Chapter 40 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

Jim approached New Xi City with excitement and anticipation. It was just after 11 o'clock, and his quest was about to pay off. The night was clear and cloudless, with crisp, clean air and a sky hung heavily with stars. As he approached the little sculpture garden, he could see a number of people, standing in little groups, chatting and making small talk as if they were at a party.

The park itself was a small landscaped depression in the hillside, running right down to the edge of the water. All around the park were office buildings. Jim studied the sculptures. Five very large spheres of stone stood on the perimeter of the park, and a small fountain splashed quietly at the park's center. Jim could also see half a dozen or so other, smaller sculptures here and there in the park, but they were more abstract, and he had a hard time making out their details in the darkness.

The Children of Mars were gathered about the fountain. As Jim approached, he felt like an intruder, since many of the people there turned to look at him and their conversations momentarily lapsed. But after a few seconds, they turned away again and from then on mostly ignored him.

Three telescopes were set up near the fountain, and a small line of people waited to look through these devices. Jim could only assume that these telescopes were all aimed at Mars. Near this was a small table with a punchbowl and several trays of rather odd looking hors d'oeuvres.

Jim suddenly observed an important fact: everybody else he saw had red hair. He also suddenly noticed the woman he'd seen on the subway, who had dropped the piece of paper that had ultimately led him here. He made his way over to her.

"Hi," he said.

"Hello," said the girl.

"Listen, uh, I'm not sure I belong here, but I'd really like to know what this is all about," confided Jim. "Um... who are the Children of Mars?"

The girl sighed. "The Children of Mars are the descendants of the last survivors of the Martian race."

Jim rolled his eyes slightly and said, skeptically, "Oh, really?"

"Yes," said the girl. "A long time ago, we aren't exactly sure how long, the people of Mars were faced with extinction. You see, Mars was getting colder, and all of our water was locked in the polar ice caps. Our ancestors undertook vast engineering projects, building a complex system of canals to move the water down to our cities. But it was just too difficult. Our race was dying. Finally, they built a spaceship and the last few hundred Martians emigrated to Earth. Here, they mingled with the native human population and began a new life. Martians are physically very similar to humans, with one important difference: our hair, like our planet, is red. Red is not a natural human hair color. It is by this that we are able to identify our ancestry."

Jim's mind boggled at the girl's story. His basic instinct was to dismiss it as a silly idea that had started a small cult. But what if it were true?

"When humans and Martians began interbreeding, red hair became more common. But this caused a problem, in that the gene pool has become polluted. When you see someone with brownish-red hair or blondish-red hair, you are seeing the results of this. So, our group, the Children of Mars, was organized to try to preserve our heritage and our genetics. It's mostly just a social group."

"And only people with red hair can join," said Jim.

The girl shrugged. "I'm afraid so. It's the only way we can confirm our ancestry."

"Well, thanks for the info," said Jim. He slowly strolled away, discouraged by the realization that, because of his dark brown hair, he didn't stand a chance of acceptance by either the attractive girl or the group as a whole.

As he wandered out of the park, he observed a small plaque near the entrance, reading:

Hector Frizzz, sculptor
Dedicated to the memory of Xi City, Mars

On his way back home, Jim pulled the now-rumpled piece of paper advertising the meeting out of his pocket. He gazed at it thoughtfully, and when he got off the subway, he left it on the chair.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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