The young may not remember Mars of old, under the yellow Sun, its cloud-streaked skies dusted pink, its soil rusty and fine, its inhabitants living in pressurized burrows and venturing Up only as a rite- of passage or to do maintenance or tend the ropy crops spread like nests of intensely green snakes over the wind-scoured farms. That Mars, an old and tired Mars filled with young lives, is gone forever.
Now I am old and tired, and Mars is young again.
Our lives are not our own, but by God, we must behave as if they are. When I was young, what I did seemed too small to be of any consequence; but the shiver of dust, we are told, expands in time to the planet-sweeping storm...
2171, M.Y. 53
An age was coming to an end. I had studied the signs half-innocently in my classes, there had even been dire hints from a few perceptive professors, but I had never thought the situation would affect me personally...Until now.
I had been voided from the University of Mars, Sinai. Two hundred classmates and professors in the same predicament lined the brilliant white floor of the depot, faces crossed by shadows from sun shining through the webwork of beams and girders supporting the depot canopy. We were waiting for the Solis Dorsa train to come and swift us away to our planums, planitias, fossas, and valleys.
Diane Johara, my roommate, stood with her booted foot on one small bag, tapping the tip of the boot on the handle, lips pursed as if whistling but making no sound. She kept her face pointed toward the northern curtains, waiting for the train to nose through. Though we were good friends, Diane and I had never talked politics. That was basic etiquette on Mars.
"Assassination," she said.
"Impractical," I murmured. I had not known until a few days ago how strongly Diane felt. "Besides, who would you shoot?"
"The governor. The chancellor."
I shook my head.
Over eighty percent of the UMS students had been voided, a gross violation of contract. That struck me as very damned unfair, but my family had never been activist. Daughter of BM finance people, born to a long tradition of caution, I straddled the fence.
The political structure set up during settlement a century before still creaked along, but its days were numbered. The original settlers, arriving in groups of ten or more families, had dug warrens in water-rich lands all over Mars, from pole to pole, but mostly in the smooth lowland plains and the deep valleys. Following the Lunar model, the first families had formed syndicates called Binding Multiples or BMs. The Binding Multiples acted like economic super-families; indeed, "family" and "BM" were almost synonymous. Later settlers had a choice of joining established BMs or starting new ones; few families stayed independent.
Many BMs merged and in time agreed to divide Mars into areological districts and develop resources in cooperation. By and large, Binding Multiples regarded each other as partners in the midst of Martian bounty, not competitors.
"The train's late. Fascists are supposed to make them run on time," Diane said, still tapping her boot.
"They never did on Earth," I said.
"You mean it's a myth?"
"So fascists aren't good for anything?" Diane asked.
"Uniforms," I said.
"Ours don't even have good uniforms."
Elected by district ballot, the governors answered only to the inhabitants of their districts, regardless of BM affiliations. The governors licensed mining and settlement rights to the BMs and represented the districts in a joint Council of Binding Multiples. Syndics chosen within BMs by vote of senior advocates and managers represented the interests of the BMs themselves in the Council. Governors and syndics did not often see eye to eye. It was all very formal and polite--Martians are almost always polite--but many procedures were uncodified. Some said it was grossly inefficient, and attempts were being made to unify Mars under a central government, as had already happened on the Moon.
The governor of Syria-Sinai, Freechild Dauble, a tough, chisel-chinned administrator, had pushed hard for several years to get the BMs to agree to a Statist constitution and central government authority. She wanted them to give up their syndics in favor of representation by district. This meant the breakup of BM power, of course.
Dauble's name has since become synonymous with corruption, but at the time, she had been governor of Mars's largest district for eight Martian years and was at the peak of her long friendship with power. By cajoling, pressuring, and threatening, she had forged--some said forced--agreements between the largest BMs. Dauble had become the focus of Martian Unity and was on the sly spin for president of the planet.
Some said Dauble's own career was the best argument for change, but few dared contradict her.
A vote was due within days in the Council to make permanent the new Martian constitution. We had lived under the Dauble government's "trial run" for six months, and many grumbled loudly. The hard-won agreement was fragile. Dauble had rammed it down too many throats, with too much underhanded dealing.
Lawsuits were pending from at least five families opposed to unity, mostly smaller BMs afraid of being absorbed and nullified. They were called Gobacks by the Statists, who regarded them as a real threat. The Statists would not tolerate a return to what they saw as disorganized Binding Multiples rule.
"If assassination is so impractical," Diane said, "we could rough up a few of the favorites-"
"Shh," I said.
She shook her short, shagged hair and turned away, soundlessly whistling again. Diane did that when she was too angry to speak politely. Red rabbits who had lived for decades in close quarters placed a high value on politeness, and impressed that on their offspring.
The Statists feared incidents. Student protests were unacceptable to Dauble. Even if the students did not represent the Gobacks, they might make enough noise to bring down the agreement.
So Dauble sent word to Caroline Connor, an old friend she had appointed chancellor of the largest university, University of Mars Sinai. An authoritarian with too much energy and too little sense, Connor obliged her crony by closing most of the campus and compiling a list of those who might be in sympathy with protesters.
I had majored in government and management. Though I had signed no petitions and participated in no marches--unlike Diane, who had taken to the movement vigorously--my name crept onto a list of suspects. The Govmanagement Department was notoriously independent; who could trust any of us?
We had paid our tuition but couldn't go to classes. Most of the voided faculty and students had little choice but to go home. The university generously gave us free tickets on state chartered trains. Some, including Diane, declined the tickets and vowed to fight the illegal voiding, That earned her--and, guilty by association, me, simply slow to pack my belongings--an escort of UMS security out of the university warrens.
Diane walked stiffly, slowly, defiantly. The guards--most of them new emigrants from Earth, large and strong--firmly gripped our elbows and hustled us down the tunnels. The rough treatment watered my quick-growing seed of doubt; how could I give in to this injustice without a cry? My family was cautious; it had never been known for cowardice.
Surrounded by Connor's, guards, packed in with the last remaining voided students, we were marched in quickstep past a cluster of other students lounging in a garden atrium. They wore their family grays and blues, scions of BMs with strong economic ties to Earth, darlings of those most favoring Dauble's plans; all still in school. They talked quietly and calmly among themselves and turned to watch us go, faces blank. They offered no support, no encouragement; their inaction built walls. Diane nudged me. "Pigs," she whispered.
I agreed. I thought them worse than traitors--they behaved as if they were cynical and old, violators of the earnest ideals of youth.
We had been loaded into a single tunnel van and driven to the depot, still escorted by campus guards.
* * *
The depot hummed.
A few students wandered down a side corridor, then came back and passed the word. The loop train to the junction at Solis Dorsa approached. Diane licked her lips and looked around nervously.
The last escorting guard, assured that we were on our way, gave us a tip of his cap and stepped into a depot cafe, out of sight.
"Are you coming with us?" Diane asked.
I could not answer. My head buzzed with contradictions, anger at injustice fighting family expectations. My mother and father hated the turmoil caused by unification. They strongly believed that staying out of it was best. They had told me so, without laying down any laws.
Diane gave me a pitying look. She shook my hand and said, "Casseia, you think too much." She edged along the platform and turned a corner. In groups of five or less, students went to the lav, for coffee, to check the weather at their home depots...Ninety students in all sidled away from the main group.
I hesitated. Those who remained seemed studiously neutral. Sidewise glances met faces quickly turned away.
An eerie silence fell over the platform. One last student, a female first-form junior carrying three heavy duffels, did a little shimmy, short brown hair fanning around her neck. She let one duffel slip from her shoulder. The shimmy vibrated down to her leg and she kicked the bag two meters. She dropped her other bags and walked north on the platform and around the corner.
My whole body quivered. I looked at the solemn faces around me and wondered how they could be so bovine. How could they just stand there, waiting for the train to slow, and accept Dauble's punishment for political views they might not even support?
The train pushed a plug of air along the platform as it passed through the seals and curtains. Icons flashed above the platform--station ID, train designator, destinations--and a mature woman's voice told us, with all the politeness in the world and no discernible emotion, "Solis Dorsa to Bosporus, Nereidum, Argyre, Noachis, with transfers to Meridiani and Hellas, now arriving, gate four."
I muttered, "Shit shit shit," under my breath. Before I knew what I had decided, before I could paralyze myself with more thought, my legs took me around the corner and up to a blank white service bay: dead end. The only exit was a low steel door covered with chipped white enamel. It had been left open just a crack. I bent down, opened the door wide, glanced behind me, and stepped through.
It took me several minutes of fast walking to catch up with Diane. I passed ten or fifteen students in a dark arbeiter service tunnel and found her. "Where are we going?" I asked in a whisper.
"Are you with us?"
"I am now."
She winked and shook my hand with a bold and happy swing. "Someone has a key and knows the way to the old pioneer domes."
