She sat in a shaded corner of the patio. Swathed in robes of white, face barely visible under a broad hat brim, dark glasses hiding her eyes — I knew she was a fellow expatriate. She raised her head as I shuffled up to the table. I was fresh from Mars and three days into rehab.
I bowed as much as I dared, muscles quivering as they fought the drag of Earth gravity. “I am Skip Kimmer. Also a Martian — Ex-Martian now. May I sit?”
“Sit, before you collapse.” A smile touched her lips. “Once a Martian, always a Martian — or so I believe. I am Tethys, of Bonestell. On the flats northeast of the Chasm Cities.” She did not offer her hand.
Exo-skeleton servos hummed as I planted my butt in the chair. The powered frame assisted my legs and allowed me to move about. “I know Bonestell,” I said. “Though only by rep. I was based at Acheron. Enviro technician.”
“You are Earth-born.” It was not a question. Tethys’ face was delicate, unlined. The hands folded on a small comp unit were slightly darker, but obviously those of a native Martian. I had lived much of my life closer to the sun.
“Earth-born, yes. Back now for good.”
“How sad for you.” Tethys sagged back. “Sorry, Skip, but I have to lie down. The gravity — ” With that, she backed her powered chair, turned slightly, and rolled slowly away.
A week went by before I saw her again. She approached from behind and stopped at my shoulder, head tilted to one side. “May I join you?”
“Of course, Tethys. And welcome.”
“Ah.” Her face broke into a smile. “Skip Kimmer. Pardon me for not knowing you. My sight has degenerated further. I — I see only shapes now.” She stopped, then went on. “How is your rehab?”
“Painful.” I laughed. “I am rebuilding old muscles.”
She grimaced. “I do not wish to build muscle. I wish to heal.”
“The — problem is more than your eyes?” A particularly virulent type of cancer had appeared on Mars. Optic nerve damage and blindness are the first stages of the disease. The last is death. Nine out of ten cases afflict Mars-born.
She responded with a slight nod. “As you say.”
“Are the treat — ” I hesitated, not wishing to go too far. Curiosity won out. “The treatments. Are they working?”
A shrug. “The doctors. They will not commit to an opinion.”
Tethys slid a hand across the table, found mine, grasped it softly. “You would give up the clean sands of home for this ball of dirt?”
She wished to change the subject. I was more than willing. My mind refused to accept the idea of this frail creature dying, blind and far from her kin.
“Earth has its own beauty.” I spoke of waterfalls, waves pounding rocky headlands, the quiet found in forested depths. Even then I wondered who I was trying to convince.
Her fingers tightened. “Have you stood alone in a dust storm, at dawn?” she whispered. A tear coursed down her cheek. “I wish, once again, to see the far sun rise up in scarlet splendor.”
Her words struck a chord. “I once watched the sunset from the scarp of Olympus Mons. There was dust high in the sky.” I closed my eyes, remembering. Below my feet a too-close horizon stained red by a tiny, dying sun — above me the harsh black of space, pricked by countless stars. It was as if I were soaring up from the sands of Mars, flying off into the void. Fear and awe mingled in memory.
I sighed. “I will not see that again.”
Tethys produced a slight smile. “You will go back.”
“Not me.” I was not prepared to admit the possibility of failure. “I was only gone for seven years. I’ll be fine. The body remembers.”
But I was not fine. Days of rehabilitation and regenerative therapy became weeks of agony. Despair became my constant companion. The technicians in rehab urged me on, but the endless hours of torment yielded little progress.
Tethys and I met several times on the patio. Her admonition was always the same. “Go back, Skip. You do not have to bear this terrible burden.” Gravity, she meant, the weight of which has dragged at humankind since the beginning.
“I was made for it,” I said, though with less certainty than before.
One day a medical technician summoned me from Rehab. He led me to her room. Her thin form pressed into the mattress. Each labored breath threatened to be her last. I took her hand in mine.
Her fingers curled around my hand. “Go — home.”
She said nothing else. After a time she slept. They sent me away and I never saw her again. Tethys died that evening.
The next afternoon a green-smocked aide approached as I prepared for another rehab session. She handed me an aluminum tube, capped at one end. “Tethys said you were to have this — for when you go back to Mars.”
“But, I am not — ” Tears halted my words. I gripped the tube, touched the finely machined threads. A desperate longing filled my heart. Tethys knew the truth. She was not of Earth and I was no longer an Earthling. We were humans of a new pattern.
I met her parents under the dome at Bonestell. They would not take the tube. Her father handed me a printed message. “This came before she died. The last line is for you, I think.”
“Let me see the sun rise up in scarlet splendor.”
Sunrise paints the horizon in swirls of dusty red. I raise the tube high. Her ashes flicker pale pink as they seed the restless Martian wind.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.