Read Marsbound Online

Authors: Joe Haldeman

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

Marsbound (8 page)

BOOK: Marsbound
13.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

"Of course not. I wouldn't expect—"

"But I want to! That night meant as much to me, maybe more, and I want to treat you like a lover. I can't even wink at you, not really. Let alone hold your hand, or..."

Or do it again, I realized. Even if we manufactured an opportunity. “Do you really think it's a secret? The Manchesters pretty obviously left to give us some privacy."

"You haven't told anybody?"

"No.” Not in so many words. But Elspeth and Kaimei gave me big grins that were pretty clear.

"That's important. The ship runs on rumor as much as hydrogen. People will whisper; they'll
, but as long as you and I keep it private, my ... my authority isn't compromised."

His authority. And a devilish part of me wanted to tell everybody.
I'm a real woman—I'm fucking the captain.
“I can see that."

Somebody was coming down the ladder. He stood up.

It was my mother, coffee cup in hand.

"Oh ... hello, Paul.” Amazing how much she could communicate with two words.

"Morning, Laura. See you later, Carmen.” He went up the ladder as soon as she let go.

She watched his retreating ass with a little smile. Then she got a spoonful of coffee and poured hot water on it. “I was younger than you,” she said. “Seventeen, and no, it wasn't your father."

"You didn't meet until graduate school,” I said inanely.

"He's eleven years older?"

"More like ten. He was born in February."

She put some sugar in the coffee, not normal for her. “Don't get too attached to him. He has a life on Mars, and he'll have to stay there."

"I might want to stay there, too.” Even as I said the words, I couldn't believe they'd come out of my mouth.

"We all have the option, of course.” She touched my shoulder. “He's a nice man. Don't forget there are a billion of them back on Earth."

She capped the coffee and swung up the ladder, back to her research station, without saying any motherly things like
don't let him hurt you
don't let your father know,
proving life is not a soap.

Of course Dad would know, along with everybody else. If the pilot had fucked any other innocent young thing, I suppose
would know by breakfast.

I didn't feel particularly young or innocent. If everyone knows, why not keep doing it? It wasn't as if I could get pregnant; with Delaze, I wouldn't start ovulating until after we'd landed on Mars, as he well knew. Even mighty space pilot sperm wouldn't live that long.

* * * *

After we reached the halfway mark, all of us young ones met our volunteer “Mars mentors,” people who weren't teachers or parents, but wanted to help us with our transition to their world.

My guy was “Oz,” Dr. Oswald Penninger, a life scientist like Mother. He had a big smile and a salt-and-pepper beard.

Conversation was awkward, with an eight-minute delay between “How are you?” and “Fine,” but we got used to it. It was kind of like really slow instant messaging. You ask a question and then do something else for a while, and he answers and then does something else for a while. We didn't normally use visual, unless there was something to show.

He was like everybody's favorite uncle, acknowledging the difference in our ages but then treating me like an equal who didn't know quite as much. I grew to like him better than most of the people on board, which I suppose was predictable. He was sixty-three, an African-American from Georgia, exobiologist and artist. They didn't have paper for drawing, of course, but he did beautifully intricate work onscreen that galleries in Atlanta and Oslo printed and sold.

Should an artist's pictures match his personality? Oz was a jolly plump man, given to sly wordplay and funny stories. But his art was dark and disturbing. He'd studied art in Norway for two years, and said his stuff was positively cheerful compared to the other people's in his studio. I'd have to see that to believe it.

He zapped me the software that he uses for drawing, but I've never had much talent in that direction. He said he'll show me some tricks when we meet in person. Meanwhile, I've downloaded a beginner's text on cartooning, and will try to learn enough to surprise him.

Funny to have a friend you've never touched or actually seen. I wonder whether we'll like each other in person.

* * * *

15. Sexual disorder

About a week went by without Paul suggesting another tryst, if that's the right word. He seemed to be going out of his way to treat me like just another passenger, which was of course according to plan. But I was a little anxious because he was playing the part too well.

