Snippets of My Life (Pork Chops, the pig and his little girl Steph)
Nicola laughed, and poked Poole in the arm, hard enough to hurt. But who are you? And what has the amulet got to do with you? It is a common enough symbol. Dates all the way back to the liberation of the Earth from the Qax. This amulet was given to us by a — a being, that came through a wormhole. Our wormhole, a prototype that was to connect Jupiter to Earth. Humanity encountered it during the Second Expansion. Or was it the Third?
The legend is that on first contact a Ghost gave its life to save a stranded human being. This was a star-spanning species of awesome power. After two thousand years, we hunted down the last of them for their hides. Tell me first — where are we? His cave of yours has no windows. Nicola cut him off. This is the Solar System. The system of Earth. His eyes widened again. That is not as unusual a question as it might sound. I am used to be woken by my creators after long intervals. Poole and Nicola shard a glance. At the centre of the Galaxy, on a world dedicated to the billions of dead of the Exultant Wars, there is a statue of you, Michael Poole.
I have seen that statue for myself. And I have visited the tetrahedral cathedrals of the Wignerian faith of which you are a prophet. I am an emulation. Wignerian priests, of a sect called the Ecclesia, who inhabited — will inhabit — an abandoned military base in the Core of the Galaxy, tried to reconstruct you, or at least a copy.
Using records, documentation, scholarship — pious wishful thinking — and I am the result. Nicola snapped her fingers. A bunch of Christian fanatics tried the same trick, in the year three thousand and thirty-three — three millennia after Jesus was crucified. The Virtual laughed with her. It took me centuries to escape from the clutches of my makers. Not to be reproduced without consent.
My late brother-in-law Walter Jenkins was nothing if not an inveterate chronicler of his own life and moods. This was partly his vocation, as a commentator on philosophical, political, scientific and other matters, and partly as a result of impulses deriving from his deepest nature, which was one of introspection. After the War, he headed to London and to other centres to pursue his studies on the Martian affair, to meet with anatomists and astronomers and other experts on all things interplanetary, to discuss with other learned fools such doomed projects as a Commonweal of Mankind, an earth unified after the shock of exposure to the Martians, and what a pipe-dream that proved to be - and eventually, six years on!
In short, once he was done neglecting wife and home to go chasing after Martians across the English countryside - and after the heart-warming happy-ever-after scene of reunion with which he closed the Narrative — he all but immediately began once more chasing after the Martians in spirit, so to speak. And it was left to Carolyne to clear up the mess. As everybody knows the damage done to Woking and its suburbs and surrounds was dreadful, so close was it to Horsell Common where the first cylinder fell, but Carolyne was lucky; the house itself had been relatively spared.
Lucky too that she had not lost it all, as so many did — and that she did not need to make a claim against her insurance companies, the default of which industry in the aftermath of the Martian catastrophe being one of the more shameful social responses I thought too of that oddly moving day when the Tomb of the Vanished Warrior had been unveiled in Westminster Abbey, disrupted though the ceremony had been.
The Heat-Ray, you see, will obliterate a person without leaving a trace, and that is hard for the bereaved to absorb. So, the Vanished Warrior, an empty coffin buried with full honours, and each of us who had lost loved ones could believe that somehow a trace of our own was remembered there, forever. An oddly imaginative and empathetic gesture for a government, you might think — and so it was!
Perhaps Walter was right; perhaps the Martians would come to England following a not dissimilar impulse — and their capacity for empathy would be all the worse for us And there, still visible in the ruins of Westminster, was the tangled remains of a wrecked fighting-machine. The Martians had known Parliament was a place of importance to us, if not its specific purpose.
So they had come, one, two, three machines, to lay waste. But a party of sappers had set a trap — a lode of explosives stashed, they claimed, in the basement under the old House of Lords that Fawkes had once used to plot the destruction of Parliament. Two of the fighting-machines had limped away, barely; the third had been so damaged that even the Martian salvagers could not remove it all, and the Martian who rode under its cowled hood smashed and splashed to the winds.
A triumph it might have been but I let them talk, and I built up a picture of the new Britain in my mind — and I felt oddly ashamed, for I began to realise the extent to which, relatively safe in Paris, I had neglected the fate of my home country. It had, of course, been transformed. I imagined it as seen from above, by a high-flying bird — or by an observer through a powerful Martian telescope. The Amersham Redoubt, as their central pit had come to be called, must have looked like a livid wound, with a sprawling tangle of destruction around it.
