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CHAPTER FORTY-ONE: FESTIVAL OF WRECKAGE

It’s one thing to smile at other people’s customs and tell yourself how liberal and broadminded and multicultural you are for putting up with them. It’s quite another thing to suffer—or to see your loved ones suffer—because of some savage, idiotic practice that’s sacred simply because it’s been going on for decades or centuries or millenia.

A real civilization is not “multicultural”. It has no arbitrary customs or practices that put your life, limb, and luggage at risk. It got rid of them all a long time ago, and it will never welcome them back again.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“So it was sabotage,” he said, mostly to himself.

Wilson sat in the transparent nose of Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, looking down on City of Newark, watching sparks, vapor, and debris still coming out of the ragged place where one of her engines had just exploded.

“Can’t be any question about it, Wilson!” Shorty was aboard the crippled liner, in the engine room. He’d gone there originally to survey the damage from the blast. Instead, he’d found five suspect packages—about two and a quarter pounds apiece—carefully hidden in each of the engines.

Wilson wished he was using a video pickup so he could see Shorty’s face.

“I knew something weird was going on,” he told Wilson. “I never saw a hybrid fusion reactor let go that way before, and neither have you. It’s one of the reasons we use them. No, it was C-17, an old-time military explosive. Almost nostalgic, kinda like using dynamite. Looks like a heat-sensitive detonator. The engines start running, they reach a certain temperature, and Ka-blamm! Captain says Number Four always tended to run a little bit hotter than the other five. He’s lucky it did!”

The man must really be rattled, Wilson thought. He’s forgetting to call me Commodore. “Okay, Shorty, I agree with you on all points. Whoever did this, it has to be somebody who didn’t know about Number Four running hot. And it has to have been done after we originally shut the engines down. I know what I think. What does the Captain think?”

“The Captain’s momentarily indisposed. He was closer to Number Four than I was whenj it blew, and picked up a little shrapnel. Nothing serious. Your sister and her sexy friend are patching him up. He was the first to say the word ‘sabotage’, even before we found these other five bombs.”

Wilson wasn’t sure he liked hearing Jasmeen talked about that way. On the other hand, Shorty probably didn’t know any better, growing up dangerously, as he had, in old Lost Angeles, so he decided to let it slide.

This time.

He asked, “So you don’t think it was a present Null Delta Em left behind?”

“What the galoshes, Commodore,” Shorty answered. “You said it yourself. When Null Delta Em hit the road—the two that made it—all six engines were running full out, hot and heavy, pushing three gees.”

Wilson nodded. “Yeah, I did say something a lot like that, didn’t I?”

“Besides, Commodore, they were gonna smash this ship into a flying mountain. What did they need military explosives for? I hate to say it, but this looks a lot more like some kind of inside job to me. I got me one other suspicion, but I don’t really wanna say it over the radio.”

Wilson heard with a sinking heart. He’d hoped there’d be no more trouble on this journey. He was pretty sure he knew what Shorty was going to tell him. “Well, do what you can, Shorty. If you think you’ve found all the bombs, we can start her up again. If not, I guess we can tow her to Mars of we have to—we may have trouble recovering our costs.”

“Then we can always keep her! We’ll take turns being captain—oh, Captain West. You weren’t supposed to hear that—I was only kidding!” To Wilson: “Funny thing—he was standing right behind me all this time.”

“Alan West, here, Captain Ngu,” said the Captain. “Thanks to your sister and her friend, I’ve just missed needing a jaunty, piratical eyepatch.”

Wilson grinned. “My condolences, Captain West. What can I do for you?”

“Well, I’ve decided to let your colleague here live, despite the fact he wants to steal my ship. I’ll also see, personally, that all of your costs are covered if you tow my ship to Mars. Water and oxygen we can make, but we can’t do the kind of safety inspecting we have to do to restart these engines, not and get to port before our food runs out.”

