus at the tiller, Alice and the Queen of Hearts, the lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill and Mockingbird and Rapunzel with her long golden hair. There were robotic rats, robotic bats and a robotic guerilla.
Governor Thomas dreamed of Martians – their yellow coin eyes glowing from their chocolate hairless, earless heads. Someone tapped from behind the brick wall. “Get up, Thomas! Get up! You are in danger.”
When the governor awoke, a large black gorilla stood over his prostrate body. “Gorilla!” he yelled. He could hear the patter of feet running as the Gorilla grabbed him by the collar and threw across the room.
Thomas landed hard on his ribs, hearing them crack as he hit the ground. He tried to kick the gorilla as he lay on the ground but the gorilla, grabbed his feet and spun him on his back. The gorilla then began choking him.
Captain Ishigura shouted “I’m going to blast him!” He then blew the gorilla’s head off, bursting the robot’s plastic and copper-wired head into large chunks.
Dr. Blanc held Timothy who looked on with wide-eyed terror. “Everything is going to be okay, son,” Dr. Blanc said.
They drove the land rovers as far as they could go. The terrain was too rough to go any further. They looked ahead to the mountain. This had been the coordinates Edwards had given when he landed. If they were alive, they were near.
The three men and the boy scrambled up the rocks, breathing heavily in the cold thin Martian atmosphere. A cold wind reduced the temperature to zero. They could see Olympus Mons, the third largest volcano in the solar system.
A shot rang out, a bullet kicked up red Martian dust. The men lay prone on the ground. Governor Thomas covered his son Timothy’s body with his own.
A second shot rang out, again kicking up the Martian dust. Captain Ishiguru nodded to Governor Thomas where the shot came from.
“Stay with the boy,” Thomas told Dr. Blanc and threw a rifle to him. “Cover us.”
Thomas circled to the right pistol in hand. Ishiguru circled to the left.
Thomas was the first to get behind the shooter, a grizzled old man with a long white beard, bandana and red leathery skin. When Thomas unlocked the safety of his gun, the old man turned to face him.
“Easy old timer,” Thomas said. “Drop your gun and get your hands up.”
The old man dropped his gun.
“I got him covered,” Ishiguru said, huffing and chuffing.
Thomas frisked the old man for more weapons, finding a switchblade knife in his socks.
“Did you come from the rockets?” the old man said.
“Yes,” Governor Thomas said.
“Who are you?” Captain Ishiguru said.
“I’m Ishiguru and this is Governor Thomas.”
“You are the first humans I have seen in twenty years,” Gripp said.
Governor Thomas waved Dr. Blanc and Timothy to come forward.
“You can put your hands down,” Thomas said.
“Why did you try to shoot us?” Ishiguru asked.
“Didn’t know your intentions,” Gripp said. “I did not know whether you wuz a gonna kill me.”
“We thought everybody returned to earth,” Thomas said.
“There wuz a few of us left behind,” Gripp said.
“Do you know anything about a rocket landing up here recently?” Governor Thomas asked.
“Yes, up yonder a piece,” Gripp said.
“What happened to the people?” Thomas asked.
“Don’t know, Haven’t been up there yet.”
“How well do you know these mountains?”
“Not well,” Gripp said. “There are still Martians living up here. It can be dangerous.”
“Have you seen them?”
“Only once,” he said. “But I can feel their presence. They are watching us now.”
“I don’t see anything,” Dr. Blanc said.
“Some people can see them,” Gripp said. “Others can’t.”
The men built a fire to keep warm, from the coals they kept in their backpacks, as they bedded down for the night. The stars shone brightly in the night sky. The flames sputtered and spit in the Martian atmosphere. Governor Thomas slept with Timothy to shield him from the cold.
In the morning, they continued up the mountain, searching for the spaceship. At noon, they found a piece of metal torn from the spaceship when it landed.
By 1 p.m., they found the rocket, standing up, tilting like the leaning tower of Pisa. The loam underneath the ship was burnt black from the thrusters.