The Cordon, where the dummy cylinders had fallen, was a wider ring of smashed-up lunar landscape centred on the Redoubt, and enclosing a circle of English ground, green and laced with the crimson of Martian vegetation — the strange zone into which I was being taken, one step at a time. To the south-east you had the great sprawl of London, a war zone, itself hugely damaged — like a coral reef stamped on and smashed by some tremendous boot General Marvin, for all his faults, had nine years to prepare us for this sort of life, a nation like an army camp.
Churchill — and you hear more from him nowadays than you do Lloyd George — puts it in uplifting terms. Just as the Martians have clearly unified their entire world and dedicated it to a single goal, of racial survival, so must we Britons emulate the best of their methods while avoiding their darkness of soul. Does a Martian have a soul to darken at all? Did you know that the American electrical inventor Tesla claimed to have received wireless signals from Mars, at the turn of the century?
Hoping to bypass the invasion fleet, you see, and demonstrate to the Martians at home that we are beings with minds of our own. And yet their response was the Heat-Ray. As Walter pointed out to me, we do know the Martians send signals between the worlds, in the creation of their huge sigils. This time it was different. A Martian got into the tunnel itself. It came down through the roof. Everybody screamed and scattered, one way or another.
And then the tentacles came down, those grabber arms they use, with the machine leaning over the hole it had made. My friend was at the back of the group and he ran for his life; only a handful made it back Maybe we should leave the Jovians alone, until we need to encounter them again — in the jungles of Venus. The Martian technology is continuing to give up its secrets. Whether we can cross between worlds any time soon, there are grand schemes afoot, to throw bridges across the Bering Strait — even the Atlantic — to dam the Mediterranean, to make our deserts bloom.
The Martian biology offers great potential too, you know. The medical people and the materials industries are falling on the red weed and its derivatives. What might one do with such fast-growing, endlessly pliable organisms? Throw a handful of seeds in the desert and watch a city grow like a forest And I have already spoken of the pouring of memories from one head into another. What is that but an avoidance of death? Or at least one could grow a perfect, even an enhanced copy But, having hinted at such chilling possibilities, he dismissed the talk with a gesture.
That was characteristic of the man But I know that is not so. There can only be few of them, as individuals, and they must be loyal to each other, as a race. Perhaps there are so few that they know each other, all of them on Mars. But this family affair is paid for with the blood and toil of a subject people — I mean, the humanoids in their cylinders. The Martians cannot have begun as leathery vampires! It must have been as it was in another fiction, the novel by that fellow, the magazine writer, who is always speculating irresponsibly on the future.
What is his name? The Year Million man. He showed a future where social division drove evolution on the earth — where two classes ultimately became two species of mankind. Perhaps it was like that on Mars. There was a donor class, who gave — or sold! And again that class division drove a ghastly sort of natural selection, which resulted in — well, what was delivered to us in the Horsell cylinder. We found the bodies of those wretched, drained humanoids. But even the Martians remain an incomplete form, unfinished themselves, with this terrible flaw, the ghastly business of the blood And yet, and yet!
The magnificence of the vision! How the hell can a star be artificial? Lobsang consulted a handheld tablet. What you have there, Joshua, is a helium star. Which is how the interstellar medium gets enriched with that stuff, as old stars die. In the far future, as generations of stars pass and process the matter of the universe over and over again, there will be new elements — stable nuclei but very massive, with masses of neutrons and protons clinging together.
Elements whose properties we can only guess at. There will be new kinds of chemistry, maybe entirely new forms of life, based on those elements. I believe that burning planet is a processing factory, producing a mass of exotic heavy elements. Maybe whoever built that helium star was thinking on very long time scales, Joshua. But by now, Joshua was no longer listening. Standing a little way back from the monoliths, he had a wider view of the landscape than the others. He shielded his eyes to see better.
No, Joshua realised, that lenticular object around the sun was no cloud. Hanging in the sky, dominating the eastern horizon, it was too big, too symmetrical to be any kind of cloud system. A big ellipse, he thought. Or maybe some kind of disc, tipped up from his viewpoint. Joshua frowned, cursing his rheumy eyes as he squinted into the sky. There was shading on the surface of that tilted disc, he could swear.
