Saul Williams wakes in his tent at seven o’clock in the morning, and laments how far he is from Earth. He longs to go home, but with lungs “full of the ‘blood rust’” knows this is impossible. The Martian morning is quiet and still, without any wind.
The reader’s first introduction to Saul is notably accompanied by a description of his intense longing for Earth, immediately establishing the extreme isolation of his quarantine and his intense loneliness.
Saul, desperate for Earth, tries to imagine himself in New York City to no avail. He then attempts to die by mentally telling his heart to stop; this also proves futile, and he lacks “the nerve” to take more direct action such as leaping from a cliff or slitting his wrists.
Saul’s attempt to imagine Earth around him foreshadows the titular visitor’s telepathic abilities and will also be echoed at the end of the story following Mark’s death. Bradbury’s detached description of Saul’s wish for death underscores the desperate, oppressive monotony of the Martian landscape and Saul’s life upon it.
After a nap, Saul’s mouth has filled with blood. Blood rust is an incurable, contagious disease that kills its victims slowly over the course of a year. Those suffering have been quarantined on Mars, where Saul now remains, “bleeding all the time, and lonely.”
The fictional disease cruelly leeches life from its victims slowly, forcing them to grow increasingly isolated and lonely as they die. The fact that such victims have been shipped off from Earth suggests a sort of cruelty on the part of the rest of humanity, who, in an effort to save themselves, have sent these men to die utterly alone.
Saul walks towards a man lying on a filthy blanket near the ruins of an ancient city. Decrying his loneliness, Saul says he wishes the other man could talk, and asks why “intellectuals” never catch the disease nor get sent to Mars. The man tells Saul he has grown too weary to think, and recalls one day, months earlier, when they had talked about Aristotle. Saul wishes he were sicker so that he wouldn’t care about being an intellectual. The man then says that, in about six months, Saul will be as sick as he is, and will care about nothing but sleep—which is “a nice thought.”
Saul’s wish for intellectual stimulation reflects the story’s emphasis on the importance of the life of the mind. Saul wishes he wishes he could be sick enough to think of nothing but sleep, because it is torturous to be fully aware of how little he currently has to make his life worth living.
Saul walks away and looks out over the bottom of the dried-up Martian sea, where many other men lay sleeping. They are all alone, Saul observes, “each grown into himself.” When Saul first arrived, the men used to gather around a fire and talk about nothing but Earth. Now, social interaction is too exhausting.
Again, Saul wants to be back on Earth “so bad it hurts.” He wants Earth “more than food or a woman or anything,” reflecting that Earth is “a thing for the mind,” whereas those other pleasures are for “the weak body.”
Saul rejects fleeting bodily pleasures in favor of a deeper connection to his home, again reflecting the importance the story places on the life of the mind.
There is a flash of metal in the sky, and a rocket suddenly touches down on the dead sea bottom. Two men in protective suits lead a third onto the planet’s surface, construct a tent, and then promptly re-board the rocket, leaving the third man behind.
The protective suits the men wear present an added insult to the Martian exiles, reflecting their status as mere sources of contamination to be discarded rather than actual human beings.
In his excitement, Saul ignores his exhaustion and rushes over to the new arrival. He appears surprisingly young and “fresh in spite of his illness.” The young man introduces himself as Leonard Mark.
So starved is Saul for connection and stimulation that he overcomes the immense exhaustion of his illness to run towards the visitor.
Saul asks Mark about the state of New York, at which point the city itself suddenly erupts around him—neon lights, taxis, harbors, and all. Terrified and confused, Saul screams for it to stop. The city fades, and Saul is again standing on Mars across from Mark. Saul asks if Mark created the vision with his mind, which Mark confirms. Suddenly elated, Saul tells the visitor how glad he is that he’s there.
At noon that day, over coffee, Mark tells Saul that he was born with his ability, which he describes as “telepathy and thought transference,” or “a form of hypnotism which affects all of the sensual organs at once.” Mark’s mother was in the “blowup of London” in ‘57, and he used to travel the world with his “act.” Most people thought he was faking his power, and he preferred having only a select few aware of the true extent of his abilities.
