Read Marsbound Online

Authors: Joe Haldeman

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

Marsbound (7 page)

BOOK: Marsbound
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Actually, I could read or do limited VR while I was biking or rowing. It's kind of fun to row down the streets of New York or Paris. You do get run over a lot, but you get used to it.

* * * *

Routine or no routine, the possibility of disaster is always in the back of your mind. But you always think in terms of something dramatic, like an explosion onboard or a huge meteoroid collision. When it did happen, nobody knew but the pilot.

We had sprung a leak. On the cube, that would be air shrieking out, or at least whistling or hissing. Which would be kind of nice, because then you could find it and put a piece of duct tape over it. Ours was seeping out silently, and we didn't have too long to find the problem.

Paul put a message up on every screen, a strobing red exclamation point followed by WE ARE LOSING AIR! That got almost everybody's attention.

We were losing about a half of one percent a day. We were still four months away from Mars, so the oxygen would be getting pretty thin if we didn't fix it.

It was easy enough to find the general area of the leak. Every part of the ship could be closed off in case of emergency, so Paul just had us close up each section of the ship, one at a time, for about two hours. That was long enough to tell whether the pressure was still dropping.

First we closed off Pod A, where I lived, and I was relieved to find it wasn't there. It wasn't in Pod B, either, nor the solar storm radiation shelter. It wasn't the zero-gee center room, which basically left the lander. That was bad news. As well as being the vehicle that would get us to the Martian surface, that was where all the pilot's instrumentation and controls were. We couldn't very well just close it off for the next three months and then refill it with air for the trip down.

In fact, though, we wound up doing a version of that. First Paul tried to find the leak with a “punk"—not like granddad's ancient music, but a stick of something that smoldered. The smoke should have led us to the leak. It didn't, though, which meant we didn't have a simple thing like a meteor ("micrometeoroid,” technically) hole. A seam or something was leaking, maybe the port that the pilot looked through, or the airlock to the outside.

Of course there was also an inside airlock, between the lander and the rest of the ship, and that gave us the solution. Paul didn't have to live in the lander; he just checked things every now and then. In fact, he could monitor all the instruments with a laptop thing, from anywhere.

So although it made him nervous—not being able to run things from the pilot's chair—we closed off the lander and just let it leak. If Paul had to go in there every day or two, he could put on a spacesuit and go through the airlock.

It made some of us nervous, too, like being cargo in a ship without a rudder. Okay, that was irrational. But we'd already had one emergency. What if the next one called for immediate action, but Paul had to suit up, waiting for the airlock to cycle through? That took about two minutes.

In two minutes we covered almost a thousand miles. A lot could happen. And there weren't any spacesuits for the rest of us.

* * * *

13. Virtual friends and foes

I was not the most popular girl in my classes—I wasn't
in
class at all, of course, except as a face in a cube. As the time delay grew longer, it became impossible for me to respond in real time to what was going on. So if I had questions to ask, I had to time it so I was asking them at the beginning of class the next day.

That's a prescription for making yourself a tiresome know-it-all bitch. I had all day to think about the questions and look stuff up. So I was always thoughtful and relevant and a tiresome know-it-all bitch. Of course it didn't help at all that I was younger than most and a brave pioneer headed for another planet. The novelty of that wore off real fast.

Card wasn't having any such problems. But he already knew most of his classmates, some of them since grade school, and was more social anyhow. I've usually been the youngest in class, and the brain.

I'm also a little behind my classmates socially, or a lot behind. I had male friends but didn't date much. Still a virgin, technically, and when I'm around couples who obviously aren't, I feel like I'm wearing a sign proclaiming that fact.

That raised an interesting possibility. I never could see myself still a virgin five years from now. I might wind up being the first girl to lose her virginity on Mars—or on any other planet at all. Maybe some day they'd put up a plaque: “In this storage room on such-and-such a date..."

But with whom? I couldn't imagine Yuri tearing himself away from the keyboard long enough to get involved. Oscar and Murray seemed like such kids, though once they're college age that may be different.

