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 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 you 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’d 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 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 the week before. 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 website; 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 be 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 thirty-five 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-B 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 his 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 fiancée 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 the 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 near 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 have been 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 easygoing 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 fiancée 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 pumped 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 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 1990s, 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 ostensible 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 proposals, 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 eighty-four novels, short stories, articles, and speeches, with the authors ranging from eighteenth century fantasists like Swift and Voltaire to twentieth century science fiction authors like Niven and Benford. A digital gallery of sixty 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 a while, 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 Gullivar 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 Gullivar 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, about 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 antidepressants I prescribed to him. And that’s the bad news. Perhaps he isn’t depressed any more, 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 1700s, it wasn’t until the first Russian and American probes got out here in the 1960s 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 1960s, 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 Adelbert 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 are 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 that of 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.”