The Martian Obelisk

A powerful science fiction story about an architect on Earth commissioned to create (via long distance) a masterwork with materials from the last abandoned Martian colony, a monument that will last thousands of years longer than Earth, which is dying.

 

The end of the world required time to accomplish—and time, Susannah reflected, worked at the task with all the leisurely skill of a master torturer, one who could deliver death either quickly or slowly, but always with excruciating pain.

No getting out of it.

But there were still things to do in the long, slow decline; final gestures to make. Susannah Li-Langford had spent seventeen years working on her own offering-for-the-ages, with another six and half years to go before the Martian Obelisk reached completion. Only when the last tile was locked into place in the obelisk’s pyramidal cap, would she yield.

Until then, she did what was needed to hold onto her health, which was why, at the age of eighty, she was out walking vigorously along the cliff trail above the encroaching Pacific Ocean, determined to have her daily exercise despite the brisk wind and the freezing mist that ran before it. The mist was only a token moisture, useless to revive the drought-stricken coastal forest, but it made the day cold enough that the fishing platforms at the cliff’s edge were deserted, leaving Susannah alone to contemplate the mortality of the human world.

It was not supposed to happen like this. As a child she’d been promised a swift conclusion: duck and cover and nuclear annihilation. And if not annihilation, at least the nihilistic romance of a gun-toting, leather-clad, fight-to-the-death anarchy.

That hadn’t happened either.

Things had just gotten worse, and worse still, and people gave up. Not everyone, not all at once—there was no single event marking the beginning of the end—but there was a sense of inevitability about the direction history had taken. Sea levels rose along with average ocean temperatures. Hurricanes devoured coastal cities and consumed low-lying countries. Agriculture faced relentless drought, flood, and temperature extremes. A long run of natural disasters made it all worse—earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. There had been no major meteor strike yet, but Susannah wouldn’t bet against it. Health care faltered as antibiotics became useless against resistant bacteria. Surgery became an art of the past.

Out of the devastation, war and terrorism erupted like metastatic cancers.

We are a brilliant species, Susannah thought. Courageous, creative, generous—as individuals. In larger numbers we fail every time.

There were reactor meltdowns, poisoned water supplies, engineered plagues, and a hundred other, smaller horrors. The Shoal War had seen nuclear weapons used in the South China Sea. But even the most determined ghouls had failed to ignite a sudden, brilliant cataclysm. The master torturer would not be rushed.

Still, the tipping point was long past, the future truncated. Civilization staggered on only in the lucky corners of the world where the infrastructure of a happier age still functioned. Susannah lived in one of those lucky corners, not far from the crumbling remains of Seattle, where she had greenhouse food, a local network, and satellite access all supplied by her patron, Nathaniel Sanchez, who was the money behind the Martian Obelisk.

When the audio loop on her ear beeped a quiet tone, she assumed the alert meant a message from Nate. There was no one else left in her life, nor did she follow the general news, because what was the point?

She tapped the corner of her wrist-link with a finger gloved against the cold, signaling her personal AI to read the message aloud. Its artificial, androgynous voice spoke into her ear:

“Message sender: Martian Obelisk Operations. Message body: Anomaly sighted. All operations automatically halted pending supervisory approval.”

Just a few innocuous words, but weighted with a subtext of disaster.

A subtext all too familiar.

For a few seconds, Susannah stood still in the wind and the rushing mist. In the seventeen-year history of the project, construction had been halted only for equipment maintenance, and that, on a tightly regulated schedule. She raised her wrist-link to her lips. “What anomaly, Alix?” she demanded, addressing the AI. “Can it be identified?”

“It identifies as a homestead vehicle belonging to Red Oasis.”

That was absurd. Impossible.

Founded twenty-one years ago, Red Oasis was the first of four Martian colonies, and the most successful. It had outlasted all the others, but the Mars Era had ended nine months ago when Red Oasis succumbed to an outbreak of “contagious asthma”—a made-up name for an affliction evolved on Mars.

Since then there had been only radio silence. The only active elements on the planet were the wind, and the machinery that had not yet broken down, all of it operated by AIs.

“Where is the vehicle?” Susannah asked.

“Seventeen kilometers northwest of the obelisk.”

