The Planet of the Dead

Sasha had always dreamed of discovering remnants of life on Mars. As the lead astronaut on a mission to Mars, her dream comes true—she and her team make Humanity's greatest discovery. But that discovery is a tragic one: After all, if sentient life was found on Mars, it would be the remnants of a dead planet.

Author's Note: I wrote this not too long ago. The idea was based on a dream. I wasn't sure what to do with it, but I decided to just put it here.

Their mission to Mars was simple: they were to survey the deeper layers of the planet to better understand the planet’s history. The surface had been well explored in the past decades by many teams, but all that laid underneath? They had only scratched that surface.

And so that was what Sasha’s team was charged to survey. Sasha, Klaus, and Tam were the ones who would go out and perform the manual surveys of Mars, while the rest of the crew stayed back on the research station to monitor their progress and perform other scans.

The station was really their spacecraft that was in its landing configuration. Thanks to innovations in technology, they would be able to stay on Mars for quite a long time, able to generate oxygen and water and grow their own food to sustain their presence. This was assuming there would be no technological mishaps, of course.

The previous team had been on Mars for only two months, barely getting anywhere thoroughly, before their power generator failed due to insufficient shielding from the Martian storms and so they had to leave early while they could.

Thus here Sasha and the others were—gazing upon the red planet, uncaring of what Humanity had seen for its entire history, more focused on what laid deep and unseen.

They were unmoving for Tam was double checking the integrity of their suits before they went further out from the station. Klaus was fixed at the entrance of the station, suited up and waiting. Sasha was the furthest out, just staring out into the horizon. Next to her was the rover they would use to ride out into the areas not yet surveyed by any Human. Loaded onto it was equipment to detect hollow regions underneath the surface and other structural aspects of the planet—all in high detail.

“Suits are stable,” Tam reported. She strode forward towards the rovers.

Klaus hesitated for a moment and then followed her. This was Klaus’s first proper mission out onto the planet. He had been to Mars before, but only as a station engineer. Sasha wasn't sure why he decided to go out when he seemed so risk-adverse, but she was lucky to have him on her team.

This was not Tam’s first mission, but she had a high standard for the systems she oversaw. “There has not been a suit integrity failure in other ten years,” she told Klaus as they went over to Sasha and the rover. “I will not break that streak.”

Sasha was especially lucky to have Tam here as well—they all were. She was extremely focused on the details of their safety and excellent with contingency planning. It was not out of fear of death that she was so determined to avoid any problems, but out of fear of mere failure. With Tam, if something went awry, it would be due to something no one could have prepared for.

Sasha was the most experienced of them here and she was eager to get out and discover what Mars had to offer her this time. She got everyone situated on the rover, including herself, and then took to driving out towards a mountainous formation that was on the edge of the unknown.

“Why didn’t we put the station closer out there?” Klaus asked. He was not privy to the exact planning of this mission—it was of no importance to his scope.

“Safety,” Tam responded. “The ground might not be able to support the weight of the station for very long—amongst various other disastrous possibilities. So—do you want our ship parked in a place we haven’t fully surveyed?”

“No,” Klaus answered and that was that.

Until Sasha spoke: “Speaking of parking, I am going to set the rover down at the edge of the surveyed region.”

“Safety-first,” Tam echoed. Klaus hummed in agreement.

They remained silent until the rover was parked. They disembarked from it and began moving the equipment off the vehicle, taking what they needed to begin their detection of the planet. They kept close to each other as they began to push out from their initial spot.

Hours passed of them scanning the ground and what laid beneath it, finding nothing of interest, until Tam said: “We will be running out of oxygen soon—we need to begin our return.”

They probably could stay for longer, but Tam preferred having more than enough for a return rather than pushing it to the limit. Sasha trusted Tam’s judgement.

“Alright, Klaus, Tam, begin loading up the rover,” Sasha ordered. “I’ll log today’s work.”

She pulled out the tablet affixed to her hip of her suit and began to log the coordinates they had last reached and the status of the work done and not yet done. After that was complete, she helped the others finish up the work and then they returned to the station without note.

Nothing had gone awry, but nothing had happened of interest yet. It was going exactly as the mission had been planned to: a simple geological survey of the underground of Mars. Nothing more, nothing less. It was essential work in understanding Mars and preparing for future missions.