There would be plenty of older men on Mars, who I'm sure would be glad to overlook my personality defects and lack of prominent secondary sexual characteristics. But thinking of an older man that way made me cringe.

Well, the next two ships would also be made up of families. Maybe I'd meet some nice Aussie or a guy from Japan or China. We could settle down on Mars and raise a bunch of weird children who ate calcium like candy and grew to be eight feet tall. Well, maybe not for a few generations.

Nobody talked about it much, but the idea of putting a breeding population of young men and women on Mars gave this project some of its urgency. After Calcutta and Gehenna, any nightmare was possible.

The mind veers away from it, but how much more sophisticated would the warriors have to be, to make the whole world into Gehenna? How much crazier would they have to be to want it?

We got into that once on the climber, Dad doubting that it would be physically possible, at least for a long time, and also doubting that the most fanatical terrorist would be
that
crazy. To hate not just his enemies, but all of humanity, that much. Mother nodded, but she had her bland patient look: I could argue, but won't. Card was kind of bored, familiar as he was with playing doomsday scenarios. Sometimes I think that nothing is really real to him, so why should doomsday be any different?

Time started passing really fast once we were settled into school, and most of our parents into their various research projects. It was more comfortable than you would expect, with all of us crammed into a space the size of a poverty-level tenement—but the parents and kids seemed to be giving each other more respect, more space.

Even the little kids calmed down. Mary Jefferson taught all four grades at once, in a partitioned-off part of B galley, and when they weren't in school or exercising, they played down in the zero-gee room, pretty far from anyone's work area, and usually respected the no-screaming rule.

(The idea of “Spaceship Earth” is such an old cliché that Granddad makes a face at it. But being constantly aware that we were isolated, surrounded by space, did seem to make us more considerate of one another. So if Earth is just a bigger ship, why couldn't they learn to be as virtuous as we are? Maybe they don't choose their crew carefully enough.)

Roberta was having more trouble than I was, making the transition from high school to college. For one thing, she's very social, and used to studying together with other girls and boys. That wasn't really possible here, with us all going to different schools. Besides, she'd tested into advanced math and chemistry, while I was starting with lowly calculus and general physical science. We both had English lit and philosophy, but of course with different textbooks.

Mother sometimes worried about my tendency to be a loner, but it turns out to be an advantage, studying when your classmates are millions of miles away.

I did coordinate my study hours with Roberta, so we were both doing lit and philosophy homework at the same time, and she helped me over some humps in the math course. We also had exercise and meal hours together most of the time, along with Elspeth.

It was not much like anybody's picture of college life. No wicked fraternity parties, no experimenting with drugs and sex and finding out how much beer you can hold before overflowing. Maybe this whole Mars thing was a ruse my parents made up to keep me off campus. My education was going to be so incomplete!

That was actually a part of college I hadn't been looking forward to. Not “growing up too fast,” as Mother repeatedly said, but looking foolish because I didn't know how to act when confronted with temptation. When do you politely decline and when should you be indignant?

And when should you say yes?

* * * *

14. Midway

At the midpoint of our voyage, Mars was a bright yellow beacon in front of us, Earth a bright blue star behind. It was an occasion to party, and the Mars Corporation had actually allotted a few kilograms’ mass for a large plastic bottle of Remy Martin cognac for that purpose.

Since several of the adults didn't drink, it proved enough to get the rest of them about as intoxicated as they wanted to be, or perhaps a little more. Like me.

We joked about the drinking age between planets and my parents shrugged. Since there was no other alcohol aboard ship, I wasn't likely to become a drunkard. Which doesn't mean I couldn't get into trouble.

Paul had only one drink, mixed with water—the curse of being captain, he said wryly—but I had three before my parents went to bed, and maybe two afterward. It lowered my inhibitions, but I suppose I wanted them lowered.

