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The first indication I had of the mutiny came as we approached the inner limit of the first asteroid belt. Of course I didn’t know what it meant at the time; it was no more than a locked door.
The first belt we call the dud belt, because the asteroids in it are basaltic achondrite, and no use to miners. But we would be among the carbonaceous chondrites soon enough, and one day I went down to the farm to get ready. I fed a bit more light to the algae, for in the following weeks when the boats went out to break up rocks there would be a significant oxygen depletion, and we would need more chlorella around to help balance the gas exchange. I activated a few more bulbs in the lamps and started fooling around with the suspension medium. Biologic life-support systems are my work and play (I am one of the best at it), and since I was making room for more chlorella, I once again became interested in the excess biomass problem. Thinking to cut down on surplus algae by suspending it less densely, I walked between long rows of spinach and cabbage to the door of one of the storage rooms at the back of the farm, to get a few more tanks. I turned the handle of the door. It was locked.
“Emma!” called a voice. I looked up. It was Al Nordhoff, one of my assistants.
“Do you know why this door is locked?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I was wondering myself yesterday. I guess there’s classified cargo in there. I was told to leave it alone.”
“It’s our storage room,” I said, irritated.
Al shrugged. “Ask Captain Swann about it.”
Now Eric Swann and I were old friends, and I was upset that something was going on in my area that he had failed to tell me about. So when I found him on the bridge, I came straight to the point.
“Eric, how come I’m locked out of one of my own storage rooms? What have you got in there?”
Immediately he blushed as red as his hair, and hung his head. The two rocketry and guidance officers on the bridge looked down at their consoles.
“I can’t tell you what’s in there, Emma. It’s classified. I can’t tell anyone until later.”
I stared at him. I know I can intimidate people if I look at them hard enough. His blush got deeper, his freckles disappeared in the general redness, his blue eyes gave me a watery stare. But he wasn’t going to tell me. I curled my lip at him and left the bridge.
That was the first sign: a locked door, a secret reason for it. I thought to myself, We’re taking something for the Committee out to Ceres, perhaps. Weapons, no doubt. It was typical of the Mars Development Committee to keep secrets. But I didn’t jump to any conclusions; merely stayed alert.
The second sign was one I probably would have missed, had I not been alerted by the first. I was walking down the corridor to the dining commons, past the tapestry lounges between the commons and the bedrooms, when I heard voices from a lounge and stopped. Just the voices sounded funny, all whispery and rapid. I recognized John Dancer’s voice:
“We can’t do anything of the sort until after the rendezvous, and you know it.”
“No one will notice,” said a woman, perhaps Ilene Breton.
“You hope no one would notice,” Dancer replied. “But you can’t be sure that Duggins or Nordhoff wouldn’t stumble across it. We have to wait on everything until after the rendezvous, you know that.”
Then I heard steps across the velcro carpet behind me, and with a start I began to walk again, past the door of the lounge. I looked in; John and Ilene, sure enough, among several others. They all looked up as I appeared in the doorway, and their conversation abruptly died. I stared at them and they stared back, at a loss for speech. I walked on to the dining commons.
A rendezvous in the belt. A group of people, not the superior officers of the ship, in on this event and keeping it a secret from the others. A locked storage hold.…Things were not falling together for me.
After that I began to see things everywhere. People stopped talking when I walked by. There were meetings late at night, in bedrooms. I walked by the radio room once, and someone was sending out a long message through the coding machine. Quite a few of the storage room doors were locked, back behind the farm; and some of the ore holds were locked as well.
After a few days of this I shook my head and wondered if I were making it all up. There were explanations for everything I had noticed. Shipboard life tends to become cliquish on the best of runs; even though there were only forty of us, divisions would spring up over the year of an expedition. And these were troubled times, back on Mars. The consolidation of the various sectors under the central coordination of the Committee was causing a lot of dissatisfaction. Sectionalism was rife, subversive groups were everywhere, supposedly. These facts were enough to explain all the little factions I now noticed on the Rust Eagle. And paranoia is one of the most common shipboard disorders…seeing patterns is easy in such a heavily patterned environment.
So I began to discount it all. Perhaps we were carrying something to Ceres for the Committee, but that was nothing.
Still, there was something about the atmosphere of the ship in those days. More people than usual were jumpy and strained. There were mysterious glances exchanged…in an atmosphere of mystery. But here hindsight may be influencing me. The facts are what I want here. This record will help me to remember these events many years, perhaps centuries, from now, and so I must set down the facts, the sharpest spur to the memory.
