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Authors: Joe Haldeman

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

Marsbound (2 page)

BOOK: Marsbound
13.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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It was not a pleasant place to sit alone and wonder what the hell I was doing. My friends back home were about evenly divided between being jealous and wondering whether I'd lost my mind, and I was leaning toward the latter group. The Coke tasted weird, too. Maybe it was drugged, and when I slumped unconscious they would drag me into the hold of a yacht and smuggle me off to Singapore for a rewarding career in white slavery. Or maybe it was made with sugar instead of corn syrup. I left it, just to be on the safe side, and went on to the hotel.

Speaking of Coke, that's what we weren't having for dinner, no matter how much Card and I might have liked it. Or a pizza or hamburger or even a cold can of beans. Of course it was going to be fancy, the last real family meal for five years.

"Fancy” in the Galapagos was not exactly Park Avenue fancy. They don't serve up the iguanas, fortunately, but there wasn't much you'd find on a normal menu.

The hotel restaurant, La Casa Dolores, served mostly Ecuadorian food, which was not a surprise. I had
picadillo,
a Cuban dish that sounded like hamburger over rice, and pretty much was, although it tasted strange, like Mexican but with a lot of lemon juice and a touch of soap. Mother said that taste came from a parsley-like herb, cilantro. I trust they won't be growing it on Mars. Or maybe it's their only green vegetable.

Dad, being Dad, ordered the most outrageous thing on the menu:
tronquito,
bull penis soup, along with goat stew. I refused to look at any of it, and propped a menu up between us so I wouldn't be able to see his plate. Mother got
ceviche,
raw fish, which came with popcorn. It actually looked pretty good (I like sushi all right) but, excuse me for being practical, I had visions of thirty-three people waiting in line for that one bathroom. I didn't want too much adventure on the first day.

(Card ordered a sausage with beans, but only ate the beans. Maybe the sausage looked too much like Dad's soup. I didn't want to know.)

Mother asked what we'd done all afternoon. Card had a detailed analysis of the island's game rooms. Why go to Mars when you can virtual yourself all over the universe, killing aliens and rescuing big-breasted babes? If we run into aliens on Mars we probably won't have a single ray gun.

I told them I'd met the pilot. “You think he's only thirty?” Mother asked.

"Well, I haven't done the math,” I said. “He was in the Space Force for five years? So he was at least twenty-three when he got out. He's been to Mars three times after that and probably spent some time on Earth in between. Got a geology degree somewhere."

"Maybe in space,” Dad said. “Passing the time. He looked thirtyish, though?"

He was still eating, so I didn't look at him. “He looked zombie-ish, actually. I guess he could have been older than thirty."

I explained about the sunblock, but didn't mention his offer to take me rock hunting. Dad was being a little too protective of me, where males were concerned, and thirty-some probably didn't sound old to him.

"It's pretty impressive,” Mother said evenly, “that he recognized you and remembered your name. I wonder if he knows all thirty-three of the passengers’ faces. Or just the pretty girls."

"Please.” I hate it when she makes me blush.

"Ooh, my pretty,” Card said in his moron voice, and I kicked him under the table. He flinched but smiled.

"None of us are going to look all that great with no make-up,” I said. Not allowed because of the air recycling. I wanted to get a lipstick tattoo when I heard about that, but neither parent would sign the under-eighteen permission form. It's not fair—Mother had a cheek tattoo done when she was not much older than me. It's way out of style now and she hates it, but that doesn't have anything to do with me. If you get tired of a lipstick tattoo, you can cover it with lipstick, brain.

"Levels the playing field,” Dad said. “You'll be at an advantage with your beautiful skin."

"Daddy, don't.” Mention the word “skin” and all of the acne molecules in my bloodstream get excited and rush to the surface. “I won't exactly be husband-hunting. Not with only five or six guys to choose from."

"It won't be quite that bad,” Mother said.

"No,
worse!
Because most of them plan to stay on Mars, and I'm already looking forward to coming back!” I stood up and laid my napkin down and walked out of the restaurant as fast as dignity would allow. Mother said “Say
excuseme
,” and I sort of did.

