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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 3

The world gasped.

Horns honked, and stadiums full of people surged to their feet to cheer or bellow. Journalists sighed with relief, knowing they had an explosive lead for the nightly news as clergy on every continent set frothing to their keyboards, having seized upon the inescapable theme of their next sermon.

At Mission Control in Houston the Managing Director of Commercial Relations sprinted with a fresh printout in her hand, waving it over her head triumphantly. "The Nielsens are through the roof!" she cried, and the engineers at their consoles pumped their fists in the air, hooting and grinning, shaking hands and squeezing one another's shoulders in mutual congratulation.

It was, as they say, a media frenzy.

Framed by the stars, Captain Yolande Grimaux the celebrated Swiss lesbian and Lieutenant Franklin Fisher the world's first self-proclaimed extra-terrestrial homosexual, had kissed. Mars was instantly redubbed "the planet of love."

"I didn't mean to," whispered Fisher hoarsely, smelling her hair.

"It's okay, Frank," Grimaux whispered back, stroking his cheek.

They held hands and drifted in the micro-gravity, saying nothing further, eyes squinched shut. The last thing either of them wanted to see was the unblinking eye of the cameras; the last thing either of them wanted to think about was how they were now the most famous romantic couple alive, the object of the collective gossip and gawk of billions of human beings.

Fisher was in heaven: he had shown the world that his sexual orientation was at the very least ambiguous enough to include snogging hot lesbians. Grimaux was in hell: she had shown herself just how low she would sink, accepting promises of riches in exchange for agreeing to commit the largest distraction in history.

She ached, imagining how her partner in Geneva must be reeling.

On the surface of the red planet, on the rocky edge of Dao Vallis, Major Keith Nelly was faring comparably poorly. He felt as if he might throw up. His eyes snapped open as the customs officer spoke again, his gravelly, lilting voice crisp through his helmet's speakers. He said, "Why don't you gents come inside for a spell, warm yourselves up?"

"Inside where?" demanded Nelly sharply.

The silver-suited interloper gestured over his shoulder. "There's a lock just back there, at the base of the cliffs. What say we head over, take a load off and chat some?"

Abrams looked up from the clipboard. "That's very hospitable of you." He shoved the clipboard under his arm and extended a gloved hand. "I'm Abrams. Lawrence Abrams."

"Pleasure," said Dwayne. "You from Boston?"

"Originally. I live in Tel Aviv now."

Dwayne nodded. "I'm originally from Earth, too. Born in Maine, but I spent a lot of years over the border in New Brunswick on account of Vietnam. The name's Dwayne Edgar Rogers."

Abrams bowed his head politely. "This is Major Keith Nelly, our mission commander."

"Pleasure," said Dwayne again.

Nelly said nothing.

"Well, we'd best get a move on," decided Dwayne with a farmer-like appraisal of the rosy sky. He turned around and walked out of the shadow of the lemonade machine, heading for the nearby base of the cliffs. "Come on, Heinlein," he called. The dog bounded at his heels, tail wagging eagerly.

"Come on, Keith," cajoled Abrams on the private circuit as he started after the pair. "We've got nothing to lose."

"This is damn peculiar," growled Nelly, following reluctantly.

Beyond the next looming boulder a space had been cut into the cliff face, with two sets of riveted windows framing a large, round aperture marked DAO LOCK 17. Dwayne touched a control beside it and the aperture ground open. The three men and the amicable dog stepped inside and the door closed behind them.

A loud hissing sounded as the chamber was pressurized with warm oxygen and nitrogen. Their helmets fogged up.

The inner door clicked and drew aside. Dwayne gestured to proceed, and the two astronauts in their bulky white environment suits walked cautiously past him and into a spacious lobby with a black and white tiled floor, the lines blurred by their misted faceplates. Abrams looked over the infographic display in his helmet and nodded at Nelly. "It's clean," he reported, reaching for his collar.

Nelly grabbed his arm. "Don't," he said. He looked over his shoulder. "Wait for him."

