Listen up, you Marsmen!
My mother’s suit was holed on the way to Phobos.
In space, you cannot hear a thing because your helmets are in the way. I didn’t hear her breath rushing out. It made a gray streak in the air, like my breath in the evenings when I collected the water from our stills. That was something for children to do, back when Mars was cold and dry and thin.
I used to count my breaths while I did my chores: Out as you step through the airlock, head down to check your seals, in as you step over to the first still, the water bag flopping empty at your side. Fill the bag, out and in, and move on to the next still, quick as you can. The cold bites through your suit and even in your helmet you can see the plumes of your breath, rushing out and sucking back in.
I counted my mother’s breaths as we went up, but I got stuck on out.
She exhaled and exhaled through the hole in her suit as we went up and up in our tiny rocketship. As her breath hissed out it thickened and spread and wrapped around the planet. Before long it was pushing everything down; my mother’s breath became the atmosphere of Mars.
My mother’s name was Maartje. She was from Amsterdam on old Earth; she was a civil engineer. She smelled like flowers, and she taught the robots to make chicken soup when I was sick.
My father’s name is Uppinder. He is from Amsterdam also, but he was a bureaucrat in the government old Earth had put on Mars. He is the reason we had to flee when the rebellion came.
My name is Raveena. I was born on Mars.
Most of the government got away on the last big shuttle to old Earth. My family lived far away from the main domes, on the very southern edge of Tharsis, and we couldn’t make it in time. We took my father’s old rocketship instead. My mother packed our things in boxes. I helped my father load the ship with the robots in their plastic jugs.
The rocketship was very small, and very old, and didn’t hold the air the way it should anymore. My mother helped me on with my suit. She kissed the tip of her finger before she closed the last seal. “Be a brave girl,” she said.
I made a face at her.
The ship rattled and shook as we lifted. My mother held my hand and we were pressed back into our seats. I tried to call out for my father when I saw my mother exhaling, but I couldn’t make the sound come out.
Back on Mars, all of the Marsmen had run outside. They were dancing in the dust, laughing and pointing at how it made clouds and dust devils in my mother’s gently swirling breath.
The most foolish of the Marsmen smashed up their domes.
“What are you doing?” the others cried.
“Look,” said the foolish Marsmen. “The air is thick! It is not as thick as old Earth, but it will do for Marsmen. We can breathe, we are free!”
The other Marsmen laughed at the foolish ones, because they knew it was still too cold and dry. Sure enough, the Sun went down and the foolish Marsmen froze stiff where they stood. The dust blew over them and turned them red, and there they can still be seen today, on the slopes of Pavonis Mons. Visitors from old Earth call them statues.
But Marsmen know better.
When we landed on Phobos and my father opened the back of the rocketship, he was full of plans. “Maartje, Raveena,” he said. “Bring the pressure-tent, and the jugs of robots. Old Earth will rescue us soon.”
Then he saw my mother. At first he did not believe it. “Maartje,” he said again, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her. “Maartje, wake up.” He shook her until her helmet knocked into his, and then he did believe it. Tears streamed down his face. “Raveena, why didn’t you call out?”
“I tried, Papaji,” I said, “but I couldn’t make a sound.”
My father was undone. He sat on the ground, in the dust and rocks, and he cried. He cried until his tears filled up his helmet, and his suit had to suck them away. He went on crying, until his suit couldn’t hold all the water. It vented into space. His tears fell all the way down to Mars, and splashed down in the Hellas Basin. Still he cried, and his suit went on venting his tears, until the basin was full and threatened to spill over. But Mars continued to turn and Phobos raced across its face, and my father’s tears rained over the whole surface of Mars, making rivers and lakes and all the salty Martian water that still flows there today.
The Marsmen heard the patter of water on their domes, and came running out to see what was happening. When they saw that rain was falling on Mars for the first time in a billion years, they laughed, and danced until some of them slipped and fell in the mud, and then they laughed and pointed and danced some more.
There were still some foolish Marsmen left besides the ones who’d frozen into statues, and when they were done dancing they smashed up their domes.
