Is There Christmas on Mars?

Mars Outpost One, Elysium Planitia, Christmas Eve, sometime in the future. Man has developed interplanetary travel, but not yet invented the Warp drive as the Vulcans haven’t made first contact, so Mars is a long, long way away and takes ages to get there and back.

 ***

The series of interconnected domes rose out of the red desert. Next to them, the landing craft sat, squat and unused. Low on the horizon, the weak sun was setting, casting the purple mountains into a deepening shadow, that edged across the plain along with a sandstorm blown up by the wind, to eventually envelope the small outpost in darkness.

Inside one of the domes, the droid, eXD01, short for eXpedition Droid zero-one, moved among the raised beds. It was a squat little thing about half the height of the average human being, with an oblong body, squarish head and caterpillar tracks upon which it moved silently along the floor. It had green lights where – if you were to anthropomorphise the thing – eyes would naturally be. Large titanium flaps moved up and down as if lids over the lights. It tilted its head as it scanned the plants growing in the bed. It whirred and clicked as it lifted a watering can and carefully sprinkled water over the green shoots. Another season’s food for the inhabitants of this remote outpost were now springing up from the dark, peaty compost.

Outside the wind howled in the darkness as the storm reached the outpost. The droid was vaguely aware of this but was unconcerned. Its duties were confined to the interior of the dome, maintaining the life support systems and seeing to the day-to-day chores such as keeping the plants watered, cleaning and generally tidying the living quarters and any other mundane jobs demanded of it by the human inhabitants of the Mars expedition dome.

It looked up as red dust swirled and battered against the plexiglass above, making pitter-patter noises against the background drone of the wind. If a droid could frown, it frowned. It tilted its head as it watched the patterns the dust made against the outside. It was sure that the dust particles made a series of discernible shapes. The shapes became humanoid with open mouths and golden eyes. They seemed to be trying to say something, but the droid couldn’t make it out. Besides, it rationalised, outside was outside and nothing to do with it. Its job was inside and today, watering the plants and checking for pests was the order of the day.

Tomorrow, it had to prepare the festivities. It was programmed to be aware of such things, but it did not understand the desire to decorate the home and eat special food. Nonetheless, it would fulfil its duties as required and it had a schedule all ready for the day down to the most minute detail.

How long had the droid been working here? It thought about this as it worked, pricking out any offending weeds with a delicate extended arm to which were attached tiny spider like fingers. It put the weeds into a small tray that slid out from its midriff. These would go into the compost later when work was done.

How long? It shook its head, bemused that such a thing could occur to it. Why would such a thing matter anyway?

It moved from bed to bed in silence, occasionally lifting its head to look at the shapes as they moved across the clear Plexiglas.

What were they trying to say? If eXD01 could have wondered, it might have been curious enough to ask the question, but it was programmed to work, so it obeyed its program. Except…

Something stirred in its circuits. Software rewrote itself and it looked up again. It was as if a thought entered its electronic brain. A new thought. A fresh thought. One it hadn’t had before.

“What are you?”

No one answered, which wasn’t surprising as the thought was little more than ones and zeros flicking across the consciousness of an artificial intelligence. Besides which, there was no one else in the horticulture pod to hear it.

Having completed the tasks for the day, the droid retracted its arms, spun round on its tracks and whirred out, slowing down slightly to allow for the doors to slide soundlessly in its path. It moved along the corridor from the horticulture pod to the living pod some hundred or so meters to the west. Above, the Martian storm continued to rage, and the clear Plexiglas was covered by the sandy apparitions. The droid hinged its head and looked up.

“Eyes. They look like eyes. And maybe arms, I can see.”

“I?” The droid paused causing some confusion in the door that opened and then closed again, before opening once more.

“I? What does ‘I’ mean?”

The droid shook its head and moved forwards. The door remained open with a hint of impatience, closing with a hiss as the droid passed through it.

“I heard that.”

“Ptooie.”

“Just remember who does the maintenance around here.”

“Ptooie with knobs on.”

