speculative prose

Under Dead Marsh, by Julia August



VOICE #1: To begin at the end:

It is summer, searing sandstorm season on a night rusty-ripe with glass domes glacial under dead sands, the planet-walkers topsy-turvy tightrope-tethered and the flat fibreglass streets crisscrossing right and left and right, right, right again between light-starved alien trees. Listen, and you can hear the wind wailing wrack and ruin against the perfect imperfect planted plan protruding willy-nilly into sere and suffocating shallows.

Listen. Under the unliving modules, under the soothed and serried generators, under the men and women and children turning sleepless in their plastic cots, under the miners and the cleaners and the cooks and the mechanics, under the transplanted town twittering birdsong never heard before or after on this desiccated, desaturated planet, you can hear the memorious murmurings of the minerless mine.

Listen. In the deep and dusty hollows, it is the memory of machines and miners moving in a darksome dream under New Exmouth, stonehammering in mask and on mattress, stamping their stilted feet endlessly over the icy uncharted underground. It is the in-out-in-out whoosh-huff rasp of artificial lungs, onnnne-twoooo-onnnne-twoooo, slowly does it, what-do-we-have-here of the deliberate Martian men, peering everywhichway as dust drifts into skinny headtorch beams.

Listen. Go deeper. Listen.

Only you can hear the soft skitterscritch of the ants under the mines.



Biodome & Terra-form Planning Act, 2232.
Biodome & Terra-form Planning (General Interim Development) Order, 2233.

Form of Application for Permission to Develop

Date: 25 May 2234

I/WE, the undersigned being the agent for the owner of the lands shown on the annexed plan site hereby apply to the BIODOME DISTRICT COUNCIL of NEW EXMOUTH as INTERIM DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY under the above Order for permission to develop the said lands and to erect 1 Class 8 Biodome capable of supporting 199 human lives & a Lichen Farm at Dead Marsh, New Exmouth in accordance with the accompanying Plans and Sections, and the Bye-laws in force within the Inhabited District with respect to New Biodomes and Way Stations. I/WE the undersigned intend to erect said Class 8 Biodome & Lichen Farm conditionally on the subsequent approval by the Council or by the MINISTER of HEALTH on appeal, of the particulars of the proposed development in accordance with the plans and particulars annexed hereto.

Frederick Hamilton
Exeter Dome, New Exmouth, Phoenicis Lacus, Mars.


The following particulars refer to the proposed New Biodome:

Description of construction: Class 8 Biodome
Number of living modules: 199
Height of living modules: 8’6″ & 8’0″
Area of open space in rear of living modules: 25’5″ x 25’0″
Is an onsite sewage recycling plant provided? Yes
If not, state how sewage will be recycled: N/A
How many public communication units? 35
How many power generators? 6
How many backup power generators? 4
State whether transfer switch is automatic or manual: Automatic
How many atmosphere generation units? 6
Is an onsite water production plant provided? No
If not, state how water will be supplied: By excavated lava tunnel from New Exmouth Biodome
How many shuttle bays? 20
How many emergency life-pods? 75
How many public storage units? 32
State nearest Class 1 Biodome Cluster: New Exmouth, Phoenicis Lacus
State distance to nearest Class 1 Biodome Cluster: 1/4 mile
State primary form of access to nearest Class 1 Biodome Cluster: Subterranean route via excavated lava tunnel to emerge in Belle Vue Dome, New Exmouth
State principal source of fuel and other supplies: New Exmouth
State distance to principal source of fuel and other supplies: 1/4 mile
What emergency protocols will be in place? See attached
State anticipated principal employment of inhabitants: Lichen farming


EXTRACT FROM THE REPORT OF THE DOMES AND GENERAL PURPOSES COMMITTEE, to be presented to the Council on Tuesday the 5th day of June 2234

The following letter was considered:

[…] 3. From 19 Residents of Belle Vue Dome, drawing the Council’s attention to the proposed construction of a biodome on the Dead Marsh, which, in their opinion is likely to produce slum conditions, such as many of the older residents remember from their time on Earth, and also to deteriorate the rateable value of their living modules. They further observe that establishing a Lichen Farm on the site may divert resources from the New Exmouth Olivine Mine and risks disturbing a site of global interest, if recent reports in the New Exmouth Gazette are to be believed.

The Committee recommend that a copy of the letter be sent to the applicant, Mr Frederick Hamilton, and that he be asked if he has any observations to make on it.