Wilson sighed, but only to himself. Although he’d rather be chasing rocks, a job was a job. “I’ll talk to the others. We can be underway again in a couple of hours. Reaction mass is going to be problematic.”

“Perhaps not, sir. Have each of your asteroid hunters stop by the cargo lock that you came in by the last time. We’ll have a sizeable load of freshly-chopped dining room furniture for you, dishes, table service, linens, and whatever else you think your coffee grinders will handle.”

“How about dead hijackers,” Shorty asked. Wilson hoped he was kidding.

“We need to keep them for evidence, son. Let’s make this happen, Wilson.”

“That we’ll do, Al,” Wilson laughed. “That we’ll do. This is going to turn out like one of those Mississippi paddle-wheel racing stories.”

“Racing story may not prove necessary!” announced a familiar voice in a heavy Chechen accent. Wilson’s fingers busied themselves across one of his keyboards, trying to find out where the new signal was coming from. The lines crossed at a point where the radar showed him two big blips, half a million miles back along the track toward Earth.

“Yes, it is I,” said the voice, “Saladin Uzhakhov, himself, also colleague Ali Khalidov and new associate, Lafcadio Guzman. In Moon we are seeing on 3DTV niece Jasmeen in less than salubrious circumstances. We come to rescue. Also to tell that fellow was very nice knife-throwings.”

“And what ship are you, sir?” asked Captain West, probably out of habit.

“I am not ship, I assure you, sir. But I am riding in one. Lafcadio is pilot. He is not ship, either. Neither is colleague Ali. We are astronomer, physicist, used spaceship dealer. And we have present for you!”

“And what might that be?” the Captain asked suspiciously.

“New engine—General Atomic hybrid fusion PCG-FX140. Normal power output equal to all six of your engines—when you still had six.”

The General Atomic PCG-FX140 was a legendary monster, a famous white elephant of spaceflight, rather like Howard Hugh’s Spruce Goose had been to aviation. Not even the engines of the lost Fifth Force had been as big and powerful, although they came close. No doubt Lafcadio had had it hanging around his orbital junkyard for years.

Wilson heard three men laugh uproariously, and in the background an odd kind of barking noise. Perhaps one of Lafcadio’s Jack Russell terriers?

Somehow, he didn’t think so.

******

“Hang on, now, here comes the hard part!” said Manzel to his unwilling companion.

It seemed as if he had just turned the little ship around, fired her remaining engine to deorbit her, and then turned her back around again to handle the atmospheric entry, when several other elements of the landing started demanding attention before he was quite ready for them.

Outside, the thin Martian atmosphere was screaming past the little spaceship, beginning to tear at her very fabric and heat her leading edges. But it was nothing comparable to landing a spaceship on Earth. and it had turned out to be a great deal less trouble than he’d originally anticipated.

Manzel flipped half a dozen toggles on the console and overhead, grabbing the small black steering yoke with both hands as it rose with a reedy mechanical whine from somewhere inside the control system. Unfortunately, it came up vibrating hard. It hurt in his hands and he needed every bit of his strength just to hold onto it. The ship began to vibrate, too, swaying from side to side a little like a body in a hammock.

Cenicichla’s eyes, meanwhile, grew bigger and bigger with terror. He emitted a kind of thin, gibbering squeal as the White Winged Dove began to bank steeply to the right and the ground below became a wall. Manzel had removed his gag, “So you won’t drown in your own puke,” but had ordered him to keep quiet. Somehow, Crenicichla obeyed, although he hated flying in any atmospheric craft, and hated it this way even worse.

Just before the ship releveled herself and achieved the heading Manzel wanted, east by southeast, she began to shudder violently and fell off on her left wing. He fought hard and got her back where she belonged, but by then she’d lost ten thousand feet of altitude she needed badly.

The little ship had been designed for space and was atmospheric-capable only as a contingency. She had few control surfaces and they were small. When he pulled back on the yoke, thrusters fired under her nose lifted and it. This wasn’t at all like flying an airplane, he decided. Goosing her remaining engine a fraction got most of her altitude back.

