A Martian Sends a Postcard Home

Stories begin in all sorts of places, but this one begins fifty feet under the water, when a mackerel that had been minding its own business was suddenly blown wildly off course by a violent explosion.

The explosion itself was somewhere above, in the harsh, forbidden world that was sunlit for half the hours of the day and blessedly dark for the other half, or some variation thereupon depending on the season. It had occurred on a rocky outcrop some distance away where the mackerel seldom swam, but the resulting shockwave had churned foam in the depths and sent huge ripples that scattered the marine life away from its shoals and holding patterns and into the turmoil of a wild and unforgiving sea. All of a sudden, and for a comparatively brief instant, that whole sector of the ocean was in disarray and chaos. Then the sea calmed, and things returned to normal.

The mackerel would never know what had caused the explosion, but it would be thinking about it some hours later and would, as an unfortunate consequence, entirely fail to see the fisherman’s hook.

***

The visitor awoke to find himself surrounded by twisted metal, rocks, and water, and – much to his alarm – the smell of burning.

It was impossible to tell exactly where he was, but he appeared to be lying on his side, strapped firmly into some kind of cushioned seat. The straps were taut and covered the top half of his body, and were undoubtedly the reason he was still alive, having prevented him from being flung clear of the craft when it had crashed. Unfortunately, they also threatened to be his undoing, as the mangled wreck of twisted metal was grunting and groaning as it slid over the rocks, edging towards the ocean in a shower of sparks. The water of a tempestuous high tide was dousing a few of the flames that had sprung up inside the shattered cockpit, but the emergency release system appeared to be offline and it occurred to the Martian – for this is what he was – that unless there was another way to wriggle free from the pod before it sank, his day was liable to be very short.

With some effort, he wrenched himself free, and clambered out of the craft mere seconds before the bulk of it slipped from the edge of the outcrop and disappeared out of sight beneath the waves.

Shaky, still unsteady on his feet, weighed down by heavy, battle-regulation armour, and walking with a slight limp, the Martian was cheered by one thing as he made his way over the rocky terrain: he had remembered that his name was Klaarth.

***

The land was green, hilly in places and speckled with farms and homesteads. Klaarth made his way up a steep cliff path and through a selection of fields. His communicator was damaged beyond repair and his navigational aid – a pocket-sized number that was standard issue – was still offline while it charged.

What was worse, his head ached. The weather, at least, was passable: grey clouds flecked the horizon and it was pleasantly cold, even if the mist that had lain around him earlier had vanished and the rain had stopped.

Klaarth crested the brow of a hill, looking for signs of intelligent life and eventually finding it staring back at him, impassive and unreadable.

“I require assistance,” he said in a low hiss. “You will take me to your general so that I may contact my people. In return, you shall be rewarded.”

The creature stared at him for a moment, and then flicked its tail, turning away with a noise that sounded like “Moo”.

Beneath his visor, Klaarth frowned, unable to determine whether this was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.

***

The barrier to the compound was flimsy and poorly guarded, and he found the entrance almost immediately. The path led him through a faintly sodden field containing service vehicles of all different varieties – some agricultural, some evidently for transport of civilians or prisoners. Some of the pilots were standing nearby, performing rudimentary maintenance tasks or, shockingly, leaving their vehicles unattended. A great number seemed to be heading through a gap in the hedge, and Klaarth fell into step behind them, wondering if he could find whoever was in charge.

A selection of white tents ringed the next sector. Some appeared to be mess tents, serving rations – Klaarth did not recognise the varieties on offer but he knew the smell of roasting meat when he encountered it. Others were trading posts, where goods were passed from one set of hands to the other with the transaction of silver coins that he took to be primitive currency. Still others appeared to be set out for recreational purposes, although there was one – at the far end – that had evidently been set up as some kind of torture chamber, owing to the obnoxious screeching noise coming from therein. It seemed to go on interminably, and he was glad to be at a distance. There followed muted applause and some kind of announcement: Klaarth had not quite picked up enough of the local dialogue to fully understand it, but two of the words that stood out were ‘Recorder Ensemble’.

The creatures that thronged the tents – of all manner of sizes and ages, he noticed – were not wearing anything that might be called a uniform, and Klaarth realised he was in a civilian outpost. This made his job difficult, but not impossible. It was simply a matter of moving among the dwellings until he found someone who would able to help.

He set off, ignoring (because he did not understand it) the large white sign that read ‘VILLAGE FETE AND FUN DOG SHOW’.

***

If Klaarth had not been light of head and still rather disorientated, he might have stopped to wonder why it was that none of the strange sapient creatures was paying him the slightest bit of attention. There were occasional nods from some, and a few welcome smiles and a wave or two, but nothing that might be interpreted as the sort of alarm or abject horror that you might expect from having a large green alien wandering in your midst.

