03 September 2010
By Curtis C. Chen
Thirteen brave soldiers storm’d into Mount Mars.
Thirteen brave soldiers cannot see the stars.
Thirteen brave soldiers are buried in dust.
Thirteen brave soldiers will do what they must.
— colonial nursery rhyme, c. 2130
Jennifer knew what to expect when she entered the cavern. She’d been fully briefed by the Security Council, but she still wasn’t prepared for the tangible quality of the light that filled the space when the soldiers appeared. The translucent figures seemed to melt out of the rocks all around Jennifer, and each one shimmered like nothing else she had ever seen or imagined.
“Hello,” Jennifer said. “I’m Envoy Wakefield—”
A ribbon of light shot up from the ground, enveloped Jennifer like a cocoon, and knocked her off her feet. The light wasn’t quite solid—it didn’t grip her body so much as it interfered with it, making her skin crawl where it touched and partially phased through her—but it was strong enough to lift her a few centimeters into the air.
One ghostly face, a woman, rose to Jennifer’s eye level. She looked familiar—angular features and straight, shoulder-length hair—but Jennifer couldn’t recall a name from the personnel files. A lot of records had gone missing during the war.
“What year is it?” the woman asked, in a voice that sounded like running water.
Jennifer struggled to breathe. “Who are you?”
“Answer my question,” the woman said.
“I was told not to.”
The ribbon of light disappeared, and Jennifer dropped to the dirt. She yelped as she landed and fell forward onto her knees. The ghosts started merging back into the rocks.
“Wait!” Jennifer said. She scrambled to her feet and reached for the woman who had spoken. Jennifer’s fingers sank into the woman’s shoulder, and she tried to remember her briefing on the hard-light projector. How long could she be in contact with a ghost before her cells started imploding? Was it three minutes? She’d have to risk it.
The woman struggled against Jennifer’s grip, but she couldn’t exert enough force on her own, and the other twelve soldiers had disappeared already.
“I’m here to give you an update on our research,” Jennifer said.
“Save your breath,” the woman said. “You envoys have been lying to us for years. Maybe even centuries. We know the war’s over. We know Mars was bombed into a radioactive wasteland. We know the only reason you people even visit is so you can change the batteries on the alien hardware, to keep us trapped here, to keep the wormhole open.”
“We’re very close to being able to free you,” Jennifer said.
“It’s been almost a minute,” the woman said. “Are you sure you don’t need that hand?”
Jennifer released the woman’s shoulder and yanked back her hand. The woman flew up toward the ceiling of the cavern.
“I’m telling you the truth!” Jennifer said.
But the woman was already gone.
Thirteen brave soldiers stand watch under Mars.
Thirteen brave soldiers protect ev’ry star.
Thank you, brave soldiers—what secrets you keep!
But one day, we promise, you will go to sleep.
Photo: ancient Egyptian statues at the British Museum, June, 2009