On the final minutes of my sixty-fifth day away from Nantes, I found what I sought at the bottom of a gully: a pool of dirty liquid, rim ice already crusting in the dusk. With frigid and trembling hands I dragged the vial through it, then crawled back up to the phaethon, desperate for its steel warmth. Just before I shut the canopy, I let the last sunlight cradle my face. The sun was pierced on Pavonis Mons, then disappeared.
I keyed my fingerprint and the “faith” shuddered to life. I cranked up the forced heat and set the vial carefully into the waiting hygrometer. While it clicked and whirred I lay down on my elbows and aimed the thermal monitors north, back home. Through their powerful lenses I watched the distant zone lights on the Chryse lowlands power up, bracketing the fleets of piledrivers that I could hear when the wind was right, pounding rocks flat. Every night since my deployment I had fallen asleep to their ecclesiastical clanging. By the time we achieved precipitation, the agrarian suburbs would be ready. The colony had been contained too long: at the heart of the Nantes citadel, mounted on a pedestal in the stone-flagged courtyard, was a globe of Ares, divided by eight meridians: we occupied only the slice from Acidalia in the north to the Noachis foothills in the south, a lowland plain where the oxygen accumulated to near-aerobic levels. Everywhere else was wild. But once the first crop of Panicum grew and accumulated in our siloes, the hostile upland communities would clamor for admission.
My original task had been to locate suitable points for a bridge over the canyons, to link Nantes to Verona and the southern settlements. But before I set out, the meteorologist had rushed down from the rampart, reporting rainclouds over the western mesa. They had hauled a steel device aboard my faith and detoured me a thousand miles to verify her claim. The hygrometer took up most of the cockpit, leaving a scant six feet to sleep. Much depended on the scant liquid swirling in the vial before me.
But after an hour it chimed: it was filthy with heavy metals, but it was water. I jumped up and transmitted the analysis back to Nantes. After two hundred years of gathering clouds around us like a belt, the Barren Age was over. There would be an epochal celebration, with a military parade and a fête in the Grand Hall. I would surely be blessed again by the impératrice.
The chronometer ticked out a minute, then five more: I spent the first moments of the Harvest Age utterly alone. I knew Moccasin was in the Observation Hub, either napping or playing cards — why wasn’t he responding? The hygrometer had moved on to microbiological analysis, and would be consumed with this task for some time.
The air grew close, so I opened the canopy and stretched my neck into the bracing night. Noxious fumes were only one of the issues with our altered phaethons, which had been designed only for brief surface forays from orbit. Its central rocket was still equipped with a fuel baton towards that obsolete purpose, but we had swapped out the tread batteries with a combustion engine which burned dirty in the thin atmosphere.
Cold sand whipped my cheeks and the hairs in my nose began to stiffen. I was about to retract my head when something gleamed far west from the top of Arsia, the southernmost Tharsis volcano. I took off my goggles and squinted; it twinkled for only a moment more before night swallowed the entire peak.
As I swiveled the thermals to investigate, the comm blared. I grabbed for it but it didn’t dilate for me; first it crackled with an imperial declaration, faint from the distance: “The fanatics are impelled to violence. The impératrice is devoted to your liberty. Be assured that Her protection is constant.”
When it ended I commed Nantes. “Mock? Are you there?” At length his harried voice came through. He asked where I was and I told him.
He said, “From what I can tell, the Elohim breached and fired Hellas. They say there’s no danger but they’ve sealed the ports.” His voice grew more panicked. “The Intendant is going to cut comms presently. Stand by, and watch out.”
“Hellas? The oxygen manufactory?”
But the comm contracted shut before I could tell him about the rain. I shut off the power, extinguished the lights, and latched the canopy tight. The hygrometer’s centrifuge slowed and stopped. Without the forced air, I immediately began to shiver.
At midnight, the comm was still occluded. A soft hurricane was raging about me, and falling sand ticked against the faith. My toes were numb and swelled inside my boots; I felt the cold on my teeth. When the water in the vial froze, I reached for the electrical systems to restart the heat.
