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Authors: David D. Levine

Arabella of Mars

BOOK: Arabella of Mars
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To Kate—my wife, my love, my snookie, my Flying Partner. Forever and always.

 

Pr
olo
g
ue

MARS,
1812

 

THE LAST STRAW

Arabella Ashby lay prone atop a dune, her whole length pressed tight upon the cool red sands of Mars. The silence of the night lay unbroken save for the distant cry of a hunting
khulekh
, and a wind off the desert brought a familiar potpourri to her nose:
khoresh
-sap, and the cinnamon smell of Martians, and the sharp, distinctive fragrance of the sand itself. She glanced up at Phobos—still some fingers' span short of Arcturus—then back down to the darkness of the valley floor where Michael would, she knew, soon appear.

Beneath the fur-trimmed leather of her
thukhong
, her heart beat a fast tattoo, racing not only from the exertion of her rush to the top of this dune but from the exhilaration of delicious anticipation. For this, she was certain, was the night she would finally defeat her brother in the game of
shorosh khe kushura
, or Hound and Hare.

The game was simple enough. To-night Michael played the part of the
kushura
, a nimble runner of the plains, while Arabella took the role of the
shorosh
, a fierce and cunning predator. His assignment this night was to race from the stone outcrop they called Old Broken Nose to the drying-sheds on the south side of the manor house, a distance of some two miles; hers was to stop him. But though Khema had said the youngest Martian children would play this game as soon as their shells hardened, it was also a sophisticated strategic exercise … one that Michael, three years her elder, had nearly always won in the weeks they'd been playing it.

But to-night the victory would be Arabella's. For she had been observing Michael assiduously for the last few nights, and she had noted that despite Khema's constant injunctions against predictability, he nearly always traversed this valley when he wished to evade detection. Its sides were steep, its shadows deep at every time of night, and the soft sands of the valley floor hushed every footfall—but that would avail him little if his pursuer reached the valley before he did and prepared an ambush. Which was exactly what she had done.

Again she cast her eyes upward. At Michael's usual pace he would arrive just as Phobos in his passage through the sky reached the bright star Arcturus—about half past two in the morning. But as she looked up, her eye was drawn by another point of light, brighter than Arcturus and moving still faster than Phobos: an airship, cruising so high above the planet that her sails caught the sun's light long before dawn. From the size and brightness of the moving light she must be a Marsman—one of the great Mars Company ships, the “aristocrats of the air,” that plied the interplanetary atmosphere between Mars and Earth. Perhaps some of her masts or spars or planks had even originated here, on this very plantation, as one of the great
khoresh
-trees that towered in patient, soldierly rows north and east of the manor house.

Some day, Arabella thought, perhaps she might take passage on such a ship. To sail the air, and see the asteroids, and visit the swamps of Venus would be a grand adventure indeed. But to be sure, no matter how far she traveled she would always return to her beloved Woodthrush Woods.

Suddenly a
shuff
of boots on sand snatched her awareness from the interplanetary atmosphere back to the valley floor. Michael!

She had been careless. While her attention had been occupied by the ship, Michael had drawn nearly abreast of her position. Now she had mere moments in which to act.

Scrambling to her feet in the dune's soft sand, she hurled herself down into the shadowed canyon, a tolerable twelve-foot drop that would give her the momentum she needed to overcome her brother's advantages in size and weight.

But in her haste she misjudged her leap, landing instead in a thorny
gorosh
-shrub halfway up the canyon's far wall and earning a painful scratch on her head. She cursed enthusiastically in English and Martian as she struggled to free herself from the shrub's thorns and sticky, acrid-smelling sap.

“Heavens, dear sister!” Michael laughed, breathing hard from his run. “Such language!” He doubled back in order to aid her in extricating herself.

But Arabella had not given up on the game. She held out her hand as though for assistance … and as soon as he grasped it, she pulled him down into the shrub with her. The thorny branch that had trapped her snapped as he fell upon it, and the two of them rolled together down the canyon wall, tussling and laughing in the sand like a pair of
tureth
pups.

