Author : Thomas Desrochers
Mao found it very curious, this third planet from the sun. Blisteringly hot and unbearably humid, shaken hourly by violent storms like a wind-up toy wound too tight. The only living residents left were clustered at the southern pole, hidden in the crags of the antarctic mountains and keeping an eye on the weather. Mao spent long days watching after them, cleaning and fixing their tools and labs, listening in on their conversations.
The weathermen were a superstituous lot, so naturally when a signal came stumbling in through from the old America del Sur the investigation fell to their stoic guardian and janitor: Mao.
A week into the journey to the old continent Mao found the third planet equal parts curious and frustrating. A dozen times his surface craft had rerouted itself around massive ferrous objects it believed were drifting across the ocean surface. Floating crypts, the weathermen had called them, but even with the enhanced optical suite Mao couldn’t see anything in the hazy orange mists. The pounding of the waves against the sides of the vessel never ceased.
By the end of the second week Mao had made landfall and, trailed by a pair of steel mules, began the trek inland. The soggy coastal swamps gave way quickly to mountains pitted and scarred by centuries of torrential rain. Waterfalls came and went in the haze – visibility never reached past 50 meters. Mechanically and pharmaceutically aided by a hefty exosuit, Mao’s progress was quick. He made his way up through a dozen upredictable canyons and across along a handful of flooded valleys, each step as steady as the splintered rock beneath it. The haze turned dark, then orange again as the hours passed. The mules always followed, gathering data, watching. At times Mao thought he saw them jump in surprise, but wrote it off as an artifact of the treacherous conditions.
On the 20th day, at the height of the daily thermocycle, Mao descended into a long dead caldera: the signal’s source.
He came out of the haze into a scene he remembered from a storybook from when he was growing up on Titan. A grotto. A clear pool of water too deep to fathom and surrounded, impossibly, by dwarf trees bearing golden fruit. Two fish, white and orange, circled eachother lazily, distorted by the ripples of flies on the water’s surface.
Mao turned to see if the mules were there to see what he was seeing, but he was alone. He turned back to find dust swirling lazily at the bottom of the caldera. The grotto – and the signal – were gone.
There are ghosts in the old world, the weathermen had said as they huddled together and smoked spindly hand-rolled cigarettes. They would spend long nights in the community space, smoke blurring the sky-lights and mist beyond, and would whisper about the dead machines: Hawthorne hidden away in the Paris Underground; Melville tucked beneath the ruins of MIT; Thoreau chiselled into the Appalacians. Old places still haunted by an implaccable anger at the intrusion of the garden into the domain of the machine.
Mao found it, half buried in the dust. A metal skull polished by the weather, eyes filled with grit. An arm lay nearby, half buried, joints corroded and bundles of synthetic muscle frayed and useless. A single crystal egg was clutched in its hand, ancestor to the data storage devices the researchers used. Mao picked up the egg, cradling it in his hands.
He had spent decades listening to the weathermen whisper about ghosts, never wondering if the ghosts might whisper back.