Muffling laughter and clapping each other on the back, full of enthusiasm and impressed by our courage, we passed one by one through an ancient steel hatch and crept along narrow, stuffy old tunnels lined with crumbling foamed rock. As the last of us left the UMS environs, stepping over a dimly lighted boundary marker into a wider and even older tunnel, we clasped hands on shoulders and half-marched, half-danced in lockstep.
Someone at the end of the line harshly whispered for us to be quiet. We stopped, hardly daring to breathe. Seconds of silence, then from behind came low voices and the mechanical hum of service arbeiters, a heavy, solid clank and a painful twinge in our ears. Someone had sealed the tunnel hatch behind us.
"Do they know we're in here?" I asked Diane.
"I doubt it," she said. "That was a pressure crew."
They had closed the door and sealed it. No turning back.
The tunnels took us five kilometers beyond the university borders, through, a decades-old maze unused since before my birth, threaded unerringly by whoever led the group.
"We're in old times now," Diane said, looking back at me. Forty orbits ago--over seventy-five Terrestrial years-these tunnels had connected several small pioneer stations. We filed past warrens once used by the earliest families, dark and bitterly cold, kept pressurized in reserve only for dire emergency...
Our few torches and tunnel service lamps illuminated scraps of old furniture, pieces of outdated electronics, stacked drums of emergency reserve rations and vacuum survival gear.
Hours before, we had eaten our last university meal and had a warm vapor shower in the dorms. That was all behind us. Up ahead, we faced Spartan conditions.
I felt wonderful. I was doing something significant, and without my family's approval.
I thought I was finally growing up.
* * *
The ninety students gathered in a dark hollow at the end of the tunnel, a pioneer trench dome. All sounds--nervous and excited laughter, questioning voices, scraping of feet on the cold floor, scattered outbreaks of song--blunted against the black poly interior. Diane broke Martian reserve and hugged me. Then a few voices rose above the dull murmurs. Several students started taking down names and BM affiliations. The mass began to take shape.
Two students from third-form engineering--a conservative and hard-dug department--stood before us and announced their names: Sean Dickinson, Gretyl Laughton. Within the day, after forming groups and appointing captains, we confirmed Sean and Gretyl as our leaders, expressed our solidarity and zeal, and learned we had something like a plan.
I found Sean Dickinson extremely handsome: of middle height, slight build, wispy brown hair above a prominent forehead, brows elegantly slim and animated. Though less attractive, Gretyl had been struck from the same mold: a slim young woman with large, accusing blue eyes and straw hair pulled into a tight bun.
Sean stood on an old crate and gazed down upon us, establishing us as real people with a real mission. "We all know why we're here," he said. Expression stern, eyes liquid and compassionate, he raised his hands, long and callused fingers reaching for the poly dome above, and said, "The old betray us. Experience breeds corruption. It's time to bring a moral balance to Mars, and show them what an individual stands for, and what our rights really mean. They've forgotten us, friends. They've forgotten their contractual obligations. True Martians don't forget such things, any more than they'd forget to breathe or plug a leak. So what are we going to do? What can we do? What must we do?"
"Remind them!" many of us shouted. Some said, "Kill them," and I said, "Tell them what we--" But I was not given a chance to finish, my voice lost in the roar.
Sean laid out his plan. We listened avidly; he fed our anger and our indignation. I had never been so excited. We who had kept the freshness of youth, and would not stand for corruption, intended to storm UMS overland and assert our contractual rights. We were righteous, and our cause was just.
Sean ordered that we all be covered with skinseal, pumped from big plastic drums. We danced in the skinseal showers naked, laughing, pointing, shrieking at the sudden cold, embarrassed but greatly enjoying ourselves. We put our clothes back on over the flexible tight-fitting nanomer. Skinseal was designed for emergency pressure problems and not for comfort. Going to the bathroom became an elaborate ritual; in skinseal, a female took about four minutes to pee, a male two minutes, and shitting was particularly tricky.
We dusted our skinseal with red ochre to hide us should we decide to worm out during daylight. We all looked like cartoon devils.
* * *
By the end of the third day, we were tired and hungry and dirty and impatient. We huddled in the pressurized poly dome, ninety in a space meant for thirty, our rusty water tapped from an old well, having eaten little or no food, exercising to ward off the cold.
* * *
I brushed past a pale thoughtful fellow a few times on the way to the food line or the lav. Lean and hawk-nosed and dark-haired, with wide, puzzled eyes, a wry smile and a hesitant, nervously joking manner, he seemed less angry and less sure than the rest of us. Just looking at him irritated me. I stalked him, watching his mannerisms, tracking his growing list of inadequacies. I was not in the best temper and needed to vent a little frustration. I took it upon myself to educate him.
At first, if he noticed my attention at all, he seemed to try to avoid me, moving through little groups of people under the gloomy old poly, making small talk. Everybody was testy; his attempts at conversation fizzled. Finally he stood in line near an antique electric wall heater, waiting his turn to bask in the currents of warm dry air.
I stood behind him. He glanced at me, smiled politely, and hunkered down with his back against the wall. I sat beside him. He clamped his hands on his knees, set his lips primly, and avoided eye contact; obviously, he had had enough of trying to make conversation and failing.
"Having second thoughts?" I asked after a decent interval.
"What?" he asked, confused.
"You look sour. Is your heart in this?"
He flashed the same irritating smile and lifted his hands, placating. "I'm here," he said.
"Then show a little enthusiasm, dammit."
Some other students shook their heads and shuffled away, too tired to get involved in a private fracas. Diane joined us at the rear of the line.
"I don't know your name," he said.
"She's Casseia Majumdar," said Diane.
"Oh," he said. I was angry that he recognized the name. Of all things, I didn't want to be known for my currently useless family connections.
"Her third uncle founded Majumdar BM," Diane continued. I shot her a look and she puckered her lips, eyes dancing. She was enjoying a little relief from the earnest preparations and boredom.
"You have to be with us in heart and mind," I lectured him.
"Sorry. I'm just tired. My name is Charles Franklin." He offered a hand.
I thought that was incredibly insensitive and gauche, considering the circumstance. We had made it to the heater, but I turned away as if I didn't care and walked toward the stacks of masks and cyclers being tested by our student leader.
Neither a Statist nor a Goback, Sean Dickinson seemed to me the epitome of what our impromptu organization stood for. Son of a track engineer, Sean had earned his scholarship by sheer brainwork. In the UMS engineering department, he had moved up quickly, only to be diverted into attempts to organize trans-BM unions. That had earned him the displeasure of Connor and Dauble.
Sean worked with an expression of complete concentration, hair disheveled, spidery, strong fingers pulling at mask poly. His mouth twitched with each newfound leak. He hardly knew I existed. Had he known, he probably would have shunned me for my name. That didn't stop me from being impressed.
Charles followed me and stood beside the growing pile of rejects. "Please don't misunderstand," he said. "I'm really behind all this."
"Glad to hear it," I said. I observed the preparations and shivered. Nobody likes the thought of vacuum rose. None of us had been trained in insurrection. We would be up against campus security, augmented by the governor's own thugs and maybe some of our former classmates, and I had no idea how far they--or the situation--would go.
We watched news vids intently on our slates. Sean had posted on the ex nets that students had gone on strike to protest Connor's illegal voiding. But he hadn't told about our dramatic plans, for obvious reasons. The citizens of the Triple--the linked economies of Earth, Mars, and Moon--hadn't turned toward us. Even the LitVids on Mars seemed uninterested.
"I thought I could help," Charles said, pointing to the masks and drums. "I've done this before..."
"Gone Up?" I asked.
"My hobby is hunting fossils. I asked to be on the equipment committee, but they said they didn't need me."
"Hobby?" I asked.
"Fossils. Outside. During the summer, of course."
Here was my chance to be helpful to Sean, and maybe apologize to Charles for showing my nerves. I squatted beside the pile and said, "Sean, Charles here says he's worked outside."
"Good," Sean said. He tossed a ripped mask to Gretyl. I wondered innocently if she and Sean were lovers. Gretyl scowled at the mask--a safety-box surplus antique--and dropped it on the reject pile, which threatened to spill out around our feet.
"I can fix those," Charles, said. "There are tubes of quick poly in the safety boxes. It works."
"I won't send anybody outside in a ripped mask," Sean said. "Excuse me, but I have to focus here."
"Sorry," Charles said. He shrugged at me.
"We may not have enough masks," I said, looking at the diminishing stacks of good equipment.
Sean glared over his shoulder, pressed for time and very unhappy. "Your advice is not necessary," Gretyl told me sharply.
"It's nothing," Charles said, tugging my arm. "Let them work."
I shrugged his fingers loose and backed away, face flushed with embarrassment. Charles returned with me to the heater, but we had lost our places there.