Sasha sighed as she laid back into her sleeping accommodation. Despite years of such work, she still had the hope, nay, faith, that she would be the one to find something new on Mars. An underground aquifer, something like oil…something new that would illuminate Mars like never before.

Her childish dreams involved discovering that there was once sentient life on Mars.

She never really grew up in that regard. It was her enduring dream that kept her going and also lulled her to sleep with its tantalizing possibility.

She awoke to the next day and their work began without note. Again, they went out with the rover and started their scanning. They were moving closer to a mountainous formation on their right with every passing round of scanning.

Things had hardly begun before Klaus nearly shouted: “Detecting a contiguous cavity originating at the face of that ridge.” He pointed at the large wall of rock.

Both Tam and Sasha immediately stopped what they were doing and looked over in that direction.

“Let us check it out,” Sasha said without further consideration. It was something—perhaps something fantastic.

“We would be skipping over areas,” Tam said, yet still going to follow her. Klaus was also moving over to her.

“Is it a good idea to explore a cavity without verifying the integrity?” Klaus asked.

“I did not say we were to do that just yet,” Sasha said. “Yes, we would be skipping over areas, but this is more important. It’s possible it could collapse by the time we finish up with the rest of the areas. We should scan and determine what we can, yes, including integrity, while we can.” And Sasha thought: if it is stable, we’ll explore it. But she would make that decision and argue for it when, and if, the opportunity came. “Any objections?”

“None,” Klaus said.

Tam didn’t say anything, she just walked over to ridge and began to scan it. That was her answer: just doing the work. Sasha came over to the mountainous wall and put her hand against it. There was nothing scientific about this at all, but she wanted to feel it and just…appreciate it. It was a tall, flat wall of rock that was the edge of another section of surface.

“I see no signs or indications that the cavity is weak or prone to collapse,” Tam said. Klaus muttered his agreement from beside Tam.

Sasha pulled out her tablet and looked into what they already knew of this area. Automated rovers had been in this area before, but were not equipped as they were. The topography had not changed in anyway that they could detect since they first scanned this region of the planet.

“Where exactly is the entrance?” Sasha asked Klaus. Klaus, without hesitation, went over to where his sensors were showing it. Tam went with him, but keeping a few paces back.

At where the sensors were showing the entrance, Sasha stared. She had her tablet compare the image of this part of the wall with what they had photographed years ago. It was identical.

“This area is seemingly unchanged since the last basic sweep five years ago,” Sasha relayed. “That indicates that whatever this sub-structure is, it is not weak. If it had collapsed, we would have seen topographic changes, based on the measurements I am getting from the equipment…” She was reviewing what Klaus and Tam’s equipment were feeding her.

But still, the entrance. “But the entrance—it is not open. Thus something must have caved in at some point,” Klaus rationalized.

Sasha did not say anything. She just stared at the wall, the spot where the entrance ought to be—where just beyond it was. Again, not exactly being scientific, she reached out with her hand and touched the rock. Through the layers of her suit, she could not feel that deftly, but still, she tried to feel out what exactly this cavity and its unseen entrance was.

Before anyone could question her, she felt something dip upon her pressing into it and the wall shuddered.

“Scheisse!” Klaus cried out in his native language and quickly moved back. Tam steeled him, preventing him from tumbling over.

Sasha stayed in place, staring at the movement before her. It was definitely not the smartest thing she had ever done, stand immovable in front of something possibly dangerous quaking, but…it was something and she could not do anything else but observe it.

The crumbling noises echoed away and what was left was an entrance—finely cut and revealed to them.

“This cannot be natural,” Sasha breathed out. There was no chance the others didn’t hear her, unless their communication system was down. She turned around to face her compatriots. They were both staring wide-eyed at the formation.

“No way,” Klaus said—of the entire situation or of it being natural or not, Sasha was not sure. “It…does lead to the cavity I detected earlier.”

“Still seems to be structurally intact,” Tam said a moment later. “What is protocol in this scenario?”

“What is this scenario?” Klaus asked back, voice hoarse.

“Klaus is right, actually,” Sasha said. “We do not know enough about this tunnel to determine what it is nor what ought to be done. Klaus, can you go back to the rover and communicate with the station that we have found a tunnel and are going to proceed inward?”

