The Nightmare Lights of Mars
by Brian Trent
Before discovering the moths, Clarissa Lang stumbled blind in the Martian sandstorm and admitted she was about to die because of a painting.
Granules of sand flew past her head at 90 kph and crunched between her teeth. The storm hissed around her ears, a terrible insistence that she hush forever. There was no excuse for this death, Clarissa thought. Weather advisories had been in place for an hour. Her death would become a digital footnote, filed under foolishness, for all time.
She staggered blind and tacked through the needle-spray. Red sand piled around her neck and shoulders, grew around her mouth like exaggerated lipstick.
“Overlay!” she shouted — tried to shout — but her mouth instantly filled with gritty particulate. She panicked then, the first moment of true mindless panic. But the Martian Positioning Satellite had heard her cry: Maureen’s property map sprang up in her left eye, drawn scarlet against each blink.
The house was thirty meters northwest. Upwind.
Clarissa tucked herself into a protective ball and scuttled sideways, like a crab. The sand struck her exposed hands and face in a shifting, relentless wave.
I’ll never make it.
Clarissa could no longer breathe. A recent story from the Japanese colony in Cydonia leapt to her mind, in which a grandmother had been caught outside in a sandstorm, wandered around in circles for ten minutes in the hissing tempest, and finally suffocated an arm’s length from her front door. When they found her, her stomach, throat, and mouth were bulging with sand.
The toolshed! I can make the tool shed!
Clarissa turned away from her house and the full brunt of the sandstorm slammed into her back, tearing the jacket, spraying around her body in silhouette. For a fleeting instant, she was able to suck clean air into her lungs. Then the sand closed around her again.
She ran downwind, following the MPS overlay, and tripped over a tree-stump â€“ all that remained of the maple her wife had heat-lanced a week ago. Clarissa fell and rolled, her face briefly showered in needle-spray, and then she was on her feet again, running, weeping, not looking back.
In three bounds she was at the shed. She grabbed the door handle and pulled. It was locked. The shed was slotted to Maureen’s biometrics. Clarissa pounded the door furiously.
There was only one chance left. She felt along the shed walls and reached the back as a muddy, bloody figure. With the last reserves of wild strength, she battered herself against the window. The glasstic was shatter-proof, but it popped from its molding and she fell atop its reflective surface, safe and shivering in the shed.
Musty air filled her lungs. Maureen’s tools hung like hunting trophies on the walls.
Clarissa weakly felt for the box of algae flares, pried the lid up, and struck it against the glass sheet beneath her. The shed blazed in bright emerald light.
The Red Planet tried to kill me, she thought. And all because I wanted to gaze at a painting.
The shed spun around her like a mad green carousel. She fell asleep atop her own reflection.
When she awoke, a woman’s voice was in her ear, although she was alone in the tiny shed.
“Clarissa! Are you listening to me? What’s your fucking problem?”
Clarissa drew herself into a sitting position. She felt stiff and brutalized. Worse was the feeling of razor-rash on her face; she was suddenly afraid to look at her reflection in the glass beneath her.
Maureen’s call-sign pulsed angrily in her left eye.
“I knew you’d do something stupid!” Maureen yelled. “Shedsec notified me that the window was broken. So I checked on your position… and you’re in the damned shed! The storm was blowing northwest. How exactly does the window in the back of the shed get broken? By my idiot wife, that’s how!”
It was remarkable how sharp her voice could be across one-hundred-and-twelve miles.
“I forgot about the advisory,” Clarissa managed, cradling her wounded hands. “How is your trip?”
“It was great until this conversation! What are you up to, Claire? Are you trying to get attention? There’s no way I’m cutting my trip short, so you best figure a better way to occupy yourself than breaking windows!”
“The window didn’t break, actually,” Clarissa said, and then she saw the toy moths.
They were of absurdly large proportions. Each as large as her head. Each affixed to the walls and ceiling and floor, to the tools and crates of paintings. Furry like rodents. Silvery geodesic eyes. Brown wings flecked with blue.
“You were trying to get one of your paintings, weren’t you?” Maureen accused in an acerbic tone greatly at odds with the smiling profile pic hovering above her call-sign in Clarissa’s vision. “When I get home I’m going to lance them into ash. I swear I’ll do it, Claire!”
