Ghost of Christmas Last
Wednesday, December 25, 2390
Martian Date: Tudec 25, 181
“Gotta bio, Sarge!” Hagan called out, snapping everyone’s attention to him instantly. Fear that death could still reach them, especially now, so close to the end, was a constant companion.
“Where?” Sargeant Portyansky hollered back. His platoon of forty marines were the last living souls remaining in the gutted husk of Vermilion, once Mars’ second largest city, and they were to ship out in two days. Despite the size of the ruins – Vermilion had once held over a million people – they’d been scanning for months now, and had been certain no-one was left. Hagan’s sudden shout was therefore very unnerving, though Portyansky would never admit it.
“Two kilometers up and in. It’s the old Vermilion sector. Sensors indicate one person.”
“Awright.” He looked over his group, deciding who to send, but knowing it had to be himself; to have any of his men die so close to lifting off was unthinkable. “Stanton, Izard, Welch, Mitchell, you’re with me.”
The squad armed and armored themselves, then made for the airlock. Though Vermilion had once had its own breathable atmosphere, the orbital bombardment had long since opened the city to the bitter Martian environs and surface suits were required. Without a sound, and shouldering a considerable amount of dread, they worked their way north into the desiccated corpse of a once great city. Ten minutes later, they were standing in front of a collapsed structure that had the word “Jonesy’s” scrawled over the front in red paint.
“The bio’s in there,” Izard said quietly. “Ten meters in and not moving.”
Portyansky lifted a hand and made a quick circle. His men spread out, toggling their laser pistols to heavy stun. Portyansky took point beside the front opening. The ready lights in his helmet came on one by one as his men got into position. The last one flickered green and Portyansky went in, low and quick.
The roof was blown off, allowing the partially functioning city lighting to illuminate the interior. But there were several patches of deep shadows, so he switched to infrared. Immediately a human form appeared in front of him. He nearly pulled the trigger – a serious boot camp mistake – but held off the instant needed to identify the target. Shocked, he stood up and lowered his gun, then called his men to stand down. The person in front of him raised a hand.
It was a young child. She couldn’t have been over nine. Sitting in the light, looking at him unafraid, she’d obviously known they were coming and was waiting for them. As Portyansky approached her, she stood up and ran to a nearby table. Moving with the grace of a native Martian, she stepped up to the table then bounded high into the air, clearing the building and letting out a giggle. The marines stared, then chased after her.
She led them through the ruins of Vermilion, keeping them close but never letting them catch her. They could have stunned her, of course, but not one thought to do so. The time for killing and crippling was past. So they followed her, enjoying the chase and admiring her skill at eluding them. That the little girl had escaped detection for over a year – and survived on her own – was incredible. Yet she obviously had. Also as obvious was despite her energy and bounciness she suffered from malnutrition. Nor could she be on her own much longer; her suit was worn out and patched in a dozen places.
The chase, now a merry romp, continued for ten more minutes, then abruptly ended as she came to a stop beside an elevator disc that went to the top of the canyon Vermilion had been built into. She put her hand on the controls and looked at the silent marines.
“Get on,” she said.
Unable to stop themselves, nor wishing to break the moment, they did as she said. She hit the up switch, but nothing happened; the power grid had long since blown. Portyansky motioned to Welch and she connected her suit’s power converter to the lift. The little girl punched the switch again and the eledisc rose slowly to the surface. Halfway up, she spoke.
“My daddy said that if you are standing on the surface on Christmas Day when the sun comes up, you can see a special snow.” She fell silent for a moment. “My mom and dad were already dead last Christmas an’ I was hiding. But now I want to see.”
There was nothing to say to her simple demand, so they rode up in silence, the disc seeming to move slower now because of hearts grown heavy.
It reached the top and she ran off, gliding over the surface with an ease none of them could ever have. She reached an outcropping and with a light jump made it halfway to the peak, one hundred meters higher. She seemed to only brush the rock, but she suddenly propelled to the pinnacle itself. She landed softly on the small flat surface and sat down. With considerable more difficulty the others followed.
Huddled together in the early Martian dawn, they waited to see the last Christmas morn on Mars. They would be gone in two days and the last remaining units would be off in three. After three hundred and fifty years of tolerating life, the Red Planet would soon be dead again.
It came swiftly. The sun rose over the edge of Reull Vallis, and with it came the snow. A carbon dioxide fog raced over the eastern horizon and boiled toward them, coating the ground in brilliant crystals that flashed and glimmered in the new sunlight. The crystals lasted a moment only, then disappeared as the thin atmosphere warmed, melting them. The fog enveloped the ground as far as the eye could see and surged against the base of their stony throne. It pushed up the sides, an ephemeral sea crashing against hard red rock. It peaked just below them, then fell back to the ground, washing clean the sins of man and reclaiming forever in a blanket of white the peace of a planet best left to itself.
As quickly as it came, it ended. The fog vanished into the ground, and they were alone on a bleak, bright surface of eternal red. Barriers fell and they were neither adult nor child, Terran nor Martian, conqueror nor conquered. They were six souls bound together by an instant of time, a memory of what would never be again. They had shared a sight that was now eternally lost, and each had been indelibly touched. Unbidden, the five hardened marines gathered close to comfort the young girl who was the last of her people. She stared toward the rising sun a moment longer, then took a slow breath and stood.
“I’m ready to go now,” she said quietly.
The Martian colonies were destroyed by Earth forces in the year 2389.
Three million people – the entire population of Mars – died.
Three days after this story, on December 28, 2390 (Martian date Tudec 28, 181), the Martian calendar was terminated and the planet was abandoned.
Mankind would never return.
Ghost of Christmas Last
Copyright ©1998 by Peter Prellwitz All Rights Reserved.