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Welcome to Mars!
A novelette from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3
ALTERNATIVE FORMATS KINDLE eBOOK | NON-KINDLE eBOOK
Welcome to Mars, a novellette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 2

There were technical difficulties. Billions stood by.

The televisions in the taverns were tuned to test patterns. Some desperate networks showed endless replays of archival footage from the Florida launch, with slow-motion sweeps of the crowded beaches cut in for good measure. Pundits argued, and experts mumbled blandly over animated diagrams of Pinnacle, Midas, and Mars.

"Okay, so I've been a NASA dancer for three years, and like I think it's totally scary not knowing what's going on down there in Mars. I mean, are they even okay and everything? Holy!"

There were interviews with the planetfall astronauts' families, challenging them to consider the spectrum of possible feelings they might experience were it the case that their loved ones had burned up on the way down or been dashed to pieces in a field of rusty boulders. There were interviews with the astronauts in orbit around the red planet, too, who smiled and nodded and tried to be as good natured as they could manage while they were questioned about their astrological signs, the new spring fashions, and the antics of celebrity miscreants.

"I really don't know what to say," said Grimaux.

"We're all hoping to have the communications problem licked as quick as can be," Fisher repeated for the hundredth time, hearing with horror how he had fallen against his will to aping Major Nelly's faux-folksy drawl.

"Why the hell am I doing that?" he demanded when the broadcast was over. He drifted across the habitation module and ran a bony hand through his fine hair, then cast Grimaux a forlorn look. "I'm cracking up, right?"

"You're doing it to feel straight," she replied wearily, pulling off her black armband.

"How do you reckon? Damn it -- I can't stop."

Grimaux balled up the armband and kicked it lazily through the companionway to the lab module. "You're unconsciously imitating the most masculine example in your environment. Think about it, Frank."

"Aren't you the most masculine example in my environment?"

"I guess you're just more naturally attracted to Keith."

"You're teasing me."

"It's so easy."

Fisher made a sour face. "God this is awful."

"Let's go see what Lillian's up to."

"That's not funny."

A hundred kilometers below Mission Commander Major Keith Nelly concluded his meditatively slow conference with the NASA brass and toggled his microphone from private to local. "Houston wants us to go out there," he pronounced gravely.

"Thank God," said Abrams. "I could use some fresh air."

Nelly ignored him. "Balour, get the packs ready. Doc, I want continuous monitoring on all of us. Got that? We've got no idea what this thing can do."

"In the movie all the monolith did was broadcast a powerful radio signal."

"This isn't the movies."

"True," agreed Abrams, elbowing Anoush conspiratorially. "The special effects are much better. I feel like I'm really on Mars."

"You are really on Mars," said Anoush with a bleak smile.

"That explains that."

The hatch cycled. A bath of diffuse carbon dioxide laced with brassy dust steamed into the cabin, and they each felt the temperature drop sharply. The heads-up display inside Abrams' helmet marked the changes in pressure and the ambient radiation outside Midas. Nelly looked over at him inquiringly. "We should keep it under ninety minutes," said Abrams. "The cosmic rays are really sizzling this morning, and unfortunately I left my cure for cancer in my other pants."

Anoush nodded and tripped a switch on her chronometer. "Ninety minutes," she echoed.

Nelly put one leg outside. He leaned over to fish the rest of himself through the aperture and then began carefully stepping down the ladder to the surface. Anoush and Abrams saw their own helmets reflected in Nelly's faceplate as it sank out of view. "I'm proceeding down the ladder," he radioed importantly. "I'm on the final rung. I'm...about to step down, now."

Silence. A stray breeze brought another puff of dust into the cabin.

After a moment Abrams stuck his helmet out of the hatch and looked down at Nelly standing at the base of the ladder, his boots planted firmly on a bed of rusty gravel. "Aren't you going to say something historic?" prompted Abrams.

"No point," said Nelly, looking up and shaking his head. "Nobody's listening. I'm saving it for when the feeds are back up."

"It's that good a line?"

"It's a great line. It makes that whole 'one giant leap' business sound like pure doggerel."

Abrams whistled. "Wow," he said flatly. "I can't wait. The first moment of the first man to set foot on Mars! Meanwhile, can you move out of the way so I can get down the ladder?"

"You're trying to be funny again."

"Am I? The line between humour and morbid desperation is sometimes thin."

Nelly grimaced. "You know what, Lawrence? I look forward to getting back to Earth so I can knock you on your ass without risking a court martial."

"Yeah," agreed Abrams as he clambered down, boot over boot. "That'll be swell." He stepped off the ladder, his feet sinking slightly into the loose gravel. The sound of the pebbles scraping against one another was low and hollow, almost silent in the sparse atmosphere, like a bad recording.