“What are you doing?” the others cried.
“Look,” said the foolish Marsmen. “The land has become wet! There are rivers, and lakes, and even an ocean! It is not as wet as old Earth, but it will do for Marsmen. We can breathe and we can drink, we are free!”
The other Marsmen laughed at the foolish ones, because they knew it was still far too cold. Sure enough, the Sun went down, and all of my father’s tears froze solid, leaving the foolish Marsmen nothing to drink. They withered up into wisps and blew away, suits and all.
Those foolish Marsmen are blowing around the world still. Sometimes you can hear them, calling for help over their suit radios. Visitors from old Earth say it is only sunspots.
But Marsmen know better.
For a while I sat next to my father and cried too, but it was cold and the rocks were uncomfortable and I knew we needed somewhere to stay until old Earth came to rescue us. So I got the pressure-tent and a jug of robots. The pressure-tent was heavy, and I struggled to put it up. At last I got it up, and I turned on the compressor and made my father go inside while I set out the robots. I was very tired, and my helmet was fogged up from crying, so the trench I dug around the pressure-tent wasn’t a very good circle.
I poured the jug of robots out into the trench. Each robot is so tiny that you cannot see it, but the jug was full to the top with robots and they made a little trickle at the bottom of my trench. “Robots, make us a dome,” I said.
They bubbled and frothed and I knew they were doing as they were told. I stepped over the robots and went into the pressure-tent with my father. He was curled up on the floor of the tent, asleep in his suit. I laid down beside him and soon I slept too.
When I woke up, my father was gone. Outside the pressure-tent the robots had worked all night making us a dome. They’d eaten up some bits of Phobos and used them to make more robots, and together they ate some more and used those bits to make a dome. It wasn’t a very good dome, because my trench was wavery and uneven, but it went all the way up and over my head and it held in the air the robots made.
I found my father outside the dome. He was building a pyre for my mother. When I saw him I began to cry again.
My father heard me and turned around. “Don’t cry, Raveena,” he said. “You must help me.”
There wasn’t anything on Phobos to burn, so we took blankets and clothes from the rocketship and piled them up. When we had a good pyre my father brought my mother out and laid her on it. He bumped his helmet against hers gently before he stepped back and tried to light the pyre.
Of course it didn’t light. On Phobos there is no air to burn things with. This made my father angry. He ripped up all the things we used to make the pyre and threw them away. The last blanket was lying under my mother’s body. On Phobos everything is so light that you must be very careful, but my father was too angry to be careful. When he yanked up the blanket, my mother’s body came with it. Her feet came up, and the rest of her followed.
“Papaji, stop!” I cried, but it was too late. End over end, my mother flew off into space.
Even this was not enough to cool my father’s anger. He went to the rocketship and threw all my mother’s things away. He threw her clothes and her computers and her perfume that smelled like flowers, and they all went tumbling off into space. He reached again into the box that had held my mother’s things, and pulled out the combs she had worn in her hair and the paper in its frame that said she was an engineer. These, too, he flung into space.
One final time, he reached into the box, and came up with my mother’s silver mirror. She’d brought the mirror from old Earth, and sometimes she let me play with it. I ran forward to stop him, but he threw that away too.
All of my mother’s belongings went spinning away into space, except for her silver mirror. That flipped and tumbled and fell into orbit around Mars. It caught the Sun’s rays and reflected them down, making Mars warmer. Soon it was so warm that the rivers of my father’s tears melted and flowed even at night.
The Marsmen saw the rise in temperature with their instruments and came running out of their domes to see what was happening. When they felt how warm it was they laughed and danced until they began to sweat, which nobody on Mars had ever done before, and they pointed at each others’ sweating faces and laughed and danced some more.
Some of the Marsmen wanted to smash their domes, but since all of the foolish Marsmen had dried up or frozen solid, they stopped. “Should we smash the domes?” they asked each other.