Dwayne sauntered up beside them as he cracked the seal on his collar and lifted the silver helmet off his head. He was an old man -- at least seventy but maybe eighty -- his look robust and tough. He ran a wide, liver-spotted hand through his crew-cut white hair. His face was square and weathered, his eyes a liquid blue. He knelt down beside Heinlein the dog and popped off his helmet, too. Heinlein scampered across the lobby to a plastic water dish and lapped at its contents.

Abrams took off his own helmet. After a brief hesitation Nelly followed suit. The air was clear and refreshing, smelling slightly of mint.

The men looked around.

The lobby was furnished two simple benches, one before each bank of windows, a small steel cart with steam rising from its top at the far end. Beside the cart was a chair with a newspaper on it; the banner said THE MARTIAN HERALD and the headline story was TERRANS TO ATTEMPT LANDING illustrated with a smiling photograph of Major Nelly. Beyond the chair was a row of kiosks with shuttered windows fronted by a series of pole and velvet chain barriers to organize a queue. Above the kiosks was a multilingual sign: CUSTOMS AND IMMIGRATION.

"Customs and immigration?" read Nelly. He wheeled on their host. "Who are you people? Why would you build a plywood monolith to lure us to a customs office?"

"We didn't want to put the lemonade stand too close to your landing site, in case it proved a navigational hazard," explained Dwayne. "So we made a marker, and left a trail. Makes sense, doesn't it?"

"But why a lemonade stand in an environment where actually drinking the lemonade would be impossible?" asked Abrams.

Dwayne raised his brow. "I guess we thought it was kind of funny."

Nelly was looking past them. On the opposite side of the room was a railing girdling a wide elevator shaft from which came the tinny sounds of distant music. It sounded to Abrams like a calliope, the melody cheerful.

Nelly wandered over to the railing and looked down the shaft, tracing the steel cables down through the blasted rock tunnel walls. Far below, light glimmered from openings to subterranean levels, dozens upon dozens of them descending to the limits of vision. He thought he could hear the murmuring of people, a far away crowd. Incomprehensibly reverberating announcements sounded over a public address system, interrupted by a rattling, whoosh and screech of metal on metal. Nelly looked up. "What was that?"

"Probably the roller coaster," said Dwayne. "They've got a ferris wheel set up, too. I love ferris wheels."

"Why would a Martian base have a ferris wheel?" he asked suspiciously.

"For the kids," replied Dwayne. "Don't your kids like rides?"

"There are children here?"

"Sure," said Dwayne jauntily. "Listen, why don't you gents let me fix you up with some hot cocoa? That'd be nice, wouldn't it? M'm, m'm. Everybody loves hot cocoa."

Abrams and Nelly watched in bewildered awe as the old gentleman shuffled over to the steaming cart, stripped off his gloves, and prepared two servings of hot cocoa. The astronauts accepted their mugs mutely. Ignoring a severe look from Nelly, Abrams took a sip. "Delicious," he declared.

"That should warm your bones a mite," agreed Dwayne with a smile. "Now, I hate to be a bother but how about those forms?"

Abrams looked down at the clipboard again, then jotted some entries into the fields provided. He handed the clipboard to Dwayne who glanced at it, tore off a yellow carbon copy from beneath the top sheet, and then slipped it into a slot beside one of the kiosk windows. He jammed the clipboard under his arm and turned back to the men. "Okay then," he said. "I expect you gents have a few questions. I'll do my best to answer them up for you, and then we can all take the elevator down into the city and the hooplah can begin."

"Hooplah?" echoed Nelly. "What hooplah?"

"This is a big event," explained Dwayne. "You're our first interplanetary visitors, you understand. Once you gents are comfortable we're to get underground to meet everybody and then the real pageant begins. That's what you Terrans like more than anything, isn't it -- a pageant?"

Abrams flinched. "But, please, who are you?"

Dwayne raised his chin. "We're the Martians, of course. This is our planet."

Nelly shook his head. "How can it be your planet?"

Dwayne offered him a tight little smile. "Simple," he said. "We got here first. We claimed it." He glanced down. "You're letting your cocoa get cold."

"You can't claim Mars," Nelly insisted. "The 1967 Outer Space Treaty expressly forbids it."

"Oh, that old thing," grinned Dwayne. "I think you'll find we don't have too much regard for Earthly paper here on Mars. We have our own way of doing things."

"But it's the law."

