“This is my favorite Earth tradition,” historian Viktor Krasnoff declared. He patted a piece of fake dead skin back into place on his cheek. “You should have used the real deal for your costume, Greta. It’s more fun that way.”
Granny Greta adjusted the holo-projector secured under her chin. “This is less messy. And I still look good in these rags.”
“I'll concur with that.”
“Oh, stop it.” Greta examined a shoulder holster at a booth manned by a Tangooian trader.
“That’s for the zombie hunters, not the zombies,” the alien said. “Here, try a half-eaten arm.”
Greta shooed away the grotesque prop. “What’s a Tangooian doing at an Earth Zombie Fair?”
The Tangooian clicked her tongue. “I come every year. Zombies are big on Tangoo right now. I don’t understand how this tradition came to be, but it’s titillating.”
“We don’t understand how the Zombie Fair came to be either. Apparently, humans in the past were obsessed with the undead,” Viktor said.
Greta and Viktor walked past the booths and into a recreation of an Earth city ravaged by apocalypse.
“It’s silly our ancestors had such a fascination with the downfall of humanity,” Greta said.
“I think they got bored. Advancements in space travel and planetary terraforming gave them something fresh to dwell on,” Viktor said. He steered Greta towards a path marked “Warning: Real Zombie Experience Ahead.”
Misty fog swirled around their feet as they continued past the warning sign, past the laughing crowds, past the streetlights. It was dark, dank, and dangerous.
“This is a bit much, don't you think?” Greta said as a “zombie” hunched past her.
“You haven't seen anything yet.” Viktor smiled. “For once, you may have to let go of your control. Give up your free will. That's the primary characteristic of a zombie.”
“I’m more of a Frankenstein, dear. I never give up self-control.” With that she swooped the draping rags of her shirt behind her and with a haughty look of determination strode off into the darkness, managing to look like an avenging superhero zombie goddess.
Viktor stayed behind several paces. Oh, how he wanted to witness the indomitable Greta with her guard down. Not that he didn't respect her, but he thought she could use a bit of uninhibited fun. He didn't realize how much fun she had being herself.
As Greta strode down the Martian dirt path, with Viktor trailing behind, she noticed something unusual. Even more unusual, that is. The zombies were becoming more and more life-like, or zombie-like, more realistic. They dragged, screeched, and walked around aimlessly. A building rose in front of her signaling the end of the zombie walk, and while Greta's attention was on a tank affixed to the overhang above her spritzing a fine green mist over the crowd, a zombie lunged at her from a darkened doorway.
“Argh! Get off me! Are you insane!” Greta screeched. She pushed the disheveled woman back into the dark doorway of the shack beside the path. The woman was lost in the shadows.
“That’s taking things too far,” Greta complained as Viktor caught up to her. “What’s this spray?” She waved her hand in front of her face.
“It, ah, heightens the experience,” Viktor said.
“A drug? You should have told me, Viktor,” Greta waggled her finger.
Viktor gestured carelessly behind him. “There were signs. And the effects dissipate within twenty minutes of leaving the mist. Have a little fun, why don’t you?”
“I always do, no matter what.” Greta looked around the carefully constructed dilapidated scene. To her left a few small houses recreated a 21st century suburban block. To her right a wooden saloon and hitching post recreated what she thought was from several centuries earlier. The large building in front of her resembled a Greek temple.
“Or is that building Roman? No, it must be Greek,” Greta said aloud.
Shuff, shuff, shuff.
Greta still stared at the tall, white building framed by cylindrical columns. “Do you know, Viktor? I’m sure I’ve seen pictures of this building before.”
“Oh! It’s a government building from one of the pre-Unification countries. The United States, I think. Is that right?”
“Viktor?” Greta turned around.
“Edwin, will you tuck a blanket around Reesha? I don't want to drop stitches on this scarf,” Granny Greta said as her knitting needles flashed through woolen strands of red and brown.
“Here you go, little cousin. I hope you feel better soon,” Edwin said.
Eight year old Reesha coughed and snuggled deeper into the blanket. “Granny, can I change the view please?” she asked.
