Future Tense

“The Song Between Worlds”

In a new short story, a tourist looks for authenticity on Mars.

Nonbinary person in a spacesuit enveloped by subdermal and audible sound on a Martian landscape.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for April–June 2019: space settlement.

Varuna stared at a holo projection in the lobby of the New Frontier Hotel advertising an overnight package tour among the shepherds of Mars. Varuna and their parents sprawled on memory-foam couches staring at the light and movement of the ad, exhausted after months of close-quarters living in the starship, bodies confused and stomachs still buoyant in the transition from zero-g to Martian low gravity.


The ad was perfectly placed to appeal to the space-lagged—slickly produced videos of silver-robed shepherds walking rusty sands under the sweep of drone cams, their path traced by the solar lanterns they carried oh-so-photogenically over their heads, mimicking the stars that appeared in the sky as the landscape turned from blue Martian sunset to glowing, hi-def night. Phobos and Deimos gemstones faded into hovering, layered close-ups of the shepherds’ faces under crystal-clear helmet visors and the glittering cowls of their insulation robes. Their faces were too smooth, of course, too glossy—Varuna had seen pictures of actual Martian shepherds, and the hard-boned signs of their low-grav, low-calorie indigeneity.


The video shifted to an audience of surface-suited guests lounging in an outdoor enclosure. The tourists were surrounded by lamps that flickered to mimic flaming torches, facing a stage where one of the silver-robed figures gestured in dance. The performer was surrounded by holo projections that showed close-ups of her beautiful face singing behind the glass of her helmet. Enjoy a private performance of shepherds singing the ushengaan, the silent song of Mars, the ad suggested in multiple languages, words drifting like snow around the images.


Just as Varuna sat up at this, the images shifted to show opulent guest accommodation on the tours. Varuna had heard about ushengaan, the tradition of song that nobody but its singers was permitted to hear. It was only sung in the open, thin air of Mars. Varuna was an aspiring feed-jockey, casting VR raves for friends and strangers to dance in their open houses; they loved listening to music from across the world and crafting playlists and remixes.

Music from another world, which couldn’t be listened to, only seen in the expression and movements of the singer—that was the kind of thing that made Mars special. Not the fact that it was the most expensive tourist hot spot in the solar system.


Varuna’s father patted his wife’s knee, pointing to the holo. “Look at those tents! Full life-support pods, king-size beds. Spend the night under the Martian stars, how about it?”

Priti scoffed. “Please. You go off into the desert if you want. After four months in that ship with that atrocious food, I’m spending this whole trip in the hotel spa.”

“Uff, Priti, you slept through most of those four months, we all did. We don’t get to do this every day.”

“Do we not?” Varuna butted in. “We literally go on a vacation every month back home.”

Their father’s face cooled, dropping the exaggerated excitement. “Taking you to Mars as a birthday present isn’t enough to stay the attitude? You think this is like a jaunt to Italy? Do you have any idea how much this is costing me?”


Priti closed her eyes, no doubt rolling up beneath her smoky lids. “Costing us,” she said under her breath.

“I didn’t ask for this,” Varuna said, lowering their voice to keep their father’s ire controlled. “Pretty sure this whole ‘business’ vacation is just another trophy for us to wave around for social prestige. We’re a Mars family now, we’re the Jetsons! We’re in a historically privileged minority!”


“Vee, is this really the time? Show some gratitude,” Priti sat up with a snap and leaned back again slowly when her still-acclimatizing body protested. “And who the hell are the Jetsons.”

Varuna’s face was going hot. “I am grateful. I’m grateful every day, you guys don’t know how much. I know I’m a spoiled brat.”


Javed sucked on his personalized, platinum-etched vape with studied elegance, shaking his head. “Bring a boy to another world and all he can do is gripe.” At this, Priti slapped his arm. Varuna tried to ignore their father’s misgendering. Javed only did it when he was irritated with them, which made it somehow worse.

“I’m not griping,” said Varuna. “By the way, that tour isn’t real. They’ll take you to performers hired to play shepherds. And they’re definitely not singing the ‘silent song of Mars.’ Probably just mouthing a fake song some marketing guru made up. Who’s going to know.”

“So? Nothing wrong with a bit of curation. I’m paying enough.”