Mark’s reference to a past “blowup” implies that there has been some kind of nuclear explosion—likely an atomic bomb—in the not too distant past. Nuclear fallout caused Mark’s abilities, which he has been hesitant to fully share with others so far—a wise choice, given the greed his powers will soon inspire in the Martian men. This reference to a nuclear explosion also points back to the fact that the story was originally published in 1948, just three years after World War II.
Mark asks Saul what he would prefer to be doing more than anything else, and Saul responds that he’d like to be swimming in a beloved childhood creek. Almost immediately, Saul is there in his mind, diving into the water; to Mark, Saul is flailing around on the Martian sand. Upon returning from the vision, Saul tries to thank Mark by giving him his last bar of chocolate. Mark refuses, insisting he’s only using his power because it makes Saul happy.
The fact that Saul immediately chooses to return to a beloved childhood memory again highlights his immense homesickness and loneliness. That Mark sees Saul simply “swimming” in the Martian desert underscores that this is all illusion. However, to Saul, the reality of the situation does not matter. What does matter is the life of the mind, and reliving this memory is satiating enough.
Saul images all the places Mark will take him and all of the philosophers he’ll be able to talk to through Mark’s talent. He will visit Greece and Rome and talk to men like Darwin and Nietzsche. This ability, Saul decides, is even “better than life ever was.”
Coming down from his reverie, Saul spots other men in the distance slowly moving towards him and Mark. He tells Mark they must leave, because the other men are “insane” and will fight—even kill—to “own” Mark and his power. Mark scoffs, asserting that he is a free man and belongs to no one—including Saul. Saul realizes he hadn’t considered this.
Saul’s prediction that the other men’s greed will drive them to murderous violence will ultimately prove correct. In this moment, though, Mark sees right through Saul’s thinly veiled attempt to get Mark away from the other men—Saul really just wants to keep Mark’s powers for himself.
Saul again insists Mark leave, but Mark calls him “too possessive.” Growing angry, Saul feels “an ugliness” rise within himself and violently attacks Mark, knocking him unconscious. He lifts Mark in his arms and carries him away to the hills, falling once, but not stopping.
Selfishness and greed rapidly push Saul toward physical violence, even though he was friendly with Mark just moments earlier. His desperation is again evident in the fact that despite being deathly ill he finds the strength to run while carrying Mark.
Mark awakens tied up in a dark cave. He calls Saul, who is tending to a fire, a fool and mocks his greed. Saul snaps at Mark to shut up. Mark then conjures hell around them, complete with pits of brimstone and walls of flame, before laughing and deeming himself “the intellectual bride of a man insane with loneliness.”
Already the foolishness of Saul’s actions is becoming clear: he can physically attack Mark, but he cannot force Mark to use his powers. Mark’s comment in this scene further reflects the incredible sense of isolation men like Saul feels.
Saul tells Mark he’ll free him if he promises not to run away, but Mark again insists that he is not anyone’s property. He admonishes Saul, saying he had been more than happy to conjure “these little hypnotic favors,” and could have kept all of the men happy if only Saul had been willing to share.
Saul cries that he is sorry, but that the other men would never have agreed to that. Mark accuses Saul of being no different from the others, before saying that he heard a noise at the entrance to the cave.
Though Saul professes to be sorry, he has yet to fully accept the extent of his own selfishness. Given the story’s allegorical connotations for humankind’s destruction and depletion of natural resources, this moment also points to humanity’s denial of environmental destruction at large.
Saul goes to investigate the noise; finding nothing, he returns to a now-empty cave. He shouts frantically for Mark but receives no answer. However, he notices a large boulder near the cave’s wall, and approaches it with a knife. Before he can plunge it into the stone, the boulder disappears; in its place stands Mark. Saul looks crazed, and grips Mark by the throat. In Mark’s gaze, however, Saul recognizes that if he kills the visitor, he also kills any hope of escaping his Martian existence. Just as Saul releases Mark, five men appear at the entrance to the cave. Mark laughs and invites them inside.
Saul’s selfishness and greed have again driven him to violence—this time, even to murder. His actions, Mark points out, are at this point entirely irrational: if he kills Mark, he will destroy the very thing he desires. Of course, this is exactly what will come to pass by the end of the story.