He was silent for a moment. “Am I staying with the rover or going in after I communicate so? What are your orders?”

Sasha smiled. “What do you prefer? This could be nothing or it could be the greatest something Humanity has ever discovered. I am going in, but I do want to force either of you to do this. I want calm minds going into it.”

“We barely started this shift so our oxygen levels are more than enough to spend some time inside,” Tam said. “And our suits are without issue. Whatever it is, we need to explore it without jumping to conclusions. I will come with.”

Klaus hummed and then sighed. “Should I tell them about…our…perception of things?”

“No,” Sasha said immediately. “Actually.” She hesitated. “I do not want them to get excited nor panicked at the possibility…but they need to have an idea of what is happening.” She contemplated her course of options and found the best way forward. “Explain that we’re going into a tunnel and that it is a code ‘Burroughs.’” It was an obscure code and reference, one to indicate possible sentient alien life. Only Jameson, the leading member of the station, would understand it and thus be able to understand the gravity of the situation. He would act accordingly.

“Understood,” Klaus said and turned away. “Wait for me, please.”

“We will,” Sasha said.

And so they did. He returned minutes later. In the meantime, Sasha attempted to empty her mind of both hope and fear, but…the possibility was right there in front of her and all her dreams seemed to be coming to life. But she had to act rationally and make calculated decisions. There was much at stake, maybe beyond just their lives and their simple mission.

“Nothing has changed,” Tam said after reviewing their suits and the integrity of the cavern once more. “We can proceed.”

Sasha led them forth, Tam then Klaus following into the dark entrance. They carried their equipment with them, in case the scans would be of use. Their helmets automatically began to emit light for them to see through the tunnel.

The tunnel that was clearly not of natural make. There were patterns on the walls that had to be of deliberate construction. It was still just rock and rough-cut stone, though.

The tunnel, nay, hallway, kept on as far as they could see, pitched slightly down.

“How far does this go?” Sasha asked, slowing her pace. She looked back to her crew.

“Twenty feet more, then it seems to end,” Klaus said.

“Seems to?” Sasha repeated, seeking clarification.

“There’s higher density material beyond the ‘end’ point,” Tam explained. “Seemingly metallic in composition. It is hard to get a read on it.”

There was silence at that. More confirmation than what was all around them of what this place was.

“How much oxygen do we have left?” Sasha asked quietly.

“We have hours until we would even need to think to leave,” Tam said swiftly. Her voice betrayed her enthusiasm—or perhaps anxiety.

“What if…there’s something hostile?” Klaus questioned, wondered.

“If there was, we have been scoping out Mars for a long time, Klaus. If there was anything with a hair trigger, it would have struck back already,” Sasha rationalized. She had already made up her mind: She was going to keep on.

And so she did.

Twenty feet later, they were at the end of the stone tunnel. And, as Tam said, there was metal before them—some sort of corrugated seal that was affixed to the stone sides, acting as barrier for them. It did not look like the hallway ended properly—this was a proper door.

Sasha took the lead and went up to it. There was nothing discernible about it to suggest it was a door, but then again, neither was the door that led them here. She touched it once more. It creaked open. It led to a small room, covered in metal.

“I am going in,” Sasha said. “Stay back until I either come back or get past it. That is an order.”

“Yes, sir,” Tam and Klaus both said at once.

Sasha breathed in, relaxed, and stepped into the room. The door closed behind her. She recited some prayers in her mind and waited for something to happen. She felt the pressure shift—her suit reacted fine to it, but she felt the change. The metal in front of her swung open to a larger space. She walked into it.

“I am beyond it. I think it is some pressure adjusting chamber,” Sasha said into her comms. Hopefully the metal did not completely block them from communicating.

“Is your suit integrity compromised?” Tam asked, a bit fuzzy.

Sasha checked. “No.”

She heard metal clicking and a creak utter out and then Tam was beside her. A few moments later, Klaus was over here too. They were no longer carrying their scanning equipment.

“The pressure is definitely different,” Tam said, reviewing her suits readings. “We don’t have the tools to confirm the composition, but perhaps there is some sort of air as well.”

