23
Dec
12

The Spirit of Christmas

Beep… beep… beep…

Shalena woke slowly but didn’t open her eyes right away. This was her time, her precious time, the best part of the day, she had always thought; when she was still half asleep, wrapped up in the cloud soft folds of the duvet. Nothing could hurt her there. That would come later, no doubt, but for now she was alone, warm, quiet and safe.

Lying there, she imagined herself as a kitten in a basket, on a fleecy blanket, curled up in a ball, tiny chest rising and falling slowly as she breathed.

Warm. Quiet. Safe.

Her room was silent but for the ticking of the clock on the small table beside her bed, the clock that she knew would tell her –  if she opened her eyes, which she wasn’t going to, not yet – in its glowing green letters it was 07.01. A minute since her alarm had gone off. Sunrise was just a few minutes away. If she was going to catch it she’d have to get up, she had no choice. But that would mean leaving the warmth, and quiet, and safety behind. Once she was up, once she planted her feet on the cold floor, that was it, she belonged to the world, the world she hated and didn’t feel a part of and probably never would. But she had no choice. She had to see the sunrise. Just in case. Just in case her wish, made so many times before, had come true.

Stretching out to her full length, luxuriously, no longer a kitten but a beautiful cat, at least in her own mind, Shalena reluctantly opened her eyes, letting reality in.

“And so it begins…” she sighed melodramatically, looking at the bare ceiling.

It only took her a moment to cross the room from her bed to the window, the soles of her bare feet stinging as she padded across the cold, metal floor, and she knelt down in front of it with hope fluttering in her heart. Maybe this time, she thought, it’ll be different. Maybe this time it will have changed. Maybe this time…

Through the window the world beyond was still dark, the far horizon black and featureless, the sky above it featureless and blank but for a lone bright blue star shining lantern-bright above the distant hills, the heavens behind it brightening with the familiar colours of the approaching dawn. When the light came, what would she see?

Please… she whispered, please… be different –

The Sun burst over the horizon, a nuclear detonation of liquid gold flooding the world with light. Moments later a tsunami of colour exploded away from it, a wave of molten amber rolling, sweeping, breaking over everything, painting the world with daylight, revealing –

Nothing different.

The world looked exactly the same as it had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. Everything – every rock, every mountain, every stone – was exactly the same familiar, boring, mind-numbingly dull shade and hue it had been when she went to bed. The sky above her home was the same boring colour. The wisps of barely-there cloud drifting through it were the same boring colour. The same colour they had been for the whole of her short, sad life; that they had been for years. For centuries.

Nature had only used one end of the colour spectrum when painting this view, this place, this world. And Shalena despised it.

“I hate it…” she  said, glaring out of her window, seeing the rugged landscape with its ancient craters, hills and mountains, and felt crushing disappointment  again. “I hate Mars…”

—————————————————————————————————

By the time she had thrown on her school uniform and made herself look half decent she was running late, but didn’t hurry downstairs. That would only draw attention to herself, attention she didn’t want. Reaching the door to the kitchen she paused, preparing to enter. It was only ajar slightly, but that was enough to tell her that the room beyond was alive with scents and sound. The breeze wafting through the crack in the door was heavy with the smell of warm, buttered toast and freshly brewed coffee, which she breathed in as the shouting and laughter of her older brother and sister asaualted her ears. Unable to delay any longer she entered quietly, hoping, as usual, to slip in unseen and take her place at the table without any fuss, but knew that was never going to work. It never did.

“Shalena! You finally joined us! Good afternoon!” her father called out from across the room, where he was busy packing a trio of rucksacks. “Isn’t it a beautiful morning? Look at that..!” he continued, nodding enthusiastically towards the kitchen window. Shalena didn’t look. She knew what she would see – the achingly boring colours of Mars.

All of them wrong, so wrong. And she was the only one in the family who saw it, which made it worse.

“What do you want for breakfast honey?” her father asked brightly, plonking steaming bowls of… something… down on the tabletop in front of her quarelling siblings. “What can I get you?”

“Not hungry…” Shalena mumbled quietly as she slipped into a chair, knowing her father wouldn’t listen –

“Nonsense, you need something, it’s a long time until lunch,” her father answered, “I’ll make you something nice, just give me a minute, ok?”

“Ok…” Shalena replied distantly, surrendering to the inevitable.

“Don’t you think Remi and Jad did a good job with the decorations?” her father asked from behind her. “It must have taken them ages…!”

Shalena’s heart sank. Decorations? Why would they – ? Oh, no…

She lifted her eyes from the cluttered tabletop, and saw them.

Brightly-coloured garlands of glossy paper and shining tinsel were draped everywhere, hanging like gaudy cobwebs between doors, lights and anything else they could reach. Fake icicles hung from the ceiling too, and over there, in the far corner, stood The Tree, its branches groaning under the weight of countless family heirloom baubles, miniature crackers and everything else that came out of The Box.