In any case, the third sign was unmistakable. By this time the sun was nearly between us and Mars, and I went to the radio room to get a last letter off to my fool of a father, in jail temporarily for his loud mouth. Afterwards, I went to the jump tube, and was about to fall down to the living quarters when I heard voices floating down the tube from the bridge. Had that been my name? I pulled myself up the rail to the steps that led to the bridge, and stayed there, eavesdropping again. A habit of mine. Once more, John Dancer was speaking.
“Emma Weil is pro-Committee all the way,” he said as if arguing the point.
“Even so,” said another man, and a couple of voices cut over so that I didn’t hear what he said.
“No,” Dancer said, interrupting the other voices quickly. “Weil is probably the most important person aboard this ship. We can’t talk to her about any of this until Swann says so, and that won’t be until after the rendezvous. So you can forget it.”
That did it. When it was clear the conversation was over I hopped back to the jump tube and fell down it, aiding the faint acceleration-gravity with some pulls on the rail. I ticked off in my mind the places Swann would most likely be at that hour, intent on finding him and having a long talk. It is not healthy to believe yourself the focus of a ship-wide conspiracy.
• • •
I had known Eric Swann for a long time.
Before the turn of the century, every sector ran its own mining expeditions. Royal Dutch looked for carbonaceous chondrite; Mobil was after the basaltic chondrites in the dud belt; Texas mined the silicate types. Chevron had the project of pulling one of the Amors into a Martian orbit, to make another moon. (This became the moon Amor, which was turned into a detention center. My father lived there.) So each sector had its own asteroid crew, and I got to know the Royal Dutch miners pretty well. Swann was one of the rocketry and guidance officers, and a good friend of my husband Charlie, who was also in R and G. Over the course of many runs in the belt I talked with Swann often, and even after Charlie and I divorced we remained close.
But when the Committee took over the mining operations in 2213, all the teams, even the Soviets, were thrown into a common pool, and I saw all of my friends from Royal Dutch a lot less often. My infrequent assignments with Swann had been cause for celebration, and this present assignment, with him as captain, I had thought would be a real pleasure.
Now, pulling around the ship I was the most important person on, I was not so sure. But I thought, Swann will tell me what’s going on. And if he doesn’t know anything about all this, then he’d better be told that something funny is happening.
I found him in one of the little window rooms, seated before the thick plasteel separating him from the vacuum. His long legs were crossed in the yoga position, and he hummed softly: meditating, his mind a floating mirror of the changing square of stars.
“Hey Eric,” I said, none too softly.
“Emma,” he said dreamily, and stretched his arms like a cat. “Sit down.” He showed me a chunk of rock he had had in his lap. “Look at this Chantonnay.” That’s a chondrite that has been shocked into harder rock. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
I sat. “Yes,” I said. “So what’s happening on this trip?”
He blushed. Swann was faster at that than anyone I ever saw. “Not much. Beyond that I can’t say.”
“I know that’s the official position. But you can tell me here.”
He shook his head. “I’m going to tell you, but it has to wait a while longer.” He looked at me directly. “Don’t get angry, Emma.”
“But other people know what’s going on! A lot of them. And they’re talking about me.” I told him about the things I had noticed and overheard. “Now why should I be the most important person on this ship? That’s absurd! And why should they know about whatever it is we’re doing, and not me?”
Swann looked worried, annoyed. “They don’t all know.…You see, your help will be important, essential perhaps—” He stopped, as if he had already said too much. His freckled face twisted as his mouth moved about. Finally he shook his head violently. “You’ll just have to wait a few more days, Emma. Trust me, all right? Just trust me and wait.”
That was hardly satisfactory, but what could I do? He knew something, but he wasn’t going to tell it to me. Tight-lipped, I nodded my good-bye and left.
• • •
The mutiny occurred, ironically enough, on my eightieth birthday, a few days after my talk with Swann. August 5, 2248.
I woke up thinking, now you are an octogenarian. I got out of bed (deceleration-gee entirely gone, weightless now as we coasted), sponged my face, looked in the mirror. It is a strange experience to look inside your own retinas; down there inside is the one thinking, in that other face…it seems as if, if you could get the light right, you could see yourself.
I grasped the handholds of my exerciser and worked out for a while, thinking about birthdays. All the birthdays in this new age. One of my earliest memories, now, was my tenth birthday. My mother took me to the medical station, where I had to drink foul-tasting stuff and submit to tests and some shots—just quick blasts of air on the skin, but they scared me. “You’ll appreciate this later,” my mom said, with a funny expression. “You won’t get sick and weak when you’re old. Your immune system will stay strong. You’ll live for ever so long, Emma, don’t cry.”
Yes, yes. Apparently she was right, I thought, looking into the mirror again, where my image seemed to pulse with color under the artificial lights. Very long lives, young at eighty: the triumph of gerontology. As always, I wondered what I would do with all the extra years—the extra lives. Would I live to stand free on Martian soil, and breathe Martian air?
