In many ways, Mars was an archeologist’s dream.
The planet was a grave - some called it a “tomb world”, although this painted a silent, lifeless picture that didn’t match the bustling colonies Lucas knew well. But it was a grave nonetheless, a great red monument to the vanished Martians, covered in the ruins of their civilization.
Despite their inhospitable planet, it seemed the Martians were thriving up until the end. From the Canal Builders of the Dead Sea to the Sculptors of Cydonia, there were plenty of remains to dig up, many of them in pristine condition. In fact, Martian communities were standing empty all over the planet, and their moisture-collecting, heat-trapping architecture made them ideal hosts for human settlers, who happily moved right in.
Yes, it was an archeologist's dream, but it wasn’t really a good dream. After all, it was Earthly disease that drove the Martians extinct.
The same satellites, landers and probes that Professor Lucas De Leon and his brother Marcos now rented to identify potential digsites had once accidentally carried pathogens from Earth on their backs. They were sent out ahead of humanity to scout, and by the time the first astronauts walked on Mars, they found every neighborhood a ghost town.
Most colonists, Lucas observed, chose not to think about the Martians whose former homes they grafted their lives onto. He didn’t have that option. Nearly every successful “dig” amounted to unearthing a mass burial of mummies, each exquisitely preserved by their arid planet. The finds were academically interesting, but as the years wore on he came to hate them. One could only dig up so many adults, children and elderly before it left the soul numb.
He started to regret ever emigrating to Mars. He’d been happier hunting for Marajoara pottery in the Amazon. He abandoned the study of “modern” Martians altogether, instead focusing on hunting for elusive pre-human ruins, the older the better. He wrote papers about the so-called “Naochians” and “Pre-Naochians” and “Hesperians”, civilizations stretching back unknown thousands of years, but interest in these long-lost Martians was thin and grants for digs all but impossible to secure. He kept trying just because the scrounging was still better than excavating another tragedy.
Marcos had a different reaction.
“Martians aren’t extinct,” he said over coffee one evening. His voice was low, and his weathered face bore an intensity Lucas usually only noticed when they made an especially interesting find. He was taller than Lucas, and more darkly handsome in comparison to Lucas’s general roundness and stoutness. Not that it helped him much, Marcos had always been too stubborn of a man to hold a relationship.
He was Lucas’s best friend.
“What do you mean?” Lucas asked. He grumbled as a gang of rowdy teens entered the coffee house, their jeers echoing off the vaulted ceiling. The Martians built in such a way that indoor noises tended to echo chaotically, amplifying the irritating kids.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he thought to himself, don’t be such an old fart.
“I mean,” Marcos was saying, “some of them survived, and they’re still alive in a hidden city in the Glass Dunes.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“The net. A fazenda owner from Xanthe was on a hiking trip alone in the Dunes when she got lost. Should have died, but she says she was nursed back to health in a city of Martians. It was in the news.”
Lucas took a moment to sip his coffee and try to assess whether his brother was playing some kind of prank. “You believe her?”
Marcos sat back. “It’s possible. Somebody rescued the woman.”
“It coulda been birdherders. Or she’s making the whole thing up.”
“But people have been seeing strange things in the Glass Dunes for decades. Camp fires that disappear when approached, ruins that vanish into thin air. Maybe there’s something to it!” Marcos said excitedly. Lucas had heard the theory that the Martians possessed some kind of telepathy or mental projection, accounting for their apparent lack of vocal organs, but he’d never given it much credence.
“There’s no room for a hidden city on Mars. Every inch was mapped from space years ago. Even if these Martians were using some kind of mental suggestion to hide this city, that wouldn’t work on satellites. Unless psychic tricks can affect cameras,” Lucas chuckled.
“Perhaps they’ve gone underground.” Marcos gestured out the sand-blasted window to the busy canal. “One thing we know about them, they could dig.”
“Granted,” said Lucas. “But this is all very wild conjecture, you must realize that.”
“Maybe. What virus ever wipes out 100% of the people it infects? Even the deadliest plague leaves survivors. Maybe we just haven’t met any because they’re still in hiding, hunkered down to wait out the apocalypse.”
“And popping out to help wayward hikers.”
Marcos shrugged. It was evident to Lucas that the idea had taken hold in his brother’s brain. “Maybe that woman told the truth, maybe not. But I think there are things in the Glass Dunes nobody’s seen yet. And it’s worth looking.”
