“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
It had been exactly one year, and if her mission had gone perfectly to plan, Lieutenant Barbara Brooks would be arriving with Captain Noah Wilder at Waypoint Tranquility on Luna. Instead, she was stranded on Mars with no companions, no comestibles, and no confidence for her salvation.
The plan had been to traverse the distance between Earth’s moon and the Red Planet in five to six months and drop off the habitat modules along with a team of three colonists consisting of a medical, an agricultural, and an engineering specialist. Once Mars Base was established, her vessel would return and a larger follow-up transport would begin its own six to seven month trek from Earth to Mars.
As it was, nothing had gone right, and Barbara found herself on the very same cot she’d watched Noah, her Captain and close friend, die. She slowly sat up and gazed at Captain Wilder’s grave marker through the transparent Plastisteel viewport; the others were buried out there beneath the ruddy dust as well.
Barbara leaned back against an opaque Plastisteel wall and sipped cold, ferrous, Martian water from a straw. Rather than swallow, she spit it out onto the floor of her living module. She hadn’t eaten for weeks, and now even the taste of water made her stomach turn. It was still at least five months before the recovery ship would reach Mars’ orbit, and she had no illusions that by the time it finally arrived she‘d already have joined Noah in death, turning her brief sojourn on Mars into a permanent stay.
Six months ago, her transport had crash landed on the desolate surface of the planet she now called home. Had it not been for the courageous piloting of her captain, she wouldn’t have had the chance to survive another six months let alone have had the opportunity to meet the angels.
The first week after the crash had been spent trying desperately to save her gravely injured commander, while at the same time activating the equipment to convert the Martian carbon dioxide atmosphere to breathable oxygen. Unfortunately the surgeon had perished with the rest of the crew and Barbara was an engineer, not a medic. As Noah had breathed his last breath, she turned away to look through the living module’s portal, and through a waterfall of tears, she’d spotted what she swore was an angel. Just outside, a thin, man-sized, almost translucent being hovered on broad hummingbird’s wings moving so fast that they were two indistinct blurs. The creature had two sapphire saucer-like eyes and a smooth almost featureless face, but she remembered little more because by the time she’d cleared away the tears from her own eyes and rushed to the window, he was gone.
After Noah passed on, the next two weeks were spent burying the dead and assembling the drilling platform to extract water from the Martian soil. Her fourth week she worked to consolidate the surviving food stores and assemble the greenhouse habitat. There should have been six months of food remaining for five crew members, but she was only able to recover about a third, giving her about ten months for herself. While trying to stabilize Noah, she’d been in contact with Earth for advice, and they’d assured her that a transport had immediately departed and could be expected in six to seven months.
Rather than rest on the assurance that she wouldn’t run out of food, Barbara had decided to have the greenhouse module up and productive when they arrived. One evening, when Mars’ dual moons were both majestically visible in the nighttime sky, the angel returned. This time, he was walking not flying, and he carried another of his kind in his gangly arms. He looked even thinner and more malnourished than Barbara remembered, and although the one he cradled was naturally slighter in stature, she was clearly emaciated and very near to death.
Without hesitation, Lieutenant Brooks put on her oxygen mask, stepped out of her living quarters, and signaled him with a wave to bring his dying companion inside. The alien hesitated, unsure of the interior atmosphere, and Barbara understood. These beings breathed fine in Mars’ CO2, so since the greenhouse was not yet fully operational, she invited them inside there instead. Once inside, she brought a cot and the winged alien gently laid down his mate. Once the frail being was on the cot, Barbara could see that although the creature was obviously starving, her extended belly was not due to malnutrition. On the contrary, she was pregnant.
Leaving them in the greenhouse, she ran back to the living module attached to the remains of the crashed transport and retrieved some dehydrated food bars and a bottle of water. Setting them on the ground next to the female’s cot, Barbara looked to the male and pointed to her mouth. “Eat…food.”
The male angel picked up the bottle of water and one of the bars. He sniffed it with his tiny, barely visible nostrils, and took a bite into his thin line of a mouth. Next he swallowed some water and she noticed the corners of his mouth turned upward in an awkward smile. He put some water on his mate’s forehead and she stirred. That first night he was only able to get his companion to eat a small quantity, but did manage to help her swallow a fair amount of Martian water.
She let these two fellow sojourners stay in the greenhouse and share her food for several weeks. At that point, Barbara knew they were travelers like her, because long before this first manned mission to Mars the Space Authority’s numerous drone missions had categorically determined there was no native life on the Red Planet. She’d also discovered the male angel’s name by sheer chance. His mate was up and moving, but still mostly resting, so during the day he took to following Barbara around as she performed her daily tasks. In an attempt to help him learn words, she would point at various objects and name them. The alien would endeavor to crudely mimic the sounds, but they came out squeaky and somewhat shrill. She had put on a headset and pointed to it saying, “Earphones…mic.”
The alien had repeated, “Mic? Mic!” But instead of pointing at her microphone he pointed at himself.
“Mike?” Barbara pointed at the alien as it occurred to her that she had never properly introduced herself. She pointed at herself and said, “Barbara.”