Thinking these thoughts I left my room, intent on breakfast. The lounges down the hall from the bedrooms were empty, an unusual thing. I walked into the last lounge before the corridor turned, to look out the small window in it, with its view over the bridge.
And there they were: two silver rectangles, like asteroids crushed into ingots of the metals they contained. Spaceships!
They were asteroid miners of the PR class, sister ships of our own. I stared at them motionlessly, my heart thudding like a drum, thinking rendezvous. The ships grew to the size of decks of cards, very slowly. They were the shape of a card deck as well, with the mining cranes and drills folded together at their fronts, bridge ceilings just barely bulging from their sides (tiny crescents of light), rocket exhausts large at their rear, like beads on their sides and front. Brilliant points of light shone from the windows, like the fluorescent spots on the deep-sea fish of Earth. They looked small beside an irregular blue-gray asteroid, against the dead black of space.
I left the lounge slowly. Turned and walked down the corridor—
In the dining commons it was bedlam.
I stopped and stared. Of the entire crew of forty-three, at least twenty-five must have been in the commons, shouting and laughing, six or seven singing the Ode to Joy, others setting up the drinks table (Ilene maneuvering the mass of the big coffee pot), John and Steven and Lanya in a mass hugging and laughing-sobbing, tears in their eyes. And on the video screen was a straight-on camera shot of the two ships, silver dots against a blue-gray asteroid, so that it looked like a die thrown through the vacuum.
They all had known. Every single one of them in the room. I found myself blinking rapidly, embarrassed and angry. Why hadn’t I been told? I wiped my eyes and got out of the doorway before I was noticed by someone inside.
Andrew Duggins flew by, pulling himself along the hall rails. His big face was scowling. “Emma!” he said, “come on,” and pulled away. I only looked at him, and he stopped. “This is a mutiny!” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the commons. “They’re taking over the ship, and those others out there too. We’ve got to try and get a message off to Ceres—to defend ourselves!” With a hard yank he pulled himself away, in the direction of the radio room.
Mutiny. All of the mysterious events I had noticed fell together, into a pattern. A plan to take over the ship. Had Swann been too afraid of the possibility to discuss it?
But there was no time for a detailed analysis. I leaped off the floor, and with a strong pull on the rail was after Duggins.
Outside the radio room there was a full-fledged fight going on. I saw Al Nordhoff striking one of the ship police in the face, Amy Van Danke twisting furiously in the hold of two men, trying to bite one in the throat. Others struggled in the doorway. Shouts and Amy’s shrieks filled the air. The fight had that awkward, dangerous quality that all brawls in weightlessness exhibit. A blow that connected (one of Al’s vicious kicks to the head of a policeman, for instance) sent both parties spinning across the room.…
“Mutiny!” Duggins bellowed, and diving forward crashed into the group in the doorway. His momentum bowled several people into the radio room, and an opening was cleared. I shoved off from the wall and grazed my head on the doorjamb going in.
After that things were blurry, but I was angry—angry that I had been deceived, that Swann and the general order of things were being challenged, that friends of mine were being hit—and I swung blindly. I caught one of the policemen on the nose with my fist, and his head smacked the wall with a loud thump. The room was crowded, arms and legs were swinging. The radio console itself was crawling with bodies. Duggins was bellowing still, and hauling figures away from the mass on the radio controls. Someone got me in a choke hold from behind. I put heel to groin and discovered it was a woman—put elbow in diaphragm and twisted under her arm, nearly strangled. Duggins had cleared the radio and was desperately manipulating the dials. I put a haymaker on the ear of a man trying to pull him away. Screams and spherical droplets of blood filled the air—
Reinforcements arrived. Eric Swann slipped through the doorways, his red hair flying wild, a tranquilizer gun in his hand. Others followed him. Darts whizzed through the air, sounding like arrows. “Mutiny!” I shrieked. “Eric! Mutiny! Mutiny!”
He saw me, pointed his gun at me and shot. I looked at the dart hanging from my forearm.
…The next thing I knew, I was being guided down the jump tube. Leaving it at my floor. I saw Swann’s face swimming above me. “Mutiny,” I said.
“That’s true,” Eric replied. “We’re going to have to put you under arrest for a few hours.” His freckle-face was stretched into a fool’s grin.
“Asshole,” I muttered. I wanted to run. I could outrun all of them. “I thought you were m’friend.”
“I am your friend, Emma. It was just too dangerous to explain. Davydov will tell you all about it when you see him.”
Davydov. Davydov? “But he was lost,” I muttered, fighting sleep and very confused. “He’s dead.”