It was true that the Dunes were a lonely place, rarely visited for all their beauty. Even the Martians seemed to have ignored the region, with no canals cutting through it and few ruins of note. If he were going to hide somewhere, Lucas couldn’t think of a better place to do it.
And it would be a lot easier to secure grant money if he were hunting for living, breathing Martians.
The teenagers settled at the table behind him, steaming mugs in hand, getting somehow louder.
“Alright,” Lucas said. “Write up a proposal. It can’t be worse than digging up a hundred more mummies.”
Marcos grinned his lopsided grin, the one he always wore when he got his way. “I’ll pay the bill,” he said.
For their first expedition into the Glass Dunes, they packed several jeep's worth of supplies and students and even hired the (infamous, in Lucas’s opinion) fazenda owner as a guide. The woman painted with deft strokes the tale of her encounter with the “golden-eyed” Martians, who brought her to their city and fed her sandgrass sap while she recovered from the cold. As the weeks wore on and no Martians appeared, however, she became more muted, and they weren’t able to enlist her help with the second expedition.
By their third trip out, it was just Lucas and Marcos in a jeep with whatever they could afford to bring themselves. By the fifth, it was Marcos alone.
“There’s an oasis in this next region,” he’d argued, “they must get their water somewhere!”
They were in Lucas’s office at Pontes College, the only center of learning in the colony of Porto Marte. Marcos’s former office was down the hall, newly empty.
“This wild goose chase has already cost you your job, it’s not taking mine,” said Lucas.
“But we’re getting closer. I submitted a paper to the Journal of Astroarcheology-”
“It won’t be published.”
Marcos reddened. “You don’t know that.”
“Our reputations are in shambles. It’s all I can do to look my colleagues in the eye. You’ve turned us into jokes,” Lucas said, heated. It was cruel, maybe, but his frustration had been building for months.
Marcos’s expression went blank. “You think I’m a joke?”
“I think you may as well go looking for the chupacabra.”
“I see.” His brother said. Lucas knew he’d hurt him.
“Look, Marcos. At a certain point, it’s okay to admit you’ve been wrong all this time.”
At that, Marcos’s eyes blazed. He stood and left Lucas’s office without a word.
Lucas didn’t speak to Marcos for almost a Martian year after that. They went two Christmases, two birthdays, and two First Landing Days without any contact between them, despite a constant stream of messages from Lucas to Marcos’s net address. Lucas visited his brother’s apartment, but to his amazement he found someone else living there, a new immigrant from Sao Paulo. He frequented their favored places in Porto Marte, hoping to run into Marcos by chance, with no luck. He became a lonely staple at the coffee house, alone at their favorite table.
Finally, one evening when the warm summer winds were blowing in from the south, clearing away the haze of dust from the winter storms and letting the stars burn clear and bright once more, Marcos appeared at Lucas’s door.
“Marcos!” Lucas exclaimed, embracing his brother, tears in his eyes. “Marcos! God, I missed you!”
He held his brother at arms length. Always disheveled, he looked even more worn than before, with streaks of grey in his messy black hair, and black-red grime caked onto his tattered winter jacket, hat, backpack and scarf.
“I know, I look like shit,” Marcos said, and Lucas laughed through his tears. Marcos was smiling, but he had an intensity about him that Lucas knew well. “I know where they are,” he was saying, “Lucas, I know where the Martians are.”
Lucas hadn’t taken a vacation in years. He called in a few favors with some colleagues at the College and was a free man for a few weeks. It’d been a while since he’d packed a bag for field work, and he couldn’t help but enjoy himself as he stuffed long underwear, water bottles, a flashflight, and other necessities into his old backpack.
Marcos had apparently hitchhiked on a canal barge from Xanthe, where he’d been living, to Porto Marte. For their journey to the Glass Dunes, they first took a passenger pontoon called the Rainha do Olimpo back to Xanthe.
Along the way, they passed through a number of canalside towns, many with a hundred residents or less. All were former Martian cities, remodeled, redecorated, and reappropriated for human habitation. Murals of Nossa Senhora de Cydonia mingled with Earth’s green hills and other scenes of home, adding a splash of color to the red arches and spires of Martian construction.
“So, have you just been wandering the wastes for the past two years?” Lucas asked as they stood side by side on the deck, watching the shrubby desert roll by. They were coming up on a run-down brick dome with a flock of four-legged, flightless Martian “herdbirds” milling outside. Bunched together, their rust-red plumage gave the impression of shifting sands.
“I’ve been in and out of the Glass Dunes. Got to know some of the people there. Listened to their stories, did some work for them. It hasn’t been easy, I admit.”