“Yeah, believe me, I know. Everything’s about the money. And that money goes into the pockets of the Martian tourism board and back to you guys, not to the shepherds living way out there who sacrificed their entire world to stay here and be test subjects and care for robots. God forbid one of their sacred traditions goes untouched by planetary tourism.”


“For God’s sake, keep your voice down, you’re embarrassing us,” Javed snapped.

“I’m not shouting, you are—”

“Crying about shepherds. Those people have lived here for generations, and they’re perfectly happy, they’re volunteers—”

Priti leaned deeper into the lobby couch. “Oye, Javed. Will you stop taking the bait. And Varuna, we know you’re the wokest person on this planet now that we’re here. Enough is enough. Can’t believe teenagers nowadays actually talk like this.”

I’m not a teenager anymore, remember? Varuna wanted to answer, but they didn’t.

Varuna clenched their jaw, whispered “current playlist,” letting their subdermal take over and fill their body with music. Javed was still talking. Varuna could still hear him, despite the music. That money you hate so much is giving you your education. That money is developing this entire world so that we can learn and expand human civilization.


The music mingled with the roar of their blood.

Varuna wondered, Should I remind him that I was terrified to come to Mars in the first place? Crossing the gulf of space in a fragile craft driven by the light of lasers and Sol and facing the dizzying nausea of weightlessness were not at all what they wanted for their first birthday as an adult. They had begged their father not to take them along on this trip.


“Grow up, for heaven’s sake,” he’d responded. “I’ve already bought our tickets, everything’s arranged. You can’t just cancel a trip to Mars like it’s one of your retreats with friends that you suddenly decide to skip for ‘self-care.’ Vee, at your age I was bribing my parents with good grades so they’d get me into a moonwalk tour. Where the hell’s your sense of adventure?”


Where indeed. Varuna hadn’t said at that moment that seeing a different planet felt like a dream—something unimaginably beautiful, something you couldn’t hold in reality’s palms. That if it weren’t for their anxiety, they’d be ecstatic to be going on a trip like this despite the guilt over the cost—despite it only underlining their membership in the 1 percent they loathed so much, the 1 percent that hadn’t learned from permanently scarring the planet that was humanity’s only original home.

In the end, Varuna was made to live that dream whether or not they were ready. Stunned by the reality of being in a spaceship, every waking moment saw them withdrawing into their berth and into the VR entertainment, frozen in fear that the machine carrying them through the vacuum would fall apart. Exiting Earth’s atmosphere and descending into Mars hadn’t been so bad. Tourists were given the option of being knocked out on soft sedatives that made the higher g’s feel like dozing under a cocoon of weighted blankets that got heavier and heavier until you woke up in the light gravity of Mars, the welcome crew scrubbing your face with vanilla-scented wet wipes.


“See? You were scared for nothing. We’re here and the landing was like a nap!” their father had said after they disembarked. Varuna felt small, disoriented, shamed.

Happy birthday, welcome to Mars, don’t ever complain about your life again.

A concierge came up, and gave Varuna’s family a smile as bright as the lights of the lobby. “Apologies for the wait. Your rooms are ready, please follow.”

Behind her, the wide cam-feed windowscreens of the lobby showed the gently sloping brown horizon 30 meters above, the broad flank of a great mountain just beginning its ascent to the blushing sky, the landscape garlanded with solar panels, atmospheric processors, and comms towers receding into the distance. The sun was rising, growing flowers of light that winked off the solar panels. The flags of the many corporations that had a stake on Mars, plus the Union of Spacefaring Nations, hung still in the weak breeze. It would take strong winds to make them flutter, because of the low air pressure.


Javed grunted, teeth clacking on his vape. They all got up, faces in stark contrast with the concierge’s beaming expression. Their luggage whined to life, lights flickering, and followed them with a soft rumble of wheels across the faux-marble floor.


“You two can sit in your rooms all day, I’m going on that tour tomorrow,” grumbled Javed, still eyeing the ad.

