Table of Contents | What's This About? | RTF Version | Author's Annotations | Livejournal | Twitter
On Martian Wings
Hard to say. There was an awful lot of noise in there in those last few moments. I've had a lot of time for honest reflection in the years since, though.
I'm pretty sure it was this:
I'm not dreaming.
Sounds trite as all hell, I know. Right up there with "stars and stripes forever," or "nearer my God to thee," or "don't give up the ship." Three dirt-simple little words, but they added up to a realization that seemed to knock all the air out of my lungs.
You see, until that bracket tilted backward and those bastards actually shot me, some tiny corner of my mind was still giving safe harbor to the notion that all of this, everything I've related so far, was nothing but the most elaborate dream of my life. An incredibly detailed movie inside my skull, unrolling for a captive audience of one.
Who knows what might have brought it on? Maybe I really had gone up in my L-2 to take Doc Soames to Paducah. What if I was lying in a hospital bed somewhere with my head half caved-in, and the fantasy of the red cloud was my distorted recollection of a real crash?
It wouldn't have been sensible to totally shrug off the possibility, imaginary reader, given the high level of zoom-zap-pow in my background. And yet, when you go to the trouble of dreaming up a heroic fantasy you generally make yourself indispensable, right? Executions always come as package deals with last-minute reprieves. You expect improbable moments of inspiration. Or, if your bulb isn't burning at its full wattage, your good pals, punctual to the very last second, show up with guns blazing and do the heavy lifting for you.
When none of that stuff happens, and the bracket actually tilts backward and the firing squad pulls their triggers, you have to square yourself with the notion that you might not be safely dreaming after all.
Full consciousness and I didn't enjoy the steadiest of friendships, those first few days I spent on Mars. When it finally came slouching around again, the one thing I could be sure of was that I hadn't gone to anything resembling heaven. Heaven couldn't be such a warm, lightless place with a nostril-crinkling smell of vinegar and hot metal. My limbs were useless, and my skin prickled with the slowly-tightening ache that announces the onset of a sunburn.
"Gently, now, gently." Someone was moving my arms and legs, and their voice came from the darkness directly above my head. "This physiology! How did blueworlders manage to deal with predators before they learned how to sharpen rocks?"
"How did you ever reach Sciences Section with such an appetite for irrelevancies?" said a second voice.
"Look," said the first voice, "her mammary glands don't even retract."
"Really?" The second voice was suddenly interested. "Are you sure? She's been stunned unconscious, it might just be a reflexive easing of the muscles-"
Something that felt suspiciously like a hand squeezed my left breast, and I scraped together enough gumption to whisper: "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Sorry," hissed the first voice, and then: "Don't try to speak." The voice was familiar, but the face that went with it was still in darkness. I flailed around a bit, and my mysterious helper muttered, "Movement's not a fantastic idea, either."
"Well then, quit trying to cop a feel," I mumbled.
"Just let us work." I was again pushed, prodded, and rolled around by unseen hands. "No, Gathris, not there, on the inner side of the upper limb joint--"
"I see it." I felt someone pull my jacket off, and there was a sharp pain on the inside of my right elbow. This faded immediately, and soothing coolness flowed outward from that point, restoring proper sensation and control as it spread. My eyes started working again and some of the fuzz retreated from my head.
I was lying on the floor in a little room, surrounded by the faint hum of unseen machinery, and staring down at me was another unmasked Martian, so much like the one that had been murdered in my prison cell. Yet there were differences-- the red skin was smoother, the reptilian stripes on the neck more of a pale off-white, and there was an entirely different quality to the wet black eyes. Curiosity and energy. This one was no slave.
"Who are you?" I whispered.
"Don't you remem-- oh, forgive me." The Martian reached for something and held it up before my eyes- a mask the color of oxidized copper. "Synthesist Avila, Sciences Section. This is my colleague Gathris."
"What are you guys doing?"
"Nothing much. Merely engaging in a few high crimes against the All-Sovereign," said Gathris. He retained his mask. As far as I could tell, it and his blue robe were identical to Avila's.
"I got shot," I whispered. "I did get shot, didn't I?"
"You did," said Avila. "I slipped a protective energy sleeve into your outer garment while it was in my lab." He fiddled with my jacket, and from within the liner he pulled out a slim sort of girdle threaded with silvery mesh. The device was scorched, and flakes of blackened metal or plastic crumbled from it. "You got a bit of a shock, but it took the brunt of the dessicator beams."
"Wow," I said, sudden hope rising in my mind. "And the others, Doc and the rest, did you-"
"Forgive us," said Avila softly, "we didn't have the time or the means to rescue anyone else. You were the most logical choice."
"Jesus," I said, pushing myself to a sitting position. The air was damp, and beyond the hum of machinery there was a wet trickling noise coming from somewhere nearby. "What about the fall? I thought I was supposed to end up in a waste-grinding machine."
"You fell about halfway to the grinders," said Gathris. "There are waste tunnels like this one flowing into the main disposal shaft on many levels of the city. We snuck down here, rigged up a net, and caught you."
"A net?" I was actually startled. In this city of gleaming wonders, these alien beings with their energy weapons, flying leviathans, tele-visual broadcasts, and teleportation had rigged a net. It was as though they'd told me they'd woven a lasso from jungle vines. "That sounds awfully crude for you boys."
"Yes," said Avila. "We had to improvise on very short notice. You bounced several-"
"It was not entirely unfortunate that you were unconscious at the time," muttered Gathris.
"But. . . you guys. . . you can yank people from one planet to another! Across millions of miles!"
"Those devices are attuned to your planet," said Avila. "We don't use them for local transport. In fact, we're not even sure we could, even if we knew how to adjust their aim."
"How can you not know how to work something you built?"
"The All-Sovereign commands the devices," said Avila. "But you suffer under a misapprehension about their source. We didn't build them. Or High Silence, or this city, in fact. They were left to us by the Old Makers, who passed away long before our tribes-"
"I congratulate you, Avila." Gathris did something with his hands that made me gasp- for a second I thought he'd hurt himself. He reversed his hands entirely and clapped the backs of his fingers together twice. Was this an impolite gesture? Or something along the lines of a human tapping at their wristwatch? "You have discovered the absolute worst time for a science lesson in the entire history of both her world and ours."