“Wow,” Lucas said. He suddenly felt bad for failing to be there, and had to remind himself that he’d reached out to Marcos more than once without reply. “I tried to get in touch.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I just… I didn’t want to come back until I knew. And I thought maybe your reputation would recover easier without me around.”
Lucas flushed. “I’m sorry I said those things. It was stupid. I didn’t mean it.”
“I know. It doesn’t matter now.”
From within the dome, a gaggle of children in coats of herdbird down emerged to wave at their boat. Lucas and Marcos waved back, smiling, until a man wearing a hood of ginger feathers emerged to usher them back inside. Birdherders, Lucas thought, reclusive nomads who traveled the desert with their flocks. He rarely saw them in person, as far as he knew most of them gave Porto Marte and the other major colonies a wide berth in favor of roaming the Dead Sea Bottom.
At the start of their journey, Lucas had, of course, asked Marcos what he meant when he said he “knew where the Martians were.” But Marcos was reticent with details. Lucas hadn’t wanted to badger the brother he’d just gotten back for more information, however, seeing as he was now on a boat headed for the wilderness, he felt entitled to ask.
“So, you finally tracked down living, breathing Martians, eh?” he asked.
Marcos grinned knowingly. “More like they tracked me down. Maybe they got tired of me poking around in their yard.”
Lucas’s eyebrows shot up. “What happened?”
“It was in the Dunes one night. I’d been spending a lot of time out after sunset. I thought, you know, since nobody goes out at night, maybe the Martians would be a little less cautious, I might catch them with their guard down.”
“Did that work?”
“A dust storm picked up. They strike fast out in the Dunes, something about the dark sand and warmer air. I got lost. Then I started to get frostbite. I was stupid, I went too far from camp and, well, you know, one dune looks like the rest, especially with a storm half-blinding you.”
“What did you do?” Lucas asked, alarmed.
“Black out,” said Marcos. “When I woke up, it was morning. Someone’d returned me to my camp and rebuilt the fire. There were no footprints, no bird droppings, no sign of anyone around.”
“Still… it could have been birdherders. And the wind might’ve blown away the evidence.”
At that, Marcos unslung his backpack. From within, he produced a folded blanket, which he unfurled to reveal a sinuous pattern of rich reds, fiery oranges, and deep indigos. Tiny beads of what looked like turquoise and gypsum were stitched in as well, arranged in complex glittering lines. It was hypnotic and strangely asymmetrical, and a moment passed before its full effect hit Lucas like a blow: the blanket depicted the desert at dawn. The sunlight on the dusty hills was unmistakable.
“Beautiful,” He said, and meant it. He’d seen hundreds of similar pieces, but this one was more vibrant, as if the sun and the sandrats had never had a chance to dull its colors. Unlike the feathered garments of the birdherders, it was woven from the fibers of herdbird feathers, the technique behind its creation lost with the last of the Martians.
“I was laying under it when I woke, like somebody’d draped it over me. And here’s the kicker: it’s new.”
Lucas did a double take. “New? How do you know?”
“Had one of our old colleagues check it when I got to Porto Marte. Can’t have been made more than a decade ago, it’s barely even faded.”
“Who checked it?”
“Dr. Chobet. She demanded to know how I made it,” Marcos gave a sly grin.
Lucas’s mind reeled. “I would too.”
“Yeah. I told her how I got it, and then she decided it must be ‘a masterful forgery.’ But it’s real. Feel it,” Marcos held the blanket out. Lucas brushed a hand over it. Soft as herdbird down.
“It does feel convincing,” he admitted. “But I can see why Sue would say that. It’s hard to imagine someone figuring out authentic feather weaving under our noses. I don’t think a blanket like this was ever something anyone could make on their own.”
Marcos nodded. “Agreed. The only explanation that makes sense is that it was made by experienced hands, and recently.”
“Your Martians,” Lucas said.
“The Martians,” Marcos replied.
“Right. The Martians,” Lucas corrected, trying to keep the lingering doubt from his voice.
The Rainha do Olimpo reached Xanthe after a few days. The barren deserts gave way to sprawling fezendas of wheat, corn, and other Earthly crops irrigated by offshoots from the canal, tended by farmbots and fieldhands. The fields appeared endless, but if Lucas strained his eyes, he could just make out the line near the horizon where the irrigation ended and the red sand resumed.
