The following excerpt from Loved Mars, Hated the Food by Willie Handler is reprinted here with permission from Kyanite Publishing LLC.
Earth calendar: 2039-09-02
Martian calendar: 45-11-582
I’m sure I’m a dead man.
I’m seated on a large red boulder next to my rover, overlooking the gaping crater that was once the first permanent Mars Colony, Futurum. The silence of Valles Marineris is broken only by my heavy breathing. My throat feels sealed off and I’m steaming up my face mask.
Beyond the dense smoke spewing from the crater, the Colony rubble spreads over a wide radius, metal debris glittering against the red sand and rocks. My head spins, and I’m sweating despite my suit’s cooling system. I hope it’s a hallucination brought on by the weed brownie.
Maybe I died in the explosion. Maybe I’m having an out of body experience. What was I thinking when I signed up for this mission? I’m a thirty-two-year-old chef from Toms River, New Jersey. I don’t know anything about surviving on a barren planet. I just prepare meals.
I stand up and yell at the top of my lungs, “IS ANYONE ELSE ALIVE?” and wince as my voice bounces off the inside of my helmet.
With my source of food, water and oxygen gone, I don’t think I’ll be living on this planet much longer. Or anywhere else for that matter.
The quiet is interrupted by the clunk of shifting rocks. As I turn toward the sound, I notice two figures standing just beyond the fringes of the Colony blast radius. I spring to my feet and squint. I’m not the only survivor.
I take a few steps forward and squint harder. It looks like they aren’t wearing spacesuits.
I try to shake off the marijuana haze as I climb into the rover, reaching for the power button to turn on the vehicle. After shifting the gears, I carefully press on the accelerator pedal, slowly approaching them. The bouncy ride and the clouds of red dust kicked up by the tires make it difficult to see.
The two figures are the size of preteens, although one is several inches taller than the other. They each have two arms, two legs, and coppery wrinkled skin.
Either I’m more messed up than I think…or these guys aren’t human.
The taller Martian has larger feet and the shorter one has a sizeable belly. Both wear tunic tops and loose-fitting trousers made from metallic orange and silver, like they’re wearing Harley Davidson duds.
I brake about twenty feet away. The aliens step toward me. I’m convinced that they either intend to vaporize me with a ray gun or make me into a slave. I wet my spacesuit. Not my best day.
Their large heads bobble as they shuffle. Their big, black, pupil-less eyes are fixed on me. A flat nose and no ears make them look like Shar Peis. I climb out of the rover, raise my right hand, and wave. They glance at each other. Mission training never covered this.
I raise my hand again to wave and shout, “Live long and prosper. Dif-tor heh smusma.”
Then I try the Vulcan salute, spreading my four main fingers into two sets to form a V. Though I’m positive they can’t tell because my hand is in the glove of my spacesuit.
No reaction. This is going well.
I try again. “Klaatu barada nikto.”
I remember the line from a movie my dad made me watch when I was a kid, The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s the first thing that pops into my head. Again, they look at each other.
A strange voice resonates in my head. Klaatu barada nikto, are you intact?
At first, I think I imagine it. I hear it again. Klaatu barada nikto. What transpired here?
I watch the two aliens closely, but don’t see any mouth movement.
Klaatu barada nikto, can you comprehend? says the voice.
“Yes,” I respond in a shrill voice. “Please…please, don’t kill me.”
Klaatu barada nikto, says the voice. We intend no harm.
“How am I hearing you?” I ask, pointing to my ears. “And I’m not Klaatu barada nikto. I’m Dixon Jenner.”
The two Martians amble over to the rover. The short one with the big belly walks around the rover before stopping and placing a hand on the side of the vehicle. Good wishes Dixon Jenner. I am Bleeker and this is my partner, Seepa. What then is Klaatu barada nikto?
I shrug. “No clue. How are you communicating with me?”
The voice in my head changes. “Through telepathy. How else would one communicate?” It must be the tall Martian, Seepa. She wears a dozen bracelets up and down her arms.
“So, you understand the English language?” I ask.
We transmit and receive thoughts from one being to another, says Bleeker. I do not comprehend the concept of ‘English language.’
“Are you kidding?” I try to climb back into the rover but miss a step and fall over.
I don’t know why but I laugh hysterically. It might be the brownie.
What are brownies? asks Seepa. Did they cause you to topple over?
“How did you hear that? I never said anything?”
Yes, you did, says Bleeker. I also heard you.
I grimace. “I don’t like the idea of you hearing my thought.”
You can block your thoughts whenever you wish, says Seepa. I just think of a black wall or something analogous.
I stand up, shaking my head. “Yeah, I’m going to have to work on that.”
We picked up shockwaves from the detonation, she continues. That is why we journeyed to the surface to investigate.
She was opposed to investigating, says Bleeker.
A shrill voice cuts him off. That is not accurate. I did not want to interrupt my activities to probe what shook our dwelling.