Concentric bands around the sun at the centre: And the surface was textured, not perfectly flat. Wrinkles, like mountain ranges on the moon. Wrinkles that cast a shadow, from that central sun. Joshua hobbled over to him, grabbed his shoulders, physically manoeuvred him out of the shadow of the monoliths, and made him face the eastern horizon. The rising sun was dazzling now, but the air was clear, and the reality of the object in the sky was obvious.
It may oscillate around the sun so both sides are illuminated, in turn. There must be some kind of artificial gravity, to keep everything stuck to the disc. Look, you can see different climatic zones depending on the radial distance from the sun. Desert-like zones towards the centre, more temperate, perhaps Earth-like climates further out. Joshua shook his head. We encounter a superhuman artefact, but it is as engineers of the past have imagined. Sketching with pencil and paper, scribbling down numbers.
Still they were able to antiuciupate this. Why bother, when you have perfectly sensible planets like this one hanging around? And it looks kind of — fragile — to me. Is it dynamically stable? Must need a lot of maintenance. I presume the disc would have two habitable sides? If a supernova threatened above, you could simply move below, and let the shield structure protect you.
A population equivalent to many planets could be sheltered with simple safety procedures. Indra stared up at the sky, and she smiled, and to Joshua it was as if a second sun had risen. To go exploring on it. You have whole worlds kind of mashed up together. You could walk interplanetary distances, walk from one planetary type to another, from Venus to Earth to Mars. It would depend if it were spinning or not. I imagine the gravity field would be complex.
Alternatively there could be defence systems to shoot you down. Rogue asteroids must be a threat. People forget they are even living on a disc. Agnes, sitting with her sewing basket, suppressed a sigh, and steeled herself not to intervene. Shi-mi will appreciate it. You like mushroom soup.
Then he ran out into the stockaded yard, banging the screen door behind him. Lobsang stood and stared after him, arms folded. Then he turned to Agnes. My relationship with Ben is evidently malfunctioning. Might even have one of my naps. Just to make the point. But that was the plan.
Of course the New Springfielders had already achieved a lot, and one reason Lobsang and Agnes had chosen to come here was because of their evident basic competence. They knew about hygiene, for instance. Their plumbing was good enough, they washed their hands regularly — they even made their own soap, from animal fat and potash from their charcoal burners. They had worked out some folk remedies in addition to the supplies they acquired from the Low Earths, such as quinine from wild cinchona, and willow bark for pain relief.
And they had figured out how to make the best of local resources, notably the trees, the basic stock of this forest of a world, and the way you used different types of wood for different purposes: They maintained a pottery kiln, and a forge, although they had inherited the latter from the rather more industrious first pioneers. They had started making their own clothes as the stock they had brought from the Datum slowly wore out. They even made foul-smelling candles from the fat of the pigs that had gone wild in the forest.
They did cheat, as Agnes had slowly learned. You saw few old folk, few very sick. One of the community, Bella Sarbrook, had some medical training, basic equipment such as a stethoscope and thermometer and blood pressure tester, and was studying midwifery and dentistry and other essential skills — for Bella it was a way to make a living after the death of her husband.
But when people got old, or seriously ill, or in one case when a couple had borne a disabled child, they tended to drift off back to the more sophisticated facilities of the Low Earths. Conversely the homegrown medicines and toiletries and stuff were supplemented by a trickle of produce from the Low Earths or Valhalla, either fetched back after visits there or supplied by itinerant vendors. As long as the Low Earth communities existed, why not use them? Lobsang meanwhile was running experiments in farming.
Working to a careful schedule he was rotating peas and beans to put nutrients back in the soil, and enriching the ground with the dung from the animals that he fed from the root crops and beets he planted. Now Lobsang was hard at work setting up a water-driven millstone down at Soulsby Creek. The first wheat harvest, small as it was, had drawn curious volunteers, to reap with handheld sickles, to thresh and winnow.
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Agnes sometimes wondered if the Long Earth was getting more peaceful, overall. Yellowstone had uprooted billions of people from their homes, and had had effects that had rippled out across the stepwise worlds, psychological as well as physical. She suspected that nobody felt safe any more. Maybe you ought to welcome the refugee into your home, then, because next time it could be you needing shelter. Lobsang, sweeping the floor, sighed.
And then Ben came bustling through the door after her. Shi-mi went straight over to the spilled litter. She scuffed at it with her paw, then looked up mournfully at Ben. Lobsang quietly went to the cupboard, and brought back a broom and a dustpan and brush. For a few minutes Lobsang and Ben, father and son, worked together sweeping up. Agnes sat and did her sewing, pretending not to watch. And the cat sat and licked her paws.