The Olimpo docked between two huge barges in the town Pelas Dunas and they disembarked. It was an important settlement for Mars, shipping food across the planet, but Lucas never cared for it. Unlike in other cities, much of the original Martian architecture had been demolished, in order to make way for dockside warehouses. It left an especially bitter taste in his mouth.
Thankfully they didn’t stay long. Marcos’s jeep was parked not far from the docks, in front of a row of concrete apartments. Lucas stowed his bag in the trunk with Marcos’ backpack and climbed into the passenger seat. An hour later they crested a hill overlooking the Glass Dunes.
Lucas inhaled sharply.
A sea of ebony sand rolled before them, stretching further than the eye could see. There were millions of black dunes, tall and narrow, shimmering in the sun like the ocean he could barely remember from Earth. But there was no water for miles, he knew. It was glass, the countless grains of obsidian glass that gave the dunes their name, the last remnants of a truly ancient eruption.
“I always forget how striking this place is,” he breathed. Marcos smirked.
There was no road leading into the Dunes, but Marcos seemed familiar with the path, navigating easily between identical towers of sand. Eventually they came to a ruin of red stone half-buried by dark drifts.
A town, Lucas saw, and apparently inhabited. Warmly bundled settlers were weaving between the squat brick buildings and domes along with flocks of herdberds, which grazed freely at the troughs of condensation-fed sandgrass that each structure featured at its base. Marcos had to honk his horn a few times to clear the birds from the road. In the center of town, shielded from the wind, plots of native plants circled a central well, tended by more than a dozen gardeners. Never before had Lucas seen a colony so effectively make use of the leftover Martian infrastructure. It was like history come to life.
“What is this place?” He asked as Marcos brought the jeep to a stop.
“Town,” Marcos said.
“But what’s it called?”
Marcos slid from the driver’s seat. “Not sure it’s big enough yet to have a name. Everybody just calls it 'Town', not like there are any others in the area. Just need to stock up on water, and we’ll be on our way.”
A white-haired, sharp-eyed woman appeared before them, wrapped in a long cloak apparently stitched from a blanket like the one Marcos carried, only more worn. It had probably been gathering dust in one of the houses when the town was settled. Lucas generally hated to see Martian art chopped up and repurposed like that, but he had to admit, the stitchwork at least seemed to be well done.
“Marcos,” the woman smiled, then turned to Lucas with a frown. “Who’s this?”
“Hey, mayor. This is my brother, Lucas. Don’t worry, he’s a good guy. Never even hit me back when we were kids,” Marcos joked. Lucas snorted.
“Mmm. Okay.” The mayor said. She had a familiar presence that Lucas appreciated, like he’d known her for years. “Will you both be eating with us?”
“Oh, no need, I’ve got plenty of food at camp. Just need some water.” Marcos took a pair of empty jugs from the trunk.
The mayor nodded. “Be safe, then. It’s storm season.”
“Will do. Good to see you. Say hi to Vincent for me.” Marcos handed one of the jugs to Lucas.
The mayor nodded again, and then she was gone as quickly as she’d appeared.
“She seemed nice,” he said as they filled their jugs at the well.
“Eh. She’s tough. Surviving out here’s not easy, believe me, and she’s got a whole colony to think of. I’ve never spoken to her much, to tell the truth. For some reason she reminds me of Lupe.”
“Your ex?” Lucas laughed. “I was gonna say, she reminds me of mom. What does that say about your dating tastes?”
“It says you’re an ass,” Marcos chuckled. “Let’s get this water stashed and get going. She’s right, we don’t wanna get caught in a blow before we get to camp.”
The drive out of “Town” took them down an ancient road of red cobblestone, arranged in half-seen mosaics obscured by windblown sand. After a few miles the black dunes swallowed the road entirely, but Marcos forged onward, making Lucas wonder how his brother could find his way through the ocean of identical hills.
Find his way he did, though. Shortly he was bringing the jeep to a park in the shadow of a jagged obsidian ridge, not far from a few stacks of boxes and a windworn tent. Bundles of dried sandgrass sat beside a battered generator and the remains of a fire. It was a familiar, if paltry, arrangement. Lucas had spent many nights in field camps such as this one.
What caught his attention was the cave. A rectangular entrance was cut into the side of the ridge, opening onto darkness.
“What’s that?” he asked, already out of the jeep and hurrying to examine it. Marcos followed, stopping at the generator to switch on a small array of industrial lights. One of the beams shined into the cave, revealing a tunnel that plunged down into the polished volcanic glass.
“A tomb,” Marcos said, “I think. I only went down a few times. There’s one chamber with a mix of bodies, some a few decades old I think, some basically dust.”