The lights had been cut to half. The air became thicker and colder each day. I thought of my warren rooms at home, a thousand kilometers away, of how worried my folks might be, and of how they would take it if I died out in the thin air, or if some Statist thug pierced my young frame with a flechette...God, what a scandal that would make! It seemed almost worth it.
I fantasized Dauble and Connor dragged away under arrest, glorious and magnificent disgrace, perhaps worth my death...but probably not.
"I'm a physics major," Charles said, joining me at the end of the line.
"Good for you," I said.
"You're in govmanagement?"
"That's why I'm here."
"I'm here because my parents voted against the Statists. That's all I can figure. They were in Klein BM. Klein's holding out to the last, you know."
I nodded without making eye contact, wanting him to go away.
"The Statists are suicidal," Charles said mildly. "They'll bring themselves down...even if we don't accelerate the process."
"We can't afford to wait," I said. The skinseal wouldn't last much longer. The nakedness and embarrassment had bonded us. We knew each other; we thought we had no secrets. But we itched and stank and our indignation might soon give way to general disgruntlement. I felt sure Sean and the other leaders were aware of this.
"I was trying to get a scholarship for Earth study and a grant for thinker time," he said. "Now I'm off the list, I'm behind on my research--" He paused, eyes downcast, as if embarrassed at babbling. "You know," he said, "we've got to do something in the next twenty hours. The skinseal will rot."
"Right." I looked at him more closely. He was not homely. His voice was mellow and pleasant, and what I had first judged as lack of enthusiasm now looked more like calm, which. I was certainly not.
Sean had finished weeding out the bad helmets. He stood and Gretyl called shrilly for our attention. "Listen," Sean said, shaking out his stiff arms and shoulders. "We've had a response from Connor's office. They refuse to meet with us, and they demand to know where we are. I think even Connor will figure out where we are in a few more days. So it's now or never. We have twenty-six good outfits and eight or ten problem pieces. I can salvage two from those. The rest are junk."
"I could fix some of them if he'd let me," Charles said under his breath.
"Gretyl and I will wear the problem pieces," Sean said. My heart pumped faster at his selfless courage. "But that means most of us will have to stay here. We'll draw sticks to see who crosses the plain."
"What if they're armed?" asked a nervous young woman.
Sean smiled. "Red rabbits down, cause up tike a rocket," he said. That was clear enough. Martians shoot Martians, and glory to us all, the Statists would fall. He was right, of course. News would cross the Triple by day's end, probably even reach the planetoid communities.
Sean sounded as if he thought martyrdom might be useful. I looked at the young faces around me, eight, nine, or ten--my age--almost nineteen Terrestrial years--and then at Sean's face, seemingly old and experienced at twelve. Quietly, as a group, we raised our hands with fingers spread wide--the old Lunar Independence Symbol for the free expression of human abilities and ideas, tolerance against oppression, handshake instead of fist.
But as Sean brought his hand down, it closed reflexively into a fist. I realized then how earnest he was, and how serious this was, and what I was putting on the line.
* * *
We drew fibers from a frayed length of old optic cord an hour after the mask count. Twenty-six had been cut long. I drew a long, as did Charles. Diane was very disappointed to get a short. We were issued masks and set our personal slates to encrypt signals tied to Sean's and Gretyl's code numbers.
We had already gone over and over the plan. Twenty would cross the surface directly above the tunnels leading back to UMS. I was in this group.
There were aboveground university structures about five kilometers from our trench domes. The remaining students--two teams of four each, Charles among them, under Sean's command--would fan out to key points and wait for a signal from Gretyl, the leader of our team of twenty, that we had made it to the administration chambers.
If we met resistance and were not allowed to present demands to Connor personally, then Sean's teams would do their stuff. First, they would broadcast an illegal preemptive signal to the satcom at Marsynch, forcing on all bands the news that action in the name of contractual fulfillment was being taken by the voided students of UMS. Contractual fulfillment meant a lot even under the Statist experiment; it was the foundation of every family's existence, a sacred kind of thing. Where Sean had gotten the expertise and equipment to send a preemptive signal, he would not say; I found his deepening mystery even more attractive.
Sean would personally take one team of four to the rail links at UMS junction. They would blow up a few custom-curved maglev rods; trains wouldn't be able to go to the UMS terminal until a repair car had manufactured new rods, which would take several hours. UMS would be isolated.
Simultaneously, the second team of four--to which Charles was assigned--would break seals and pump oxidant sizzle--a corrosive flopsand common in this region--into the university's net optic and satcom uplink facilities. That would break all the broad com between UMS and the rest of Mars. Private com would go through, but all broadband research and data links and library rentals would stop dead...
UMS might lose three or four million Triple dollars before the links could be repaired.
That of course would make them angry.
* * *
We waited in two lines spiraling from the center of the main trench dome. At the outside of the spiral lines, Sean and Gretyl stood silent, jaws clenched. Some students shook their red-sealed hands to get ready for the cold. Skinseal wasn't made to keep you cozy. It only protected against hypothermia and frostbite.
My own skinseal had come loose at the joints and sweat was pooling before being processed by the nanomer. I had to go to the bathroom, more out of nerves than necessity; my feet and legs had swollen, but only a little; I was not miserable but the petty discomforts distracted me from the focus I needed to keep from turning into a quivering heap.
"Listen," Sean said loudly, standing on a box to peer over our heads. "None of us knew what we'd be getting into when we started all this. We don't know what's going to happen in the next few hours. But we all share a common goal--freedom to pursue our education without political interference--freedom to stand clear of the sins of our parents and grandparents. That's what Mars is all about--something new, a grand experiment. We'll be a part of that experiment now, or by God, we'll die trying."
I swallowed hard and looked for Charles, but he was too far away. I wondered if he still had his calm smile.
"May it not come to that," Gretyl said.
"Amen," said someone behind me.
Sean looked fully charged, face muscles sharply defined within a little oval of unsealed skin around his eyes, nose and mouth. "Let's go," he said.
In groups of five, we removed our clothes, folding them neatly or just dropping them. The first to go entered the airlock, cycled through, and climbed the ladder. When my turn came, I crowded into the lock with four others, held my bream against the swirling red smear, and slipped on my mask and cycler. The old mask smelled doggy. Its edges adhered to the skinseal with the sound of a prim kiss. I heard the whine of pumps pulling back the air. The skinseal puffed as gas pressures equalized. Moving became more difficult.
My companions in the lock began climbing. My turn came and I took hold of the ladder rungs and poked through the hatch, above the rust-and-ochre tumble and smear. With a kick, I cleared the lip, clambered out onto the rocky surface of the plain, and stood under the early morning sky. The sun topped a ridge of hills lying east, surrounded by a dull pink glow. I blinked at the glare.
We'd have to hike over those hills to get to UMS. It had taken us half an hour simply to climb to the surface.
We stood a few meters east of the trench dome, waiting for Gretyl to join us. In just minutes, smear clung to us all; we'd have to destat for half an hour when all this was over.
Gretyl emerged from the hole. Her voice decoded in my right ear, slightly muffled. "Let's get together behind Sean's group," she said.
We could breathe, we could talk to each other. All was working well so far.
"We're off," Sean said, and his teams began to walk away from the trench. Some of them waved. I caught a glimpse of Charles from behind as his group marched in broken formation toward the hills, a little south of the track we would follow. I wondered why I was paying any attention to him at all. Skinseal hid little. He had a cute butt. Ever so slightly steatopygous.
I bit my lip to bring my thoughts together. I'm a red rabbit, I told myself. I'm on the Up for the first time in two years, and there are no scout supervisors or trailmasters in charge, checking all our gear, making sure we get back to our mommies. Now focus, damn you!
"Let's go," Gretyl said, and we began our trek.
It was a typical Martian morning, springtime balmy at minus twenty Celsius. The wind had slowed to almost nothing. The air was clear for two hundred kilometers. Thousands of stars pricked through at zenith like tiny jewels. The horizon glimmered shell-pink.
All my thoughts aligned. Something magical about the moment. I felt I possessed a completely realistic awareness of our situation...and of our chances of surviving.
The surface of Mars was usually deadly cold. This close to the equator, however, the temps were relatively mild--seldom less than minus sixty. Normal storms could push winds up to four hundred kiphs, driving clouds of fine smear and flopsand high enough and wide enough to be seen from Earth. Rarely, a big surge of Jetstream activity could send a high-pressure curl over several thousand kilometers, visible from orbit as a snaking dark line, and that could raise clouds that would quickly cover most of Mars. But the air on high Sinai Planum, at five millibars, was too thin to worry about most of the time. The usual winds were gentle puffs, barely felt.
My booted feet pounded over the crusted sand and tumble. Martian soil gets a thin crust after a few months of lying undisturbed; the grains fall into a kind of mechanical cement that feels a lot like hoarfrost. I could dimly hear the others crunching, sound traveling through the negligible atmosphere making them seem dozens of meters away.
