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Ghosts of Mars

Lars Caron had only taken over as mission commander because Pete Boardman had died. We were the most scanned, checked, and examined group of human beings in history--after all, on the first mission to Mars, you don't want someone falling ill or freaking out on the way--and Pete had checked out clearer than any of us. Then, seven days before departure, he went and died. The autopsy said his heart gave out, but I knew, from speaking to the doctors, that they could not find anything wrong with him. Dead, he presented as perfect a physical specimen as he had when alive. Me, I think he collapsed under the burden of hope that was placed upon him; mission commander, new world, new beginning. So, I grant Lars Caron had some big shoes to fill. But three months into the voyage, we were all getting thoroughly sick of the chip on his shoulder, the unspoken assumption that we had caused every problem laid in front of him. Space is like that: stuff happens. So, the slight sigh and the lowering of his head when he saw me approaching came as no surprise.
"Now what's wrong?" he asked.
"I think we have a ghost on board," I said.
I grant him this. Lars' expression did not flicker. Instead, he glanced over my shoulder, checking if we were alone, before looking back to me.
"Did you flick the switch?" he asked.
"Of course," I said. "Do you think I want Mission hearing about this?"
The ship had been wired for surveillance throughout; even the toilet was monitored. The thing is, on an eight-month voyage, a crew of hyper-active scientists and engineers will run out of things to do, however many make-work experiments Mission devises. By the third week out, Raj and Wee Lim had set things up so the tap of a few keys would ensure any particular part of the ship was surveillance free. Naturally, Mission complained to Lars, but Raj and Wee Lim claimed ignorance, then promptly installed a patch that meant Mission received dummy feedback when we needed some private space time. After all, we were 100 million kilometers from Earth--there were occasions when it was necessary to sort things out shipboard.
"A ghost?" said Lars. "Right..." He was monitoring our course and taking some readings on the solar flux. His hands moved over the displays without a break, even as he considered what I had said. "What sort of ghost?"
"It's a sort of Pete Boardman ghost."
Lars sighed again. "How'd I guess it would be about him." He lay his hands flat on the display screen--he was loosely strapped in, so the reaction didn't send him floating down the control module--and turned to me. "I know it's difficult for you, Yvaine, seeing how close the two of you were, but you need to accept this: he's gone. Pete's gone."
"Don't you think I know," I said. "I was the one who found him. But the thing is, you know I was with him for six months on the Schiaperelli fly by; two of us, together, alone. I know, knew, everything about him and, I know it sounds mad, but I tell you, he's here with us on this ship. I can smell him."
Lars glanced at the nearest monitor; its activity light was blinking slow red, indicating it was not recording. Seeing his look, I added, "It's definitely not on. I checked."
Lars did an excellent job of masking his reaction. I could not tell if he was annoyed not to have Mission listening in, or relieved this was being kept shipboard.
"Is there anything else, or are we just dealing with an olfactory ghost?" he asked.
I hesitated. Really. Earthside I would not have breathed a word of this to anyone; obviously, as the psych evaluators would have had me off the mission faster than I could blink, but what could they do here? Send me home? Only after we had been to Mars in the first place, set up the bio dome and its concomitant auto industries, refueled, and resupplied. Then they could send me home; after a year on Mars they would probably expect me to want to come home. But for now, they could do nothing, and Lars could know--should know--what I had seen.
"I think I saw him. Once. On a night rest, when I couldn't sleep. He was sitting there, like he was checking our progress, keeping an eye on us. Mars was his dream, Lars, it was what had driven him all his life. I guess, in a way, I'm not surprised that he's here with us, keeping an eye on things."
"Sitting here? In my seat?" Lars shook his head. "You know what this is, Yvaine? Grief. It's perfectly natural, but that's all it is."
"That's what I'd say if I were you, too. Only, I'm not the only person to have seen Peter, am I, Lars?" And I looked, levelly and coolly, at the mission leader. He had the grace, or at least felt sufficient embarrassment, to avert his eyes. I saw him staring at the screens, but he was blind to their display. Instead, he looked inwards, then without looking at me, said, "The feeds are definitely disconnected, Yvaine?"
"Yes," I said. "You can check, if you want."