"I apologize." Avila blinked at Gathris several times, making a wet snikt-snikt-snikt sound. I was starting to regret that the stupid translation fungus was as useless for body language as it was for written symbols. "Gathris is right. Time is precious. Can you see what I have in my hand, blueworlder DeVere?"
"It's a. . . syringe?"
"It is." Avila put his free hand on my shoulder and held the hypodermic device, alien but still recognizable, before my eyes. "This contains a concentrated biocide that will effectively extinguish life from either of our planets. It will not cause a painless death, but it will be extremely swift."
"Why the hell are you showing me this?"
"We must know," said Gathris, "if you truly wish to live and come with us. If you do, you will join the enemies of the All-Sovereign. You will be opposing the will of the mightiest being in the solar system. He is an absolute stranger to mercy."
"You boys have some sort of resistance going?"
"Yes," said Avila. The syringe didn't move.
"And if I don't join up, you have to kill me," I said. "Security?"
"No! No, it's not like that at all. We want you to understand that we are offering you a genuine choice," said Avila. "We've put your physiology through a great deal of stress, and there's little relief to come. We have no food you can eat without worry, and no real data on how to obtain any. The only scientific knowledge we gathered in previous representative samples concerned the infliction of pain."
"All we can promise you is discomfort and flight," said Gathris. "You will have to endure much. If you are not willing, tell us now."
"I'm not joining the enemies of the All-Sovereign," I said. "I'm already in the club, you boobs! I've got the membership card and the god-damn secret decoder ring! He killed the Doc and tried to kill me! He declared war on Violet DeVere, and Violet DeVere is happy to return the favor!"
"That seems adequate to me," said Avila. The corners of his mouth twitched... a Martian smile?
"Good," I said. "Good. And one thing more. Next Martian that points a syringe at me, friend or foe, gets it shoved sideways up the first hole I can reach. Doesn't matter if I grab head or tail."
"An understandable sentiment," said Gathris. He took the syringe from Avila, who seemed only too pleased to let it go, and made it vanish.
"Just one question," I said. "Why me? What does one human have to do with anything?"
"Oh, everything, blueworlder DeVere, everything," said Avila. "We've been waiting thirty years for a chance to save one of you from the representative sample. As of this moment, you are the single most important living being on Mars!"
I groaned, put my hands over my eyes, and flopped back down to the ground.
"What is it?" said Avila. "Are you ill?"
"Aw, hell. Suddenly I'm the hero of the story again. That means I just might be nuts after all."
"But never mind." I turned out the lights on my self-pity party pretty quick, though I certainly planned to reconvene it at a less awkward moment. "What do we do now?"
"We must leave the city, as soon as possible," said Avila. "In a few hours, Loyalty Section is going to start tearing our labs and quarters apart."
"How will they know anything?"
"The energy sleeve we just sacrificed," said Gathris, "is classified. An extremely expensive prototype."
"We could hide the theft for a few hours, since Gathris is the one responsible for its security," said Avila.
"Unfortunately, there's a records redundancy," said Gathris. "Twice a day, Loyalty Section re-synchronizes all electronic files relating to secret project material. The log will show that I removed something and didn't put it back."
"At that point," said Avila, "everyone in our lab sector will have their travel clearances suspended and they'll be detained for questioning. Our names will be flashed to every checkpoint in the city."
"Where do we go, then?"
"The sands," said Avila. "The deep desert. We've got friends out there waiting for us."
"Their friendship and their patience are highly theoretical," said Gathris sourly.
"The sands," I muttered. The rusty tumblers in my brain suddenly turned over, and I realized what all of this meant for my friendly Martians ex machina. "You two. . . you guys really can't come back, can you? Your travel clearances or whatever-"
"As good as revoked," said Avila, clearly trying to sound cheerful. "The instant Loyalty Section puts the pieces together, our lives here are finished."
"Our lives anywhere are finished if we don't make haste," said Gathris. He pulled out a gray plastic container and handed it to me. "You can ask questions while we move, blueworlder."
"Call me Violet," I said, fumbling the gray package open. It contained a blue robe and another oxidized copper mask.
"Welcome to Sciences Section, Violet," said Avlia as he pulled me to my feet. He took the plastic satchel and shook out the blue robe, then draped it over me. It smelled of some bitter spice that stood out even in the acrid air of the waste processing tunnel.
Avila also helped me don the mask, which had dark elastic straps. I blinked out through the Martian-sized eye slits, feeling like a cross between a nun and a baseball catcher.
"My jacket-" I said.
"I'll keep it," said Avila, stuffing it into the gray container. "You're already nearly too bulky beneath that robe."
"What an ungentlemanly thing to say." I patted the robe, trying to smooth it down. If my figure was alarmingly un-Martian, it was hardly the fault of my very empty stomach, which growled feebly, like a neglected puppy. "So what kind of resistance network are we talking about here?"
"An inadequate one," said Avila. "Too few of us, scared out of our wits. Operating in the cities is nearly impossible, and we have nothing that can match the All-Sovereign's power. But if we can get you out of here, that will change."
"How do you figure?"
"Our movement was founded on critical information stolen from the All-Sovereign years ago. We need you out in the deep deserts for your-"
"Colleague!" said Gathris. "There's little point in making blueworlder DeVere an expert on our affairs if we're all strung up in agony webs before the conversation is finished." He settled his hands gently around my waist and pointed me toward the little room's open door. "Loyalty Section is always closer than you think."
"Yes, yes," said Avila. "We'll have time to talk once we're in the air, Violet."
That sure piqued my curiosity. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
"We've reserved a strato-launch under the guise of a weather survey. It's an infinitely safer means of escape than trying to smuggle you out through the surface gates."
"Indeed," said Gathris. "We can fly out in comfort above the clouds, but to do that we need to make haste through thirty-two levels of waste tunnels. By the time we reach the skydock, you may wish you'd chosen the syringe."
So began my first grand expedition as part of the noble resistance against the All-Sovereign, with three nervous humanoids in blue robes trudging through a sewer system that could have drained half of Rhode Island.
The tunnels were illuminated at regular intervals by soft yellowish lights set behind milky glass, like the cataract-frosted eyes of slumbering monsters. The walls were a dark mottled green, some kind of alien verdigris that came off as a film when I ran my fingers over it. The actual waste channels were shallow troughs like subway rails, carrying their dark streams of vinegar-smelling slop to some fate deep in the bowels of this green underworld. No doubt a teaspoon of that stuff could have kept an earth biochemist busy for half a lifetime, but I wouldn't go within ten feet of it.
