Read Marsbound Online

Authors: Joe Haldeman

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

Marsbound (19 page)

BOOK: Marsbound
6.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

1. Setting the stage

Red says that Americans in the middle of the twentieth century used to call this sort of thing a “crash program,” which sounds ominous. Like when America had to build an atomic bomb to end World War II, or when Russia had to beat America into space to prove that communism worked.

Whatever, the effort to build Little Mars in orbit was the biggest and fastest piece of space engineering in this century, severely denting the economies of the eight countries and multinationals that banded together to get it done. It made the orbital Hilton look like a roadside motel.

The size and complexity were partly due to the ground rules driven by fear of contagion. The lung crap, Martian pulmonary cyst, proved that diseases could move from the Martians to us, through a mechanism that couldn't yet be explained. So for a period of some years, no one who had been exposed to the Martians could come in direct contact with humans who had not. Some said five years and some said ten, and a significant minority opted for forever.

The argument for forever was pretty strong. Our getting the lung crap from the Martians was less likely than getting Dutch Elm disease from a tree. More outlandish, actually, since I was part of the disease vector—it was like getting Dutch Elm disease from a person who had touched a tree that had once had the disease. But it
happened, and until scientists figured out how, anyone who had been exposed to the Martians had to be biologically isolated from the rest of the human race. That meant all of the 108 people who lived on Mars at the time of the Martian “invasion” of our living space—110, counting embryos—and especially the fourteen of us who'd been infected.

(I was not the most popular woman in the world, whether that world was Mars or Earth, since if I'd had the decency to die for disobeying orders, none of this would have happened. There were people on Earth who thought I should be imprisoned or even put to death for being a traitor to the human race. But we would have run into the Martians in a few years no matter what.)

So Little Mars was two space habitats physically joined, but biologically independent from one another. We had separate life support systems, with different environments.

It was as if you had two large houses filling a couple of acres of land, which had separate entrances and shared an interior wall with no doors and only two windows.

Their actual shape, viewed from space, was a pair of conventional toroids, like two doughnuts stuck together. They rotated fast enough to produce the illusion of normal Martian gravity. Two extensions, like pencils stuck on either side of the top doughnut, gave earth-normal gravity for our exercise rooms, and a little more oxygen. Otherwise, our toroid—the “Mars side"—matched the conditions in the Martians’ underground city.

I'd never been to the Earth side, and might never be allowed there, but I knew it was sort of like the Hilton, but bigger and more spartan. It might have as many as a hundred people, maybe thirty of them more or less permanent staff. The others were visiting scientists and scholars and dignitaries. Fewer dignitaries as the novelty wore off.

The Mars side was half farm, raising a selection of mushroom-y crops, tended mostly by the four Martians who eventually lived with us. Sometimes we'd pitch in and help with the planting and gathering, but that was largely a symbolic gesture. Their food practically grew itself, sort of like mold or mildew, and we weren't going to share it with them.

We humans lived on a combination of simple rations and the most expensive carry-out in history, box lunches from the Hilton, which floated less than a mile away, across from the Space Elevator.

The Mars side and the Earth side had only two panes of glass separating them, but they were literally worlds apart. Everything living in our little world came from Mars; all of theirs was an extension of Earth. And the twain would not meet for five or ten years, or ever.

The fact that going to Mars or to our side of Little Mars meant exile from Earth didn't stop people from volunteering. Lots of scientists were willing, or even eager, to make that sacrifice in order to study the Martians close up, here or on Mars. It gave our small population some variety, people staying with us for some months before going on to Mars.

Little Mars took three years to build, during which time I finished my bachelor's degree, a hodgepodge of course work and directed research and reading that added up to a triple degree in linguistics, literature, and philosophy, with a strong minor in xenology. My lack of facility with mathematics kept me from pursuing biology and xenobiology to any depth, but I took all the elementary courses I could.