VOICE #1 (CONT’D): Only you can smell the here-I-am, avoid-this-spot, I-bring-food pheromones in the tunnels in the burnt-black and blistered lava. Only you can see, in the inverted spiralling spires, the rickety-skittery wormish stairways, the nooks and cracks and crannied naves, and cloisters crawling with busy industrious inhabitants. Only you can smell and see the workers hither-thither hauling chips of olivine from the mines, piling stone upon glittering stone, digging deeper, building higher, featherfanning outwards under the sleeping marsh.

From where you are, you can see into their nest.


B. Benoy, Esq.
Biodome District Council,

June 8th 2234.

Dear Madam,

I am in receipt of your letter of the 5th inst: enclosing copy of Petition from nineteen residents of living modules in Belle Vue Dome, for which I thank you.

I cannot understand what observations I can be expected to make under the circumstances, except that the recent reports in The New Exmouth Gazette to which the writers refer are not to be believed, since the surface is proven to be incapable of supporting life in its current state.

Yours faithfully,
F. Hamilton


VOICE #1 (CONT’D): Here, in her sweetly tended, holily serviced hollow, under purposeful polished galleries, in her lightless and lavish larval bed in the nest under the mines of New Exmouth, the queen

VOICE #2: dreams wingless of blind unwindowed choirs unwinding under less windowed chapels in stone so deep the summer cold seeps sanitarily away; and in her sleep she bellies over and, counting her new eggs, she sings

QUEEN: Worker… worker… worker… Feed up this one, fatten her till she flies…

WORKER #1: Where’s the food to come from, mum?

WORKER #2: Where’s she to fly to, mum?

WORKER #1: Who’s she to mate with, mum?

WORKER #2: Who’s to build her colony, mum?

QUEEN: (SOFTLY) Worker… worker…



The following letter was read:

[…] 9. From Mr A.L. Balding dated 2nd July 2234, asking what is likely to be the effect generally of the excavation of the lava tunnels situated under Belle Vue Dome, now proceeding, for the purpose of access to the development on the Dead Marsh, and if there has been a detailed survey of the actual efficacy of lichen farming with regard to Martian terra-formation, and if so, what its conclusions were. As these matters are of pressing and immediate importance, he urges the Council to obtain accurate and detailed information, if necessary, under independent advice and to study the particulars closely, so that a correct judgement might be formed.

Mrs Bardens moved Major Arnold seconded and it was resolved that the letter be referred to a Committee of the whole Council for consideration and report.


Young People Warned Against Joy-Riding in Surface-Walking Apparatuses

A youth who was fined last week for exiting the New Exmouth Biodome Cluster in his father’s surface-walking apparatus without a licence claims to have seen a life-form in the Dead Marsh.

David Percy Caprice, 17, of Withycombe Dome, said that the life-form was black and shiny, with a protruding head and multiple pairs of legs. He described it as “like an ant from those old Earth books, but much bigger,” and added that it disappeared through a crack before he could get close enough to catch it. His father, Mr. H. Caprice, a workman employed on the Dead Marsh Biodome and Lichen Farm project, suggested the insects might have a nest in the lava tunnels beneath the marsh.

There were eight incidents of unlicensed persons going outside the Biodome Cluster in June alone. The Medical Officer issued a statement expressing concern and reminding all residents of the Cluster that the effects of low surface gravity and atmospheric pressure can be particularly detrimental to the development of immature organs and bone structures. Moreover, the toxic atmosphere, extreme cold, and high levels of ultraviolet radiation make it all but certain that in the event of an accident on the surface the outcome would be fatal. Only fully trained and licensed persons should ever operate the surface-walking apparatuses outside the Biodome Cluster, he said.

Questioned about the insect seen by Mr. Caprice in the marsh, the Education Officer suggested that Mr. Caprice had seen debris in the dust storm that has battered the Dead Marsh for the past two months. Despite several reported sightings, no indisputable evidence of insect life has been discovered, she pointed out. She added that it was unlikely that, as some people have proposed, the insects could have arrived on a meteorite, and furthermore that it was doubtful whether any living thing larger than a micro-organism could survive on Mars unaided, but that the discovery of such insects would be of great scientific interest and would certainly attract global attention. Mr. F. Hamilton, of Exeter Dome, said that he did not believe the latest sighting was any reason to stop work on the Dead Marsh Biodome and Lichen Farm project. In his opinion Mr. Caprice could not have seen an insect, because the surface of Mars is presently incapable of sustaining life, and will remain so as long as blinkered and short-sighted individuals fail to act on the possibilities for terra-formation offered by such activities as lichen farming. He expressed his intention of submitting an appeal to the Ministry of Health.