Lucas picked up one of the lights. “Can I? Is it safe?”
“Sure, if the cable reaches far enough. Take a look around, I’ll unpack.”
Lucas shuffled carefully into the tomb, industrial lantern in hand. As Marcos promised, the tunnel ended in an eight-sided chamber piled high with papery bodies. A few were little more than bones, while others were well preserved, no doubt thanks to the black desert that warded off both moisture and scavengers. He could almost read the pain of dying on their skeletal, alien faces. Inching closer, trying to examine some of the older funerary arrangements, he accidentally knocked over a knee-high cairn. The pile of black stones toppled noisily. Chagrined, Lucas retreated from the tomb.
“What’d you think?” Marcos asked.
“The structure looks Pre-Noachian, maybe. I can’t be sure without looking closer. As for the bodies, well… same as everywhere.” He didn’t mention the cairn he’d ruined. As an archeologist he, at least, should know better than to barge into unexplored ruins and bump into things.
Marcos nodded grimly. “Know what you mean. I wanted to set up camp inside the tunnel, but I couldn’t stand it.” He opened one of the tent flaps and pulled out a compact camera. “Smile!”
Lucas blinked at the flash. “You still have the camera I got you!”
“Of course! This is how we’re gonna catch the Martians. Like you said a long time ago, mind powers don’t work on machines.” Marcos showed him the camera screen, thumbing through image after image of dust devils, sandrats, dune worms and other common desert sights. “If it moves, I photograph it.”
‘You must have hundreds of pictures,” Lucas said.
“Wow. And no evidence yet?”
“Nothing that would convince people like you,” Marcos said, defensive, “but we’re gonna fix that. I woke up here, after the storm. The hidden city has gotta be somewhere nearby.”
Lucas spread his hands. “Well then, what are we waiting for?”
Marcos laughed. “Sunset, for one thing. No use trying to sneak up on anyone during the day. Dinner, too, I’m starving. You want chicken, bacon, or herdbird?”
Opening one of the boxes with one hand, Marcos tossed Lucas a vacuum-sealed sandwich. “Bon appetit!”
Lucas smiled. Bodega sandwiches. It really did feel like old times. “Bon appetit,” he said back.
The sapphire sunset quickly gave way to the cold light of Phobos, hardly enough to see by. Night on Mars came fast and deep no matter where you lived, but this was especially true in the Glass Dunes.
Lucas shivered as they trudged up and down the inky hills. The sand sparkled in the beams of their flashlights until Marcos insisted they turn them off to avoid giving themselves away. After that, all the world was blackness.
Sometimes, in moments like these, Lucas would get a feeling that no matter how long he lived there, Mars would always be a fundamentally alien planet. With the milky way above, unending shadow all around, and only the sound of Marcos’s breathing for company, he found it wasn’t hard at all to believe in living Martians.
A sudden flash of light practically made him jump out of his skin.
“Shush,” Marcos scolded at his cry. “Just took a picture, that's all. Thought I saw something.” He squinted at the glowing camera screen. “Only a dust devil.”
“Why are we looking for these Martians if they don’t want to be found?” Lucas heard himself ask.
“What?” Marcos said out of the dark.
“I mean, if they’re working so hard to hide, shouldn’t we leave them alone?”
“They’re not dangerous, if that’s what you mean. They saved me from that dust storm, remember?”
“No, I mean, shouldn’t we respect their wishes?”
There was a moment of quiet in which the only noise came from the too-human whisper of sand blowing across the dunes.
“Why wouldn’t they want to be found?” Marcos finally asked.
Lucas shrugged, forgetting his brother couldn’t see. “I don’t know. They’re aliens.”
“Well, I need to know,” said Marcos. “I need to know we didn’t reach out in the name of discovery and exploration and carelessly kill off an entire planet of people in the process.”
Lucas could relate to the feeling. Still, he had to ask the question on his tongue. “It’s not just to prove yourself right, and the rest of us wrong?”
“Who do you take me for?” Muffled footsteps told Lucas Marcos had started marching again.
“It’s fine. I admit, though, proving everyone wrong would be pretty nice,” Marcos said.
They spent the rest of the evening in silence, broken only by the whirr of the camera. Finally, when Phobos finished its third trip through the heavens, they climbed one of the taller dunes and Marcos flipped on his flashlight.
“That way,” he said, pointing at the obsidian ridge with his beam. It seemed they’d covered less ground than Lucas would have expected. “Let’s pack it in for the night.”