Dwayne chuckled and hooked his thumbs into his belt. "Yeah, well, you feel free to send a bunch of lawyers out here whenever you feel like it. Or did you already bring one? You a lawyer, Mr. Abrams?"

"I'm a physician."

"Like I say, then: the matter can be argued in our Supreme Court at your discretion...that is, once your boys take a few courses so they qualify to practice here. I understand the university's got a summer programme that's very affordable."

"I think the United Nations would be a more suitable venue," said Nelly.

"You can decide anything you like at your United Nations. It won't change a thing out here, though, Mr. Nelly."

Nelly straightened to his full height and took an aggressive step toward the jolly New Englander. "I've had just about enough of this nonsense, do you understand me? The planets belong to humanity. You can't expect us to just roll over and let you take Mars."

"Mister, we've already taken it. It's a done deal. Possession's nine tenths of dibs." He paused to pet Heinlein as the dog loped over and nudged at his master's palm. Dwayne looked up again. "Now, we're not here to stand in anybody's way. Mars is dedicated to facilitating scientific missions of all stripes: all we ask is that you share your data and that you don't litter."

"The Earth won't stand for that."

"Is that a fact, Mr. Nelly?" asked Dwayne wryly, staring back unflinchingly into Nelly's bluster. "And just what do you think the Earth can do about it? We're already here, and we love Mars. You can't even reckon the army it would take to force us out."

"Covert operatives could --"

"Bullsquat. Covert doesn't even enter into it," said Dwayne with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Space is transparent, Mr. Nelly. We can see you coming four months out. And make no mistake: we allowed you to land here today. We didn't have to."

"Then why did you?"

"To be friendly. To start things off on the right foot."

"Announcing that you've stolen a planet is hardly diplomatic."

"Well, there's one way of looking at it and there's another. Some people might say it's awfully rude of you kick off your visit by challenging our sovereignty."

"Sovereignty? Don't be ridiculous. What gives you the right?"

"Presence and control, Mr. Nelly. We're established and we're self-sufficient. If you want to get rid of us you're going to have to crawl back to your sponsors and ask them to foot the bill to send out a military expedition set up with weapons of extinction. Do you think they'll go for it? They might -- though, I feel it's only right to warn you: we are prepared to defend our home." He let that sink in, then gave a little smirk. "With infinite complacency you go to and fro over your globe about your little affairs, serene in your assurance of your empire over matter...yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, have regarded your Earth -- and slowly and surely drawn our plans against you."

Abrams raised an eyebrow. "That's H. G. Wells, right?"

Dwayne nodded, turning away from Nelly. "I grew up on that stuff. I've also got a soft spot for Jules Verne."

"How long have you been here?" demanded Nelly, shouldering Abrams aside as he inserted himself forcefully into Dwayne's new line of sight.

"Decades," replied Dwayne breezily.

"How many are you?" Nelly barked, now circling Dwayne like a predator.

"Millions," replied Dwayne, pivoting to track Nelly. "Our underground cities teem, Mr. Nelly."

"You could never get that many people out here right under our noses," countered Nelly hotly. "How could be that be done?"

"In the usual way, Mr. Nelly. The first settlers were fruitful." Dwayne plucked Abrams' empty mug from his limp fingers and placed it back on the cart. "But let's not get caught up in all this unpleasantness. We're not politicians, are we? It's time for you gents to step into the limelight. Let's take the elevator down."

He gestured to the shaft. The calliope was still playing. The distant roller coaster screeched again. Crowds hooted and thrilled. Abrams shivered.

"And then what happens?" he asked.

"You meet the mayor and the prime minister, shake hands, get your picture taken -- that sort of thing. We'll broadcast the whole show straight back to Earth, to coincide with the unveiling of the Martian Embassy and the formal opening of diplomatic relations."

Nelly's eyed narrowed. "What do you need an embassy for?"

"Processing applications for immigration, of course. Once we let the cat out of the bag I expect plenty of folks will want to consider starting a new life here."

"Like who?" challenged Nelly.

Dwayne shrugged, then hugged the clipboard to his side and raised one arm in an attitude of dignified oration. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore..."

Abrams smiled. Nelly did not. "You're interfering with our broadcasts," he accused.