So close!

How was that possible? Red Oasis was over 5,000 kilometers distant. How could an AI have driven so far? And who had given the order?

Homestead vehicles were not made to cover large distances. They were big, slow, and cumbersome—cross-country robotic crawlers designed to haul equipment from the landing site to a colony’s permanent location, where construction would commence (and ideally be completed) long before the inhabitants arrived. The vehicles had a top speed of fifteen kilometers per hour which meant that even with the lightspeed delay, Susannah had time to send a new instruction set to the AIs that inhabited her construction equipment.

Shifting abruptly from stillness to motion, she resumed her vigorous pace—and then she pushed herself to walk just a little faster.

 

Nathaniel Sanchez was waiting for her, pacing with a hobbling gait on the front porch of her cottage when she returned. His flawless electric car, an anomaly from another age, was parked in the gravel driveway. Nate was eighty-five and rail-thin, but the electric warmth of his climate-controlled coat kept him comfortable even in the biting wind. She waved at him impatiently. “You know it’s fine to let yourself in. I was hoping you’d have coffee brewing by now.”

He opened the door for her, still a practitioner of the graceful manners instilled in him by his mother eight decades ago—just one of the many things Susannah admired about him. His trustworthiness was another. Though Nate owned every aspect of the Martian Obelisk project—the equipment on Mars, the satellite accounts, this house where Susannah expected to live out her life—he had always held fast to an early promise never to interfere with her design or her process.

“I haven’t been able to talk to anyone associated with Red Oasis,” he told her in a voice low and resonant with age. “The support network may have disbanded.”

She sat down in the old, armless chair she kept by the door, and pulled off her boots. “Have the rights to Red Oasis gone on the market yet?”

“No.” Balancing with one hand against the door, he carefully stepped out of his clogs. “If they had, I would have bought them.”

“What about a private transfer?”

He offered a hand to help her up. “I’ve got people looking into it. We’ll find out soon.”

In stockinged feet, she padded across the hardwood floor and the hand-made carpets of the living room, but at the door of the Mars room she hesitated, looking back at Nate. Homesteads were robotic vehicles, but they were designed with cabs that could be pressurized for human use, with a life-support system that could sustain two passengers for many days. “Is there any chance some of the colonists at Red Oasis are still alive?” Susannah asked.

Nate reached past her to open the door, a dark scowl on his worn face. “No detectable activity and radio silence for nine months? I don’t think so. There’s no one in that homestead, Susannah, and there’s no good reason for it to visit the obelisk, especially without any notice to us that it was coming. When my people find out who’s issuing the orders we’ll get it turned around, but in the meantime, do what you have to do to take care of our equipment.”

Nate had always taken an interest in the Martian Obelisk, but over the years, as so many of his other aspirations failed, the project had become more personal. He had begun to see it as his own monument and himself as an Ozymandias whose work was doomed to be forgotten, though it would not fall to the desert sands in this lifetime or any other.

 

“What can I do for you, Susannah?” he had asked, seventeen years ago.

A long-time admirer of her architectural work, he had come to her after the ruin of the Holliday Towers in Los Angeles—her signature project—two soaring glass spires, one eighty-four floors and the other 104, linked by graceful sky bridges. When the Hollywood Quake struck, the buildings had endured the shaking just as they’d been designed to do, keeping their residents safe, while much of the city around them crumbled. But massive fires followed the quake and the towers had not survived that.

“Tell me what you dream of, Susannah. What you would still be willing to work on.”

Nathaniel had been born into wealth, and through the first half of his life he’d grown the family fortune. Though he had never been among the wealthiest individuals of the world, he could still indulge extravagant fancies.

The request Susannah made of him had been, literally, outlandish.

“Buy me the rights to the Destiny Colony.”

“On Mars?” His tone suggested a suspicion that her request might be a joke.

“On Mars,” she assured him.

Destiny had been the last attempt at Mars colonization. The initial robotic mission had been launched and landed, but money ran out and colonists were never sent. The equipment sat on Mars, unused.

