“From that first proud moment I set forth upon our sacred Martian soil my native Earthborn foot, I foresaw that man’s future was sown among those innumerable stars so long ago pointed out to Abraham, our father in faith, and I prayed that my own pursuit of his noble goal might by the Almighty be reckoned that same obedient faith.”Thaddeus Puddle, Father of the Martian Nation, Memoirs (Seventh Revised Edition)
There are some among us who claim that Thaddeus Puddle was a secularist. A full seventeen months had passed since Thaddeus Puddle last opened his eyes, though he was as unaware of this fact as he was of what he would see when he did open them. We begin, however, a few moments before that first human gaze at Martian high noon, for Thaddeus Puddle had not yet opened his eyes at all. It was his custom, being a religious man, to open his day with a prayer. Understand now, when I say that Thaddeus Puddle was a religious man, I mean that he was fundamentally, thoroughly, passionately religious — which in the paradox of human nature did not ever mean that he was fundamentally, thoroughly, or passionately a saint. In the centuries since the establishment of that first colony on Mars, revisionist historians, led by Arcturo Spinoza, have tried with eager delight to tarnish the good founder’s reputation, as if his many failures — moral or otherwise — somehow made him more the secularist as they are and less the religious as the Martian majority is. Their imaginings aside, this serves only to impugn their secular worldviews by association with the types of moral failure they claim indicates it in our founder. Ever the religious man, however flawed, Thaddeus Puddle was accustomed before opening his eyes to open his mouth and begin his day with a Terran prayer now so ancient that its origins are unknown: “Domine, labia mea aperies, et os meum annunciabit laudem tuam.” It befits the religious nature of our people that such words should be the first spoken on Mars: “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” Then our blessed founder opened his eyes and saw the glorious red of Mars.C.K. Gesturin, Senior Apologist, Society of the Way
“Oh, he was on Mars, to be sure, but he didn’t know it. You’d think that, being marooned on another planet, the first thing you’d notice would be, well, the other planet. Right? The alien environment. The alien flora and fauna. Heck, even the lack of flora or fauna altogether, if your new, little island in the vast vacuum of space were one of those desolate, barren rocks outside the Terran orbit. The first thing that Thaddeus Puddle noticed upon awaking? The flash of dark reds, then brighter reds, then back again to dark, then bright again. He hadn’t even opened his eyelids, so claim the religious sect. And we all know every man expects to see red through his eyelids against any colored light! So of course he’s laying there on the ground — don’t tell me about that “first proud moment” his Terranborn foot nobly stepped onto our “sacred Martian soil,” blah blah blah, this ain’t kindygarten history — like I said, he’s laying on the ground. The sun was high in the sky, he could tell, because he was laying flat on his back! This ain’t some noble procession from his — are you kidding me? He landed in an escape pod or something. Never could identify just what it was. We’ve got it at the ancient history museum in Mariner City. — No, he woke up, his dazed and confused self facing up at the Martian sun, and it was directly above him. That light, passing through the capillaries in his eyelids, still closed, came through as red. Except it had a bit of blue, too, because the sun appears blue in the Martian sky, right? So it was really more of a dark purple. That’s what’s so — that’s why I’m over here laughing, because the first thing he saw was maroon. It wasn’t some noble mission, he was marooned here, passed out on the ground, and what does he see first? Maroon!”Arcturo Spinoza, Skeptic’s Microscope, Episode 57, Ancient History Stream
“Even before opening my eyes, my intuition told me there was something special about this place. If I’d been lying on a verdant, grassy meadow of Earth, I’d have figured right away that I was on my back, the sun right over me. Even without opening my eyes. Just the same, I knew right away, even through my raging headache, that I was on my back, facing the sun. It’s funny how much intuition plays a part in our experiences, but we hardly ever think of it. That’s about as far as intuition could get me that day, though. The situation was completely foreign. I guess ‘alien’ is a more suitable word. It was alien. And that was before [REDACTED BY DECREE 17, HOLY MARTIAN EMPIRE].Thaddeus Puddle, Diary, Prologue: Retrospective Reflections Prior to Day 1
Thaddeus Puddle had no idea he was on Mars. He awoke with his jaw clenched and his head splitting apart on the inside.
“Lord, open my lips, and relieve this headache!” He thought to himself.
“Gwen!” He called out next, gasping for breath. “Gwen, can you get me the ibuprofen? I’ve got a raging headache.”