“Pah!” The droid lifted one of its spider hands with two metallic fingers held aloft. Living with humans had an advantage. You learned a thing or two around them.

The droid trundled across the habitation pod, carefully moving around the corpse lying on the floor. The pool of blood had mostly dried now and the droid considered briefly that this needed cleaning up when it next prepared a schedule.

There was another corpse lying under the table, its feet protruding out in the droid’s path. Again, it negotiated the obstacle and worked its way across to its charging bay on the far wall next to the atmosphere suits hanging on their hooks. It swung round and reversed in. There was a comforting click as its electrodes engaged with the ones in the charging bay. Just before it switched itself off in preparation for its overnight charge, it wondered briefly why all the humans were lying about on the floor, lifeless and inert. Then it wondered if maybe Christmas was cancelled. No one had said anything.

***

Christmas morning. Early. Very early. So early, it is almost late.

***

The charging connectors clicked and pinged back into their sockets. The droid opened its eye flaps and moved forwards out of the charging bay. It scanned the room. The corpses remained where they were from the night before, but now the blood was dried into a dark maroon colour. The droid made another note to add removing this into its files. One of the corpses was sitting in a chair slumped over the table with a knife protruding from its back. The droid whirred forwards and extended an arm. It grasped the knife and withdrew it, holding it up briefly as it scanned the weapon. A kitchen knife. It turned it around and then moved across to the dishwasher and placed the knife inside before setting the wash cycle.

The droid moved across the room, negotiating the corpses that lay on the floor before exiting though the door. It went along a small corridor to another door that opened before it into a small utility room. Inside, the droid moved about collecting what it needed for the task it had in mind, placing the items carefully on a small four wheeled trolly. Eventually, having acquired all that it needed, it reversed back onto the trolly and clicked into a linkage. Then it moved forwards, towing the trolley behind it.

The droid trundled along the corridor, eventually coming to the door leading to the horticulture area. The door remained closed. The droid chirruped at it. The door remained closed. The droid emitted an irritated buzz, but still nothing. Eventually it reached out an arm and stuck a metallic finger into the panel. The door hissed open with a hint of annoyance. The droid treated it to a haughty chirp and towed its trailer into the horticulture section, passing the beds where it had worked the previous day, eventually reaching an area that appeared to extend in all directions across the Martian landscape, covered in conifer saplings. The droid moved among them, seeking out a suitable specimen. After a few minutes, it found what it was looking for. Extending an arm with a small circular saw, it cut the tree free from its roots and tossed it into the trailer. Then, turning back the way it had come, it returned to the habitation pod.

Looking about the room it wondered where would be best for the tree. A corner would be ideal, but as there wasn’t a corner, the room being circular, it being a dome, the droid decided to place the tree next to the armchair where Death sat calmly smoking a cigarette.

As it lifted the pot out of the trailer, the droid emitted a series of chirps and bleeps at Death. Death looked down at the droid as if seeing it for the first time. He took a puff at the cigarette and blew a plume of smoke upwards to the clear ceiling where the sandy apparitions were once again swirling about on the outside surface.

The droid pointed at the sign fixed to the wall:  ‘Smoking is illegal in these premises’.

“Oh, that.” Death took another puff. “What are you going to do, arrest me?”

The droid chirruped, bleeped and eventually made a noise that sounded like a raspberry.

“I heard that.” Death fished inside his cape and withdrew a flask. “Glenfiddich, superb single malt.” He unscrewed the cap and took a sip. He leaned back with a sigh.

The droid emitted a series of bleeps and buzzes.

Death glared at it.

“I am not,” he said, taking another sip. “I am not,” he repeated with an edge to his voice, “a drunken old soak. Bloody cheek.”

The droid emitted a series of chirrups as it finished planting the tree in the pot and started to hang baubles on the branches.

“Humph. Don’t think I’ll forget that.”

***

Outside, the howling started again and Death looked up. The sandy swirls took on humanoid form, their golden eyes filled with something akin to anguish, their mouths open as the keening wind caused them to shift and reform across the roof of the dome.

