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Science Fiction & Fantasy






The Emperor of Mars


Out here, there’s a lot of ways to go crazy. Get cooped up in a passenger module not much larger than a trailer, and by the time you reach your destination you may have come to believe that the universe exists only within your own mind: it’s called solipsism syndrome, and I’ve seen it happen a couple of times. Share that same module with five or six guys who don’t get along very well, and after three months you’ll be sleeping with a knife taped to your thigh. Pull double-shifts during that time, with little chance to relax, and you’ll probably suffer from depression; couple this with vitamin deficiency due to a lousy diet, and you’re a candidate for chronic fatigue syndrome.

Folks who’ve never left Earth often think that Titan Plague is the main reason people go mad in space. They’re wrong. Titan Plague may rot your brain and turn you into a homicidal maniac, but instances of it are rare, and there’s a dozen other ways to go bonzo that are much more subtle. I’ve seen guys adopt imaginary friends with whom they have long and meaningless conversations, compulsively clean their hardsuits regardless of whether or not they’ve recently worn them, or go for a routine spacewalk and have to be begged to come back into the airlock. Some people just aren’t cut out for life away from Earth, but there’s no way to predict who’s going to going to lose their mind.

When something like that happens, I have a set of standard procedures: ask the doctor to prescribe antidepressants, keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t do anything that might put themselves or others at risk, relieve them of duty if I can, and see what I can do about getting them back home as soon as possible. Sometimes I don’t have to do any of this. A guy goes crazy for a little while, and then he gradually works out whatever it was that got in his head; the next time I see him, he’s in the commissary, eating Cheerios like nothing ever happened. Most of the time, though, a mental breakdown is a serious matter. I think I’ve shipped back about one out of every twenty people because of one issue or another.

But one time, I saw someone go mad, and it was the best thing that could have happened to him. That was Jeff Halbert. Let me tell about him . . .

Back in `48, I was General Manager of Arsia Station, the first and largest of the Mars colonies. This was a year before the formation of the Pax Astra, about five years before the colonies declared independence. So the six major Martian settlements were still under control of one Earth-based corporation or another, with Arsia Station owned and operated by ConSpace. We had about a hundred people living there by then, the majority short-timers on short-term contracts; only a dozen or so, like myself, were permanent residents who left Earth for good.

Jeff wasn’t one of them. Like most people, he’d come to Mars to make a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time. Six months from Earth to Mars aboard a cycleship, two years on the planet, then six more months back to Earth aboard the next ship to make the crossing during the bi-annual launch window. In three years, a young buck like him could earn enough dough to buy a house, start a business, invest in the stock market, or maybe just loaf for a good long while. In previous times, they would’ve worked on off-shore oil rigs, joined the merchant marine, or built powersats; by mid-century, this kind of high-risk, high-paying work was on Mars, and there was no shortage of guys willing and ready to do it.

Jeff Halbert was what we called a “Mars monkey.” We had about a lot of people like him at Arsia Station, and they took care of the dirty jobs that the scientists, engineers, and other specialists could not or would not handle themselves. One day they might be operating a bulldozer or a crane at a habitat construction site. The next day, they’d be unloading freight from a cargo lander that had just touched down. The day after that, they’d be cleaning out the air vents or repairing a solar array or unplugging a toilet. It wasn’t romantic or particularly interesting work, but it was the sort of stuff that needed to be done in order to keep the base going, and because of that, kids like Jeff were invaluable.

And Jeff was definitely a kid. In his early twenties, wiry and almost too tall to wear a hardsuit, he looked like he’d started shaving only last week. Before he dropped out of school to get a job with ConSpace, I don’t think he’d travelled more than a few hundred miles from the small town in New Hampshire where he’d grown up. I didn’t know him well, but I knew his type: restless, looking for adventure, hoping to score a small pile of loot so that he could do something else with the rest of his life besides hang out in a pool hall. He probably hadn’t even thought much about Mars before he spotted a ConSpace recruitment ad on some web site; he had two years of college, though, and met all the fitness requirements, and that was enough to get him into the training program and, eventually, a berth aboard a cycleship.

Before Jeff left Earth, he filled out and signed all the usual company paperwork. Among them was Form 36-B: Family Emergency Notification Consent. ConSpace required everyone to state whether or not they wanted to informed of a major illness or death of a family member back home. This was something a lot of people didn’t take into consideration before they went to Mars, but nonetheless it was an issue that had to be addressed. If you found out, for instance, that your father was about to die, there wasn’t much you could do about it, because you’d be at least 35 million miles from home. The best you could do would be to send a brief message that someone might be able to read to him before he passed away; you wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral, and it would be many months, even a year or two, before you could lay roses on his grave.

Most people signed Form 36-D on the grounds that they’d rather know about something like this than be kept in the dark until they returned home. Jeff did, too, but I’d later learn that he hadn’t read it first. For him, it had been just one more piece of paper that needed to be signed before he boarded the shuttle, not to be taken any more seriously than the catastrophic accident disclaimer or the form attesting that he didn’t have any sort of venereal disease.

He probably wished he hadn’t signed that damn form. But he did, and it cost him his sanity.