“Merry Christmas!” her father shouted theatrically to everyone. Shalena’s bother and sister broke off briefly from their squabbling to parrot the greeting. Shalena didn’t.

“You are such a misery!” her sister huffed, shaking her head. “No wonder you don’t have any friends – ”

“Remi…” their father warned gently from across the kitchen.

“Well it’s true,” her sister continued, face forming a sneer, “moping around like that all the time, what can she expect?”

Remi…” their father warned again, the tone of his voice harder this time.

“Well look at her!” Remi continued, “sat there looking like something – ”

“Leave her alone,” their brother said quietly, “just because she’s not a boy-chasing airhead like you…” Shalena smiled at that, but didn’t look up to thank him.

“That’s enough, all of you,” their father ordered, coming back over to the table to put another hot bowl of… something… on the table in front of Shalena. “It’s Christmas Eve, for pity’s sake, let’s all try and get into the Christmas Spirit shall we?” As her father walked away, Shalena swept her gaze around the room again, looking at the garish decorations. Tinsel, snowmen and reindeer were everywhere. It looked like the inside of a gift shop. Ho, ho, ho… she thought.

“You two, out, now!” she heard her father say shortly after, and there was a sudden scramble of movement and scraping of chairs as her brother and sister exploded away from the table and headed out to their school, leaving Shalena and her father alone in the suddenly silent kitchen. Shalena  sagged inside, knowing what was coming next.

The uncomfortable silence was broken by the sound of a chair being pulled away from the table, and Shalena looked up to see her father sitting beside her. Staring at her with That Look on his face.

“What?” Shalena asked defensively.

“You know what,” her father replied softly, reaching out a hand to run his fingers through his daughter’s unkempt mop of blonde hair. “Why are you so sad, Shal?”

“I’m not sad -” Shalena started to protest but was cut off.

“Yes, you are,” her father insisted, “sadness hangs around you like a cloak – ”

“That’s what mum used to say,” Shalena said automatically, without thinking, instantly regretting it when she saw the pain ripple across her father’s face.

“Yes… it is…” her father agreed, taking a deep breath to steady himself, then another. “And if she was here… if she was still here… she’d be telling you the same thing right now. What’s wrong, Shal? Is it school? Are they still – ”

“I can handle them,” Shalena said quickly, darkly. “They’re nothing. Nothing.” Not quite nothing, she knew. Their bullying was subsiding, a little, but was still far worse than she could ever tell her father. If her father knew how cruel his daughter’s daily tormentors were, how, with their insults and jibes, they scraped hot needles through the open wounds left by her mother’s death, he’d march into the school, drag them from their desks by their hair and throw them out of the nearest airlock. Which wouldn’t help anyone.

“Well… be careful…” her father went on, continuing to stroke her mussy hair, “and you know that if you need to talk to me about anything, you can, alright?”

Shalena nodded, but they both knew that wasn’t true.

The silence fell between them again and lingered there until, unable to take it any longer, her father asked: “So, have you thought any more about what you want for Christmas?”

“I already told you,” Shalena said, “there’s nothing I want, really – ”

“There must be something,” he sighed in frustration, “it’s a bit late, I know,  but I could try – ”

“Dad, no, really,” Shalena said, a little impatiently this time, “there’s nothing I want, ok?”

The silence fell again, heavy as a castle portcullis.

“I would bring her back if I could…” her father offered suddenly, and Shalena’s heart thumped guiltily in her chest. Oh no, not this…

“Dad – ” she began, but it was already too late.

“I know you blame me,” her father continued, colour draining from his face as he spoke, “and that’s only natural. I was at the rover’s controls, I was the one who – ”

“Dad, no – ”

“But it was an accident,” he ploughed on, “there was nothing I could – ”

“Dad!” Shalena protested, feeling guilty that her father was right, and hating herself for it. She did blame him for her mother’s death. He had been driving during their field trip to the edge of Marineris, he had been the one who fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion, taking the rover too close to the crumbling edge, sending it tumbling down over the side to land on its roof on a ledge below –

“I know that’s what you want, to have her back for Christmas, she loved it so much, but I can’t give it to you, I’m sorry – ”

“No, dad, no,” Shalena said. “That’s not what I want.” Her father’s tear-brimming eyes widened in surprise. “I mean, yes, I’d have her back if I could, in a heartbeat, you know that,” she added quickly, “but I know that’s not possible. I know I’m only five, but I’m not stupid… I don’t believe in miracles… She’s not coming back, dad, I know.” She wanted to hug him, knew she should, but somehow coudn’t bring herself to do it. She didn’t hate him for what had happened, but there was a wall between them, that she had built.

