The sky is dark. The sun is dark.
Rusted hills stand in a half-circle. They are like mourners at a funeral.
Captain Phillips orders us to take the airship and explore the dry canal bed near the western perimeter of the encampment. “To its source,” the captain says. As if a dry canal could have a source. As if he believes such a thing. The captain is from London. He speaks with confidence. Yet his expression betrays another state. He is beginning to lose faith in the queen’s geographers. He fears we will not find water.
Lieutenant Dawes assumes the airship’s controls.
I sit beside him.
I am glad the two of us have been sent out alone. I have not had the chance to speak with him, and I have very much wanted the chance to speak with him. He was not part of our original battalion. The lieutenant is handsome. Even in the dust, he is handsome: gray eyes, thick blonde mustache.
He adjusts the airship’s controls.
We drift together over barren fields, crimson and orange. The dry Martian canal bed curves below.
When I speak, I taste salt on my lips. “Lewis’s theory,” I say. “What do you think of it, lieutenant? That there might be men or something like men.”
Lieutenant Dawes doesn’t look at me. He gazes out the front-facing porthole, lost in some thought. Finally, he clears his throat. “I don’t think there’s anyone, John,” he says.
I nod. He knows my name. And he uses it without my rank. I find this curious, but I also find that I am glad for it.
I look out the front-facing porthole.
The red landscape below appears folded, crushed. There are many shadows.
“You were stationed near Brixton,” I say.
Lieutenant Dawes makes a sound at the back of his throat.
“Families are often stationed near—” I say.
“I don’t have a family,” he says.
“Ah,” I say. “Well.”
I feel embarrassed. My question was, perhaps, too pointed. I try to think of something else. Something to cover over the question. “Were you an athlete at school?” I ask. “You have the look of an athlete.”
“I was,” Lieutenant Dawes says.
“And what did you play?”
He pauses. “Rugby.”
“The other men were talking about rugby earlier,” I say. “They want to set up a match to distract themselves. The captain forbids it, of course.”
“I heard,” he says.
“Well,” I say, “you do have the look of a rugger.”
“Did you play?” he asks.
“No. I didn’t.”
“I was never any good at sports,” I say. “I tried my hand at painting.”
“What did you paint?” he asks.
“Mars, actually,” I say. “I started painting when they were testing the first ships. Do you remember that? We could see them in the sky above the city. I imagined Mars. I imagined the landscapes. And I knew that I would come one day. I thought I would live differently in this place somehow. Free. Do you know what I mean?”
“Amongst men,” Lieutenant Dawes says.
“That’s right. Amongst men.”
“What did it look like?” he asks. “Your Mars.”
I feel embarrassed. Still, I tell him the truth. The things that are happening at our encampment—the way the men all the men are beginning to look hollowed out, weak—they make me want to tell the truth at every turn. “Mars was covered in flowers,” I say. “Delicate white flowers. And there were green hills. Like in Saint James Park, near Piccadilly.”
Lieutenant Dawes nods. “It isn’t like that though,” he says.
“No,” I say. “It isn’t. I was foolish to think it would be.” I pause again. I think of the white flowers. I wonder if, as a boy, I had been painting funeral flowers. “So were you at Harrow then? Is that where you played rugby?”
“I don’t want to talk about rugby,” he says.
“That’s all right,” he says. “You didn’t know.”
“Is there something else you’d like to talk about?” I say.
“Not yet,” he says.
Before I can think of anything further to ask him, I realize we are no longer traveling along the dry canal bed as Captain Phillips ordered. We are moving over a series of rolling pink hills. The shadows here are lean.
“Did we lose sight of the canal?” I ask.
Lieutenant Dawes clears this throat again. Perhaps it is dry.
“Should I consult the map?” I say, reaching for the compartment where such things are stowed.
“No,” Lieutenant Dawes says. “I have something to show you.”
“How’s that?” I say.
“I went exploring yesterday.”
“Alone?” I say.
“That’s right,” Lieutenant Dawes says. “I went out in the evening, as the sun was setting.”
This makes little sense to me. No one is to go exploring alone. And no one is to go out in the cold of the evening.
“How did you acquire a ship?” I ask.
“I took it,” he says.
“But didn’t anyone notice?”
“Well, what did you find?” I say.
“I’m going to show you,” he says. “We’re almost there.”
I look through the front-facing porthole.
We are drifting toward one of the low Martian hills. It’s weatherworn, red. As we draw closer, I realize it isn’t a hill at all. Impossibly, it appears to be a kind of pyramid, a ziggurat. The surface of the ziggurat is carved with a complicated pattern. The pattern appears to be a representation of figures, bodies intertwined. I see legs and arms, heads. The sculpture gives the impression that men have climbed the pyramid, covered it with their bodies, formed a kind of lacework. Time has broken the figures, camouflaged the structure.
“My God,” I say.
Dawes says nothing.
“But, didn’t you tell the captain?” I say.
“I didn’t,” Dawes replies.
“This is, Lieutenant, this is a discovery of great—it proves Lewis’s theory, doesn’t it?”
“I wanted to show you first,” Lieutenant Dawes says.
“Me?” I say. “But why would you want to show me?”
He’s settling the airship gently on the soil near the structure. A fine dust rises.
“I’ve watched you,” he says.
The ship’s doors open. The air outside smells burnt.