“Artificial life support,” Klaus muttered. “But not for life like ours.”

“Correct,” Sasha said and she stepped forward. This space still had stone carved walls, but metal and cords ran along it. The only light was no longer that from their helmets—there were light fixtures that emitted a dull light up above them.

“Conserve energy and turn off the headlights,” Tam said.

They did as she instructed. “Oxygen levels?” Sasha asked.

“Still more than enough,” Tam said.

“Unless we exert ourselves,” Klaus chimed. “Running from something…”

“Do you really think anything could be alive down here?” Tam chided.

“There is artificial life support still running,” Klaus threw back. “Perhaps the Martians perfected cryogenics of some sort.”

What was fear-inducing for Klaus would be a dream for Sasha—a living sentient organism. Not the bones of the dead or whatever remains they’ve left—a real, living Martian.

“Perhaps,” Sasha echoed.

She went further on. The hallway led on for a little bit, then towards the right was a large space they could not fully see into yet. They approached carefully and gazed beyond the corner into the space. It was filled with technology they had no comprehension of. But in the center of the space, where all technology seemed to lead to, were four pods lined up—with four obscured figures within.

“Are those…” Klaus started.

“Has to be,” Tam said.

“Can we alert the station from here?” Sasha asked. The signals from their suits were weaker than from the rover. But any message would be better than none.

Tam checked. Klaus double checked. “No,” both said.

“Range is limited here,” Tam said.

“Should I go back and alert them…?” Klaus asked.

Sasha moved past the corner and stared at the pods head on.

Three of the four seemed to be illuminated. One of them was completely dark. One of the three that were still illuminated was flickering ominously.

Nothing in this world was forever, especially not the creations of Human nor Martian.

“Whatever is keeping them alive is failing,” Sasha said. The other two came beside her to see what she saw.

“The chance of us being able to successfully repair completely alien systems is….astronomical,” Tam said. “We have to bring a team in and have them figure it out.”

“Would anyone be better than anyone else?” Sasha asked philosophically—but also piercingly.

“I agree with Sasha,” Klaus said. “We can rationalize their technology as much as we want, but we will be guessing, and we only have…three chances to get it right.”

“We do not know how long that one has left,” Sasha said. She pointed to the flickering one, the one facing them.

“Maybe us coming in here drained power from whatever is keeping them up,” Klaus followed. “That chamber must have required power to operate. And so would those pods.”

Tam hummed. “We do not even know if they are still alive,” Tam said. “How would we even know if they are alive?”

Neither Klaus nor Sasha had anything to say to that. But it did not matter, something had to be done, some decision had to be done.

“My thinking is this: if we wait, we risk losing the one that seems to be in jeopardy,” Sasha spoke. “Their systems seem isolated from each other, right?”

“I agree,” Klaus said. All the cables and alien things were duplicated for each of the four pods.

“So if we try to either release or repair the one in jeopardy, we, in theory, don’t risk the others. If we wait, it may fail in that time or we can’t save it anyway. But it is also a risk to ourselves. I am willing to take these risks to try to save that one…but I understand if you two wish to return to the rover and contact the station directly.”

“If you are making first contact here and now, I will be here for it,” Tam said bluntly. It would look excellent on her resume, which was already quite illustrious.

As for Klaus… He shifted back and forth. “I will stay back against the edge of the space and I’ll wait for something to happen then go report back. I’ll take the equipment back with me on my way back.”

“That is a smart course of action—I approve,” Sasha said. “Okay, now that we are in agreement. I will take the responsibility of trying to interface with Martian technology.” With that said, Sasha proceeded further, mindful of every step she took.

She walked up to the pod—if they were going to do this, she was going to look at the Martian first. Closer to it, she could see through the fog more clearly. The Martian’s color was not clear, but they were definitely tall. Four arms, apparently. All other detail was unclear to her. The pod’s composition was unclear to her too—it was not glass of any sort…maybe it was a field?

The door to the tunnel opened with touch. The metal door the same.

There was nothing that scientific to it, more like faith, but it led Sasha to this point, so Sasha reached out and touched the pod’s field.

It collapsed instantly and the Martian was released. Sasha stepped back reflexively—the Martian was keeled over the ground wheezing and coughing. Their breath was being caught, their fingers, six of them total on each hand, four hands, were twitching then steadying. Their head tilted up and their four eyes looked at Sasha’s two.