"Let's not get too scattered," Gretyl said.
I passed an old glacier-rounded boulder bigger than the main trench dome. Ancient ice floes had sculpted the crustal basalt into a rounded gnome with its arms splayed across the ground, flat head resting on its arms in sleep...pretended sleep.
Somehow, red rabbits never became superstitious about the Up. It was too orange and red and brown, too obviously dead, to appeal to our morbid instincts.
"If they're smart and somebody's anticipating us, there may be pickets out this far to keep track of the periphery of the university," Sean said over the radio.
"Or if somebody's tattled," Gretyl added. I was starting to like Gretyl. Despite having an unpleasant voice and an unaltered, shrewlike face, Gretyl seemed to have a balanced perspective. I wondered why she had kept that face. Maybe it was a family face, something to be proud of where she came from, like English royalty's unaltered features, mandated by law. The long nose of King Henry of England.
I decided it didn't matter. Maybe focusing on keeping a focus was a bad thing.
The sun hung above the ridge now, torch-white with the merest pink tinge. Around it whirled the thinnest of opal hazes, high silicate and ice clouds laced against the brightening orange of day. The rock shadows started to fill in, making each step a little easier. Sometimes wind hollows hid behind boulders, waiting for unwary feet.
Gretyl's group had spread out. I walked near the front, a few steps to her right.
"Picket," said Garlin Smith on my right, raising his arm. He had been my classmate in mass psych, quiet and tall, what ignorant Earth folks thought a Martian should" look like.
We all followed Garlin's pointing finger to the east and saw a lone figure standing-on a rise about two hundred meters away. It carried a rifle.
"Armed," Gretyl said under her breath. "I don't believe it."
The figure wore a full pressure suit--a professional job, the type worn by areologists, farm inspectors, Statist police. It reached up to tap its helmet. It hadn't seen us yet, apparently, but it was picking up the jumbled buzz of our coded signals.
"Keep going," Gretyl said. "We haven't come this far to be scared off by a single picket."
"If it is a picket," Sean commented, listening to our chat. "Don't assume anything."
"It has to be a picket," Gretyl said.
"All right," Sean said with measured restraint.
The figure caught sight of us about four minutes after we first noticed it. We were separated by a hundred meters. It looked like a normal male physique from that distance.
My breath quickened. I tried to slow it.
"Report," Sean demanded.
"Armed male in full pressure suit. He sees us. Not reacting yet," Gretyl said.
We didn't deviate from our path. We would pass within fifty meters of the picket.
The helmeted head turned, watching us. He held up a hand, "Hey, what is this?" a masculine voice asked. "What in hell are you doing up here? Do you folks have ID?"
"We're from UMS," Gretyl said. We didn't slow our pace.
"What are you doing up here?" the picket repeated.
"Surveying, what's it look like?" Gretyl responded. We carried no instruments. "What are you doing up here?"
"Don't bunny with me," he said. "You know there's been trouble. Just tell me what department you're from and...have you been using code?"
"No," Gretyl said.
We had closed another twenty yards. He started to hike down the rise to inspect us.
"What in hell are you wearing?"
"Red suits," Gretyl answered.
"Shit, it's skinseal. It's against the law to wear that stuff except in emergencies. How many of you are there?"
"Forty-five," Gretyl lied.
"I've been told to keep intruders off university property," he said. "I'll need to see IDs. You should have UMS passes to even be up here."
"Is that a gun?" Gretyl asked, faking a lilt of surprise.
"Hey, get over here, all of you."
"Why do you need a gun?"
"Unauthorized intruders. Stop now."
"We're from the Areology Department, and we've only got a few hours up here...Didn't you get a waiver from Professor Sunder?"
"No, dammit, stop right now."
"Listen, friend, who do you answer to?"
"UMS is secure property. You'd better give me your student ID numbers now."
"Fap off," Gretyl said.
The picket raised his rifle, a long-barreled, slender automatic flechette. My anger and fear were almost indistinguishable. Dauble and Connor must have lost their minds. No student on Mars had ever been shot by police, not in fifty-three years of settlement. Hadn't they ever heard of Tienanmen or Kent State?
"Use it," Gretyl said. "You'll be all over the Triple for shooting areology students on a field trip. Great for your career. Really spin you in with our families, too. What kind of work you looking for, rabbit?"
Our receivers jabbered with the picket's own coded outgoing message. More jabber returned.
The man lowered his rifle and followed us. "Are you armed?" he asked.
"Where would students get guns?" Gretyl asked. "Who in hell is giving you orders to scare us?"
"Listen, this is serious. I need your IDs now."
"We've got his code," Sean said. "He's been told to block you however he can."
"Great," Gretyl said.
"Who are you talking to? Stop using code," the picket demanded.
"Maybe they're not clueing you, rabbit," Gretyl taunted.
Gretyl's bravado, her talent for delay and confusion, astonished me. Perhaps she and Sean and a few of the others had been training for this. I wished I knew more about revolution.
The word came to me like a small blow on my back. This was a kind of revolution. "Jesus," I said with my transmitter off.
"What's he doing?" Sean asked.
"He's following us," Gretyl said. "He doesn't seem to want to shoot."
"Not with flechettes, sure enough," Sean said. "What a banner that would be!" I filled in the details involuntarily: students ripped by burrowing darts.
More code whined in our ears like angry insects.
We marched over another rise, the guard following close behind, and saw the low poke-ups of UMS. The UMS warrens extended to the northeast for perhaps a kilometer, half levels above, ten levels deep. The administration chambers were closest to the surface entrance and the nearby train depot. Train guides hovered on slender poles, arcing gently over another rise to link with the station.
Sean's teams were probably there now.
More guards emerged from the UMS buildings, armed and in full pressure suits.
"All right," came a gruff female voice. "State your business. Then get the hell out of here or you'll be arrested."
Gretyl stepped forward, a scrawny little red devil with a black masked head. "We want an audience with Chancellor Connor. We are students who have been illegally voided and whose contracts have been flagrantly broken. We demand--"
"Who in hell do you think you are? A bunch of fapping rodents?" The woman's voice scared me. She sounded outraged, on the edge of something drastic. I couldn't tell which of the suited figures she was, or if she was outside at all. "You've crossed regional property. Goddamned Gobacks should know what that means."
"I'm not going to argue," Gretyl said. "We demand to speak with--"
"You're talking to her, you ignorant shithead! I'm right here." The foremost figure raised an arm and shook a gloved fist. "And I'm in no mood to negotiate with trespassers and Gobacks."
"We're here to deliver a petition." Gretyl removed a metal cylinder from her belt and extended it. One of the guards started forward, but Connor grabbed his elbow and shook it once, firmly. He backed away and folded his arms.
"Politics of confrontation," Connor said, voice harsh as old razors. "Agitprop and civil disobedience. You'd think you were on Earth. Politics doesn't work that way here. I have a mandate to protect this university and keep order."
"You refuse to meet with us and discuss our demands?"
"I'm meeting with you now. Nobody demands anything of lawful authority except through legal channels. Who's behind you?"
I looked over my shoulder, misunderstanding.
"There's no conspiracy," Gretyl said.
"Lies, my dear. Genuine lies."
"Under Martian contract law, we have the right to meet with you and discuss why we have been voided and our contracts broken."
"State law superseded BM law last month."
"Actually, it doesn't. If you want to check with your lawyers--" Gretyl began. I cringed. We were bickering and time was running out.
"You have one minute to turn around and go back to where you came from, or we'll arrest you," Connor said. "Let the legals sort it out. Do your families know where you are? How about your advocates? Do they know and approve?"
Gretyl's words bristled. "I can't believe you are being so stubborn. I'm asking for the last time--"
"Right. Arrest them, my authority, statute two-five-one, Syria-Sinai district books."
Some of the students began to talk, asking worried questions. "Quiet!" Gretyl shouted. She turned to Connor. "Is this your last answer?"
"You poor dumb rodents," Connor said. She swiveled to enter the open lock door. Connor behaved even more rudely than she had been portrayed to us in the briefings, supremely confident, intractable and ready to provoke an incident. Guards moved forward. I turned and saw three guards behind us, also closing. We had to submit.
Gretyl stepped away from the first guard. Another flanked her on the right, coming between us, and she stepped back. There were twenty of us and ten guards.
"Let them take you," Gretyl said. "Let them arrest you." Then why was she resisting?
A guard took my arm and applied sticky rope to my skinsealed wrist. "You're lucky we're bringing you in," he said, grinning. "You wouldn't last another hour out here."
Two of the guards devoted themselves exclusively to Gretyl. They advanced with hands and sticky ropes held out. She backed away, held up her arm as if waving to them, and touched her mask.
Time got stiff.
Gretyl turned to look at the rest of us. Her eyes looked scared. My heart sank. Don't do anything just to impress Sean, I wanted to shout to her.