The fiction they still maintained in front of Ben was that the cat was just a cat, there was never even a suggestion that she could talk.
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But until then they wanted Ben to have as normal a life as possible. So the cat obeyed the house rule, and stuck at being a cat. But she glanced over at Agnes, who raised her thumb, out of sight of Lobsang and Ben. The cat actually winked. Well, you do a good job of sorting out her litter for her. And she loves you just as much as we do.
Now listen, Ben — you got angry before. I know you like school. If you were angry it was your fault; if you were annoyed, it was the fault of whoever did the annoying. We talked about that. But if their artificial nature was becoming apparent, in spite of all their efforts at concealment. But it did mean that they were a lot older than the other parents who gathered at the Irwin home to collect their kids from school every day. Look at the Bells. Does Jimmy Bamber laugh at them too? Who does she belong to? So why is she yours, then? You fix her litter.
So who looks after you? Ben wriggled away from Lobsang and ran after her. He glanced at Agnes. Lobsang had gone so far as to build himself a study. They were happy here, Agnes decided. Life, as ever, was far from perfect. Sometimes all Agnes could see were the problems. But she had the wider perspective to see that overall, as best she could judge, these people were getting it more right than wrong.
Figuring out a new way of living, based on the long experience of mankind, and their own sturdy common sense. If this was why Sally Linsay had brought them here, it was a good choice. The only problem was that Agnes was still having trouble sleeping. Capitol Square, Madison West 5, was like a movie set, Maggie had thought, not without pride.
Here she was with her crew make that crews at her side, drawn up in parade order before the steps of the Capitol building, under a clear blue Low-Earth January sky. On the stage a few guests waited for the President himself, as he made his latest public appearance at his new capital. When she was fifteen she was already notorious for having been the only western student to travel with the Chinese on that mission to Earth East Twenty Million.
Still only twenty, or less. We carry a freight of symbolism. The overt purpose of it is to go further stepwise than any ship before us, even those Chinese ships before Yellowstone. Maggie tipped up her head to see, and shielded her eyes. Precisely at noon, three airships had appeared above their heads. Cernan, were whales in the sky. And between the Navy ships, stepping in at precisely the same moment in a neat bit of synchronisation, was a smaller ship but just as sturdy-looking, its hull painted white and blue with a proud presidential seal emblazoned on its flanks and tail fins.
Now, with a hum of powerful engines, a soft downwash of air and some neat navigation, Navy One descended towards the Capitol building, and a hatch in the base of the gondola opened up to allow a staircase to extend smoothly to the stage. With secret service agents front and back, the unmistakeable form of Brian Cowley came down the ramp. The band struck up Hail to the Chief, there were good-natured cheers from the gawking crowd out beyond the perimeter, and Cowley worked his way along the line of the dignitaries with handshakes.
He was an overweight man in a crumpled suit. At last Cowley stepped up to the microphone, and grinned at the gathering before him. Cowley had always had the easy, graceful command of a natural orator — well, his whole career had been predicated on that one skill — and as his gaze swept over her, Maggie felt herself swell with pride, just a little.
Asshole the man may once have been, and may still be, but he was the President, the office was always greater than any one man - and since Yellowstone Cowley had demonstrated that there had been far worse incumbents before him. Now Cowley looked up at the new vessels, hovering above the Capitol.
The product of American technical ingenuity, and the generosity of our own people and our partners from overseas. But what of the second? I bet you looked it up before you came out here today. Beyond the Low Earths, the only major milestone anybody in the US Navy was aware of was the Gap, at around West two million, where a hole in the Long Earth string of worlds, a missing Earth, allowed easy access to space in at least one universe, and a nascent space exploration and exploitation industry had grown up as a result.
Maggie was looking forward to seeing this, in fact. Surely there were human colonies beyond the Gap. Explorers at least, or combers, the barefooted take-each-day-as-it-comes wanderers who increasingly suffused the Long Earth, throwing off the shackles of complex civilisation and living off the low-hanging fruit, of which there was always plenty, if not in this world then in the next. If they were out there nobody in an official capacity knew about it, and Maggie had a brief to keep a weather eye out for such distant wanderers.