“Go right ahead, dearie.”
“Mr. Spectacular, change to fireside view. With mountains. And snow,” Reesha commanded of the house AI.
“What do you say?” Mr. Spectacular responded
Instantly, the wall of windows looking out to a blooming garden surrounded by a white picket fence changed to a roaring fire within a brick fireplace flanked by windows looking out to snow-capped mountains.
“Now I feel like I want to stay inside anyway.” Reesha coughed again. “Granny, why did you name your house so weird?”
“Because he's spectacular. I didn't have such things when I was your age.”
Edwin snorted. “Granny, house AIs have been around for hundreds of years. Since before people even came to Mars.”
Reesha ignored them. “Granny, will you tell me a story?”
“I do know a good one about a beanstalk,” Granny Greta said.
“No, a true story. About you when you were a kid,” Reesha said.
“It is. I once grew an amazing beanstalk. It was so strong and tall I could climb up it. Have you ever seen a beanstalk?”
“We grew plants from beans in science class, but they were small,” Reesha said.
“Yeah, Granny. How'd you get such a big beanstalk? Even the ones at the hydroponics lab aren't very big.” Edwin grinned. He enjoyed trying to catch Granny in a lie.
“Well, that's explained in the story. When I was a kid, we didn't have very much food – that was before the microreplicators were invented – so my mother asked me to sell our cow at the market and buy food.”
Edwin grabbed a cookie from the platter on the coffee table then leaned back into his chair. “Granny, have you ever even seen a cow? There's hardly any on Mars.”
“We had one of the first cows brought to Mars. Anyway, I carried our cow carefully in the crook of my arm all the way to the market. I loved that cow and didn't want to sell her to some farmer who would try to get her to produce milk on Mars-grown feed, a futile endeavor.”
“What does futile mean?” Reesha piped in.
“It means something that’s impossible to work.... like ever finishing this story with all these interruptions.” Granny looked up from her knitting to see Edwin wink at Reesha. Reesha giggled.
Granny Greta continued the story. “But on the way to the market, I met a strange little man with a green pointy cap who offered to play a song on his magical flute.”
“That's the wrong story, Granny.” Edwin said, clearly enjoying himself.
“Who's telling this story, young man? Anyway, the little man could play a magic song to fill my pockets with gold coins if I would give him my beloved cow. Since money was what I needed anyway, I agreed to the trade.”
“But the food depot only takes standard digi-credits,” Reesha said.
“Oh, that's right. But I had a plan. Because up the beanstalk...” Granny paused. “Umm, far beyond the skyscrapers of New Moscow I had grown a giant beanstalk from magic beans. The beanstalk was so tall it reached to the sky. With my pockets full of gold coins I climbed up that beanstalk and saw the most spectacular sight. A huge stone castle hovering in the clouds and an evil giant coming out the front door.”
Instantly, a tremendous face with glaring black eyes loomed on the wall where the fireplace used to be.
“Aargh!” Edwin shouted as he fell out of his chair.
Reesha doubled over, laughing.
“Mr. Spectacular!” Granny said. “That's not what I wanted.”
“Did you want more of an ogre look?” Mr. Spectacular asked. “I believe the original story had an ogre.”
“No, change it back to the fireplace, please.”
The giant face and castle disappeared. Reesha laughed into her blanket as Edwin climbed sheepishly into his chair.
Granny Greta put her knitting down. "I think this is a good spot to end the story."
“But Granny, what about –”
“Maybe another time. You need to rest now.”
Reesha pulled the blanket over her head, grinning from ear to ear.
The purple insignia of the Old Martians plastered on the side of the aliens’ hover car flashed through the air.
“After all this time you'd think they would realize they have no jurisdiction here anymore,” Edwin said, gripping the armrests of his seat in Granny Greta’s space skiff.
“They're operating under the finders-keepers paradigm. They found Mars first so they get to keep it, even though it's in our solar system. Greedy greenies. They can have the planets in their own solar system.” Granny Greta zoomed away from Edwin’s apartment, swerving around the skyscrapers built hundreds of years ago by the Old Martians but now inhabited primarily by humans.