I managed not to start crying until I was up in the room. I was angry at myself as much as anything. If I didn't want to do this, why did I let myself be talked into it?

Part of it might have been the lack of boys where we were headed, but we'd talked that over. We'd also talked over the physical danger and the slight inconvenience of going to college a couple of hundred million miles off campus.

I stepped out onto the balcony to get some non-air-conditioned air and was startled to see the Space Elevator, a ruler-straight line of red light that dwindled away to be swallowed by the darkness. Maybe the first two miles of fifty thousand. I hadn't seen it in the daylight.

The stars and the Milky Way were brighter than we ever saw them at home. I could see two planets, but neither of them was Mars, which I knew didn't rise until morning. Dad had pointed it out to me on the way to the airport, which seemed like a long time ago. Mars was a lot dimmer than these two, and more yellow-orange than red. I guess “the Yellow Planet” didn't sound as dramatic as the red one.

I went back down to the restaurant in time to get some ice cream along with a sticky sponge cake full of nuts and fruit. Nobody said anything about my absence. Card had probably been threatened.

Dad treated me in his delicate girl-in-her-period way, which I definitely was not. I'd gotten a prescription for Delaze and wouldn't ovulate until after we got to Mars. The download for the Space Elevator had described the use of recyclable tampons in way too much detail. With luck, I'd never have to use them in zero-gee, on the
John Carter.
Vacuum sterilizes everything, I suppose, so it was silly to be squeamish about it. But you're allowed to be a little irrational about things that personal. I managed to push it out of my mind for long enough to finish dessert.

Card and I tried TV after dinner, but everything was in Spanish except for CNN and an Australian all-news program. There was a Japanese Game Boy module, but he couldn't make it work, which didn't bother me and my book at all.

The room had a little fridge with an interesting design. Every bottle and box was stuck in place with something like a magnet. If you plucked out a Coke or something, the price flashed in the upper right-hand corner of the TV screen, and a note said it had been added to your room bill.

The fridge knew we were underage, and wouldn't let go of the liquor bottles. But we were evidently old enough for beer—a sign said the age was eighteen, but the fridge wasn't smart enough to tell whether it was serving me or my brother. So I had two beers, which helped me get to sleep, but Card stayed awake long enough to build a pyramid of six cans. I guess I could have been a responsible older sister and cut him off, but there wasn't going to be a lot of beer out on the Martian desert.

* * * *

5. Pizza hunt

Our parents didn't say anything about the $52 added to our room bill for beer, but I suppose they took one look at Card and decided he had suffered enough. He'd told me he'd had beer “plenty of times” with his sag pals at school. Maybe it was the nonalcoholic variety. This was strong Dutch beer in big cans, and six had left a lasting effect. He was pale and quiet when we left the hotel and seemed to turn slightly green when we got aboard the boat, rocking in the choppy waves.

They didn't put the Earth end of the Space Elevator on dry land, because it had to be moveable in any direction. Typhoons come through once or twice a century, and they need to get out of the way. The platform it sits on can move more than two hundred miles in twenty-four hours, far enough to dodge the worst part of a storm. Or so they say; it's never been put to the test.

The ribbon cable that the carrier rides also has to move around in order to avoid trouble at the other end—dodging human-made space debris and the larger meteors, the ones big enough to track. (Small meteor holes are patched automatically by a little robot climber.)

The platform was about forty miles offshore, and the long, thin ribbon the elevator rides wasn't usually visible except for the bright strobe lights that warned fliers away. At just the right angle, the sun's reflection could blaze like a razor line drawn in fire; I saw that twice in the hour and a half it took us to cover the distance.

Paul Collins, the pilot, looked more handsome without the white war paint. He introduced himself to Card and my parents, proving that he could recognize passengers who weren't girls.

Before we got to the Space Elevator platform itself, we skirted around a much larger thing, the “light farm,” a huge raft of solar power cells. They didn't get power directly from the Sun, but rather from an orbiting power station that turned sunlight into microwaves and beamed them down. Then it gets beamed right back up, in a way. The carrier's electric motors are powered by a big laser sitting on the platform; the laser's powered by the light farm. There's another light farm in the Ecuadorian mountains that beams power at the carrier when it's higher up.