Sitting in their little underground hotel room, windowscreen surveying the vast desert of Daedalia Planum from an observation-tower cam to give the illusion that the hotel was a skyscraper soaring high above Mars, Varuna couldn’t sleep. After a four-month journey of dry chemical showers in cramped toilets, even the water-rationed three-minute hot shower in the hotel room’s toilet cubicle felt like heaven. The anger Varuna’s parents had stirred up didn’t go away, but it lifted to let them think, like a balloon tethered by the low-g that made the carpeted floor feel spongy.


Compared with the many hotel rooms they’d been in on Earth, with their massive floor space and views of a planet covered down to the inch with glittering urbanity, the view here was static. Its poetry lay in the head, in the thought that this wasn’t Earth. There were a few signs of life: the lines of highways leading to distant research outposts, drawn into plains whose vastness dropped abruptly into a horizon that felt too close. The illusory oases of solar panel fields, drones twinkling over the placid swaths of dust and rock. But at first glance, for someone fresh from the hive of Earth, it didn’t look like humans had set foot on Mars at all.


Varuna’s fingers danced along the windowscreen to zoom into the view and bring up weather conditions, temperatures, information on the visible structures. It was hard to imagine that not so long before their family and other tourists on their starship had arrived, the entire world had been enveloped in a dust storm, the view from this windowscreen nothing but darkness, more engulfing than the star-speared black of space beyond the ship’s viewscreens. Varuna had discovered on their solar system trip—transit on the moon followed by the journey to Mars—that space vehicles and settlements had few real windows, to manage temperatures and ensure structural integrity. It only heightened the paradoxical claustrophobia of journeying beyond the bounds of the little blue pebble of Earth.


“Where do the shepherds live?” Varuna asked the room. The windowscreen-cam turned to face north, making Varuna a little dizzy. It felt like the building itself had rotated. The horizon undulated with the beginnings of the vast volcano Arsia Mons, its distant peak invisible beyond the horizon. The Tharsis rail line slashed the landscape.

Shepherd groups are distributed in settlements across the Tharsis Montes region. The largest nearby shepherd outpost is Yunshiqar to the north, located on the southern slope of Arsia Mons like the city of Tharsis-Hongxing, but at a higher altitude, the room told them in its soft voice.


Varuna was studying business because that’s what their parents wanted, but they fantasized often about studying extraterrestrial history, or anthropology, or music. They’d read a lot about shepherds, once-Earthlings bound by a generational contract to live here with minimum amenities and safety measures to work in underground greenhouse farms and maintain mining complexes and robots far from the comfort and excess of Tharsis-Hongxing. The data the shepherds provided about multigenerational survival of humans on the planet was valuable.


Unlike most of the population of Tharsis-Hongxing—vacationers and investors who cycled in and out of Mars on ships every half-year or so—the shepherds were permanent residents, descendants of the earliest service crews who had abandoned their earthly lives to help robots establish the bases that had become the city and the Tharsis conglomeration. Children born into the shepherds were allowed to choose during their teenage years whether to keep to the contract their ancestors had signed. But the cost of returning to Earth and accessing the health care needed to keep a Martian-born human alive there prevented most from making the journey.

A window within the window danced open, the same video ad from the lobby. New Frontier Hotel is proud to offer an all-inclusive tour package that includes a night in the Martian desert, blending the traditional customs of the shepherds with the luxury—


“Ad off,” Varuna said. There was no video of a true ushengaan performance from shepherd outposts—only a few showing shepherds performing at special events in the city, hosted by wealthy patrons. Varuna had searched for any kind of audio sample of the unheard song of Mars that had somehow trickled into the feeds, but there were none. What a thing it would be, to have a sample of the ushengaan to mix into their concerts for the VR feedcasts, to honor these reclusive people back on Earth.

Varuna rubbed their finger along the windowscreen, tracing the glowing line pointing beyond the horizon, toward Yunshiqar.

“Take me there,” they said softly.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand. Please repeat your query.


That evening, Varuna and their parents wandered the streets of Tharsis-Hongxing, taking in its carbon-ribbed sky studded with solar lamps, which shifted from white to gradients of red and blue to signify the passage of evening to night. They’d eaten at the hotel restaurant—printed steak strips with pickled Martian bamboo shoots and dwarf peppers—and emerged from the hotel when the glow of the city was the comfortable gold of an earthly sunset. The storefronts lining the city’s polished white streets shone in the dimming light.