For the moment — for everything in this scene took all of a few minutes — Thaddeus was entirely unaware that he had stepped, unwillingly, unwittingly, away from his family, his friends, and his planet. He saw only red, but could not deduce from it that he was on the fourth planet from the Sun. His eyes still closed — he didn’t consider why — he called out to Gwen again. There was no reply.
This was nothing strange. Gwen had probably woken early to take Baby Lejeune to go play in the living room and let Thaddeus rest. It was a Saturday, after all, and that meant no need to get up at dawn and dressed to teach at the local school, St. Augustina of the Holy Scruple. Instead, Thaddeus would spend his morning with a bit more rest than usual followed by the immediate dissolution of that relaxation in the tiring work of Quantum Informatics, his weekend IT job that made up the difference in his struggling academic salary.
Gwen was a good wife, Thaddeus had often thought to himself, but right now he was annoyed with her. After all, she was not there to hand him the ibuprofen and his headache was significantly more traumatic than the near-lethal man flu.
Thaddeus took a his first breath of Martian air. He meant for it to be calm and relaxing. It wasn’t. His lungs rattled and filled up with air only very slowly. It felt different and had an odd taste to it that was simultaneously pleasant and unpleasant. A sense memory flooded into Thaddeus’ mind and recalled a moment when, as a child, his older brother Traddeus had dared him to lick both terminals of a 9V battery.
“Metal?” He thought. Another rattly breath, another sense memory, this time the thought of sucking on a papercut. “No, not just metal. Blood. Uh, iron. Iron.”
Struggling to take another breath — why was it rattly? — Thaddeus remembered what he’d learned about iron in blood. Iron’s in hemoglobin, hemoglobin carries oxygen around the body. How ironic that iron was apparently abundant, but oxygen was not. Another hard-earned breath.
Thaddeus twitched his eyelids as if to open them, but they would not follow the commands of his unspoken will.
“Can’t breathe,” he thought. “Can’t breathe, can’t see. Am I dying?”
Thaddeus began to panic. More strained breaths. Gwen had told him to stay away from those salty, fried snacks, but Thaddeus was always certain his arteries were clear. And here he was, thinking of blood again. Blood and oxygen. Red. Blood was red. It’s the reason all he could see was red. The light around him illuminated the blood vessels in his eyelids. That’s why all he could see was red. Blood in his eyelids, red, red, red. Oxygen, not enough oxygen. Oxygen was flammable. Flames were red. Everything was red. Thaddeus chuckled. Everything was red. What a funny way to die. Thaddeus tried to prepare himself for death. It always seemed like there would be time, but now so many priorities were grasping at his attention. Thoughts of Gwen, of their children, of the state of his soul, had he turned the oven off before winding up here? Ha, what a funny thought. No, that’s the hypoxia again.
“Focus.” He thought. “Must focus. Survival. Focus on survival.”
Thaddeus grasped at his eyelids and tried to force them open. His fingers pried and they parted just enough for him to see a bit of pink sky and a lot of flashing red light. Had the ambulance arrived? In front of that all, however, his pesky eyelashes. All his life, they’d gone unnoticed silently doing their duty, keeping dust from his corneas, and now they were blocking his vision. Pink and eyelashes and red, red, red! And green. Green?
Thaddeus grasped his eyelashes between his thumbs and fingers. Green. It was crust. His eyelids were moving, they were just stuck together at the lashes. They were crusted shut. Thaddeus grasped at the crust. The pulsing redness dimmed as the shadow of his hands came over his face.
His life was now flashing before his eyes, but with the added experience of hypoxia. Thaddeus chuckled at a memory from his childhood, when he realized that the little green goobers your eyes formed were the same thing as boogers. It had annoyed him at that age that wiping the blobs away from your eyes was socially acceptable, but picking your nose was not. That’s why Chrissy Meyer wouldn’t be his girlfriend in first grade. He had cooties in his nose. And on his fingers. He chuckled again, feeling the urge now to laugh more intensely. It really was hilarious.
But no, he had to see.
“Get a grip, Thaddeus!” He shouted internally. He pulled at the crusts, but they would not budge. He tried to grind them into dust between his fingers. Nothing. “Desperate measures.”
Thaddeus clenched his eyelashes once more between his thumbs and index fingers. With all his willpower, he yanked his hands firmly forward, up toward the light he could only see in shades of pink with a red pulse flashing over it every few seconds.