The moment the power returned to the faith, the thermals alarmed, surprising me: I had forgotten they were still aimed at Arsia. They were reporting heat anomalies at its summit. This was interesting. Arsia was a perfect vantage point from which to spy on us and the trade routes, but it was six miles high, a lethal altitude without support.
I squatted in the dark and considered my options.
On my heart was etched the stories in which retainers kneeled to their liege lords and said things like, “Were I ground into dust, still I could not repay my debt to you.” I had outlasted all the other cadets in the ordeal, though I lost a finger to frostbite and required a week in the sanatorium getting the silica chelated from my blood. The impératrice had visited me there and raised my disfigured hand to her lips.
Returning home would take another sixty-five days; home might not last that long, and I would accomplish nothing there on my own. There was only one path forward. I clambered out of the faith, scraped the rust off the exhaust baffles and angled them straight down. Then I hauled on the crankwheel until the propellant hissed into the throttle. The fuel baton had some surface bloom but my nose still recoiled from the potent scorch of hexamine.
Back on board I tried the comm — still nothing. I spoke her name and touched my finger again to the controls. The thrusters ignited and the monitors snowed out with dirt. I aimed west.
The Aresian Elohim had once been just one of many Protest-Luddite communes in the far southern Argyre basin, out of reach of the Verona radio. Since the last Terran satellite had fallen forty years ago, the only communication to Argyre had been the overland caravans: a tortuous eight-month round trip over the high desert. Occasionally a rebellious teen would stow away, only to return gaunt the next year, starved and dissipated by their grueling subsistence hydroponics.
Then we heard a woman called Darlinghurst had become pre-eminent among them. She published tracts denouncing the impératrice and her despotic Intendants, and called the colonies a corruption of the land. “Every king is a rebel and usurper of the natural order,” she proclaimed. Their foodstuff contributions dwindled, then ceased. Our teenagers defected at faster rates, sometimes entire families at a time.
This past Germinal, three Verona faiths arrived at Argyre for resupply and found a charred and empty wasteland. They combed the burnt wreckage and found neither survivors nor corpses, only the fading footprints of a shackled exodus.
I got one of the Veronese surveyors drunk and asked how: there was barely oxygen enough for a small faith engine to choke along, but not for a million acre inferno. He said the Elohim had used a compound which burned even in the vacuum of space. The science team were calling it “Greek Fire.” Its substrate was iron oxide — rust — which meant they could ignite the Aresian soil itself.
Darlinghurst declared war: in a broadcast she said, “From our terror emanates virtue.”
During Floreal three more ranches vanished. In Prairial, a mother and child stumbled under the Verona portcullis, witnesses to the immolation of the massive Holden algae collective, three hundred souls. Caravans refused their contracts, and the impératrice doubled the causeway patrols.
An entire shift at the armory absconded with the spare subterrene, and we were terrified the Elohim were tunneling under us, to slit our throats while we slept. We could not find their lair. All of the original Floridian satellites were gone and the twenty screens in the Observation Hub had been rerouted to the feeds from the faiths that scuttled along the surface, but none of us could find them. It was Thermidor now, and the Elohim had finally come for us. If the Elohim could raze Hellas, then Verona was next, and then Nantes. The nascent Harvest Age would be aborted by apocalypse.
Arsia finally appeared below, a sprawling volcanic blister that gleamed in the new morning. I guided the faith down into the center of the crater. The six-hour effort of dead reckoning through a sandstorm with sluggish thrusters had so spent me that I fell asleep right in my harness, even before the dust thrown up from my landing settled.
When I woke, it was dusk. I consulted the monitors. The heat anomalies were still there on the northwest ridgeline, consistent with human forms and something larger and indistinct beneath the surface. I attempted the engine but it would not turn over at this starved altitude.
I jumped out and my legs buckled; I was still so exhausted my eyes would not focus. I reached up into the engine chassis and removed the cooling fuel baton, measuring it. Enough remained for a half-kiloton explosion. I tucked it away, increased my oxygen capture, and set out towards the ridge on foot. It was slow going: the ground was a knee deep powder, and my boots sunk in but could get no purchase. The sun set again and despite my suitlamp I tripped and fell three times before attaining the top of the ridge, covered in ash that filled my mouth with a metallic taste like blood. Pain pulsed up my back in stripes — my ankles, my shoulders, my neck.