He let her nose down again and flew on.

“That was fun,” he lied to his captive audience, peering ahead through the windshield. They were just about to plunge into a section of Valles Marineris between Melas Chasma and Coprates Chasma. The whole place was filled with light fog—or more likely it was minute particles left over from a recent dust storm—that made it hard to see.

He watched the altimeter and the proximity radar as carefully as he could. He had plenty of room on either side. The enormous rift and river valley was at least eight hundred miles wide at this point. It was six or seven times deeper than the Grand Canyon at home, and it was that—keeping track of altitude and groundspeed—that worried him.

The ship’s wings and nose began to cool as her speed dropped. The air pressure was about half of Earth’s at sea level. Newcomers here often put superchargers on their homes to keep the pressure higher indoors—it also helped to keep the Martian dust out. Flare and ground effect weren’t going to amount to very much. He had to land by reducing his speed and altitude to dead zero at precisely the same time.

He’d played video games like this.

He always lost.

“Whoops! There’s our little mountain range, you see it?” He pointed to an odd double collection of isolated peaks standing up in the middle of the canyon. To his prisoner, it must have looked like they were about to crash into them. He put some effort into trying not to whimper audibly. “And here’s where we start getting downstairs real fast!”

More toggles, more adjustment. A distinct roaring began to be heard from the nose, different from the noises the ship had made entering the atmosphere. Thrusters were firing to reduce the ship’s velocity.

“Groundspeed seven-ten, six-eighty, six-twenty, five-fifty—wow! I sure didn’t see that hummock! Altitude is now two hundred feet and holding. Groundspeed four hundred, three-fifty, two hundred—hold onto your hat, Johnnie! We’re running out of thruster fuel about now!”

Johnnie didn’t have a hat, so he simply screamed and wet his pants when what had become a comforting roar at the nose shut off abruptly.

White-Winged Dove took the crest of the first dune just behind her chin. There was a good, solid, spine-wrenching thump—although her structure seemed to hold—and then she took to the air again. Manzel held her there. He didn’t want her diving into the base of a dune.

“That’s odd, I’d have expected sand to—wait, it isn’t sand, it’s macaroni plant, a lubricant when crushed. It’s like landing in foam!”

She took the second dune amidships, and this time there was a deep groan as her already tortured framework began to come apart. Manzel held her level, skimming another dunetop, and another, until at last she skewed off to one side and rode the contour down to a sliding halt.

“Well I’ll be damned,” said Manzel, we—”

Clank! He stopped because something struck him hard on the left side of his head. He slumped forward against his four-point seatbelt and was unconscious.

With approval, Krystal examined the stainless steel skillet in her hand that she’d found in the galley on her way to the flight deck. What a walk that had been! The pan had made a perfectly good cudgel, used properly, and a wonderful ringing thump, as well. She turned and looked at Crenicichla with her good eye. The other was still white, without even the pupil showing, and would probably remain that way forever.

“C’mon, honey,” she told him, slashing with a nine-inch chef’s knife at the gray tape that bound him. “You rescue me, I rescue you. I want you free to help me finish this corporate capitalist sonofabitch pig.”

“I’d love to, Krystal,” he said, thumping his own shoulders to get his circulation back. “but we’re out of time and we’ve got to leave now. This wreck could explode at any moment, and if you’ll look out the window, there, you’ll see three rescue helicopters just about to land.”

“Damn! I’ll just get his gun and—”

“We have to go, now!” He dragged her from the flight deck to the airlock. Maybe they could hide under the ship until the rescuers were gone.

“Careful,” she said, standing on tiptoes to kiss him as the lock cycled. “My mouth hurts.” Even wounded and bloody she looked good to him.