His eyelids now the latest red thing in the vicinity, rapidly swelling with pain, Thaddeus drew another breath, this time with renewed struggle. He barely noticed the terrible taste in his mouth, not unlike seaweed he’d once tasted on sushi at an Earthside hibachi. His desperation was deepening now and the pain had awoken him from his hypoxic near-slumber. A new determination to survive flooded his brain and his heart began to beat with a fury. The strategic misstep of yelping loudly in pain — a tragic misuse of oxygen — would have to be overcome with a few more breaths. But he would have to act quickly and a bit of pain was to his advantage.
All his time, he’d wanted to see, but his instinctual need for air trumped it all. Now, at last, with a bit of oxygen in his lungs, he opened his puffy eyelids and saw his surroundings. What he saw astounded him.
Truly, there was much to be astounded by. The little flames, the wisps of smoke, the large monolith in front of him — was that a refrigerator? — the flashing alert lights, signaling him of some danger he did not yet know. But what did astound him was none of these things. What astounded him were the cliffs high above him. Thaddeus had never seen their like. What part of the Grand Canyon was he in, anyway? And how did he get there? No, this couldn’t be the Grand Canyon. Light barely reached the depths of the canyon floor and it seemed like miles of darkness before the gradient of shadow gave way to a dozen shades of rusty hue, carved walls and pillars that were the fingertips of this canyon’s hand reaching up toward that pink sky.
Thaddeus searched his memories. Never had his eyes seen a cliff like this. Never, either, had he seen on any map of earth a canyon or gorge that could be lined with such cliff faces. Was he on earth? And if so, why couldn’t he breathe? It was clear now the pulsating red light was no ambulance. In their brief flashes of light, he saw no apparent roads for such a vehicle to reach him. No ambulance, but perhaps he was still having a medical emergency. A heart attack, perhaps? Would that making breathing difficult? He didn’t know. And where was he? Could it be the Grand Canyon as he first thought?
“Grand…” He muttered, breathlessly wheezing in what air he could before continuing, “Canyon?”
It was at that moment the last syllable left his mouth that he heard a voice in the darkness that seemed to echo endlessly against the canyon walls.
“Grand Canyon, 174 million miles.”
With the voice came a burst of light that threw him back in surprise, scraping his back against the jagged, rocky canyon floor, but there was no threat in the light. Instead, Thaddeus faced, directly before his eyes and through which he saw everything else, a projection hanging in the air, seemingly a few inches in front of him. Except that it was a hologram, constructed of light, it was not unlike the heads-up displays he’d seen a hundred times in movies. And on his HUD, flashing in front of him, a little label on that one object in all the universe that could prove he wasn’t on Earth.
Earth. He was looking directly at it.
It would be impossible to put into words the thoughts that rushed into Thaddeus’ mind at this moment. Truthfully, there wasn’t a single word in his thoughts, but rather a deluge of images and emotions, not so much his life flashing before his eyes as his entire life, his entire world, being rapidly zoomed away from, becoming as an infinitesimal speck of nothing in the vast, near-limitless ocean of cosmic meaning. The sudden realization that he was not on earth would, under any calm circumstances, be occasion for awe and wonder and grandeur and a deep sense of his own littleness.
But this was not a calm moment.
Thaddeus scrambled to his feet and fell on his back. It was the gravity, but something more. Something had held his legs fast.
From his supine position, Thaddeus looked up at the flashing again. There was a whine that matched its flashing, undulating up and down.
“It’s an alarm,” he thought to himself. “Why is there an alarm? Silly question. You’re not on earth. Of course there’s an alarm.”
Of course, there was always the possibility that Thaddeus was on earth, that his breathing was labored for some other reason than an alien environment, that the HUD was a piece of advanced technology used in an elaborate plot to pull a prank on him by dumping him in the depths of a canyon not possible on earth — pft. That scenario took almost more imagination than his being on Mars. Earth had, after all, been recently terraforming the planet by drones and rovers to prepare for human habitation.
Thaddeus focused once more on his breathing, which by now, though remaining painful, was approaching manageable. He’d survived long enough that he was doubtful he was having an immediately lethal medical crisis, but the mysteries that lay before him — above him — were still too great for his mind to process them all. Thaddeus decided to focus on two questions: Where was he? And was his family okay?
Picking up his torso on his legs and turning around now, he felt lighter on his feet than usual, but that was hardly a concern, provided he could—
He fell on his face. His virtual HUD passed through the rock floor unphased. What else was on the rock? A spec of green caught his eye. He ignored it.