It is constant negativity from you, says Bleeker.
I step aside as they argue. Great. I travelled over a hundred million miles to listen to a couple bicker.
We are not bickering, replies Seepa. We just have dissimilar perspectives.
She breaks into a smile. Well, I assume it’s a smile. The corners of her mouth move horizontally.
What type of structure was constructed here? asks Seepa, creeping closer to the edge of the crater.
I kick at small stone in front of my boot. “I came from Earth with twenty-three other people. We had a colony here.”
You are an Earth-being? asks Bleeker, reaching out to touch my spacesuit. And why are you wearing that strange outfit?
“I…I would die outside this suit. The environment is too harsh for Earth-beings…I mean Earthlings.”
Your community was precisely above our dwelling, says Bleeker. What happened to it? There is only this large depression.
My voice wavers. “I don’t even know where to start, man. I was part of a mission to establish a permanent colony on your planet.” I gaze at the canyon walls in the distance. “In Valles Marineris.”
We call this, Brootah. But why here? asks Seepa.
“We were told the canyon walls would provide protection from the winds,” I say.
Looks like the winds should not have been your primary concern, says Seepa.
And how permanent could this community have been, if it is gone? asks Bleeker.
I feel as though there are weights on my shoulders. “It was permanent. I don’t get it. I was setting up tonight’s dinner and was having trouble with the nuclear oven.”
Nuclear? chirps Bleeker. We are not acquainted with this.
“Me neither,” I respond. The buzz from the brownie makes it difficult to focus. I wish these aliens would stop interrupting. “I needed our mission engineer to look at the equipment. She was out with a group collecting rock samples.”
That seems like a pointless endeavour, says Seepa. The surface is littered with rocks.
“The point I’m trying to make,” I say, frowning, “is that while I waited for them to get back, I hopped into this rover to, um…” I feel the two remaining brownies in my suit pressing against my ribcage, the ones I had been planning on sharing with Tammy. “To kill time.”
What about the brownies, says Seepa. You continue to mention them.
Are brownies another type of Earth-being? asks Bleeker.
“No, I didn’t say anything.”
Is this Tammy-being a brownie? asks Bleeker.
I pick up a stone and toss it toward the crater. “Tammy was part of the crew. She radioed me to let me know she was back at the Colony, I headed back,” I say. “Then I heard this explosion and when I got here…”
Images of Tammy spin in my head. I look back at the crater and sob like a baby.
How unfortunate, replies Bleeker, waddling closer to the crater. He carefully avoids several pieces of debris that are still smouldering. Not that you survived, but that the other beings did not.
“I can’t survive out here alone,” I spurt out, my voice quaking. I grab Bleeker by the arm. “Can you help me?”
No need to be alarmed, says Bleeker, pulling his arm away from my grip. You will come with us. We will assist in sustaining you.
Bleeker, be sensible, snaps Seepa, stepping in front of her partner. We cannot have this Earth-being reside with us. What will the other citizens say?
“Holy crap,” I say, dropping to my knees. “You can’t just leave me here. Please help me.”
We cannot leave this unfortunate Earth-being to expire here, says Bleeker, patting Seepa on the back. Do not be distressed, Seepa. I have formulated a strategy.
I scramble back up, letting out a huge breath. Then I stop exhaling.
“Wait—there are more of you?”
They look at each other, smirking in their straight-mouthed way, their heads bob from side to side like turtles. They must be mocking me.
Yes, says Seepa. There are sixty million beings, under the surface.
Seepa, that is an antiquated tally. There are sixty-three million.
Do you have to be persistently correcting me?
I just want to ensure our visitor possesses the most current statistics. Stop being so sensitive.
I am not being sensitive.
These two Martians are creeping me out. I could be dying, and they would be having a hissy fit.
We aren’t creeping anywhere, says Bleeker. You are not being lucid. It could be the brownie objects you keep mentioning.
Bleeker, maybe the Earth-being is ill, says Seepa.
Then I look down at the oxygen indicator on my chest.
“I’m a little bit desperate,” I murmur with a shaky voice, even if the Martians can’t pick up the sound. “I’m not going to survive much longer in this suit. When I run out of oxygen, I’ll be dead too.”
Bleeker turns and plods toward the closest canyon walls. Follow us. We will resolve your depleting supply of breathable air.
He stops and turns to his partner. That is, unless you have an objection.
No, says Seepa. I concur that we cannot leave this Earth-being alone on the surface. It would be cruel. Can we return to our dwelling? I detest the surface.
I abandon my rover and follow the two Martians on foot, glancing back at the portable 3D printer lodged in the back of the vehicle, its red power button blinking on and off. I know it might come in handy, but it can’t produce oxygen.
Valles Marineris is much like the Grand Canyon but much deeper and with no vegetation. Massive rock formations tower over us from all sides. Overhead, the sky is hazy from big clouds of dust, blowing well above the canyon floor. I can’t see the Earth through the red swirling sand.