Susannah described her vision of the Martian Obelisk: a gleaming, glittering white spire, taking its color from the brilliant white of the fiber tiles she would use to construct it. It would rise from an empty swell of land, growing more slender as it reached into the sparse atmosphere, until it met an engineering limit prescribed by the strength of the fiber tiles, the gravity of the Red Planet, and by the fierce ghost-fingers of Mars’ storm winds. Calculations of the erosional force of the Martian wind led her to conclude that the obelisk would still be standing a hundred thousand years hence and likely far longer. It would outlast all buildings on Earth. It would outlast her bloodline, and all bloodlines. It would still be standing long after the last human had gone the way of the passenger pigeon, the right whale, the dire wolf. In time, the restless Earth would swallow up all evidence of human existence, but the Martian Obelisk would remain—a last monument marking the existence of humankind, excepting only a handful of tiny, robotic spacecraft faring, lost and unrecoverable, in the void between stars.

Nate had listened carefully to her explanation of the project, how it could be done, and the time that would be required. None of it fazed him and he’d agreed, without hesitation, to support her.

The rights to the colony’s equipment had been in the hands of a holding company that had acquired ownership in bankruptcy court. Nathaniel pointed out that no one was planning to go to Mars again, that no one any longer possessed the wealth or resources to try. Before long, he was able to purchase Destiny Colony for a tiny fraction of the original backers’ investment.

When Susannah received the command codes, Destiny’s homestead vehicle had not moved from the landing site, its payload had not been unpacked, and construction on its habitat had never begun. Her first directive to the AI in charge of the vehicle was to drive it three hundred kilometers to the site she’d chosen for the obelisk, at the high point of a rising swell of land.

Once there, she’d unloaded the fleet of robotic construction equipment: a mini-dozer, a mini-excavator, a six-limbed beetle cart to transport finished tiles, and a synth—short for synthetic human although the device was no such thing. It was just a stick figure with two legs, two arms, and hands capable of basic manipulation.

The equipment fleet also included a rolling factory that slowly but continuously produced a supply of fiber tiles, compiling them from raw soil and atmospheric elements. While the factory produced an initial supply of tiles, Susannah prepared the foundation of the obelisk, and within a year she began to build.

The Martian Obelisk became her passion, her reason for life after every other reason had been taken from her. Some called it a useless folly. She didn’t argue: what meaning could there be in a monument that would never be seen directly by human eyes? Some called it graffiti: Kilroy was here! Some called it a tombstone and that was the truth too.

Susannah just called it better-than-nothing.

 

The Mars room was a circular extension that Nathaniel had ordered built onto the back of the cottage when Susannah was still in the planning stages of the obelisk’s construction. When the door was closed, the room became a theater with a 360-degree floor-to-ceiling flex-screen. A high-backed couch at the center rotated, allowing easy viewing of the encircling images captured in high resolution from the construction site.

Visually, being in this room was like being at Destiny, and it did not matter at all that each red-tinted image was a still shot, because on the Red Planet, the dead planet, change came so slowly that a still shot was as good as video.

Until now.

As Susannah entered the room, she glimpsed an anomalous, bright orange spot in a lowland to the northwest. Nathaniel saw it too. He gestured and started to speak but she waved him to silence, taking the time to circle the room, scanning the entire panorama to assess if anything else had changed.

Her gaze passed first across a long slope strewn with a few rocks and scarred with wheel tracks. Brightly colored survey sticks marked the distance: yellow at 250 meters, pink at 500, green for a full kilometer, and bright red for two.

The red stick stood at the foot of a low ridge that nearly hid the tile factory. She could just see an upper corner of its bright-green, block shape. The rest of it was out of sight, busy as always, processing raw ore dug by the excavator from a pit beyond the ridge, and delivered by the mini-dozer. As the factory slowly rolled, it left a trail of tailings, and every few minutes it produced a new fiber tile.

Next in the panorama was a wide swath of empty land, more tire tracks the only sign of human influence all the way out to a hazy pink horizon. And then, opposite the door and appearing no more than twenty meters distant, was Destiny’s homestead vehicle. It was the same design as the approaching crawler: a looming cylindrical cargo container resting on dust-filled tracks. At the forward end, the cab, its windows dusty and lightless, its tiny bunkroom never used. Susannah had long ago removed the equipment she wanted, leaving all else in storage. For over sixteen years, the homestead had remained in its current position, untouched except by the elements.

