Jonah hated Mars. He hated everything about it. Every minute he spent there he was plagued by a vague feeling of unrest: Mars was not quite foreign, not quite familiar, an endless mirage or coma dream. Maybe he was dead, and maybe this was purgatory. Sometimes he considered praying at night, asking for forgiveness, just in case, for whatever sin might have banished him there, but then he looked out over the barren, forsaken wasteland and thought his time was much better spent sleeping, or walking.
But he hated how soft the ground was, how little clouds of dust exploded under his soles with every step, and how he could turn around and see his straight, months'-long trail of footsteps stretching out behind him, since there were no winds to erase that lonely path. He hated the air, which was so thin that no one breath was ever enough and so full of dust that he thought his throat and tongue and teeth were coated with the red powder.
He hated the sky, which hung too low overhead, ripe with the weight of the cosmos. It was yellow-green during the day but deep purple at night, when the countless millions of stars stared down at him and the Milky Way split the zenith, rising up from the ground and splashing down like a white-water river beyond the next horizon. He hated the horizon, too, that slowly curving line, which remained unbroken except by spasms of dark mountains and mesas that jutted out of the ground and crawled upwards into the clouds.
He hated Mars's moons, Phobos and Deimos, and how they were ever wheeling through the sky like crows, sometimes here, sometimes there, sometimes nowhere at all. They were asteroids sucked into orbit around Mars, he knew, hapless wanderers chained to this empty, godless planet and oppressed by gravity; but the fact that he and the moons were the same in that sense made him hate them even more.
What he hated most of all, though, were the stoplights.
"Why?" Jack asked, watching Jonah intently. "Why the stoplights? Why not the emptiness, or the quiet that settles everywhere like the sand?" He reached out a long finger to brush some grains from Jonah's stubble.
The day they met, Jonah had ventured into what was once a pub in search of something with which to wash his mouth of dust and to help him forget, if even for a moment, the oppression of the red planet. Stepping in, he had noticed immediately a beer bottle at the end of the bar, half-emptied and cap sitting on the wood next to it. Then, he saw the eyesthe deepest, brightest, almost-neon bluestaring back at him so intensely that Jonah thought they must have been looking straight into his soul, striping away his skin, burning him into nothing. He took a step backwards.
"What are you?" he breathed.
The man had licked his lips. "Hi," he said. "I'm Jack." He had smiled. "Nice to meet you."
Jonah's mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
Jack had been there just as long as Jonah had, maybe longer. He wandered, too, traveling in loop-de-loops and sine and cosine curves, sometimes crossing his own tracks, sometimes walking parallel to an old trail. Sometimes he would make camp at night and not get up in the morning, just lie there and stare out into nothing, as the sun and moons rose and set. Sometimes he would walk for weeks without stopping. Sometimes he stayed in the towns, and sometimes he didn't. He hadn't picked a star to follow like Jonah had; he didn't follow anything. He was as unpredictable as the moons, and for that reason, Jonah almost hated him, too. But their meeting changed things. Jack followed Jonah now.
While passing through another empty city not long after they met, they had come across a silver convertible with a full tank of fuel and keys in the ignition. They looked at each other, then back at the car.
Jack cleared his throat. "You wanna drive?" he said.
Jonah shook his head. "Be my guest."
And then they got in.
Now they'd blast across the desert on paved roads with shoulders and double yellow lines; this side of the planet was far more built up, with roads that crisscrossed across the sand like spiders' webs and cities instead of towns. Jack always drove, since Jonah could not be persuaded to. He hated the stoplights, he said. And then, one night, Jack asked why.
"I can deal with the silence, and the stillness," Jonah replied. The two of them were camped out, a city perched on the horizon in front of them and one on the horizon behind them. "You have to when you're two hundred million miles away from any other living being"
Jack raised an eyebrow.
"present company excluded. But this is an alien planet. Why should they expect human laws to govern movement here?"
Jack nodded and poked at the fire, and Jonah stared out into the darkness. Every now and again, the fire would crackle and pop, illuminating a headlight, a tire, a bumper.
"Why did they think we came out here?" he continued. "They didn't really think we wanted a second Earth, did they? Why did they have to put up those goddamn stoplights?"
"They did jump the gun, building all this, didn't they," Jack said quietly.
There was a long silence. "Sometimes I wonder if that wasn't just all a dream," Jonah whispered. "What, the voyage, and the colonization. It seems so unreal, so silly now, how excited I was to come to Mars."
Jack shrugged. "I never think about it," he said. "Would just be a waste of my time."
After a pause, Jonah spoke again. "They're three-eyed monsters, that's what they are," he said. "They're mocking us, you know. They're saying, 'Run us. We dare you.'"
"Jonah," Jack said, "we haven't even seen any yet."
"There were some, back where I came from," Jonah said, "and you can see some up there. Look." He pointed towards the next city. "See?"
Jack squinted into the night. Indeed, one green light shone in the distance, a tiny speck suspended in the black. As he watched, it disappeared and was replaced by a yellow one. He frowned. "That's a day's drive from here, at least," he said slowly.
Jonah shook his head. "But what will we do, Jack? What will we do in a day's drive? Will you run it?"
"Of course!" said Jack. "No police to fine me. No one else to hit me. I don't see what the fuss is all about! I don't see why I should stop."
"This land is wretched, wretched," Jonah said, anguished. "They're mocking us, see. If we stop, we're mindless sheep. If we don't, we're godless beasts. We can't win. Either way, we are nothing but animals." He sat up suddenly. "Jack, we can't go through that intersection." His voice was hushed and hurried, as if he were sharing a secret plan that someone might overhear. "We must avoid it."
"We can't let those stoplights oppress us"
"I can't believe this!"
"We can't let them take away our
"Don't be ridiculous!" Jack said. "There are no humans on Mars. Only Martians live here."
Jonah blinked. "What?" he said, taken aback.
"Are you an alien, Jonah?" Jack said forcefully.
"No! Wait, what?"
"Well, if you are not an alien, then you must be a Martian."
" Jonah sat back.
"That's something for you to sleep on, Jonah," Jack said. "I came to terms with it long ago. Don't fight it." He paused. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to sleep, so that tomorrow I can be fully awake when I run my first Martian stoplight. Put out the fire, will you?" Jonah nodded. He stared at Jack's face, his eyes searching, and Jack stared back. Jack's eyes were full of tenderness and his voice was soft. "Goodnight, Jonah."
"'Night," Jonah said reluctantly.
Jack rolled over and faced the darkness. Jonah's eyes stayed on his back, disbelieving, for a long moment. Then he turned to the fire. He tossed a handful of red sand on the crackling flame, and it hissed and shrunk. Jonah was plunged into darkness. He stamped out the embers with his boot, extinguishing the last light for miles. He lay back and laced his fingers behind his head. As his eyes adjusted, the stars lit up one by one, and the Milky Way slithered across the sky, until Jonah felt he was about to be swallowed by a sea of light. He was overcome by a sudden vertigo, and he turned his head away. His eyes settled on the city in the distance, which existed only as a small black silhouette against the blackness of space.
And, in the endless dark, a yellow light blinked off, and a red one blinked on.