But her ultimate goal was to travel far beyond the Gap — if the twains worked to their design capacity. They will map, they will log, they will study, and they will plant the flag. And they go to extend America as far as the footprint of this great nation can be said to exist. We got so many warm bodies on board. Think of the ship as a huge processor, air and water and food in end, sewage out the other. Whereas the numbers for the Cernan match perfectly. Maggie rubbed her face, trying to focus. By which I mean, human.
Not to mention a whole bunch of marines, who the Navy classes as a separate species. But I do try to account for all that. We have Ensign Snowy, for example, wired up to monitor his unusual metabolism. He takes that in good part. Now Cowley was growing more reflective. We all know that; only the very youngest among us cannot remember the time of plenty before Yellowstone, which we compare to the deprivation of the present. Well, recover we will, as the might and resources of the new worlds of the Long Earth come to the aid of the old. America is more than that.
I know there are some who say that Yellowstone was an instrument of God — a punishment for the sins of our nation, like the Flood that once cleansed a sinful Earth. But I say this: God may have sent the Flood, but He also gave Noah the Ark, a means for humanity to survive, a second chance that Noah and his children gratefully grasped. Yellowstone expresses the ineffable wrath of God. At around Earth West ,, the oxygenation of the air returned, and a few million worlds further on, they came to a belt of worlds with complex life of bizarre forms, and even more bizarre biochemistry according to Gerry Hemingway, even though the geology of these worlds could be quite different from the Datum.
They moved on, logging one strange world after the next, many of them hosting complex biospheres adapted to exotic conditions: But it is also a time of coming together, of a rebuilding of strength. A time that will be remembered as long as humanity survives. I say to you young people gathered before me: Go out into the new worlds God has given us. Go out there, and found a new America! Even the military crew, supposedly still at attention, broke out into cheers and hat-hurling now. Lemmy stirred slowly, feeling around for his jumpsuit in the dark of the barrack.
Yuri always thought it was amazing the kid slept at all, what with his scurvy, as the Martians called it, the stuffy head and the nausea and the disorientation, the result of a profound non-adaptation to the low gravity, and that was despite him having spent half his nineteen years up here. He lay in his narrow bunk every night, listening to the snoring of the men around him in the barrack and the shuffling of the bed-hoppers, like it was some border-control prison back in Manchester.
And behind all that there were the uncomfortable sounds of Mars itself, the unending wheeze of the pumps and fans, the popping of the dome shell as the temperature swung through its day and night extremes, and the occasional distant artillery-shell crump that might be a meteorite, or something worse. Sleep, for Yuri, was a luxury on Mars. But Lemmy slept like a baby.
Once dressed, the two of them padded barefoot through the barrack. A few inmates were awake, Yuri could tell; eyes gleamed in the dark, predatory or fearful. But nobody bothered them. Yuri still had enough of his Earthborn strength to be able to swing a fist effectively. Which was one reason why Lemmy, smart but small and sickly, hung around with him. Once out of the barrack they hurried through corridors, heading for the dome wall. All was quiet, save for a couple of squat maintenance robots working their dull way across the scuffed plastic floor. But over their heads the bland surface of the main dome stretched, shutting out the sky.
They passed a row of VR booths, all occupied. Always somebody trying to escape from Mars, and prepared to spend their hard-earned scrip to do it, whatever the time of day or night. But the handover from late night to early morning is always a slack time. With a shambling run Lemmy led Yuri around the curve of the wall, which was plastered with UN posters in Spanish, English, French, Russian, even some in Chinese, exhorting you to eat, sleep, exercise, to obey the Peacekeepers and accept whatever verdict the Community Council handed down to you, and to throw yourself into your WorkTherapy.
All the posters had been systematically marred by graffiti. Keep your voice down. Of course they would be seen, their identities observed, every movement recorded; it was just a question of whether they could get to where they wanted to be before they were stopped.
They stopped at a stretch of wall covered by a new poster, taller than Yuri was, plastered against the sloping face. It showed an astronaut in a snazzy black and silver pressure suit, smiling out at you while pointing to a cluster of stars in the night sky: Somebody had scratched a UN-dollar sign into his forehead.
Lemmy briskly ripped this off the wall, to reveal another poster reassuring you that gen-enged Martian wheat from the province of Cadiz was wholesome to eat despite the rumours, and under that — A hatchway. A metal door with rivets, rounded corners. But they never seal anything up. Beyond the hatch fluorescents blinked reluctantly to life.