Passing the Destiny homestead, her gaze took in another downward slope of lifeless desert and then, near the end of her circuit, she faced the tower itself.

The Martian Obelisk stood alone at the high point of the surrounding land, a gleaming-white, graceful, four-sided, tapering spire, already 170-meters high, sharing the sky with no other object. The outside walls were smooth and unadorned, but on the inside, a narrow stairway climbed around the core, rising in steep flights to the tower’s top, where more fiber tiles were added every day, extending its height. It was a path no human would ever walk, but the beetle cart, with its six legs, ascended every few hours, carrying in its cargo basket a load of fiber tiles. Though she couldn’t see the beetle cart, its position was marked as inside the tower, sixty percent of the way up the stairs. The synth waited for it at the top, its headless torso just visible over the rim of the obelisk’s open stack, ready to use its supple hands to assemble the next course of tiles.

All this was as expected, as it should be.

Susannah steadied herself with a hand against the high back of the couch as she finally considered the orange splash of color that was the intruding vehicle. “Alix, distance to the Red Oasis homestead?”

The same androgynous voice that inhabited her ear loop spoke now through the room’s sound system. “Twelve kilometers.”

The homestead had advanced five kilometers in the twenty minutes she’d taken to return to the cottage—though in truth it was really much closer. Earth and Mars were approaching a solar conjunction, when they would be at their greatest separation, on opposite sides of the Sun. With the lightspeed delay, even this new image was nineteen minutes old. So she had only minutes left to act.

Reaching down to brace herself against the armrest of the couch, she sat with slow grace. “Alix, give me a screen.”

A sleeve opened in the armrest and an interface emerged, swinging into an angled display in front of her.

The fires that had destroyed the Holliday Towers might have been part of the general inferno sparked by the Hollywood earthquake, but Susannah suspected otherwise. The towers had stood as a symbol of defiance amid the destruction—which might explain why they were brought low. The Martian Obelisk was a symbol too, and it had long been a target both for the media and for some of Destiny’s original backers who had wanted the landing left undisturbed, for the use of a future colonization mission that no one could afford to send.

“Start up our homestead,” Nate urged her. “It’s the only equipment we can afford to risk. If you drive it at an angle into the Red Oasis homestead, you might be able to push it off its tracks.”

Susannah frowned, her fingers moving across the screen as she assembled an instruction set. “That’s a last resort option, Nate, and I’m not even sure it’s possible. There are safety protocols in the AIs’ core training modules that might prevent it.”

She tapped send, launching the new instruction set on its nineteen-minute journey. Then she looked at Nate. “I’ve ordered the AIs that handle the construction equipment to retreat and evade. We cannot risk damage or loss of control.”

He nodded somberly. “Agreed—but the synth and the beetle cart are in the tower.”

“They’re safe in there, for now. But I’m going to move the homestead—assuming it starts. After seventeen years, it might not.”

“Understood.”

“The easiest way for someone to shut down our operation is to simply park the Red Oasis homestead at the foot of the obelisk, so that it blocks access to the stairway. If the beetle cart can’t get in and out, we’re done. So I’m going to park our homestead there first.”

He nodded thoughtfully, eyeing the image of the obelisk. “Okay. I understand.”

“Our best hope is that you can find out who’s instructing the Red Oasis homestead and get them to back off. But if that fails, I’ll bring the synth out, and use it to try to take manual control.”

“The Red Oasis group could have a synth too.”

“Yes.”

They might also have explosives—destruction was so much easier than creation—but Susannah did not say this aloud. She did not want Nate to inquire about the explosives that belonged to Destiny. Instead she told him, “There’s no way we can know what they’re planning. All we can do is wait and see.”

He smacked a frustrated fist into his palm. “Nineteen minutes! Nineteen minutes times two before we know what’s happened!”

“Maybe the AIs will work it out on their own,” she said dryly. And then it was her turn to be overtaken by frustration. “Look at us! Look what we’ve come to! Invested in a monument no one will ever see. Squabbling over the possession of ruins while the world dies. This is where our hubris has brought us.” But that was wrong, so she corrected herself. “My hubris.”