Abrams straightened and looked out over the field of broken stone and dust into which Midas had set down: Dao Vallis, the dry bed of an ancient canal, with sheer, two kilometer high walls rising up in the distance. The sky at the horizon was a moody pink, an inky purple at the zenith. The sun looked naked and bald, a hard white disc in the east. Abrams' shadow was crisp.

He moved aside as Anoush descended from the lander. "It's beautiful," she said simply.

Abrams smiled. "That was perfect."

Anoush raised one eyebrow. "Only do it again, this time with more feeling?"

He chuckled darkly. "And would it kill you to show a little more skin?"

Nelly circled around the lander until he could see the monolith. His pace slowed, and he looked back at the others. Abrams and Anoush walked up the meet him, stumbling slightly until their sense of coordination caught up with the weak gravity. The stones at their feet knocked and rolled aside with meek, bass clunks.

Anoush stopped beside Nelly but Abrams strode right past them both, proceeding to close the ten meters to the object. It was a tall, thin rectangle like a featureless domino, its surface pitch black beneath a thin layer of bronze powder kicked up by the winds. The edges were sharp and very straight, unweathered. Abrams stretched out his glove.

"Don't touch it, Doc," radioed Nelly urgently.

Abrams hesitated, his finger pads just inches from the monolith. Nelly and Anoush arrived behind him. Nelly cautiously knelt down and picked up a small stone. He cupped it in his glove, testing its weight, and then tossed it at the monolith's broad, black face.

It rebounded away, leaving a small scuff. Abrams leaned his helmet in close, blinking at the damage. "Splinters?" He straightened and turned around. "I think it's made of wood, major."

Anoush frowned. "Wood?"

"It can't be," muttered Nelly, hands on his hips. "There aren't any trees on Mars."

Abrams shrugged, his arms wide. "There aren't people on Mars, either, yet here we are."

A gust of wind washed through the valley, causing the light pebbles around them to skip along, leaving little sinewy trails in the sand. Also, the monolith swayed and creaked. Nelly shook his head in bewilderment. "This just doesn't make sense. Houston, what's your recommendation?"

He cocked his head as he listened to the private channel. Anoush began photographing the monolith from various angles. Abrams stepped back out of her way. He looked around, spotting some thin ribbons of cloud to the south. When Nelly finally received NASA's response he nodded to himself, then squatted down to scoop up a large rock with both hands.

"They want you to throw another rock?" asked Abrams, wandering over.

Nelly grunted as he heaved up the stone. "Houston approves of my initial investigation vector -- yes, Doctor."

"This is what the guys in the monkey suits did in the movie, too. They threw rocks at it. You know what this proves?"

"What?" asked Anoush.

"It proves definitively that the human race is indeed descended from an ancient race of guys in monkey suits."

Nelly had started rotating himself in a pre-launch wind up to lobbing the rock at the monolith. "I'm preparing to launch object beta," he reported, huffing and puffing. He spun back fast and opened his gloves, the rock shooting free and striking home.

The monolith shook with the impact, its face now marked by a second, larger splintered wound.

Abrams applauded. He walked up to the structure, raised his hand and, before Nelly could object, knocked on it. "It's hollow," he said.

Anoush peered into the broken hole on its front. "It's...it's plywood on a frame of two-by-fours."

Abrams stepped back, brow furrowed. "It's a prop," he concluded. "It's just a prop."

"A prop?" repeated Nelly, then set his mouth in a tight, bloodless line. "Jesus Christ this is weird. Jesus Sunday Christ. Houston? Houston? Come back. We need instruction here, Houston."

They again waited for NASA's reply to crawl back to them at the speed of light. Nelly's gaze searched the sky, as if he could see it coming.

"Keith?"

"Quiet. I'm conferring with NASA."

Abrams touched Nelly's shoulder. "Keith, we have a limited amount of time out here. I think we've got to do some thinking for ourselves. Someone's trying to tell us something here, and we're never going to figure it out if you keep stopping to pose for your statue."

"Someone?" repeated Nelly, still staring into the sky. "What do you mean, Doc? We're the first men on Mars."

"Maybe we're not."

Keith's head snapped down and his eyes widened. "You really think the Chinese beat us to the punch?"

"I don't know what to think except that we've got to do some thinking."

"That's damn arrogant, Doc."

"I'm sorry?"

"Do you know how many geniuses we have at NASA, Doc? Do you know how many experts are eating, drinking, and sleeping our problem right this very second?"

"Sleeping our problem?"

