THE SADDEST SONG • by Henry McFarland

The opening was too regular, the curved top too smooth, the sides too straight. Tom had seen other cave openings on Mars, but none like that. He led the other three members of the survey team up the mountain for a closer look.

The opening was higher than any of them were tall and wide enough for two to walk through it abreast. Daito shone his light into it to reveal a door with a large handle. It was an ordinary sight, but in a place where it could not be, and for a moment they could only stand in awe of it.

Daito’s voice trembled. “Captain, should I radio Control about this?”

Tom considered for a moment. Control would tell them to leave it alone until they consulted people up the line. He wanted to find out more, not wait around. “Not yet. Anyone have any ideas about this?”

Lukas pointed to an inscription over the door. “That looks like German to me. ‘Die Folgen der Täuschung’ — the consequences of deceit.”

Giovanna shook her head. “We can’t say it’s German based on only four words. We’re the first humans to be here. How could there be writing in an Earth language?”

Curiosity had led Tom to Mars, and it ruled him now. “There’s only one way to find out anything.” He stepped into the opening and pushed down on the door handle. The door swung open into a small chamber with a door on the other side — an air lock.

Three voices said, “I want to go in with you.”

Tom turned to his team. “Two of us will have to stay here. Lukas, I don’t know if that inscription is German, but in case it is, you should come with me. Daito, once we’re inside, tell Control what’s happening.”

Tom and Lukas went into the air lock and closed the outer door. Tom heard a hissing noise. When it stopped, Lukas looked at his instruments. “The atmosphere’s just like Earth — same pressure, same gases.”

“Keep using your breather, we don’t know what germs might be in it.” Tom slowly pressed down on the handle of the inner door.

That door opened into a large domed chamber bisected by a cobblestone path that ran from where they stood to a wall several hundred meters distant. To the right was a large area covered with vegetation. It looked like it had been planted in neat rows, but now it was overgrown and disordered. To the left were 13 rows of small huts made of metal sheets. Each row had places for 10 huts, but in some places a hut had been moved and combined with another.

Nothing stirred. Tom shouted “Hello?” a few times, but only an echo came back. He hit the communicator button. “Giovanna? Daito? Come in?” Silence.

Lukas looked at the dome side of the inner door. “It’s faced with the same kind of rock as the chamber wall, and there’s no handle.”

“Don’t let it close behind us.”

Lukas propped the door open with a large rock that moved easily in the Martian gravity. Then he walked closer to the vegetated area. “These plants look familiar. I see wheat and strawberries. If we’re trapped, we won’t starve.”

Tom used his scanner to check for sources of radiation. “Readings suggest a negative energy field bearing left 30 degrees and about 1000 meters away, approximately the distance to the far wall.”

“Could be a wormhole, but that seems farfetched.”

“So does everything here. I want to get closer to check it out.” A route through the huts would be most direct but might also allow for an easy ambush. A second cobblestone path ran around the circumference of the dome, and Tom led Lukas that way

After they had gone a few meters, they found another inscription. Engraved in the wall were a few lines of words and what looked like music although the symbols for the notes were different. Lukas shook his head. “I don’t understand how, but those words also are German. ‘You have taught us the sweetest song and brought us to this land where we are so light that we can dance and play all day. Dance and play all day, and leap light as the air.’ I lost it in translating, but in German the couplets rhyme and are in meter.”

At the end of the first row of huts, a second song was carved into the wall. Lukas slowly translated it. “Rhyming couplets again. The language and style are dated, more like a medieval poem than anything written today. ‘Why have you left us alone, why do you come no more? Where are our parents? Where are our homes? Why have you abandoned us? Why have you replaced music with silence?’”

They continued walking until they found a third song. Lukas translated again. “Another lament: ‘We are older now, and some have found love, but few will have children in this strange land. Will you come for our children? Will you ever come? Come soon or there will be no one.’”

When the two men reached the last row of huts, they found the graveyard with its silent rows of crosses. By the wall was a human skeleton dressed in coarse brown cloth impregnated with rock dust. Over its head was another inscription.

Pity filled Lukas’s voice. “This is the last song. ‘I Vicelinus have saved our songs, but I know not if any will read them. No one is here to bury me. No one is here to remember with me the old ones who sang of their joy when the pied piper came to Hamelin.’”

They stood silent for a moment; then Tom’s scanner sounded an alert. A vortex appeared in the wall. At its center stood a tall man dressed in bright green with a red hat. His hands held a fife. He raised it to his lips.

Henry McFarland is an economist and part-time short story writer.

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