"Tell them what you saw here," Gretyl said. "Freedom conquers!" Her fingers plucked at and then slipped beneath the seam of the mask. A guard grabbed at her arm but he wasn't quick enough.
Gretyl ripped away the mask and sprang to one side, sending it flying with a wide toss. Her long-nosed face flashed pale and narrow against the pink sky. She squeezed her eyes shut and clamped her mouth instinctively. Her arms reached out, fingers extended, as if she were a tightrope walker and might lose her balance.
Simultaneously, I heard small thumps and felt the ground vibrate.
Connor hadn't had time to enter the poke-up airlock. "Get her inside! Get her inside!" she screeched, pushing through her associates.
The guards stood still as statues for what seemed like minutes, then reached for Gretyl and dragged her as fast as they could to the airlock. She struggled in their arms. I saw her face pinking, blood vessels near the surface rupturing as the plasma boiled. Vacuum rose.
Gretyl opened her eyes and reached up with one hand to grab at her chin. She pulled her own jaw open. The air in her lungs rushed out, moisture freezing in a cloud in the still air.
"They've blown track," someone shouted.
"Get her INSIDE!"
Gretyl looked at the sky through rime-clouded eyes.
The guard in front of me jerked the sticky rope forward and I fell into the dirt. For an instant it seemed he might kick me. I looked up and saw narrow grim eyes behind the helmet visor, mouth open, face slack. He stopped and blinked, waiting for orders.
I twisted my head around to see how my companions were being treated. Several lay in the dirt. The guards systematically pushed us down and planted boots on our backs. When all nineteen lay flat, the guards stood back. The door to the lock opened again and someone stepped out, not Connor.
"They're under arrest," a man's voice said over the radio. "Get them inside. Strip that stuff off and put them in a dorm. Delouse them."
There have never been lice on Mars.
* * *
They separated us quickly. Three guards pulled five of us away from the airlock and marched us through chilly tunnels to the old dorms, seldom used now. The new dorms had been equipped with more modern conveniences, but these were maintained for an emergency or future overload of students.
"Can you get this off by yourself?" the tallest of the three asked, gesturing at our skinseal. She removed her helmet beneath the dimmed lights of the hall, lips downturned, eyes miserable.
"What did he mean, delouse?" another guard asked, a young, muscular male with West Indian features and accent.
The guards were all fresh Martians. That made sense. The new United Mars state would be their sponsor, their BM and family.
"You can't just hold us here," I said. "What happened to Gretyl?" My four companions turned on the guards, pointing fingers and shouting. We all demanded our rights--communication, freedom, advocates.
It became an open rebellion until the third guard pulled a flechette from his pack. He was the shortest, a slim man with plain, short-cut brown hair and perfect, saintly features. His eyes narrowed, very cold. I thought, Here's a Statist sympathizer. The others were merely hired hands.
"Blow it down, right now," he demanded.
"You injured Gretyl!" I shouted. "We need to know what happened to her!"
"Sabotage is treason. We could shoot you in self-defense."
He raised the pistol. All of us backed away, including the two other guards.
"That wouldn't be smart," I said.
"Not for you." The slim fellow gave us a cold thin smile and pushed us down the hall.
We entered a stripped-down double room, immediately sprawling on the bare cot and chairs, another small gesture of useless defiance.
"You're going to be here for a while, so get comfortable."
I didn't like him pushing his pistol and didn't want to provoke him any further. We peeled off our skinseal--it was a blessed relief to be free of it, actually. The West Indian tossed the shreds into dust bags. Enough smear floated loose to make us sneeze.
As if meeting for the first time, the five of us nodded and made introductions where necessary. We knew each other only slightly; one had been a classmate of mine, Felicia Overgard, about a year younger and two steps behind. I did not know Oliver Peskin well, a step higher and an agro major, and I had only met Tom Callin and Chao Ming Jung in the trench dome.
The slim fellow averted his eyes. Bizarre, waving a gun at us but ashamed of our bare flesh. He thrust the gun at the vapor sacks in the washroom. "I don't know if you have lice, but you smell pretty rank."
The vapor bags hadn't been refilled or filtered in some time and we didn't smell much better after the showers. Water was inadequate to get rid of smear, and we carried itchy patches of red and orange all over. We'd have welts by tomorrow.
Three hours passed and we learned nothing. The guards stayed in their suits to avoid the dust. They had removed any identifiers and would not tell us their names. The sympathizer grew more and more grim as the hours crawled, and then ramped up to nervous, fidgeting with his gun. He whistled and pantomimed breaking it down and reassembling it. Finally, his slate chimed and he answered.
After a couple of brief acknowledgments, he sent the female guard out of the room. I wondered what they would do next, why they didn't want the woman there.
Surely they weren't that stupid.
Conversation with my companions became thin and quiet. Fear had worn off--we no longer thought we were going to be shot--but the numbing sense of isolation that replaced it was no better. We settled into shivering silence.
The rooms were kept at minimum heat and we still didn't have any clothes. The three men suffered worse than Felicia and I.
"It's cold in here," I said to the sympathizer. He agreed but did nothing.
"It's cold enough to make us sick," said Oliver.
"All right," said the sympathizer.
"We should find them some clothes," said the West Indian.
"No," said the sympathizer.
"Why not?" Chao asked. Felicia had given up covering herself with her hands.
"You caused a hell of a lot of trouble. Why make it any easier on you?"
"They're human, man," the West Indian said. He was not very old, twelve or thirteen, and he had to be a recent immigrant. His West Indies accent was still obvious.
The sympathizer squinted and shook his head dubiously.
We've won, I thought. With fools like this, the Statists don't have a chance. I couldn't quite convince myself, however.
We spent ten hours in that dorm room, cold and naked, skin itching furiously.
* * *
I fell asleep and dreamed of trees too tall to fit into any dome, rooted unprotected in the red dirt of Mars: redwoods in red flopsand, lofting a hundred meters, tended by naked children. I had had the dream before and it left me for a moment with an intense feeling of well-being. Then I remembered I was a prisoner.
The West Indian prodded my shoulder. I rolled on the thinly carpeted floor. He averted his eyes from my nakedness and drew his lips tightly together. "I want you to know I am not all in this," he said. "My heart, I mean. I am truly a Martian, and this is my first work here, you know?"
I looked around. The sympathizer was out of the room. "Get us some clothes," I said.
"You blew up the train lines and these people, they are very angry. I just tell you, don't blame me when the shit sprays. People go up and down the halls--the tunnels. I look out, there is so much going on. They are afraid, I think."
What did they have to be afraid of? Had the LitVids grabbed Gretyl's injury or death and put our cause on the sly spin?
"Can you send a message to my parents?"
"The fellow Rick has gone," the West Indian said, shaking his head. "He meets with others, and he leaves me here."
"What happened to Gretyl?"
He shook his head again. "I hear nothing about her. What I saw, it made me sick. Everybody is so crazy. Why did she do it?"
"To make a point," I said.
"Not worth losing your life," the West Indian said, frowning deeply. "This is small history, petty people. On Earth--"
My temper flared. "Look, we've only been here a hundred Earth years, and our history is small stuff by Earth standards, but you're a Martian now, remember? This is corruption and dirty politics--and if you ask me, it's directly connected with Earth, and the hell with all of you!"
You really sound committed, I thought. Abuse could do wonders.
I awakened the others with my outburst. Felicia sat up. "He isn't armed," she observed. Oliver and Chao stood warily and brushed dust off their backsides, muscles tensed as if they were giving thought to jumping the man.
The West Indian looked, if possible, even more abjectly miserable. "Do not try something," he said, standing his ground with arms out, shaking his head.
The door opened and the sympathizer returned. He and the West Indian exchanged glances and the West Indian tilted and shook his head, saying, "Oh, man." Behind the sympathizer came a fellow with short black hair. He wore a tight-fitting, expensive, and fashionable green longsuit.
"We're kept here against our will--" Oliver complained immediately.
"Under arrest," the man in the fashionable green suit said jovially.
"For more than a day, and we demand to be released," Oliver finished, folding his arms. The man in the suit smiled at this literally naked presumption.
"I'm Achmed Crown Niger," he said. His voice was high Mars, imitative of the flat English of Earth, an accent rarely heard in the regional BMs. I presumed he would be from Lal Qila or some other independent station, perhaps a Muslim. "I represent the state interests in the university. I'm going from room to room getting names. I'll need your family names, BM connections, and the names of people you'll want to talk to in the next hour."
"What happened to Gretyl?" I asked.
Achmed Crown Niger raised his eyebrows. "She's alive. She has acute facial rose and her eyes and lungs need to be rebuilt. But we have other things to talk about. Under district book laws, you are all charged with criminal trespass and sabotage--"
"What happened to the others?" I pursued.