As we walked, I felt like a puppet suspended on invisible strings, being tugged back and forth by too many factors to count. I was punch-drunk with hunger, my skin still felt like I'd been roasted over coals, and I would have traded a pound of flesh for one cigarette. In the assets column, that joy juice Gathris had shot me up with had some hair on its chest, and then there was the lovely Martian gravity. The fact that I was only carrying two-fifths of a normal Violet on my tired feet was damned helpful, perhaps even crucial.
Gathris was our guide. He judged our position according to illegible Martian plaques sealed into the walls at each intersection, and based on his instructions we took a dozen turns in the first half-hour of travel. My sense of direction punched the clock and went home for the day. In fact, I became so disoriented that it took me another half-hour to cop to the fact that we were being watched.
"Avila," I muttered, for he was closest to me, "Avila, are there animals in your sewer system?"
"What do you mean, 'not exactly?'"
There was a scraping sound from up ahead, followed by the patter of feet against metal. A slim shadow wavered in the light of the nearest yellow globe, like a clock hand that couldn't decide whether to move forward or backward. At last the owner of the shadow came out into plain view- a Martian, unmasked and unrobed. In fact, it was completely naked except for a thick collar around its neck, which had an embedded electronic light that glowed like a hot coal.
"Stay back," said Avila, "and keep quiet." Gathris, meanwhile, took a small black device out of his robe.
The naked Martian hissed at us, and came forward at an aggressive lope. In its right hand it wielded a piece of dull metal, an improvised bludgeon. Gathris held out his little black box, and the would-be assailant halted in its tracks, dropped the bludgeon, and began to claw at its collar. The light turned a deeper red and began to flash.
Gathris advanced slowly, and the naked Martian stumbled backward desperately, coughing out dry choking sounds. Gathris pointed at a tunnel that branched off to our left, and our chastised stalker scuttled down it, quickly vanishing into the distance.
"Was that a Functionary?" I said.
"No." Gathris lowered the little black box, but kept it in his hand. "An intellectual."
"From Sciences Section or Culture Section, most likely," said Avila. "We call them Mind Exiles."
"I don't understand."
"The All-Sovereign doesn't forgive," said Gathris. "That's the most important thing to understand. Traitors are executed. Common criminals go to the Incendium mines, or become Functionaries. The Mind Exiles. . . they're failures."
"Engineers, scientists, writers, and planners," said Avila. "Like Gathris and myself, in fact. Thoraveds in positions of moderate authority. Those that can't meet the demands of their jobs are thrown down here."
"To patrol the sewers," said Gathris. "These tunnels are off-limits for unsupervised congregation. Any legitimate entrant will have a collar control box, and anyone else runs the risk of being attacked. Mind Exiles will try to kill on sight."
"Your planet is insane!"
"No," said Avila, with more passion than I'd yet heard from him. "No! The All-Sovereign's reign is cruel, but there's nothing insane about it. Every offense against our lives and dignity is rationally calculated. The Mind Exiles have their vocal cords removed, and if they come within fifty feet of one another, their collars deliver electrical shocks. If they attempt to leave the sewer network, the collars broadcast their identifier codes to the security transponders, and their families will be executed."
"They know it, too, Violet. Their minds are in perfect working order when they're thrown down here. You see? They're intellectually gifted Thoraveds that can never read another book, see another tri-vid, hold another conversation, or live any life but a miserable, solitary hunt in these damned tunnels. They're hostages for the sake of their loved ones, and the only easy way out is the grinders. It's not madness. . . it's a personalized, scientific application of pure misery. It's why the All-Sovereign deserves ten thousand deaths!"
"He won't get even one if we don't keep moving," said Gathris, placatingly. He waved his black box. "When Loyalty Section steps on our travel clearances, these little conveniences will stop working as well."
We moved on through the forlorn underworld of the City of the Sovereign Eye. Mind Exiles lurked in the shadows of service corridors and side tunnels, visible only by the bale-fire lights of their collars, but Gathris kept his control box out and no more of them dared come within its range.
Eventually we reached the first of the service elevators that were to take us to the skydock. Gathris hadn't been kidding, imaginary reader, when he said we'd have to move up through thirty-two levels, which meant about eight vertical miles. The waste tunnels formed a sort of hermetically sealed city-within-a-city, with an interior network of lifts. I could see why the All-Sovereign bothered with the cruel custom of the Mind Exiles. Malcontents with easy access to the sewers could effectively turn invisible and travel anywhere.
Sewer elevators were closed compartments, nothing like the awe-inspiring thrill ride I'd been given on my way to visit Exarch Thrail, but they did their job with commendable speed. Up we'd soar, then take another trudge, then another elevator, then another trudge. We swapped lifts a grand total of four times.
"This will be the last one," whispered Avila as the doors of the fourth car slid shut behind me. "Skydock is a manually controlled security zone, and we'll have to pass live guards to reach our strato-launch. The translation spores make it safe for you to speak, provided you say as little as possible, and only when necessary."
"The dumber I can act, the happier I'll be," I said, praying forgiveness from mom and dad's ghosts for uttering something so fundamentally un-DeVere.
"Your name is Rhodala. You're a Data Core Technician, Sciences Section."
"Data Core Technician Rhodala, Sciences Section," I said. "Hail the All-Sovereign!"
"Don't do that," said Gathris. "There are rules governing the hail that are too complex to go into right now. Just do it if someone else does it first."
"Your ident code is zero-nine, zero-one, one-eight-seven-five. Repeat it." said Avila.
"I'm pretty good with numbers. Don't fret." I swear I hung as much modesty as I could on that statement, imaginary reader. Eight digits is as easy as throwing yourself at the ground and not missing. "In fact, my mom wanted to name me 09011875 before dad made her go with 'Violet.'"
That earned me a couple of those loud snikt-snikt-snikt sideways blinks. Earth's comedy ambassador, I wasn't.
"Gathris and I will take pains to do everything we can first, so you'll have an example to follow," said Avila. "Keep relatively still. Don't make sudden movements and don't gawk. Imagine that you've seen the skydock many times before."
"If everything goes well," said Gathris, "we'll just be verbally processed."
"What's the alternative to everything going well?"
