As I was saying, during my recovery, we began to plan an expedition to the lost places. We traveled to Chiaro. We took up lodging in a tent city in Chiaro-that-is, but within sight of our goal: Chiaro-that-was. Chiaro-that-is is a reasonably hospitable place. Poor, but the basic necessities of life are available. Oases within the city space provide food, along with some yumocs raised for meat. We were just two more would-be tomb robbers spending our last chits on the chance of a fortune.
At night, by blue flames, we would stare out at Chiaro-that-was, silhouetted against the stars. Staring out at what the First Martians left behind.
In that epoch, the world was filled with life. Plants, beasts, and sentient creatures all thrived and multiplied. The First Martians built grand cities along the azure seas, yet still pushed back the many-colored jungles only a little. They even built cities under the oceans, protected by crystal domes from the water and from the great leviathans of that impossible age.
In Chiaro, as in a few other places, they left monuments of unimaginable scale. Here were the pyramid-tombs that must have housed their kings, and sphinxes with their eyes towards heaven. Why they built on this scale is hard for those of us who remain to imagine, but I think they did so simply because they could.
Now, these places are abandoned. No throngs fill the city streets, no worshippers gather at the feet of the pyramids or in the eyes of the sphinxes. Many of the treasures of the First Martians lay untouched, as they have since times undreamt of. Not that that’s ever stopped anyone from dreaming of the treasures themselves.
The First Martians are so long gone that even their ghosts have likely scattered on the winds. Yet their treasures still have guardians. The tomb stalkers are strange, tripodal machines that move quietly through the ruins. Their voices are keening and creaking… I only heard them from miles away, and still the memory makes me shudder. They sweep the abandoned streets of all life, sparing the occasional beast only so that it can chase intruders into their paths.
In Chiaro, I was told many times that those tomb stalkers that can be seen within the ruins are only a fraction of their number. Many more, I was told, lie slumbering beneath the sand.
Of course, the ruins of the First Martians are not the only forsaken places on the Red World. Lesser peoples have risen and fallen, leaving their own abandoned cities and degenerate remnants. These so-called dusk cities lie empty, or inhabited by small, cult-like populations who cling to the homes of ancestors they can no longer comprehend.
All of these lost places are tempting targets for graverobbers and treasure hunters, such as my master and I. We spent weeks in Chiaro-that-was, hunting for an untouched tomb, for a cache of relics no one had yet dared plunder. We carried blue flames to keep the tomb stalkers at bay… perhaps they worked.
Perhaps we would have found our treasure there. But one evening, as the blue star rose and we made camp, my master’s coughing was a little worse than it had been. His body seemed a little more bent than the day before, and it had seemed a little more bent the day before that. As the twilight dwindled, he told me stories about my father. I don’t know if they were true; I hope some of them were.
He talked, and he sang, a little feebly. Old soldiers’ songs, maybe learned on the steppe in his youth. He told me of the end of the world, of the days when the atmosphere processors would breathe their last, of desert winters that would last forever. He kept asking me to refill his cup; when there was no more liquor, I filled it with water. He didn’t seem to notice. And as the ice of night fell around us, my master died. His final words were simple, affectionate, and then he closed his eyes forever.
I packed up our camp. I could hear the tomb stalkers, and had no desire to take any chances. In the icy night, I began my walk back towards the blue lamps of Chiaro-that-is.
And so, in the lost place, I left the man who found me.