Clarissa said nothing. She stared, dumbstruck in the algae flare’s green lighting, as the giant toy moths seemed to quiver. They hadn’t been there when she first mashed her way into the shed, she was sure of that. But what other explanation made sense? She couldn’t believe that during her moments of unconsciousness a neighbor had snuck into the shed, stepped around her body, decorated the shed with novelty toy insects, and then retreated without a word or note.
Across one-hundred-and-twelve miles, Maureen’s voice intruded again. “Claire? Are you listening to me? Did you get back into the house yet?”
“Not yet,” she muttered, and thought: It’s not an illusion. The moth-wings are definitely quivering, although there’s no breeze in here.
“Well get back there and stay inside! We’ll talk when I get home.” Maureen disconnected the call. Her smiling profile pic blanked out.
Love you too, Clarissa thought. She snatched the flare from the floor and stood; her reflection followed suit in its own murky universe.
And then the moths exploded at her.
Maybe it was the sight of two flares now against the glass, or her unexpected rise. Dozens of giant wings came around her, batted her ears, tickled her neck. She screamed and flattened herself to the floor. The flare winked in and out of the furious maelstrom.
With a shout of horror, Clarissa Lang pitched the green flare out through the window. The moths burst through the breach to follow the light.
It was busy work cleaning up after a Martian sandstorm. The red desert had lurched over the levees, turning the colonist homes into a scattered archipelago on a blood-colored sea. Clarissa stepped around the invading sand banks and marched to her nearest neighbor in these privileged woodland parts â€“ Vijay Gibson. She found him scrubbing clean the panels of his greenhouse.
“I don’t need to see the seeding registry, Vijay,” she told him. “No moths like this have ever existed.”
Vijay was fifty-seven, spry, and with a mustachioed face like a Sicilian chef. He was colony ranger for O2 Zone A-71, which wrapped around the base of Olympus Mons like a leafy garland.
“You asked the datacloud?” he asked as he scrubbed.
“Yes. They bore some resemblance to Attacus edwardsi, but were far larger.”
He nodded. “We brought Attacus edwardsi here, yes. They’re one of the Atlas moths. Giants of the moth family.”
“I’ve seen the pictures. The moths in my shed were three times as large.”
“I’m telling you—”
“Insects don’t have the exoskeleton to accommodate growth like that. They don’t have the circulatory system to support it, even if a mutation occurred to allow it. You were mistaken.”
“I know what I saw,” she insisted, feeling angry now.
“Yes, yes. Giant mutant moths!”
She kicked his greenhouse corner post. “This isn’t a damned joke!”
“Hey!” Vjay protested. “Fine, you’re not joking! You were caught in a sandstorm. Do you know how lucky you were to have survived? Have you seen your face in a mirror? You lost blood, Claire, you pass out, and when you wake up you’re surrounded by giant moths. Think of how that sounds. You didn’t happen to record them, did you?”
Clarissa sighed. “No.” Many colonists had recorders attached to their optic nerves. “I’m not implanted and I didn’t have a camera.”
Vijay’s playful smile returned. “Okay…”
“But I don’t need a recording,” she added, fumbling in her knapsack. “Not when I have this.”
She retrieved the slight crushed body of a silver-and-blue moth that, if the wings weren’t tattered and crumpled, would nearly equal the size of the knapsack itself. Vijay cursed in Hindi and leapt back.
“Where did you get that?” he cried.
“From my goddam shed. When they were crawling all over me, I must have crushed it without realizing it.” It gave her satisfaction to see him pale in disgust.
“What happened to the flare?” he asked.
“It’s still in my yard. The moths are gone. They must have gone back to the forests.”
Vijay circled the specimen slowly. “No moth grows to that size. It looks like an Atlas breed, but there are far more veins visible in the wings. The antennae are far longer, even with relative proportion to the larger body. And the size!”
Clarissa paced fervently in front of the greenhouse. “How any species have we brought to Mars?”