One of the Marsmen stepped forward. “Look,” he said. “The air is thick, the land is wet, and now it is warm. It is not as warm as old Earth, but it will do for Marsmen. We can breathe, we can drink, we can walk on the surface. We are free!”
All the Marsmen agreed. With a great cheer, they smashed all the domes. Then they ran out onto the surface of Mars and built new homes, low and slope-roofed and red like Mars, so that unless you are a Marsman you can hardly see them.
Because the domes had been so small, and they had lived so close together, they built their homes very far apart, and that is why to this day Marsmen do not build cities the way the people do on old Earth.
After he threw away my mother’s mirror, my father remembered me. “Get up, Raveena,” he said. “You did a good job with the dome, but that won’t be enough to keep us safe until old Earth gets here. Help me with the robots.”
We were taking the jugs of robots from the back of the rocketship when the radio chimed. My father and I rushed to the radio.
It was a ship from old Earth. “You see, Raveena!” My father clapped me on the back. “They’ve come to rescue us!”
But the message on the radio was not for us. “Attention Marsmen,” it said. “Desist your rebellion. Rebuild your domes. We have brought you a new government.”
Down below, the Marsmen jeered and made rude gestures at the old Earth ship. “Come and find us!” they called up to it.
The people on the old Earth ship were angry. They hadn’t expected the Marsmen to refuse. “This is your final warning,” the radio said. The Marsmen only blew raspberries, which they couldn’t have done before the air was thickened.
“Very well,” the radio said. “We will begin bombardment.”
The old Earth ship caught and dragged some meteoroids it had found nearby and flung them at Mars. But my mother’s breath slowed them, and they all burned up in Mars’ new atmosphere.
The Marsmen laughed and pointed. “Stupid old Earthmen,” they shouted.
The old Earth ship looked around for something else to throw and found some asteroids. It had to go farther away to find them, and it took even longer to drag them back. When it brought them back, it pushed them until they, too, fell down on Mars. But the asteroids splashed down in the Hellas Basin, which was full of my father’s tears, and although they created many huge waves, none of the Marsmen were harmed.
“Yah, you old Earthmen!” The Marsmen danced and sang. “You can’t catch us!”
The radio crackled and spat with the old Earth ship’s frustration. The ship cast about for something else to throw. At last it found a huge asteroid, almost the size of a small moon. It took all its engines’ power to drag it back to Mars, and nearly all its fuel to give it a push. The asteroid burned across the sky as a giant fireball, and the Marsmen ran into their houses and hid.
When the asteroid hit, it made a mighty crash, and I covered my eyes. At last, though, I had to peek. The asteroid had crashed down in the plain of Chryse, and made a deep hole right in the middle. The land all around it shook and shook.
But because the Marsmen had built their homes so far apart, the asteroid had missed them all, and except for some things that fell off their shelves, nothing was damaged.
After the shaking stopped, the Marsmen came running out of their houses again. When they saw that they were all right, they began to laugh and dance and jeer at the old Earth ship again.
“You see, you old Earthmen! You can’t beat us! The air is thick and the land is wet and it is warm and we are free! Turn around and go back to old Earth!”
“We will be back,” the radio said. “We will bring more ships next time.” Then the old Earth ship turned around and left.
“Stop! Wait,” my father shouted at the radio. “We are still here on Phobos!”
“We have no more fuel for orbital insertions,” the radio said. “We have barely enough to return to Earth. You will have to wait until we come back.”
The Marsmen weren’t worried about the threat of more ships. They knew that old Earth had troubles of its own. And sure enough, old Earth didn’t send any more ships for a long time, and when they did, they were friendly ships of trade.
As for my father and I, we burrowed under the skin of Phobos and there we lived, waiting for old Earth to come and rescue us. But my father became restless, and wracked with guilt over throwing my mother’s body into space. He decided to go and find her and bring her back to Mars. He repaired the rocketship and took off in it and had many more adventures.
I liked to watch the Marsmen, though, and so I stayed. The Marsmen came to give me many names in their many languages—Devushka Luna and Kiana ‘O Hoku’ula and The Girl in the Faster Moon—but how I got them is another story.