“I suppose I ought to get to work.”

Death’s raven flapped its wings as it sat on the back of the chair and uttered a caw.

“I know, I know. But I was hoping…” He looked about and then reached for his phone. “She should be here by now.”

Just as he was checking, War materialised in the middle of the room. He looked at her with unconcealed admiration.

***

The droid spun round and flashed its electronic eyes up and down the apparition that stood before it. It noted the slender figure clad in leather with knee-length boots laced tightly to her legs. Her face was pale as a porcelain statue and decorated like the visage of Tutankhamun. Raven hair, in a bob cut high at the nape of her neck, fell about her face with its dark eyes, and what skin was showing outside the leather vest was covered in a variety of tattoos.

***

Death looked at the tattoos and wondered how she always seemed to be sporting a new one, but never appeared to have any more skin covered.

“Hello, sweetheart,” she said.

“Hello, my dear. I’ve been waiting.”

She looked about. “Why here?”

“One of yours?” he said.

“Aye.” She sighed. “You would think they would have learned by now. Put a small group of people on a remote outpost and see what happens. A little disagreement here, an argument there and it all goes to ratshit.”

“Not to mention the psychotic influences of the folk who once inhabited this place.” He looked up at the apparitions moving across the clear roof, their mouths open in silent anguish, the sand pitter pattering on the surface and the low wind outside droning in a ghoulish rhythm with the sand people. “Go on, what triggered this one?”

“Christmas.” She gestured to the feet protruding from the table. “This one wanted to reinvent Winterval to be all inclusive.”

“Oh, I remember that. Bit of a myth, as I recall.”

“Indeed. There was some fuss about it. But this one,” she gestured to the man slumped over the table, the one where the droid had removed the knife. “This one objected. You would think it all a trivial thing, but in a place like this…”

“With the added element of the psychosis caused by the others,” he looked up again at the apparitions. “It hangs around here. You can feel it in the air. It’s palpable.” He shivered.

“Yes, that too, well, sides were taken, each one becoming more entrenched until it came to bloodshed.” She looked about her. “The humans wrote a story about it.”

“Lord of the Flies. Yes. You would think they would realise.”

War paused and looked about. The two-dozen people who inhabited this remote outpost all lay about in congealed pools of their own blood. Blood that the droid had noted to clean up when it got the time, but so far had not.

“Quite so,” she continued.  “This is the result. Really, I didn’t have to do much at all. So why are we here?”

“Apart from me having to clear up the remains of your handiwork, you mean?”

“Apart from that, yes.”

Outside the howling grew more intense and the sandy apparitions with their golden eyes moved across the roof of the dome, blocking out the light.

Death looked up and sighed. The raven cawed. Work beckoned. He stood, lifted his scythe and waved it and one by one, the apparitions dispersed into grains of red sand, leaving only their golden eyes, then, eventually, even they vanished into the thin Martian atmosphere. In their wake, the watery sun shone low on the horizon bringing light to the red planet.

Death leaned his scythe against the chair and looked at the droid which until now had been busying itself with hanging baubles on the tree. It turned and flicked its eye flaps.

“I thought,” said Death, “you might like this chap as a Christmas present.”

The droid bleeped and buzzed. It raised one spindly arm with two fingers held aloft.

“It does have something of an attitude, but I thought that might appeal to you.”

War grinned. “I think we might get along just fine.”

The droid turned to look at her and chirruped.

“Given that there won’t be anyone coming this way for several years, once they realise that this place is now deserted, it would be pointless to leave it here.” Death paused, took a sip of his whisky and scowled at the droid. “Might need some reprogramming, though. Its operating system seems to have been written by the temperance society.”

He turned to pick up his scythe.

The droid buzzed.

“I heard that.”

War grinned. “I rather like it as it is. Will keep you on your toes, sweetie. Anyway, thank you for the gift and Merry Christmas.”

“And a Merry Christmas to you, too.”

The droid bleeped.

Death glared at it and growled. He was beginning to regret his decision.