"No, no." He laughed grimly, glancing at me. "You'd have hardly told me what you did if they were on." Lars pinched the bridge of his nose, then ran the fingers down past his lips to meet again on his chin. "How did you know?"
"I heard you talking to him. Three watches ago. I couldn't see him, but I could smell him. Could you see him?"
Lars nodded. "A little. Nothing clear, but I could hear him. He spoke to me... he's been speaking to me since we left Earth orbit." Lars glanced sidelong at me. "I thought I was going mad."
"Me too," I said.
"Has anyone else seen him?"
"Not to my knowledge. But then, it isn't the sort of thing you talk about. And there has been a... strange atmosphere since we departed." I paused, then went on. "You heard him after we left earth orbit, but when did you first see him?"
"It took a while. You said you smelled him?"
I nodded, taking care to grab a handhold so I didn't nod myself into the ceiling
"I heard him first." Lars stared into his displays, lost in telemetry and memories. "His breathing, when I was sitting here on the night watch. I remember thinking how strange it was, to be hearing the breathing of a dead man. But that was what I heard. As if he was sitting beside me." Lars looked up at me. "I tried to tell myself it was the ship at first, some glitch or feature of the air systems, but I only heard it when I was alone here."
"When was that? When did you first speak to him?"
"Not long after we left. We were probably only just past moon orbit; it was my second or third night watch. Like I said, at first I discounted it; I was still learning the sounds of the ship at the time. But then, I heard him speak, when I was going to make a course correction, and he said a change in the coordinates."
"Were those new coordinates the correct ones?" I asked.
"Yes, I suppose so, though there wasn't much in it really. But I ran them through the simulators, and they provided, I had to admit, a more elegant solution to a course control problem. So, I changed them."
"What did Mission say?"
"Oh, I didn't tell them. Not until I'd made the corrections. When the alteration showed up on their monitors, they were surprised, of course, but when I showed them the sims, they were fine about it. So, then I started keeping an ear open for his advice."
"Ah, so that's why you scheduled so many night watches for yourself? I was wondering."
"Well, that and the fact that I couldn't sleep much anyway. When did you first sense him?"
"Pretty much the same time as you. But you said you'd seen him, too?"
Lars nodded. Because he was buckled to his seat, he only bobbed upwards before settling.
"Only a shadow, a silhouette, nothing definite at first. But recently, on the night watch, I think I've seen him, staring out of the observation port or standing by the astrogation displays." Lars turned to me. "It's like he's watching over us, Yvaine, watching over us all. Knowing that he's here, with us, means that I don't feel so bad about taking his place. I hope it makes you feel better about that too, Yvaine?"
I nodded.
"Yes, it does.... Mission, did you get that?"
We were three months, two weeks, and five days into the first manned mission to Mars. It took my message six minutes to get to Mission, and a further six minutes for their reply to reach us. In that time, Lars had gone from shock, when he realized the whole conversation had been relayed to Mission; to anger, when he started to unbuckle his harness to come for me; to fear, when he saw the stun stick I had hidden; to defiance, when the rest of the crew filtered into control; to resignation, when he realized that they had all heard what he had said.
"Copy that," Mission replied. "Mission leader replacement authorized."
We decided to hold Lars in the secure chamber designated for Martian samples. Of course, that contaminated the storage facilities, but it did not matter, seeing as how we were not going home now in any case. We were the first Martians, and we were staying. We had decided that, among ourselves, in our training; for us, who had dreamed of this all our lives, this was not an expedition into the unknown. No, rather, we were going home for the first time. After Pete's death, only Lars, the interloper, the newcomer, could have made us go back to Earth as Mission and the mission wanted. But now, Mission had deposed him, and we had disposed of him, so the mission, our mission, was safe.
On the night watch, I, as new mission leader, strapped myself into the seat and checked the consoles and displays.
"On course," I reported.
I could smell him.
"For home," he whispered in reply. Pete Boardman, mission commander, ghost of Mars.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Author Comments

If you had spent your life dreaming and working and scheming to get to space, to be on the first mission to Mars, would you really want to come back? This is an example of a story starting off as one thing--a space ghost story--and mutating, in the writing, into something else: a tale about where, and to what lengths, people will go to follow their dreams.

- Edoardo Albert
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