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Ghosts of Mars

Kevin J. Anderson has published more than 140 books, 56 of which have been national or international bestsellers. He has written numerous novels in the Star Wars, X-Files, and Dune universes, as well as unique steampunk fantasy novels Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives, written with legendary rock drummer Neil Peart, based on the concept album by the band Rush. His original works include the Saga of Seven Suns series, the Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy, the Saga of Shadows trilogy, and his humorous horror series featuring Dan Shamble, Zombie PI. He has edited numerous anthologies, written comics and games, and the lyrics to two rock CDs. Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta are the publishers of WordFire Press.
At the end of a long, slow journey across space, the expedition finally arrived at Mars. The great copper disk hung below the mothership, ominous, enticing.
The lander detached from the mothership, leaving only Pasternak behind to mind the store; he had drawn the short straw and would not accompany the others to the surface. Strapped in the lander's pilot seat, Commander Tomkins felt a pang in his heart for the man left behind. Had the Russian dreamed about Mars all his life, as Tomkins had? Had he, too, been inspired by the stories he had read, adventures that fired the imagination... and now, finally, the reality?
Tomkins rode with Suvi and Chen as they began the slow-motion gravitational ballet down to the surface. The atmosphere whispered against the outer hull as the lander swung around Mars.
Tomkins opened the comm channel. "Descent nominal as we head around to the farside." His voice was dry and professional, but in his heart he was speaking to the entire human race, everyone who had dreamed of the Red Planet. "Ionization front building." He could already hear the static crackling.
Pasternak responded from above, "All is on schedule, yes? We expect twelve minutes of radio silence."
"We'll talk to you on the other side," Suvi added. She and Chen had barely cracked a smile during the long trip from Earth. The best in their fields, respected scientific colleagues, but they had never softened into friends. This was a job for them, not a dream. Tomkins was the wide-eyed one, filled with wonder by the very idea of the voyage. He thought of all the books, all those visionary writers who had traveled here first with their own tales....
The lander dropped into sudden, blissful silence, cruising over the rusty red landscape, looking down at an olive-green sky, air a thousand times fainter than a baby's smallest breath.
When they did land, Tomkins, as commander, would be the first to emerge, the first human to leave footprints on the red sands. Once again, he pondered what he would say upon achieving one of the grandest dreams of humanity. How could anyone improve on "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"? What was he going to say?
The reddish mountains and canyons below tugged at his heart as the lander flew over the deep gash of Vallis Marineris, the conical mound of Olympus Mons: magical names, the stuff of legends.
As the lander continued to burn through the atmosphere surrounded by an impenetrable shield of ionized air, Tomkins heard static on the comm. And then the faintest breathy whispers: You made it.
It wasn't a real voice, but something ghostly and inspired by his own imagination. He perked up, curious, and somehow he knew who was speaking.
Look for the canals, said the long-gone voice of Percival Lowell. The Martian race on a dying world, their civilization struggling to survive, pumping water from the ice caps, erecting domed cities. That is what I imagined. How I envy you the sight! It must be marvelous.
Another voice came through the static. Beware of their tripods and their heat ray, said H.G. Wells. The Martians have long regarded the Earth with envious eyes. Even now they may be building their invasion cylinders to rain down upon us in a war of the worlds. They do not know you come in peace.
Tomkins listened, unable to believe what he heard. Preoccupied at their own consoles, Suvi and Chen didn't seem to notice. These were voices from his own inspiration, his own past. These were the original dreamers who had created the quest for Mars in the human spirit.
Barsoom is a beautiful world with a wondrous civilization, said Edgar Rice Burroughs. I wish I could be there to see the great oxygen factories, the four-armed green Martian warriors led by Tars Tarkas. And the lovely, incomparable Dejah Thoris! In my stories, I sent John Carter there many times, but I myself would go out at night and stare at the red star, wishing with all my heart to be transported there. But it never worked for me.
The last voice seemed most earnest of all. My heart is about to burst, said Ray Bradbury. Take care that you don't contaminate the pristine civilizations there. The Martians are majestic, but maybe incomprehensible. They will love you and lure you, but you are there. Really there! At long last. The human race truly made it. Your lander wasn't just built by scientists and engineers. The road was paved with the dreams of writers like us.
Our adventures weren't just whimsical stories, said Burroughs. They were an inspiration.
I watched through my great telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona, Lowell said. In my journals I painted a picture clarified by hope rather than through the lenses of the long refractor.
Humans will always speculate, Wells said. They will always explore and discover. We have traveled in our hearts and minds, but you are actually there. We wish we could be with you.
"You are!" Tomkins said aloud, startling Suvi and Chen, who turned to give him a curious look. He lowered his voice, and repeated, "You are with us. And you got here long before we did." He felt tears in his eyes.
The lander broke out of radio silence, and the other two crewmembers quickly transmitted updates, worked the controls to adjust the craft, but Tomkins took a moment just to stare out the window at the raw, pristine landscape. He smiled and nodded. "We won't let you down," he whispered. He finally thought of the line he would speak. "We leave the first footprints in the red sands of Mars, but other dreamers left their mark here long before we arrived."
With a gentle spray of dust, the lander touched down with a sound like a sigh of long anticipation, and victory.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 30th, 2018


I was a six-year-old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but I was already watching science fiction shows and movies (Lost in Space, Star Trek), and when he took that one small step, I remember how different it was from my imagination of exploring other worlds would be. In this story, I tried to paint a realistic vignette of the first landing on Mars, while imagining how all those wonderful dreamers--Percival Lowell, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury would have seen it. Would reality meet their expectation? And I realized that their dreams and their drive would be as much responsible for our first mission as the scientists would be.

- Kevin J. Anderson

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