“I’m sorry, Shal, so sorry…” he whispered, kissing her hands. She was a tiny thing, ‘frail and pale’ was how people often described her, tall and thin like all children born on the low gravity world of Mars, and so young, so young. But sometimes he thought she was wiser and more grown up than himself. ..

“Are you sure there’s nothing you want?” he repeated quietly, hopefully.

“No, nothing,” Shalena shook her head. That was a lie, of course. There was something she wanted, something she wanted desperately. But looking out of the window, at the cliched colours of Mars burning beyond the boundary of the settlement, with its white modules and habs, greenhouses and hangars, she knew that she could never have what she really wanted for Christmas.

Not unless someone invented a time machine before the morning…

———————————————————————————————–

The school morning passed by in a haze. Shalena felt like she swam through it, only seeing events, people and places around her as blurs. Classes – in rooms decorated almost as gaudily as her own home – came and went uneventfully, the lessons in maths, engineering, terraforming and history littered with more preaching, more indoctrination about the “great future” that lay ahead for Mars and all its people after all the years of struggle. Through it all she stared at her desk, her hands, the screens on the wall, even the decorations draped everywhere, anything and everything except the view through the window which mocked her more cruelly than any of the predatory bullies seated around her who saw her as their rightful prey ever could, or would. The all too familiar colours of the sky, the ground, everything she saw through that window were hateful. She felt like she was the planet’s very own voodoo doll, and each shade and hue was a pin stuck into her.

But looking around the class showed her, yet again, that she was alone in thinking that way. Everyone else in the class loved Mars just the way it was, and she was the freak. The outsider.

But why? That baffled her! They’d all seen the same photos she had! They’d all seen the paintings, the stunning “artist’s impressions”, the beautiful works of ‘space art’ hanging on walls throughout the colony which reminded everyone how the planet had once looked, back when Nature had made it look spectacular, back before it died, or rather was murdered –

A stinging pain in the back of her head wrenched her out of her daydream. She didn’t look down at the floor to see what had hit her, and didn’t look around to see who had thrown it, even though she knew it would take no detective work: the guilty party would be looking right at her, grinning triumphantly, daring, just daring her to do something about it. Instead she just got on with her work, reading yet another passage on her slate describing with an almost evangelical conviction how, once Mankind had conquered Mars it would move on, spread outwards, ever outwards, to Saturn’s moons, the Oort Cloud and then, one day, out into the stars of the Orion Spur itself. Only then did she glance out the window, past the tinsel and snowflake stickers, at the mocking martian landscape and feel, yet again, that she had been born in the wrong time.

After lunch – a visit to the settlement’s famous Museum of Mars. Foolishly she had allowed herself to look forward to it in the previous sols, even convinced herself that it might be enjoyable. And for a while it was. Taking advantage of a lapse of concentration by her teacher as she read out an information plaque mounted next to a huge, ugly-looking rock called “Humphrey”, she slipped away from the class, ducking quickly down a corridor and out of sight. Hiding (ironically, seeing as she hated them so much)  in the shadows behind one of the huge Christmas trees scattered through the Museum she knew she’d only have around half an hour to herself, half an hour in which to wander around the Museum’s rooms and galleries without being disturbed, or picked on, or tormented, so she set off to make the best of it.

By the time the class found her – in the “HG Wells” gallery, standing directly beneath the huge model of a martian war machine which dominated it – Shalena had seen almost everything she wanted to see. She’d knelt down beside the shattered remains of the Beagle 2 space probe, and whispered “Sorry” to it as she always did when she visited the Museum. She’d walked around and around the life size model of the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter, which had revolutionised Man’s understanding of Mars with its incredible cameras. She’d walked up onto the deck of one of the sand ships plucked from Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles”, smiling at the painstaking detail its builders had achieved and weaving her way around, past and through its noble crew of golden-masked dust sailors…

But the best part had been, as usual, a visit to the “Rover Gallery”. That was where she felt most at home. That’s where she went to, in her mind, whenever she needed to escape the darker moments of her day.

Although many people – even many native martians – took them for granted, it always made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up when she came face to face with the exhibits in the room. Not just because they looked so beautiful grouped together, but because they were the Real Thing. Each rover in the gallery was the actual rover which had explored Mars all those years ago. Out on the surface of Mars, full size replicas, perfect in every minute detail, stood at the sites where the rovers had stopped driving at the end of their epic treks, and had become popular tourist attractions, but the rovers here in the gallery were the originals, the ones that had been built on Earth, sent to Mars atop mighty rockets, and then landed on the planet to explore and study it. Yes, many took these machines for granted, but she couldn’t, and knew she never would.