Dwayne nodded. "We figured on having a chance like this to chat before making the whole thing common knowledge. We wanted to give your powers that be a chance to catch their breath before going live."

"That's supposed to be consideration at work?"

"Supposed to be," confirmed Dwayne.

"Where is this embassy?"

"I'm sure the Shah will make that plain when the time is right."

"Who is the Shah?"

"The Shah of Anwar, Mr. Nelly. He's our representative on your planet."

"As soon as NASA receives our transmission he'll be arrested by the Secret Service within an hour, I can guarantee that."

"I doubt it," said Dwayne lightly. "You'd have to get up awfully early in the morning to outfox the Shah. He takes...a long view. He knows you'll come looking and he's laid you a trail of puzzles within puzzles. He's ready for anything you care to dish out."

"We'll see about that."

"Ayuh," agreed Dwayne. "I reckon we will."

The two men stared at each other haughtily. Abrams squeezed himself between them and steered Nelly a few steps back by the shoulders. "Let's not get testy," said Abrams quietly. "It's no help to anyone going off half-cocked."

"I'm fully cocked, Doc," pronounced Nelly through gritted teeth. "This is an outrage! Who in the hell do these so-called Martians think they are?"

"Who the hell are we?"

Nelly shook his head in contempt, his complexion reddening. "We're Americans, Doc. And don't you ever forget that."

"I'm Israeli."

"You were born in America," hissed Nelly. "That still counts!"

"Counts for what?"

Nelly pushed forward into Abrams' chest, bearing down on him with eyes wide and charged. "Captain," he growled, his voice thick with menace, "I thought I told you to stop being funny."

Abrams sighed, then turned over his shoulder to face Dwayne. "Mr. Rogers, would you mind if my colleague and I had a word in private?"

"Not at all."

"Not here," grunted Nelly. "We'll talk outside."

"Suit yourself," said Dwayne. He sat down on the chair and unfolded his newspaper. Heinlein trotted over and Dwayne scratched him behind the ears.

When the airlock had cycled and released them back outside Abrams opened his mouth to speak but Nelly shook his head curtly. He walked up to Abrams, grabbed his helmet, and pulled it forward until it made contact with his own. "Kill your radio," he said, his muffled voice conveyed through the touching surfaces.

Abrams did so. "I don't see any choice here, Keith," he said, discomfited by the strangely intimate experience of conversing faceplate to faceplate. "Rogers is right about one thing -- we're not politicians. We're scientists. We're here to learn what we can. So let's see this underground city. I can't imagine they intend to harm us."

Nelly sneered. "You don't have any idea, Doc. These lunatics could be capable of anything."

"Why do you say they're lunatics?"

"A plywood monolith? A lemonade stand in the middle of nowhere? A people that greet us with an old man and a dog? It's like it's all a big joke to them."

"It is," agreed Abrams.

"So what does it mean?"

Abrams shook his head. "They're showing us they own this world. Don't you get it? Humour is power, major. It comes from a position of control. They're demonstrating the security of that position by trivializing our arrival here. It's nothing to them, our being here. It's a theme for a fair, not a crisis. It's just a holiday, they want us to think."

"What do you mean by that? What do you mean 'they want us to think'?"

"Keith, look around you. These Martians are bending over backward to show us how mighty they are."

"By joking around?"

"Exactly. Exactly. What's Rogers trying to impress on us? Think about it: he says there are millions of them. He implies that a generation of kids have been born here. He tells us they've got underground cities, that they've been lying in wait for years for us to arrive, to announce themselves. He wants us to know that they've thought it all out, and they hold all the cards. For God's sake, the man wears an environment suit that looks thinner than cotton -- do you think his wardrobe is accidental? Everything about this is meant to telegraph one, and just one, significant impression."

"What?"

"Strength."

Nelly's eyes flicked to the side, and Abrams heard a foreign mumble inside his helmet. "It's Houston," said Nelly. "Standby, Doc."

Nelly broke contact and stepped back from Abrams, head cocked as he listened to the message from NASA. His expression hardened. He nodded to himself and then turned on heel and started marching back toward The Marzulator.