He wasn't avoiding me, but nobody on the ship was harder to get alone. I kept taking the last breakfast shift, and finally managed to corner him.

As I approached, he got a kind of resigned look, but reached out and took my hand. “I'm afraid I'm in trouble. With Mars."

"Because of me?"

He shrugged. “You're not in trouble. But somebody heard, and is whizzed at me for ‘seducing one of the Earth children.’”

"I'm not a child! I'm nineteen, going on thirty."

"As I pointed out. They still say it was immature and unprofessional of me. Maybe they're right."

"It's not fair. We didn't really do anything wrong."

"Somebody thinks otherwise. Somebody here, who told somebody there."

"Who? Someone who has it in for you, or me?"

"I'm pretty sure who it is on Mars, but I don't know about here. It didn't have to start out malicious; just a juicy scrap of gossip.” He took a sip of coffee that was probably cold. “I hope your parents don't find out this way."

"Oh, they know. At least Mother does, and she's okay with it."

He nodded slowly. “That's good. But I guess we'd better put it on ice for awhile."

I tried to keep anger out of my voice. “I don't see why. What's done is done."

"The sexual part, yes. But now it would be insubordination as well. Which might be more serious. Would be."

"For your career."

"Not exactly. Nobody can
me. But the colony's a small town, and I have to live there the rest of my life."

"If you...” I almost said something I would regret. “If you say so. But once we're on Mars?"

"Things will be different. People will get to know you and accept you as an adult."

"Eventually. Guess I'll be one of the kids from Earth for awhile."

"Not for long, I hope.” He brightened. “Privacy isn't such an issue there, either, finding a time and place. My roommate wouldn't mind getting lost for a couple of hours, and you'll pick one you can trust."

Kaimei or Elspeth, for sure. “Unless they stick me with Card."

"They wouldn't be that cruel.” He stood and hugged me and gave me a long kiss. “I'd better move along. You'll be okay?"

"Sure. I'm sorry. But I can wait.” I didn't start crying until he was gone.

* * * *

16. A new world

Someday, I thought, maybe before I'm dead, Mars will have its own space elevator, but until then people have to get down there the old-fashioned way, in space-shuttle mode. It's like the difference between taking an elevator from the top floor of a building and jumping off with an umbrella and a prayer. Fast and terrifying.

We'd lived with the lander as part of our home for weeks and then as a mysterious kind of threatening presence, airless and waiting. Most of us weren't eager to go into it.

Before we'd made our second orbit of Mars, Paul opened the inner door, prepared to crack the airlock, and said, “Let's go."

We'd been warned, so we were bundled up against the sudden temperature drop when the airlock opened, and were not surprised that our ears popped painfully. It warmed up for an hour, and then we had to take our little metal suitcases and float through the airlock to go strap into our assigned seats, and try not to shit while we dropped like a rock to our doom.

From my studies I knew that the lander loses velocity by essentially trading speed for heat—hitting the thin Martian atmosphere at a drastic angle so the ship heats up to cherry red. What the diagrams in the physical science book don't show is the tooth-rattling vibration, the bucking and gut-wrenching wobble. If I'm never that scared again in my life I'll be really happy.

All of the violence stopped abruptly when the lander decided to become a glider, I guess a few hundred miles from the landing strip. I wished we had windows like a regular airplane, but then realized that might be asking for a heart attack. It was scary enough just to squint at Paul's two-foot-wide screen as the ground rose up to meet us, too steep and fast to believe.

We landed on skis, grating and rumbling along the rocky ground. They'd moved all the big rocks out of our way, but we felt every one of the small ones. Paul had warned us to keep our tongues away from our teeth, which was a good thing. It could be awkward, starting out life on a new planet unable to speak because you've bitten off your tongue.

We hadn't put on the Mars suits for the flight down; they were too bulky to fit in the close-ranked seats—and I guess there wasn't any disaster scenario where we would still be alive and need them. So the first order of the day was to get dressed for our new planet.

We'd tested them several times, but Paul wanted to be super-cautious the first time they were actually exposed to the Martian near-vacuum. The airlock would only hold two people at once, so we went out one at a time, with Paul observing us, ready to toss us back inside if trouble developed.