Jeff had been on Mars for only about seven months when a message was relayed from ConSpace’s human resources office. I knew about it because a copy was cc’d to me. The minute I read it, I dropped what I was doing to head straight for Hab 2’s second level, which was where the monkey house—that is, the dormitory for unspecialized laborers like Jeff—was located. I didn’t have to ask which bunk was his; the moment I walked in, I spotted a knot of people standing around a young guy slumped on this bunk, staring in disbelief at the fax in his hands.

Until then, I didn’t know, nor did anyone one at Arsia Station, that Jeff had a fiancé back home, a nice girl named Karen whom he’d met in high school and who had agreed to marry him about the same time he’d sent his application to ConSpace. Once he got the job, they decided to postpone the wedding until he returned, even if it meant having to put their plans on hold for three years. One of the reasons why Jeff decided to get a job on Mars, in fact, was to provide a nest egg for him and Karen. And they’d need it, too; about three weeks before Jeff took off, Karen informed him that she was pregnant and that he’d have a child waiting for him when he got home.

He’d kept this a secret, mainly because he knew that the company would annul his contract if it learned that he had a baby on the way. Both Jeff’s family and Karen’s knew all about the baby, though, and they decided to pretend that Jeff was still on Earth, just away on a long business trip. Until he returned, they’d take care of Karen.

About three months before the baby was due, the two families decided to host a baby shower. The party was to be held at the home of one of Jeff’s uncles—apparently he was only relative with a house big enough for such a get-together—and Karen was on her way there, in a car driven by Jeff’s parents, when tragedy struck. Some habitual drunk who’d learned how to disable his car’s high-alcohol lockout, and therefore was on the road when he shouldn’t have been, plowed straight into them. The drunk walked away with no more than a sprained neck, but his victims were nowhere nearly so lucky. Karen, her unborn child, Jeff’s mother and father—all died before they reached the hospital.

There’s not a lot you can say to someone who’s just lost his family that’s going to mean very much. I’m sorry barely scratches the surface. I understand what you’re going through is ridiculous; I know how you feel is insulting. And is there anything I can do to help? is pointless unless you have a time machine; if I did, I would have lent it to Jeff, so that he could travel back twenty-four hours to call his folks and beg them to put off picking up Karen by only fifteen or twenty minutes. But everyone said these things anyway, because there wasn’t much else that could be said, and I relieved Jeff of further duties until he felt like he was ready to go to work again, because there was little else I could do for him. The next cycleship wasn’t due to reach Mars for another seventeen months; by the time he got home, his parents and Karen would be dead for nearly two years.

To Jeff’s credit, he was back on the job within a few days. Maybe he knew that there was nothing he could do except work, or maybe he just got tired of staring at the walls. In any case, one morning he put on his suit, cycled through the airlock, and went outside to help the rest of the monkeys dig a pit for the new septic tank. But he wasn’t the same easy-going kid we’d known before; no wisecracks, no goofing off, not even any gripes about the hours it took to make that damn hole and how he’d better get overtime for this. He was like a robot out there, silently digging at the sandy red ground with a shovel, until the pit was finally finished, at which point he dropped his tools and, without a word, returned to the hab, where he climbed out of his suit and went to the mess hall for some chow.

A couple of weeks went by, and there was no change. Jeff said little to anyone. He ate, worked, slept, and that was about it. When you looked into his eyes, all you saw was a distant stare. If he’d broken down in hysterics, I would’ve understood, but there wasn’t any of that. It was as if he’d shut down his emotions, suppressing whatever he was feeling inside.

The station had a pretty good hospital by then, large enough to serve all the colonies, and Arsia General’s senior psychologist had begun meeting with Jeff on a regular basis. Three days after Jeff went back to work, Karl Rosenfeld dropped by my office. His report was grim: Jeff Halbert was suffering from severe depression, to the point that he was barely responding to medication. Although he hadn’t spoken of suicide, Dr. Rosenfeld had little doubt that the notion had occurred to him. And I knew that, if Jeff did decide to kill himself, all he’d have to do was wait until the next time he went outside, then shut down his suit’s air supply and crack open the helmet faceplate. One deep breath, and the Martian atmosphere would do the rest; he’d be dead before anyone could reach him.

“You want my advice?” Karl asked, sitting on the other side of my desk with a glass of moonshine in hand. “Find something that’ll get his mind off what happened.”

“You think that hasn’t occurred to me? Believe me, I’ve tried . . . ”

“Yeah, I know. He told me. But extra work shifts aren’t helping, and neither are vids or games.” He was quiet for a moment, “If I thought sex would help,” he added, “I’d ask a girl I know to haul him off to bed, but that would just make matters worse. His fiancé was the only woman he ever loved, and it’ll probably be a long time before he sleeps with anyone again.”

“So what do you want me to do?” I gave a helpless shrug. “C’mon, give me a clue here. I want to help the kid, but I’m out of ideas.”

“Well . . . I looked at the duty roster, and saw that you’ve scheduled a survey mission for next week. Something up north, I believe.”

“Uh-huh. I’m sending a team up there to see if they can locate a new water supply. Oh, and one of the engineers wants to make a side-trip to look at an old NASA probe.”

“So put Jeff on the mission.” Karl smiled. “They’re going to need a monkey or two anyway. Maybe travel will do him some good.”