He ignored me. "That's serious stuff. You're going to need advocates." He turned to the sympathizer and barked, "Damn it, get these people something to wear." He looked back at us and his ingratiating smile returned. "It's tough being legal in front of naked people."
* * *
Thirty armed men and women, as many LitVid agents, Chancellor Connor, and Governor Dauble herself stood in the dining hall, Connor and Dauble and their entourage well away from the offending students. We clustered in bathrobes near the serving gates, the twenty-eight who had gone out with Sean and Gretyl, criminals caught in the act of sabotage. Those left behind in the trench domes had been collected as well. Dauble and Connor were about to celebrate their victory on LitVid across the Triple.
Medias and Pressians, my father called them: the hordes of LitVid reporters that seemed rise out of the ground at the merest hint of a stink. On Mars reporters were a hearty breed; they learned early to get around the tight lips of BM families. Ten of the quickest and hardiest--several familiar to me--stood with arbeiter attendants near the Statist cluster, ear loops recording all they saw, images edited hot for transmission to the satcoms.
Diane stood in a group across the hall. She waved to me surreptitiously. I did not see Sean. Charles was five or six meters from me in our pack and did not appear injured. He saw me and nodded. Some from his group had sustained bruises and even broken bones. Blue boneknits graced three.
We said nothing, stood meek and pitiful. This was our time to be victims of the oppressive state.
Dauble came forward flanked by two advisors. A louder curled on her shoulder like a thin snake. "Folks, this has gone much too far. Chancellor Connor has been courteous enough to supply the families of these students--"
"Banned students!" Oliver Peskin shouted next to me. Others took up the cry, and another chorus followed on with, "Contract rights! Obligations!"
Dauble listened, face fixed in gentle disapproval. The cries died down.
"To supply all of their families with information on their whereabouts, and their status as arrested saboteurs," she finished.
"Where's Gretyl?" I shouted, hardly aware I'd opened my mouth.
"Where's Sean?" someone else called. "Where's Gretyl?"
"Family advocates are flying in now. The train service has been cut, thanks to these students, and our ability to uplink on broadband has been severely curtailed. These acts of sabotage--"
"Illegal voiding!" another student shouted.
"Constitute high felonies under the district book and United Martian codes--"
"Where's SEAN? Where's GRETYL?" Oliver shouted, hair awry, flinging up his hand, fingers splayed.
Guards moved in, shoving through us none too gently, and grabbed him. Connor stepped forward and raised her arm. Achmed Crown Niger ordered the guards to release him. Oliver shrugged their arms away and smiled back at us triumphantly.
Dauble seemed unaffected by the confusion. "These acts will be fully prosecuted."
"Where's SEAN? Where's GRETYL?" several students yelled again.
"Sean's dead!. Gretyl's dead!" shouted one high, shrill voice. The effect was electric.
"Who says? Who knows?" others called. The students cried out and milled like sheep.
"Nobody has been killed," Dauble said, her composure suddenly less solid.
Dauble conferred with her advisors, then turned back to us. "Sean Dickinson is in the university infirmary with self-inflicted wounds. Everything possible is being done to help him. Gretyl Laughton is in the infirmary as well, with injuries from self-exposure."
The reporters hadn't heard this yet; their interest was immediate, and all focused on Dauble.
"How were the students injured?" asked one reporter, her pickup pointed at Dauble.
'There have been several small injuries--"
"Inflicted by the guards?"
"No," Connor said.
"Is it true the guards have been armed all along? Even before the sabotage?" another reporter asked.
"We anticipated trouble from the beginning," Dauble said. "These student have proven us correct."
"But the guards aren't authorized police or regulars--how do you justify that under district charter?"
"Justify all of it!" Diane shouted.
"I don't understand your attitude," Dauble said to us after a few moments of careful consideration in the full gaze of hot LitVid. "You sabotage life-support equipment--"
"That's a lie!" a student shouted.
"Disrupt the lawful conduct of this university, and now you resort to attempted suicide. What kind of Martians are you? Do your parents approve of this treachery?"
Dauble screwed her face into an expression between parental exasperation and deep concern. "What in the hell is wrong with you? Who raised you--thugs?"
The meeting came to an abrupt end. Dauble and her entourage departed, followed by the reporters. When several reporters tried to talk to us, they were unceremoniously ejected from the dining hall.
How very, very stupid, I thought.
* * *
I felt a bit faint from hunger; we hadn't eaten in twenty hours. A few university staff, clearly uncomfortable, served us bowls of quick paste from trays, The nutritional nano was tasteless but still seemed heaven-sent. We had been provided with sleeping pads and blankets and were told winds were up and dust was blowing, grounding shuttles. No advocates or parents had yet come in to see us.
While being fed, we had bee n divided into groups of six, each assigned two guards. The guards actively discouraged talk between the groups, moving us farther and farther apart until we spread out through the hall. Oliver, considered a loudmouth activist, was prodded into a selected group of other loudmouths that included Diane. Charles sat with five others across the hall, about twenty meters away.
When we still tried to talk, the dining hall sound system blared out loud pioneer music, old-fashioned soul-stirring crap I had enjoyed as a kid, but found bitterly inappropriate now.
When I was free to speak with the Medias and Pressians, I thought, what a story I'd tell...I had seen and done things in the past few days that my entire life had not prepared me for, and I had felt emotions unknown to me: righteous anger, political confraternity and solidarity, deep fear.
I worried for Sean. All our information came through Achmed Crown Niger, who visited every few hours to hand out scraps of generally useless news. I took a real dislike to him: professional, collected, he was every gram the guvvie man. I focused on his pale, fine-featured face for a time, blaming him for all our troubles. He must have advised the chancellor and governor...He must have outlined their strategy, maybe even planned the banning and voiding of students...
I thought dreamily about a possible life with Sean, if he paid any attention to me after his recovery.
Nothing to do. Nothing to think. The lights in the dining hall went out. The music stopped.
I slept on the floor, nestled like a puppy against Felicia's back.
* * *
Someone touched my shoulder. I opened my eyes from a light doze. Charles leaned over me, his face thinner and older, but his smile the same: too calm, somehow, like a young Buddha. His cheeks had pinked as if smirched with poorly applied makeup: a mild case of vacuum rose. Most of the students around us still slept.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
I sat up and looked around. The lights were still dim, but it was obvious the guards had gone.
"Tired," I said. I swallowed hard. My throat was parched and I could feel the oxidant welts itching fiercely. "Where's our food and water?"
"I don't think we're going to get any unless we go for it ourselves."
I stood and stretched my arms. "Are you all right?" I asked, squinting at him, reaching up to his cheeks.
"My mask leaked. I'm fine. My eyes are okay. You look strong," Charles said.
"I feel shitty," I said. "Where are the guards?"
"Probably trying to get out of here any way they can."
He lifted his hands. "I don't know. They backed out about an hour ago."
Oliver Peskin and Diane walked over and we squatted on the floor in whispered confab. Felicia stirred and poked Chao in the ribs.
"What happened to Sean?" Diane asked Charles.
"He was planting a charge when it went off," Charles said. "They say he set it off on purpose."
"He wouldn't do that," Felicia said, face screwed up in disgust.
"Gretyl pulled her mask off," I said.
"Insane," Charles said.
"She had her reasons," Chao said.
"Anyway," Diane went on. "We need leaders."
"We're not going to be here much longer," Oliver said.
"Oliver's right. We're not guarded. Something's changed," Charles said.
"We have to stick together," Diane insisted.
"If something's changed, it has to have changed in our favor," Oliver said. "It couldn't get any worse."
"We still need leaders," I said. "We should wake people up now and see what the group thinks."
"What if we've won?" Felicia asked. "What do we do?"
"Find out how much we've won, and why," Charles said.
* * *
We explored the tunnels around the dining hall, venturing back to the old dorms, all quite empty now. We encountered a few arbeiters about their maintenance business, but no humans. After an hour, we begin to worry--the situation was spooky.
Fanning out, we began a systematic exploration of the upper levels of the entire university, reporting to each other on local links. Charles volunteered to join me. We took the north tunnels, closest to emergency external shafts and farthest from the administration chambers. The tunnels were dark but warm; the air smelled stale, but it was breathable. Our feet made hollow scuffing echoes in the deserted halls. The university seemed to be in an emergency power-down.
Charles walked a step ahead. I watched him closely, wondering why he wanted to be so friendly when I had given him so little encouragement.
We didn't say much, simply stating the obvious, signaling to each other with whistles after splitting to try separate tunnels, nodding cordially when we rejoined and moved on. Gradually we moved south again, expecting to meet up with other students.
We explored a dark corridor connecting the old dorm branch with UMS's newer tunnels. A bright light flashed ahead. We stood our ground. A woman in an ill-fitting pressure suit shined her light directly into our faces.
"University staff?" she asked.
"Hell, no. Who are you?" Charles asked.