The idea that Dawes has been watching me as I have been watching him is almost too much to bear, especially in this moment. “But—” I say, gazing up at the ziggurat.
Lieutenant Dawes climbs out of the ship and walks toward the structure. There an aperture at its base, a doorway.
I hurry after him.
We pass through the low, broken door and find ourselves in a dark hall. I have little time to study the stonework or the carvings here. But there are carvings, I can see that. More stone bodies. They appear to embrace, limbs linked, torsos pressed. At times, they appear to even dissolve into one another.
I follow Dawes.
The tunnel cants downward. The space inside the ziggurat grows darker still.
“Lieutenant?” I say.
“Let me light a lamp,” he says.
There is movement in the darkness to my left. Then the space brightens.
Dawes holds one of the brass handled box lamps from our encampment.
“Where did you get that?” I say.
“I brought it with me when I went exploring yesterday,” he says. “I left it here.”
The space around us, a large stone room, is empty. The walls rise toward the apex of the ziggurat. For a moment, I feel dizzy.
Lieutenant Dawes unbuttons his red military jacket. He removes it and places it on the floor.
I think, at first, that he must be overheated, though the chamber is quite cool.
Then he is unbuttoning his shirt as well.
He removes his shirt.
I see a tuft of blonde hair on his narrow chest.
My heart quickens.
Lieutenant Dawes folds his shirt and places it on top of his uniform jacket.
He begins to unbutton the clasps of his woolen trousers.
“Lieutenant?” I say.
He looks at me. His eyes are red rimmed. Cheeks wan. Lieutenant Dawes appears ill. I wonder if he’s been drinking his water rations. It’s my understanding that some of the men have been saving their rations, even the men who are white-lipped and weak. They want the reassurance that there is still water to be had. I wonder if lack of water could have caused a kind of mania in Lieutenant Dawes.
“What’s the matter?” he says.
Dawes is in his undergarments now. He is thinner than I imagined. I see the outline of his member through his long johns. It is stiffened.
“We should return to the camp,” I say, though I’m not sure if I mean this.
“We’ll go back soon enough,” Dawes says.
He is naked then. His member, swollen, reddish, nearly the color of the pyramid itself.
Dawes lies down on his back on the stone floor of the angular room. He gazes at me.
I do not speak. I am afraid that if I do it will break whatever spell or madness has overtaken the lieutenant.
I begin taking off my boots, my trousers, my jacket.
Unclothed, I go to Dawes.
I stand over him.
“I have—I’ve never done any of this,” I say.
Dawes takes my hand. He pulls at me gently. He places a hand on my leg and then on my hip. He lowers me onto him.
I straddle the lieutenant. He rubs the tip of his member against me until we are both wet. Then he is inside me.
There is pain at first.
I look down into his gray eyes.
Lieutenant Dawes stares, not at me, but at some point on the high ceiling.
I wish that he would look at me.
I want to ask him to do so.
Dawes’ hips move under me.
As he moves, the walls of the ziggurat seem to lengthen around us. The ceiling is now impossibly high.
Lieutenant Dawes is deep inside me.
The pain changes. It becomes something better.
“Dawes,” I whisper, finally.
He does not reply. He continues to move his hips.
“Dawes,” I say again.
This is what it feels like, I think. This is what it feels like to—
Then, in that moment, it feels as though I cannot hold my essence inside the frame of my body. My bones no longer keep me. My flesh has grown slippery. It is as though my essence is falling upward, falling (pouring really) out the top of my skull. My vantage changes. I am drifting somewhere above our bodies. In the yellow light of the lantern, I see Lieutenant Dawes’ pale form. I see own my smaller frame, straddling him still.
Lieutenant Dawes’ hands clutch my hips.
I see his rhythmic movements. They grow vigorous. I see my own head tilt back
Then Lieutenant Dawes slows. He stops his thrusting.
His member slips out of me. I see that I am wet with him, his milk.
This is what it feels like, I think, as I look down at myself, as I look down at Lieutenant Dawes. We are both lying on the stone floor.
I find that I am not frightened to see myself like this.
Lieutenant Dawes stares up at the apex of the ziggurat. I realize he is staring up at me. He has always been staring at me. He knows I am floating here. Somehow, he knows.
“All of the other men,” Lieutenant Dawes says. He swallows dryly.
My body is limp beside him.
“There’s no water,” he says. “There will be no water.”
I find that I cannot reply. Neither my body nor my essence can reply.
“The stars,” Lieutenant Dawes says.
I continue to float there above us both. My essence turns. I see that there are more figures carved into the stone at the apex of the ziggurat. The figures do not move. They do not turn their heads. But I understand that they are watchful.
I try to remember when Lieutenant Dawes came to our battalion from Brixton. I try to remember the first time I saw him.
“The stars,” Lieutenant Dawes repeats.
That there are men, I think, or something like men.
I shift once more in the darkness at the apex. I drift toward the stone figures. They have not moved. And yet they seem to be reaching out their hands.
Lieutenant Dawes strokes my cheek on the floor below.
I wish that I could speak. I wish that I could ask him questions.
“There were flowers once, John,” Lieutenant Dawes says. “You were right about that. Whole fields of them.”
Adam McOmber is the author of My House Gathers Desires (BOA Editions), The White Forest (Touchstone), and This New & Poisonous Air (BOA Editions). His work has appeared recently in Conjunctions, Kenyon Review, and Fairy Tale Review. He lives and teaches in Los Angeles.