The question that Klaarth had not yet got around to asking himself was, in any case, answered, when a leather jacketed man holding a plastic beer glass wandered over and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Tony!” he bellowed. “Thought you was still in ‘ospital, we did. Good to see you, mate.”

The typical Martian response to this sort of surprise attack was to immediately counter it with a swift judo throw and then a lethal blow to the head, but Klaarth was frankly too stunned to reply. Instead he inclined his head, giving the beaming newcomer a curious glance. “I – ”

“Still doing the Green Man, then?” said the chap with the pint glass. “This new costume’s a bit of all right, isn’t it? Kind of hot, though, surely? Pick it up online, did you?”

It was a bombardment of semi-rhetorical questions and Klaarth frankly did not know where to begin when it came to answering them, but as luck would have it he didn’t have to. The overly familiar stranger was waving at a couple of men standing near the bouncy castle. “Bob! Trevor! Would you look who it is!”

The men turned, shielded their eyes against the watery afternoon sunshine, and then raised their plastic glasses in what Klaarth took to be a salutatory greeting. Then they returned to their conversation, which was too far away for the Martian to hear – although it seemed to involve a lot of hand gesturing, and he thought he saw one man mouth the words “It was this big”.

“Well, I think I’m goin’ over to the welly wangling,” said the man with the jacket. “Reckon it’s my year. I’ll be seein’ you later for the presentations, no doubt.”

He wandered off at an angle, heading in the direction of a small crowd on the far side of the field. The Martian watched him go, unsure as to what had just occured and even less sure as to how to begin to decode it.

From nearby, there was the sound of something breaking – a forceful, violent crashing noise. He turned, reflexively, bracing himself for this new onslaught, but found instead that the culprit was a teenage girl, in the middle of target practice against a row of white circular objects, using some kind of primitive spherical projectile. Klaarth frowned. Perhaps this was not a civilian outpost after all – in which case, a change of tact might be called for.

He strode over to the target arena, only to find his attention diverted by a large table full of ephemera, upon which something had caught his eye. Amidst the racks of fraying apparel and the caxtons and the rudimentary mechanical devices, thick with rust and grime, there lingered a small pile of plastic men. No – not men, but creatures, creatures he knew. Some he had fought alongside, some he had fought against. And, in the midst of them –

Klaarth lifted the figure and turned it over in his hands. It was, he deduced, a gaming piece of some kind, perhaps for the seven-layer extra-dimensional chess that he remembered from his childhood on Mars. And yet…

It’s me. How can it be me?

The catch in someone’s throat – a sharp intake of breath – made him look up. Behind the table, a small boy was looking at him with something Klaarth interpreted (correctly, as it turned out) as a mixture of amazement and fear.

“It’s you,” the boy said, after a moment. “It’s really you. You’re really – ”

The boy was steadily backing away. Klaarth found himself amused, not least because he had found someone on this primitive world that recognised his natural authority. And, having reached this point on his quest, he decided to milk it as much as possible.

“Yes,” he hissed, with as much menace as he could muster. “Now – ”

“Philip!” said a motherly female voice. “Stop gawpin’ at the costume and help me, will you?”

Philip blinked. “Sorry, Mam.”

A woman of forty or so put her arm on the boy’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Tony,” he said. “He’s not being rude. He just loves the costume. Triumph, it is. It’s lovely to see you. We heard you was still recoverin’.”

She hustled the child away, the spell broken. Klaarth frowned. Here was yet another sapien who had his identity confused. Either there had been some sort of misunderstanding, or –

Am I Klaarth? Or am I Tony?

Philip, for his part, had decided that perhaps he wouldn’t part with his action figure collection just yet.

***

Three quarters of an hour passed. Klaarth still wandered the tents, moving from one activity to another and then back again, with an increasing sense of frustration and confusion. Everywhere he went, it was the same: the people greeted him as Tony, asked after his liver, complimented him on the costume, and reassured him that Ben had been doing a fine job while he’d been away. All his attempts to ask for help, to ascertain his galactic coordinates or to meet someone, anyone in charge, were greeted with a laugh and a wink and a playful elbow in the ribcage, or at least the bit of armour that covered it. It really was most annoying.

On the upside, the food was rather good.

Now there was some sort of commotion on a raised platform nearby, where three or four of the tribe’s children were apparently engaged in some kind of ritual. Klaarth found himself being involuntarily led over towards the stage, a middle-aged female guiding him by the arm. “Come on,” she said fussily. “It’s time! They’ll be wanting you.”

A man in a shirt and tie saw them coming and beckoned for Klaarth to join him. “Up you come, Tony! Your bit, this is.”