"A spot check for ident match." Gathris tapped the chin of his mask. "A legitimate citzenship mask has an embedded magnetic ident coil. Yours will read the same as Avila's, because you're wearing his spare."
"We don't know how to fake the coils," said Avila, sounding genuinely apologetic. "We could just barely manage to scrape together a synthetic personal record for Rhodala. But as long as we don't do anything else suspicious, I doubt anyone will want to haul us over to a scan terminal and make more trouble for themselves."
"Is wearing someone else's mask a fashion no-no around here?"
"The punishment is death by starvation," said Gathris. "While strung up in an agony web."
"Boys," I said, "you may build nice things, but your legal system is a real crap sandwich."
"Take heart," said Avila. "If we botch our escape, they'll have plenty of other excuses to kill us fast."
The elevator, which had been quietly zipping up to its final stop, now powered down and slid to a halt that I detected by the little somersault in my stomach. A red light snapped on overhead, and some sort of camera lens popped out of the wall just above the control panel.
"Now entering skydock security exclusion zone," boomed a voice from a hidden speaker. "Valid work order required."
"I'm Synthesist Avila, Sciences Section." My new friend resumed the imperious outward manner he'd maintained during my interrogation. "Reference Sciences Section work order two-two-six-two, under my name."
"Await verification." Whatever the loudspeaker guy had to check, it took about fifteen seconds. "Proceed to security checkpoint. Deviation from marked path may result in summary termination."
It took most of my self-control not to jump when the door hissed open, and it took what was left not to give the game away the instant I saw what was on the other side.
Sixteen miles up the western rim of the extinct volcano you and I would call Olympus Mons, I found paradise.
I can still get a little misty just thinking about it, that first glimpse, even seen as it was through the eye slits of that stupid mask.
Imagine that you could show a model railroad enthusiast the switching station at the center of the very world, with tracks laid to the horizon in every direction and a thousand locomotives ready to steam at the push of a button! Well, I am an airwoman and a science fiction nut, and if the skydock is a product of a deranged mind then sanity can go hang itself. Honest to god, I'll supply the rope and pick a good tree.
Below us, at least a mile below, stretched the highest inhabited tier of the City of the Sovereign Eye. A dozen New Yorks times a dozen Chicagos, lit up like an atomic New Year's bash under the velvet black of the Martian stratosphere.
Skydock was a network of platforms jutting out into that permanent night, hanging in the omnipresent shadow of High Silence to its east, and just a mile or so below the upper limit of the city's transparent atmosphere dome. I could see the faint gray lines of the subtle scaffolding supporting it, and the scale of the engineering would have inspired a shudder of religious awe if I hadn't been so entranced by what lay beneath it.
Ships and planes. A cornucopia, a fleet, a hundred squadrons of flying craft that made the ones I'd dedicated my life to look like stale candy cigarettes set out beside a humidor of the finest Cuban cigars. Sleek delta-winged vehicles, elegant and deadly as sharks, hung from launch cradles and service platforms stretching to the limits of my vision. Cargo pallets floated among them, maintenance crews and guards were so many little black dots moving along the access gantries. And I could smell it all. . . those glorious smells of metal and welding and oil and fuel. Alien, all of them, but you couldn't disguise their true nature from a flier's nose.
Travel. . . romance, adventure, the beauty of distant lands and skies. That's what it all meant, even in a tyrant's hands.
I somehow managed to follow Avila and Gathris out of the elevator, into the strong warm winds of the skydock. The dark metal panels beneath our feet lit up with a radium-green line, pointing the way to a processing area manned by a squad of Martians in security black-and-gray, watching us with weapons drawn.
"Identify yourselves," said the only member of the squad wearing a full-face metal mask rather than one that left the eyes uncovered. The voice was decidedly female, and I looked in vain for any real physical differences, sheer curiosity briefly subsuming my anxiety. Well, if I could retract certain portions of my anatomy at will I could do a fair impression of a man, too, I supposed.
"Synthesist Avila, Sciences Section, ident zero-three, two-three, one-nine-five-two."
"Physicist Gathris, Sciences Section, ident one-zero, zero-seven, one-nine-zero-zero."
"Data Core Technician Rhodala," I said, praying for luck. "Sciences Section. Ident zero-nine, zero-one, one-eight-seven-five."
"Logged," said one of the security goons, who stood looking down at black metal desk crammed with glowing electronics. "Idents confirmed, squadmaster. Consistent with work order 2262."
"What's the purpose of your excursion?" said the female Martian, seemingly unmoved. "And who's your pilot?"
"Confirmation of atmospheric testing data," said Avila. "My colleague Gathris has a Class Two pilot's rating."
"You don't seem to be carrying much scientific apparatus." Her masked face tilted slightly toward the gray pouch in Avila's hand.
"The strato-launch is our apparatus," said Avila. "We'll be using a series of maneuvers to measure pressure variations. The onboard instruments will give us all the data we require."
"Open your satchel and explain the contents."
My heart seemed to find an escape hatch and drop into the pit of my stomach. I took a slow, deep breath and watched my comrades for any sign that it was time to do something desperate and foolish.
"Easily done," said Avila, smooth as buttered silk. He pulled out my jacket, showed it off, and shook the satchel upside-down to show that it was empty. "This is a piece of clothing taken from one of the sampled blueworlders."
"That's an extremely irregular thing to be carrying." The squadmaster raised her left hand, and the waiting goons of her squad lost their air of routine disinterest.
"Oh, it's not related to our work order," said Avila. I suppose it only made sense that he had a gift for keeping calm in the face of drawn weapons; if he'd had nerves of jelly he'd never have survived long enough to meet me. "I'm to turn it over to Decider Dakkan, but the Decider is on a brief medical leave. I hope you can understand why I'd prefer to keep it on my person. If I were to lose it. . ."
"Hmmm." The squadmaster contemplated my jacket for a few seconds before waving her boys back. "Of course. I wouldn't want to end my week as a Mind Exile, either. Speaking of which, why did you take the waste tunnel access elevator?"
"Our impression was that a large cargo of some sort was about to go up the primary lift," said Avila. "We may have been wrong, but we were already behind schedule."
"No weapons, no volatiles," said the Martian behind the desk. "Traces of sewer and laboratory chemicals. Some residue of a known biocide."
"That's my fault," said Gathris. "I was cleaning circuit boards with anti-fungal preservative."