“Your mouth hurts?” He grabbed as many portable survival kits from the wall as he could carry. Each contained a compressed and canned poncho tent, rations, water, a surprisingly ample first aid kit, and small containers of oxygen, each about the size of an aluminum cigar tube.

“Yeah,” she told him, looking proud of herself. He closed the inner door and started the airlock cycling. “I had to chew my way through one of those damned safety straps holding me down.”

The pressure began to drop. It grew colder in the lock. They found warm clothing in a locker and put it on. “Four inch synthetic straps? Crenicichla shook his head in admiration. “Baby, you are my kind of girl!”

******

“Well, I wonder where Fatty went,” Wilson suddenly said to no one in particular.

Casey looked down on him—as he did on everyone—and asked, “Fatty?”

Everybody else was here: Wilson, Scotty, Marko, Mikey, Shorty, Casey, and Merton. The asteroid hunters. Captain West was here, as well. He had a heavy bandage across his forehead and down one cheek, thanks to the exploding engine, and his left arm was in a makeshift sling.

They were gathered in the big passenger airlock aft of most of the ship and just forward of the engineering spaces, to plan how to use the giant engine Lafcadio and the two Chechen scientists had brought with them. Their ship actually had an airlock of the right size and shape to dock with City of Newark, although they hadn’t come aboard yet.

“Sorry, my personal name for Pharch—Pimble S. Pharch. You know, Lilac Waffle?” Wilson was frustrated. He’d always felt there was something wrong with the man. If only he’d acted on that feeling, instead of treating him as he had the other would-be pirates. Now he was sure that the guy had almost killed Jasmeen and Llyra all over again.

“Are you saying,” Scotty began, “that our friend Pharch was the saboteur … ?”

“You would condemn the poor fellow in his absence?” Merton asked—rhetorically, Wilson thought. His hands were prayer-folded together at his solar plexus, and he looked more than ever like a statue of Buddha.

“You would defend him in his absence?” Marko replied. “The guy’s a rotten egg, Merton, and furthermore, you know it. He’d cut his mother up and eat her with a plate of hash browns and gravy if he got hungry enough.”

There was a long pause while everybody struggled to live with the thought.

Kwembly shook his head sorrowfully. “To my deepest regret, I cannot help but agree with you, Marko. What’s more, I know he had military explosives like that.”

The men surrounded him. “How do you know?” asked Mikey.

“Because he and I partnered together on a big nickel-iron rock, recently. That’s how I met him. We were in a bar at Langrange Point Four. He knew where this asteroid was, but his ship lacked the power. We began talking, and I offered to help him with it. When we found it and started it moving in the correct direction, he cut it in half with C-17.”

“And you didn’t tell us until now?” asked Wilson.

“Many hunters use obsolete military explosives,” Merton shuddered. “I have used them, myself, although I could never afford C-17. In any event, at the time, with a ship full of dying people, I thought it relatively unimportant.”

A tone sounded, and the Captain went to an intercom box set in a nearby wall. It had a flashing blue light to tell people in the lock that it needed attention, even when the lock was open and completely airless. Wilson supposed that it also relayed signals to one’s suit radio.

The Captain punched a button. Silence, and the light went out. “West.”

“This is the bridge, Captain.” Wilson didn’t recognize the voice. West hadn’t tried to replace the purposeless but union-required flight engineer, so this must be the first officer he was speaking with. “Our next door neighbors are asking for permission to come aboard. They say that they’ll cycle their own airlock so you and the hunters can stay put.”

“Please tell them they may come aboard,” said West.

“Aye, aye, sir. Also, radar has a pair of objects coming our way from upsystem. The computer thinks it’s a pair of asteroid hunting vessels.”

The Captain looked around the room. The hunters, including Wilson, shrugged. Maybe some opportunists had heard the row and were out for salvage.

“Any transponder data yet?” he asked the intercom.

“Not yet, sir. They’re just out of range.” At that moment they heard a series of thumps, rushing noises of pressure being equalized, and another series of loud thumps. The outer lock door began to swing open.