“More than a thousand.” He rattled off the major categories and the necessity of including insects in that cultivation of a transplanted ecology: ants to till the soil, spiders as pest control, bees for pollination, beetles to consume the mulch and fertilizer. And moths— the undersung pollinators since Earth’s Cretaceous. It was tricky business, setting up an ecology from scratch. Brother Blue had a billion years to get it right. By contrast, Mars was an experiment unprecedented in history, and its artificial ecology always teetered on the brink of collapse. Fish overpopulation in the lakes. Plant species dying off from fungus. Crops strangling each other. Birds disappearing. Dogs running off into the red hills and disappearing forever. Even the colony AIs couldn’t foresee every contingency, and the first lunar colonies provided a poor baseline for comparison as they were strictly, one-hundred-percent artificial environments. Mars was an open world. The AIs were stumped.
“The O2 zone made this possible,” Clarissa said firmly. “Coupled with the Martian gravity. Maybe even the radiation levels filtering in through the atmosphere and wrecking the moth chromosomes. What other explanation is there?”
Vijay looked like he was going to be sick. “I need to take this specimen back to the lab.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“They got in through your shed window, you said. The storm might have blown them out from their usual haunts.”
“Or they were simply attracted to the light of the flare.”
Vijay used a greenhouse trowel to lift the dead thing onto a tray. Clarissa didn’t stay to watch.
The painting was of Earth.
By mid-afternoon, Clarissa was sitting in her den, looking at the golden splendor of her homeworld rendered in oil-on-canvas. The brushstrokes were in the style of modern Impressionism. The sky was honeyed and warm to contemplate. The meadow blushed, the trees reached gingerly towards the firmament, and white rapids frothed over jutting rocks to eventually empty into a serene pond.
She hadn’t looked at it in two months. Seeing it again made her eyes moisten.
She hadn’t looked at the painting in two months. Seeing it again made her eyes moisten.
“Maureen,” she said quietly, “You can go to hell.”
There was no reason to stay on Mars. Clarissa didn’t understand when her homesickness had begun. She had emigrated to Mars as part of a geological survey team hired by joint corporate/scientific sponsors, and the money was better than anything Earth was offering. Shackled in debt, Clarissa seized the opportunity to go offworld. Mars was exciting at first. It was a small world, and that size was manageable and comprehensible to her. You could sand on a high mesa and see the horizon turn down at the edges.
Mars also exuded the frontier spirit, and Clarissa allowed herself to be seduced by that giddy optimism. Maureen Lang had been her point of contact from the sponsors, a director of business operations, and Clarissa promptly fell in lust, then in love, then into marriage.
And much like the eroding power of a Martian sandstorm, Clarissa had watched everything she loved about her new life disintegrate. Maureen turned out to be a vicious-tempered demon. It became a relief when she had to travel for business, although this meant that Clarissa was now a stay-at-home recluse; with the geological survey concluded, she found herself as unemployable as on Earth. Once again, debts were rising. Clarissa began to miss Brother Blue, as the Martians cynically referred to Earth.
She eventually found work at the university teaching geology, but there was little comfort and no friendships to be had. Earth seeped into her thoughts. When not teaching, she would sit at home and immerse herself into Terran films until Maureen deleted them all and (as she controlled the monthly bills) blocked access to downloads. All Clarissa had now were memories.
Clarissa knew it was her fault to go out there with a storm approaching. But she had started thinking of being locked in her house for hours or days, without access to downloads, while the brutal storm raged outside. She needed to have her paintings around her. Maureen didn’t like them in the house. Clarissa’s act of defiance had nearly cost her her life.
So now in addition to loneliness, an unhappy marriage, an unsatisfactory job, and dead-end career options, there were sandstorms and giant moths to consider. Clarissa made up her in an instant.
“I’m going,” she said aloud. “I’m going back to Earth.”
She called out sick for her evening class and reclined on her home’s backporch, her hands wrapped in bandages, her face glistening with the membranous jelly of mediheal on her face. She gazed at the young Martian wilderness. The O2 zone had wrought spectacular effects on the imported flora. A forest that would have taken half a century to thicken on Earth had sprouted up in little more than a decade here. And what a forest! The trees were a primeval wonderland like columns supporting a green temple.
Clarissa drew up a list of things to do before heading offworld. Maureen controlled all the finances, so it was an easy matter cutting ties and hopping the space elevator.
Then, with a sinking feeling, she realized her quandary.
She might be able to sell a few things and scrape together enough funds for the shuttle, but she’d arrive on Earth as a pauper. A destitute refugee. What the hell could she do?