"I'm an advocate," the woman said. "Pardon the stolen suit. I flew in through the storm about half an hour ago. Landed during a dust lull and found a few of these abandoned near the locks. We were told there was no air in here."
"Who told you that?"
"The last man out, and he went in a hurry, too. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I said. "Where is everybody?"
The advocate lifted her face plate and sniffed noisily. "Sorry. My nose hates flopsand. The university was evacuated seven hours ago. Bomb threat. They said a bunch of Gobacks had dumped air and planted charges in the administration chambers. Everybody left in ground vehicles. They took them overland by tractor to an intact train line."
"You're brave to come this far," Charles said. "You don't think there is a bomb, do you?"
The woman removed her helmet and smiled wolfishly. "Probably not. They didn't tell us anybody was here. They must not like you. How many are here?"
"They voided the reporters before they evacuated. I saw you on LitVid. Press conference didn't go well. So where are the rest of you?"
We led her to the dining hall. All the far-flung explorers were called in.
The advocate stood in the middle of the assembly, asking and answering questions. "I presume I'm the first advocate to get here. First off, my name is Maria Sanchez Ochoa. I'm an independent employed by Grigio BM from Tharsis."
Felicia stepped forward. "That's my family," she said. Two others came forward as well.
"Good to see you," Maria Sanchez Ochoa said. "The family's worried. I'd like to get your names and report that you're all safe."
"What's happened?" Diane asked. "I'm very confused." Others joined in.
"What happened to Sean and Gretyl?" I asked, interrupting the babble.
"University security handed them over to Sinai district police early yesterday morning. Both were injured, but I don't know to what extent. The university claimed they were injured by their own hands."
'they're alive?" I continued.
"I presume so. They're at Time's River Canyon Hospital." She started recording names, lifting her slate and letting each speak and be recognized in turn.
I looked to my right and saw Charles standing beside me. He smiled, and I returned his smile and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Will someone take this outside and shoot it up to a satcom? None of the cables or repeaters are working, thanks to you folks." Ochoa gave her slate to a student, who left the dining area to get to the glass roof of the administration upper levels.
"Now, some background, since I doubt you've heard much news recently."
"Nothing useful," Oliver said.
"Right. I hate to tell you this, but you didn't do a thing for your cause by acting like a bunch of Parisian Communards. The Statist government planted its own bombs months ago, political and legal, far away from UMS, and they exploded just two days ago. We have a bad situation here, folks, and that explains some of the delay in getting to you. The constitutional accord is off. The Statists have resigned, and the old BM Charter government has been called back into session."
The battle was over. But we were small potatoes,
Ochoa concluded by saying, "You folks have wrecked university property, you've violated laws in every Martian book I can think of, and you've put yourselves in a great deal of danger. What has it gotten you?
"Fortunately, it probably won't get you any time in jail. I've heard that former Statist politicos are shipping out by dozens--and that probably includes Connor and Dauble. Nobody in their right mind is going to charge you under Statist law."
"What did they do?" Charles asked.
"Nobody's sure about all that they've done, but it looks like the government invited Earth participation in Mars politics, sought kickbacks from Belter BMs to let them mine Hellas--"
Gasps from the assembly. We had thought we were radical.
"And planned to nationalize all BM holdings by year's end."
We met these pronouncements with stunned silence.
* * *
We stayed in the old dorms while security crews from Gorrie Mars BM checked out the entire university grounds. New rails were manufactured, trains came in, and most of us went home. I stayed, as did Oliver, Felicia, and Charles. I was beginning to think that Charles wanted to be near me.
I met my family in the station two days after our release, Father and Mother and my older brother Stan. My parents looked pale and shaken by both fear and anger. My father told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had violated his most sacred principles in joining the radicals. I tried to explain my reasons, but didn't get through to him, and no wonder: they weren't entirely clear to me.
Stan, perpetually amused by the attitudes and actions of his younger sister, simply stood back with a calm smile. That smile reminded me of Charles.
* * *
Charles, Oliver, Felicia and 1 bought our tickets at the autobox and walked across the UMS depot platform. We all felt more than a little like outlaws, or at least pariahs.
It was late morning and a few dozen interim university administrators had come in on the same train we would be taking out. Dressed in formal grays and browns, they stood under the glass skylights shuffling their feet, clutching their small bags and waiting for their security escort, glancing at us suspiciously.
Rail staff didn't know we were part of the group responsible for breaking the UMS line, but they suspected. All credit to the railway that it honored charter and did not refuse service.
The four of us sat in the rearmost car, fastening ourselves into the narrow seats. The rest of the train was empty.
In 2371, five hundred thousand kilometers of maglev train tracks spread over Mars, thousands more being added by arbeiters each year. The trains were the best way to travel: sitting in comfort and silence as the silver millipedes flew centimeters above their thick black rails, rhythmically boosting every three or four hundred meters and reaching speeds of several hundred kiphs. I loved watching vast stretches of boulder-strewn flatlands rush by, seeing fans of dust topped by thin curling puffs as static blowers in the train's nose cleared the tracks ahead.
I did not much enjoy the train ride to Time's River Canyon Hospital, however.
We didn't have much to say. We had been elected by the scattered remnants of the protest group to visit Sean and Gretyl.
We accelerated out of the UMS station just before noon, pressed into our seats, absorbing the soothing rumble of the carriage. Within a few minutes, we were up to three hundred kiphs, and the great plain below our ports became an ochre blur. In a window seat, I stared at the land and asked myself where I really was, and who.
Charles had taken the seat beside me, but mercifully, said little. Since my father's stern lecture, I had felt empty or worse. The days of having nothing to do but sign releases and talk to temp security had worn me down to a negative.
Oliver tried to break the gloom by suggesting we play a word game. Felicia shook her head. Charles glanced at me, read my lack of interest, and said, "Maybe later." Oliver shrugged and held up his slate to speck the latest LitVid.
I dozed off for a few minutes. Charles pressed my shoulder gently. We were slowing. "You keep waking me up," I said.
"You keep napping off in the boring parts," he said.
"You are so fapping pleasant, you know?" I said.
"Sorry." His face fell.
"And why are you..." I was about to say following me but I could hardly support that accusation with much evidence. The train had slowed and was now sliding into Time's River Depot. Outside, the sky was deep brown, black at zenith. The Milky Way dropped between high canyon walls as if seeking to fill the ancient flood channel.
"I think you're interesting," Charles said, unharnessing and stepping into the aisle.
I shook my head and led the way to the forward lock. "We're stressed," I murmured.
"It's okay," Charles said.
Felicia looked at us with a bemused smile.
* * *
In the hospital waiting room, an earnest young public defender thrust a slateful of release forms at us. "Which government are you sending these to?" Oliver asked. The man's uniform had conspicuous outlines of thread where patches had been removed.
"Whoever," he answered. "You're from UMS, right? Friends and colleagues of the patients?"
"Fellow students," Felicia said.
"Right. Now listen. I have to say this, in case one of you is going to shoot off to a LitVid. 'the Time's River District neither condones nor condemns the actions taken by these patients. We follow historical Martian charter and treat any and all patients, regardless of legal circumstance or political belief. Any statements they make do not represent--'"
"Jesus," Felicia said.
"'--the policy or attitudes of this hospital, nor the policy of Time's River District.' End of sermon." The public defender stepped back and waved us through.
* * *
I was shocked by what we saw when we entered Sean's room. He had been tilted into a corner at forty-five degrees, wrapped in white surgical nano and tied to a steel recovery board. Monitors guided his reconstruction through fluid and optic fibers. Only now did we realize how badly he had been injured.
As we entered his room, he turned his head and stared at us impassively through distant green-gray eyes. We made our awkward openings, and he responded with a casual, "How's the outside world?"
"In an uproar," Oliver said. Sean glanced at me as if I were only there in part, not a fully developed human being, but a ghost of mild interest. I specked the moments of passionate speech when he had riveted the crowded students and compared it to this lackluster shell and was immensely saddened. "Good," Sean said, measuring the word with silent lips before repeating it aloud. He looked at a projected paleoscape of Mars on the wall opposite: soaring aqueduct bridges, long gleaming pipes suspended from tree-like pedestals and fruited with clusters of green globes, some thirty or forty meters across...A convincing mural of our world before the planet sucked in its water, shed its atmosphere, and withered.
"The Council's taken over everything again," I said. "The syndics of all the BMs are meeting to patch things together."
Sean did not react.
"Nobody's told us how you were hurt," Felicia said. We looked at her, astonished at this untruth. Ochoa had checked into all the security reports, including those filed by university guards, and pieced together the story.
"The charges," Sean said, hesitating not a moment, and I thought, Whatever Felicia is up to, he'll tell the truth...and why expect him not to?
"The charges went off prematurely, before I had a chance to get out of the way. I set the charges alone. Of course."