A few steps ahead of me, the bow-legged aliens waddle like a pair of penguins. I have difficulty keeping up in my suit and space boots, stumbling over the rough terrain whenever I pick up my pace. Five times, I trip and fall onto my hands and knees. They waddle ahead.
Bleeker turns to look at me, his head cocked to one side. What does it mean ‘things are so fucked up?’
“Crap, you’ve been reading my mind,” I say. I’ve got to get a hang on this blocking shit.”
Apologies, but I had the impression you were having uncertainties about coming with us.
“No. No. Not at all.”
We continue to hike across the rough terrain until we are almost at the red cliff face. As we are about to walk around a shallow crater, I hear voices that didn’t belong to Bleeker and Seepa. The two Martians freeze. Then Bleeker grabs my arm and shoves me behind a large boulder.
I peer around our shelter to see what has them so alarmed. There is a group of blue Martians standing over chubby one who is stretched out naked on the ground. Like Bleeker and Seepa, he is reddish—well, more of a reddish orange, like an under ripe tomato or an Oompa-loompa.
“Who is that?”
That is Cheyhto, our Grand Leader. He controls our government and many Martian enterprises. He is a very powerful being.
“What is he doing out here?”
He takes pleasure in going to the surface to lie in direct sunlight, says Bleeker. It turned his outer membrane that unusual hue.
“Who are those other Martians around him?” I ask.
He is an exceptionally important being, says Bleeker. They take direction from him or are assigned tasks to complete.
“Oh, an entourage,” I say. “And why are they blue?”
There are two distinct Martian classes, says Bleeker. About one-third of Martians are Machers, which is the class we belong to. The remainder are from the Arbiter class and have the blue pigmentation–
Bleeker, this is not a suitable occasion for a sociology lesson, say Seepa. We need to journey past Cheyhto without him discovering Dixon Jenner.
“Is it bad that he sees me?”
Affirmative, says Bleeker. How can we explain why you are wearing that space outfit? And he might send us to one of our social re-education centers.
“What the hell are those?” I ask.
You do not wish to know, replies Bleeker, looking in the direction of the Grand Leader. I have an idea. Seepa, I will distract Cheyhto and his entourage while you sneak Dixon Jenner past here.
I am apprehensive about this, she says.
Do not be, says Bleeker. This will work.
He grabs my arm. Keep your thoughts silent.
Before I can respond, Bleeker steps from behind the boulder and walks toward the group of Martians. Greetings Grand Leader.
One of his henchmen steps in front of Bleeker. Why have you journeyed to the surface?
Our dwelling shook from a detonation, replies Bleeker. So, I traveled here to investigate.
Still lying on his back, Cheyhto turns his head to look at Bleeker, frowning. We felt no vibrations.
Cheyhto jerks up into a sitting position. What is that voice I hear? Who is with you?
He points to one of the Arbiters. Did you hear it?
No, Grand Leader.
I did, says Cheyhto, shoving an underling in the direction of the voice. Go see who is there.
Grand Leader, I am here alone, says Bleeker.
We will see, says Cheyhto, his eyes fixed on Bleeker. What is this about vibrations?
It was a short, but very distinct, says Bleeker, pointing in the opposite direction of the Colony site. It turned out to be an object from space that had crashed onto the surface.
The Arbiter returns from his search. I found no one, Grand Leader.
Well, you have completed your investigation, barks Cheyhto, as he returns to lying on his back. Proceed back underground. You are disturbing my sunning session.
While Bleeker creates his diversion, we double back and take an indirect route to the canyon wall. We arrive almost at the same time as Bleeker.
Did you have any problems? asks Seepa, rushing to hug him.
He was more concerned about being disturbed than why I was on the surface, says Bleeker. We should return to our dwelling before another incident occurs.
Bleeker lumbers toward the wall of rock in front of us. When he is about ten feet away, he steps onto a black metallic mat. The ground around us rumbles.
A part of the wall in front of us separates from the rest of the cliff and slowly slides down into the ground. I hadn’t noticed the portal because it was the same color and composition as the rock around it. I step several steps forward to get a better look. I don’t see any track or mechanism operating the portal. The vibrations kick up dust and sand, and the Martians cover their faces with their arms.
In less than a minute, a portal opens. It’s large enough for me to step through without stooping.
Bleeker motions to me with his hand. Earth-being, please descend these stairs with us.
I look back through the portal. If I follow them down, will ever get out again? No one is going to find me down there.
Author Willie Handler was a satirist well before he became a novelist. Hailing from Canada, where self-deprecating humor is part of the national character, he finds targets for his humor everywhere. His targets include friends, family, co-workers, politicians, farmers, subway passengers, bureaucrats, telemarketers, Martians, and his barber, Vince. With his most recent work he has crossed over to the world of speculative fiction.
Music by CatLofe