His suggestion was as good as any, so I pulled up the survey assignment list, deleted the name of one monkey, and inserted Jeff Halbert’s instead. I figured it couldn’t hurt, and I was right. And also wrong.

So Jeff was put on a two-week sortie that travelled above the 60th parallel to the Vastitas Borealis, the subarctic region that surrounds the Martian north pole. The purpose of the mission was to locate a site for a new well. Although most of Arsia Station’s water came from atmospheric condensers and our greenhouses, we needed more than they could supply, which was why we drilled artesian wells in the permafrost beneath the northern tundra and pump groundwater to surface tanks, which in turn would be picked up on a monthly basis. Every few years or so, one of those wells would run dry; when that happened, we’d have to send a team up there to dig a new one.

Two airships made the trip, the Sagan and the Collins. Jeff Halbert was aboard the Collins, and according to its captain, who was also the mission leader, he did his job well. Over the course of ten days, the two dirigibles roamed the tundra, stopping every ten or fifteen miles so that crews could get out and conduct test drills that would bring up a sample of what lay beneath the rocky red soil. It wasn’t hard work, really, and it gave Jeff a chance to see the northern regions. Yet he was quiet most of the time, rarely saying much to anyone; in fact, he seemed to be bored by the whole thing. The other people on the expedition were aware of what had recently happened to him, of course, and they attempted to draw him out of his shell, but after awhile it became obvious that he just didn’t want to talk, and so they finally gave up and left him alone.

Then, on the eleventh day of the mission, two days before the expedition was scheduled to return to Arsia, the Collins located the Phoenix lander.

This was a NASA probe that landed back in `08, the first to confirm the presence of subsurface ice on Mars. Unlike many of the other American and European probes that explored Mars before the first manned expeditions, Phoenix didn’t have a rover; instead, it used a robotic arm to dig down into the regolith, scooping up samples that were analyzed by its onboard chemical lab. The probe was active for only a few months before its battery died during the long Martian winter, but it was one of the milestones leading to human colonization.

As they expected, the expedition members found Phoenix half-buried beneath wind-blown sand and dust, with only its upper platform and solar vanes still exposed. Nonetheless, the lander was intact, and although it was too big heavy to be loaded aboard the airship, the crew removed its arm to be taken home and added to the base museum. And they found one more thing: the Mars library.

During the 1990’s, while the various Mars missions were still in their planning stages, the Planetary Society had made a proposal to NASA: one of those probes should carry a DVD containing a cache of literature, visual images, and audio recordings pertaining to Mars. The ostensive purpose would be to furnish future colonists with a library for their entertainment, but the unspoken reason was to pay tribute to the generations of writers, artists, and filmmakers whose works had inspired the real-life exploration of Mars.

NASA went along with those proposal, so a custom-designed DVD, made of silica glass to ensure its long-term survival, was prepared for inclusion on a future mission. A panel selected 84 novels, short stories, articles, and speeches, with the authors ranging from 18th century fantasists like Swift and Voltaire to 20th century science fiction authors like Niven and Benford. A digital gallery of 60 visual images—including everything from paintings by Bonestell, Emshwiller, and Whelan to a lobby card from a Flash Gordon serial and a cover of a Weird Science comic book—was chosen as well. The final touch were four audio clips, the most notable of which were the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and a discussion of the same between H.G. Wells and Orson Welles.

Now called “Visions of Mars,” the disk was originally placed aboard NASA’s Mars Polar Lander, but that probe was destroyed when its booster failed shortly after launch and it crashed in the Atlantic. So an identical copy was put on Phoenix, and this time it succeeded in getting to Mars. And so the disk had remained in the Vastitas Borealis for the past forty years, awaiting the day when a human hand would remove it from its place on Phoenix’s upper fuselage.

And that hand happened to be Jeff Halbert’s.

The funny thing is, no one on the expedition knew the disk was there. It had been forgotten by then, its existence buried deep within the old NASA documents I’d been sent from Earth, so I hadn’t told anyone to retrieve it. And besides, most of the guys on the Collins were more interested in taking a look at an antique lander than the DVD that happened to be attached to it. So when Jeff found the disk and detached it from Phoenix, it wasn’t like he’d made a major find. The attitude of almost everyone on the mission was oh, yeah, that’s kind of neat . . . take it home and see what’s on it.

Which was easier said than done. DVD drives had been obsolete for more than twenty years, and the nearest flea market where one might find an old computer that had one was . . . well, it wasn’t on Mars. But Jeff looked around, and eventually he found a couple of dead comps stashed in a storage closet, salvage left over from the first expeditions. Neither were usable on their own, but with the aid of a service manual, he was able to swap out enough parts to get one of them up and running, and once it was operational, he removed the disk from its scratched case and gently slid it into the slot. Once he was sure that the data was intact and hadn’t decayed, he downloaded everything into his personal pad. And then, at random, he selected one of the items on the menu—“The Martian Way” by Isaac Asimov—and began to read.

Why did Jeff go to so much trouble? Perhaps he wanted something to do with his free time besides mourn for the dead. Or maybe he wanted to show the others who’d been on the expedition that they shouldn’t have ignored the disk. I don’t know for sure, so I can’t tell you. All I know is that the disk first interested him, then intrigued him, and finally obsessed him.