He spoke to the crowd through a conical device that amplified his voice, with the by-product of distorting it. “Well, I think you’ll all agree it’s been a splendid turnout,” he said. “And I’d like to thank all of you for coming, and for our wonderful committee for organising things. I think it’s safe to say they’ve really outdone themselves.”

Applause.

“And when I look back at the history of – ”

There were a few groans from the audience, accompanied by “Get on with it, Les!” from Philip’s mother.

“Now, without further ado,” said Les, somewhat chagrined, “the results of the fancy dress. And here to present the prizes, fresh out of hospital and in an absolutely wonderful costume, it’s our local Green Man – although of course, we all know him as Tony!”

More applause, whooping and cheering, which Klaarth suddenly realised was meant for him. Unsure of what to do, or what local protocol dictated in such circumstances, he snapped to attention and gave a salute. The crowd laughed and cheered more, particularly when the platform wobbled a bit.

“Easy on the theatricals, Tony,” muttered Les. “This old stage can’t take the weight.”

He turned back to the crowd. “The judges have long deliberated, and all agree that the standard this year was very high. In second place, we have Wendy, and her Chewbacca costume.”

A girl in a brown summer dress and a hairy mask gave an awkward curtsey amidst a polite smattering of applause, and one or two mutterings of “Not again”.

“And in first place,” continued Les through the megaphone, “We have Angelina, with her Elsa costume!”

A girl wearing a flimsy blue dress, her head tied back in an awkward bun, jumped up and down on the spot in great excitement, all the while waving her fingers, as if doing magic. Klaarth felt something pressed into his hand: it was a pair of ribbons, with which he was evidently supposed to decorate the winners. Being faced with no obvious alternative, he stepped forward. Instinctively, both girls shrank back, as if in fear.

“Might want to remove the mask, Tony,” said Les. “I think it’s spookin’ them.”

There was, at this point, a small voice inside Klaarth’s head playing a delicate solo, the melody of which ran along the single central theme that this would be a stupid thing to do. Unfortunately, it was being drowned out by the smorgasbord of sights, sounds, and other sensations around him, and so – against his better judgement – he flipped the catch on the side of his helmet and removed it from his head.

Collectively, the entire village screamed in terror.

***

No one could be sure of the exact moment the newcomers emerged on the scene. No one remembered their arrival – Clive, who’d been handling the gate money, would say later that he couldn’t remember them buying tickets – and no one saw them actually leave; nor was there any sign of any transport. When they came to recollect the incident, people would scratch their heads, wondering if perhaps it had actually happened quite the way it had been initially recounted or indeed if it had happened at all. People are like that. They have an uncanny tendency of papering over the cracks.

At this moment, however, it certainly was happening – and as for Klaarth, his first awareness that there were new players in this increasingly ludicrous situation was when a young man in striped trousers and a beige jacket and matching hat strode onto the stage as if he owned it, paying no mind to the wobbly boards or the unconscious Les, and picked up the loudhailer. “Don’t panic, everyone!” he bellowed into it, before throwing the thing away in disgust when his voice was rendered borderline incomprehensible. “Cheap discount rubbish,” he muttered, clearing his throat.

“Don’t panic, everyone!” the man shouted in the general direction of the crowd, most of whom were either screaming or running. “This has just been an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that I’m happy to clear up. I’m the Doctor, and this is – ”

“Doctor!” said a woman from the front of the crowd, a svelte, accented thing wearing a skirt that could easily have been painted on. “I don’t think they’re listening.”

“Everyone, please!” The Doctor tried to keep his voice level, if assertive, but there was a noticeable edge of panic just beginning to creep in. “There really is no cause for alarm. This is – ”

Some of the erstwhile retreating crowd, Klaarth noticed, appeared to be returning in the direction of the stage. What was worse, a few of them appeared to be carrying farming implements.

The colour drained from the Doctor’s face. “Oh dear.”

He turned down to the two women at the front of the stage. “Nyssa. Tegan. Help me with this chap. We’ll take him back to the TARDIS.”

The painted skirt woman thumbed in the direction of the approaching farmers. “The TARDIS is through them!”

“Well then, we go around.” There was a snap to the Doctor’s tone, Klaarth noticed, even as the Doctor helped him down from the platform – although when he turned his attention to the two sobbing children crouching at the back, visibly terrified, his voice was once again soft. “It’s just a bad dream,” he reassured them. “You won’t remember it in the morning.”

Then it was all business once more. “Tegan. Take his other arm. Nyssa, you can navigate.”

As the four of them moved behind off towards the village hall, the Doctor added “And for what it’s worth, let’s try and avoid the morris dancers. They conjure bad memories.”