The trip from Mars was interesting. The life support in both the lander and the zero-gee middle of the ship were adjusted to affect a compromise between human and Martian needs and comfort levels. The two living areas were kept warmer for the humans and colder for the Martians. They weren't closed by airlocks, just doors, so I could go visit Red at his home if I bundled up.

Getting to LMO, low Mars orbit, was a challenge. The Martians, mostly through Red and me, worked with engineers on Earth to develop modifications to the acceleration couches so they would work with four-legged creatures who can't actually sit down.

There was no easy way to estimate how much acceleration the Martians could handle. The return ship would normally reach 3.5 gees soon after blasting off from the Martian surface. That was more than nine times Martian gravity.

Humans can tolerate four to six gees without special equipment and training, but there was no reason to generalize from that observation—keeping the acceleration down to six times Martian gravity. Much less, though, and we wouldn't be able to make orbit.

We were learning a lot about their anatomy and physiology; they didn't mind being scanned and prodded. But we couldn't wave a magic wand and produce a centrifuge to test their tolerance for g-force.

Red wasn't worried. In the first place, he was physically one of the strongest Martians, and in the second place, he said if he died, he just died, and one would later be born to replace him.

(That was something we hadn't figured out and they couldn't explain—after fifty or sixty of them had died, about the same number became female and fertile, to give birth about a year later.)

So we went ahead with it, with some trepidation, as soon as Little Mars was up and running. We only took two Martians on the first flight, Red and Green, and six humans, Oz and Joan and me and a married pair of xenologists, Meryl Sokolow and “Moonboy” Levitus, and Dargo Solingen, I supposed for ballast. A lot of the mass going up was Martian food plus cuttings, seeds, and such, for getting crops established in their new home.

Paul was going to take us up to the new ship, the
waiting in orbit, and help transfer us and the luggage. Then he would take the
John Carter
back to the colony, and Jagrudi Pakrash would be our pilot for the seven-month trip back. She was pleasant and no doubt expert, but I did want my own personal pilot, with all his useful accessories.

My good-bye to Paul was a physical and emotional trial for both of us. The sex didn't work, no surprise, and there wasn't much to talk about that we hadn't gone over. Over and over. There was no getting around the fact that the radiation exposure limit kept him from ever coming to Earth again, and it would be many years before I could ever return to Mars. If ever.

Fortunately, we'd timed our tryst so I would leave early enough for him to get eight hours of sleep. I doubt that I got two. I stayed up late with my parents and Card, reminiscing about Earth.

It was hardest on Mother. We'd drawn ever closer since First Contact, when she seemed to be the only one who believed me. She was my protector and mentor, and in many ways my best friend.

Aristotle said that was a single soul dwelling in two bodies. But in physical fact we were one body, my part separated at birth.

It was not good-bye forever, or at least we were determined to maintain that illusion. I would be rotated back to Mars; she and any or all of them might eventually be assigned to Little Mars; we might all be allowed to go back to Earth, if contact with Martians proved to be safe.

That was a big “if.” How many years of uneventful coexistence would be enough? If I were living on Earth, I might suggest a few hundred. Just to be on the safe side.

* * * *

As it turned out, the launch was easier on the Martians than the humans. Oz, Joan, Marly, and Moonboy had been on Mars for eight or ten ares, Dargo for twelve, and they nearly suffocated under 3.5 gees; I had some trouble myself. Red and Green said it was like carrying a heavy load, but both of them routinely carried more than their own weight, tending crops.

Red enjoyed it immensely, in fact, the experience of space travel. He was budded in 1922 and had watched the human space program from its infancy to its current adolescence. He knew more about it than I did.

He and a couple of dozen others were especially well prepared for dealing with humans. Ever since the Mars colony's planning stages, they'd known that contact was inevitable. Out of a natural sense of caution, they wanted to put it off for as long as possible, but they would come to that meeting well prepared. Even the charade of not being able to speak human languages had been rehearsed since before my father was born.

My accident moved the timetable up, but not by all that much. Our satellite radar had shown the presence of water in their location, so eventually it would have been explored.

