Jamel and Stan stowed the last of the Mars equipment in the storage bunker and locked it up tight.
“Might be an archeologist who opens this next,” said Jamel.
“You could be right,” said Stan. “This place will be a ghost town for a long time.”
Jamel scoffed. “Ghosts.”
They walked to the last-standing, multipurpose hab.
“Don’t laugh.” Stan entered the airlock and waited for Jamel to seal the door. “I know people who’ve seen ghosts.”
Stan threw the switch. “A good friend of mine saw his dead grandmother on a stairwell, and I had a perfectly sane girlfriend who witnessed ghosts of dead soldiers at the Manassas battlefields.”
“You lost all credibility with ‘perfectly sane girlfriend.’”
“Ha-ha.” Stan opened the door and released his helmet. “It’s a miracle you passed the sensitivity training for space duty.”
“Strength in numbers, pal.”
Both men hooked up their suits for the final recharge. The empty hab instilled Jamel with an undefinable melancholy.
Jamel’s oxygen meter peaked, and the battery charge crept higher. “Seriously, though. Why would you completely disregard people who claim they were abducted by aliens, but you take ghost stories seriously?”
“Why shouldn’t I take my friends seriously?”
“You believe them just because they’re your friends?”
Stan tapped his battery indicator. “No way. I wouldn’t believe them if they told me they were abducted.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Jamel unhooked his suit and started shutting down the nonessential systems for the hab.
Stan unhooked. They both put their helmets on and shut down the life-support systems, then depressurized the hab and opened up the airlock. Piece-by-piece they dismantled everything and packed it as small as possible to go into the MAV—probably the last one that would leave Mars for either of their lifetimes. The hab would serve in an emergency if the MAV malfunctioned and went down too far from the bunker.
“Almost seventy years,” said Stan.
Jamel nodded his head. “Elon would be sad to see this day.”
They loaded the wagon.
“Maybe,” said Stan. “But it served its purpose, and he’d be happy to see what it led to. We’d never have made it to Proxima b without it.”
They drove the first load to the MAV.
Captain Freimanis chirped in their ears. “You guys are ahead of schedule. Good job.” The elevator tube lowered to the ground and opened.
“We aims to please,” said Jamel.
“What doesn’t make sense about it?” asked Stan.
“You know—doubting my friends if they told me they were abducted.”
They packed the elevator, sent it up, and waited.
“I find it hard to believe you’re asking me the question,” said Jamel. “Aliens are a possible part of reality, whereas ghosts are completely…” he waved his hand, “… out there.”
Stan chuckled as the elevator lowered. They pulled the next item off the wagon.
“But don’t you see, Jamel? That’s precisely why I take the ghost accounts more seriously.”
Freimanis’s chuckle came over the radio. “Here we go.”
They dropped a hab section in and went for another.
“We know an immense amount about the physical world,” said Stan. “I can look at the idea of aliens reaching earth, and I can see—with a good amount of reason and knowledge—that it is practically impossible. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, I can weigh their testimony against all that knowledge, and it comes up short.”
They moved the last hab section into the elevator, sent it up, and climbed back in the rover to go for the next load. “On the other hand—we know very, very little about the nature of ghosts and the non-physical world that they exist in. It’s not well understood at all. I don’t have enough knowledge about it to build any case of doubt. Eye-witnesses carry more weight against ignorance than against contrary knowledge.”
They stopped next to the dismantled hab and began loading the last of it.
Jamel mulled over what Stan said. Stan had this way of turning things on their head. He fancied himself a space-age G.K. Chesterton, and his ideas were always either stimulating and challenging, or irritating as hell. This one mostly irritated Jamel.
“Not only that,” said Stan as he lifted the last piece himself.
Freimanis laughed again. “He just doesn’t quit.”
“Ghost stories are more prevalent throughout human experience, whereas claims of ‘visitors’ are limited or come from a mythology with a wide range of interpretation.”
They drove the final load to the MAV.
“You realize you’re insane,” said Jamel.
Stan grinned through his helmet as they sent the last load up. “Insane like humanity.”
“Don’t worry, Jamel,” said Freimanis. “We’ll drop him into the first sanatorium once we hit earth.”
They climbed in, closed up the MAV, and strapped in for liftoff, the cockpit surrounded by windows in the latest design. They provided both an exhilarating and frightening experience during spaceflight. The eleventh-generation MAV lifted very smoothly, and the planet fell quickly beneath them.
The shrinking outlines of the settlements and the rest of the planet formed an emotional vacuum that hollowed the substance of Jamel’s heart.
“Look at that,” he said.
“I see,” said Stan.
“I think I may believe in ghosts.”