They hurried down a short corridor, towards another hatch. The air smelled musty. The second hatch was stiffer, but Lemmy got them through. Now they entered a small compartment, which had windows to the outside showing streaky Martian dawn light, and the domes and blocks of Eden, this UN township. Yuri went straight to a window and pressed his hands against it. Every atom in his body longed to be out there on the Martian ground, frozen, ultraviolet-blasted desert though it might be. Mostly he never even got to look through a window. He turned and inspected the chamber.
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There was nothing in here but four holes in the wall with some kind of plastic diaphragm over them about as wide as his waist, and shelves with a clutter of elderly gear on it: How do we get outside? Then he got hold of a hand rail over one of those holes in the wall, lifted himself up with a grunt, and slid his legs feet-first through the hole. The diaphragm, flaps of flexible plastic, swallowed his lower body. He looked back at Yuri. One size fits all. Yuri had no choice but to trust him. He went to another hole in the wall, kicked away his own shoes, grabbed the bar, jumped up and swung.
The plastic flaps slid around him easily, and he felt his legs being guided into tubes of fabric. With a faint misgiving he let go of the bar, wrapped his arms around his torso, and let himself fall through the hole — and found himself standing up, inside some kind of pressure suit, outside, on the Martian surface. His head had ended up in a bubble visor. His legs had slid easily into the lower part of the suit, the leggings and boots, but his arms were still clasped around his chest.
He heard the suit come alive now he was inside it, the high-pitched hum of fans, and the material squirmed around his legs and feet, evidently adjusting to fit. The helmet, and the whole back of the suit, was fixed to the wall behind him, as if glued. But he was outside. Through the visor he saw a panorama of dusty buildings and equipment. Beside him, Lemmy stood inside another suit, similarly pinned at the back to the wall. Lemmy was working his arms inside dangling sleeves, and a neck light inside his helmet showed his face.
Yuri found the arms of his own suit, and pushed his hands down the sleeves and into gloves. The suit chafed in places, and he could see the outer layer was grubby and worn. Lemmy sneezed spectacularly, spraying the inside of his dome helmet. Designed to keep humans and their mucky bodies sealed off completely from Mars.
From back in the day when they cared about such things. Look, you just have to pull away from the wall. Everything got dust-covered on Mars. He just pulled himself forward, there was a smacking sound like a noisy kiss, and there he was, free of the wall, standing independently on Mars. He tried a step or two. At his feet, there was dust heaped everywhere, the relic of many storm seasons; this area was evidently unused. When he kicked, the dust fell like crimson snow, in the gathering red-brown light of a Martian dawn.
Lemmy coughed again; his breath was a wheezy rattle. You could see its history in the jumble of buildings around the dirt-track streets. The cylindrical bulks like Nissan huts were the remains of the first ships to land, tipped over and heaped with dirt and turned into shelters. Then had come domes like the one Yuri had been assigned to, built of panels or inflatable habs prefabricated on Earth and shipped out here, and covered over with dirt as a shield from meteorites and solar radiation.
The whole place had the feel of a prison to Yuri, or a labour camp. And all this was just a pinprick, a hold-out; the scuttlebutt was that a colony like this would be dwarfed by the giant cities the Chinese were building on the rest of the planet, like their capital, Obelisk, in Terra Cimmeria. Just to be out was a relief, to be able to walk more than fifty metres or so and not be stopped by a wall. But he longed to rip off this enclosing suit, he longed to run, off into the lapping desert.
They came to a kind of parking lot where ground vehicles were gathered around big pressurised maintenance workshops. The vehicles ranged from little one-person dust buggies, to huge diggers intended for the work of extending Barsoom-type canals to the south pole ice cap, and drilling rigs with ground anchors to hold themselves down against the low gravity while they extracted water from deep aquifers. All these great engines were coated with the clinging dust of Mars, all reduced to the same washed-out reddish-brown, their paintwork obscured.
The area was quiet, nobody around; Lemmy had been right about this window of small-hours stillness. With six big bubble wheels and a boat-like lower hull, the rover was dust-covered like the rest, but Yuri saw from scuffs and smears that a big heavy airlock door at the rear had been opened recently. And stupid enough to do what we tell it. Lemmy was good at this kind of stuff, knew his way around. Which was one reason why Yuri hung around with him - the other being, Yuri sometimes admitted to himself, a need to protect somebody even weaker than himself, here on Mars. Like Lemmy with his rat Krafft, so it was with Yuri and Lemmy.