“It’s funny, really,” said the woman called Nyssa, “because in that jumper you do rather look– ”

“Please don’t.”

***

Some time later, Klaarth found himself regaining consciousness in a reasonable-sized white room, dominated by a large central column and a console decorated with technology that seemed to match his own, even though he did not recognise the design. He shook his head as other shapes swam into focus: his new-found allies, dotted about the chamber, engaged in various tasks. Of the angry mob, there was no sign, and Klaarth decided that wherever he’d been taken, he was at least safe.

“…the secret, of course, is the manner in which you choose to layer them,” the man called the Doctor was saying. “It’s a layer of jam, then a dollop of fresh cream. That’s if you’re in Cornwall, naturally – in Devon it’s the other way round.”

“And where were we?” asked Nyssa.

“Pembrokeshire. I’d imagine anything goes.”

“How’s our friend doing?”

“Seems to be coming round. We’re lucky we got there when we did. A few seconds more and I don’t like to imagine the hullabaloo.”

“It’s weird, though,” said the woman named Tegan. “I always thought Martians needed a cold climate to be happy. You know, like penguins.”

“Penguins don’t,” scolded the Doctor. “But yes, you’re right about Martians. Nonetheless, they can survive for short bursts at high temperatures, and on a day like today it hardly matters at all.” He paused, trying to hear the rain on the TARDIS roof. “It’s funny, really; as far as our new friend is concerned the Great British Summer turned out to be his salvation.”

The Doctor turned to face the now fully conscious and still quite disorientated Klaarth. “Welcome back!” he said, with a beam. “You’ve had quite a nasty time of things, by the looks of it. We found your wrecked escape pod some distance from where you ended up. Smashed to smithereens, I’m afraid – most likely no salvage value. That’s the pity with escape pods, really; they’re rather single use.”

“They’ve saved your neck once or twice,” said Tegan with a sniff.

“True, Tegan, yes. Anyway.” The Doctor crossed the room to where Klaarth was seated, and looked him over carefully. “Second Lieutenant Klaarth, of the Third Honourable Infantry Division of South Central Elysium. That’s what the black box told me, anyway.”

Behind his mask, Klaarth blinked. “I do not fully remember.”

“I don’t suppose you do. Touch of concussion, I’d imagine. Took rather a tumble through the atmosphere. The best thing to do is take it steady for a couple of hours, until you’ve recovered. Nyssa has already located your fleet: they’re – ”

“My fleet?”

“You were on manoeuvres. Probably nearing the end of a tour, I shouldn’t wonder. I don’t know quite what happened, but you were separated and crash-landed on Earth. Turns out they’re still in the immediate vicinity, en route to Neptune, so you’ll get back to them as Nyssa here has finished programming the flight. I won’t be staying, of course.” He looked almost sheepish. “We’ll just make sure you disembark safely and then be on our way.”

“Doctor,” muttered Tegan, as sotte voce as she could manage, but still loud enough for Klaarth to hear, “are you sure it’s a good idea? Landing in the middle of an Ice Warrior fleet – ”

“Brave heart, Tegan.” The Doctor’s smile was warm. “Fast in, fast out. I’m sure nothing will go wrong.”

“But he’s a Martian! And you know – ”

“All I know,” the Doctor interrupted, firmly, “is that he’s a living creature who has no idea of where he is, and despite my… complicated history with the Ice Warriors, we should still do our level best to help him if we can.”

Tegan sighed – the sort of sigh, it seemed to Klaarth, that she’d given at least a dozen times before, probably within the last week.

“Nyssa,” the Doctor continued, without looking up, “lock in those coordinates, will you?”

“Doing it now, Doctor.”

Klaarth gazed around the room, while his own head began the slow and agonising process of swimming into focus. There was something: a lingering race memory of a sapien who did not behave like the others, of a figure who strode in and out of Martian history, wearing many masks but always in the same ship, always defined by his –

Too late. It was gone. Klaarth gave a sigh of his own, and decided it would probably come back later.

His eyes turned to the console: a selection of what appeared to be reconnaissance photographs lay in a loose pile, poking out of a small paper bag. Idly, the Martian picked one up, flipping it over in his hand. The photograph’s reverse side was blank, but with apparent space for field notes.

Well. He supposed he should record the occasion.

“Doctor,” he said. “May I…?”

The Doctor’s eyebrow went up very slightly, but he looked almost pleased. “Be my guest.”

The woman named Nyssa was handing him something; Klaarth recognised it as a writing implement.

Thinking for a moment. Where to begin?

Yes. At the start, or as near as could be reached. Hefting the pen and applying it to the surface of the paper.

Dear Mum, he wrote. You’ll never believe what happened to me today…

(For Emily, with love.)