It took all day to climb the plateau; it wasn’t as high as it looked, but Lily went carefully. Climbing solo, outside the confines of the homestead setup, would be challenging. Once she summited she stood for a moment and took it all in: green spilled over in every direction. She rode an island of crystallized lava through a swamp overflowing from Earth. This was the new world—built on top of the new world. Fortunately, Lily liked change.
The plateau was several miles in diameter, and the height varied. She would head for the highest point tomorrow. She’d brought an environmental suit with her, just in case the atmosphere hadn’t made it this far yet. But she was in no danger: the air felt thinner, but it was probably just exhaustion from the climb that made her breathing difficult. Though no plants had made it to these rocks, there was oxygen and the red air was only a bit chillier than the green. She set up camp and went asleep as soon as she hit her sleeping bag.
She woke and checked her messages, out of habit: Daniel had called a few times. He was somewhere far away, buried in the greenery and their relationship felt even more distant. She spent the day walking over the crags, enjoying the view inside and outside this red haven. This space would have to be persevered, she knew, and it likely would be once the scientists catalogued every inch of it. But it would never be fresher, less human, than it was today. Lily smiled and continued through the breezeless space.
Her head kept flitting from rock to rock as she moved, looking for any hint of life. There was nothing—no plants, red or otherwise, no visible fungi or bacteria. Biologists would have to decide whether or not anything was living up here, but as far as Lily could tell, they would be disappointed. The rock didn’t even move: the stony plateau seemed to be one piece all fused together. It was impenetrable: she couldn’t even smash the tiniest shavings that had been scattered by time or meteorites. Adamantine was exactly right.
The uniformity of the plateau surface made Lily focus more on the scenery. Swamps, forests, plains were already forming on the horizons. The terraformers sure knew their business. One distant stand of trees seemed to climb suddenly upward, before Lily realized she had fallen down. The level ground had opened into a pit.
Lily rubbed her throbbing ankle and looked around. She sat within a bowl shape, perhaps a hundred meters in diameter, which had been cut out from the single stone of the plateau. There were four rectangular pillars, about a kilometer or so on each side, rising into the bowl’s negative space. She could see striations in the stone, but the color was nearly uniform; this whole plateau might have been a single massive stone rising from Mars’s core.
“And the green grass grew all around and around, and the green grass grew all around….” Lily mumbled. She smiled. What a place to be stuck, inside of the most unique point on Mars. She sighed and turned on her signaling chip. Daniel and any others would be able to track her down easily. When they got around to it. In the meantime, Lily wrapped her ankle with a long scarf and took a nap.
She awoke after nightfall, freezing. She had heaters in her pack, but had forgotten to turn them on. Actually, she hadn’t meant to sleep as long as she had. Now it seemed impossible to go back to sleep. She ate and thought about how long she had up here until rescuers appeared. It depended on how close they’d come to her position before she’d turned on her location chip. Perhaps a day or two, maybe even longer. The trip and the climb had been exhilarating—the best things she’d done in years—but now she wanted to go home. Her foot ached. Still, home meant dealing with Daniel.
Lighting her lamp, Lily thought she would make the most of her time alone. No human had ever seen this place, these pillars before. It would make for a beautiful memory.
Hopping on her good ankle, Lily gingerly made her way to the first pylon. She jerked her hand back from it instinctively: it was icy. In the lamplight the pillar shone in a shade of wine, outlined in black by the open sky. Someone with machines far beyond humans had scooped out this hardest of surfaces eons ago. And, Lily found, those same creatures had apparently written all over those columns. Symbols and imagery carved into these timeless towers gave them simultaneously an ancient and a modern feel. This was Mars’s palimpsest, perhaps the meeting ground of Martian ancients throughout time and travail. Or maybe it was just the ravings of a mad Martian who’d cracked his own ankle here millennia before. Lily traced the carvings with her finger, as she was used to the cold by now. Let the archaeologists take images of this site. She had the luxury of simply absorbing it.
An hour passed, and Lily realized how exhausted she was. This time she remembered the heater. In the moments before consciousness receded, she listened to soft ticking of her locater. Perhaps only a few more hours of peace.
She guessed correctly. She awoke to the sound of Daniel calling her name from the rim of the bowl.
“Lily! Thank God you’re alive.” His face darkened. “What are you doing in there?”
She smiled and blinked. “Relaxing.”
“Are you hurt?”
“My ankle is.”
“We’ll get you out of there. I have Boggs and Tyler with me. Just hang in there.”
“It’s all right. It doesn’t hurt much.”
Daniel just pursed his lips and shook his head. It was one of his favorite expressions.
“There’s writing down here,” Lily offered.
“Martians. It has to be. They left some stories or poetry or driving direction on these pillars. You guys should take a look at it.”
“Once we get you settled, sure thing.” The two men with Daniel appeared at the rim and waved down at Lily. She returned the expression.
An hour later they were inside the vertical cave with her. Once they were assured of Lily’s comfort, the three men explored the pillars, snapping images right and left.
“These are going to be worth a fortune,” Boggs said.
Tyler grunted something similar.
Daniel ran his hand over the carvings and tried to make some sense from the cloven lines. “I studied plenty of languages, but nothing like this. The symbols don’t even look like symbols. Scholars are going to be working on these for a hundred years, I bet. Certainly beyond me.”
“There’s a button over here.”
The rest of them looked at the pillar Boggs was photographing.
