The Sunstone

by Phyllis Eisentstein

The scooter had a mapper, but he didn’t need it; he had a good sense of direction, it wasn’t all that far, and you couldn’t get los following the Hiddekel canal. The sky was dark when he started out, but the scooter’s headlight was bright and the road was in good shape, well cleared of the water-seeking nettles that perpetually encroached on the canal. He made it to Charlestown by dawn.

Charlestown had never been much of a town, even though it was on the route to the confluence of two canals, but then, even the major cities on Mars were nothing compared to the ones on Earth. But Dave had had enough of the crowds and bustle of Earth, and Charlestown looked very good to him, its single main street lined on both sides with ramshackle houses that doubled as stores and bars, with lanes of smaller homes spreading outward on the side away from the canal. North of the town was the boat dock, with half a dozen barges and there small sailboats moored there, and beyond that, the arc or Martian cottages where Rekari and his extended family lived. As Dave expected, only a few people were on the main street that early, and he recognized them all. One even called his name as he passed, and he raised an arm in greeting though he didn’t stop.

His father’s place, close to the north end of town, was both office and home, with a sign above the door that announced, in faded lettering, “Ben Miller and Sons, Tourism. See the Ancient Ruins".

Guy’s out in the desert. He beds down for the nigh. Wakes up suddenly. He hears water. He listens more carefully. Running water. It’s the ghost canal. A kind of mirage, leading travelers astray so they die of thirst convinced there’s water all around them.

They told him about a cave system. Legend said it was a way into another world. Some argued it came out on Terra, in Arizona somewhere. Some thought ancient Mars. Others linked it to the discoveries of the so-called hidden universe obscured from our astronomers by drifting clouds of cosmic fog. (The Lost Canal by Michael Moorcock)

Some were Marsmen like him, some were new settlers, still filled with enthusiasm for the open land that had been so effectively advertised to them, and a few were wealthy tourists. Dave had made sure the latter had his contact information: “Tour the ruins of the lost Martian civilization with the men who discovered them,” said his card. It was not quite a lie in his own case because, as a teenager, he had found a cluster of foundations and a few lengths of sand-scoured wall no higher than his knee near on of the lesser canals that splayed out from Nilicaus Lacus, and Rekari, his father’s Martian business partner, had pronounced them seven or eight thousand Martian years abandoned…

The arc of cottages there, with its open side to Hiddekel, which the Martians called Moreyah, had stood, Rekari once said, for a thousand years, which wasn’t all that long by Martian standards. The cottages themselves were made of a local soft red stone. The Martians grew the plant for their seeds, which humans considered inedible, and fed the seeds not just to themselves but to small lizards living in burrows in the canal walls. The lizards were their primary source of protein, and humans also considered them inedible. Dave had tried lizard stew once, and on courtesy kept him from spitting out his first and only mouthful. He had always thought it was a good thing that Rekari’s people felt much the same about human food – that meant there was little competition for those kinds of resources between Martians and Marsmen.

déchêts

… as a teen, he had found a cluster of foundations and a few lengths of sand-scoured broken walls… Photo by Megan Jorgensen

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