Here was first contact between Humanity and what was left of the Martian race:

Sasha staring at the Martian who stared back. Their eyes squinted and then they lurched back and made some sort of howling shriek.

Klaus left the space, quickly, as planned, and Tam—Tam stepped backwards.

Sasha raised her arms slowly and kept looking at the Martian. Hopefully the lack of response and open movements would be interpreted as meaning no harm.

The Martian continued to stare. They started making noises that maybe was their language. Of course, they had no way of translating it, but still, Sasha spoke in return:

“Hello, my name is Sasha,” Sasha said, which felt stupid. But it seemed to calm the Martian.

They moved away from their pod—vaguely towards Sasha. Sasha stepped back, allowing them more room. The Martian seemed to be wearing some sort of suit, blue in color. They looked about the space and made no sound nor sign of anything. Then they turned to the other pods. They checked each one of them and another howl cried out at the sight of the dark, dead one.

“I am sorry,” Sasha said.

The Martian cocked their head back at her and stared once more. Then they moved back to appreciate the space. Their head slunk down and they wrapped their arms around their upper chest. Some muttering noise emanated from them.

“Sasha, what do you want me to do?” Tam asked softly.

“Just stay back,” Sasha said. “Did Klaus get out alright?”

“Yes, comms worked fine up until the exit of the tunnel,” Tam said. “There’s no reason why he would have any issue getting back to the rover.”

Sasha said nothing at that.

The Martian straightened their back—they would tower over any Human. The hopes and dreams of Sasha were realized, but now she had some of Klaus’s fear. Just a little bit. She ignored it and stayed in position, but she did lower her arms.

The Martian went towards one of the illuminated pods and did as Sasha did— they released the Martian inside. Then they did the same with the other, quickly. Foreign words were exchanged as each of the other Martians recovered from their stasis. Three Martians in total and just two of them now, not that it mattered.

Each was wearing a different shade of clothing. The first one was a dark blue, the second was a bright red, and the third a sort of light green. It was a way to distinguish them, at least.

The Martians turned to face them. The dark blue one chattered, gesturing to them. Sasha’s fingers tensed.

They had to figure out some way to communicate, quickly, but what was a shared basis for two completely different species?

Her mind rapidly toiled at this problem, until she arrived at the obvious—their world was the same. Their solar system, the laws of physics…all of it was the same.

And if they could build all of this, they would have to understand it.

Sasha pulled out her tablet and the Martians stiffened. She paused her movements as the Martians talked amongst themselves. They did not interfere as she fiddled with her tablet. She pulled up pictures of their solar system and its planets. She approached the blue-outfitted one and he stepped forward. She showed him the tablet. Hopefully their eyes could perceive the images the same way they did…

She showered that Martian a picture of the Sun. He stared at it and said a word that sounded like: “Uza.”

The red Martian leaned forward and said the same, rolling their upper shoulders.

“Sun,” Sasha said and pointing at it.

“Uza,” the Martian echoed, eyes flickering in what Sasha hoped was understanding. The first word exchanged between species that was comprehended.

They proceeded without issue with Mercury and Venus. Then when Earth showed up, there was more pausing and chatting between the Martians.

As Sasha said, “Earth”, she pointed to herself and Tam. She repeated it. “Earth.”

They stared at her with an expression that had to be confusion. The green one mumbled something and left the space completely. The red and blue one remained in their places.

Nothing more could be said right now, so she showed them their planet, the planet they were on, and the planet that had to be unrecognizable for them: Mars.

“Mars,” Sasha murmured and pointed at them.

The blue one reached out for the tablet. Sasha cautiously gave it to them. She almost heard Tam object.

The blue brought it close and touched the screen. It flickered to Jupiter and Sasha reached out and brought it back to Mars for them. She showed them how to zoom in. The two hands holding it trembled as another one of their’s zoomed in on the surface of Mars.

“Tzelshel,” the Martian murmured as the red one looked at it.

“Mars,” Sasha echoed.

“Tzelshel…” The Martian gave her back the tablet and muttered something. They walked past Sasha with haste. Sasha clipped the tablet back.

