History Lesson: A Short Story

History Lesson

Copyright © 2009 Keith B. Phillips

 

Despite being new to humanity, Hellas Planitia had a long and very violent history.  3.9 billion years ago a large asteroid had slammed into the Martian surface, vaporizing it, and spreading debris seven thousand kilometers in every direction.  The impact was so severe it affected the core of the planet, beginning the long slow winding down of its magnetosphere.  When the lava flows from nearby Hadriacus Mons had finished pouring into the four-kilometer deep hole, water settled down into the lower parts of Hellas as well, and when the planet’s atmosphere was slowly stripped away by the solar winds (which were now free to ravage Mars) the planet cooled, the water froze, and became covered by dust and meteoric impact debris.  The resulting glaciers, buried protectively under the layers of Martian regolith, were now the lifeblood of a thriving population of humans—a small community tucked down in a hollow at the bottom of Hellas Basin, covered with a protective glass roof to keep an earth-like atmosphere in.  And although civilization had finally come to Mars, with all of it’s scientific knowledge and great accomplishments, there still rest within the planet a mysterious alien power over the human psyche.

*

The small Martian sun shined weakly through the ray-filtered skylight of the classroom on Ivan Cranz’s strange features.  His ears stuck out from his head like mini satellite dishes. His nose was thin and crooked and his head bobbed on a long skinny stalk of a neck.  His tall gangly shadow cast an eerie alien portrait on the floor as he subjected his gaze out onto his young students.

“Class, please turn to page fifty-six in your history textbook.   We’ll be learning about the ancient civilization of the Mayans today.”  He said in his slightly strangled tone.

“Why don’t you teach us something useful, like how to fix a heat exchanger?”  Charlie smirked at the back of the room.

“Charlie, I’ve explained this before to you.  If we don’t understand our past, how can we understand our future?  It’s important to know where you come from.”  Ivan looked at Charlie sternly from under his bristling eyebrows.

“My grandpa says, learn today what you need to keep you alive tomorrow.  All this crap about Mayans don’t mean nothin to me.”  Charlie slouched back in his chair, his long brown hair falling in front of his eyes.

And there it was, Ivan thought. The adults were turning the students against him.

Ivan decided to have a talk with Charlie’s mother and arranged for a meeting.  As she entered the room the next afternoon, he was in awe of her beauty.  Her long dark hair flowed down over her shoulders, her body curving perfectly in the right places.  Her lips red and sculptured as by a fine artist.

She smiled brilliantly, revealing even white teeth, and stuck out her hand to shake Ivan’s.

“I’m Marleen Ostheim, Charlie’s mom.”

“W-welcome,” Ivan stuttered barely coherent.  He took the offered hand and shook it, hardly able to grip her hand in his nervousness.  “Please sit down Mrs. Ostheim.”

“You may call me Marleen. And it is Miss. My husband died in a mine accident last year.”  She took a seat at a student’s desk, her motion all fluidic grace, her red dress flowing about her in the low Martian gravity.

“I’m sorry to hear that Marleen.”  He stumbled over her name, afraid to even pronounce it, but he bolstered his courage and got down to the business at hand.  “I’m sure it’s been difficult for Charlie to adapt to the loss.”

“Actually, no it wasn’t at all.”  Marleen shifted uncomfortably in the small seat.  “My husband, Wayne, was not with us much, more of a stranger than anything to Charlie.  He was off mining the Belt when Charlie was growing up.  When we all moved to Mars—well it was awkward.  I’m afraid Wayne didn’t know how to deal with us anymore.  He spent most of his time working the mines, and rarely came home.”

“I see.”  Ivan ran a hand over his head, smoothing down a rogue curl of hair.  They discussed Charlie’s classroom behavior for a while, and Ivan explained the importance of history.  He passionately led Marleen down a short discourse of human history, and explained how the knowledge of history could change and affect the future.  “So you see Miss Ostheim, er, Marleen, it’s very important that Charlie learns who he is and how he got here.”

“Well, you have definitely made a believer out of me.  Would you be interested in coming to a party at my father’s home?  Everyone loves to debate and talk at my father’s parties, and it would be wonderful to have someone of your intelligence and education.”

“Certainly!  I would love to attend.”  Ivan was amazed by his good fortune and his face split with a wide toothy grin.   He said goodbye to her and promised to be at the party on Friday night.

Friday arrived, and Ivan spent a long while in front of the mirror wrestling his hair into some semblance of order.  Finally, he gave up trying and started the long walk out toward the mines.  When he came to the hatch that led out to the mines, he donned his Mars suit to take advantage of the shortcut across the Martian surface.  His tight fitting suit had been customized to fit his long freakish frame.  He exited the lock and made his way across the dusty desert-like terrain.  The old ice mine was used when Hellas had first been built.  Spires of ice rose from the surface, sublimed away by the sun in weird spooky shapes, casting strange shadows onto the rusty colored Martian surface.

Ivan thought while he walked through the alien environment, and questioned the wisdom of the UN’s decree that human teachers be provided for Martian children—along side computer and VR education.  It was this mandate that had brought him here, and the law forced upon the Martians that aggravated them against him.  Every time they looked on him they were reminded that they were not yet free from Earth’s rule over them.