“Plus leaving Mars abandoned for a hundred years should negate their ownership claim. Back in my day, if I had done that on the playground...” Alejandro said.
“You’re barely past twenty years old. Too young to tell those kinds of stories. Now I could tell you some stories from my youth. Boy, could I!” Granny Greta said.
“Granny! Watch out! Cuidado!” Alejandro pointed at the purple car zipping around the corner of a gold spire and heading straight for them.
“Hold on!” Darkness slowly descended on them as Granny pulled the space skiff up, up, and up past the thin layer of red clouds covering New Moscow.
“Edwin! That was Granny who pulled that trick earlier when we were on your balcony!” Alejandro said.
“Yeah. I was afraid it might have been,” Edwin said.
“They build their cars to handle the underground tunnels, not space,” Granny Greta said. “Might as well take advantage of that fact.”
“Won't they send along a space ship? They seem desperate to catch you,” Alejandro said.
“Yeah, probably. I need to unload my cargo as soon as possible.”
Edwin looked around the spotless vehicle. “What cargo?”
“You’ll see when we get to the Bureau of Martian Affairs.”
“I thought you didn’t work for the government,” Edwin prodded.
“I don’t. I just happen to have something that would interest them.”
After skimming through the lowest level of space for a few minutes, Granny descended back into the atmosphere right on top of the largest building in New Moscow. Granny slowly dropped the car through the opening in the center of the spire leading to the garage chute. “Level 14,” she muttered.
The gold-plated Old Martian tower had been repurposed into the Martian government center after humans took over Mars. Each floor spread around the garage chute and housed a different department. Edwin read the signs at each level as they passed further down: Department of Earth Affairs, Trade- Solar System, Trade- Extraterrestrial.
They parked at Level 14, Cultural Protection.
Springing from her seat, Granny knelt on the floor and removed a cloth-wrapped package from under her chair.
"What's that?" Edwin asked.
“Oh, my back.” Granny rubbed her back as she rose from the ground. "Alejandro, will you carry my pink bag, please? I'll take these though." Granny plucked the gold knitting needles from the bag and slid them through a loop on her jogging suit. “Hurry, they may know where we're headed.”
The three people and the pink bag emerged from the space skiff just as a flash of purple beamed down from above them.
“Too late!” Granny called. She waved to the sky as they walked into the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The small lobby looked like a museum managed by someone who didn’t know how to pick and choose; shelves overflowed with odds and ends, many clearly Old Martian in design.
“Granny! Welcome back!” The android at the front desk hugged Granny Greta. “I’ll get the Director.”
Granny shrugged at Edwin’s raised eyebrows. “He reminded me of you so I asked him to call me Granny.”
A middle-aged woman in off-world clothing strode toward them. “Greta! You made it today. I thought you had that important meeting this afternoon?”
Granny Greta kissed the Director’s cheek. “I did. I mean I do. This is my grandson Edwin and his friend Alejandro. Our, uh, meeting took an unexpected turn so here we are. You best take this.” Granny held the package out.
The Director carefully unfolded the cloth to reveal a worn, golden tube lightly covered in red dust. She turned it over and over, then lightly blew on one side. Edwin and Alejandro leaned in to inspect the barely visible purple insignia. They glanced at each other questioningly.
“It doesn’t look like much, but this artifact is at least two thousand years old. Maybe much older than that. We’ll have to run tests,” the Director explained.
“But it’s covered in Martian dust. The Old Martians only colonized Mars 500 years ago. How did it get here?” Edwin asked.
“How indeed?” Granny Greta asked.
“This is proof they were in our solar system much longer than they claimed,” Alejandro said. “Why did they lie?”
“Why indeed?” Granny Greta mumbled as the Director walked away with the artifact. “Oh! I almost forgot. Hand me my bag.”
Granny Greta rummaged through the big pink bag while Edwin and Alejandro waited eagerly for more information. With a flourish, Granny Greta pulled out a sealed bag.