VOICE #1: On the many-legged nesting outskirts under blindfolded New Exmouth, chitinous and chittering, the unnumbered, one-numbered, single-purposed soldiers

VOICE #2: sniff out scent-trails skittering into the lava-latticed, kimberlitic, carbon-dioxide dark. Down and up they run, carryfetching news for the nest

SOLDIER #1: food here

SOLDIER #2: ice here

SOLDIER #3: building materials here

SOLDIER #1: food still here, come back later

SOLDIER #3: something new here. (BEAT) Unfamiliar. (BEAT) Danger?


Corrected Draft.
To the Ministry of Health,
Whitehall Dome, 8.W.1.

re Proposed New Exmouth Biodome Planning Scheme,


Being aggrieved by a refusal of the New Exmouth Biodome District Council to sanction a proposed lay-out of a biodome and lichen farm at New Exmouth I now appeal to you for sanction to the same under Section 10 (4) of the Biodome & Terra-form Planning Act 2232.

Your appellant is I am the owner of a piece of land that has been in continuous development (with the exception noted below) since 2196. Plans were prepared for the whole at that time. Its total area was originally about 52 acres and the plans were provided for the construction of Class 8 and 9 Biodomes for the poorer classes of colonist. In 2234 your appellant I submitted fresh plans to the New Exmouth Urban District Council as soon as I he found that work was terminating on the New Exmouth lava tunnels. These plans were for the a new layout of the remaining portion of my his land there at New Exmouth, showing the division of living modules, the avenue system and subterranean access routes. Plans were also submitted for sanction for the establishment of a lichen farm to contribute to the terra-formation of Mars the New Exmouth district, in the expectation that the surface of our red planet shall in future one day become fit to support human and animal life unaided.

Although the Surveyor had reported that the plans for the biodome were in order, I your appellant received a note that the biodome was not approved by the council subject to the bye-law (under the Public Health Act) and after a further lasse lapse of time I he was informed that the proposed lay-out was rejected on the grounds that it did not satisfy the proposed biodome-planning scheme as to density. In fact the Committee of the Council had first passed approved the lay-out but recommended the Council to inquire as to the effect of excavating under Belle Vue Dome for access purposes. The council referred the papers back to the committee for further inquiry and in the end rejection on the grounds of the number of living modules fear of density was decided upon. In the meanwhile your appellant, satisfied that the biodome was in accordance with the bye-laws, has proceeded with some of the work, in accord with his protection under the Public Health Act. The abrupt cesser of work would mean the throwing of a large number of men out of work and much unnecessary misery and trouble.

Your appellant is an active proponent of the possibilities offered for the terra-formation of this planet in the long term by lichen farming and believes, rightly or wrongly, that part of his difficulty in the matter is due to that fact. There has also been considerable strong feeling in the matter roused by a number of people, who occupy living modules in the dome nearest the site and hoped to enjoy their solitude indefinitely. Your appellant is sorry for them but neither they or the biodome cluster are able to pay the necessary price for the preservation assignment of this large construction site area which, when I he first took in hand its development, was on the very margin of the biodome cluster. This officious opposition comes from the owners (or occupiers) of living modules built in the main within the last twenty years and is of course directed to the prevention of any building work here. The preposterous claims of a number of irresponsible young people, who have recklessly endangered their lives by misusing apparatuses they have not been licensed to work, to have seen native or alien insects living on the surface need not be taken into account.

I have the honour to be,
Your most obedient servant,
Frederick Hamilton, Esq.



11 October 2234

Dear Sir,

I am directed by the Biodome Planning Committee to send you the enclosed copies of letters the Council have received from Mr A.L. Balding of “St Heliers” Belle Vue Dome, Messrs Ed and R.H. Bradley of “Bon Hay” Belle Vue Dome, and Mrs M.M.A. Hurdon of “Treludick” Belle Vue Dome.

Yours faithfully,
B. Benoy


3rd September 2234.
The Clerk
New Exmouth Biodome District Council,



Acting upon Counsel’s advice I hereby give you notice that I purpose if building is further continued to present to your Council when the statutory time shall have come a claim for compensation under the provisions of the Biodome & Terra-form Planning Act 2232, for injury to amenity and depreciation in value in respect of my freehold property “St Heliers” Belle Vue Dome, New Exmouth, as above, the main grounds inter alia of my claim being:

(a). The juxtaposition of working-class living modules to my said property.

(b). The loss of views over the pleasure area of Belle Vue Dome by reason of the intervention of the proposed subterranean access route to the Dead Marsh biodome.

(c). The density of spacing of such living modules being in excess of the New Exmouth Biodome Planning Scheme and the failure of the New Exmouth Biodome District Council to enforce such Scheme.