The men argue ferociously until dawn. Mark has conjured a conference hall and marble table, around which the men sit. They are filthy and greedy-eyed, intent on possessing “their treasure.”
In an effort to settle things, Mark suggests creating appointments so that each man gets equal time with him every week. Saul, however, will be on probation for his past behavior; Saul apologizes, insisting he didn’t realize what he was doing.
Mark’s proposal is entirely rational and fair, and, for a moment, presents the men with the opportunity to overcome their greed by sharing his abilities.
Mark offers up a schedule, which includes time to himself as well. The other men seem to nod in agreement as he doles out appointment times. Mark insists that this should be “better than nothing.”
The fact that Mark includes time for himself is an effort to remind the men that he is not simply their plaything, but an autonomous human being.
One of the men, Johnson, proposes that they instead force Mark to perform, and torture him if he refuses. They are five against one, Johnson insists, and as such should be the ones telling Mark what to do.
Mark urges the others not to listen to Johnson, calling the man crazy and asserting that as soon as the others let their guards down, Johnson will kill them. In fact, Mark continues, none of the men can trust each other; they will all attempt murder in the name of keeping Mark for themselves.
Not only has their selfishness and greed propelled the men towards violence, but it has also resulted in their inability to trust each other at all—ironically robbing them of the human connection they deeply crave.
The men look at each other with suspicion and understand that Mark is correct. Saul, meanwhile, begins to understand the gravity of his mistake, realizing that they “were all wrong,” and “worse than lost.”
After a tense silence, Mark speaks up again, saying that one of the men has a gun, and the others must find it before it’s too late. At this, the others jump up and wildly try to search each other. Johnson pulls the gun out of his jacket and shoots another man, Smith, in the chest. Smith falls to the ground, dead, yet Johnson continues shooting.
The gun in the story symbolizes the corrosive nature of selfishness and greed, which inevitably (and irreversibly) leads to man’s downfall. Johnson has grown irrationally murderous, creating violent chaos where there could have been joyous calm had only the men been willing to share.
Mark screams for the men to stop and begins conjuring New York City around them. The men grow confused in the midst of the blossoming city, yet Johnson keeps firing his gun. Saul rushes to tackle Johnson to the ground and wrench away the gun, which goes off a final time. The men stop fighting as a “terrible silence” ensues.
Saul attempts to right his wrongs by stopping Johnson, but his greed—again symbolized by the gun—has grown too powerfully destructive.
New York begins to collapse, buildings crumpling in on themselves with hisses and sighs. Mark stands in the middle of it all, a red hole in his chest. He collapses. The men stand blinking in horror.
In the tussle, either Johnson or Saul have accidentally shot and killed the very person they were fighting over. Who pulled the trigger is ultimately inconsequential; all of their selfishness is to blame.
The cave grows cold. Realizing he still has the gun in his hand, Saul throws it as far as he can without watching where it lands. He calls out Mark’s name and grabs his limp hand, but the body is still. “We’ve killed him,” Saul says, before instructing the others to bury him. He wants nothing more to do with any of them.
Saul attempts to distance himself from his actions by throwing the gun, but it is too late. Reading the story as an allegory for humankind’s depletion of natural resources, this can be understood as reflecting that some damage cannot be undone.
Saul lies on the ground, too weak to move, and hears someone digging in the background. He wants to sleep, and to dream of New York. Saul wonders how Mark brought them the visions and tries his hardest to imagine the city around him. It is no use; the city is gone forever, Saul understands. He will spend the rest of his days searching for it but never finding it, not even in his dreams. Before he falls asleep, Saul hears the spade digging a hole in the earth, “into which, with a tremendous crash […] New York collapsed, fell, and was buried.” He cries himself to sleep.
As in the beginning of the story, Saul tries to imagine himself back on Earth to no avail. He finally understands that, in his greed, he has lost any hope of being freed from his Martian hell until he, like all the others, dies. The possibility of escape—even just mentally—is buried with Mark. That Saul ends the story by sleeping suggests that, without the chance for connection or mental stimulation, his life is effectively already over.