The first human child to be born on Mars is coming to earth. In a plan decades in the making, members of the first Earth-to-Mars colonizing mission are due to return. Their ship has been programmed since its construction to make the return journey after twenty-five years, arriving on this exact date.
Contact had been maintained for some time after the departure, but the difficulties of distance and failing equipment eventually lowered the curtain between us, and only faith remained. Debate raged; they had died and would never return, they had gone rogue to found their own anarchist country, the Russians/Koreans/Mexicans/Chinese/etc. had taken over the colony, the theories were ceaseless. But in a quiet, interior way, we had all settled into hoping, hoping they would return, whole, sane, bearing mind-numbing charts of data, and knowing, knowing in our hearts that they had died, with vast swathes of space between their bodies and home.
And so the day is upon us.
I am in a huge building, sprawling halls and white rooms like a hospital, part of the team dedicated to receiving the travellers should they arrive. There is preparation, anticipation, cleanliness and certainty of protocol.
And a door opens, and hell arrives.
She is alone, she is the only one, and though we know she should be grown her face is still a child’s face, peering desperate through the window of her helmet, swollen with fear and anger and making sounds, sounds like words, like the babbling of a baby or a stroke victim but screaming her attempts at speech so loud, so loud, somehow through all walls and skulls and piercing into us. And in a flash we know; they had all died, but this child kept living, a scavenger alone on Martian soil, mutated and deranged, building a world in the dust and the nothing, seeing no one but the memories of a child and whatever mysteries the planet held, perhaps some strange life came to her, or from her, for this was not quite human, and did not understand how she had come to be torn from her home, and she was lashing out like a hurt dog with no master. She stumbled around a corner, reaching for me, and her straight black hair was sticking to her cheeks and I could feel madness blossoming in all the bodies around me. This was a brain-sickness running rampant, spreading at the speed of sound. I ran. I ran. Long hallways, locked doors, shimmying out of windows. But the world outside was no better; madness had everyone in its grip, and I had to find a way to be, like her, utterly alone.