They hiked back to camp. Marcos lit a bundle of sandgrass for a fire, and they had herdbird sandwiches for dinner. Then they crammed into Marcos’s tent and went to sleep, fire crackling.
It was still smoldering when Lucas got up. The first blue rays of the sun were just peeking over the dunes, and the ridge still held their camp in shadow. Breath icy, Lucas resurrected the fire and had another sandwich while he waited for his brother to rise. Between the two of them, Marcos was the night owl.
Eventually Lucas got bored and ventured back into the tomb, flashlight in hand. If there were any inscriptions, he thought, it might help him date the structure more accurately.
It was even colder inside, practically an ice box, and he reflected that it was no wonder most of the bodies were so well preserved. The decayed ones must be especially old.
He froze. The cairn he’d knocked over the day before was restored, its glassy stones neatly stacked.
He looked around to see if he was mistaken, if maybe there were actually two cairns. But no, there was a single cairn in the middle of the chamber, and no scattering of stones from his blunder.
For the second time, he turned and hurried out of the tomb.
There were plenty of ghost stories on Mars, a world of graves invited them. But Lucas wasn’t the type to take them seriously. Marcos, he thought, must have repaired the cairn without his knowledge. But when Marcos finally emerged from the tent, he shook his head.
“Does anyone in Town know we’re here?” Lucas asked, perplexed. But he already knew what Marcos’s was making of it, even as his brother disappeared into the tomb to emerge a few moments later.
“I knocked it over again,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “Tonight when we get back, we’ll see if it’s been fixed.”
This time they stayed out longer than before. Marcos seemed to be taking his time, casually snapping pictures of sand rats and little avalanches as they milled about in the desert. They saw more dust devils than the night before, and Marcos captured plenty of those as well. Finally, when Lucas’s legs were aching, Marcos declared it time to return to camp.
They marched straight into the tomb. Sure enough, the cairn was standing again. Marcos stared at it, his expression unreadable in the glow of Lucas’s flashlight.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Now do you believe me?” Marcos breathed.
Lucas examined the cairn. “It could be some kids from Town, playing with us.”
“Okay,” Lucas said slowly, “so, what? This is proof that Martians are extant?”
Marcos gave him a dry look. “You’re not convinced.”
“I didn’t say-”
“You don’t need to say.” His brother sounded frustrated. “And you’re right not to be. Nobody else would buy it either.”
Lucas furrowed his brow. “I thought the point was to find out for yourself,” he said, but Marcos was already halfway out of the tomb, apparently done with the conversation.
He was quiet and broody as they went to bed. When Lucas awoke the next day, he found Marcos already gone.
For a moment, he feared he’d been left alone in the desert. Then his brother stuck his unkempt head through the tent flap and Lucas breathed a sigh of relief.
“Got a plan,” was all Marcos said.
They toppled the cairn once more, then set out into the desert as the sun was setting. No matter how Lucas pressed him to elaborate on what he meant by “plan”, Marcos just smiled, tight-lipped. It seemed to Lucas that they were tracing a wide circle through the dunes, and he eventually saw he was right: before them was the back of the obsidian ridge. Their camp lay hidden on the other side.
“Keep quiet, and stow the lights,” Marcos whispered, then Lucas heard him start to climb the ridge.
Scrambling up the jagged glass was difficult in the dark, but Marcos was driven. Lucas had to hurry to keep up with him. When they reached the top they lay flat, looking down at their camp and the entrance to the tomb.
He wanted to ask what they were waiting for, but feared breaking Marcos’s injunction for silence. They lay quiet for a long time, although how long, Lucas couldn’t say. The wind started to gust, pelting them with bursts black grit.
He felt Marcos tense. Then he saw it.
In the waning glow of the quickly sinking sun, he could make out a black shape emerging from between two dunes. As he watched it hurried through their camp, careful not to touch anything, and disappeared into the tomb.
Wordlessly, Marcos slid down the ridgeside after it. Lucas followed, albeit more slowly. He had no idea how his brother was still so spry after all these years.
The rising wind blew sand into the tomb behind them, masking the sound of their footfalls as they crept in after the mysterious figure. Whoever or whatever it was carried no light, Lucas could see nothing of what was ahead of them. He strained his ears for any sound, and heard what might have been something shuffling nearby.
He stopped when he felt Marco’s hand on his shoulder. A moment later, there was a dazzling burst of light.