Nelly waved dismissively and stepped closer to Abrams, his index finger erect and threatening. "Listen: there are only two sets of brains down here, Doc --"

"Three, actually."

"The micro doesn't count! And don't interrupt me, captain."

"I was thinking of Balour."

"Balour?"

They looked over at Balour Anoush as she strode up to them with one cupped hand extended before her. "Gentlemen, take a look at this."

Nelly and Abrams spoke simultaneously: "What?"

She held it out in her gloved palm: it was small, pale yellow cube with rough edges and porous faces. "It looks like a crouton," decided Anoush. She gestured over her shoulder. "And there's more of them, back there, arranged in a long line."

"A trail," corrected Abrams. "And it's not a crouton -- it's a breadcrumb."

Nelly tried to scratch his head but his helmet was in the way. "Aren't croutons made of breadcrumbs?"

"Yes, but nobody leaves a trail of croutons. They garnish salads with them. Trails they make from breadcrumbs."

"They who?" asked Nelly sharply.

"Hansel and Gretel," replied Abrams. "Fairy-tale characters, major. They leave a trail a breadcrumbs so they can find their way back out of the Black Forest."

"Jesus Sunday Christ," said Nelly again.

Anoush squeezed the breadcrumb. It squeaked as it crumbled into frozen kibbles that were carried off in the breeze. She dusted her gloves together as she took a few steps to the side of the monolith again. "The wind is skewing the trail," she observed. She looked back at Abrams and Nelly. "If we're to follow it, we should go now."

"Follow it?" frowned Nelly.

Abrams nodded. "Trails are for following. You wanted instruction, now you have it. The instruction is: walk this way."

"This is highly irregular," protested Nelly. "This isn't what I signed up for." His eyes widened, then flicked to the side as he listened to NASA on the private channel. He licked his lips nervously. "Houston authorizes action on our own discretion to get to the bottom of this."

"See?" said Abrams.

Nelly looked away from him, back toward the lander. "Alright, let's get the rover put together, people. Hup, hup, hup!"

After two hours of working in shifts the rover vehicle was assembled and its solar panels unfurled to charge up the auxiliary system. The cabin sat between two sets of large, soft wheels and beneath a shielded canopy whose top was inscribed with a lightning bolt and the word GATORADE in fluorescent green paint. The rover's official name -- decided by a contest on the back of potato chip bags -- was The Marzulator, but to date none of the astronauts had consented to refer to it that way.

Anoush checked the meter. "We're almost ready to go," she reported, dropping the last of her implements back into the tool box. "I'll drive."

"I'll drive," corrected Nelly. "You'll be holding down the fort, commander. Houston's just given us the green to erect the habitat."

Anoush made a sour face. "I can't erect the habitat alone, Keith. We should go together."

"The rover only seats two."

"I can sit in the cargo flat."

"The cargo flat isn't under the radiation shield. Forget it. The doc and I are going to check this out, and that's final. Houston concurs. Besides, if the broadcast pack comes back on-line it's your face everyone's going to want to see."

"I don't care about the bloody broadcasts," Anoush growled and then, after struggling to refrain, added acidly: "And I hate Pepsi!"

Nelly, startled, cast a nervous look into the sky as if some angry commercial gods would roil and thunder in condemnation of her heresy. "You're just making work for the transcript finishers," he said quietly, his expression menacing. "It's anti-mission, and it's anti-NASA, and if I hear one more word like that you'll spend every minute of your time sitting in the habitat watching gauges. You got that, girl?"

"Don't call me girl, Keith. It's demeaning, just like every other aspect of this whole dirty fiasco. I didn't fly millions of kilometers to be a television Barbie or a belittled housesitter."

"No," agreed Nelly hotly. "You flew millions of kilometers to do what I tell you. Clear? Now, you will do your duty sweetly, commander, starting this second; I can improvise a brig if I have to."

"You listen to me, you overblown --"

"Discussion over," he interrupted firmly. "Besides," he added, glancing at his chronometer, "isn't it time for you to pray to your god?"

Balour Anoush's eyes narrowed dangerously, her cheeks flushed. After a second she unclenched her gloves, turned on heel and stalked back toward Midas, her shoulder clipping Abrams on his way out. "Sorry?" he called to her, rubbing his arm. "You really have a way with women, major."

"Shut up, Lawrence. I don't have any more patience for your guff. This is a serious situation. Just get in the goddamn rover."

"Okay, okay. Keep your shirt on."

"What did I say about being funny?"

"It's just an expression, not a joke."

"It's guff," snorted Keith. "No matter how you dress it up. And there'll be no more guff on this mission. You hear?"