With time running out on her she had to rush, so wasn’t able to visit each rover for as long as she liked to. Thankfully no-one had thought – or had time – to decorate/desecrate the rovers with Christmas decorations. She managed a few precious minutes with “Curiosity”, standing tall and proud and gleaming white beneath its spotlights, marvelling again at the sheer size of the machine, which had – she knew, without even looking at the notes and info boards – driven on Mars for eleven years, and had discovered the first evidence of ancient martian life high up on the slopes of Mt Sharp. She could only linger for a few moments by “Opportunity”, but didn’t feel too guilty because she’d once spent three hours just standing next to it, looking at it, drinking in every detail, and would come back again another time.

Behind Opportunity, at the far end of the gallery, lit by its own spotlights and standing on its own rock- and dust-covered platform, stood her twin sister. Identical in almost every way, the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” had one major difference. Spirit was hers.

“Hello again…” she whispered, approaching the rover as quietly as she could, feeling like a priest approaching an altar. “I told you I wouldn’t stay away long…”

Reaching the rover’s side she felt her heart swelling again just to be near it. None of her classmates understood. None of them “got it”. They just saw a machine, a mass of glass, metal and wire, a robot built to do a job. She saw… so much more. This machine had gone through so much, achieved so much, it was almost unbelievable, like something out of one of her father’s beloved science fiction stories. That spindly robot arm at the front had reached out and brushed dirt off rocks. Those spiky wheels had trundled and rumbled across mile after mile of the surface. Those cameras had taken tens of thousands of photographs of Mars’ hills, sky and plains which were now considered works of art. Long, long after it should have died from cold or just sheer exhaustion it had climbed the Columbia Hills, stood on the top, surveyed the New World from there, then driven back down the other side, to roll up to and then up onto Homeplate, starting a whole new mission.

Then off again, down that innocent looking flat ‘path’ along Homeplate’s side, heading towards yet more discoveries, yet more adventures, only to fall into a fiendish trap laid by the rover-hating planet itself: a dust-filled crater covered by a cunningly disguised rocky crust. Seeing no danger, Spirit had fallen into it like a tiger falling into a branch-covered pit in a forest, and there she had stayed, trapped like a fly in amber, murdered by Mars. It was heartbreaking for Shalena to imagine her stuck there, wheels whirring, only digging herself deeper and deeper, as doomed as a baby mammoth in a tar pit –

As usual, despite the presence of a guard nearby, she hadn’t been able to stop herself reaching out to touch the rover, knowing it was strictly against the rules and liable to get her thrown out of the Museum at best or arrested for vandalism at worst. But this time she was in luck. The guard on duty in the gallery knew her, and shared her love for the rover, so when he saw her reaching out her hand he had just smiled and conveniently looked the other way, confident she was going to do the priceless exhibit no harm. Shalena had run her small fingers lovingly over the rover’s solar panels, connecting with it for a few blissful moments before hearing the raised voices of her class throgh a nearby door and hurrying away, mouthing a silent “thank you” to the guard as she ran past him and out into the corridor…

They’d eventually found her standing between the splayed-out legs of the martian tripod, staring up at it as a deafening chorus of “Ulla…!!” rang out through giant speakers hidden throughout the room. The usual chiding and shouting followed, but she didn’t care; she’d seen Spirit again, and they could never take that away from her.

————————————————————————————————

She made it back home with only three more bruises – “an acceptable level of casualties” in her mind – and went straight up to her room to savour the peace and quiet there. On her bed she found an envelope, her name written on it in her father’s familiar spidery scrawl. Opening it she found a Christmas card, as traditional as they came, with a picture of a small bird with a vivid red breast on the front.

Although there were no robins on Mars she recognised it right away because of that splash of colour, and smiled at her father’s poor choice of picture. He really had no idea, no idea at all…

Finally, after a loud and festive family dinner, during which she had been forced to wear a stupid hat and even blow into a kazoo type thing at one point, she had made it back to bed, and after hanging a stocking on the door handle as she knew her father would expect her to she crawled under the covers, casting a last look out the window.

Outside night was falling on Mars, a light wind blowing across the plain from the hills on the horizon, rippling the huge solar sails which gave the settlement a third of its power, and a bright spark of light was skating across the sky. Many of the children on Mars would, she knew, be standing outside at that moment, or kneeling at their bedroom windows, watching that light flying through the heavens and being told by their parents “Look… that’s Santa… starting to fly around the world delivering presents… now get to bed and don’t try and stay awake, or you’ll find nothing under the tree for you when you wake up...”

But not her. She knew what that light was, even though it did seem to be there a little earlier than she’d expected. She’d seen Phobos travelling through the sky thousands of times before; she had no need to see it again tonight, and certainly no special desire to see it on Christmas Eve.

Sleep came slowly, more slowly than usual strangely, but as she finally drifted off Shalena thought she saw, through her heavy, drooping eyes, a figure standing in her doorway. She knew it was her father, even though weariness was doing funny things to her vision and making him look much… bigger… fatter… than he looked normally. When she saw a flash of red in the darkness she allowed herself a weak smile, realising her father had dressed up to fill her stocking with gifts again, as he did every year, bless him.