"Indeed? Mandatory decon level?"
"No, squadmaster," said the desk jockey. "Just traces. It's in the database as a legitimate--"
"Fine, then." The female Martian seemed to grow tired of poking and prodding at our story. "If Sciences Section doesn't want to wash its hands, Order Section's not obligated to make them do so. Proceed to platform three-two-seven."
"Thank you, squadmaster." Avila put my jacket back in his satchel and we all walked through the checkpoint, free and clear. At least as far as we could tell.
Platform 327 hung at the far end of a quarter-mile of railed horizontal gantry. I followed the two Martians in a near-daze, trying to take in all the sights I could without actually tilting my head from side to side.
We passed no one else on the gantry, save for a lone full-mask security officer, strolling along with his hands behind his back. This Martian touched one hand to his mask just above the eyes as Avila drew near, and Avila responded by touching his own chest. We were allowed to continue to our plane in peace.
Plane! What a word for a strato-launch. Ours was a smaller sort that I would eventually come to know as the Glorious Consistency class, a four-passenger utility model about fifty feet long.
Her hull was smooth-- I couldn't see a glimpse of the beaten aluminum panels or rivets I was used to. It was some sort of resin, like shark-gray Bakelite. Her control surfaces looked like something designed as a compromise between drunks and crazies. . . frankly, I couldn't see how she could be handled in atmospheric flight.
Nonetheless, she was beautiful.
She rested in an articulated network of supports and humming coils. These, I would eventually learn, were inertia-control devices that could bleed unwanted kinetic energy out of moving bodies and radiate it as heat, which made it possible for stunts like me leaving the earth at crash-dive velocity and hitting Martian soil without exploding into soup. They also allowed planes to be more or less plucked out of the air, like the arrestor wires on an aircraft carrier, though if inertial dampers had feelings I'd wound them deeply with such a crude simile.
Hey, don't go to sleep on me here, imaginary reader. There's no magic in any of the stuff I'm describing. Martians are stuck with the same laws of physics that heat your oatmeal and put your baseball games on the radio-- they've just had more time than we have to suss out the loopholes.
And when I say "Martians," in this context, I mean the Old Makers. But that's jumping ahead.
A compact control panel was mounted on a pedestal beside the strato-launch cradle. Gathris pushed a few buttons, and a door popped open about a quarter of the way back along the ship's side. Warm golden lights came on within the cabin, and a boarding ladder slid down to our platform.
"Are you ready to see our world beyond the city, Violet?" said Avila.
"Punch my ticket and color me gone," I said.
I whirled at the shout and nearly took a low-gravity hop. The full-masked security officer who'd strolled casually past us was now stomping straight toward me. His dessicator pistol was still holstered, but he was definitely not in a friendly-cop sort of mood.
"Name and ident!"
"Data Core Technician Rhodala," I stammered. "Sciences Section. Data core. . . uh, zero-nine, zero-one, one-eight-seven-five. Sciences Section!"
I can imagine your smirk. Well, hell, I worked for the Army Air Forces, not the OSS.
"What are you carrying beneath your robe?" demanded the security officer.
"We have full clearance from the checkpoint squadmaster," said Avila. "You have no business interfering with our work order, sub-supervisor!"
"You'll find I have complete latitude over launch cradle security."
"You'll find that contradicting a Synthesist may not be in the best interests of your career," said Avila. "Shall I refer your name and ident to my Decider?"
"My career's in no danger from my own diligence." The sub-supervisor unbuckled his holster flap and slid it aside. "I'd be drummed out of section for unmasking to a test-tube tender, though! Your colleague is hiding several objects under her robe. I want to see them now."
Yeah, him and every boy in my high school class. I couldn't think of anything to say. I thought we were sunk.
"Sub-supervisor," said Gathris, loudly, "you will find yourself more than inconvenienced if you disrupt the personal orders of Exarch Vorus."
"What personal orders?"
"See for yourself." Gathris held something up in his left hand. "Come read our work order. Then decide how much you value your latitude."
The sub-supervisor walked toward Gathris and reached out for whatever he was holding. What happened next was quick and smooth. Gathris got inside the security officer's reach, swung him around, and caught his head in a sort of wrestler's grip. The sub-supervisor flailed desperately for several seconds, then made an awful hissing sound and went limp in Gathris' arms.
Gathris pulled something out of the sub-supervisor's thin neck-- the syringe he'd taken from Avila, now empty. Reddish foam began to bubble out of the mouth-slit on the security officer's mask, and my stomach lurched.
Gathris didn't waste another second. He picked up the corpse with one arm (Agatha Christie fans take note, Mars is an awfully convenient place to bump someone off) and carried it into the strato-launch. Avlia looked around frantically, then beckoned to me and followed.
Four's a crowd in a strato-launch cabin, even if one of the party-goers is dead. We stumbled around for a few seconds getting frustrated with one another. At last Avila slapped a control that withdrew the boarding ladder and sealed the cabin door. He tore his mask off and I was happy to follow suit.
"Gathris, have you gone mad?"
"No, Avila, have you?" Gathris seized his colleague by the arms and stared right into his face. "Many more of our people are going to die before this is over. The blueworlder must escape. Do you understand? Nothing else we do matters. She must escape!"
"Yes," said Avila. "Yes, forgive me. I'm just. . . not used to this."
"Broaden your mind," said Gathris. "We're at war."
There were four seats within the cabin, which was clean and spartan. The cockpit had a forward canopy transparent to just behind the first two seats, complete and unbroken, nothing like the smaller windows of an earth airplane.
Gathris settled the dead officer into the starboard rear seat and pulled off his metal mask. The sub-supervisor was a brown-skinned Martian with deep orange stripes on his neck. Lines of blood trickled from his empty black eyes and that awful foam was still seeping out of his mouth. I gagged; the smell up close was like copper and vomit and phenol all mixed together.
"Jesus," I whispered.
"Tend him, Avila," said Gathris. "His mask and equipment will be useful to us. Blueworlder, take the sub-pilot's seat."
He nudged me into the forward starboard seat, and I sat without protest, feeling a sick numbness that had nothing to do with hunger or tobacco withdrawal. I hated the All-Sovereign's system, that was for damn sure, and I was willing to fight it. But it's still not easy to watch a thinking being die so fast right in front of you.