“Very well,” said West. “We’ll greet our friends and decide what’s next.”

“Aye, sir.” The voice cut off a fraction of a second before it was through.

“Wilson, my boy! Please to introduce us to friends!” Jasmeen’s paternal uncle was exactly as Wilson remembered him, an energetic man with flailing arm gestures, an uproarious sense of humor, a lead foot behind the wheel, and an eyepatch. Wilson wasn’t sure whether he was the astronomer or the physicist of the two, but hoped it was the latter.

“Yes, yes,” said another man in exactly the same accent. Wilson suspected that they practiced it together when no one was observing them. It was Saladin Uzhakhov, Jasmeen’s maternal uncle, a head taller and twice as wide as his professional colleague and friend, Ali. “Tell us, who are all of these hooligani you appear to have fallen in with?”

Wilson indicated West and began to say, “Well this hooligan is the—” when he was interrupted by a loud noise coming from behind the two scientists. It was the same barking noise he’d heard on the ship-to-ship.

A peculiar figure moved out from between the two men, none other than Lafacadio Guzman, in a lightweight wheelchair, and behind him, a sleek, furry creature Wilson had never seen before. Lafcadio was a big man—at least from the waist up—but he was dwarfed by the two Chechens.

Wilson stepped forward. “Captain Alan West,” he said, as he had been taught by his mother. He also named each of the asteroid hunters present. “This is Lafcadio Guzman, an old friend of my grandmother’s. He sold me Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend and helped me fix her up.”

There were sounds of greeting all around.

“And these gentlemen are Jasmeen Khalidov’s uncles, Ali Khalidov and Saladin Uzhakhov, scientists and proprietors of the Larsen Farside Observatory.”

The hunters all rushed forward to shake the hands of the two men who were responsible—however expensively—for so much of their livelihood.

“And who is this?” Captain West asked Lafcadio, bravely reaching down to stroke the streamlined head of the animal he’d brought with him.

Lafcadio laughed. “Roger. He’s a seal, and the ideal zero gravity companion. When the weight’s off, he can swim through the air like a fish and so can I. My lovely wife has Jack Russell terriers, but Roger is my buddy.”

Roger’s back rippled from tail to shoulders and he gave a leap, in the one-tenth gravity being maintained by the hunters’ ships moored to the liner, that took him into gentle contact with the overhead, where he twirled around twice before settling to the floor at Lafcadio’s side.

Wilson laughed. “My sister should see him! I think that was a double Salchow!”

The intraship intercom went off again suddenly, amidst all the joviality, silencing them all. The Captain hurried to the flashing box.

“West.”

“Bridge here, Captain. We’ve got a transponder number from one of the two ships headed this way. It’s Pimble Pharch’s Lilac Waffle, sir.”

“Fatty.” Wilson spat the name out.

“Bringing a buddy,” Scotty said, “probably to try and finish us off.”

******

Julie hated waiting.

She had been sitting just like this, she reflected, the night the news came that Billy had been killed, saving a gaggle of useless idiots from themselves. That wasn’t the way at all that evolution was supposed to work, and it would eventually be the species’ undoing, she suspected.

Waiting came especially hard to an individual who, due to the science commissioned by her famous father-in-law, still had the physique of a girl in her twenties at age seventy-something. She’d enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of seventeen (or had it been fifteen—she’d have to think; she’d lied about her age in any case), become a young pioneer wife on an alien planet, gone on to another world, and back to this—and started a whole new career as a bestselling author.

Some people loved her, governments everywhere hated her, nobody was neutral or indifferent. That probably meant she was doing her job right, she thought.