A wave of dread that wasn’t his rolled over Lucas out of the dark and was quickly stymied, as if reined in. Lucas yelped as something pushed him aside and rushed past him into the night. Marcos’s flashlight blazed, but by the time he swung it around to the tomb entrance, whatever had been there was gone.
Lucas’s heart was racing. “Was that some kind of animal, or…” He paused when he realized Marcos was laughing.
His brother handed the camera to him. “I did it,” he said, “I was right. I was always right.”
Warily, Lucas accepted the camera. The image on the display screen was of the inside of the tomb, its obsidian walls shining in the camera flash. At the edge of the screen, a rail-thin figure wrapped in a finely woven feather cloak was hunched over the cairn, stacking one of the stones with long, spidery fingers.
Although the figure’s back was to them, Lucas would recognize a Martian anywhere.
“M-my god,” he stuttered. Marcos snatched the camera back. His face in the glow of the camera screen was triumphant.
“I was right!” He said. “I knew it. No virus wipes out one hundred percent of a population, I said so! And now I have proof!”
Lucas could hardly believe it. “Incredible,” he said. He found it difficult to say anything else. He’d never even dared to hope for such a revelation. “I just can’t believe it.”
“Well, believe it, ‘cause this is just the start.”
“What do you mean?”
Marcos turned on his flashlight. Something about him was transformed, like lightning was coursing through him. “Where there’s one Martian, there must be more, right?”
“I don’t know,” Lucas said.
“There must be. So, that means the hidden city is close! I was right about everything!” Marcos strode out the tomb.
“You want to look for it?” Lucas yelled over the wind. A storm was beginning in earnest.
“Not yet!” Marcos replied. “Help me drag the tent inside and cover the jeep!”
When their shelter was safely shielded from the tempest and ther vehicle secured, Marcos went on. “This photo is gonna change everything. Tomorrow, when the storm clears, we’ll head back to Porto Marte and show it to the College. With you corroborating my story, they’ll think twice before they call it a fake. Then we’ll come back in force. Grants, grad students, public interest, our reputations, we’ll get it all back.”
He continued to monologue gleefully as they settled down for bed, waxing poetic about what he’d say to the likes of Dr. Chobet, the College Dean, and anyone else who’d ever doubted him. He detailed the massive expedition they’d organize to find the Martian city, seeming to take its existence as a foregone conclusion now that a single martian had been identified. After the events of the day, Lucas was ill inclined to doubt him.
When they finally put out the lights and Marcos stopped talking and started snoring, Lucas mulled over his unvoiced fear that his word and a photo might still not be enough to convince his colleagues at the College to take their story seriously. But it likely wouldn't matter. Even if the archaeological world was unconvinced, their picture would electrify the public, and Marcos would get his expedition.
And he wouldn’t be the only one, oh no. Archeologists, anthropologists and adventurers from across the System would swarm to the Glass Dunes, hunting for the mysterious hidden city of living Martians. New shops and restaurants would move into Town to cater to the Martian hunters. A new canal might even be dug from Pelas Dunas. Town would get so many new residents, it would need to adopt an actual name.
It was a bit sad, he reflected. Town, with its well-kept Martian infrastructure and Martian methods of living off the land, would be repurposed, remodeled and expanded. All the work the townspeople had done would be erased overnight and Earth-ified.
He wondered if the hidden Martian city, if it existed, could stay hidden from all those people for long. It still stretched belief to think that an entire alien metropolis could lie anywhere in the Glass Dunes without satellites and spaceships spotting it years ago.
There’s no room for a hidden city on Mars. Unless, of course, it’s hidden in plain sight.
He kept thinking about Town. The farming techniques. Its proximity to the tomb. The mayor’s woven-feather cloak - now that he thought about it, was it not similar to the cloak the martian wore in Marcos’s picture? The mayor was smaller and her cloak shabbier, but hadn’t some proposed that the martians might have been capable of projecting thoughts? What if they could go further, to perceptions, even illusions? It would explain how they’d remained unnoticed for decades, right under the colonist’s collective noses.
The more he thought about it, the more he believed it. Disease had taken their planet from them, yes, but disease riding on human spacecraft, and humans had followed shortly after to collect the spoils. Could the Martians be blamed if they wanted to conceal themselves now?
He imagined them watching from afar as Porto Marte’s gleaming spaceport was erected atop a mass grave, or as ancient structures were knocked down in Pelas Dunas to make way for dockside warehouses. Even the majority of Martian buildings that were left standing didn't go unmolested: ancient mosaics and frescoes were painted over or torn away to make way for electronics, walls were knocked out, inscriptions erased.