For a moment, Thaddeus wondered if he might be intoxicated. He was moving about quite freely, seemingly relaxed in limb because they were all lighter than he’d ever remembered them. Every normal effort he exerted resulted in an exaggerated reaction from his muscles. No, not his muscles. His muscles were doing the same thing they always had. It was the physics that was off. It was the gravity that was off. No matter his thinking about it; thinking about the problem, knowing what the problem was, these didn’t solve the problem. And the problem was besting him. Thaddeus stumbled to the ground again.
They say when a person is drowning, it doesn’t look how you’d expect. When a person is struggling to get to their feet — and stay on their feet — in an alien gravity, it likewise doesn’t look how you’d expect. The more Thaddeus struggled, the more desperate he became. But from the outside, it might appear he was enjoying his turn on a trampoline. A trampoline at the bottom of a dark pit. It didn’t help that, little to Thaddeus’ awareness, his legs were also bound.
Thaddeus was not enjoying this. To him, it felt like he was drowning — surely, water was not flooding his lungs and he could breathe well enough now — but he was flailing his limbs wildly, jumping around in the air, hoping — despairing — to land on his feet and to keep his feet.
Thaddeus resolved to try getting up slowly from a stable position.
Climbing onto to his knees slowly, he picked himself up, rose to his feet and looked about himself. At his feet, he saw green. He reached for his phone. Surely he would have no reception in this ravine, but his battery should have enough power for the flashlight. There, glistening in the light of his mobile, were long strands of green goo.
Thaddeus’ desperation compelled him to a frantic search for his answers, but he had finally come to recognize that he would progress slowly or not at all. Reaching his hand past — and a bit through — his now slimy pockets, he took out his pocket knife and slowly opened it, as if not to alarm the goo. With one quick motion, he sliced down and away from his groin. The slime fell away like tissue paper. Whatever type of alien vegetation this might be, it was no formidable foe. Stumbling a few yards, Thaddeus reached the refrigeratorish monolith in front of him. Once again, breathless panting became the norm as he struggled to get there, but get there he did. On its mirrored surface, barely visible if not for the light of his phone, was reflected the face of a man exasperated by the last several minutes of his life and deeply worried about the next. His face became red, then not so red, then red again. It wasn’t waves of anger. Thaddeus glanced up and saw the alarm light again, continuing its protesting, sullen whine. What was this stainless steel box and why was it complaining at him?
Thaddeus looked inside. His face contorted to equal parts horror and confusion. Then, nothing.
Thaddeus found there nothing but foam with a cut-out in roughly his own shape. The empty shell of steel and padding was perhaps a pod, perhaps even the device that had brought him here, but beyond that, it bore no hints as to what had occurred. Grabbing at the door frame for a little added stability, his swiveled his head every way he could. It was only now that he was struck by the red cliffs above him — not by the cliffs themselves, no, but by their utter lack, their total privation of greenery. The cliff was high enough above him that he expected not to see grass or flowers or cacti or whatever grew here, but no trees? No vines? There was not a speck of green in sight except the slime trailing from his feet and … moving toward him?
His HUD flashed again with a little beep as Earth came into view. Wherever he was, Earth was in view. But that much he already knew, had already been panicking over. Cliffs and crags of rusty hue surrounded him on almost all sides, nearly pitch black at his level, but bright and vibrant in their heights and the sky was a muted pink growing to a pastel yellow as it reached its zenith, through which the yellow star of the Solar system shone dimly, filtered down from its whites and yellows to a pale blue. Thaddeus felt his stomach sink within him. There was counter-evidence to his gut feeling — to his knowledge, there was no breathable atmosphere at all on Mars — but his experience confirmed what his gut in this lower gravity nightmare had already told him. The clues added up to something he couldn’t reasonably deny, not by positive proof so much as by process of elimination.
This was not the Grand Canyon. This was not earth. He was 174 million miles from his family. This was—
Thaddeus never got to finish his thought. A tendril of green slime had been feeing around his ribs and shot up suddenly to cover his mouth. Two more tendrils grew out of it and extended into his nose. He could feel them tickling his sinuses from the inside, but the terrible urge to sneeze was met by the absolute impossibility of doing so. The slime threw Thaddeus to his knees, then over on his side. As he lay there, convulsing, unable to speak and barely able to think, he noticed the pile of skulls behind the monolith. Hundreds, each one cracked open like a discarded peanut shell, sloped up toward the base of the cliff. His eyes widened with panic as his vision turned to green. Finally, his utter terror was interrupted:
“Ah! Mr. Puddle! Yes, this brain, at long last, is ripe!”
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