"Of course," Oliver said.
Charles stayed in the rear, hands folded before him like a small boy at a funeral.
"Blew me out of my skinseal. I kept my helmet on, oddly enough. Exposed my guts. Everything boiled, I remember quite a lot, strangely. Watching my blood boil. Somebody had the presence of mind to throw a patch over me. It wrapped me up and slowed me down and they pulled me into the infirmary about an hour later. I don't remember much after that."
"Jesus," Felicia said, in exactly the same tone she had used for the public defender in the waiting room.
"We did it to them, didn't we? Got the ball rolling," Sean said.
"Actually--" Oliver began, but Felicia, with a tender expression, broke in.
"We did it," she said. Oliver raised his eyebrows.
"I'm going to be okay. About half of me will need replacing. I don't know who's paying for it. My family, I suppose. I've been thinking."
"Yeah?" Felicia said.
"I know what set the charge off," Sean said. "Somebody broke the timer before I planted it. I'd like one or all of you to find out who."
Nobody spoke for a moment. "You think somebody did it deliberately?" I asked.
Sean nodded. "We checked the equipment a hundred times and everything worked."
"Who would have done something like that?" Oliver asked, horrified.
"Somebody," Sean said. "Keep the students together. This isn't over yet." He turned to face me, suddenly focusing. "Take a message to Gretyl. Tell her she was a goddamned fool and I love her madly." He bit into the words goddamned fool as if they were a savory cake that gave him great satisfaction. I had never seen such a join of pain and bitter pride.
"Tell her she and I will take the reins again and guide this mess home right. Tell her just that."
"Guide the mess home right," I repeated, still under his spell.
"We have a larger purpose," Sean said. "We have to break this planet out of its goddamned business-as-usual, corrupt, bow-down-to-the-Triple, struggle-along mentality. We can do that. We can make our own party. It's a beginning." His eyes fixed on each of us in turn, as if to brand us. Felicia held out her splayed fingers and Sean lifted his free arm to awkwardly press his hand against hers. Oliver did the same. Charles stood back; too much for him, I was about to raise my hand and match Sean's. But Sean saw my hesitation, my change of expression when Charles stepped back, and he dropped his hand before I could decide.
"Heart and mind, heart and mind," Sean said softly. "You are...Casseia, right? Casseia Majumdar?"
"How did your family fare in all this?"
"I don't know," I said,
"They're fixed to prosper. The Gobacks will do well in the next government. It was funny, Connor thinking we were Gobacks. Are you a Goback, Casseia?"
I shook my head, throat tight. His tone was so stiff and distant, so reproving.
"Show it to me, Casseia. Heart and mind."
"I don't think you have any right to question my loyalty because of my family," I said,
Sean's gaze went cold. "If you're not dedicated, you could turn on us...just like whoever broke the timer."
"Gretyl handled the charge," Charles said. "Nobody else touched it. Certainly not Casseia."
"We all slept, didn't we?" Sean said. "But it's irrelevant, really. That part's over."
He closed his eyes and licked his lips. A cup came up from the wallmount arbeiter and a stream of liquid poured into his mouth. He sucked it up with the expertise of days in the hospital.
"What do you mean?" Felicia asked in a little voice.
"I'll have to pick all.over again. Most of you went home, didn't you?"
"Some did," Felicia said. "We stayed."
"We needed students to occupy and hold, to take the administration chambers and dictate terms. We could work from the university as a base, claim it as a forfeit for illegal voiding, claim it for damages...If I had been there, that's what we would have done."
I felt like crying. The injustice of Sean's veiled accusations, mixed with my very real infatuation and guilt at not serving the cause better, turned my stomach.
"Go talk to Gretyl. And you two..." He pointed to Charles and me. "Think it over. Who are you? Where do you want to be in ten years?"
* * *
Gretyl was less severely injured, but looked worse. Her head had been wrapped in a bulky breather, leaving only a gap for her eyes. She had been laid back at forty-five degrees on a steel recovery plate as well, and tubes ran from mazes of nano clumps on her chest and neck. An arbeiter had discreetly draped the rest of her with a white sheet for our visit. She watched us enter, and her silky artificial voice said, "How's Sean? You've been to see him?"
"He's fine, "Oliver said. I was too unhappy to talk.
"We haven't been allowed to visit. This hospital shits protocol. What's being said outside? Did we get any attention?"
Felicia explained as gently as possible that we really hadn't accomplished much. She was, ready to be a little harder with Gretyl than with Sean; perhaps she was infatuated with Sean as well. I had a sudden insight into people and revolutions, and did not like what I saw.
"Sean has a plan to change that," Gretyl said.
"I'm sure he does," Oliver said.
"What's on at UMS?"
"They're moving in a new administration. All the Statist appointees have resigned or been put on leave."
"Sounds like they're being punished."
"It's routine. All appointments are being reviewed," Oliver said.
Gretyl sighed--an artificial note of great beauty--and extended her hand. Felicia squeezed it. Charles and I remained in the background. "He thinks the charge that blew up was tampered with," Oliver said.
"It may have been," Gretyl said. "It must have been."
"But only you and he handled it," Charles said.
Gretyl sighed again. "It was just a standard Excavex twokilo tube. We didn't pay a lot of money. The people who stole it for us may have tampered with it. They could have done something to make it go off. That's possible."
"We don't know that," Oliver said.
"Listen, friends, if we haven't attracted any attention yet, it's because--" She stopped and her eyes tracked the room zipzip, then narrowed.
"I have new eyes," she said. "Do you like the color? You'd better go now. We'll talk later, after I'm released."
* * *
On our way out of the hospital, in the tunnel connecting us to Time's River Station's main tube, a hungry-looking, poorly-dressed and very young male LitVid agent tried to interview us. He followed us for thirty meters, glancing at his slate between what he thought were pointed questions. We were too glum and too smart to give any answers, but despite our reticence, we ended up in a ten-second flash on a side channel for Mars Tharsis local.
Sean, on the other hand, was interviewed the next day for an hour by an agent for New Mars Committee Scan, and that was picked up and broadcast by General Solar to the Triple. He told our story to the planets, and by and large, what he told was not what I remembered.
Nobody else was interviewed.
My sadness grew; my fresh young idealism waned rapidly, replaced by no wisdom to speak of, nothing emotionally concrete.
I thought about Sean's words to us, his accusations, his pointed suspicion of me, his interview spreading distortions around the Triple. Now, I would say that he lied, but it's possible Sean Dickinson even then was too good a rabbler to respect the truth. And Gretyl, I think, was about to pass on some sound advice about political need dictating how we see--and use--history.
* * *
When we returned to our dorms at UMS, we found notices posted and doors locked. Diane met me and explained that UMS had been closed for the foreseeable future due to "curriculum revisions." Flashing icons beneath the ID plates told us we could enter our quarters once and remove our belongings. Train fare to our homes or any other destination would not be provided. Our slates received bulletins on when and where the public hearings would be held to determine the university's future course.
We were arguably worse off than we had been with Dauble and Connor.
Charles helped Diane and me pull our belongings from the room and stack them in the tunnel. There weren't many--I had sent most of my effects home after being voided. I helped Charles remove his goods, about ten kilos of equipment and research materials.
We ate a quick lunch in the train station. We didn't have much to say. Diane, Oliver and Felicia departed on the northbound, and Charles saw me to the eastbound.
As I lugged my bag into the airlock, he held out his hand, and we shook firmly. "Will 1 see you again?" he asked.
"Why not?" I said. "When our lives are straightened out."
He held onto my hand a little longer and I gently removed it. "I'd like to see you before that," he said. "For me, at least, that might be a long way off."
"All right," I said, squeezing through the door. I didn't commit myself to when. I was in no mood to establish a relationship.
* * *
My father forgave me. Mother secretly admired all that I had done, I think--and they personally footed the bill for expensive autoclasses, to keep me up-to-date on my studies. They could have charged it to the BM education expenses, as part of the larger Goback revival. Father was a-firm believer in BM rule, but too honorable to squeeze BM-appropriated guvvie funds, or take the victor's advantage.
When next I saw Connor, it was on General Solar LitVid. She was on the long dive to Earth, issuing pronouncements from the WHTCIPS (Western Hemisphere Transport Coalition Interplanetary Ship) Barrier Reef, returning, she was at pains to make Martians understand, to a kind of hero's welcome. Dauble was with her but said nothing, since day by day the awful truth of her failed Statist administration was coming out.
It so happened that there was a Majumdar BM advocate on that very ship, and he took it upon himself to represent all the BMs and other interests hoping to settle with Connor and Dauble. He served them papers, day after day after day, throughout the voyage...
By the time both of them got to Earth, ten months later, they would be poor as Jackson's Lode, born on Mars, exiled to Earth, doomed to dodging Triple suits for the rest of their days.
Copyright © 1993 by Greg Bear