The strange feeling of being lifted up into the air in the moments before she finally succumbed to sleep was a new one though, and the distant sound of tinkling bells as she went under was a first too, but sleep finally claimed her –

——————————————————————————————————

Pffffft… uhhhh…pffffft… uhhh

Shalena woke slowly but didn’t open her eyes right away. The alarm sounded strange, wrong, distorted, but it didn’t matter. Probably just a fault. This was her time, her precious time, the best part of the day, she had always thought; when she was still half asleep, wrapped up in the cloud soft folds of the duvet. Nothing could hurt her there. That would come later, no doubt, but for now she was alone, warm, quiet and safe –

No… I’ll be safe all day! she realised. It’s Christmas Day… no school… They won’t be able to say or do a thing…

“Merry Christmas…” she wished herself with a smile, but still didn’t open her eyes. The moment, and this feeling, both had to be savoured not rushed. She listened again to the sounds around her.

Pffffft… uhhhh…pffffft… uhhh

Hmmm. That was very odd. Usually all she could hear when she first woke was the ticking of her bedside clock, but that was absent; all she could hear was a strange, quiet huffing and puffing. She forced herself to stop breathing so she could listen more carefully –

And the huffing and puffing stopped too.

That’s me, she realised after a moment’s disorientation, that sound, it’s me, breathing –

That was when she noticed too that she felt cold instead of snuggly warm, and that she was lying on something hard and bumpy instead of her plump, cloud-soft quilt.

What was going on?

Shalena opened her eyes, letting reality in –

And closed them again quickly.

Pffffft!!!… uhhhh!!!…pffffft!!!… uhhh!!!

Her breathing was heavy and ragged now, more like panting than breathing, as her heart jack-hammered in her chest.

No. That was impossible! Impossible!

She opened her eyes again – and saw it again.

Mars. Her home. But not as she knew it. Not as she hated it, as she had hated it for so long.

Gone were all the familiar colours she despised. They had all been swept away, erased by some kind, invisible hand. The green fields, blue sky and white clouds of her Mars, the terraformed Mars, the Mars of 3012 had vanished. There were no terrestrial shades here. No shimmering lakes, gurgling rivers or splashing waterfalls. No towering, anvil-topped stormclouds drenching the ground and people beneath with rain. No forests of sky-scraping martian pine, no snow-capped volcanoes, no pastel-painted rainbows arcing across the sky.

This was Mars as she loved it.

Mars as it should be.

Mars as she had always wanted it to be.

Ancient Mars.

Heart thumping, threatening to burst out of her chest,  she drank in the glorious colours of this Mars.

Red Mars.

Like her own Mars, this world had been painted by Nature using just one side of its palette, but this world had been decorated in shades and hues of red and orange, not blue and green, and it was glorious. Red! Red everywhere! A hundred, a thousand shades of it. And orange. And ochre, tan and gold.

This Mars was a naked world, covered in rocks. Literally covered. There were rocks everywhere. Millions and millions of them, as if some raging celestial god had been throwing fragile pottery down from heaven ever since the Big Bang, leaving behind a sea of shards and fragments. No two were the same. Small and large, jagged and smooth, light and dark, each one a different shade of red, orange, gold or sepia… And they were everywhere, stretching off to the horizon. On that horizon, a range of low bumpy hills, rounded, their contours soft and gently reassuring. Above those hills, the sky…

…and oh, what a sky! No blues here; no washed-out whites, but an enormous, world-dwarfing dome the colour of warm caramel, or butterscotch, she couldn’t decide which. Directly overhead, where the sky was darker, like chocolate, a hint, a wisp of cloud, little more than a few feathery trails of light brown bordering on yellow, drifting in oh-so-slow motion towards the west, where a shrunken Sun was shining in the sky like a golden yellow coin, surrounded by a halo of icy blue, with a bright ‘sundog’ on either side.

Shalena smiled, and then laughed with delight, unable to stop herself from putting out her arms and turning around and around, watching the landscape spin around her, its features blurred by her speed. This was Mars as it should be! Ancient Mars. Beautiful Mars. Mars Before Man. Her beloved Mars rovers’ Mars!