Abrams caught up with him as he reached into a compartment beneath the cargo flat and unlocked its face with his command keys. A panel was revealed. Nelly typed a quick sequence upon its keys, and then an inner compartment clicked open. He swung aside the reinforced metal door and extracted a brace of pistols.

He straightened and leaned into Abrams, helmets touching again. "Fetch your medical kit, Doc. Just in case."

"In case of what? What the hell are you doing? Are those guns? Where did you get guns?"

"This mission is brought to you in part by Smith & Wesson," said Nelly flatly.

"But what the hell are you planning to do?"

Nelly's face filled Abrams' vision, faceplate to faceplate. Abrams wanted to look away but he couldn't. Nelly said, "Houston says this meeting never happened. Houston says we don't know there's a claim on Mars." He swallowed, fixing Abrams with a sharp, humourless look. "Houston says until our policy's resolved there should be no witnesses."

"No witnesses?" echoed Abrams, his brow furrowed.

"Out of deference for your oath I'll let you take out the dog. I'll do Rogers."

"What!" shouted Abrams, temporarily breaking contact between their faceplates as he staggered backward in horror. He rammed his head back at Nelly's, knocking both of them against the rover's giant wheel. "NASA wants us to shoot them?" gasped Abrams.

"No witnesses," repeated Nelly gravely.

"I'm not going to shoot a dog! I'm telling you that right now, Keith. There's no way!"

Something clicked. Abrams glanced down at the gun pressed into his chest. He looked up to meet Nelly's cold eyes again.

"You'll do as you're told, Captain."

The airlock cycled. The inner door slid back. Nelly and Abrams stepped over the threshold and back into the lobby, tripping the locks on their collars and pulling off their helmets. Abrams hugged his metal medical case. Nelly kept one arm hovering over his external cargo pocket.

Dwayne was whistling. Abrams recognized the tune: Gustav Holst's The Planets -- specifically the first movement: Mars, the Bringer of War. The old man's solo interpretation of the bombastic crescendo trailed off as he looked up from his newspaper. "Gents?" he said.

Nelly cleared his throat as he reached into his pocket. Abrams looked away. He peeled off his gloves, fumbled with his own pocket, and withdrew the hand gun. His head was pulsing in sympathy with his racing heart. He stared at the weapon dumbly, then jumped when the resounding bark of Nelly's weapon banged through the customs and immigration lobby.

Feeling sick, Abrams raised his own weapon and levelled it at the dog. "I'm sorry," he whispered. Heinlein's tongue lolled carelessly. Abrams squeezed the trigger.

The dog's head came apart. Debris jangled across the tile floor in a wide arc, broken screws and torn metal skittering. The body keeled over with a heavy clank. It bled antifreeze.

Abrams gaped. "My God," he cried. "It's a machine!"

He spun. Nelly was standing over the headless cadaver of Dwayne Rogers, staring agog at a similar spray of ruined electronics and gears. The gun dangled limp at Nelly's side. "Jesus Sunday Christ," he said. "I don't understand..."

"Robots," said Abrams heavily, licking his dry lips. "They were just robots, major. We...we didn't kill anyone."

He only realized how quiet it had become when the calliope music abruptly stopped.

Nelly narrowed his eyes and strafed across the floor to the elevator shaft. He ducked behind the railing, then peeked quickly over its edge. He paused, then scooped up a piece of twisted metal and tossed it down the shaft. It banged loudly on the sides and then hit the bottom with a thud. "It's not real," he said, looking over his shoulder at Abrams. "It's forced perspective...only goes about ten meters down."

Abrams walked over to the row of kiosks and pushed up the metal shutter. Behind the window was a wall of rock. "These are fake, too."

"What the hell is going on?"

Abrams wiped his hand down his face, then shook his head and smiled darkly. "It's a ruse, major. It's all a front."

"But why?"

"You heard what Rogers said: it's a pageant."

"But to what end, man?"

Abrams caught himself humming Holst's music. "War," he said.

"What?"

"They never intended us to go down the elevator. I imagine that if we'd consented Rogers would've found another way to provoke you. It was all a show, to make us think they were formidable -- to generate fear and uncertainty, perhaps to provoke a military response."