"Why must I escape?" I said. "We're all alone, boys. So what's the big secret? Why am I worth doing something like this? No more putting it off!"
"Avila," said Gathris, "I need to pre-flight this craft. I don't have time--"
"Very well," said Avila. He took the rear portside seat and pulled his robe off, revealing a sort of brown jumpsuit beneath it. "It's not you specifically. We need one blueworlder, any blueworlder, alive and well. You seemed to have the best combination of physical health and mental aptitude for survival."
I took my own robe off. I was about to throw it into the rear of the cabin, but on second thought I reached back and settled it over the dead body of the sub-supervisor so the poor bastard would stop creeping me out. Beside me, Gathris settled into the pilot's seat and began fiddling with the control panel in front of him.
"Before either of our species even figured out how to rub sparks out of flint," said Avila, "this world, and probably this solar system, was ruled by the beings we call the Old Makers. They're long gone, and the All-Sovereign controls all the resources and accessible structures they left behind.
"However, there's one structure that nobody has been able to access. A site in the north polar desert, about ten thousand years old. A sealed underground complex we call Dawning Deep. It's impregnable to any known force, and it's huge. Perhaps even an underground mirror of High Silence."
"Shut up a moment," said Gathris. He pressed a switch and spoke loudly: "Skydock control, this is strato-launch cradle three-two-seven, requesting control designation and clearance for departure."
"Cradle three-two seven, stand by for flight plan verification," returned a stern female voice.
"Now, the very fact that we even have a resistance hinges on one thing," said Avila. Although Gathris wasn't pressing the transmission button, Avila assumed a conspiratorial whisper. "Years ago, the founders of our movement stole a copy of a secret report on Dawning Deep. The entrance to the complex isn't labeled in the language of the Old Makers, but in pictograms. Very clear diagrams carved into polished granite--"
"Three-two-seven," buzzed skydock control, "your flight plan is confirmed. Your control designation is Science Flight Four. Acknowledge."
"Science Flight Four acknowledges."
"Descent arc opening in two minutes."
"Restraints," said Gathris, buckling himself into his seat. I only had to toy with my own belts for a few seconds before I had them figured out. The waist belt could have been from earth, but the chest straps formed an 'x' that met and buckled just beneath my breasts, not entirely comfortably. Obviously it was never meant for us non-retractable sorts of girls.
Gathris moved levers and fiddled his fiddle-sticks. A low hum of power rose up behind us, and I could feel vibration through the soles of my shoes.
"Now what about these pictograms?" I said.
"They're instructions," said Avila. "The doors to Dawning Deep will open only in the presence of a living blueworlder."
"What? You're telling me that ten thousand years ago, someone sealed up some kind of Martian Fort Knox and put pictures of human beings on the door?"
"I'm not sure I properly understood the term you just used," said Avila. "But yes, that is the essential situation. Now you can see why the All-Sovereign disposes of each representative sample so rapidly."
"And you think it's a good idea to go crack this place open."
"Why leave instructions if it wasn't meant to be opened?" said Avila. "What if the Old Makers actually foresaw the potential misuse of the technology they left behind? What if they left us some sort of safeguard we could use to match the power of a tyrant like the All-Sovereign?"
"I hate to be a little black rain cloud," I said, "but that seems awfully far-fetched. Why would they lock the place up with something that required the presence of a being from another planet? How could they even know my species would still be here after ten thousand years? I mean, if those pictograms had been dinosaurs or dodo birds, your plan would be up the creek."
"We have discussed this matter in great depth," said Avila. "I myself have formed the opinion that the Old Makers intended their vault to be opened only when the cultures of two worlds came together. . . in other words, when we'd proven ourselves advanced enough to deserve whatever the Old Makers left there."
"And hauling one human out there qualifies as 'advanced?' That's setting the diplomatic relations bar kinda low, don't you think?"
"I never claimed it was a flawless notion," said Avila. "But there could be anything in Dawning Deep. Technology, weapons, vehicles, knowledge! If we can just get our hands on it, we can finally strike a meaningful blow against the All-Sovereign! Don't you see that we have no real alternative?"
"Yeah," I said. "But here's a real question. Why hasn't the All-Sovereign taken a human out there himself, along with a few thousand of his soldiers, and looted the place on his own time?"
"He refuses," said Avila. "He refuses! There's another report on the Dawning Deep complex, one so well-guarded we've never managed to get our hands on it. All we know is that whatever's in it frightens the All-Sovereign! So you see. . . if the contents of Dawning Deep are a threat to him we must examine them! At any cost!"
"Science Flight Four," buzzed the radio, "launch cradle released to manual control. Descent arc open. You have final clearance for departure. Acknowledge."
"Science Flight Four acknowledges," said Gathris. "Cradle three-two-seven is ours. Hail the All-Sovereign."
The strato-launch shuddered, and began to tilt forward. I held my breath as the horizontal view across the skydock was gradually replaced with one of the city tiers below us, fading into the weird neon-tinged clouds that built up in sixteen miles of vertical air. In a few moments we were hanging at a fifty or sixty-degree angle, our weight against our harnesses. The pitch of the engines rose.
"I really hate this part," muttered Avila.
"We can't always be moving up in the world, colleague," said Gathris. He released us from the launch cradle and we plunged into empty air.
Gathris let us have a few seconds of roller-coaster fun before he judged our speed adequate. Notch by notch he kicked the engines up and pulled us out of our dive. In a few seconds we were in a shallow climb toward what looked like a faint gray rectangle hanging in the sky, surrounded by flashing red lights.
"Science Flight Four to skydock control," he said, pressing the transmit button, "northbound on assigned path, departing via airgate five."
"Acknowledged, Science Flight Four. Proceed to altitude station nine-zero-thousand. Weather platforms report clear skies. No route deviation is permitted. Fruitful journey. Hail the All-Sovereign!"
"Hail the Supreme Soul of Mars," said Gathris.
Enraptured as I was by the sensation of flight, I took a few moments to study what Gathris was doing. The control panels seemed built on the same general principles as ours, but there was one obvious barrier to my full comprehension. Every dial, every switch, every read-out and knob was labeled in that angular Martian script which was completely immune to the influence of the telepathic space yeast.
"Hey, Gathris," I said, "will we blow up in mid-air if I brush against anything?"
"Don't worry. I locked your side out of the control circuit in case you got curious."