The drinks were served in the galley, where there was gravity to keep the booze in the glasses, but some of us moved into the zero-gee area to dance. Pretty strange, dancing without a floor. It was all kind of free-style and rambunctious. We took turns asking the ship for music. A lot of it was old, jazz and ska and waterbug, or ancient like waltzes and rock, but there was plenty of city and sag.

Paul and I danced for a while, usually with each other, and I guess I started feeling glamorous, or at least sexy, dominating the captain's attentions. Not that there was much unmarried competition.

The zero-gee room goes to night-light from midnight till six, conserving power and giving people a reasonably private, or at least anonymous, place to have sex—or romance, but I don't think much of that was going on. There was no real privacy in the sleeping quarters, just a thin partition, which didn't prevent some people from embarrassing the rest of us. But most couples waited and met at one dark end or the other of the zero-gee room.

At midnight the only others in the zero-gee room were the Manchesters, who left us alone after a bit of obvious yawning and stretching.

Afterward, we agreed that we both had been sort of time bombs ticking, waiting for the midnight hour. If I hadn't wanted to be “seduced,” I could have left while the lights were still on. But there was something desperate going on inside me, that wasn't just sexual desire or curiosity.

Our whispered conversation had gotten around to virginity, and my sort of in-between status, which I'd never told anyone about. But the booze loosened my tongue. When I was thirteen I was fooling around with a boy who had “borrowed” his sister's vibrator, and in the course of investigating how to use it, he was a little clumsy and popped me. It wasn't very painful, but it was the end of that relationship, right at the playing-doctor stage.

He didn't go to my school, so I didn't know whether any of the other boys knew about it, but I imagined they could all tell at a glance that I wasn't a virgin anymore. After about a year or so I realized that I still actually was.

I was unpopular and unattractive, or at least felt like it. Skipped a grade but then got it back after my parents took me out of school for a year to go overseas. They worked in London and Madrid and I went back and forth, learning about enough Spanish to order a Coke in a restaurant.

From not speaking Spanish it only took a few minutes for the conversation to get about to the difficulties of having sex in space, with lack of privacy being only one of several problems, with the conservation of momentum and angular momentum high on the list. Difficult to describe, so I asked him to demonstrate, with our clothes on, of course.

That stage didn't last too long. We explored another problem, that of getting at least partially undressed while both of you had to hold on to a handle or go spinning apart.

We did managed to get our bottoms mostly removed. He looked kind of large, if smaller than my friend's sister's vibrator, but he was slow and gentle. As soon as he got it all the way in, he ejaculated, but we stayed together and he recovered in a few minutes and did it again.

I'd been prepared for an ordeal, but in fact it was all pretty exciting and fun. I kept losing my grip and he'd swim after me, while I groped for one of the handles. We wound up floating in midair, though, holding each other's shoulders, rotating slowly, and then not slowly.

I didn't really have an orgasm until later, in the shower, but it was still overwhelming. Floating in space with Paul inside me, and me inside his arms. It took me a long time to fall asleep that night, and I woke up with the feeling still fresh. His face in the twilight, eyes closed, concentrating, and then losing control. And me not a virgin anymore, not even technically.

* * * *

It was several days before we could find the privacy to talk about it. We both were in the galley for the last breakfast shift, and I killed some time cleaning up the microwave and prep area until the last people left.

He said it quickly, almost
sotto voce
: “Carmen, I'm sorry I took advantage of you."

"You didn't. I loved it."

"But you were drinking, and I really wasn't."

"Just to get up the courage.” Not strictly true; I'm sure I would have had a couple no matter who was at the party. “Don't feel guilty.” He was still sitting down; I leaned over and hugged him from behind. “Really, don't. You made me so happy."

I could tell he was trying not to squirm. “Made me happy too,” he said in an unhappy voice.

I sat down across from him. “What? What is it? Age difference?"

"No. That's part of it, but no.” He leaned back. “It's my being pilot, which is to say captain.” He visibly struggled, trying to find words. “I want to show you how I feel, but I can't. I can't
court
you; I can't treat you differently from anybody else."

BOOK: Marsbound
12.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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