"But why, man?" cried Nelly, his face glistening in a bath of sudden, nervous sweat. "It doesn't make sense!"

"Someone is playing a long game here, Keith. They wanted to frame our move, to control our response. They wanted us to participate in their passion play, to set us against them to somehow advance their plot. They wanted to shape their relationship with the Earth for some kind of drama, using us as unwitting actors."

"But how would Mars profit by conflict?"

Abrams smiled sadly. "Conflict opens many opportunities, major. It's the world's oldest form of theatre."

Nelly's mouth tightened. "That's sick," he declared.

"It's human," agreed Abrams.

They both stopped speaking as the ventilators looming over them from the ceiling clicked and went silent. The constant whisper of moving air they had already learned to ignore faded away. The room became colder almost instantly, and a moment later then lights guttered and died.

"Pressure's dropping," observed Abrams.

"They're trying to kill us."

"No, they're trying to kick us out."

"Because we ruined their plans?"

Abrams shrugged. "Or because we fulfilled our part in them."

Nelly's face darkened, his muscles taut. "They're psychotic."

Abrams shot Nelly an incredulous look. "Let me make sure I understand this. You -- you who just ordered me to shoot a dog -- think people who offer you lemonade are psychotic?" His eyes widened. "You want to know what's psychotic, Keith? Harassing people until they buy enough Pepsi to send six morons like us to Mars so we can get our faces on cereal boxes!"

"That's completely different from having the gall to --"

"No, you idiot, it isn't! We set the stage. Mars is speaking to us in the only terms that gain any traction on our sorry planet: theatre, farce, and scandal. Can we blame them for speaking our language better than we speak it ourselves?"

Nelly coughed, then put a hand to his head as the effort to draw air caused him to become dizzy. He picked up his helmet and jammed it back on, latching the collar and then taking a deep breath. Abrams mirrored him. His radio crackled. "Let's get out of here, Doc."

Nelly stowed his gun, snapped closed his pocket, then stomped over to the airlock and tried to actuate the door. It did not respond. He spotted a manual crank recessed into the bulkhead beside the frame and set to turning it. The airlock ground ponderously open just wide enough for the astronauts to squeeze through. Nelly put one foot over the threshold and then cast a look back at Abrams.

"Doc?"

Abrams remained in the lobby, his eyes vacant and his expression distant. He blinked, glancing at Nelly only briefly. As if in a dream he walked very slowly across the room, Nelly tracking him. Abrams gingerly took a seat on one of the benches and rested his medical kit on his knees.

"Doc?" prompted Nelly again.

Abrams looked over vaguely. "Go on, major," he said.

"What?"

"I'm staying."

Nelly's lip twitched. "Staying? What the hell do you mean? Staying for what? The air's gone. This place'll be frozen inside of fifteen minutes. Our suits are only good for another twenty minutes at best. We have to get back to the ship!"

"Nah," said Abrams. "They won't let me die."

"There's nobody here but robots, you damned fool!"

Abrams shrugged again, his expression pensive. "It's hard to say what the real situation is, isn't it? Myself, I'm going to gamble that somebody's behind it all. They're watching, and they'll come for me."

"You're mad!"

"I can live with that."

"I'm not losing another astronaut!"

"You are, in fact."

"I don't think so." Nelly drew his pistol and pointed it at Abrams.

Abrams jerked his chin in a quick flick down toward the barrel of his own pistol projecting from beneath his medical kit, levelled at Nelly. He smirked. "Go ahead, Keith. But make sure you say something pithy as we shoot. Think it up now, because this isn't a rehearsal. I've already got my line ready."

He cocked his weapon.

The men stared at each other for a long moment, the only sound the rhythmic tide of their environment suits' respirators.

"Jesus Sunday Christ," said Nelly. "Two suicides on one mission!" He lowered his weapon and slipped inside the airlock. A few seconds later Abrams watched him trudge across the sand back toward the lemonade stand and the rover. The rover's engine hummed.

Abrams watched it go, then arranged himself comfortably on the bench. He checked his oxygen meter and sighed. And then, like so many of his immigrant forebearers before him, he prepared himself to wait patiently to be processed.

Though he knew it taxed his supply of oxygen, Abrams could not help but whistle Holst.


Fin.

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