I caught my breath and looked around. No longer protected by the leeward slope, the quick wind pulled at my suit. I swept the lamp around and saw something on a small mound to the south.
I stepped towards the shape, which emerged from the night like a monster. It was a tower fifty feet high, with stacked rooves that swung at each corner. Stairs led to white paper doors. I knelt at their foot and touched the steps; they were strange and supple, neither stone nor metal, with darker swirls of density like oil on a wet shop floor. Floating from the bannisters and the threshold were jagged strips of paper. At the top of the stairs beside the door a huge bronze disc dangled from a frame. In certain parts of Terra this pagoda would not be out of place but at the top of Arsia Mons it was an impossibility.
I heard footfalls on a rocky path. I hid, switching off my lamp, and peered down the slope. In the dark I could just make out five figures scrabbling up the volcano. Each was sheathed in a thin robe, carrying a massive flower that drooped over them: three heads brimming with dark purple petals. Their palms were swollen and bloody and their knees shook — they were in worse shape than me. Their cold ascent from the planum must have taken a week or more. The moment they caught sight of the pagoda they wept.
Three shrine guardians appeared at the door and hung lit lanterns from the lintel. They bowed to the pilgrims as they entered, and followed them inside. I silently climbed the stairs, staring at the candles: open flame was another impossibility.
I peered inside. Five more candles surrounded a stone statue of a seated guru with a strange aspect: his chin was held arrogantly high, too high, and his teeth were bared and clenched so tightly that the molars had fractured. At the far wall the pilgrims had kneeled and were tying long red ribbons around their foreheads. Then they lowered their faces to the floor, their hands stretched in front of them. Two of the guardians moved to the center of the north wall and slid its panels apart, revealing a bruised dawn over the Tharsis plateau far below. Tropospheric gusts should have snuffed out the candles but they hardly wavered. The air inside the pagoda was heavy, even stifling.
The third guardian moved behind the pilgrims and gathered the ribbons, wrapping the ends several times around her hand. She began a low chant which the other guardians confirmed. Suddenly she yanked her silken fist and the pilgrims’ heads snapped up from the floor, forcing their gaze out, over the land. She held them there, each like a wretched sphinx on a leash.
One of the guardians spoke, and the pilgrims opened their mouths and each accepted from a jar something that looked like a wet acorn. Their bodies began to shake.
One of the pilgrims began gurgling and flopping on the floor. I watched as his body contorted into a backwards arch, his head straining for his heels. The guardians dragged him into a side room, from which came loud slapping sounds, like water dripping on paper.
I felt sick and slipped back outside to compose myself. Something terrible was happening here. But also, vibrating in the air so thick and humid I could hardly breathe, in the ceaseless chants, in the taut and quivering ribbons, was the awful pulse of power.
The sun was about to rise. There was more movement below: people were emerging from the mons like hatching spiders. I turned my lamp back on and picked my way down the slope to identify them.
I presently found myself on a vast platform that wrapped around the rockface for hundreds of meters. I knelt down and ran my fingers over the planks. They were made from the same soft material as the pagoda steps — I finally realized it must be wood. I looked over the edge, and in the dark blue gloom I could discern at least six more platforms below, all clinging to the rock like mushrooms. Somewhere, somehow, a vast forest had sprouted out of the chlorinated soil.
Giving out onto the platforms were numerous caves where people were cooking, or consoling, bartering, copulating, or kneeling in prayer. None wore any breathing apparatuses, and they glared at my suit and helmet. One family of six, as I walked past, each lowered their trousers and shat in my path.
Out here beyond the frontiers lived all manner of wild people, scavenging the nutrient lines of the old cruisers and cultivating lichen in their oily runoff. Some even said there were cannibals in the hills. But I was not an anthropologist looking for primitives.