How many feather blanket-wrapped mummies had he helped auction off over the years? How many strange machines, buried artworks, and untranslated writings had he packed up and shipped to collectors on Earth? And all the while, a community of martian survivors was scraping by in the Glass Dunes, looking on.
And now even that would end. Unless he stopped it.
Marcos was sound asleep. Lucas quietly unzipped his sleeping bag. Marcos’s fingers were still curled around the camera, but Lucas was able to free it without waking his brother.
The click of the camera’s buttons sounded deafening as he tried to figure out how to turn it on. When the screen came to life, he cringed at the brightness, then clicked through the camera options as quickly as he dared. At last he managed to bring up the roll. The photo of the martian was the very first image to appear.
He paused. Even if he deleted the picture, Marcos would just knock the cairn over and try again. Would the martian ever come back and fix it? It occurred to him that they didn’t know what had brought her to the tomb in the first place. The possibility that she might return, and Marcos might catch her again, would make erasing the photo pointless. Nothing would be gained except his brother’s fury.
“Oh, Marcos,” Lucas whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
Standing, he unzipped the tent and stepped outside, camera in hand. The windblown sand tore at him the moment me exited the tomb. Pulling his scarf over his mouth barely kept out the worst of the obsidian dust.
“Hey,” he heard Marcos call groggily from behind. Then, a moment later, “Hey!”
Without stopping to think, Lucas pushed into the storm. He needed to get to Town, to give the camera to them. He needed to make them understand.
He’d been caught in dust storms before, but never in the middle of the night, in a sea of black sand. His scarf did little to keep him from choking. Through stinging, teary eyes, he could just make out the beam of Marcos’s flashlight behind him.
“LUCAS!” He heard above the wind, “GIVE IT BACK!”
He kept running. Despite his hopes, he couldn't find the ancient cobblestone road in the maelstrom, and any hope of reaching Town began to fade. A sand bar appeared suddenly before him and he stumbled, falling into flowing dust that quickly began to bury him. It piled against him in drifts and pinned him down, thwarting his efforts to stand. It felt like drowning.
As his vision narrowed, he felt strong, spidery hands slip under his shoulders and lift him free.
“The camera,” he gasped, “check the camera.”
Then the darkness became total.
The sun was high in the sky. The air felt clear and staticy, like it always felt in spring when the winter dust storms were over. A box labeled “chicken” was half-buried, sand, vacuum-sealed sandwiches scattered all around.
Sitting up, Lucas realized he was laying in the middle of camp. A fire crackled nearby.
Looking around, he saw that the camp was a mess. Sandwiches and sandgrass bundles were cast to the four winds, and the water jugs were missing. The reactor was almost totally sunk. Only the tent and the jeep were untouched, the latter apparently having been free of sand.
Marcos emerged from the tomb. They regarded each other silently for a while.
“Martians saved us,” he said at last. Lucas nodded. He feared his brother would rage at him, but when he finally spoke again, the betrayal in his voice was worse than hatred.
“The camera’s gone. You lost it.” He closed his eyes. “Why?”
“I had to. I couldn’t let that picture get out.”
“What, is it so terrible to imagine I was right, and you were wrong? Is it so bad that I might be respected again, more respected maybe than you?”
“That wasn’t it, Marcos.”
“Then what was it?”
Lucas struggled to find the words. His head pounded. “We don’t get to expose them.”
Marcos glared spitefully at him. “I wasn’t gonna hurt them. I just wanted to find them.”
“They don’t want to be found.”
“And you know that? You speak for them?” Marcos went to the jeep. “The mayor was here earlier, while you were sleeping. She says they’re abandoning Town, becoming birdherders. Didn’t give a reason. Hardly stayed to answer my questions.”
He paused, jeep door open. “I don’t know why, but I really got the feeling she didn’t like me. No idea what I did.”
Lucas watched his brother climb into the driver’s seat. “They’re leaving?”
“Yep. No time to lose, apparently. It’ll make camping out here a lot harder, without Town around to resupply at. Impossible, actually. Almost like you’re all conspiring against me. Crazy, right?” He looked back at Lucas. “Get in. I’m dropping you off at Xanthe. Then I never want to see you again.”
“Quiet, Lucas. I don’t want to hear it.”
“I just- I’m sorry.”
Marcos didn’t reply. Lucas climbed into the seat next to him, and they drove off, leaving their ruined camp behind. Glancing back, Lucas saw a solitary, spindly figure standing atop the ridge, watching them go.