The platform's like an old-fashioned floating oil rig, the size of an office building. The fragile-looking ribbon that the carrier rides spears straight up from the middle of it. The laser and the carrier take up most of the space, with a few huts and storage buildings here and there. It looked bigger from down on the water than the aerial pictures we'd seen.

We took an elevator to the Elevator. There was a floating dock moored to the platform. It was all very nautical feeling, ropes creaking as it moved with the waves, seagulls squawking, salt tang in the air.

Our boat rose and fell with the dock, but of course the open-air elevator didn't. It was a big metal cage that seemed to move up and down and sideways in a sort of menacing way as we bobbed with the waves. If you were sure-footed, you could time it right and just step from the dock onto the elevator. Like most people, I played it safe and jumped aboard as the floor fell away.

We all had identical little suitcases made of light titanium, with our ten kilograms of personal items. Twenty-two pounds didn't sound like very much, but we didn't have any of the stuff that you would normally pack for a trip, since we couldn't bring clothes or cosmetics. Three people had musical instruments too big to fit in the metal box.

The elevator clanked and growled all the way up. We clattered to a stop and got out onto a metal floor that felt like sandpaper, I guess some stuff to keep you from slipping. There was a guardrail, but I had a stomach flip-flop at the thought of falling back down the way we'd come. A hundred feet? Hitting the water would knock you out, at the very least.

Like we didn't have enough to worry about; let's worry about drowning.

To the salt air add a smell of oily grease and ozone tang, like a garage where they work on electric cars—and pizza? I'd have to check that out.

A guy in powder-blue coveralls, the uniform of the Space Elevator corporation, checked to make sure we were all there and there weren't any stowaways. We each picked up a fluffy towel and a folded stack of clothes. There was a sign reminding us that the clothes we were wearing would be donated to a local charity. Local? The Society for Naked Fish, I supposed.

I'd just had a shower at the hotel, but no such thing as too clean if you're going without for a couple of weeks. Or five years, if you mean a
real
shower.

The women's shower room only took six at a time, and I didn't particularly want to shower with Mom, so I left my stuff stacked by the wall and went off to explore, along with Card, who was looking a little more human.

The climber wasn't open yet, which was okay; we'd be spending plenty of time in it. It was a big white cylinder, about twenty feet in diameter and twenty feet tall, rounded on the top. Not a vast amount of room for forty people. Above it was a robot tug, all ugly machine. It would pull us up a few hundred feet, before the laser took over. It also served as a repair robot, if there was something wrong with the ribbon we were riding on.

"Big foogly laser,” Card marveled, and I suppose it was the biggest I'd ever seen, though truthfully I expected something more impressive, more futuristic. The beam it shot out was more than twenty feet in diameter, I knew, and of course it carried enough power to lift the heavy carrier up out of the Earth's gravity well. But it was only the size of a big army tank, and in fact it looked sort of military and menacing. I was more impressed by the big shimmering mirror that would bounce the laser beam up to us, to the photocells on the base of the carrier. Very foogly big mirror.

Three other young people joined us, Davina and Elspeth Feldman, sisters from Tel Aviv, and Barry Westling from Orlando, just south of us. Elspeth looked a little older than me; the others were between me and Card, I figured. Barry was a head taller than him, but a real string bean.

Elspeth was kind of large—not fat, but “large boned,” whatever that really means. You couldn't help but note that most of us future Martians were on the small side, for obvious reasons. Someone has to pay for every pound that goes to Mars. Mother spelled out the inescapable math—every day, you need twelve calories per pound to stay the same weight: someone who weighs fifty pounds more than you has to pig down everything you eat plus one Big Mac every day. Over the six-month flight, that's eighty-five extra pounds of food, on top of the extra fifty pounds of person. So small people have a better chance in the lottery.

(They call it a “lottery” to sound democratic, as if every family had an equal chance. If that were true, I wouldn't have lost a year of Saturdays to the cause.)

Thinking of food made me ask whether anyone had found out where the pizza smell was coming from. No one had, so we embarked on a quest.

BOOK: Marsbound
13.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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