It took awhile for me to become aware of the change in Jeff. As much as I was concerned for him, he was one of my lesser problems. As general manager, on any given day I had a dozen or more different matters that needed my attention, whether it be making sure that the air recycling system was repaired before we suffocated to death or filling out another stack of forms sent from Huntsville. So Jeff wasn’t always on my mind; when I didn’t hear from Dr. Rosenfeld for awhile, I figured that the two of them had managed to work out his issues, and turned to other things.

Still, there were warning signs, stuff that I noticed but to which I didn’t pay much attention. Like the day I was monitoring the radio crosstalk from the monkeys laying sewage pipes in the foundation of Hab Three, and happened to hear Jeff identify himself as Lieutenant Gulliver Jones. The monkeys sometimes screwed around like that on the com channels, and the foreman told Halbert to knock it off and use his proper call sign . . . but when Jeff answered him, his response was weird: “Aye, sir. I was simply ruminating on the rather peculiar environment in which we’ve found ourselves.” He even faked a British accent to match the Victorian diction. That got a laugh from the other monkeys, but nonetheless I wondered who Gulliver Jones was and why Jeff was pretending to be him.

There was also the time Jeff was out on a dozer, clearing away the sand that had been deposited on the landing field during a dust storm a couple of days earlier. Another routine job to which I hadn’t been paying much attention until the shift supervisor at the command center paged me: “Chief, there’s something going on with Halbert. You might want to listen in.”

So I tapped into the comlink, and there was Jeff: “Affirmative, MainCom. I just saw something move out there, about a half-klick north of the periphery.”

“Roger that, Tiger Four-Oh,” the supervisor said. “Can you describe again, please?”

A pause, then: “A big creature, abut ten feet tall, with eight legs. And there was a woman riding it . . . red-skinned, and--” an abrupt laugh “— stark naked, or just about.”

Something tugged at my memory, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. When the shift supervisor spoke again, his voice had a patronizing undertone. “Yeah . . . uh, right, Tiger Four-Oh. We just checked the LRC, though, and there’s nothing on the scope except you.”

“They’re gone now. Went behind a boulder and vanished.” Another laugh, almost gleeful. “But they were out there, I promise!”

“Affirmative, Four-Oh.” A brief pause. “If you happen to see any more thoats, let us know, okay?”

That’s when I remembered. What Jeff had described was a beast from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels. And the woman riding it? That could have only been Dejah Thoris. Almost everyone who came to Mars read Burroughs at one point or another, but this was the first time I’d ever heard of anyone claiming to have seen the Princess of Helium.

Obviously, Jeff had taken to playing practical jokes. I made a mental note to say something to him about that, but then forgot about it. As I said, on any given day I handled any number of different crises, and someone messing with his supervisor’s head ranked low on my priority list.

        But that wasn’t the end of it. In fact, it was only the beginning. A couple of weeks later, I received a memo from the quartermaster: someone had tendered a request to be transferred to private quarters, even though that was above his pay-grade. At Arsia in those days, before we got all the habs built, individual rooms were at a premium and were generally reserved for management, senior researchers, married couples, company stooges, and so forth. In this case, though, the other guys in this particular person’s dorm had signed a petition backing his request, and the quartermaster himself wrote that, for the sake of morale, he was recommending that this individual be assigned his own room.

        I wasn’t surprised to see that Jeff Halbert was the person making the request. By then, I’d noticed that his personality had undergone a distinct change. He’d let his hair grow long, eschewing the high-and-tight style preferred by people who spent a lot of time wearing a hardsuit helmet. He rarely shared a table with anyone else in the wardroom, and instead ate by himself, staring at his datapad the entire time. And he was now talking to himself on the comlink. No more reports of Martian princesses riding eight-legged animals, but rather a snatch of this (“The Martians seem to have calculated their descent with amazing subtlety . . . ”) or a bit of that (“The Martians gazed back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water . . . ”) which most people wouldn’t have recognized as being quotes from Wells or Bradbury.

        So it was no wonder the other monkey house residents wanted to get rid of him. Before I signed the request, though, I paid Dr. Rosenfeld a visit. The station psychologist didn’t have to ask why I was there; he asked me to shut the door, then let me know what he thought about Jeff.

        “To tell the truth,” he began, “I can’t tell if he’s getting better or worse.”

“I can. Look, I’m no shrink, but if you ask me, he’s getting worse.”

Karl shook his head. “Not necessarily. Sure, his behavior is bizarre, but at least we no longer have to worry about suicide. In fact, he’s one of the happiest people we have here. He rarely speaks about his loss anymore, and when I remind him that his wife and parents are dead, he shrugs it off as if this was something that happened a long time ago. In his own way, he’s quite content with life.”

“And you don’t think that’s strange?”

“Sure, I do . . . especially since he’s admitted to me that he’d stopped taking the anti-depressants I prescribed to him. And that’s the bad news. Perhaps he isn’t depressed anymore, or at least by clinical standards . . . but he’s becoming delusional, to the point of actually having hallucinations.”

I stared at him. “You mean, the time he claimed he spotted Dejah Thoris . . . you’re saying he actually saw that?”