"I hear, I hear."

They took their places inside the clear cabin pod, their feet seeming to hover on a bed of translucent reflection artifacts a few feet off the ground. The engine purred. Major Nelly knocked it into gear. The Pepsi logo hubcaps began to turn, kicking up a fine ash of Martian soil in their wake. Nelly turned the wheel and the rover nosed past Midas. Anoush did not wait outside to wave. They proceeded on beyond the broken wooden monolith.

"Slow down," said Abrams. "I can't see the trail."

The rover bumped along at a more sedate pace, Abrams calling directions and squinting at the closely spaced breadcrumb path. In spots the wind has pushed wide sawtooths into the trail but the overall direction was clear, meandering steadily toward the valley wall through a field of boulders.

"Veer right."

"Veering right."

"Straighten out."

"Acknowledged."

"Drift left."

The closest boulders grew from the horizon to tower over the rover as it slipped into the pool of shadows between them. Some of the stones were ten and twelve meters in diameter, their faces weathered smooth. They formed a winding, natural labyrinth.

Nelly slowed the rover to a crawl. The sound of their progress echoed off the boulder faces, sullen and low. Pebbles grumbled under the tires.

Abrams pointed. "Hard to left."

"Going hard," reported Nelly.

The rover wound into a long corridor of giant boulders, a looming gauntlet at whose terminus rose a tall, rectilinear shape. A wash of airborne dust caught up with the rover as it slowed even further, coating the pod and obscuring the view. Nelly hit the windshield wipers. "Is it another monolith?"

"I can't tell," said Abrams, squinting through the streaky lines of dust the blades pushed back and forth fecklessly across the view.

The rover crawled forward, the periodic march of shadow and sun slipping over the vehicle. Nelly drew it to a gradual stop ten meters shy of the object. He toggled his radio. "Commencing extra-vehicular excursion now, Houston."

He sat back in his seat and turned to Abrams. "What?" said Abrams.

"Excurt," prompted Nelly.

"Who -- me?"

"Keep an open channel," ordered Nelly. "Keep me apprised of every step, captain."

Abrams sighed and popped open his door. He clambered down between the rover's wheels and then began walking cautiously forward. "I'm walking toward the object," he reported dutifully. "Eight meters."

He paused as he was buffeted by an indecisive breeze that kicked up another roiling plume of bronze sand. When it cleared he proceeded forward again, eyes locked on the two meter high block which was itself coated in a layer of fine dust. With a shaking hand he carefully reached up to wipe a section of the object's closest face clean.

His radio crackled. "Report," said Nelly.

Abram's mouth went dry. He blinked. He wiped another section of the object clean. "I don't know what to say, major...it's..."

"It's what? What is it, Doc?"

"It's a vending machine."

That hung in the air for a moment. Abrams took a step back and put his hands on his hips, surveying the thing from top to bottom. Nelly's voice sounded in his ear again. "I think I got some interference there, Doc. Come again?"

Abrams repeated himself. He turned around as Nelly climbed out of the rover and walked over next to him, hands limp at his sides. Together they read the large word inscribed along the upper edge: LEMONADE! And then beneath, in smaller letters: SWEET REFRESHMENT FOR EVERY WEARY TRAVELLER.

Abrams scooped a line of dust off the machine's works, discovering a small slot and a push button with a picture of a lemon on it. He said, "Do you have a quarter?"

He knew Nelly did. Nelly always carried with him the first quarter he had ever earned on his paper route as a kid. He told everyone it was a symbol to him of the endless opportunity offered by America to anyone who was willing to work for their dreams. Nelly hesitantly withdrew the tarnished coin from a pocket on his environment suit, fingering its edge through his glove. "It's my lucky quarter," he mumbled.

Abrams plucked it away. "Good," he said. "Some luck we could use."

Before Nelly could object he fed it into the slot. It disappeared with a quiet clunk, followed by the thump and grind of machinery coming to life. Both men took another step back. Something banged and clanged as it worked its way down through the innards.

An aluminium can dropped into a shallow hopper at the base of the unit. The can had a picture of a lemon on it, too.

They leaned in closer. "What is it?" gasped Nelly.

"It looks like a can of lemonade," said Abrams. He straightened. "I know, I know -- there are no lemon trees on Mars. Still..." He reached out for it.

"Belay that refreshment, captain!" barked Nelly.

"What?"

"We don't know what that drink is capable of."

Abrams frowned, withdrawing his hand. "So what do you want to do?"

"Let's unpack the ranger."