The porch lights flickered. Two moths flitted around it.
Clarissa watched them for a time. They were not the monsters from the shed. These were a brace of normal white moths. Interesting, the selectivity of whatever mutagenic properties…
Why the hell should Vijay get credit for the giant moth?
Clarissa promptly deleted her list of things to do and began typing up something else. Her fingers flew across the smartpaper with an urgency and purpose she hadn’t felt in a long time.
The ring of algae flares sizzled on her porch like a sorcerer’s ring of fire.
Clarissa retreated to a corner of the porch and watched the wilderness. There weren’t many colonist homes this deep in the imposing Martian wilderness. Most of the colony had been constructed in the packed, linked style of Middle Eastern medinas, with an interconnecting system of underground warrens should the desert swallow the town whole. Now the forests were spreading, the colony was extending nervous feelers into the newborn woods. Maureen could afford it. A few scientists, or rangers like Vijay, had built ranches in the forest. Clarissa’s home was perhaps the one thing she truly loved about Mars, and that was probably because, with its woodsy environs and aroma, it reminded her of the homeworld.
The night was quiet. The porch was a phosphorescent cave in the flare-light.
But the moths didn’t come.
The centipedes did.
They marched out of the forest in three soldierly lines. Each was the size of a domestic cat. Upon reaching the ring of flares, they scrambled back and forth on a phalanx of bristling legs. The light played off their thick, segmented bodies. Clarissa retreated inside, watching from the security of her screen door. A newly purchased camera hummed in the window.
There were more than two dozen monsters. Monsters in her yard!
This is it, Claire, she told herself. She felt along the kitchen wall and punched the colony moot alarm.
The alarm flashed in every pair of optics in a ten-mile radius. It was a carryover from the earliest days of colonization. Dangers could arrive so suddenly that there wasn’t time for individual calls. A landslide or sandstorm or ruptured supply line could mean sudden death, and so the moot was built into colonist nanonics. For emergency only. Sounding a moot sent your name to the local police, newsstation, and Colony Board. A false alarm spelled dire consequences.
Clarissa watched the giant centipedes on her porch.
Yeah, she thought. This was pretty fucking dire.
And other thoughts came to her as she waited for the colonists to arrive. Why had no one else encountered these things before? Had Vijay been right; the storm had blown the moths off-course, and they had stumbled onto human habitation by accident? And then what? Hey had gone back to the dark forests to report their discovery and request backup? Or was all this a recent mutation â€“ across numerous insect species?
And of course it would be the insects most sensitive to this. It had taken thousands of generations for Homo sapiens to evolve from simian progenitors. How quickly could a mutation spread among the insect generations?
The neighbors came, grumbling and angry at first. They followed the GPS source of the sender and stopped as they saw Clarissa’s porch… and yard.
“Vijay!” Clarissa shouted over the buzzing of wings. Swollen flies were circling overhead now. Flies the size of bulldogs, darting about like ancient fighter-jets in the black air.
Ranger Vijay Gibson was washed green in the cold light, but Clarissa could see he had gone pale. He stared, glassily and unblinking, at the horrific arrivals in the yard.
“You patrol these woods!” she shouted in full view of her fellow colonists and their recording devices. “Earlier today I showed you a moth the size of a hawk. How is it that you knew nothing about what’s been going on out here?”
At that moment, the gathering crowd screamed. Huge ants were pouring from the woods, but they weren’t exactly ants anymore. The first two segments of their bodies bent upward off the ground, so they resembled centaurs striding on four legs. This upright stance freed their first set of foreclaws. They fidgeted with these as they fanned towards the Lang cabin.
Where the moths had exhibited brainless mania, and the centipedes showed guarded curiosity, the ants brazenly stomped into the ring of light. Their foreclaws lifted the flares for closer inspection. Freakish shadows leapt, darted across armored carapaces.
Clarissa’s neighbors gibbered into their codecs, speaking so rapidly it sounded like an entirely new language, the muttering of cultists.
She marched to Vijay.
“These things have been evolving in the woods along the O2 zone!” she insisted. “We prefer the open spaces. But they’ve been developing out there—” she pointed to the woods— “Where no watchful eyes could see.”
Her voice trailed off. Vijay was barely paying attention to her. He was speaking, to himself, in a long chant of fear.