“Don’t,” Sasha cried out, probably in vain. She went after the blue one. Tam, wide-eyed, moved out of the way silently. Sasha reached out to grab them, to stop them from trying to leave and getting themself killed.

She made contact with their body and then with two of their arms they swiped at her, thrusting her away and onto her back. Tam came over her immediately, verifying suit integrity. Sasha grunted at the impact, but it didn’t feel like the swipe had actually done any damage to her.

The Martian stopped heading towards the exit, realizing the extent of their action. The blue one looked at the two of them, small, no doubt, and then folded their arms behind their back and bowed.

The red Martian came forward and said something to the blue one. The blue one was silent. They all were silent as Tam continued to verify the suit integrity—or that was what she was doing initially. She had pushed Sasha onto her side, fiddling with the tanks on her back.

“There was an oxygen leak,” Tam said. “I managed to stem the leak, but we need to head back soon, Sasha.”

That would leave the Martians unattended—and perhaps more inclined to venture out into their dead world to become dead themselves. Whether they understood the risk now was decidedly unclear.

Sasha was not going to take that chance. She’d take other chances and risks in their stead.

She steadied her breath and pulled out her tablet and approached the blue one. Their eyes flickered and their arms went slack as she stilled before him.

“Tam, can you pull water from my suit?” Sasha asked as she began to draw something out on her tablet. The drawing functions were hardly used until now, but now they would be essential.

“Yes,” Tam said, not questioning her request.

She did as she asked, and brought Sasha a container of water from her suit. Sasha clipped her tablet back to her suit, opened it and showed it to the blue Martian.

The Martian stared it and then said, with inflection: “Kol?”

“Water,” Sasha said, tentatively. She gestured for Tam to return it to her suit. She did so promptly and then stepped away.

Sasha then pulled her tablet back out and showed them the drawing she had just worked on. It was a basic diagram of the molecular structure of water and its atomic components.

If they could understand that, they could understand any element Sasha drew—including that of oxygen. They couldn’t detect what the air was, but these Martians had to know what they were breathing.

The Martian stared at it for sometime. They gestured for the red one, the only other one currently present, and they chattered.

“Kol,” they both said at once.

Sasha smiled. She proceeded to draw out oxygen, and then gestured that it was the same element that was part of water.

“Paelar,” the blue one said instantly.

“Oxygen,” Sasha returned.

“Please don’t tell me you’re trying to figure out if the air is breathable,” Tam said. “There could be toxins, biological elements, so many other things beyond oxygen that could kill you in the air here.”

“I am not leaving them,” Sasha said, tilting her head back.

She turned to look back at the Martian. She gestured to her suit and repeated: “Oxygen.” She paused then tried to say: “Paelar.”

The Martian rolled their shoulders at her. Was that an affirmation of understanding? Sasha had no idea, but then she gestured to the empty space around them, tablet back on her hip. She then made an explicit motion of her breathing. Then she gestured to them—the blue one’s mouth.

The blue one stared and made some noise. The red one stared at the blue one.

“Paelar,” the blue one repeated. “Oxygen.”

Was she going to get more confirmation than this?

“Tam, if this doesn’t work, be ready to put my helmet back on for me,” Sasha ordered with a firm tone.

“I don’t agree with this, for the record,” Tam said.

Sasha breathed in and took off her helmet slowly, the oxygen connection already terminated. If the Martians understood and she did not, she hoped they would stop her. They didn’t and her helmet was off. She breathed in, out, taking in the air of the Martian facility.

She could breath and didn’t feel woozy at all.

“Sasha,” Tam whispered.

“I’m fine,” she replied.

The Martians were staring at her. She supposed she looked far smaller now, without the big helmet. She took it and placed it down safely at the edge of the space.

“What now?” Tam asked.

“Have you received anything from Klaus?” Sasha asked. Depending on the station and Jameson’s plan, Klaus could have been ordered to stay at the rover—not to go back in. They hadn’t exactly planned this far. They couldn’t even have imagined getting this far.

“No,” Tam replied.

Sasha hummed. Again, risk and reward…

“Leave and make sure everything went well with the communication to the station and explain the new status of the situation,” Sasha said. “Tell the station to bring supplies over—food, batteries, and more lights. Nothing hostile is happening.”