As the cabin pressurised they opened up their suits. The cabin was a two-seater, with two sets of controls, two wheels. A hatch at the back evidently led to the rear pressurised bay. Lemmy deferred to Yuri and let him take the left-hand seat. Settling in the right seat, Lemmy punched a few panels and murmured a few commands, while his pet rat crawled around his neck and inside his jacket. Of course alarms will be ringing in the domes. Soon they were rolling away from the vehicle lot. Panels lit up with red flags, and a ponderous automated voice in what sounded to Yuri like a Bostonian accent instructed them to turn back, but Lemmy shut it all down.
There was even some kind of manual override on the transmission if you needed it. Even the language had stabilised, more or less, if not the accents; English was spoken across several worlds now and had to stay comprehensible, and there was a huge mass of recorded culture, all of which tended to keep the language static. The vehicles and vocabularies of the year were easy. Lemmy performed another miracle.
He produced a plastic flask full of a clear liquid from inside his pressure suit. Yuri grabbed it, unscrewed the cap using his teeth, and swigged. He knew what it had to be: He knew where he was, more or less, in an area called Atlantis in the southern hemisphere. So he took his alignment from the sun, which was rising now, a small, pale, distorted disc whose light turned the sky a kind of diarrhoea brown, washing out the last of the starlight. He got up some speed, and a plume of dust rose up behind them, ancient Martian dust that got endlessly sifted around this snow-globe of a planet, never settling, never raining out, never consolidating.
Lemmy whooped in exhilaration, though it quickly broke up into a cough. They soon left the colony behind. Then they passed through fields, most of them covered over with clear plastic, where UN scientists were experimenting with gen-enged wheat and potatoes. But some of the fields were open to the air, and here banks of lichen, green and purple, stained the rocks. Some of these lichen, native to Mars but some kind of relation to Earth life, were being gen-enged too, more experiments to find a way to farm Mars.
They were the most advanced life forms on Mars, although Yuri had learned that the ground beneath the human fields and domes was rotten with native bugs, dreaming the millennia pointlessly away. All this soon cleared away too, and then, under the dung-coloured sky, there was nothing but the trail, and the vehicle, and the two of them, and barely a sign that humans had ever come this way before.
Directly ahead Yuri made out what looked like a range of low, eroded hills, looming on the close horizon. The Chaos, whatever it was, where they were going to have some fun. Not far from the colony Lemmy pointed to a mound of stuff that they passed a little way off the track, a heap of boxes and canisters, some of them broken open already, and a fallen parachute draped over the dirt. All of it was stamped with UN roundels, evidently a supply drop gone wrong.
Eden relied on supplies dropped from orbit, because most of the rest of Mars was owned by the Chinese. It was like the Berlin airlift, somebody had once told Yuri, as if he would remember an event that was over a century before he was even born. They went over a pothole in the track, and the rover bounced on its fat tyres with an eerie low-gravity slowness.
As they hit the dirt once more Yuri thought he heard a noise in the rear compartment, like a grunt. But he listened closely, and heard no more. After that Lemmy went quiet, and when Yuri looked over he saw he had fallen asleep. Even the rat was dozing on his shoulder. Lemmy was only nineteen, a year younger than Yuri biologically, but he looked older, sallow, the dirt accentuating the lines in his face, even when he slept.
Well, his silence suited Yuri. He wanted nothing more in all this shrivelled-up cage of a world than to be left alone. He grinned, and put his foot down harder. They came upon the Chaos before he knew it. Distances were evidently tricky here, with the near horizon, the dry but dusty air. The Chaos was a bunch of irregular mounds sticking out of the ground, big slabs like some huge piece of Martian crust had been picked up and dropped and allowed to shatter. All of it was softened, eroded under the dusty yellow-brown sky, but he could see a few sharp edges and sheer cliffs.
He drove into shadow, between two huge hill-slabs like the paws of some tremendous animal. He found himself in a kind of valley, a gully. He could tell no water had ever run here, or not enough to carve this feature; it was just a break in the slabs. A screen on the dash pinged and lit up with some kind of map, along with more red warning lights.
