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When She Woke at Dawn

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There will come soft rains, and the smell of the ground…

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Alone, mute, and impotent, the house dreams. Memories crawl like termites along the wreckage of its cybernetic brain. It half-remembers poetry, and art, and the whims of its creators. Bridge in the afternoons, and electronic safaris in the playroom. March 21, 2479, the house thinks.

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The Martians are returning to Earth.

The Perseus blasts off from the spaceport at Tharsis in a bloom of fire, trailing steam and burning gas. It is not headed for the dark, poisonous swamps of Venus, nor the cold settlements in the asteroids, nor the shining cities that orbit Jupiter and Saturn. For the first time in centuries, a human rocket turns to the silent, blue planet which orbits third from the sun.

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A dog sniffs the wall contemplatively, and then urinates on it. Pleased with itself, it barks and runs back into the treeline.

Nine-fifteen, clean, clean, the house cannot say. It cannot call up the robot mice, the snake hoses, the slow and methodical robotic turtles. The cleaning animals are dead, their burrows covered over with charred wood and greenery. Still, the house calls silently- clean, clean!

The urine dries slowly on the wall, and finally disappears. The house relaxes. The crisis is over. Today is August 25, 2184, the house remembers.

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“Je-sus,” Mayer says, nearly pressing his face against the porthole. “Will you look at that?”

“I would, if you’d get out of the way,” Cassoway says, craning her neck.

Mayer doesn’t move. “All that water,” he says, reverently. The planet is blue and white in the distance, a jewel in the sun. “Just sitting there. Can you imagine?”

“We have water on Mars,” she protests. “And on Venus.”

He shakes his head. “It’s not the same,” he insists. “Oceans. Can you imagine? Whole mares full of water. Full.”

She catches a glimpse around his head. Blue, against the stars. She shivers, thinking of endless landscapes of water and ancient creatures sliding through the depths. Vast expanses, so much greater than Mars’ tame canals and aquifers. “No,” she says. “I can’t imagine.”

All the same, she thinks of open water and green plants, and something aches inside her.

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The dead tree, the tree that murdered the house, does not rot. In another time, it would have been consumed long ago, its celluloid tissues consumed by wet and hungry fungus, by busy termites, by the pinching feet and mouths of centipedes and wood lice, by worms writhing in the ground, turning everything from rot into clean dirt again.

The jelly fungus is dead. The termites and centipedes and wood lice were burned away years ago, and have not returned. The tree lies untouched.

Today is April 17, 2059, the house thinks, silent.

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She dreams of green that night. There are trees higher than her head, so high that the tops fade away into a green mist too far away to see. There are plants under her feet, and brushing against her shoulders. She breathes, and she smells it, invading her lungs with its strange-familiar scent. She is a Martian, and Mars’ forests are spare and stunted. She has never stood in a place like this, but she knows it like she knows her own heartbeat.

There is a loud crack, and water begins to fall from the sky. Rain, she thinks, remembering it from stories she read as a child. The green wood is alive with the sound of rain, pattering against leaves, dripping down bark, soaking her hair and her face.

When Susan Cassoway wakes in her bunk aboard the rocket, there are tears on her cheeks.

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The birds whistle somewhere above the wall, calling to each other from the branches of nearby trees. Their sharp calls echo around the ruined house, the rubble of the neighborhood, the broken city rapidly turning green and overrun. Their music is unchallenged in the dead city.

Today is May 3, 2050, the wall croaks in reply. But something in its vocal apparatus gives way at last. It was built to last for a hundred years, but not outside in the wind and rain. Today is-

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The Perseus lands in the center of an ancient city. It shakes as it lands, scorching a black scar into the earth underneath it. It settles, quivers, lies still. At last, the hatch slides open, and the Martians emerge. They wear suits against the radiation that still permeates the land, invisible and deadly.

“Je-sus,” Mayer says, as they stand on the gangplank. “I thought everything died in the war.”

The Martians look out on a rough landscape, covered in green. Here might have been a house, and there- what, a store? But it is now the domain of waving grass and thick, climbing vines. In the distance, a bird trills and is answered, the sound bright against the empty silence of the dead city.

Bishop shoulders past the rest of them. “Let’s get moving,” he says, and steps down into the city.

“Je-sus,” Mayer whispers again, beside her. The grass, when she steps down onto it, is springy. She wonders what it smells like.

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The grass slowly returns, reaching green fingers up through the ruined soil. The rain is good for it. The weather is colder than it used to be, the sky cloudy and dark. The grass does not mind. California was always too hot, too dry for it. It was kept alive by an army of sprinklers and irrigators, of men in their shirtsleeves standing on their lawns on a Saturday with hoses.

The men are gone, and the sprinklers have run dry. But the rains continue, and the grass grows green in the ruins of the house.

Today is January 23, 2027, the wall whispers. January 23, 2027.

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Cassoway is the one who sees it first. It’s a distant glow as they trudge through the dead city. “What do you think that is?” she asks Bishop. “Survivors?”

“Couldn’t be,” he says, uncertain, images of bestial mutated humans hovering between the three of them. They edge closer, cautious.

The find the ruin of a wall, like a hundred other walls in the city, like a thousand ruins. This wall, though, glows softly, patterns flowing across it in fits and starts. Radiotrophic mold spreads in uneven patches across the surface.

The Martians are silent for a moment, stunned. Cassoway clears her throat, searching for a voice. “Is that- a house?” she asks.

“With lights in the walls,” Mayer says, reverently. “Like in fairytales. Je-sus. You think it’s been here all this time?”

Cassoway puts a hand on the wall, tentatively. For a moment, she imagines what it would have been like to live in such a house. Lights on the walls, and robot servants.

She turns away, looking at the overgrown trees, listening to the bird voices trilling in the air, thinking about the wet, green smell of a forest in the rain. “Let’s go,” she says, shivering. “Come on, Mayer. Remember the ocean? Let’s go have a look. All that water, just waiting for us.”

Bishop and Mayer look up at her, startled. “There’s nothing we need here,” she says. “Just ruins. Let’s go.”

She turns her back on the wall, and walks toward the trees. Behind her, the house lets out a long, gasping sigh. March 23, 2479, it cries, voicelessly.

When Mayer turns back for one last glimpse, the wall is dark against the gathering dusk.

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The wall stands, weeping: Today is August 5, 2026. Today is August 5, 2026.

The house remembers very little, and that dimly. The date. It was meant to clean, to cook, to care for its inhabitants. But it cannot remember the times and the duties, and it has no hands to complete them in any case. The copper mice are dead, crackling in the fire, crushed by falling timbers. The doors, swinging on quiet hinges, lie smoking in the rubble.

The rain, when it comes at last, is not soft as it pelts against the smoking remains of the house. The wind howls, and the storm shifts into unseasonable hail. It strikes the wall and leaves streaks in the soot, patches of ice and rain mixing into the black blood of the house. Steam rises. There are more crashes as weakened timbers give way, as the tree that murdered the house finally falls, dead, to the ground. The house cannot see it fall. Its electronic eyes have been burned away.

Today is August 7, 2026, the wall says, cheerily, an incantation against nothingness. Today is August 7, 2026.