He’d made his way about halfway across the gap between the airlocks when the dipping Martian sun began to dim.  Sunset had arrived on Mars, and the sky was blackening at his back.  A beautiful dusky red was before him and a rock outcrop of the Wall Mountains started to take a bite out of the thumbnail sized sun. The light dropped quickly, and he was glad to see the habitation zone hatch getting nearer to him.

When Ivan safely passed through the hatch, he sagged visibly with relief. He hopped aboard a transport and was quickly relayed to his destination—the Ostheim household.  It looked like any other Martian home on the outside, a hatched dome capable of independent pressurization in an emergency.  He pushed the intercom buzzer at the hatch and was quickly invited in by an elderly gentleman who was already quite merry and inebriated.  He introduced himself as Marlene’s father, Brock Ostheim, occupation, ice miner.  He took Ivan’s hand within his large meaty paw, gave it a one good hard shake and let go.

Inside was warm and cozy, festive music played about the room.  He was escorted about by Brock and introduced to some people. Most were polite, but distant, and some gave him icy stares.  One young man of about thirty glared at him angrily.  His name was Bruce, and it was immediately apparent that he had something against Ivan.  It did not take long before he discovered what it was.

Marlene entered the room wearing a stunning royal blue dress, her hair loose and flowing around her shoulders.   She immediately became the center of attention, with every eye turned her direction.  Marlene walked right past Bruce, and came up to Ivan.

“Hello Ivan!  I’m so pleased that you could make it to our little party.”  She gave him a quick little hug that almost knocked him off balance.

“I-I’m glad to be here,” he stammered.  His face started to glow with the heat of a blush, but he caught sight of Bruce, whose angry, jealous stare could not be mistaken.  Ivan gulped back fear and backed away from Marlene a half step.

“Ivan!  Let’s get a beer.”  Bruce grabbed Ivan by the arm quickly and steered him away from Marlene toward a freshly tapped aluminum keg.  “Marlene and I go way back, so you stay away from her. You hear me?  She’s mine.  If you don’t, I’ll beat your ass.  Don’t think I won’t.”  He grinned widely and pushed a pint into Cranz’s hand.  “Do we have an understanding?”  He clicked his mug to Ivan’s.  “Cheers.”

Ivan wasn’t certain what to do, so he just quietly took a sip from the beer.  Bruce went over to talk with a friend of his and Ivan was left feeling very much out of place.  A grizzled old man was talking to another nearby, “You know out-gassing from the mines and the factories has increased the air pressure out in the Basin.  It’s creating a microclimate.  They’re saying that in another ten years, we might not even need pressure suits.  It’s because elevation is so low here, and the Hellas Basin walls are so high.  There is almost nine kilometers of atmosphere pressing down on us.”

Marlene came up just then.  “Come and meet my uncles.”  She swept Ivan off taking his arm and led him across the great room to the other side where several older men were seated along the wall engaged in earnest conversation.   One of them with silver streaked dark hair and wearing a long brown coat kept getting louder to drive home his point.

“I tell you, we give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.  We simply can’t allow it!  They think they can just send anyone to Mars without our consent.  We should be consulted on every crewed mission.”

Marlene approached with a wide gleaming smile.  “My uncles!  May I introduce Mr. Ivan Cranz?  He is Charlie’s teacher at the school.  Ivan, this is Max, Dave, Luke, and Joshua.”

Ivan gave a little nod to them all.  His stomach clenched tightly, for he knew that he was on trial here before these men.  His mandated presence represented all that they despised about Earth.

All four of the Uncles stood and exchanged handshakes with Ivan.

Max who had been speaking so loudly before said, “Cranz eh?  I remember when they sent you here.  I was against it.  I mean, nothing personal against you; of course, but we need working men here.  We shouldn’t waste manpower on something like that.”

“Well I uh…” Ivan clutched his hands together nervously searching for some response.  “I suppose you don’t understand exactly what my purpose here is.  I’m here to help you.  Your continued existence on Mars depends on your ability to become a nation, a civilization in your own right.  To do that, you need knowledge.  So that, we on Mars can go on to be successful.”  Ivan stopped, nearly breathless.

“Well said, Ivan,” Dave piped up from behind Max.  “But you said we.  You’re not one of us.  You are a UN pain in our side.  You’ll meddle with our affairs and then head on back to Earth to report everything we’re doing.  A government spy.”

“To tell the truth.  I’ve decided to stay here on Mars permanently”

“Well that’s a shocker.”  Bruce said coming up from behind.  “The lazy schoolteacher who hasn’t worked even one day in the mines wants to stay and work his cushy job teaching kids at the school every day, and then claim to be one of us.  Wasting time, breathing our air, drinking our water, and eating our food.  And calling himself one of us.”

Ivan seemed to shrink shorter now beside Marlene in the face of Bruce’s angry jealousy.  “Gentlemen, I think you should remember that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”  He hoped that they could somehow resolve this.

Ivan caught Marlene looking up at him with a look that could have passed as admiration then.  He took up even more courage now feeling bolstered by her support.