Detonating the fuel baton just inside any of these caves would summon an avalanche, sweeping the mons clean. I walked into one of the largest ones and found myself in a tunnel four times my height. I could have comfortably piloted the faith through it. I removed my helmet and took a raw breath. Warm oxygen was emanating from somewhere ahead — how were they making it? But something in the air made me a little nauseous, too.
Further in, smaller tunnels branched off, revealing dimly lit warrens in which I could discern huddled forms. These had been hewn by hand, but the main bore was smooth and even glassy, much too uniform for a lava channel. Presently I arrived at an intersection of three, coming together at precise angles.
I picked the warmest one, replacing my helmet, hoping to filter out what was making me feel sick. In the shops and bazaars at Nantes, beneath the heady stink of sweat, there was nothing but the sour sterility of the burnished aluminum which encased us. This was worse: it made me remember the time I watched my mother perform an autopsy on a laborer. She made her first abdominal incision, something hissed out, and I had flinched back, bile rising in my throat. “That’s what cancer smells like,” she had said. I felt that same acrid and corrupt sensation now.
After a long gradual descent I arrived at a large chamber, lit by phosphorescent fungus. I estimated that I must be at least two kilometers beneath the surface. Here, swarms of men worked on threshers and sowers and balers with colonial markings, machines that had long lain idle in our warehouses, rusting, while we tried to make the land fertile. But this reaper just returning was bristling with straw and seeds, and men leaped upon it to clean it and sharpen its saws. The floor was covered in hay and more purple petals, the same ones on the flowers borne by the pilgrims.
I turned a corner. There, behind a ponderous iron gate, deep in shadow, sat a massive machine that resembled a tank inverted over another tank. Projecting from it was a long stout steel barrel that divided in two. Mounted at the tip of each Y-arm was a pyramidal drillhead that, even in the darkness, gleamed with unmistakable titanium. At Nantes the two subterrenes had lived beside each other, and when we were children we had raced down the barrels to touch the slick titanium. Only after we had grown up did we learn each drillhead contained a miniature atomic reactor that could melt bedrock: two megatons of fissile material.
I opened the gate and ran my fingers over the steel chassis. And here, on the lead sprocket of the tread, were our carved initials: A.Y. + M.L.
At that moment I knew what I had to do. I dropped the fuel baton and leapt for the subterrene’s ignition. The drill heads hummed, then began to glow and churn. I hurried to the panel that housed the fission regulator.
Before I could tear it free, someone took hold of my arms and forced them behind my back, then pushed me to my knees.
A hoarse voice said, “Another slave.”
Several more voices conferred, and then another said, “We will locate her soul.”
They put me in a cell on the northern slope. Through a cut I could see the Chryse below; this view daily ratified my doom.
Verona was on fire. Smoke rose from a dozen places: the siloes, the dormitory, the workshop, the citadel. At night it glowed like an ember. Far in the distance, the Nantes zone lights had been rearranged into a defensive perimeter. Red dust clouds betrayed the fleet of faiths and conestogas, scurrying home. By now the glacis would be overrun with tents and the bazaar plucked clean.
The sun proceeded overhead, and underneath. They gave me neither food nor water. I became ravenous and half-mad, strung between boredom and terror. As soon as Verona burned out another war party marched off, ribbons tied around the necks of their pikes.
Even if I somehow escaped, there was nowhere to go. Nantes was under siege. I might find shelter in the few remote outposts — Fort Lyot, the ice farms at Moreux, the Arcadian ranches — but none would last without Nantes. All our efforts to make the world were being swept away.
I lay down and closed my eyes and my dizzy pulse clanged in my ears like the citadel tocsin, lulling me to sleep.
I woke to someone dragging me through a stifling greenhouse. I averted my eyes from the stabbing sunlight above and saw on either side of me a series of shallow ditches, arranged like ribs. In each of them lay a prone form. The smell was overwhelmingly rank. There was something wrong with their hair, although in my delirious state I could not tell what it was. Purple flowers sprouted between their shoulder blades.