Nate was an old man with a lifetime of emotions mapped on his well-worn face. In that complex terrain it wasn’t always easy to read his current feelings, but she thought she saw hurt there. He looked away, before she could decide. A furtive movement.

“Nate?” she asked in confusion.

“This project matters,” he insisted, gazing at the obelisk. “It’s art, and it’s memory, and it does matter.”

Of course. But only because it was all they had left.

“Come into the kitchen,” she said. “I’ll make coffee.”

 

Nate’s tablet chimed while they were still sitting at the kitchen table. He took the call, listened to a brief explanation from someone on his staff, and then objected. “That can’t be right. No. There’s something else going on. Keep at it.”

He scowled at the table until Susannah reminded him she was there. “Well?”

“That was Davidson, my chief investigator. He tracked down a Red Oasis shareholder who told him that the rights to the colony’s equipment had not been traded or sold, that they couldn’t be, because they had no value. Not with a failed communications system.” His scowl deepened. “They want us to believe they can’t even talk to the AIs.”

Susannah stared at him. “But if that’s true—”

“It’s not.”

“Meaning you don’t want it to be.” She got up from the table.

“Susannah—”

“I’m not going to pretend, Nate. If it’s not an AI driving that homestead, then it’s a colonist, a survivor—and that changes everything.”

 

She returned to the Mars room, where she sat watching the interloper’s approach. The wall screen refreshed every four minutes as a new image arrived from the other side of the sun. Each time it did, the bright orange homestead jumped a bit closer. It jumped right past the outermost ring of survey sticks, putting it less than two kilometers from the obelisk—close enough that she could see a faint wake of drifting dust trailing behind it, giving it a sense of motion.

Then, thirty-eight minutes after she’d sent the new instruction set, the Destiny AI returned an acknowledgement.

Her heart beat faster, knowing that whatever was to happen on Mars had already happened. Destiny’s construction equipment had retreated and its homestead had started up or had failed to start, had moved into place at the foot of the tower or not. No way to know until time on Earth caught up with time on Mars.

The door opened.

Nate shuffled into the room.

Susannah didn’t bother to ask if Davidson had turned up anything. She could see from his grim expression that he expected the worst.

And what was the worst?

A slight smile stole onto her lips as Nate sat beside her on the couch.

The worst case is that someone has lived.

Was it any wonder they were doomed?

 

Four more minutes.

The image updated.

The 360-degree camera, mounted on a steel pole sunk deep into the rock, showed Destiny profoundly changed. For the first time in seventeen years, Destiny’s homestead had moved. It was parked by the tower, just as Susannah had requested. She twisted around, looking for the bright green corner of the factory beyond the distant ridge—but she couldn’t see it.

“Everything is as ordered,” Susannah said.

The Red Oasis homestead had reached the green survey sticks.

“An AI has to be driving,” Nate insisted.

“Time will tell.”

Nate shook his head. “Time comes with a nineteen minute gap. Truth is in the radio silence. It’s an AI.”

 

Four more minutes of silence.

When the image next refreshed, it showed the two homesteads, nose to nose.

#

Four minutes.

The panorama looked the same.

Four minutes more.

No change.

Four minutes.

Only the angle of sunlight shifted.

Four minutes.

A figure in an orange pressure suit stood beside the two vehicles, gazing up at the tower.

 

Before the Martian Obelisk, when Shaun was still alive, two navy officers in dress uniforms had come to the house, and in formal voices explained that the daughter Susannah had birthed and nurtured and shaped with such care was gone, her future collapsed to nothing by a missile strike in the South China Sea.

“We must go on,” Shaun ultimately insisted.

And they had, bravely.

Defiantly.

Only a few years later their second child and his young wife had vanished into the chaos brought on by an engineered plague that decimated Hawaii’s population, turning it into a state under permanent quarantine. Day after excruciating day as they’d waited for news, Shaun had grown visibly older, hope a dying light, and when it was finally extinguished he had nothing left to keep him moored to life.

Susannah was of a different temper. The cold ferocity of her anger had nailed her into the world. The shape it took was the Martian Obelisk: one last creative act before the world’s end.

She knew now the obelisk would never be finished.