“Yes, I believe so. And that gave me a clue as to what’s going on in his mind.” Karl picked up a penknife, absently played with it. “Ever since he found that disk, he’s become utterly obsessed with it. So I asked him if he’d let me copy it from his pad, which he did, and after I asked him what he was reading, I checked it out for myself. And what I discovered was that, of all the novels and stories that are on the disk, the ones that attract him the most are also the ones that are least representative of reality. That is, the stuff that’s about Mars, but not as we know it.”

“Come again?” I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”

“How much science fiction have you read?”

“A little. Not much.”

“Well, lucky for you, I’ve read quite a bit.” He grinned. “In fact, you could say that’s why I’m here. I got hooked on that stuff when I was a kid, and by the time I got out of college, I’d pretty much decided that I wanted to see Mars.” He became serious again. “Okay, try to follow me. Although people have been writing about Mars since the 1700’s, it wasn’t until the first Russian and American probes got out here in the 1960’s that anyone knew what this place is really like. That absence of knowledge gave writers and artists the liberty to fill in the gap with their imaginations . . . or at least until they learned better. Understand?”

“Sure.” I shrugged. “Before the 1960’s, you could have Martians. After that, you couldn’t have Martians anymore.”

“Umm . . . well, not exactly.” Karl lifted his hand, teetered it back and forth. “One of the best stories on the disk is ‘A Rose For Ecclesiastes’ by Roger Zelazny. It was written in 1963, and it has Martians in it. And some stories written before then were pretty close to getting it right. But for the most part, yes . . . the fictional view of Mars changed dramatically in the second half of the last century, and although it became more realistic, it also lost much of its romanticism.”

Karl folded the penknife, dropped it on his desk. “Those aren’t the stories Jeff’s reading. Greg Bear’s ‘A Martian Ricorso,’ Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Transit of Earth,’ John Varley’s ‘In the Hall of the Martian Kings’ . . . anything similar to the Mars we know, he ignores. Why? Because they remind him of where he is . . . and that’s not where he wants to be.”

“So  . . . ” I thought about it for a moment. “He’s reading the older stuff instead?”

“Right.” Karl nodded. “Stanley Weinbaum’s ‘A Martian Odyssey,’ Otis Albert Kline’s ‘The Swordsman of Mars,’ A.E. van Vogt’s ‘The Enchanted Village’ . . . the more unreal, the more he likes them. Because those stories aren’t about not the drab, lifeless planet where he’s stuck, but instead a planet of native Martians, lost cities, canal systems . . . ”

“Okay, I get it.”

“No, I don’t think you do . . . because I’m not sure I do, either, except to say that Jeff appears to be leaving us. Every day, he’s taking one more step into this other world . . . and I don’t think he’s coming back again.”

I stared at him, not quite believing what I’d just heard. “Jeez, Karl . . . what am I going to do?”

“What can you do?” He leaned back in his chair. “Not much, really. Look, I’ll be straight with you . . . this is beyond me. He needs the kind of treatment that I can’t give him here. For that, he’s going to have to wait until he gets back to Earth.”

“The next ship isn’t due for another fourteen months or so.”

“I know . . . that’s when I’m scheduled to go back, too. But the good news is that he’s happy and reasonably content, and doesn’t really pose a threat to anyone . . . except maybe by accident, in which case I’d recommend that you relieve him of any duties that would take him outside the hab.”

“Done.” The last thing anyone needed was to have a delusional person out on the surface. Mars can be pretty unforgiving when it comes to human error, and a fatal mistake can cost you not only your own life, but also the guy next to you. “And I take it that you recommend that his request be granted, too?”

“It wouldn’t hurt, no.” A wry smile. “So long as he’s off in his own world, he’ll be happy. Make him comfortable, give him whatever he wants . . . within reason, at least . . . and leave him alone. I’ll keep an eye on him and will let you know if his condition changes, for better or worse.”

“Hopefully for the better.”

“Sure . . . but I wouldn’t count on it.” Karl stared straight at me. “Face it, chief . . . one of your guys is turning into a Martian.”

I took Jeff off the outside-work details and let it be known that he wasn’t permitted to go marswalking without authorization or an escort, and instead reassigned him to jobs that would keep him in the habitats: working in the greenhouse, finishing the interior of Hab 2, that sort of thing. I was prepared to tell him that he was being taken off the outside details because he’d reached his rem limit for radiation exposure, but he never questioned my decision but only accepted it with the same quiet, spooky smile that he’d come to giving everyone.

I also let him relocate to private quarters, a small room on Hab 2’s second level that had been unoccupied until then. As I expected, there were a few gripes from those still having to share a room with someone else; however, most people realized that Jeff was in bad shape and needed his privacy. After he moved in, though, he did something I didn’t anticipate: he changed his door lock’s password to something no one else knew. This was against station rules—the security office and the general manager were supposed to always have everyone’s lock codes—but Karl assured me that Jeff meant no harm. He simply didn’t want to have anyone enter his quarters, and it would help his peace of mind if he received this one small exemption. I went along with it, albeit reluctantly.

After that, I had no problems with Jeff for awhile. He assumed his new duties without complaint, and the reports I received from department heads told me that he was doing his work well. Karl updated me every week; his patient hadn’t yet shown any indications of snapping out of his fugue, but neither did he appear to be getting worse. And although he was no longer interacting with any other personnel except when he needed to, at least he was no longer telling anyone about Martian princesses or randomly quoting obscure science fiction stories over the comlink.

