It was the twentieth year after the Great War. Mars was a tomb, planet. Whether or not Earth was the same was a matter for much silent debate for Hathaway and his family on the long Martian nights.
This night one of the violent Martian dust storms had come over the low Martian graveyards, blowing through ancient towns and tearing away the plastic walls of the newer, American-built city that was melting down into the sand, desolated.
The storm abated. Hathaway went out into the cleared weather to see Earth burning green on the windy sky. He put his hand up as one might reach to adjust a dimly burning globe in the ceiling of a dark room. He looked across the long-dead sea bottoms. Not another living thing on this entire planet, he thought. Just myself. And them. He looked back within the stone hut.
What was happening on Earth now? He had seen no visible sign of change in Earth’s aspect through his thirty-inch telescope. Well, he thought, I’m good for another twenty years if I’m careful. Someone might come. Either across the dead seas or out of space in a rocket on a little thread of red flame.
He called into the hut, “I’m going to take a walk.”
“All right,” his wife said.
He moved quietly down through a series of ruins. “Made in New York,” he read from a piece of metal as he passed. “And all these things from Earth will be gone long before the old Martian towns.” He looked toward the fifty-centuries-old village that lay among the blue mountains.
He came to a solitary Martian graveyard, a series of small hexagonal stones on a hill swept by the lonely wind.
He stood looking down at four graves with crude wooden crosses on them, and names. Tears did not come to his eyes. They had dried long ago.
“Do you forgive me for what I’ve done?” he asked of the crosses. “I was very much alone. You do understand, don’t you?”
He returned to the stone hut and once more, just before going in, shaded his eyes, searching the black sky.
“You keep waiting and waiting and looking,” he said, “and one night, perhaps—“
There was a tiny red flame on the sky.
He stepped away from the light of the hut.
“—and you look again,” he whispered.
The tiny red flame was still there.
“It wasn’t there last night,” he whispered.
He stumbled and fell, picked himself up, ran behind the hut, swiveled the telescope, and pointed it at the sky.
A minute later, after a long wild staring, he appeared in the low door of the hut. The wife and the two daughters and the son turned their heads to him. Finally he was able to speak
“I have good news,” he said. “I have looked at the sky. A rocket is coming to take us all home. It will be here in the early morning.”
He put his hands down and put his head into his hands and began to cry gently.
He burned what was left of New New York that morning at three.
He took a torch and moved into the plastic city and with the flame touched the walls here or there. The city bloomed up in great tosses of heat and light. It was a square mile of illumination, big enough to be seen out in space. It would beckon the rocket down to Mr. Hathaway and his family.
His heart beating rapidly with pain, he returned to the hut. “See?” He held up a dusty bottle into the light. “Wine I saved, just for tonight. I knew that some day someone would find us! We’ll have a drink to celebrate!”
He poured five glasses full.
“It’s been a long time,” he said, gravely looking into his drink. “Remember the day the war broke? Twenty years and seven months ago. And all the rockets were called home from Mars. And you and I and the children were out in the mountains, doing archaeological work, research on the ancient surgical methods of the Martians. We ran our horses, almost killing them, remember? But we got here to the city a week late. Everyone was gone. America had been destroyed; every rocket had left without waiting for stragglers, remember, remember? And it turned out we were the only ones left? Lord, Lord, how the years pass. I couldn’t have stood it without you here, all of you. I’d have killed myself without you. But with you, it was worth waiting. Here’s to us, then.” He lifted his glass. “And to our long wait together.” He drank.