Another thing the accident did was turn a human into a relative of a Martian. They have a thing called
or at least that's a rough transliteration. It's a relationship, but also the word for a person—I was Red's
because he had saved my life, which gave him a responsibility for my future. He said there used to be a similar custom among humans in old Japan.

On the way to Little Mars, we spent a lot of time talking with Red and Green—the others more than me, since I was finishing up my last year at Maryland. In fact, I was in a kind of nonstop study mode; when I wasn't doing schoolwork I was going over the notes that the others made from their conversations with the Martians.

It was challenging but tiring, my schedule more regimented than it had ever been under Dargo's ministrations on Mars. Besides the schoolwork and colloquy with Red and Green, I kept in contact with Paul and my family. Paul was understanding and timed his calls around my schedule. As the time lag increased, our romantic conversations took on a surreal aspect. He would say something endearing and I would reply, then click open a textbook and study plant physiology for seven and a half minutes, then listen to his response and reply again, and go back to adenosine triphosphate decomposition for another seven and a half minutes—and of course he was doing something similar on his side. Not the most passionate situation.

There was also two hours of exercise a day, in one of the two one-gee extensions. One side rowing, one side cycling, both plus the resistance machine. It wasn't too unpleasant; my only time for light reading or casual VR. I think we all looked forward to the two hours’ guaranteed alone time.

The seven months’ transit went by pretty fast, a lot faster to me than going to Mars, four years before. (Two and a fraction ares. We decided to switch to Earth units at the halfway point.) I guess subjective distance is usually that way: when you take a trip to a new place, it feels longer than the return will seem. And we had plenty to occupy ourselves with.

I met twice a week, Monday and Thursday, in VR with the Mars Project Corporation Board of Trustees. That was pretty excruciating at first, with the time lag. When the lag was several minutes, it was less a conversation than an exchange of set speeches. Each of the four or five—there were twenty-four on the Board, but everybody didn't attend the meetings—would have his or her say, and I would respond. It was anything but spontaneous, since most of them e-mailed me their text hours before the meeting, for which I was grateful.

Sometimes Dargo joined in, which didn't help.

Red couldn't take part directly; it would be years before we knew enough about the Martians’ nervous system to attempt VR with them. So I'd normally go talk with him just before the meeting, even if there wasn't anything that directly needed his input.

I enjoyed talking with him, even in the dim fungoid chill of his quarters. (He said he didn't mind coming to my side, but he was much more expansive in his own environment.) In a curious way, he was more “human” to me than many of the board members and professors with whom I had regular contact, and even one of my fellow passengers.

More than an are before launch, we'd learned that Red was unique—in a sense, the only one of his family. He would live hundreds of ares, and when he died, another Red would be budded.

"I'm a Renaissance Martian,” he said. “I'm supposed to know everything, be able to duplicate any other family's functions. The one who preceded me was the last who could actually do that. Contact with the human race, radio and television, made that impossible.

"Those like Fly-in-Amber remember everything, but they don't have to make sense of it. I do. Somewhere between Jack Benny and general relativity that became impossible.” Jack Benny, I found out, was not a scientist.

He may have been obsolete, what with all that information overload, but he was still the logical one to go rescue the first alien they made contact with. He may not be the Renaissance Martian anymore, but he still was Einstein and Superman and the pope all rolled into one.

I asked him why, if the budding process could result in one individual like him every couple of centuries, why only one? Why didn't every Martian have his capabilities?

He said he didn't know: “That may be the one thing I
not know.” He referred me to Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, which of course made everything crystal clear.

Red and I had a lot of dramatic shared history, but there was another level of connectedness that was almost human, as if he were a favorite uncle. We were halfway to Earth before it dawned on me that on his side it was necessarily planned and artificial—he'd been studying the human race for more than a century before we met, and he knew how to act, to form a familylike bond with me. When I confronted him with that, he was both amused and a little upset: it was true, but he thought I'd been aware of that all along and was doing the same thing with him. There was also the
factor, which of course could not have been planned.

BOOK: Marsbound
6.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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