Nonetheless, there was the occasional incident. Such as when the supply chief came to me with an unusual request Jeff had made: several reams of hemp paper, and as much soy ink as could be spared. Since both were by-products of greenhouse crops grown at either Arsia Station or one of the other colonies, and thus not imported from Earth, they weren’t particularly scarce. Still, what could Jeff possibly want with that much writing material? I asked Karl if Jeff had told him that he was keeping a journal; the doctor told me that he hadn’t, but unless either paper or ink were in short supply, it couldn’t hurt to grant that request. So I signed off on this as well, although I told the supply chief to subtract the cost from Jeff’s salary.

Not long after that, I heard from one of the communications officers. Jeff had asked her to send a general memo to the other colonies: a request for downloads of any Mars novels or stories that their personnel might have. The works of Bradbury, Burroughs, and Brackett were particularly desired, although stuff by Moorcock, Williamson, and Sturgeon would also be appreciated. In exchange, Jeff would send stories and novels he’d downloaded from the Phoenix disk.

Nothing wrong there, either. By then, Mars was on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth, so Jeff couldn’t make the same request from Huntsville. If he was running out of reading material, then it made sense that he’d have to go begging from the other colonies. In fact, the com officer told me she’d had already received more than a half-dozen downloads; apparently quite a few folks had Mars fiction stashed in the comps. Nonetheless, it was unusual enough that she thought I should know about it. I asked her to keep me posted, and shrugged it off as just another of a long series of eccentricities.

A few weeks after that, though, Jeff finally did something that rubbed me the wrong way. As usual, I heard about it Dr. Rosenfeld.

“Jeff has a new request,” he said when I happened to drop by his office. “In the future, he would prefer to be addressed as ‘Your Majesty’ or `Your Highness,’ in keeping with his position as the Emperor of Mars.”

I stared at him for several seconds. “Surely you’re joking,” I said at last.

“Surely I’m not. He is now the Emperor Jeffery the First, sovereign monarch of the Great Martian Empire, warlord and protector of the red planet.” A pause, during which I expected Karl to grin and wink. He didn’t. “He doesn’t necessarily want anyone bow in his presence,” he added, “but he does require proper respect for the crown.”

“I see.” I closed my eyes, rubbed the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger, and counted to ten. “And what does that make me?”

“Prime Minister, of course.” The driest of smiles. “Since his title is hereditary, His Majesty isn’t interested in the day-to-day affairs of his empire. That he leaves up to you, with the promise that he’ll refrain from meddling with your decisions . . . ”

“Oh, how fortunate I am.”

“Yes. But from here on, all matters pertaining to the throne should be taken up with me, in my position as Royal Physician and Senior Court Advisor.”

“Uh-huh.” I stood up from my chair. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I think the Prime Minister needs to go now and kick His Majesty’s ass.”

“Sit down.” Karl glared at me. “Really, I mean it. Sit.”

I was unwilling to sit down again, but neither did I storm out of his office. “Look, I know he’s a sick man, but this has gone far enough. I’ve given him his own room, relieved him of hard labor, given him paper and ink . . . for what, I still don’t know, but he keeps asking for more . . . and allowed him com access to the other colonies. Just because he’s been treated like a king doesn’t mean he is a king.”

“Oh, I agree. Which is why I’ve reminded him that his title is honorary as well as hereditary, and as such there’s a limit to royal privilege. And he understands this. After all, the empire is in decline, having reached its peak over a thousand years ago, and since then the emperor has had to accept certain sacrifices for the good of the people. So, no, you won’t see him wearing a crown and carrying a scepter, nor will he be demanding that a throne be built for him. He wants his reign to be benign.”

Hearing this, I reluctantly took my seat again. “All right, so let me get this straight. He believes that he’s now a king . . . ”

“An emperor. There’s a difference.”

“King, emperor, whatever . . . he’s not going to be bossing anyone around, but will pretty much let things continue as they are. Right?”

“Except that he wants to be addressed formally, yeah, that’s pretty much it.” Karl sighed, shook his head. “Let me try to explain. Jeff has come face-to-face with a reality that he cannot bear. His parents, his fiancé, the child they wanted to have . . . they’re all dead, and he was too far away to prevent it, or even go to their funerals. This is a very harsh reality that he needs to keep at bay, so he’s built a wall around himself . . . a wall of delusion, if you will. At first, it took the form of an obsession with fantasy, but when that wouldn’t alone suffice, he decided to enter that fantasy, become part of it. This is where Emperor Jeffery the First of the Great Martian Empire comes in.”

“So he’s protecting himself?”

“Yes . . . by creating a role that lets him believe that he controls his own life.” Karl shook his head. “He doesn’t want to actually run Arsia, chief. He just wants to pretend that he does. As long as you allow him this, he’ll be all right. Trust me.”

“Well . . . all right.” Not that I had much choice in the matter. If I was going to have a crazy person in my colony, at least I could make sure that he wouldn’t endanger anyone. If that meant indulging him until he could be sent back to Earth, then that was what I’d have to do. “I’ll pass the word that His Majesty is to be treated with all due respect.”