Seeing I was awake, the acolyte hauled me upright and prodded me out of the greenhouse and into an orchard. Each tree emerged from a slimy mound of yellow-brown dirt. From one mound I counted seven hands poking out. I nearly passed out again from the redoubled stench. The acolyte pulled me past a huddled mass of prisoners into a large tent lit harshly with a fractured segment of zone bulb. For a moment the keen ion blue reminded me of home: the chalky amino soup, the polychrome hair in the shared shower drain, the rough hammocks over the boiler vents that all night clanged out hot dust.
Kneeling in the center of the tent was a person whose face confused me; at first I thought the sheer ache of my nostalgia had collapsed into the real world and populated it with people I once knew. But when my eyes adjusted to the light I saw that it was indeed Old Bull in his dress uniform.
He had put up a fight. Green bruises covered his arms and face, and blood oozed from fresh cuts about his temples and stained his epaulettes which bore the Veronese herald. By his vigorous thrashing it was clear he would be fighting still, if not for the iron dowel behind his knees that pinned his shins to the floor and the ring on a post that trapped his face. He saw me.
“Anna,” he gasped. The last time I’d heard his voice was when he’d administered the oath as we stood at attention under the wingtips of the fleet. That he now remembered my name made my breast flicker with pride.
A second acolyte standing behind him pulled a lever and there was a sharp glare that blinded me for a moment. When I could see again, Bull was bleeding from the mouth and nose, and his eyelids bobbed up and down. The acolyte reached somewhere unthinkable . . . the iron ring rattled and shook.
The second acolyte withdrew his bloody fingers and handed a glistening seed to the first acolyte, who held it up for me.
He said, “This is the only one we will offer you. But it is fresh and potent. He was a strong man, one that woke and slept with the sun.”
Bull was taken down and dragged outside. The back of his head dangled by a hinge of his scalp. Someone wiped down the iron ring, to accept the next body. The acolyte looked at me and his meaning was clear. I nodded, dumbly. He tied a ribbon around my head.
As he led me like a mule up the slope to the pagoda, he gestured with his free arm over the landscape and declared that we, the colonists, did not deserve this world. He dug in the pockets of my suit and pulled out charts and maps; shaking these at me he cursed their vectors and declinations, their optimal routes over terrain. To us, a peak and a canyon were the same: mere obstacles to defeat. The impératrice wanted not to inhabit this planet but to administrate it, to pave it. We worshipped the passage of progress, and ignored the holy land itself.
He dragged me up the pagoda steps and through the paper doors. But Darlinghurst, he said, had arrested this process. She was the prophet of the sacred sight and would redeem the world with it. I would see, soon.
He threw me down on the floor, my left arm sprawling over the cool stone statue. My dry lips cracked and bled, leaking a foul ichor onto the dusty wood. I fell asleep again until a softer grip on the ribbon tugged me awake and to my feet. It was her.
She drew me onto the northern balustrade of the pagoda. I followed, unsteady. In her other palm she held the seed.
It was dusk, chilly and blue. Below me lay the barren Daedalian planum.
She said, “Bow down to it.” I collapsed on my knees and touched my face to the cool wood, craving rest.
She spoke. In my way I had completed the pilgrimage to the summit and so had earned the sight, which required the stretching of three senses: distance, height, and time.
Distance and height were simple: look at a distant thing that towers above you. Actual elevation was not required; the body only needed to achieve a penitent posture.
She planted her foot on my back and hauled at the ribbon, jerking my neck back until my throat ached.
She said that for us colonials, time was the most difficult locus to unlock. We worshipped the clocks, and measured everything by the hour, by the year, by the age. But there was a way out, for time hides at the top of the brain-stalk. Nestled deep between the dark lobes and tangled lianas of nerves and veins rests the pinecone: half gland, half sense-organ, that wakes us with the sun, puts us to sleep, and mediates the dream world. In certain primitive animals this organ is large and lies on the forehead like a beacon, but it has regressed in us, and we have lost our power over time. So we must supplement.
Keeping my rein tight, Darlinghurst leaned down to me, placed the seed between my teeth and shut my jaw with her hand, releasing its liquid down my parched throat.