 

“It’s a synth,” Nate said. “It has to be.”

The AI contradicted him. “Text message,” it announced.

“Read it,” Susannah instructed.

Alix obeyed, reading the message in an emotionless voice. “Message sender: Red Oasis resident Tory Eastman. Message body as transcribed audio: Is anyone out there? Is anyone listening? My name is Tory Eastman. I’m a refugee from Red Oasis. Nineteen days in transit with my daughter and son, twins, three years old. We are the last survivors.”

These words induced in Susannah a rush of fear so potent she had to close her eyes against a dizzying sense of vertigo. There was no emotion in the AI’s voice and still she heard in it the anguish of another mother:

“The habitat was damaged during the emergency. I couldn’t maintain what was left and I had no communications. So I came here. Five thousand kilometers. I need what’s here. I need it all. I need the provisions and I need the equipment and I need the command codes and I need the building materials. I need to build my children a new home. Please. Are you there? Are you an AI? Is anyone left on Earth? Respond. Respond please. Give me the command codes. I will wait.”

For many seconds—and many, many swift, fluttering heartbeats—neither Nate nor Susannah spoke. Susannah wanted to speak. She sought for words, and when she couldn’t find them, she wondered: am I in shock? Or is it a stroke?

Nate found his voice first: “It’s a hoax, aimed at you, Susannah. They know your history. They’re playing on your emotions. They’re using your grief to wreck this project.”

Susannah let out a long breath, and with it, some of the horror that had gripped her. “We humans are amazing,” she mused, “in our endless ability to lie to ourselves.”

He shook his head. “Susannah, if I thought this was real—”

She held up a hand to stop his objection. “I’m not going to turn over the command codes. Not yet. If you’re right and this is a hoax, I can back out. But if it’s real, that family has pushed the life support capabilities of their homestead to the limit. They can move into our vehicle—that’ll keep them alive for a few days—but they’ll need more permanent shelter soon.”

“It’ll take months to build a habitat.”

No. It’ll take months to make the tiles to build a habitat—but we already have a huge supply of tiles.”

“All of our tiles are tied up in the obelisk.”

“Yes.”

He looked at her in shock, struck speechless.

“It’ll be okay, Nate.”

“You’re abandoning the project.”

“If we can help this family survive, we have to do it—and that will be the project we’re remembered for.”

“Even if there’s no one left to remember?”

She pressed her lips tightly together, contemplating the image of the obelisk. Then she nodded. “Even so.”

Knowing the pain of waiting, she sent a message of assurance to Destiny Colony before anything else. Then she instructed the synth and the beetle cart to renew their work, but this time in reverse: the synth would unlink the fiber tiles beginning at the top of the obelisk and the beetle would carry them down.

 

After an hour—after she’d traded another round of messages with a grateful Tory Eastman and begun to lay out a shelter based on a standard Martian habitat—she got up to stretch her legs and relieve her bladder. It surprised her to find Nate still in the living room. He stood at the front window, staring out at the mist that never brought enough moisture into the forest.

“They’ll be alone forever,” he said without turning around. “There are no more missions planned. No one else will ever go to Mars.”

“I won’t tell her that.”

He looked at her over his shoulder. “So you are willing to sacrifice the obelisk? It was everything to you yesterday, but today you’ll just give it up?”

“She drove a quarter of the way around the planet, Nate. Would you ever have guessed that was possible?”

“No,” he said bitterly as he turned back to the window. “No. It should not have been possible.”

“There’s a lesson for us in that. We assume we can see forward to tomorrow, but we can’t. We can’t ever really know what’s to come—and we can’t know what we might do, until we try.”

 

When she came out of the bathroom, Nate was sitting down in the rickety old chair by the door. With his rounded shoulders and his thin white hair, he looked old and very frail. “Susannah—”

“Nate, I don’t want to argue—”

“Just listen. I didn’t want to tell you before because, well, you’ve already suffered so many shocks and even good news can come too late.”

“What are you saying?” she said, irritated with him now, sure that he was trying to undermine her resolve.

“Hawaii’s been under quarantine because the virus can be latent for—”

She guessed where this was going. “For years. I know that. But if you’re trying to suggest that Tory and her children might still succumb to whatever wiped out Red Oasis—”

“They might,” he interrupted, sounding bitter. “But that’s not what I was going to say.”