"I am curious. I don't mean to sound primitive, but I suppose I am primitive. How can this aircraft be stable? The rudders and flaps. . . they didn't make much sense to my eyes."
"Partly because the engine's thrust is vectored." Gathris eased us up another few hundred feet. He had no central control column like an Earth pilot, rather, a complicated pair of joysticks on either side of his seat. "That enhances maneuverability. Furthermore, the ship's electronic brain handles stabilization automatically. It's not meant to be balanced by manual judgment."
"What happens if the electronic brain takes a nap?"
"The ship's systems are rather more robust than we are. Anything capable of shutting them down will render our survival a moot point."
"You don't have mechanical faults on Mars?"
"Incompetent maintenance personnel go to the agony webs," said Avila, sounding a bit airsick. "Barbaric, but the ones that are left do work to very high standards."
We soared through the center of the gray rectangle, which must have been about a thousand feet wide and half as high. There was a faint ripple in the air as we passed through what I presumed was some sort of force field for maintaining atmospheric pressure (ah, the benefits of the elementary Gernsback education), and then we were out into the true Martian sky. I felt exhilarated and disoriented all at once. The curve of the world beneath us was so extreme, it was like looking at an aerial view of the earth through a fish-eye lens. Far, far below us white clouds lined up like the wavecaps of a cotton sea.
"Weather," I said. "That's real weather down there. How can this stuff be hidden? We've seen your world through telescopes-- it's brown and red, it's dry, it doesn't have fluffy white clouds or water in the atmosphere. . ."
"Of course it does," said Avila. "High Silence generates something we call the Veil. It's one of the least comprehensible things the Old Makers left us. It's a defensive system, a planet-wide visual and electromagnetic illusion. Anyone observing Mars from a distance will detect a dry, used-up world with a thin atmosphere and no magnetosphere."
"Wait a minute," I said, sputtering with something close to real outrage. "Wait just a damn minute. I will grant you boys some crazy things, some real whoppers, but you cannot just hide an entire planet's magnetosphere! That's bonkers, that's FUBAR, that's. . . it's not like an ugly spot on your house! You can't just plant some hedges and say, 'Look, Ma, no magnetosphere!'"
"If I knew how it was done I'd be an Old Maker," said Avila.
I said some impolite words, imaginary reader. I let fly with everything I'd ever learned on an Army airfield or a West Texas airstrip. I also realized then and there that if I took personal offense at every abuse of science as I understood it, I'd go nuts. I'd end up like a cavewoman standing in front of ENIAC, wondering why someone had filled the machine with bees to make it hum. I had to cast loose, for my own brain's sake, and call up the services of the little girl who'd once trusted her life to an anti-gravity belt made of cardboard.
"Wait," I said, grasping at one exciting silver lining. "Does this mean you guys actually have canals?"
"We have lots of canals," said Avila, sounding bewildered. "For farming. And transportation. Are they significant?"
"Uh. . . never mind. Maybe I'll explain later." I watched contentedly for a few minutes as High Silence fell behind us on our right, and we soared east above the shadowed caldera of the solar system's biggest mountain. I could even spot the prison complex I'd been stuck in, perched on its mile-high pillar like a little silver birdhouse. "So, what's the rest of our escape plan?"
"Southeast a bit until we're out of the High Silence control zone," said Gathris. "Our flight plan takes us over the Valley of the Emerald Night for about two hours. After that, I mean to turn north, send out a garbled message about some emergency, and ditch in the desert. Once we're down, I can rig a fuel fire to destroy the ship, and we'll see if our friends in the wilderness can actually find us."
"How long until someone misses our, uh, extra passenger?"
"That's a conundrum," said Gathris coolly. "If we're lucky we've got a few hours until his next shift change. That's all we need, really. A head start. I give Loyalty Section about half a day to correlate all of our transgressions. Maybe one or two more days before someone realizes we've rescued a blueworlder. They will figure it out. An entire squad of Order Section guards has seen the jacket you were wearing when your alleged corpse fell into the disposal shaft."
"My jacket," I said, nodding. "Throw in the stolen protective belt doohickey. And you boys just happening to be in the sewers near the waste shaft right under the execution site."
"Very good, blueworlder DeVere," said Gathris. "Yes, they will inevitably connect the pieces of evidence."
"And then it's a race to Dawning Deep," said Avila. "Gathris, I don't mean to be rude, but we're not in the City of the Sovereign Eye any more."
"Oh," said Gathris, who was still wearing his mask and robe. "Yes, of course. Such a force of habit." He pushed his hood back, slipped his oxidized copper mask off, and set it carefully down behind his seat. Gathris turned out to be a pea-green fellow with dark black neck stripes. He seemed to have more lines around his eyes than Avila, and there was a bubbling sort of scar under his mouth, like remnant of an old chemical burn.
We flew southeast at ninety thousand feet, chatting, if by chatting you mean Gathris and Avila answering my endless stream of questions. Avila seemed nervous and a little uncomfortable, but pleased to be casting aside his mask and robes for good. Gathris was a much cooler customer, but then again he was flying the plane, and I recognized his preoccupation from the many long hours I'd spent in a similar state of mind.
After a short while in the air we passed three more shield volcanos, none quite so large as the Sovereign Eye (I've made an editorial decision to quit calling it by its earth name, imaginary reader), though each of course was unthinkably vast by earth standards.
"The Three Empresses," said Avila. "The wilderness tribes have other names for them, but we Thoraveds like to think we named them best. South is Thon Sha, the Founder, who gave our tribe law. Just below us is Daishan, the Acceptor, who pledged our service to the All-Sovereign. North is Na'Kren, the Awaited. The future empress of legend, who will guide us in our ultimate destiny."
"What's that supposed to be?"
"We're not sure. The old Thoraved prophets loved attention but really hated explaining themselves."
We descended, from black sky to blue, between the cloud-dusted slopes of Thon Sha and Daishan. Gathris leveled us off again at about forty thousand feet, and when I asked him how fast we were going, he told me we were just a few throttle nudges south of supersonic flight. I whistled.
A red light flashed on the control panel, and a male voice sounded over the radio: "Science Flight Four, this is Airwatch Seven, orbiting four-zero miles north of your position. Acknowledge communication."
Gathris repeated one of my West Texas airstrip curses verbatim.
"What's with the red light?" I whispered.
