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Authors: Joe Haldeman

Tags: #Mars (Planet), #Martians, #Space Opera, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Space Colonies, #General, #Angels

Marsbound

BOOK: Marsbound
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MARSBOUND:
by Joe Haldeman

Humans have been moving into new frontiers as long as they've been human. Some things they take with them; others they discover accidentally....

* * * *

"The butterfly counts not years but moments, and has time enough."—
Rabindranath Tagore

* * * *

1. The Undead

It wasn't a lot of luggage for five years; for the longest journey anyone has ever taken. We each had an overnight bag and a small titanium suitcase.

We stepped out into the warm Florida night and carried our bags to the curb. I looked back at the house and didn't feel much. We'd only lived there two years and wouldn't be coming back. I'd be twenty-four then, and getting my own place anyhow.

Dad pointed out Jupiter and Mars, both near the horizon.

The cab hummed around the corner and stopped in front of us. “Are you the Dula party?” it said.

"No, we're just out for a walk,” Dad said. Mother gave him a look. “Of course we are. It's three in the god-damned morning."

"Your voice does not match the caller,” the cab said. “After midnight I need positive identification."

"I called,” my mother said. “Do you recognize this voice?"

"Please show me a debit card.” A tray slid out and Dad flipped a card onto it. “Voice
and
card."

The doors opened silently. “Do you require help with your luggage?"

"Stay put,” Dad said, instead of no. He's always testing them.

"No,” Mother said. The luggage handler stayed where it was and we put our small bags in the back, next to where it crouched. Its eyes followed us.

We got in, Mother and me facing Dad and Card, who was barely awake. “Verify destination,” it said. “Where are you going, please?"

"Mars,” Dad said.

"I don't understand that."

Mother sighed. “The airport. Terminal B."

"The undead,” Card said in his zombie voice.

"What are you mumbling about?"

"This thing you humans call a cab.” His eyes were closed and his lips barely moved. “It does not live, but it is not dead. It speaks."

"Go back to sleep, Card. I'll wake you up when we get to Mars."

* * * *

2. Good-bye, Cool World

It's the only elevator in the world with barf bags. My brother pointed that out. He notices things like that; I noticed the bathroom. One bathroom, for twenty people. Locked in an elevator for two weeks. It's not as big as it looks in the advertisements.

You don't call it “the elevator” once you're in it; the thing you ride in is just the climber. The Space Elevator, always capitalized, is two of these climbers plus 50,000 miles of cable that rises straight up into space. At the other end is the spaceship that will take my family to Mars. That one will have
two
bathrooms (for thirty people) but no barf bags, presumably. If you're not used to zero-gee by then, maybe they'll leave you behind.

This whole thing started two years ago, when I was young and stupid, or at least sixteen and naive. My mother wanted to get into the lottery for the Mars Project, and Dad was okay with the idea. My brother Card thought it was wonderful, and I'll admit I thought it was spec, too, at the time. So Card and I got to spend a year of Saturday mornings training to take the test—just us; there was no test for parents. Adults make it or they don't, depending on education and social adaptability. Our parents have enough education for any four people but otherwise are crushingly normal.

These tests were basically to make
us,
Card and me, seem normal, or at least normal enough not to go detroit locked up in a sardine can with twenty-nine other people for six months.

So here's the billion-dollar question: Did any of the kids aboard pass the tests just because they actually were normal? Or did all of them also give up a year of Saturdays so they could learn how to hide their homicidal tendencies from the testers? “Remember, we don't say anything about having sex with little Fido."

We flew into Puerto Villamil, a little town on a little island in the Galapagos chain, off the coast of South America. They picked it because it's on the equator and doesn't get a lot of lightning, which could give you pause if you were sitting at the bottom of a lightning rod long enough to go around the Earth twice.

The town is kind of a tourist trap for the Space Elevator and the Galapagos in general. People take a ferry out to watch it take off and return, and then go to other islands for skin-diving or to gawk at exotic animals. The islands have lots of bizarre birds and lizards. Dad said we could spend a week or two exploring when we came back.

If we came back, he didn't say. It's not like we were just moving across town.

Mother and Dad both speak Spanish, so they chatted with the taxi driver who took us from the airport to the hotel where we would get a night's rest before ferrying out to the elevator platform. The taxi was different, an electric jeep long enough to seat a dozen people, with no windshield and a canvas sun canopy rather than a roof. I asked what happens if it rains, and the driver summoned up enough English to say, “Get wet."

Card and I had a separate room, so Mom and Dad could have one last night of privacy. I hoped they were taking precautions. Six months of zero-gravity morning sickness? I wondered what they would name the baby who caused that. “Clean up your room, Barf.” “No, you can't have the car, Spew."

(After all, they named Card Card and me Carmen, after an opera that I can't stand. “Tor-e-ador, don't spit on the floor. Use the cuspidor; that's what it is for.")

We dumped our bags and went for a walk, Card one way and me the other. He went into town, so I headed for the beach. (The
parentiosas
might have assumed we were going to stay together, but they didn't give us any specific orders except to be back at the hotel by seven for dinner.)

My last day on Earth. I should do something special.

* * * *

3. Captain, my captain

The beach was less sand than rock, a jagged kind of black lava. The water swirled and splashed among the rocks and didn't look too great for wading, so I sat on a more or less smooth rock and enjoyed the sun and salt air. Real Earth air, breathe it while you can.

There was a big, gray iguana on a rock, maybe ten yards away, who ignored me. He didn't look real.

With the noise of the surf on the rocks I didn't hear the man come up behind me. “Carmen Dula?"

I jerked around, startled. He was a strange-looking older guy, maybe thirty, his skin white as chalk. With a closer look I saw it wasn't his skin; it really was something chalky, some kind of absolute sunblock. He was dressed in white, too, long pants and long sleeves and a broad-brimmed hat. Kind of good-looking aside from the clothes.