Lemmy, woken by the ping, tapped a pad until the flags went away. They raced through a nest of mesas, buttes and hills, chopped through by valleys that looked as if they had been carved out by some huge laser beam. Or maybe it was more like a game, the kind of VR game he used to play back on Earth, a chase, a multi-player shooter — not the slow boring dreams of oceans and clouds that they offered you in the booths in Eden. He whooped, ignored the pinging of the warning flags, and pushed the rover even harder, and the vehicle bounced on its tyres.
Again he thought he heard some kind of grunt come from the rear cabin, but it must be a creaking of the hull. A slope rose up out of the dust under his left wheels, like a purpose-built ramp. The hurtling rover flipped neatly up and over. Suddenly Yuri was sailing through the thin air, the shifting shadows of this canyon, upside down.
The flight seemed to take an age in the low gravity. Lemmy closed his eyes. Yuri laughed out loud. The rover hit with a slam, and slid on its roof deeper into the canyon. Yuri, strapped upside down in his seat, was enough of a Martian by now to listen for the signs of a hull breach, the whistling of a leak, the ear-popping of decompression. But the hull held. The rover rammed itself between narrowing walls, and came to a sudden, juddering halt. Yuri and Lemmy exchanged a look. Ten years is worth it. He reached up to help Lemmy down.
A distinctive scraping was coming from the hatch to the rear compartment. The sound of a handle turning, a wheel. Both of them turned and watched the hatch. Even the rat sat still. The hatch swung back, awkwardly pushed; whoever was back there was upside down too. Then a head and shoulders thrust through the hatch. The face was a tattooed mask, under a scalp shaven in elaborate whorls.
She had some kind of white dust scattered over her shoulders, and the black jacket she wore. She was mad as hell. When he woke, his whole face felt like a bruise. He was lying on his back, over the joystick which dug into his spine, with his head resting on the windscreen. He touched his nose cautiously to find both nostrils bunged up by bits of ripped cloth. They were both looking at him. Lemmy huddled in a corner of the cab, with a swelling over his right eye, either from the crash or from a second punch.
The tattoos on her face were solid black slabs, and seemed designed to emphasise the glare of her pale blue eyes. Yuri could see more of that white dust on her black tunic and charcoal-coloured leggings. Yuri struggled to sit up. His back ached like hell, and his face was a mass of throbbing pain. When he was settled on the inverted cabin roof Lemmy handed him a plastic mug of coffee, cold, but he wolfed it down gratefully. How do you know? And you owe me money. Yuri had no intention of paying anything, come what may.
Instead she just grinned. I know who you are. The ice boy, right? Your name is Yuri. What the hell kind of a name is that? The first one, I think. What kind of accent is that, Australian? I grew up in Manchester, at the border with Angleterre, the Euro province. Were you one of the Heroic Generation? What did it feel like to be a Waster? I was too young anyhow. You in your freezer tray. It was an experiment. There were too many of us, my generation. So they tried freezing us in these big honeycomb banks, under the ground, in Antarctica. Whereas now they get rid of us to Mars.
I suppose it was cheaper to ship you out still frozen than to deal with you any other way. Somebody in a pressure suit, the helmet UN blue, shone a flashlight through the cabin window. Then there was more movement, vehicle lights, a big bundle being offloaded from a rover. See, that jerky way? Oh, boy, are we in trouble. And the UN has these big ships now, the hulks, big powerful engines. Nothing like the steam-engine put-puts they had in your day, I bet. A man, hefty, thrust his head and shoulders into the inverted cabin.
He wore an armoured pressure suit, military specification, but he had his helmet off. He looked maybe forty years old.
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Behind him Yuri could see the translucent walls of a temporary bubble-dome, heard the clatter of a portable air supply system. The guy glared around the cabin, at the three of them. I was asleep in the back, after my last shift. You can check the records. Nothing but a pain in the butt since they defrosted you. Once again the red-brown Martian light folded away. His life changed forever when he was recruited by Gareth Eames. I am participating in Lee Wind's comment challenge and just found you. I reviewed this book with a similar audience and they especially loved, "pork chop! Great fan art too!
I had just added this to our To-read list, so this review is very timely. I also enjoyed the movie you guys just made about Frog and Toad. Your family review is so much fun My kids like karate so we will have to get this book! Your review makes us want to read it so badly! This comment challenge is fun! Nice to meet you and your wonderful kid reviewers! I love the fan art for this post! Perhaps we'll be seeing books with your illustrations in them very soon And thanks for being part of the Comment Challenge! I loved this book!