"Santa Claus is coming to town."
"Santa Claus is coming to town."
"Don't know how it's escaped your notice, Joe, but we're on Mars. Also. Your culture. Not mine. And while technically, the planet does have a north pole . . ."
I rolled my eyes. "When you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good. Yes. Yes. I know the song. What the hell is wrong with you, Joe?"
I shot him a glance, but kept a firm grip on the sample isolated inside the sealed chamber where we performed soil tests in a thus far fruitless search for signs of life. That would be a hell of a Christmas present, should I suddenly take up observing a holiday outside the purview of the Buddhist philosophy I'd grown up with in rural China. Finding life. Life outside of the increasingly odd expedition leader who'd brought me this set of samples from a tunnel bored deep into the flanks of Olympus Mons.
I studied the man. His breath fogged the clear glass shielding his face. Even so, I detected perspiration beaded on his pallid forehead and upper lip. His golden brown eyes didn't quite focus upon me. I frowned and gently set my soil sample back into the stand awaiting the test tube. I wrestled free of the thick gloves that provided my access to the flat gray-brown mud. Actual mud. That meant water. Water meant the remote possibility of life. Even in the lightless depths of the last place on this dead hunk of planet that might retain traces of life-giving warmth from the cooling core. I shook away my curiosity and speculation about the sample and approached my colleague. "You okay, Joe? You don't look so good."
"Oh, you better watch out. You'd better not cry." He reached for my air hose.
Ice dripped down my spine. I started and stepped out of reach. "I'd better not cry? Joe . . ."
"What do you want for Christmas, Mai?" Another slow move, this time for my faceplate.
"That's it." I turned for the door.
He stepped in front of it, trapping me in the increasingly small lab. "What do you want for Christmas?"
I blinked, recalling my stupid wishful thinking - that it would be fun to find life on the Red Planet. I gasped, stared at him, and couldn't stop the whisper. "Life?"
He nodded and stepped closer. "You'd better not cry. You'd better not shout. I'm telling you why."
I swung around an instrument table, scooping up a scalpel. Tiny. Ineffectual. Sharp enough to put a hole in his pressurized suit if he kept trying to get my air supply away from me. "Joe! Stop it! You're sick! Running a fever. That must be the problem. We've got to get you to the infirmary. You need treatment. Who knows what a simple infection - - " I stopped mid-sentence to listen to what I'd said. "Infection. My God. Life. Infection. Is that it? I won't find life in that sample in there because somehow you breached containment. You're hosting -- whatever."
"You'd better not cry. You'd better not shout."
I reeled. 'Don't shout.' He meant don't call out for help. My heart quaked and I couldn't get my breath. How could I not? Joe might die. And if he did, my first chance to catch a glimpse of an actual Martian organism would die with him. Yet if I alerted the rest of the base, a round of antibiotics or antivirals later, and I'd have lost my chance just the same. "If I don't tell anyone," I began, "will you let me take a blood sample? I want to see."
His teeth flashed in a grin. He caught my wrist in a tight grip that set my teeth on edge. Prying the scalpel from my fingers sliced through his gloves. Blood seaped through the cuts. My breath came in short, useless bursts. I yanked against his hold. No effect. He cut my suit and me where my gloves met my pressure suit. My blood welled up. I yelped.
"Santa Clause is coming to town." He smeared pressed his bloody fingers into the cut on my wrist.