But the lack of long shadows still made the underground vault of Tharsis-Hongxing feel like the inside of a giant airport terminal or mall, as they strolled side by side with beautiful, fashionable people alongside an endless scroll of boutique stores—everything from Gucci to Armani offering exclusive Mars collections, restaurants where the bill for a single meal could bankrupt most people on Earth.


For Varuna, the highlight of the day was the Museum of Martian History. Varuna lingered by the Viking1. One of the earliest robots that had inhabited Mars before humans, it had kept a lonesome vigil for centuries, now finally allowed to rest under spotlights, the skin of red dust that had enveloped it over time left undisturbed. Varuna wanted to reach out over the PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH signs, but refrained.

“How quaint,” said Priti.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? Wouldn’t have existed without money,” Javed added with a quiet smile that turned uneasy. Varuna sighed, reverie interrupted. Their father didn’t want to extend their mutual sulk, but couldn’t help himself. He’d already texted Varuna an apology for misgendering them, but refused to defuse the tension in person.


Varuna soon found the Cartography Room, with its ancient globes and maps charting the planet long before anyone had been here. Some of the oldest showed canals of water crisscrossing the plains and mountains. Varuna thought of the shepherds walking by the lapping shores of these impossible canals, dipping into them with earthen jugs. Breathing open air, living free lives without having to ration every last gram and milliliter of their resources, singing songs that could ring loud and clear across the red sands.

Walking through the museum, Varuna recorded samples of everything—the footfalls of visitors, the soft lilt of the bot guides, the earliest audio of the winds of Mars.

They were on Mars, and still hadn’t heard the planet.


Varuna woke at dawn, the blue haze of Martian sunrise creeping through the drapes over the windowscreen. Before their parents could wake up, they visited the zeroShape showroom near the hotel to get fitted for a slim-fit surface suit rental. Then they took the city’s metro line to the Airlock District. Here, the gleam of Tharsis-Hongxing receded into tiled streets scuffed by the heavy boots of shepherds, air flashing with reflections from their gleaming insulation cloaks.

Instead of luxury stores, there were rows of trading booths where shepherds from the surface lined up to sell their goods—vegetables and fruit, ore and water ice—to the city, haggling with evaluators who tested the quality of their products. There were also stalls where shepherds ate to prepare for the long trip back to their outposts, giving shares of their freshly transported produce in exchange for a meal cooked in front of them.


Varuna ate a mushroom-and-vegetable stir-fry, cheaper than anything in the other districts. The produce was fresh from farms nestled into the entrails left within Arsia Mons by lava flows of ages past. Everything Varuna had read last night indicated that the bulky backpack holding their suit and oxygen would mark them as a prospective surface tourist. So they waited.


Nayima thought the penjin quite pretty, their face bursting into so many delicate shades along their features, as if they were a hothouse flower. Makeup wasn’t much used by shepherds, being resource-intensive to make, so it always delighted her to see it. She moved in to save the penjin, who seemed scared and almost as young as a child, from the more aggressive touts.


“You want to walk on Mars without hotels breathing down your back?” she asked.

“Y-yes,” they stammered. “I want to hear the ushengaan.”

“You can’t hear ushengaan.”

The tourist stared in fear. “See it. Sorry!”

Nayima smiled, shrugged. “I sing it myself.”

“Oh! I make music too.” The tourist took a sharp breath, blushing. “I can hear, I mean, see you? It would mean a lot, as a musician. From Earth.”

“You can give me some Earth music and vid, via subderm? For free? You put that in, and some extra pay, I’ll show you ushengaan no problem.”

The tourist nodded vigorously.

“Your family knows you’re going up?”


“Sure. OK, Martian dollar tokens up front, no credit. Iris scan contract right now, required. So your parents can’t sue me if you get hurt out there. Joking, young mux. Also Martian law, it’ll check against city tourist records. So if you’re not an adult, say now.”


“I’m an adult.”

“Good for you. Listen to me, I get you out and back, safe.”

Varuna’s tout wasn’t that much older than them, but she moved with such confidence in Martian gravity that they felt like a wobbling infant in comparison. In the changing area, seeing other older and more experienced tourists suiting up, Varuna contemplated turning back. But their tout’s bold impatience prevented them from voicing these concerns.