All the pathways in my body aligned, my vessels and tendons and entrails, from my eyes to my heels. Bull’s third essence thrummed in my lymph. The glowing horizon, in its curve, became a soothing palm over the planet, which was not a poisoned rock but something living and respiring. My body shook hard, twice, and then trembled like a tense wire.
Darlinghurst directed my gaze. Even though I was blind with grit and a sheen of grime over my eyes, I saw clearly Daedalia nine miles below, covered in a violet blanket of wind-rippled flowers. I skimmed through them and bloody juice bloomed on my hips. I leapt over the braided rivers that glinted gold in the sun, which rose and set and rose again. Darlinghurst spoke while the sun continued its rapid parade.
She said that men have been mapping this planet before they ever arrived. They looked through glass lenses at blurry features and imposed their delusions on them. They said, here will be Utopia, here Arcadia, here Elysia. They may as well have said, “Here we will reconstruct Eden.”
She pulled harder on my leash. At the farthest extremity of my sight, a solitary peak loomed even taller than Arsia. It was Olympus, veiled in rainclouds and junipers. A sob jolted my shoulders.
She said, “But do you see? The impératrice is wrong. The planet is already whole. We are only cleansing it.”
She turned my head east. From here I could see the blackened ruins of Verona and Hellas, and the causeways that led to beleaguered Nantes. Our hard-fought existence, after a hundred years of chemistry, amounted to a filthy stubble on a cracked and blown desert. As I watched, the first plumes of smoke rose from Nantes. I shrieked and tried to stand but Darlinghurst kept her foot between my shoulders.
“Why do you mourn those that exiled you to the wasteland?”
“I volunteered.” She dug her heel into my back.
“You did not. From your childhood you were fed the stories of battles around Phobos and the hard starving polar settlement; you dodged the Guard in the crowded alleys and daily gazed on the citadel murals of the impératrice and her thermal lance. No; you had no choice but service.
“But you have forgotten the even older truth: that even in Arcadia is Death.”
She relaxed the ribbon and my gaze fell. The war parties were returning, and behind them a long tail of prisoners shuffling up the mons, destined for the harvesting room and its iron post, then the greenhouse and the orchard. I had read about certain murderers on Terra who, like crows, had intercourse with corpses. The Elohim were the same: detritivores for whom the progenitive and the putrefactive were one.
Darlinghurst continued: “Still, we could not have discovered all the planet’s corruption on our own, without any satellites to guide us. So we despaired of ever finding all of you. Until you arrived with your gift.”
I understood her plan then, but before I could fight, hands restrained me and pushed me prone.
The shrine guardian appeared and held out a jar, from which Darlinghurst plucked another seed, pickled in spinal fluid.
As she forced it between my clenched teeth, she whispered, “One seed is sight. Two seeds are tonic. I have blessed very few with two.”
The pulp flowed down my throat. My body arched into its true form; Darlinghurst removed her foot and let the ribbon fall around my head but I remained rigid in spasm.
Twisted like this I was carried down the pagoda steps and into the caldera, as the Elohim drummed and chanted militant and sinister hymns. Spit cascaded from the corners of my lips and my toes curled so hard something tore along the tops of my feet. At last they laid me on the volcanic ash and I saw before me my faith, scrubbed clean. A white banner lay over it, with golden bands painted around its middle.
Darlinghurst placed me inside and wrenched my arm to lay my finger on the screen, which flickered to life. Before she shut the lead over me, she said, “There is something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
The faith rumbled and ascended to the sky. The planet became a velvet field that constantly renewed beneath me. The clenched cords along my spine dissolved to acid and unwound. The air ran out and my limbs froze but there was no pain. My two unblinking eyes calcified to stone; the third continued to bloom.
Elohim hunters crouched in the Observation Hub, watching the only monitor left: mine, which could see all from its orbital perch. Through the comm came their whispered prayers to me, the morning goddess. From my throat came a broken croak that syncopated the clicks of the machine that carried the seed of rain over the land, examining it for life.
C.D. Frelinghuysen is a writer and doctor in Oakland, and has fiction published in Limehawk, Gone Lawn, DUM DUM Zine, Flapperhouse, and JMWW, the latter of which was selected in the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions of 2018.