She stopped spinning, kicking up a cloud of cinnamon-shaded dust with her feet, which she noticed, for the first time, were clad in thick boots. Heart thumping, breath hot and catching in her throat, she examined herself carefully and found she was wearing a spacesuit. Not one of the modern suits she had seen explorers wearing on Europa, or Titan, but an antique suit plucked straight from a history documentary – a big, padded, white all in one garment, pressurised, and topped with a goldish bowl-like helmet –

Ahhh… Now her own noisy breathing made sense; she was hearing it echoing around and around inside her helmet, just as the astronauts of old must have done…

This was the Mars she had longed to see, to be alive on. All her life she’d read about how Mars used to look, before the terraforming, before the falling asteroids melted the ice caps and the atmosphere-skimming comets thickened the air, and she’d cursed the universe for making her be born too late to see it. All her life she’d looked at the photographs taken by the landers and rovers, at the mosaics stitched together by the image enthusiasts of the primitive internet, and at the paintings created by the space artists of the 20th and 21st centuries and wished she could go back in time to the the Mars of their era, when it was in its natural state, untouched, all naked rock and barely-there air. And now she was here, looking at it, standing on it.

This was what she had wanted for Christmas!

But…

How had she got here?

She looked around her, searching for a clue. Nothing jumped out at her, literally or figuratively. No sign of a whirring copper disc Time Machine, no outline of the base of an achingly-beautiful blue TARDIS left in the martian dust, nothing. Then how –

Over there, standing amongst the rocks halfway between her and the hills – a figure. Tall, bulky, hard to see against the background because of his big red suit’s natural camouflage despite its bright white trim –

Her heart sank.

Oh no

I’m dreaming, aren’t I? she told herself, what a cliche… then gave the figure a wave.

“Hello Santa…” she called out resignedly.

The figure didn’t wave back. It didn’t move or acknowledge her at all. Hmmm. Maybe it was a rock after all –

Suddenly a glint of light in the distance, some way beyond the figure, caught her eye. Shalena stared hard at it, trying to make out what it was. Sunlight glinting on an ancient, eroded meteorite maybe? Or reflecting off an old piece of space hardware –

No. It was moving. Whatever it was catching the sunlight, it was moving. Towards her.

That was when she realised that ever since she’d opened her eyes she’d had a voice whispering in her ear, telling her to look around, properly, and see where she was, but had ignored it. Now she did as it said, and almost fell over with surprise and shock.

Directly in front of her, at the end of what looked like a narrow, dusty path, or trackway, stood a small conical mound which looked an awful lot like a child’s drawing of a volcano. She turned her back on it slowly and saw a large, rounded hill behind her, blocking out a good prortion of the sky. The lower part of its  nearest slope was rippled, dappled with dark, windblown dust dunes, and on either side smaller hills could be seen falling away. Between her and their foothills, looking for all the world like a shuttle landing pad, was a wide, flat plate of light-toned rock, raised and crumbling at the edges. Inside her helmet, Shalena bit on her lower lip as she always did when puzzled; it all looked naggingly familiar –

There was that glint again, brighter this time, more focussed and more concentrated. Whatever was catching the light of the Sun was definitely drawing closer. She couldn’t shake the feeling somehow that it, and the landscape around her, were connected.

Still a good hundred metres away the object catching the Sun and approaching her was tiny, but she could start to see some detail, just enough to identify it: a stubby T-shaped mast at the front, or the back, she couldn’t see clearly enough to tell yet… a round, dish-like object mounted on its flat back… and wheels…

Then the penny dropped. With a loud, resounding clang.

The hill behind her was “Husband Hill”; the flat feature between it and her was “Homeplate”; the little volcano…thing… down the track was “Von Braun” –

Oh…

That meant –

“Spirit!” Shalena shouted, as the rover came properly into view, sunlight glintig off it still, “it’s you!”

Driving backwards towards her, the Mars Exploration Rover bobbed up and down slightly, solar panels flexing, as it made its way slowly, oh so slowly down the narrow dusty ‘path’ that ran down the side of Homeplate towards her.

Towards its doom.

No!” Shalena cried out. “Stop! Stop!” Although she knew it was useless – the rover wasn’t alive, it couldn’t hear her, wouldn’t heed any warning – she couldn’t help herself, she had to try! Waving her arms frantically she bounded towards the rover, as if trying to scare off a wild animal. “Stop!” she shouted again, casting a frightened glance over her shoulder. She couldn’t see it but she could sense it: there, close to where she had been standing, was Spirit’s Doom, the shallow crater filled with talcum-fine dust by Mars, a rover-killing trap set a billion years ago or more. And Spirit was driving straight at it.

No, not straight at it. The line she was taking she was almost going to miss it, but almost wouldn’t be good enough. She would just clip it on one side, and it would just take the pressure of one of its little spiky wheels on the dust-trap’s crust to break it and seal the rover’s fate…

Not if she had anything to do with it!

Bunnyhopping up the track in the low gravity, kicking up clouds of orange dust each time her heavy boots landed, Shalena headed up the pathway towards Spirit. With each bounce she could see it a little more clearly. She could now clearly see the dust streaked on its back and clotted on the lenses of its rear hazcams. It was reversing towards her, so its robot arm was out of sight, but the camera mast was now easy to see, and she could see its platform was facing in its driving direction, leaving its main cameras pointing right at her.