The men unloaded the robotic ranger from the rover's cargo flat. Abrams extended the solar panels and activated the power. Nelly pointed the control wand at it, got a signal, then drove the little wheeled robot up to the lemonade vending machine. With precise twists of the dials he unfolded the grappling armature and manoeuvred it around the aluminium can in the hopper. "Easy..." he muttered to himself as he flipped the ranger into reverse. "Easy..."

The can was gently placed upright on the sand, and Nelly set to aligning the grappler around the pull tab. He paused, turning to Abrams. "We'd better stand back."

Abrams and Nelly knelt behind the rover's front right wheel, their helmets peeking out over the fat nubbies of tread. "Ready," said Abrams.

"Actuating the tab in three...two...one..."

The ranger pulled the tab. The can hissed and toppled over as a cloud of golden liquid boiled away into the rare air. After a tense moment the men approached, stooping over to examine the residue sprayed over the ranger. "What do you think?" asked Nelly. "Should we go back for the mass-spectrometer?"

Abrams wiped up a few droplets on his glove, then tested its stickiness between two fingers. "I'm pretty sure it's just lemonade, major."

"Lemonade..." repeated Nelly cryptically, looking into the sky. "Now that doesn't make a lick of sense."

"Well," offered Abrams, "it is a lemonade vending machine. There's a certain thematic congruence, you have to admit."

Nelly shook his head. "This is completely unexpected."

"Isn't that why we're here? If everything about Mars was expected why bother to explore the place at all?"

"There's unexpected and then there's unexpected," philosophized Nelly. "I mean, I was expecting something unexpected like -- I don't know -- caves full of microbes, or evidence of spores in the dry aquifers...not...this."

"That's the funny thing about the unexpected," said Abrams drily.

"There's nothing funny about this."

Abrams shrugged. "I have to disagree, Major. There is something distinctly funny about this. I think by now it should be clear that somebody is having a laugh at our expense."

"The Chinese?" said Nelly quickly. "Yes, maybe," he answered himself, nodding. "The more I think about it the more this has Chinese written all over it."

Abrams gestured to the vending machine looming over them. "I don't know," he said. "I can't see the Chinese using unilingual signage, unless it were Chinese signage. This vending machine is labelled in English: for every weary traveller. That's us. This isn't a lost piece of infrastructure -- it's a joke on us."

"I feel dizzy. This is too bizarre. Houston? Houston? Are you getting all this?"

"Relax, major. Here, let me buy you a lemonade."

"Shut up, Lawrence! What did I tell you about guff?"

Abrams said nothing. Nelly paced in a circle before the vending machine, head down. Finally he looked up again, his expression pained. "I don't know what we should do. There was nothing in our training to cover this kind of contingency. Who would do this, Doc? Who the hell could be on Mars before us?"

Abrams was looking past Nelly's shoulder. He cleared his throat. "Um. Why don't we ask that guy, major?"

"What guy?" snapped Nelly. Abrams pointed. Nelly spun.

Strolling around the rover at a casual pace was a figure in a light-weight, form-fitting metallic silver environment suit. At his heels was a dog done up in similar form, the transparent bubble enclosing its muzzle fogged with panting breath. The dog's tail, wrapped in a thin foil, was wagging in a friendly way.

Nelly froze. "Who...what --?" he managed to croak.

There was a brief burst of radio static and then the man said, "Hi there! Sorry I'm late. You know how it is when you're trying to get out the door -- that's always the moment the dog has to do his business." He leaned down and pet the dog, who nosed at his gloved hand. "Who's a good boy?" he asked the dog.

"What is the meaning of this?" cried Nelly.

The man paused from petting to look up again. "I apologize in advance for the tedium, but I'm afraid we've got some paperwork to fill out. Do you gentlemen have anything to declare?"

"Anything to declare?" repeated Nelly, his voice cracking. "What the hell are you talking about, man?"

"Oh, sorry," said the silver interloper again. He offered out his hand to shake. "How rude of me. My name's Dwayne. I'm the customs officer around these parts."

"Jesus Sunday Christ," said Nelly.

"Hello," said Abrams.

Nelly swung his perplexed gaze back and forth between Abrams and Dwayne, then finally settled on the dog. "Houston?" he mouthed feebly.

Dwayne dropped his extended hand with a shrug and then proffered a clipboard with an attached pen. "Would you mind terribly just jotting down a quick manifest of any equipment you've landed? Oh, and if you can, please indicate any waste you intend to leave behind. You'll see the checkboxes at the bottom there."

Abrams stepped forwarded and accepted the clipboard, then scanned it dumbly. "You're a customs officer?" he heard himself saying with wonder. He looked up. "Seriously?"

Dwayne gave him a curt nod and a broad smile. "Welcome to Mars!"

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