Author: David Barber

Wu was already waiting outside the offworlder craft at dawn. He’d glimpsed it by chance, drifting like thistledown across the Plains of Gold, and had set out at once.

“I hear your kind buys history,” he said to the offworlder. “Yang has found a prize – such a prize. Never was the like of it dug up in Planitia, nor in all the world.”

The offworlder was encased in something like shiny metal, but smooth and supple as water. Disconcertingly, instead of a face, there was only Wu’s own distorted reflection.

“Have you any magic?” he added.

Wu knew it was not magic, but offworlders had gadgets that seemed like it. Hadn’t Mr. Liu been tossed a glowing crystal that made you weep with happiness for no reason?

Panting, Wu hurried to keep up. “And remember who told you first. Yang is a fool and I can get his prize cheap for you.”

Generations of geneering had adapted his kind to the planet, but everyone knew the terraform was failing, oxygen and moisture leaking away, the air thin and bitingly cold even here in the depths of Chryse Planitia.

Wu was disappointed to find Yang already busy. He had been hoping to show off the find himself.

Yang threw down his spade and clambered from the excavation. Some days his whole family laboured here, struggling to keep back the ceaseless dust. By way of greeting, he warned of a storm front coming. There was resignation in his shrug. All his efforts undone.

He recounted how he’d stumbled over the radio dish exposed by the winds, lifted like a lover’s face towards Earth, and how his own patient work had freed the sampling arm still reaching out as if hoping to be saved.

“According to legend,” said the offworlder. “The voices from Earth were silenced by the mistake of a sleep-deprived engineer; communications lost because of a line of code, the machine suddenly without purpose, abandoned to its slow inhumation. Until now, thanks to chance and to you, Mr. Yang.”

Yang’s eyes shone. Sensing a fellow spirit, he beckoned. “Look, I have uncovered the camera.”

“Is it possible there are unsent pictures in its memory?”

“Pictures of old Mars?” breathed Yang. “They might still be recovered, though I do not have the means.”

He began pointing out details of the ancient technology until Wu interrupted. They had yet to discuss a price.

“No one here values history as I do,” Yang said. “Though perhaps your kind does.”

Looking embarrassed, he shrugged. “A price, yes. My wife and her relatives desire a garden. With flowers and pomelo trees. Have you ever seen flowers?”

“The desert will soon reclaim the past,” the offworlder pointed out. Grit whipped up by the strengthening wind pattered against them. “But we have been privileged to glimpse it.”

Wu sensed opportunity slipping away. He could see the offworlder thanking Yang, even bowing. It seemed an impatient starship waited in orbit.

“What of the pictures?” Wu protested. What of profitable deals involving items of magic?

“Yes, you must save the pictures,” Yang said softly. “Download them before you go.”

Madame Yang heard all about it from Mr. Wu. She had married a fool.

Who knew how long sentient silicon might endure? The offworlder would retrieve this piece of their history when the starship returned, though Mr. Yang would be long gone. It was like speaking to bubbles.

Who is sending you messages? Madame Yang demanded to know.

Her husband still gazed at the screen. An empty desert, strewn with rocks, stretching away to the lonely horizon.