“Understood,” Tam said after a pause.

Then Tam walked past her, heading towards the exit.

The blue and red ones stared as Tam made to leave the way the blue one had tried to. The blue one seemed eager to try as well, but Sasha reached out for them again and pointed to her suit and helmet. She pulled out her tablet and showed a picture of oxygen then removed it.

The Martian stared and said nothing—but they didn’t move either. Tam left without any Martian trying the same.

Then it was just Sasha and the two Martians.

What could they try to communicate about next? Air…water…where they were…

She forgot one important detail about all this: the Martians were no doubt mulling over the same types of questions she was.

And this time, they were driving the engagement. The blue one gently reached out for her and then gestured for her to follow them. The blue one started to leave the place—heading out to where the green one went. The red one followed along. She was led by them past the pods, to the space of the room beyond her sight. The room ended, but then another hallway came out from it, just like on the other side. This one went away from the direction of the entrance, however.

Sasha did not bother to track how long they walked until they reached their destination. It was a space smaller than the room with the pods—it contained more sprawling pieces of technology, affixed to stone walls and reliefs. Was this their aesthetic, or was this place ancient even to them? If only she could ask them.

But it was not her that was asking questions right now. The blue dressed Martian was questioning the green one—because also in this space was where the green one was. The green one talked quickly and loudly—then punctuated all their words by picking up something and throwing it against the wall. The red one folded their arms and closed their eyes.

The blue one turned to Sasha. Their eyes glistened and they looked around rapidly. They muttered something and then gestured for her tablet. Sasha provided it, bringing it back to the drawing setting.

The Martian held it, hands trembling, as it drew something on it. When they were done, Sasha looked at it. It had two basic drawings: one of a Human and one of a Martian.

The Martian gestured at the Martian one and seemed to make a bunch of hand gestures that Sasha could not interpret. She stared and remained silent—saying anything would confuse the fact that she did not understand.

And that they understood—they muttered and stared at the drawing again.

Then their eyes widened. They drew three plain dots under the Human picture and glistening balls of fire under the Martians. They seemed to struggle with the balls of fire. They seemed to wish to navigate somewhere else so Sasha brought them back to pictures of space. When there, the Martian immediately pointed to the stars.

“Stars,” Sasha said, and they did not repeat, they seemed eager to go back to the drawing.

Then Sasha brought them back to the drawing.

“Stars,” the Martian murmured at the balls of yellow he drew.

Stars underneath the Martian…they kept adding them. But just three under the Human picture… The Martian paused their drawing and then gestured: they pointed to their eyes and pointed to her.

Sasha’s mind worked to try to understand the meaning. “Oh. You’re…you’re asking how many we’ve seen of your kind.” Her eyes began to glisten as she took the tablet and drew. A black line separated their ‘answers’.

Many stars she drew underneath the Human, and just three dots underneath the Martian—one blue, red, and green. To further articulate that she understood, she inserted a picture of Earth next to the Human and directed the star symbols on top of the picture. As for the Martian…she took a picture of Mars and then added dots to it too, approximately where they actually were. Perhaps they remembered their general location.

When she was done, tears forming in her eyes, she gave the blue Martian the tablet.

They stared at it for a long time. The red one said something and the blue one said nothing. The green one shouted out again and the blue one said nothing for a long while.

Until the blue one wailed out: “Nuqkt. Nuqkt!”

They stumbled over and slumped down against a wall. They gently handed Sasha back her tablet when they were done moving. The red one was hoarsely speaking and the green one was speaking rapidly and….


She just sat next to the blue one.

All her hopes and dreams were a nightmare for them. She should have realized it sooner—that if sentient life was ever miraculously found on Mars, they would be the remnants of a dead planet.

But finding was just the first step. And the planet was not completely dead…not yet, anyway.

She reached out to the blue one. She had no idea what this gesture meant to them, but it meant something to her.

It meant everything when the Martian grasped her hand, gently. They looked right at each other.

“Are’shel,” they said.

“Sasha,” she said.

In the end, her mission really hadn’t changed. They wanted to learn about the history of Mars—and these Martians were living parts of that history that had to be equally invested too.

And together they would figure out how to navigate their present and to understand their past.

Released: 19 February 2023