“Strip,” the tout said, and there Varuna was, naked in front of a Martian. The tout helped Varuna pack their clothes into the backpack and get into the underwear, waste-retrieval system, and surface suit, checking the oxygen hookups and seals. The suit was bolstered with a hydrogenated nanotube weave to shield against cosmic radiation, like the gleaming insulation cloaks shepherds wore at all times, even over surface suits, because of their prolonged exposure.


You’re the first person other than my parents to see me naked, Varuna almost said to the tout, and wondered if they were suffering from oxygen deprivation. She entirely ignored Varuna’s nudity, helping them into the suit with a strength and speed that belied her diminutive size, her face so fragile and bereft of body fat it seemed like it might break at any moment, her teeth sticking out in an overbite. As she snapped on Varuna’s gloves, she noticed their hands trembling. Her face softened. She looked Varuna in the eyes.


“Second thoughts?”

Varuna smiled weakly. She returned the smile, gone in a flash.

“No fear. Our ancestors walked Earth’s moon hundreds of years ago and survived. I make sure you’re OK. People do this every day.” Varuna nodded, feeling an unmooring sense of gratitude that she’d said our ancestors. As if they were the same. She let go of Varuna’s wrists. She already had her suit on under her cloak, and simply flipped the visor of her helmet shut when the loudspeakers asked everyone to prepare for ascent.


They filed into the surface elevator chamber with about 50 other people, tourists and shepherds, some with luggage-bearing robots.

“What’s your name?” Varuna finally asked, the suit beeping as their comms auto-linked.


Varuna heard Mars.

The wind like the soft patter of butterfly wings against the suit mic, enclosed in the velvet flower of the planet’s cold silence. “Record,” Varuna whispered to their subdermal. The sky opened over Varuna, vast and crystalline after being enclosed in a starship and an underground city—a dome of rose quartz, the hazy sun alien without its cloak of Earth-blue. The elevator air lock opened to the spartan platform of the Tharsis line’s southwest terminus.


The Tharsis Express waited, its carriage lights flashing to signal imminent departure. Despite the shepherds and tourists clambering onto the train, the sound of footfalls was barely audible, a gentle morse of drumming. The train stretched for kilometers, the rail cutting across the desert and up the sloping horizon to the north, the skirt of Arsia Mons. The track was the longest ever built off-Earth, crossing the Tharsis Montes and transporting ore, crops, and water ice back-and-forth from mines and greenhouse farms to plants and the city.


The automated train ran on solar and backup batteries that charged via the train’s kinetic energy when dust or night vanished the sun. The carriages were mostly empty now, some holding city goods that weren’t available in the outposts—coveted dehydrated Earth foods like milk and eggs, shampoo and soap powders, gene-engineered seeds.

The train was built for freight, but it was free for passengers hitching a ride to outposts along the Tharsis line. The catch was that you had to ride under open Martian skies in the cargo carriages in a surface suit.

Varuna’s heart fluttered as Nayima extended her hand, glove already caked in dark red dirt from the ladder leading up the carriage she was perched atop. The reflective robes wrapped around her worn suit made her gleam like a mirror amid the dust.


Varuna couldn’t believe they were about to venture into the desert of Mars alone. Well, not alone—without family. If only Varuna’s parents could see them now. They swallowed hard. They couldn’t throw up in the suit.

Mars passed them by, the train raising a cloud of dust that sifted across the hurtling desert, trailing like the steam from ancient Earth locomotives. Varuna clung to the edge of the open carriage, boots on a stack of crates. A single cloud stretched across the sky, like smoke from Arsia’s invisible peak. The other riders huddled on the carriages receded into the horizon with the narrowing line of the Tharsis Express, swaying with it. Varuna felt lightheaded as the train moved farther away from the city that was their gateway back to Earth. Their subdermal’s network links had all blinked out.


“How far are we going?” asked Varuna.

Nayima smiled behind her visor. “We can go forever, into Martian night, across the three volcanoes of Tharsis, watch stars and moons come out, if you have enough money for me, for oxygen refills.”

Varuna shook their head, feeling sick from the overwhelming feeling of racing across an alien desert in low-g, the sun shimmering on the lakes of solar panels flashing by. “I have to go back. My parents will worry.”

