I was working on this for several days before The Voice came through. In a taxi on the way to Rome airport. By the time I finished it we were in the clouds.
The Voice told me who it was about. I knew then that she was female, where she came from, and how she was about to die. “I was born on Mars in the year 2713,” she told me.
The themes, I suppose, are the usual ones for me. Alternate history, religion… Oh, and a dollop of Byzantine history.
It is only after you write something like this that you understand what it is about. The impossibility of living a moral life after the worst holocaust in history. Sorry, a bit dark, then. I will append some notes at the end on the technicalities of writing short fiction.
By Martin Waller
I was born on Mars in the year 2713.
Your year. We do not date our years from the birth of an obscure
prophet from a largely forgotten religion. We date our years from a
more significant event. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I can walk among you unseen and unknown. My clothes, the baggy dress you sport,
the trousers, the odd accoutrements, the belts, straps – they feel strange to
someone who cannot step outside her home without a face mask and a
In the year 2713 Mars is approximately half terraformed. We will be
able to walk unprotected on the surface in about forty years. Our
years – shall we say one hundred of yours?
I will not see that, nor my children, or theirs. We live short lives,
because of… Once again I am getting ahead of myself.
I am astonished by two things, as I walk among you. The heat, plainly.
I was born 11 years ago, our years, in a tent city outside Vallis
Marineris. Step outside the tent and the temperature falls to about
the freezing point of water. How do you bear it? To exist in a
place that is at around the heat of your own blood?
We see things differently, then.
Let us now talk of the things that are not often spoken of. My great
grand-parents were from Greece, the place that was. On Mars, where you
come from is important, because there is no going back. My grandmother
would tell me of her homeland and her history, when I was a baby. She
died when I was in my first year, our years again. A good age, on
In the year 1071 the Byzantine emperor Romulus Diogenes decided to
attack the Seljuk Turks. The resulting disaster was so awful that the
Greeks always referred to the battle of Manzikert as The Terrible
Day. Likewise the event that places us where we are today. The Terrible Years.
And that second thing. The crowds. How do you bear it? Someone at your
side every second of the day, their breath in your face? All the time?
I step outside the tent and I am alone.
We grow food outside the tent. Gengineered chard, kale, pulses,
some corn. Martian food is largely vegetarian, heavy on spices. We eat
You will see this. Unless I do the task which I am sent to do, in
which case you will not. Ever. I must hope so.
Death, my death, which I expect and will welcome, is not like true
death. No pain, no suffering. A sudden cessation of being. Where does
a flame go, when the flame goes out?
So I walk among you, looking for the place where I have to be. The
intersection of two people whose meeting must be prevented.
If I do this, billions of lives will be saved. Just cut that thread,
move that block, rearrange that chess piece and all changes. On this
timeline, at least.
This is what we do. We enter the portal and we go up to a place in
history where the least nudge, the smallest movement of history, that
chess piece on a different square, changes things utterly.
Byzantium does not fall. The Jesus shepherd does not die on the cross.
The thing we dare not talk about does not happen.
I cannot tell you where I am. But that businessman, in the grey
suit, must not meet that one, with the yellow and blue tie. With the
blond hair. (Our hair is never blond. Too small a gene pool.)
Their meeting will create a great business empire, which will lead to
the developing of… That clever device, the thing and that other thing that follows, und so
(Your languages are so strange. Why so many of them? On Mars we say, On
pesson di do sei, et voche copre. One person speaks this, and all understand.) So Grey Suit brushes by. It is the work of a moment to slip the spores into his pocket.
His meeting will take place, but later, at the hotel, he will become
feverish. The next meeting will not happen The empire will not be
born. On this timeline, no Terrible Years.
In your time, you would ignore the suffering of billions of your
fellow human beings but devote your efforts to alleviating the pain of
some randomly selected animals.
We do not have billions, just a few million scratching a living on a
cold, hard place.
We travel down the timelines changing this little event, this tiny
accident. And ensuring that on that timeline, the Terrible Years do
not take place.
Like the millions of those suffering creatures you cannot or will not
help, we can do nothing for those billions of other people across the
multiverse. We do what we can.
When I return to cold Mars, I will return to a future where I do not
exist. I will cease to be, like a soap bubble that bursts in the rain.
My alternates will continue, to walk the timelines and stop that
meeting, that event, that accident, that leads to the place where we
do not go, even in thought.That is what we do. And you do what, with your billions of
Notes: Writing short fiction,and in particular short science fiction, is an exercise in withholding information. You start with an intro. “Katie drives like a maniac.” “I always get the shakes before a drop.” Why? Who is Katie? What is a drop?
Then you slip in some details. Why are you walking among us? What do you want? A bit of colour – the food on Mars, say. Gradually you bring in the facts, the motivation. Then you know what you are writing about.
No dialogue here, because the central character is not engaging with those around her. What does she think of them, as she carries out her mission of mercy? There is a clue.
(There is a cheeky joke reference within this story. “We See Things Differently.” An utterly extraordinary story by Bruce Sterling, given when it was written. Nothing to do with the above.)