Even her writing wasn’t all that sedentary. She often went for long walks through the rolling hills of Melas Chasma, the center stretch of Valles Marineris, dictating to her pocket computer. She even had a keyboard rigged on her exercise bicycle. She fenced saber and epee, Florentine, and still practiced with the big knife she’d brought to Mars as a young Marine. She went target shooting—rifle, pistol, shotgun, more exotic, modern weapons—on a regular basis. She had even been known to hit a baseball. Sitting still, even to watch a movie, and sometimes even to read a book, simply wasn’t a part of her life, except at horrible times like this one—an emergency beyond her control—when it seemed she had no other choice.

At the moment, she was waiting for more news about the City of Newark. She’d already arranged with some of her influential friends this morning to see that no decent port in the Solar System would accept or service any East American ship again, unless the searches and the weapons bans—which had let this mess happen—stopped immediately and were never resumed.

When would they ever learn that disarming individuals guaranteed that they would be victimized, and that putting their lives in the hands of hired gunsels only meant they would be victimized all over again?

She’d also offered a reward—two thousand ounces platinum—for those responsible for the abortive hijacking. Dead or alive, as the old-time saying went. Here on Mars it worked for everybody, but she wouldn’t have been allowed to do it back in Jersey. The authorities and the media would be pissing all over themselves once they heard of it.

Now, now, remember you’re a lady, Julie.

She was waiting to hear from her granddaughter, aboard the City of Newark. She knew—and exulted in—the naked fact that Llyra and her companion Jasmeen had survived. She also knew that there was a long line of passengers waiting for a chance to communicate with loved ones, friends, and business associates, and that the Ngu family, in the middle of the alphabet, had a long tradition of waiting their turn democratically.

Julie was also waiting to hear from her eldest son, Adam. Unable to reach him by telephone, she’d recorded a couple of voice messages—not immediately disclosing the fact of the hijacking; voicemail was no way to hear about something like that—and let it be. Adam was so stable and reliable she sometimes worried about him. He’d have a good reason for not having answered, and he’d call her back as soon as he could.

Meanwhile, she sat uneasily, watching fleeting images on the wall across from her favorite chair, alternating between the news—which she usually avoided like the life-shortening plague it happened to be—and a ballgame. Syrtis Major Carpet was playing Coprates Muffler today, at Old Survivor Stadium. The score was tied at zero in the seventh—

Her phone rang, and, surprisingly, a message on her 3DTV screen said that the incoming call was visual, as well as auditory, and that the party was within range for two-way conversation. She answered it, “Hello?”

“Mom? This is Adam.” The lag was less than five seconds, annoying but endurable. “We just got your phone messages. What can we do for you?”

Behind her son she saw what looked like a small stateroom aboard a spaceship. Adam appeared to be sitting at the end of a bed, leaning toward a dresser where his personal computer must be sitting. Beside him sat Ardith, looking a good deal healthier and happier than Julie had seen her in a very long while. It seemed a terrible shame to spoil it.

Julie asked gently, “Where are you two, anyway?”

“Aboard a charter we booked on Pallas.” He grinned at Ardith, then at his mother. “We’re headed your way, as you’ve guessed by now. In spite of some pretty exciting developments with that big rock you bought her, Ardith locked up the materials lab. I left Arleigh minding the store on Ceres.”

“Yes,” Ardith continued, momentarily carried away. “You see, the pulse rates vary for each form of radiation, but not according to any pattern we can discover. Computer analysis indicates the rates are converging—”

Julie nodded. “The whole thing has gone public, Ardith. Similar pulses are being observed from a point source out in the Cometary Halo. Sherry Sinclair has pointed the William Wilde Curringer in that direction and will investigate.”

“It’s very exciting, Mom, but nothing we can do much about for a while, so we thought we’d surprise Llyra and Jasmeen. Sorry I was out of touch. We were—”

“Never mind what you were,” Julie laughed. “You’re your father’s son—”

Ardith grinned and said, “Thank heavens!”

“Thank decent genes, young lady.” Her expression changed as she came to her real reason for calling. “I assume you haven’t seen 3DTV for—”

Adam blinked. “Absolutely not. What’s up?”