Nayima’s smile faded. “OK,” she patted Varuna’s arm. “First stop is soon. We get off and head back.”

They disembarked at the edge of a solar lake, its multipaneled waves immobile to the human eye, following the sun. The train stopped for two minutes, Nayima climbing down the ladder first and practically catching Varuna in her arms as they tumbled off the train. No one else got off so early. There was no platform, just ochre dirt and a printed bunker complex with an array of vents and antennae reaching into the sky.


They walked over crunchy pebbled sand to the building as the train roared away, its sound low and deep on the thin air. Its dust drifted across them, swirling over the panels. A sign by the bunker read THARSIS STATION 25B and THARSIS-HONGXING 50 KM. The walls of the building were papered over with bright stickers—tourist graffiti. It wasn’t easy to bring spray paints out here or to scratch Martian structures, so tourists brought stickers instead. Tentacled aliens in stencil-silhouette or cute-emoji form were a popular choice, as were nametags in a variety of fonts, languages, and scripts.

“We have to walk 50 kilometers?” asked Varuna.


“Real desert pilgrims hike across Mars, no?”

“Won’t our air run out?” Varuna asked, heart racing.


Nayima laughed for the first time, the sound sharp against the glassy lines of the solar lake stretching away from them, uncanny against the alien plain. “This may be authentic, more than a hotel package tour, sure, but if surface tourism were that unsafe they wouldn’t let any penjin—ay, tourists, outside. That? Rest yurt and air processor, turns atmospheric CO2 into oxygen and waste carbon monoxide. You can refill canisters in there for credit. Also, I’m a shepherd, so … ”

Nayima took a baton from her suit belt and whirled it. It telescoped from both sides into a staff that flashed with blue light. Varuna felt their anxiety slow at Nayima’s theatrical movements, the youthful delight on her face. She clearly liked doing this bit for tourists. Her gloved fingers tapped along the staff, and she whistled into her mic—more theatre. Something emerged from a cubbyhole in the side of the station bunker, unfurling solar fins and whirring toward them on dirt-encrusted wheels.


A Martian rover, out in the wild instead of in a museum. The robot was small but could hold two people on its back. Nayima waved it over.


“Good utshu,” Nayima said as the rover halted in front of them, fins twitching as her hands brushed dust from its carbon-fiber skin. “It’ll take us back to the city. Feel better?”

Varuna nodded, their relief rising like heat in the tight suit. They felt stupid for panicking, out here amid such peace, on the shores of a Martian lake drinking in the morning sun. The dusky sunlight of Martian morning caught Nayima’s reflective cloak, turning her cowl into a ring of dull fire around her helmed head. The dust sifting across them settled as the Tharsis Express faded into the distance.

“I’m all right,” Varuna breathed. “Thank you.”

Nayima tapped the ground with her staff. “My job.”

“Can we stay for a moment?”

“Whatever you like, young mux.”

So the two travelers rested in the cramped air lock yurt of Tharsis Station 25B. The walls were a kaleidoscope of earthly stickers—tags, scan codes, band logos, photos, messages. A solar lantern sat like a campfire between them. The faithful rover waited outside. Nayima used the boiler in the yurt to make synthetic tea from powder in her backpack.

They took off their helmets, skin sheened with a light sweat from being enclosed. It was cold in the yurt, the cups comforting against their gloved hands. Half of Nayima’s head was shaved, the other half covered in thick black hair. Flowing water, parched desert; Earth and Mars.


“I can sing now,” Nayima said, voice clear, freed from her helmet.

“I’d like that.”

“You can keep recording.”

“Inside? Your helmet’s off. I’ll hear it.”

Nayima shrugged. “I’m still learning. It’ll be incomplete. No dance. No sitting under the stars in a tent on the slopes of Arsia, listening to an ushengai’s silence, reading the song on their face, until tears behind their visor, the flush of oxygen running low in their helmet, makes the words ring loud in your ears. This? Fake ushengaan, half-rate.”

“But I’ll hear it.”

Nayima nodded. “Ushengaan is about the silence we hear between planets. Earthlings can’t know it. But I want to sing out loud to an earthling, like in Earthsong. Even just once.”