“Then what?”

“Listen, and I’ll tell you. Are you ready to listen?”

“Yes, yes. Go ahead.”

“A report came out just a few weeks ago. The latest antivirals worked. The quarantine in Hawaii will continue for several more years, but all indications are the virus is gone. Wiped out. No sign of latent infections in over six months.”

Her hands felt numb; she felt barely able to shuffle her feet as she moved to take a seat in an antique armchair. “The virus is gone? How can they know that?”

“Blood tests. And the researchers say that what they’ve learned can be applied to other contagions. That what happened in Hawaii doesn’t ever have to happen again.”

Progress? A reprieve against the long decline?

“There’s more, Susannah.”

The way he said it—his falling tone—it was a warning that set her tired heart pounding.

“You asked me to act as your agent,” he reminded her. “You asked me to screen all news, and I’ve done that.”

“Until now.”

“Until now,” he agreed, looking down, looking frightened by the knowledge he had decided to convey. “I should have told you sooner.”

“But you didn’t want to risk interrupting work on the obelisk?”

“You said you didn’t want to hear anything.” He shrugged. “I took you at your word.”

“Nate, will you just say it?”

“You have a granddaughter, Susannah.”

She replayed these words in her head, once, twice. They didn’t make sense.

“DNA tests make it certain,” he explained. “She was born six months after her father’s death.”

No.” Susannah did not dare believe it. It was too dangerous to believe. “They both died. That was confirmed by the survivors. They posted the IDs of all the dead.”

“Your daughter-in-law lived long enough to give birth.”

Susannah’s chest squeezed tight. “I don’t understand. Are you saying the child is still alive?”

“Yes.”

Anger rose hot, up out of the past. “And how long have you known? How long have you kept this from me?”

“Two months. I’m sorry, but . . .”

But we had our priorities. The tombstone. The Martian folly.

She stared at the floor, too stunned to be happy, or maybe she’d forgotten how. “You should have told me.”

“I know.”

“And I . . . I shouldn’t have walled myself off from the world. I’m sorry.”

“There’s more,” he said cautiously, as if worried how much more she could take.

“What else?” she snapped, suddenly sure this was just another game played by the master torturer, to draw the pain out. “Are you going to tell me that my granddaughter is sickly? Dying? Or that she’s a mad woman, perhaps?”

“No,” he said meekly. “Nothing like that. She’s healthy, and she has a healthy two-year-old daughter.” He got up, put an age-marked hand on the door knob. “I’ve sent you her contact information. If you need an assistant to help you build the habitat, let me know.”

He was a friend, and she tried to comfort him. “Nate, I’m sorry. If there was a choice—”

“There isn’t. That’s the way it’s turned out. You will tear down the obelisk, and this woman, Tory Eastman, will live another year, maybe two. Then the equipment will break and she will die and we won’t be able to rebuild the tower. We’ll pass on, and the rest of the world will follow—”

“We can’t know that, Nate. Not for sure.”

He shook his head. “This all looks like hope, but it’s a trick. It’s fate cheating us, forcing us to fold our hand, level our pride, and go out meekly. And there’s no choice in it, because it’s the right thing to do.”

He opened the door. For a few seconds, wind gusted in, until he closed it again. She heard his clogs crossing the porch and a minute later she heard the crunch of tires on the gravel road.

You have a granddaughter. One who grew up without her parents, in a quarantine zone, with no real hope for the future and yet she was healthy, with a daughter already two years old.

And then there was Tory Eastman of Mars, who had left a dying colony and driven an impossible distance past doubt and despair, because she knew you have to do everything you can, until you can’t do anymore.

Susannah had forgotten that, somewhere in the dark years.

She sat for a time in the stillness, in a quiet so deep she could hear the beating of her heart.

This all looks like hope.

Indeed it did and she well knew that hope could be a duplicitous gift from the master torturer, one that opened the door to despair.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” she whispered to the empty room. “I’m not done. Not yet.”

 

“The Martian Obelisk” copyright © 2017 by Linda Nagata

Art copyright © 2017 by Victor Mosquera

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