The alien had a hard time echoing her, “Barba…Barba…rah.” He finally gave up and simply pointed at her and said, “Barb.” She was fine with the contraction, but the only person who’d ever used it was Noah.
After getting the status report of the rescue ship, they returned to the pregnant female and Mike pointed to her saying, “Angelaminorehavapuruna.”
Barbara didn’t even attempt it, she pointed to herself, “Barb,” she pointed to the male alien, “Mike,” and she pointed to the female, “Angel.” After that statement, there was nothing for Barbara to do but copy their delicate grins that looked more like inverted frowns.
Once both aliens were mobile, they attempted to assist Barbara in completing the greenhouse; following the agricultural specialist’s notes as best she could, and with their help, the first harvest would be ready in just three short weeks; they’d been together for two months and the seeds were planted and seedlings were sprouting.
In her spare time, Barbara attempted to learn more about her guests. By drawing an image of her solar system’s eight primary planets in the red dust of Mars, Barb had managed to find out where the angels called home. Pointing to the landscape and then circling the fourth planet from the sun, she’d said “Mars,” she’d then pointed to herself and circled the third planet saying, “Barb…home.”
Mike had crossed out Barb’s artwork and drawn a similar yet different solar system of five planets. He then pointed to the sky as he’d circled the second planet and said, “Mike…home.” The angels had journeyed much farther than Barbara, and she found herself lamenting that Noah was even farther away than either of their homes. Although she missed Noah immensely, her life had just been starting to look brighter right before it once again abruptly changed.
She awoke to a high-pitched whine, and slipping on her oxygen mask she rushed outside. Rather than the darkness of a moonless night, the area around her homestead was awash with light. Mike and Angel were not moving their wings, but were rising up into a light brighter than the sun. Other colored lights of blue and red flickered at the huge luminosity’s edges. She saw the angels both wave as she had taught them, and in a flash they were gone; nothing lingered but a transitory streak of light across the horizon. Once again, she was alone.
She returned to her sleeping quarters, and was nearly asleep when she was again awakened, this time by the emergency comlink. As she listened to the pre-recorded, delayed message, her heart raced, “Transport Beta had to be recalled due to a critical fuel leak; it will be all the crew can manage to safely return to Luna without further loss of life. A third transport has already launched and is scheduled to arrive Mars’ orbit in approximately eight months due to the further distance it will have to travel to reach Mars’ current position.”
Barbara ran to storage and counted her remaining rations, “One, two, two and a half…” Barbara strained to swallow her fear, but her evening meal ended up on the storeroom’s sterile floor. If the second ship hadn’t been recalled, she’d have enough without the greenhouse to survive, but now an operational greenhouse was absolutely necessary. She found herself seriously regretting sharing so much food with the alien angels, but what was done was done.
When the first harvest came, it yielded a paltry supply of withered fruit and vegetables that wouldn’t sustain one person for more than two or three weeks. Sweating profusely, she replanted the remaining seed and vowed to follow the agricultural specialist’s documentation precisely, especially the recommendations on watering, fertilization, and atmospheric density and temperature. Perhaps during the aliens’ short stay she had set the CO2 level too high in the greenhouse; another side-effect of her hospitality.
Eight weeks later, despite constant attention, the greenhouse contained only blighted and withered vegetation. Perhaps it was something about the Martian water or soil? Either way, she was finished, and so were her food rations, so Barbara Brooks setup the cot upon which Noah Wilder had died, and from which Angel had arisen, determined to neither communicate to Earth, nor perform any more labor.
For weeks the only time she got off the cot was to refill her water bottle, and with that final sip and spit, she had tossed it across the room. The container clattered and rolled next to the door as she slumped against the wall. Perhaps God would consider the aliens she had treated so well at the expense of her own life as, “the least of these,” when issuing His eternal judgement. She coughed dryly, nearly choking; it wouldn’t be long now.
“Noah, I will see you very soon,” Barbara whispered and closed her eyes. Seconds later, light so bright that it penetrated her eyelids illuminated her dwelling place from every window. When she opened her eyes she could still see tiny blood vessels in her line of sight. Her discarded water bottle again rolled across the floor as the door to her living quarters swung inward. Standing in the doorway was Mike. Behind him, Angel hovered, cradling a third tiny alien.
Mike held out a long slender arm, extending four spindly fingers. With his other hand he pointed to the sky and spoke, “Barb…Mike…Angel…home.” He was inviting her to his home world, the second planet of a distant solar system.
Barbara tentatively stood and took Mike’s hand for balance. She reached for her oxygen mask but Mike said, “No,” so without oxygen she stepped out onto the surface of Mars and breathed its carbon dioxide. She observed Noah’s grave one long, troubled, and final time. She didn’t understand, but it was as if just being in contact with the alien somehow oxygenated the air around her. Mike took her in his arms and together with Angel and their newborn child began rising into the vivid light.
Barbara whispered a closing farewell, “Noah, I recently told you that I’d see you very soon…but…I’m not so sure now.” However, as she looked back at her temporary home on Mars, she imagined that she saw her body still lying on the cot. Shaking her head, Barbara looked up into the light, ready to see what awaited her beyond.