“Understand first, that Llyra and Jasmeen are both perfectly fine. Other folks were hurt or killed, but they weren’t. In fact, they have helped—”

Mom!

“Oh, pardon me, dear. Their ship was hijacked by around two dozen Null Delta Em people. Most of them were killed. A couple managed to escape.”

Now the lag was really annoying. She watched their faces change, too, as they received the news. Ardith bore it pretty well, which was why she’d told them first that the girls were all right. She hadn’t gotten the news that way, herself. It felt like she’d lost ten years from her most recent rejuvenation. She really ought to talk Ardith into—

“What can we do?” Adam asked his mother. Ardith was sitting closer to him now, biting her lip just a little and leaning hard against his shoulder.

“I’ve done about as much as can be done at this remove, dear.” She told him about the ban on East American ships, and the reward she’d offered.

She went on. “Apparently they’re having some difficulty—I don’t have any coherent details, mind you—with getting the spaceliner’s engines started again, or shut off, or something. I learned what little I know from a news media creature here in Bradbury who wanted to interview me, to ask what I feel about this, and feel about that.”

Five seconds later, Adam nodded. “We’ll be docking at Deimos in about three hours,” he told her. “You know the routine. Down in a shuttle to the Coprates spaceport. Then a sandskipper ride to your place.”

“Don’t bother with the sandskipper to my place. In fact, don’t bother with the shuttle to Coprates. I’ll be meeting both of you at the transfer port on Deimos itself. I intend to be there when the City of Newark arrives.”

******

He said, “They’re finally gone!”

“Yeah,” she replied, spitting sand. “How long does it take to rescue a guy who oughta be dead and write a crashed ship off as a total loss?”

Crenicichla and Krystal had used the folding latrine shovels they’d found in their survival gear to dig into the sand behind a car-sized rock, and hidden there for hours while rescue crews who had arrived in three giant helicopters pulled their unconscious enemy out of the pilot’s seat, patched him up, got him onto a backboard, and transported him to some hospital somewhere to the east of the landing site.

“I never saw choppers with such enormous rotors!” Crenicichla had exclaimed as they’d roared overhead. The machines had had a set of eight broad blades at each end, about twice as long as anything they’d ever seen before. Between the local geology—make that “areology”—and the machines adapted to it, he was finally convinced at the gut level that he was on an alien planet.

These days, the Moon didn’t seem that alien; it was like living in the Earth’s attic.

Digging had been really weird, he thought. They’d gone through two inches of the plant called macaroni—nasty, slimy stuff, altogether too much like the real thing—then another nine inches or so of soil, bound by a network of eerie white tendrils the size of a human hair. Then sand, apparently bottomless. For something like four billion years, the Martian wind had carried the powder-fine stuff—at less than a single millibar, that was all it could carry—from the plateaus eight miles above, down into the chasm. It was a wonder it hadn’t filled the place right up.

Maybe, now that Martian air was five hundred times as dense, it would.

“Oh, look!” Krystal wiped ineffectually at the outdoor clothing she’d put on. It wasn’t quite a spacesuit. Its rubbery texture was more like what a scuba diver would wear. “I got this cheese stuff all over me!”

They’d actually been quite comfortable in their premature grave, he thought. Especially compared to some of the camps he’d trained in. The soil had been relatively warm, and the air fresh and rich with oxygen. They hadn’t had to touch the survival canisters they’d brought.

It wasn’t that way everywhere. On the surface, out of the canyons, there were places—elevations like the four titanic volcanos that could be seen from Earth—where it was safe to wander in the day. But when the sun went down and photosynthesis stopped, a person could end up like a goldfish that had accidentally flopped out of its bowl.

He stood up and helped Krystal to her feet. Their kits had also been provided with global locator modules. Pressing the combination for Mars linked him to a network of satellites above the formerly Red Planet.

“Let’s go,” he told his companion. “That old man was a better pilot than I thought.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s only a four mile walk—at one third gee—into town.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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