“This explains so much,” he muttered. “The missing dogs, the disappearance of wildlife, the sticky nests. No wonder I don’t hear birds chirping lately, I just didn’t want to go there, not there, not way back where the trails end, in the dark heart of it all, the quiet woods. And then where the woods aren’t quit anymore… they buzz and drone… I’ve been… I’ve been…”
Clarissa recoiled as Vijay vomited on the grass.
An incoming call flashed. Maureen. Must have been notified of a moot at her house.
“We’ve got bugs, Maureen,” Clarissa told her. “Can’t talk now.” And she disconnected.
Her neighbors shone flashlights on the woods. The quivering beams illuminated a long parade of grotesque things. Still the circus of freaks came. Burnished bodies. Clicking shells with too many legs. Swollen maggot-things the size of cows. High up in the canopy, something very large and very heavy was moving towards the property. Branches snapped, underbrush crushed by unseen steps. Pale grey-yellow shapes, half the height of the sequoias themselves!
Someone in the crowd had opened fire.
An ant, clutching a flare wonderingly, was blown apart. Its centaur body was suddenly without a head and upper torso. The flare was flung against the porch and went dead.
The remaining ants reacted with a swiftness that was terrible to behold. Still brandishing the flares, they turned and scuttled into the line of colonists. More gunshots rang out. A child was lifted screaming into the night by a particularly bloated fly, and his high-pitched scream faded as he vanished.
Trees fell onto the property, knocked down by colossal creatures. The armed colonist retreated into Clarissa’s house and blasted from windows and doorways. Someone was pulled through a window by a bristly claw.
By 3 a.m., it was over.
Choppers were called in to spray microshredders on the insurgent horde, but when they shone their spotlights over the town and forest, there was only a trail of corpses to be seen.
The woods were quiet once again.
The ensuing search party came to nothing. After eight months, it was called off and other explanations were sought.
There was no denying the reality of the giant insectile corpses. Clarissa’s discovery had made her a celebrity, and she found herself touring the planet she had once hated as guest of every talk show and research hub and call-in newsfeed. The carcasses attracted the best minds in the solar system.
Yet Clarissa’s insistence that the O2 zone had created the mutations was eventually dismissed. Genetic engineering was blamed. A child with a chemistry set could manipulate the DNA of lesser organisms, people said. The insect attack must have been a case of bioterrorism. Martian separatists declared it was a conspiracy by Brother Blue to dissuade political independence. Crackpots swore to a government cover-up.
At the center of it all was Clarissa Lang.
She found herself steadily dismissed by the scientific establishment and then ignored by the fickle media-at-large, prompting her to withdraw once more, a recluse again, and a year after the event she found herself again seeking out the comfort of her paintings (which Maureen eagerly let her hang all over the house, so desperate she was to make amends with her celebrity wife.)
A year passed. No nests, no hives, no mounds. Search teams scoured the Martian surface, looking for evidence. Doppler teams dug pits and sounded charges.
The bugs had vanished.
“But we didn’t look deep within the planet,” Clarissa said into her recorder. “Mars is an entire world with deep passageways and tunnels and lava tubes far beneath our feet. The nests must be down there. They must have retreated to lick their wounds. They must have expanded their own colonies so far down that we can’t reach them. They must be down there.”
She shivered and gave a low keening sound. “I can envision the huge lairs they’ve built for the freakish behemoths and new generations of mutated eggs.”
She sobbed once. The urge to look at the window was almost overpowering. She pressed her free hand into the scissors once more.
Beyond the window, her neighbors marched out into the forest. No one was speaking.
“I tried to warn them,” she said, relishing the pain that shot up from her wounded hand. “But tonight as we were all going to bed, a shining gold light manifested from the woods. Something about it is so… compelling that the colony is going to investigate it. No one seems to care that it lies deep, deep in the woods.”
More footsteps, by the hundreds, passing below her window and stomping the nearby yards.
Clarissa screwed her eyes shut.
The gold light seemed to dance in her mind.
When she opened her eyes the recorder was still in her hand but her body was moving with the rest of the colony. The light—
She wondered what they had been planning all this time. She had some ideas which even now were fading in the face of the beautiful, golden, painting-like light.
The thought occurred that she should have left Mars while she had the chance, but by then they were already chewing on her.