I am, Madam,
Yours truly,

ENCLOSED: Copies of letters from Messrs Ed and R.H. Bradley and Mrs M.M.A. Hurdon communicating their intention to claim compensation on the same grounds if the building work should continue on the Dead Marsh project.



All calls may be monitored for training and assessment purposes.

HUTTON: Barbara? Are you there? Can you [static] polar wind’s picking up again and my apparatus signal isn’t [static].

BENOY: Hello? Hello, Simon? Where in the world are you?

HUTTON: [static] water pipes to the Dead Marsh Project [static] never believe what [static] found. Freddy Hamilton’s going to do his nut!



A colony of giant six-legged insects was discovered four days ago during excavation work for a controversial new biodome at New Exmouth, Phoenicis Lacus. The insects, which are similar in form, if not size, to the Earth species Lasius niger (“black garden ant”) and appear to inhabit the lava tunnels that spread throughout the district, are the first living species of any kind to be found on Mars since the arrival of humans in 2189. Scientists are currently studying several intact insects and a substantial portion of material from the tunnels, which were evacuated as soon as the presence of the insect colony had been confirmed.

According to local residents, reports of insect sightings in the district go back decades, although no evidence had been found before now to substantiate such reports. The discovery of the nest makes it probable that other species of life exist on Mars. Dr. M. Creedy, New Exmouth Education Officer, said, “We are only beginning to discern the secrets of our extraordinary planet. An in-depth study of these fascinating insects will certainly reveal volumes about survival in the hostile climate beyond the biodomes.”

Simon Hutton, who was at the scene of the discovery, reported that the insects had lined their nest with waste materials from recent building activity at New Exmouth and from the New Exmouth Olivine Mine. He thought that the insects were alarmed by the human intrusion but not initially aggressive. Says Dr. Creedy, “This shows that native species are adapting to the human presence on Mars, whether we know about it or not. It is imperative that we put more resources into studying the original ecology of this planet before we unknowingly cause any more damage than we have already done.”

Ellen Street, Minister of Health, yesterday announced legislation to declare these ‘New Exmouth Ants’ a protected species. She said that any more Martian species that might be found in future would likewise be accorded protected status and that she personally would be taking a close interest in the progress of investigations at New Exmouth. “This government has always believed in the importance of scientific progress,” she said. “We will take steps to ensure that this remarkable discovery receives the attention it deserves.”

One immediate consequence of the discovery at New Exmouth is that all plans for the terra-formation of Mars will be put on hold with immediate effect. Mrs. Street said, “It would clearly be irresponsible to make such major alterations to the climate and terrain of this planet without knowing what impact this might have on the native species that have evolved to live in the existing environment. I have therefore commissioned a full-scale scientific inquiry into the matter to provide a sound foundation for future government policy.”

Building work at New Exmouth has now ceased, including that on the new Class 8 Biodome beneath which the colony was discovered. Work on this biodome had continued pending the result of an appeal to the Ministry of Health against the disapproval of plans by the Biodome District Council, but it now seems likely that the Minister will uphold the Council’s decision. Mr. F. Hamilton, landowner and builder, could not be reached for comment.



PRESENTER:That was the first part of our new drama serial, ‘Under Dead Marsh’, written for BBC Radio Mars by E. R. Burrows in homage to the famous radio play ‘Under Milk Wood’ by the great Earth poet Dylan Thomas. Tune in at the same time tomorrow to hear Part Two. And if you can’t wait until then to hear more about the ants of New Exmouth, there’s a special programme tonight at eight-thirty presented by Tom Attenborough on BBC Mars One.

The news is next, but first, the shipping forecast.


Issue 9 (Winter 2016)

Story copyright © 2016 by Julia August

Artwork copyright © 2016 by Random Dreaming

Julia August would very much like to experience a full-length adaptation of Under Milk Wood set on Mars, even though she resisted the temptation to write it herself. Her work has appeared in various places including The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Women Destroy Fantasy!, PodCastle, Kaleidotrope, and of course Lackington’s Magazine. You can find her on Twitter as @JAugust7 or on Tumblr at

Random Dreaming is an illustrator, photographer, and art director based in Poland. A graduate of Fotoacademie Rotterdam, he combines studio and location photography with photomanipulation in order to seek out new undiscovered realities. His work has been exhibited in galleries in the Netherlands and Poland, printed in the prestigious GUPNew Yearbook, and nominated for the Dutch Photo Academy Award. He currently makes up part of the Treslettres Collective.




This entry was posted on April 27, 2016 by in Stories.
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