(Taking her picture maybe? That would take some explaining back at NASA in the early years of the twenty first century! She couldn’t help laughing at that, imagining the reaction of the rover drivers when  images showing a tiny young girl, in a spacesuit, boinging and bouncing towards the rover with arms outstretched, flashed up on their monitors at JPL..)

After a half dozen or so hops she reached the rover, and stood beside it, catching her breath. Bent over, with hands on her knees, she watched it roll slowly past her, wheels rising and falling as it trundled over the many rocks littering its path. She could imagine the rover squeaking as it rolled past her, feeling its age after so many years of roving Mars, and knew the rocks being crushed beneath its whjeels would be popping and scrunching too, but inside the helmet, and with no air between the rover and her to carry the sound, Spirit passed by in stately silence.

Shalena bounced after the rover, and was soon walking along beside it, wondering what to do next, looking past it at the pathway beyond and calculating she had barely two minutes to come up with some way of stopping it falling into Barsoom’s fiendish trap.

Moving forward she pushed gently against the rover. She wasn’t surprised when it didn’t budge. She pushed harder, but again, nothing.

Moving around the rover,  she stood defiantly in front of it, legs planted wide apart, arms stretched out in front of her, resolutely blocking its path. “I won’t let you get trapped,” she whispered, as Spirit rolled relentlessly towards her, “I won’t…”

A shiver of excitement ran through Shalena as her gauntleted hands touched the rover’s body – she was touching Spirit again, but not in a museum, not with one eye on the guard prowling nearby! – but the thrill soon evaporated as she realised the rover’s progress was not going to be stopped by her determined but puny efforts. She held it at bay for a second, maybe two, before she had to let it pass.

All she could do was watch as Spirit continued down the path, towards the dust trap which was now just a few metres away.

No, she resolved, I won’t let this happen!

She had only one option left.

Bounding towards, past and then ahead of the advancing rover, she reached The Trap – and laid down across it.

Shalena gasped in surprise as she felt its eggshell thin crust break beneath her, and felt a shudder of fear as her body sagged, settling into the bowl of dust beneath it, but that only lasted a moment; it was nowhere as deep as she’d imagined. In fact it felt like she had sunk barely a few inches into the dust, but that was still more than deep enough to trap the rover heading towards it. So she lay there, watching Spirit advancing towards her on its spiky wheels, wondring how heavy it would be as it rolled up onto and then over her, wondering if it would crush her –

– until she felt herself lifted up into the air, leaving the dusty pit exposed!

“Nooooo!” she protested, legs kicking and arms flailing wildly and angrily as she rose towards the sky, but it was no use. Something was holding her fast –

No, not something. Someone

Twisting her head around she caught a fleeting glimpse, through the curved visor of her helmet, of a face – an impossible face, an impossible bare face, exposed to the lethal cold and vacuum-rare air of Mars. The distorting effects of the visor made it look big and round, and the glare of the Sun bouncing off its hard plastic made its cheeks look ridiculously red. Imperfections in the plastic refracted the image still further, so the face appeared to be framed by a mass of snow white hair –

Wriggling wildly, twisting her head the other way as she rose higher into the air, Shalena could only watch, in horror, as Spirit, many feet beneath her now, trundled towards the pit she had herself opened up in its path –

“Noooooo!”

– and clipped the hidden crater’s edge with one wheel. It was enough. Spirit lurched sideways, sinking into the talc-fine dust. Looking down Shalena saw the wheels turning, turning, the little rover fighting desperately to free itself, but it was no use. It was trapped. But unaware of its predicament the wheels continued to turn, digging Spirit deeper and deeper into the dust, sealing its fate.

“No…” she moaned, struggling to free herself from her abductor’s grip, but it was no use, she was trapped as surely as poor Spirit was, and her attempts to free herself had exhausted her. She began to feel light-headed at the same time as her eyelids began to feel heavy. She fought to stay awake but it was no use. She caught one last fleeting glimpse of Spirit, trapped in its dusty tomb, then it was lost, just a silvery speck of light next to the light hexagon of Homeplate in the shadow of the Columbia Hills. Higher and higher she rose, until the whole of Gusev Crater appeared, then it too was lost in the landscape, just one crater among many scattered across the vast red desert of Mars. Soon that desert became an orange disc,  with splashes of blue/white at its poles, surrounded by blackness…

Eventually darkness closed in around her and she knew nothing more…

———————————————————————————————–

Beep… beep… beep…

Shalena woke slowly but didn’t open her eyes right away. For some reason she felt tired beyond words, weary to her very core. Her back was stiff and sore, as if she had been laying on something hard, and –

She opened her eyes with a start.

The window! She had to see…!

Clambering out of bed she padded over to the window and looked out.

It had all been a dream after all.

There was Mars – with its hideous, terraformed blue sky, ugly fluffy white clouds and foul, green, grassy fields.