"Didn't mean to startle you.” He offered his hand, dry and strong under the chalk. “I'm Paul Collins, your pilot. Recognized you from the passenger roster."

"The climber has a pilot?"

"No, just an attendant. What's to pilot?” He smiled, metal teeth. “I'm the pilot of the
John Carter of Mars,
this time out."

"Wow. You've done it before?"

He nodded. “Twice as pilot, once as copilot, there and back.” He looked out over the ocean. “This'll be the last one. I'm staying on Mars."

"The whole five years?"

He shook his head. “Staying."

"For ... forever?"

"If I live forever.” He squatted down and picked up a flat stone and spun it out over the water. It skipped once. The iguana blinked at it. “I have to stay on either Earth or Mars. I'm sort of maxed out on radiation."

"God, I'd stay on Earth.” Was he crazy? “I mean, if I was worried about radiation."

"It's not so bad on Mars, underground,” he said, and tried another stone. It just sank. “Go up to the surface once a week. And those limits are for people who want to have children. I don't."

"Me neither,” I said, and he was tactful enough not to press for details. “That's why you're so protected? I mean the white stuff?"

"No, more thinking about sunburn than hard radiation.” He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, what there was of it. It had obviously just been mowed, down to about a quarter inch except for a trim mohawk. “I haven't had a tan since I was ... just a little older than you?"

"Nineteen,” I said, adding six weeks.

"Yeah, twenty-one. That's when I joined the Space Force. They don't encourage tans."

That was interesting. “I didn't know the military was in on the Mars project.” Officially, anyhow.

"They aren't.” He eased himself down, stiffly, to sit on the rocks. “I quit after five years. It was all air flying. One suborbital, big deal. My tour was up, and this sounded more interesting."

"But you only get to do it three or four times?"

"There's that,” he admitted, and threw a pebble at the iguana, missing by a mile. “They're way too conservative. I'm trying to change their minds."

"You couldn't do that better here on Earth?” I sat down next to him.

"Well, yes and no. Right now, if I stay there I'll be the only pilot
on
Mars, in case something goes wrong and they need one.” He threw another pebble at the lizard and missed by even more. “Can't throw worth a shit since I went to space."

I took aim and missed the creature only by inches. It glared at me for a long second and slid into the water.

"Not bad for a girl."

I decided he was joking, but you couldn't tell from his expression. “I've heard that spaceflight can be hard on the muscles."

"It is. Even though you exercise every day, you get weaker. I'm weak as a kitten in all this gravity."

Inanely, I said, “I left my cat behind. In Florida."

"How old was it? Is it."

"Nine.” Half my age; I hadn't thought of that.

He nodded. “Not too old."

"Yeah, but she won't be my cat when we get back."

"Might be. They're funny creatures.” He rubbed his fingers as if they hurt. “So you're out of school?"

I shook my head no. “Going to start university by correspondence in September. Meryland."

"That'll be interesting. Odd.” He laughed. “I partied through my first year; almost flunked out. Guess you won't have to worry about that."

"There aren't any parties on Mars? I'm disappointed."

"Oh, you have people, you have parties. Not too wild. You can't exactly send out for pizza and tap a keg of beer."

I had a sudden empty feeling, not hunger for pizza. I tried to push it away. “What
do
you do for fun? Go out exploring?"

"Yeah, I do that, go up and collect rocks. I'm a geologist by training, before I became a flyboy. Areologist now."

I knew about that; Ares is Greek for Mars. “Ever discover anything new?"

"Sure, almost every time. But it's like being a kid in a candy store, or it would be if you could find a store where they kept bringing in new candy. It's not hard to find stuff that's never been classified. You into geology?"

"No, more like English and history. I had to take Earth and Planet Science, but it wasn't my ... favorite.” My only C besides calculus, actually.

"You might learn to like it, once you have a new planet to explore.” He wiggled a pebble out of the sand and looked at it, purple. Scratched it with his thumbnail. “Funny color for lava.” He tossed it away. “I could show you around if you like. Mars."

Good grief, I thought, is the pilot hitting on me? Over thirty? “I don't want to be a bother. Just go out by myself and wander around."

"Nobody goes out alone,” he said, suddenly serious. “Something goes wrong, you could be dead in a minute.” He shrugged. “No ‘could’ about it, really. Mars is more dangerous than space, outer space. The air's so thin it might as well be a vacuum, for breathing."

"Yeah.” It's not like I'd never seen a movie. “And then the sandstorms?"

"Well, they don't exactly sneak up on you. The main danger is getting careless. You've got ground and sky and gravity. It feels safer than space. But it's not.” He looked at his watch and got up slowly. “Better get on with my exercise. See you tomorrow.” He plodded off, obviously feeling the gravity.

I didn't ask whether he wanted company. Interesting guy, but we were going to be stuck in a room together for six months, and would see plenty of each other.

I didn't really feel like company at all. Maybe I could put up with the iguana. I picked my way out to the farthest place I could stand without getting my feet too wet, and watched the swirling, crashing water.

* * * *

4. Last meal

On the way back to the hotel, I ran into Paul again. He was sitting alone in the shade of a thatched-roof patio outside a shabby bar called the Yacht Club, drinking a draft beer that looked good. I sat down with him but asked for a Coke, out of a vague concern that Dad might come by. Drinking with a man, oh my. I didn't know the legal age, either; if I was carded he'd find out I wasn't really quite nineteen.

It was a short date, anyhow. We'd just exchanged “where you from?” formalities when his cell pinged and he had to go off to the Elevator office. I did learn that he was from New Jersey but didn't have time to ask about Mafia connections or how to breathe carbon monoxide.

BOOK: Marsbound
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