Then they rolled into a patch of moonlight, and though Michael had the upper hand he suddenly ceased his attempts to pin her to the ground. “What is the matter, dear brother?” Arabella gasped, even as she prepared to hurl him over her head with her legs. But in this place there was light enough to see his face clearly, and his expression was so grave she checked herself.

“You are injured,” he said, disentangling himself from her.

“'Tis only a scratch,” she replied. But the pain when she touched her injured scalp was sharp, and her hand when she brought it away and examined it beneath Phobos's dim light was black with blood.

Michael brought his handkerchief from his
thukhong
pocket and pressed it against the wound, causing Arabella to draw in a hissing breath through her teeth. “Lie still,” he said, his voice quite serious.

“Is it very bad, then?”

He made no reply, but as she lay on the cool sand, her breath fogging the air and the perspiration chilling on her face, she felt something seeping through her hair and dripping steadily from the lower edge of her ear, and the iron smell of blood was strong in the air. Michael's jaw tightened, and he pressed harder with the handkerchief; Arabella's breath came shallow, and she determined not to cry out from the pain.

And then Khema appeared, slipping silently from the shadows, the subtle facets of her eyes reflecting in the starlight. She had, of course, been watching them all along, unobserved; her capabilities of tracking and concealment were far beyond any thing Arabella or Michael could even begin to approach. “You leapt too late,
tutukha
,” she said. A
tutukha
was a small inoffensive herbivore, and Khema often called her this as a pet name.

“I will do better next time,
itkhalya
,” Arabella replied through gritted teeth.

“I am certain you will.”

Michael looked up at Khema, his eyes shining. “It's not stopping.”

Without a word Khema knelt and inspected the wound, her eye-stalks bending close and the hard cool carapace of her pointed fingertips delicately teasing the matted hair aside. Arabella bit her lip hard; she would
not
cry.

“This is beyond my skills,” Khema said at last, sitting back on her haunches. “You require a human physician.”

At that Arabella did cry out. “No!” she exclaimed, clutching at her
itkhalya
's sleeve. “We cannot! Mother will be furious!”

“We will endeavor to keep this from her.”

*   *   *

The pain of Dr. Fellowes's needle as it stitched the wound shut was no worse than the humiliation Arabella felt as she lay on a cot in her father's office. From the shelf above Father's desk, his collection of small automata looked down in judgement: the scribe, the glockenspiel player, and especially the dancer, still given pride of place though it no longer functioned, all seemed to regard her with disappointment in their painted eyes.

Her father too, she knew, must be horribly disappointed in her, though his face with its high forehead and shock of gray hair showed more concern than dissatisfaction. Though no tears had fallen, his eyes glimmered in the flickering lamplight, and when she considered how she had let him down Arabella felt a hot sting of shame in her own eyes.

Even the crude little drummer she herself had built, a simple clockwork with just one motion, seemed let down by its creator. She had been so proud when she had presented it to Father on his birthday last year and he had placed it on the shelf with his most treasured possessions; now, she felt sure, he would surely retire it to some dark corner.

Again and again the needle stabbed Arabella's scalp; the repeated tug and soft hiss of the thread passing through her skin seemed to go on and on. “A little more light, please,” the doctor said, and Khema adjusted the wick on the lamp. “Not much longer.” The doctor's clothing smelled of dust and leather, and the sweat of the
huresh
on which Michael had fetched him from his home. Michael himself looked on from behind him, his sandy hair and heart-shaped face so very like her own, his blue eyes filled with worry.

“There now,” said the doctor, clipping off the thread. “All finished.” Khema brought him a washbasin, and as he cleaned the blood from his hands he said, “Scalp wounds do bleed quite frightfully, but the actual danger is slight; if you keep the wound clean it should heal up nicely. And even if there should be a scar, it will be hidden by your hair.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Arabella said, sitting up and examining his work in the window-glass—the sun would rise soon, but the sky was still dark enough to give a good reflection. Her appearance, she was forced to acknowledge, was quite shocking, with dried blood everywhere, but she thought that once she had cleaned herself she might be able to arrange her hair so as to hide the stitches from her mother.

But that opportunity was denied her, for just at that moment the office door burst open and Mother charged in, still in her night-dress. “Arabella!” she cried. “What has happened to you?”

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