“I don’t know if it’s my place, to record you.”

“It isn’t. I’m asking you to buy my song. Your money brought you across space. It can take my voice to Earth.”

Varuna thought of a Martian’s song threaded into the heartbeat of their VR concerts, footage of Nayima playing in 3D above the crowd of avatars. Evidence for their father that they had a sense of adventure after all—that they rode the Tharsis line and met a real shepherd. Varuna’s parents might even be proud of such initiative, the acquisition of a rare cultural asset.

Varuna thought, with a thrill, of becoming a popular feedjockey, the crowds growing to see something so special. They thought of headhunters commissioning concerts from them, copyrighting the recording, charging people to enter concert halls, making money that would never go to Nayima and her people. They must resist that temptation, they told themselves. Nayima wanted her song to be heard on Earth, and Varuna would accept that responsibility.

“I’ll buy your song, Nayima.”

Nayima wondered if it was foolish to let an earthling record her singing aloud. She felt a little bad—it wouldn’t be ushengaan in the least. It would be a new song of her own making. It would be Earthsong, and Marsong.

Her guardians had always warned her not to trust earthlings, but this mux was young, innocent. Nayima thought of her guardian Ara telling her how earthlings live their dream while their world burns. This world stopped dreaming a long time ago. When earthlings wake from their dream to find Earth barren as Mars, it will be our time. Live real, Nayima, leave the dreaming and feasting to Earthlings.

Ara wouldn’t want her singing Martian-styled Earthsong for money in the first place. But her guardian Tian had once said, And while they dream, take the money they owe us. Money could get their outpost more shares of medicines, seeds, their own crops. And Nayima wasn’t naïve—she’d attached a rider to her customer’s contract stating that she was entitled to compensation for any recordings of her used for commercial purposes on Earth. Maybe a rich earthling’s lawyers could obliterate that, but still.


Nayima wanted to be heard, across space.

So she sang. Not true ushengaan, but of her home.

Varuna didn’t understand many of Nayima’s words, wrapped as they were in Tharsite creole.

Yet Varuna heard in Nayima’s song the cavernous lava tubes of Arsia, where young shepherds dare each other to meet the ghosts of surveyors who’d run out of air.

Standing at the cave-mouths of Yunshiqar’s air locks, braving the approaching tide of the world storm to see the sun go out in the blackened sky.

Shepherds gathered with their robots in a serpent of bodies snaking up Arsia after the northern winter solstice, following the seasonal ice cloud bridging the sky for 1,000 kilometers as it unfurls from the volcano’s sun-warmed flanks on the lingering dust of the world storm.

The silent sound of ushengai in silver tents, whirling their staves and singing in their helmets, their rapt audience reading their performance from the movement of lips, face, limbs—their song turning the great cloud above into a ghost river flowing above the dry planet, or the locks of Arsia’s hair untied and thrown to the wind to remember the sea breezes of ancient Mars.

Varuna listened through tears, and saw the unwitting gift their parents had given them: not a tour of boutique stores and off-world capitalist excess, but this moment in a yurt on Mars, where Earth was finally too far away to be heard.

Varuna saw that when they played Nayima’s voice, it couldn’t be as a fragment of their remixes. Varuna was a caretaker of Nayima’s song now, not an owner or collaborator. They would protect this talisman of data in their subdermal storage in whatever way they could.

After trembling within the shell of a starship to come here, Varuna was to become a vessel to carry a voice across space, to the place Nayima’s people once came from.

For a moment, Earth heard Mars.

Thanks to planetary scientist Jim Bell for assistance with the details of Martian geography, meteorology, and more.

Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz responds to “The Song Between Worlds.”

Previously in Future Tense Fiction: 

Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
Safe Surrender,” by Meg Elison
A Brief and Fearful Star,” by Carmen Maria Machado
The Starfish Girl,” by Maureen McHugh
When We Were Patched,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Lions and Gazelles,” by Hannu Rajaniemi
Burned-Over Territory,” by Lee Konstantinou
Overvalued,” by Mark Stasenko
When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,” by Annalee Newitz
Thoughts and Prayers, by Ken Liu
Mpendulo: The Answer,” by Nosipho Dumisa
The Arisen,” by Louisa Hall

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.