Ivan stood up a little straighter and raised his voice a bit.  “For example you have some history here yourselves, although it is much shorter than Earth’s.  I once heard an interesting tale about your early Martian history.  Major Helis who lost his life during an emergency. Does anyone know this story?”

“Aye.”  Joshua looked him seriously in the face.  “That is no tale.  It was 2048.  Helis was working the mines when it happened.  He was wearing his Mars suit with no helmet, in case of depressurization in the work area. When the alarm sounded everyone put on their helmets and made for the hatches, but Helis’s helmet latch malfunctioned, and he died before they could get him to the hatch.  When they investigated the incident they found that the latch on his helmet seal had been sawed off, purposely. “

Ivan shivered at the mental image of Helis suffocating in his own suit.  “That is horrible.  Did they ever figure out who did that to him or why?”

Max leaned toward Ivan confidentially.  “Some say it had to do with a war.  He was a military man and had served in combat back on earth.  It was thought that maybe someone had an old grudge, but they could never find or prove anything.”

“And that’s not the end of it.”   Dave’s face looked very grave.  “Now and then out on the surface in the Martian air, people have seen him walking around in his suit with no helmet, out in the old ice quarry that’s no longer covered.  They say he’s never crossed over because he’s still looking for his killer.”

Bruce snorted in disgust.  “You old-timers still believe that ridiculous ghost story.  You can see damn near anything in the ice, if you want to.  Me, I never saw anything I couldn’t explain yet, and I work out there every day.”

“I saw him myself once.”  Luke now spoke, and all eyes in the room settled on him now.   “Scariest thing I ever seen.  I was out working the roof, sweeping dust.  I looked over at the old quarry, and there he stood, plain as day, no helmet at all.  Well I beat it for the air lock as fast as I could and damned if he didn’t chase me all the way.  I barely made it inside before he could grab me.  And when I looked out the lock window, he was gone.”

A murmur went up among the crowd then at the frightful telling of Luke’s story.

Bruce laughed, but Ivan caught the hint of a tremor in it.  “You old space dogs keep believing in your ghosts then, I’m off to get more beer.”  He walked off, and the music started up again.

The four brothers looked at each other with what Ivan took to be amusement in their twinkling eyes, but none broke the spell by speaking of it.  It was then that Ivan suddenly thought of a plan to escape Bruce’s evil intentions, and perhaps gain himself everything he’d ever desired.

As the evening wound down, the guests began to depart.  Ivan found himself beginning to tire, for he rarely stayed up late anymore.  He could see Bruce by the bar, carefully watching Marlene and himself.  Bruce glowered at them for a while and then left the house.

Ivan decided it was time to leave, and turned to Marlene.  “I had a lovely time.”

Marlene smiled stunningly at him and gave him a little peck on the cheek.  “I have enjoyed your company very much, please come again.”

“I surely hope that I can.”  He gathered up his pack, containing his Mars suit, and left into the Martian night.

When the transport dropped Ivan off at the airlock he was plenty nervous, and his hands shook as he put on the suit, locking his helmet in place carefully.  He then stood off to the side and waited in the shadows, out of the street lighting.  Bruce showed up looking about in all directions and then put on his Mars suit and cycled through the lock.  Ivan could see him walk off in the distance and then hide behind an ice spire.  Bruce was waiting for him, maybe to hurt him, possibly to kill him.  He was drunk and angry enough to do anything foolish.

Ivan cycled through the lock and snuck off to one side weaving his way through the abstract world of ice formations.  He kept his helmet light off and circled about the location where Bruce stood waiting for him.  He could see him just standing there, swaying a bit. Ivan braced himself, took a deep breath and removed his helmet.  He charged right at Bruce.

Bruce saw something in the twilight.  He switched on his helmet light and saw the helmet-less figure running straight at him.  He screamed within his suit and sprinted away as fast as he could for the airlock.  Ivan was fast on his heels, his face felt as if it were being frozen off and sucked out simultaneously. He was almost at the end of his breath. As he ran after Bruce, he threw his helmet at the form fleeing in front of him, and watched it bounce harmlessly off the suit.  Bruce ran to the hatch, opened it, and slammed it shut behind him.

Ivan retrieved his helmet, ducked behind some ice, and put his helmet back on.  He felt terrible, his face crackled with ice and he gulped in cold breaths of oxygen mixed with too much of the carbon dioxide of Mars.  Soon, the suit compensated and he started to breathe normally again.

Ivan went on home.  Life returned to normal for the next week, but then he received a call from Marlene.

“Have you heard?”  She paused.  “Bruce moved to Tharsis colony!  He came back the day after the party, swearing up and down that Helis had attacked him out at the old quarry.   Everyone told him he was being crazy, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“How strange.  Well he did seem a bit unbalanced.  Maybe everyone is better off now that he’s over at Tharsis.”  I know I am, he thought.

“Could be,” Marlene said slowly. Ivan thought maybe she’d figured it out, but he wasn’t sure.

“Marlene, would you like to go to dinner with me this weekend?”

There was a pause at the other end, and then she said, “Yes, I’d like that very much.”

Ivan smiled secretly.


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