“Right here,” he said, pointing to an indentation in the rock. “It’s the only bit of rock that’s not perfectly straight. It’s rounded inward.” He placed his thumb on it. Somewhere far beneath the plateau, a sound bellowed upward toward the humans. It was the deepest sort of whale-song, throaty, low, at the very base of bass. The pillar didn’t move.
“Nobody touch anything else,” Daniel said, but the only response was the song of Mars once again, rising and filling their heads with its vibrations. “Tyler!”
“Sorry, bud. My finger was already on it before you said anything.”
“It’s all right. Doesn’t look like anything’s happened. Might be an old mechanism, some way of moving these pillars up and down. Who knows? Whatever it is probably rusted over thousands of years ago. No harm in it, I guess.” These words seemed to make up his mind, and Daniel hit the button on the inside of his pylon next. The sound returned, though they were becoming accustomed to it. The earth’s shaking unsettled Daniel, though.
“Never mind—I shouldn’t have done that. We should get off of this thing. I don’t want that last button pressed. No telling what it does. Lily, we’ll hoist you out of here and then we’ll figure out a way to repel down with you.”
Lily nodded absently. She was staring at the button on the last pillar.
“Lily, don’t touch it! I swear, you never listen to anything I say.” Daniel’s face was red.
Lily knew he was probably embarrassed about having already pushed three out of the four mystery buttons. He usually displaced anger at himself toward whomever else was around. Usually towards her. That was all it took. She realized she hated him, and pushed the button.
“Don’t!” Daniel yelled. The other two men just shifted their gaze from Daniel to Lily, then back to the pylon. Nothing visibly moved, but the sound within the stone grew louder and louder, a roaring wave of a groan, a yawn from within the planet’s belly. The rock trembled and the figures inside it grabbed hold of the pillars to steady themselves.
A few moments and silence returned. Lily grinned at Daniel: she couldn’t help it. He just shook his head at her.
“You’re lucky this whole rock didn’t explode, Lily. Let’s get out of here.” He gestured for the others to give Lily a hand, and they all began to retrace their steps up the ropes, out of the bowl, and back to the settlement. Lily couldn’t stop smiling. They all kept their thoughts to themselves.
Lily enjoyed the drive back: the world was lusher now than it had been on her way out. Green trees and brush climbed higher and higher toward the stars. Birds had appeared, too, and the ground was alive with tiny creatures. On Earth they would have seemed a nuisance, but here they were welcome.
Back at the settlement she expected a welcoming party. No one seemed all that interested in the returning adventurers.
Lily spotted her friend, Margaret and finally got her attention. Lily pointed to her leg: “I’m all right, but I left most of my mobility up on that plateau.”
Margaret forced a smile. “Glad to have you back. Were you able to get any transmissions while you were on the rock?”
“No, I was busy breaking my ankle,” Lily said. “I figure I’ll catch up my shows while this thing recovers. What did I miss?”
Margaret flipped a switch and turned on her visual feed: Lily blinked and stared at the projection.
“I don’t see anything.”
Margaret nodded. “That’s the point. All transmissions from Earth have shut down.”
“What? All of them? How long ago?”
Lily felt sick. There’d never been an outage longer than a few minutes. “Are the mechanics working on it?”
“It’s not on our side, Lily. Everything here’s perfect. Our signals are still getting through the new atmosphere just fine. There might be something out in space blocking it, for all we know. Earth wouldn’t just shut all of its systems down without telling us.”
“Sure, that makes sense.” Lily couldn’t imagine a satellite big enough to intercept transmissions for more than a few minutes. “Aliens?”
Margaret shook her head. “Nothing in the sky, at least not that we can tell. Since yesterday, they’ve started searching through all spectrums now. The old telescope should be back online soon. They’re going to take a look at Earth and see what’s going on.”
Lily nodded in silence, and then hobbled back home with help from the others. Could it be a world war? Plague? Boycott? Political turmoil? For the first time in ages, Lily thought of her relatives back on Earth. What did they know that they couldn’t tell her? What did they see? Her ankle ached and she slept fitfully that night.
The next morning Margaret found Lily and helped her limp out into the public square. The bubbles had been turned off, now that the atmosphere was secured. A stranger could have been fooled into thinking this was Earth. But that only made Lily worry more.
“The telescope feed is working,” one of the mechanics, Kira, yelled to the growing crowd. “Just wait a moment and we’ll send it through to the feed.” Kira pointed toward the massive movie projector that had occupied the central bubble for as long as Lily could remember.
Crowded in among the others, Lily watched and waited. Daniel had disappeared somewhere, and that was some comfort. She held her breath as the projection sputtered into life.
Lily and the rest watched a virtual sphere spin into place before her eyes. Lily was startled, and then relieved. “It’s Mars,” she said, “somebody left an old program in the player.”
Kira looked at Lily and shook her head. “That’s not Mars—Mars is green.”
Lily frowned and squinted at the projection. She saw the red, red planet. The Red Earth. Her heart fell.
It was the pillars—the buttons. It had to have been. The ancient god of war had won his last battle, though gasping through the thickets of green poison, seeded on his planet. From that bloody plateau, Mars had spilled his last drops and drowned the Earth. Jus ad bellum.
Green Mars, Red Earth. In Lily’s head, the words danced across her mind, unbidden: and the red rock grew all around and around, and the red rock grew all around…