"We're being illuminated by an active scan-beam. Airwatch ships are observation and control vessels, launched by swarmships to guide their interceptors." Gathris pressed the transmit key. "Science Flight Four hears you well, Airwatch Seven. How can we render assistance?"
"Be advised of a developing weather emergency along your intended flight path. Come north forty degrees and make your altitude five-five-thousand for swarmship rendezvous in eight minutes. We'll carry you around the turbulence. Acknowledge."
"Weather emergency?" hissed Gathris, losing his cool in an instant. "This ship can leave the atmosphere if it has to. And it's not as though the clear weather report would have been wrong less than an hour ago!" He composed himself, then hit transmit: "Science Flight Four acknowledges, Airwatch Seven. We'll make our course change momentarily."
"So," I said, feeling that old familiar churn of impending trouble in my guts, "what do we have for weapons on this tub?"
"Our most hurtful insults," said Gathris. "Only Military Section and Loyalty Section craft are armed. Damn!"
"If we dock with a swarmship we're as good as executed," said Avila.
"Thank you, colleague, I had realized that. Damnation and Functionary piss!" Gathris drummed the fingers of his left hand on his chest, then pushed to transmit: "Emergency communication! Science Flight Four calling Airwatch Seven. Science Flight Four to Airwatch Seven, please acknowledge."
"Airwatch Seven acknowledging."
"Science Flight Four declaring flight emergency. Rudder surfaces refusing to answer manual control. I am not, repeat, not able to deviate from present heading."
I couldn't help myself. I started giggling once he took his finger off the transmit button.
Our buddies on Airwatch Seven needed a moment to digest our nonsense. Finally, they responded: "Science Flight Four, we acknowledge flight emergency. Maintain present heading. Reduce airspeed to two-two-five. Await swarmship rendezvous in nineteen minutes. We'll get you down safely. Acknowledge."
"Just above stall speed," muttered Gathris. "Meanwhile that swarmship will boost hard and come down on top of us. Its interceptors must be on their way already."
"Does this thing carry any scan-beams of its own?"
"No," said Gathris. "Only passive beam detectors. But the interceptors won't turn their beams on, they'll just follow orders from Airwatch Seven all the way in. Keeps us blind to their actual position until they're close enough to start pulling triggers."
He grabbed his left-hand joystick again. The strato-launch leapt forward, and the steady hum of the engines rose to a rumbling scream. I felt myself approaching my old familiar weight as the acceleration ramped up.
"Airwatch Seven," Gathris shouted, stabbing at the transmit button, "Control loss worsening! I am unable to decelerate! The engine is out of control and accelerating of its own accord!"
"Science Flight Four," came the immediate response, "this is a peremptory order to resume subsonic flight and come north forty degrees for swarmship rendezvous. Respond to this order or you will be fired upon."
"What now?" yelled Avila.
"We run. The interceptors will overtake us, but we can maximize their time to target." Gathris tilted us into a steep descent, and he didn't take his foot off the gas. "I'll put us down in thicker air. That will make things less uncomfortable when holes start appearing in the hull."
"We'll never make our rendezvous," said Avila.
"I know. I'll try to splash us in the Valley of the Emerald Night. We might just reach the western edge of the rift."
"Our other choice is to discover a way to catch Incendium shells with our bare hands!" said Gathris. "Better start doing the math now."
We were deep in clouds and still diving hard.
"Science Flight Four," buzzed a new voice, a no-nonsense woman's voice that brought back sudden memories of my WASP days, "you are under the guns of armed interceptor craft. This is your final warning. Level off and return to subsonic speed or you will be destroyed!"
"I wonder how close they are," said Gathris. We punched through the clouds at about fifteen thousand feet and screamed down toward a dusty reddish-brown landscape of steep-walled valleys. These twisted in every direction from horizon to horizon, and many of them were filled with ethereal tendrils of mist. A golden light streaked past us, about a mile to port. It was followed by another, and another.
Seven years and a hundred million miles removed from the big war, my baptism of fire had finally caught up with me. It's a strange old universe.
If Gathris had any philosophical thoughts, he kept them to himself while he worked his joysticks like an orchestra conductor with a benzedrine habit. We jinked and rolled at twice the speed of sound; the contents of my skull did a full regimen of calisthenics. More streaks of golden light hurtled past us, nearly close enough to touch.
"Expect a water landing!" shouted Gathris. "I'll try to get us as close to a river bank as possible! Avila, secure that guard's dessicator pistol! The moment we hit, you're also responsible for the emergency kit in the panel to your left!"
I honestly forget, imaginary reader, just what I meant to ask. My question was interrupted by a loud bang and a sickening shudder that ran throughout the ship. The engine noise changed pitch sharply, and all sorts of lights began competing for attention on Gathris' control board.
"Thrust coupling," snarled Gathris.
More bright lights exploded around us. The plane shook from side to side, and a smell of burnt plastic filled the cabin. I coughed, and reflexively grabbed for the gray satchel with my flight jacket. God bless psychological comforts.
"Rudder," said Gathris. "Port wing and fuel cells."
Miraculously, Gathris' next jink avoided a long stream of sparkling death by inches. I watched the incoming fire turn into outgoing, and then our bad day really kicked off.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye-- Gathris' victim scored his posthumous revenge.
The next hit rocked us hard, and the dead guard's dessicator pistol flew across the cabin. Its obvious weight was no real issue on Mars, but low gravity didn't do anything to nullify mass. That damn thing hit Gathris square above his right ear and knocked him silly.
"Blueworlder," he whispered, slumping forward with blood streaming down his face, "controls. . . yours."
He managed to flip a switch as he passed out. His joysticks vanished, and a pair popped out on either side of my chair. The warning lights went dark on his panels, and resumed their all-singing, all-dancing cavalcade on mine.
There was just one little problem.
I still didn't read a god-damned word of Martian.
The nauseating smoke swirled around my head, and I blinked away stinging tears. We were in a shuddering, barely-controlled tumble toward the gaping mouth of the biggest canyon I'd seen in my entire life, I could hear the harsh roar of the outside air over fresh holes in the cabin hull, and I couldn't tell my altimeter from the onboard coffee dispenser.
I did what any trained pilot would do. I started shouting really nasty words at the top of my lungs.
All site contents © 2010 Scott Lynch except where noted.
Artwork and Logo Design by Clarence Harrison.