We unpacked the suits from storage under the deck and sorted them out. One for each person and two blobby general purpose ones.

We were to leave in reverse alphabetical order, which was no fun, since it made our family dead last. The lander had never felt particularly claustrophobic before, but now it was like a tiny tin can, the sardines slowly exiting one by one.

At least we could see out, via the pilot's screen. He'd set the camera on the base, where all seventy-five people had gathered to watch us land, or crash. That led to some morbid speculation on Card's part. What if we'd crash-landed
them? I guess we'd be just as likely to crash into the base behind them. I'd rather be standing outside with a spacesuit on, too.

We'd seen pictures of the base a million times, not to mention endless diagrams and descriptions of how everything worked, but it was kind of exciting to see it in real time, to actually be here. The farm part looked bigger than I'd pictured it, I guess because the people standing around gave it scale. Of course the people lived underneath, because of radiation.

It was interesting to have actual gravity. I said it felt different and Mom agreed, with a scientific explanation. Residual centripetal blah blah blah. I'll just call it real gravity, as opposed to the manufactured kind. Organic gravity.

A lot of people undressed on the spot and got into their Mars suits. I didn't see any point in standing around for an hour in the thing. I'm also a little shy, in a selective way. Paul had touched me all over, but he'd never seen me without a top. I waited until he was on the other side of the airlock before I revealed my unvoluptuous figure and barely necessary bra. Which I'd have to take off anyhow, for the skinsuit part of the Mars suit.

That part was liked a lightweight body stocking. It fastened up the front with a gecko strip, and then you pushed a button on your wrist and something electrical happened and it clasped your body like a big rubber glove. It could be sexy looking, if your body was.

The outer part of the Mars suit was more like lightweight armor, kind of loose and clanky when you put it on, but it also did an electrical thing when you zipped up, and fit more closely. Then clumsy boots and gloves and a helmet, all airtight. The joints would sigh when you moved your arms or legs or bent at the waist.

Card's suit had a place for an extension at the waist, since he could grow as much as a foot taller while we were here. Mine didn't have any such refinement, though there was room to put on a little weight if I loved Mars cooking.

Since we did follow strict anti-alphabetical order, Card got the distinction of being the last one out, and I was next to last. I got in the airlock with Paul, and he checked my oxygen tanks and the seals on my helmet, gloves, and boots. Then he pumped most of the air out, watching the clock, and asked me to count even numbers backward from thirty. (I asked him whether he had an obsession with backward lists.) He smiled at me through the helmet and kept his hand on my shoulder as the rest of the air pumped out and the door silently swung open.

The sky was brighter than I'd expected, and the ground darker. “Welcome to Mars,” Paul said on the suit radio, sounding clear but far away.

We walked down a metal ramp to the sandy, rock-strewn ground. I stepped onto another planet.

How many people had ever done that?

Everything was suddenly different. This was the most real thing I'd ever done.

They could talk until they were blue in the face about how special this was, brave new frontier, leaving the cradle of Earth, whatever, and it's finally just words. When I felt the crunch of Martian soil under my boot it was suddenly all very plain and wonderful. I remembered an old cube—a movie—of one of the first guys on the Moon, jumping around like a little kid, and I jumped myself, and again, way high.

"Careful!” came Paul's voice over the radio. “Get used to it first."

"Okay, okay.” While I walked, feather light, toward the other airlock, I tried to figure out how many people had actually done it, set foot on another world. A little more than a hundred, in all of history. And me one of them, now.

There were six of them waiting at the airlock door; everyone else had gone inside. I looked around at the rusty desert and stifled the urge to run off and explore—I mean, for more than three months we hadn't been able to go more than a few dozen feet in any direction, and here was a whole new world. But there would be time. Soon!

Mother was blinking away tears, unable to touch her face behind the helmet, crying with happiness. The dream of her lifetime. I hugged her, which felt strange, both of us swaddled in insulation. Our helmets clicked together and for a moment I heard her muffled laugh.

BOOK: Marsbound
13.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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