“That would be great. Thanks.” Karl smiled. “Y’know, people have been pretty supportive. I haven’t heard of anyone taunting him.”

“You know how it is. People here tend to look out for each other . . . they have to.” I stood up and started to head for the door, then another thought occurred to me. “Just one thing. Has he ever told you what he’s doing in his room? Like I said, he’s been using a lot of paper and ink.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed the ink stains on his fingers.” Karl shook his head. “No, I don’t. I’ve asked him about that, and the only thing he’s told me is that he’s preparing a gift for his people, and that he’ll allow us to see it when the time comes.”

“A gift?” I raised an eyebrow. “Any idea what it is?”

“Not a clue . . . but I’m sure we’ll find out.”

I kept my promise to Dr. Rosenfeld and put out the word that Jeff Halbert was heretofore to be known as His Majesty, the Emperor. As I told Karl, people were generally accepting of this. Oh, I heard the occasional report of someone giving Jeff some crap about this—exaggerated bows in the corridors, ill-considered questions about who was going to be his queen, and so forth—but the jokers who did this were usually pulled aside and told to shut up. Everyone at Arsia knew that Jeff was mentally ill, and that the best anyone could do for him was to let him have his fantasy life for as long as he was with us.

By then, Earth was no longer on the other side of the Sun. Once our home world and Mars began moving toward conjunction, a cycleship could the trip home. So only a few months remained until Jeff would board a shuttle. Since Karl would be returning as well, I figured he’d be in good hands, or at least they climbed into zombie tanks to hibernate for the long ride to Earth. Until then, all we had to do was keep His Majesty happy.

That wasn’t hard to do. In fact, Karl and I had a lot of help. Once people got used to the idea that a make-believe emperor lived among them, most of them actually seemed to enjoy the pretense. When he walked through the habs, folks would pause whatever they were doing to nod to him and say “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” He was always allowed to go to the front of the serving line in the mess hall, and there was always someone ready to hold his chair for him. And I noticed that he even picked up a couple of consorts, two unattached young women who did everything from trim his hair—it had grown very long by then, with a regal beard to match—to assist him in the Royal Gardens (aka the greenhouse) to accompany him to the Saturday night flicks. As one of the girls told me, the Emperor was the perfect date: always the gentleman, he’d unfailingly treated them with respect and never tried to take advantage of them. Which was more than could be said for some of the single men at Arsia.

After awhile, I relaxed the rule about not letting him leave the habs, and allowed him to go outside as long as he was under escort at all times. Jeff remembered how to put on a hardsuit,—a sign that he hadn’t completely lost touch with reality—and he never gave any indication that he was on the verge of opening his helmet. But once he walked a few dozen yards from the airlock, he’d often stop and stare into the distance for a very long time, keeping his back to the rest of the base and saying nothing to anyone.

I wondered what he was seeing then. Was it a dry red desert, cold and lifeless, with rocks and boulders strewn across an arid plain beneath a pink sky? Or did he see something no one else could: forests of giant lichen, ancient canals upon which sailing vessels slowly glided, cities as old as time from which John Carter and Tars Tarkas rode to their next adventure or where tyrants called for the head of the outlaw Eric John Stark. Or was he thinking of something else entirely? A mother and a father who’d raised him, a woman he’d once loved, a child whom he’d never see?

I don’t know, for the Emperor seldom spoke to me, even in my role as his Prime Minister. I think I was someone he wanted to avoid, an authority figure who had the power to shatter his illusions. Indeed, in all the time that Jeff was with us, I don’t think he and I said more than a few words to each other. In fact, it wasn’t until the day that he finally left for Earth that he said anything of consequence to me.

That morning, I drove him and Dr. Rosenfeld out to the landing field, where a shuttle was waiting to transport them up to the cycleship. Jeff was unusually quiet; I couldn’t easily see his expression through his helmet faceplate, but the few glimpses I had told me that he wasn’t happy. His Majesty knew that he was leaving his empire. Karl hadn’t softened the blow by telling him a convenient lie, but instead had given him the truth: they were returning to Earth, and he’d probably never see Mars again.

Their belongings had already been loaded aboard the shuttle when we arrived, and the handful of other passengers were waiting to climb aboard. I parked the rover at the edge of the landing field and escorted Jeff and Karl to the spacecraft. I shook hands with Karl and wished him well, then turned to Jeff.

“Your Majesty . . . ” I began.

“You don’t have to call me that,” he said.

“Pardon me?”

Jeff stepped closer to me. “I know I’m not really an emperor. That was something I got over a while ago . . . I just didn’t want to tell anyone.”

I glanced at Karl. His eyes were wide, and within his helmet he shook his head. This was news to him, too. “Then . . . you know who you really are?”

A brief flicker of a smile. “I’m Jeff Halbert. There’s something wrong with me, and I don’t really know what it is . . . but I know that I’m Jeff Halbert and that I’m going home.” He hesitated, then went on. “I know we haven’t talked much, but I . . . well, Dr. Rosenfeld has told me what you’ve done for me, and I just wanted to thank you. For putting up with me all this time, and for letting me be the Emperor of Mars. I hope I haven’t been too much trouble.”

I slowly let out my breath. My first thought was that he’d been playing me and everyone else for fools, but then I realized that his megalomania had probably been real, at least for a time. In any case, it didn’t matter now; he was on his way back to Earth, the first steps on the long road to recovery.