She sat there for what seemed like an age, staring out at Mars through the window, replaying over and over what had happened, or rather, what she had dreamed had happened, trying to make sense of it all –

“Shalena! Are you coming downstairs?” a familiar voice called up impatiently from below. “It’s almost ten, we’re all waiting for you…”

Shalena was puzzled by her father’s prompting. Waiting? For what?

Then she saw the stocking hanging on the back of the door. It was bulging with gifts.

Christmas Day…  she realised. I’d better go down and join them

As she stood she looked out the window again. Mars looked back at her.

And somehow it had changed…

Now she looked more closely, that blue sky was actually quite pretty. It went perfectly with the snow-white clouds drifting across it, and with the verdant pastures glowing beneath it. It didn’t look wrong anymore, just… different. The ancient Mars she had longed to see all this time, and had travelled to in her strange dream, had been a noble world, an epic world, a world of raw, brutal Nature, beautiful in a barren, naked way. The Mars beyond her window wasn’t noble or epic, perhaps, but it was alive, alive! And that gave it a beauty all of its own.

A beauty she’d been ignoring for too long, perhaps.

On the other side of her bed, next to the alarm clock, was a small framed picture. In the picture a young woman, blonde-haired and green-eyed, was holding a small baby, a tiny, doll-like thing. The young woman had such a look of love on her face as she smiled down at her baby that she seemed to have a halo around her.

Shalena remembered that photo being taken, remembered looking up at her mother and seeing her smiling down at her as she lay there in her arms. So long ago, so very long ago, and yet it felt like yestersol.

But she had gone, and wasn’t coming back. The world she’d left behind had changed, as had her precious daughter. That was just the way of things. Not right, not wrong. Just the way things were. And for the first time Shalena saw that you could either fight that or accept it. Fight it, and you were going to lose, always. Accept it, embrace it even, and who knew what might happen?

She looked out the window one last time, smiling at the view for the first time. After breakfast, she decided, she would go and walk by the lake, maybe even paddle a little way out into it, then lay on the grass and start to read the “Red Mars” trilogy again on her tablet. And after that, after their Christmas dinner, she’d go back to the Museum, if it was open, to look in on Spirit again. Just to check she was okay.

“Coming…” she called down to her father, and quickly got dressed. She was hungry and thirsty now, her stomach grumbling, but before heading downstairs there was something she had to do…

“Nice of you to join us…” her father drawled as she walked into the kitchen. Nearby her eternally-warring brother and sister had called a Christmas ceasefire, as opposing forces had done countless times over the centuries, and were rummaging around beneath the tree, picking up boxes, reading their labels and shaking them, tossing aside the gifts not intended for them.

“We can start opening presents now,” her father continued, reaching behind him to retrieve a small, badly-wrapped parcel he had hidden there. “I know you said there was nothing you wanted, but I got you something anything, but…”

As she sat down on the floor beside him Shalena took the gift. Its paper was all crooked, bits of tape slapped on here and there, but she didn’t mind that. You couldn’t expect an engineer to wrap something nicely could you? Carefully she pulled the paper away, revealing a small box.

“It’s not much,” he said, clearly embarrassed, “but I think you’ll like it…”

Shalena opened the box, pulled out what was inside – and smiled. It looked like a small glass cube, four, maybe five inches to a side. And inside the cube, etched by laser, a perfect representation of “Spirit”. She turned the cube around and around in her hands, and as she did so the angles and facets of the rover etchinng inside refracted the light, making it sparkle and shine with silvery-blue light.

“I got it from the Museum gift shop,” he explained, almost apologetically. “You can take it back if – ”

“Shut up dad,” Shalena said, and flung her arms around him, squeezing him tightly. He froze at first, shocked, then relaxed into the embrace and squeezed her back just as tightly.

“I got you something,” she told him, “but I left it upstairs, on my bed – ”

“I’ll go and get it,” he said quickly, “if you can try and stop those two from breaking everything..?” She nodded, and leaned backwards to let her father pass. As he headed up the stairs she pictured him entering the room, finding a small package on her bed, wrapped… pictured him unwrapping it, seeing the gift inside…

He reappeared in the doorway a few moments later, his face painted with the biggest smile she had ever seen him wear. Clutched to his chest was a small framed photo, showing a young woman holding a tiny baby…

“It’s beautiful, thank you…” he said quietly, sitting back down beside her. They leaned together, bumping shoulders, just like they had done when she was younger.

“Just one thing though,” her father said, keeping his voice low, “care to explain to me how there are big bootprints all over your floor, and red dust everywhere?”

Shalena looked at the door, puzzled. Then she remembered.

Through the window a tiny flash of light caught her eye, and looking out she wondered how it was was that she could see Phobos moving across the sky, in the middle of the morning, an hour after it should have been…

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