Captain Ishiguru climbed the metal ladder on the side of ship and opened the hatch. An American flag was painted on the side of the rocket. The Edwards were gone.
A high pitched keening from the cliffs above echoed through the canyon. Governor Thomas, Dr. Blanc, and Timothy stayed in camp while Captain Ishiguru and Walter Gripp pressed forward.
Thomas could climb no more because his ribs were fractured. Dr. Blanc was too old and Timothy too young to climb the cliffs.
The freezing thin Martian air had made Governor Thomas shiver with fever. The coals did not burn well in the oxygen poor air.
Ishiguru and Gripp returned with the Edwards and a man named Jeff Spender. Miraculously, Bert Edwards had fully recovered nursed to health by the Martians that lived in the mountains. His wife and four daughters chatted excitedly.
Spender and Edwards supported Ishiguru who had twisted his ankle climbing the rocks. Governor Thomas lay in his sleeping bag by the fire. He had become dangerously ill – delirious. Dr. Blanc had tried everything to try to bring the fever down.
Everyone introduced themselves. There were handshakes all around. But Thomas’s grave condition suppressed their joyful feelings. Mrs. Edwards hugged Timothy. “Your father will be fine.” Timmy was cold and withdrawn.
Jeff Spender brought some special rocks that burned much hotter than coal in the oxygen-thin Martian atmosphere.
“I’ve been living in these mountains a long time now,” Spender said. “I came with the Fourth Expedition I was left behind.”
“Gripp said there are Martians up here,” Dr. Blanc said.
“If they are here, I’ve never seen them,” Spender said. “They died out. Killed by the chicken pox we brought here.”
“Read a study on that,” Dr. Blanc. “Quite a tragedy.”
“Great culture,” Spender said. “I am an archeologist by training.”
“We should try to make it back to the vehicles.”
“Nothing doing,” Dr. Blanc said. “Governor Thomas is too weak to move. We must wait out the fever. When the fever breaks then we can return.”
Night fell. And the two moons rose. The fire crackled burning bright. Dr. Blanc and Mrs. Edwards cooked for everyone.
Curiously, Mrs. Edwards did not appear to remember anything about Earth food or how to cook it.
After dinner they chatted around the campfire as Spender added more rocks to the fire. They all then bed down for the night in sleeping bags.
In the middle of the night, Timothy checked on his sleeping father. He then asked Dr. Blanc to come with him into the night. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he whispered.
“It’s not safe for a young man to alone,” Dr. Blanc said, grabbing a lantern. “I’ll go with you.”
Once away from camp, Timmy whispered to Dr. Blanc, saying that their new campmates were not humans but Martians.
“No,” Dr. Blanc said. “I knew the Edwards on Earth.”
“They are going to try to kill us,” Timmy whispered.
“We must rely on evidence,” Dr. Blanc said.
“They are going to try to kill us. Keep your gun in your sleeping bag.”
Alarmed, Dr. Blanc did keep his gun in his sleeping bag. He did think it was odd Mrs. Edwards did not know how to cook.
When they returned to camp, Dr. Blanc tried to stay awake but his fatigue, age and the cold caused him to fall asleep. “Wake up!” a voice called.
Dr. Blanc opened his eyes with a start. Mrs. Edwards was standing over him, meat cleaver in hand. “Timmy!” Dr. Blanc shouted.
Timothy shot Mrs. Edwards in the back with a pistol, blood exploded from her heart, spattering Dr. Blanc’s face.
She turned into a brown skin Martian, her yellow coin eyes, glowing in the dark. Timmy then shot Spender who was armed with a pistol.
Bert Edwards and the little girls turned into brown-skinned Martians as they fled into the dark.
In the morning, they found the bodies of the Edwards behind some large boulders and buried them in the Martian dirt, along with the two Martians they killed.
Afterwards, they packed up their land rovers and returned to civilization.