Indeed, many months later, I received a letter from Karl. Shortly after he returned to Earth, Jeff was admitted to a private clinic in southern Vermont, where he began a program of psychiatric treatment. The process had been painful; as Karl had deduced, Jeff’s mind had repressed the knowledge of his family’s deaths, papering over the memory with fantastical delusions he’d derived from the stories he’d been reading. The clinic psychologists agreed with Dr. Rosenfeld: it was probably the retreat into fantasy that saved Jeff’s life, by providing him with a place to which he was able to escape when his mind was no longer able to cope with a tragic reality. And in the end, when he no longer needed that illusion, Jeff returned from madness. He’d never see a Martian princess again, or believe himself to be the ruling monarch of the red planet. 

But that was yet to come. I bit my tongue and offered him my hand. “No trouble, Jeff. I just hope everything works out for you.”

“Thanks.” Jeff shook my hand, then turned away to follow Karl to the ladder. Then he stopped and looked back at me again. “One more thing . . . ”


“There’s something in my room I think you’d like to see. I disabled the lock just before I left, so you won’t need the password to get in there.” A brief pause. “It was `Thuvia,’ just in case you need it anyway.”

“Thank you.” I peered at him. “So . . . what’s is it?”

“Call it a gift from the emperor,” he said.

I walked back to the rover and waited until the shuttle lifted off, then I drove to Hab 2. When I reached Jeff’s room, though, I discovered that I wasn’t the first person to arrive. Several of his friends—his fellow monkeys, the emperor’s consorts, a couple of others—had already opened the door and gone in. I heard their astonished murmurs as I walked down the hall, but it wasn’t until I pushed entered the room that I saw what amazed them.

Jeff’s quarters were small, but he’d done a lot with it over the last year and a half. The wall above his bed was covered with sheets of paper that he’d taped together, upon which he’d drawn an elaborate mural. Here was the Mars over which the Emperor had reigned: boat-like aircraft hovering above great domed cities, monstrous creatures prowling red wastelands, bare-chested heroes defending beautiful women with rapiers and radium pistols, all beneath twin moons that looked nothing like the Phobos and Deimos we knew. The mural was crude, yet it had been rendered with painstaking care, and was nothing like anything we’d ever seen before.

That wasn’t all. On the desk next to the comp was the original Phoenix disk, yet Jeff hadn’t been satisfied just to leave it behind. A wire-frame bookcase had been built beside the desk, and neatly stacked upon its shelves were dozens of sheaves of paper, some thick and some thin, each carefully bound with hemp twine. Books, handwritten and handmade.

I carefully pulled down one at random, gazed at its title page: Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss. I put it back on the shelf, picked up another: “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper. I placed it on the shelf, then pulled down yet another: The Martian Crown Jewels, by Poul Anderson. And more, dozens more . . .

This was what Jeff had been doing all this time: transcribing the contents of the Phoenix disk, word by word. Because he knew, in spite of his madness, that he couldn’t stay on Mars forever, and he wanted to leave something behind. A library, so that others could enjoy the same stories that had helped him through a dark and troubled time.

The library is still here. In fact, we’ve improved it quite a bit. I had the bed and dresser removed, and replaced them with armchairs and reading lamps. The mural has been preserved within glass frames, and the books have been rebound inside plastic covers. The Phoenix disk is gone, but its contents have been downloaded into a couple of comps; the disk itself is in the base museum. And we’ve added a lot of books to the shelves; every time a cycleship arrives from Earth, it brings more a few more volumes for our collection. It’s become one of the favorite places in Arsia for people to relax. There’s almost always someone there, sitting in a chair with a novel or story in his or her lap.

The sign on the door reads Imperial Martian Library: an inside joke that newcomers and tourists don’t get. And, yes, I’ve spent a lot of time there myself. It’s never too late to catch up on the classics.


First published in Asimov's Science Fiction, June 2010.

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ISSUE 99, December 2014

Best Science Fiction of the Year

galactic empires



Allen M. Steele

Allen Steele made his first sale in 1988. In 1990, he published his critically-acclaimed first novel, Orbital Decay, which subsequently won the Locus Poll as Best First Novel of the year, and soon Steele was being compared to Golden Age Heinlein by no less an authority than Gregory Benford. His other books include the novels Clarke County Space, Lunar Descent, Labyrinth of Night, The Weight, The Tranquility Alternative, A King of Infinite Space, Oceanspace, Chronospace, Coyote, Coyote Rising, Spindrift, Galaxy Blues, Coyote Horizon, Coyote Destiny, Hex, and a YA novel, Apollo's Outcast. His short work has been gathered in four collections, Rude Astronauts, Sex and Violence in Zero G, The Last Science Fiction Writer, and Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete "Near Space" Stories: Expanded Edition. His most recent book is a new novel, V-S Day. He has won three Hugo Awards, in 1996 for his novella "The Death of Captain Future," in 1998 for his novella "Where Angels Fear to Tread," and, most recently, in 2011 for his novelette "The Emperor of Mars." Born in Nashville, Tennessee, he has worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines, covering science and business assignments, and is now a full-time writer living in Whately, Massachusetts with his wife Linda.




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