Then I was in my bed, strapped securely. “Get some sleep,” Swann said. “I’ll be back in a few hours.” I gave him a look planned to turn him to stone, but he just grinned and I fell asleep in the middle of it, thinking, Mutiny.…
• • •
When I woke up again, Swann was by my bed, tilted in the no-gee so that his head hung over me. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Bad.” I waved him away and he pushed off into the air above the bed. I rubbed my eyes. “What happened, Swann?”
“A mutiny, you’ve been calling it.” He smiled.
“And it’s true?”
“But why? Who are you?”
“Did you ever hear of the Mars Starship Association?”
I thought. “A long time ago? One of those secret anti-Committee groups.”
“We weren’t anti-Committee,” he said. “We were just a club. An advocacy group. We wanted the Committee to support research for an interstellar expedition.”
“So the Committee didn’t want to do it. And they took us to be part of the anti-Committee movement, so they outlawed us. Jailed the leaders, transferred the members to different sectors. They made us anti-Committee.”
“Didn’t all that happen a long time ago?” I asked, still disoriented. “What has that got to do with this?”
“We regrouped,” he said. “Secretly. We’ve existed underground for all these years. This is our coming out, you might say.”
“But why? What good does it do you to take over a few asteroid miners? You aren’t planning to use them as starships, are you?” I laughed shortly at the idea.
He stared at me without answering, and suddenly I knew that I had guessed it.
I sat up carefully, feeling cold and a touch dizzy. “You must be joking.”
“Not at all. We’re going to join the Lermontov and the Hidalgo, and complete their life-support systems’ closure.”
“Impossible,” I breathed, still stunned at the very idea.
“Not impossible,” he said patiently. “That’s what the MSA has been working on these last forty years—”
“One of those ships is Hidalgo?” I interrupted. My processing was still impaired by the drugs he had shot me with.
“So Davydov is alive.…”
“He certainly is. You knew him, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Davydov had been the captain of Hidalgo when it disappeared in the Achilles group three years before. I had thought him dead.…
“There’s no way I’ll go,” I said after a pause. “You can’t kidnap me and drag me along on some insane interstellar attempt—”
“No! No. We’re sending Rust Eagle back with all the non-MSA people from the three ships.”
I let out a long sigh of relief. Yet sudden anguish filled me at the thought of the mess I was suddenly in, of the fanatics who now had control of my life, and I cried out, “Eric, you knew this was going to happen out here. Why didn’t you arrange to keep me off this flight?”
He looked away from me, pushed himself down to the floor. Red-faced, he said, “I did the opposite, Emma.”
“There are MSA people in the expedition scheduling office, and”—still staring at the floor—“I told them to arrange for you to be aboard Rust Eagle this time.”
“But, Swann!” I said, struggling for words. “Why? Why did you do that to me?”
“Well—because, Emma, you’re one of the best life-support systems designers there is on Mars, or anywhere. Everyone knows that, you know that. And even though our systems designers have got a lot of improvements for the starship, they still have to be installed in those two ships, and made to work. And we have to do it before the Committee police find us. Your help could make the difference, Emma.”
“It could! Look, I knew it was imposing on you, but I thought, if we got you out here ignorant of our plans, then you couldn’t be held responsible. When you return to Mars you can tell them you didn’t know anything about the MSA, that we made you help us. That was why I didn’t tell you anything on the way out here, don’t you see? And I know you aren’t that strong a supporter of the Committee, are you? They’re just a bunch of thugs. So that if your old friends asked you for help that only you can give, and you couldn’t be held culpable, you might help? Even if it was illegal?” He looked up at me, his blue eyes grave.
“You’re asking for the impossible,” I told him. “Your MSA has lost touch with reality. You’re talking about travel across light-years, for God’s sake, and you’ve got five-year systems to do it with!”
“They can be modified,” Swann insisted. “Davydov will explain the whole project when you see him. He wants to talk with you as soon as you’d like to.”
“Davydov,” I said darkly. “He’s the one behind this madness.”
“We’re all behind it, Emma. And it isn’t mad.”
I waved an arm and held my head in my hands, as it was pulsing with all the bad news. “Just leave me alone for a while.”
“Sure,” he said. “I know it’s a lot to take in. Just tell me when you want to see Davydov. He’s over on Hidalgo.”
“I’ll tell you,” I said, and looked at the wall until he left the room.
• • •
I had better tell about Oleg Davydov here, for we were lovers once, and for me the memory of him was marked with pain and anger, and a sense of loss—loss that no matter how long I lived could not be recouped or forgotten.
I was just out of the University of Mars, working at the Hellas Basin, in the new settlement near the western edge of the Basin where underground reservoirs and aquifers had been discovered. It was a good supply of water, but the situation was delicate, and the use of the water caused ecologic problems. I was set to work with others to solve these problems, and I quickly proved that I was the best among the systems people there. I had a grasp of the whole Hellas set-up that seemed perfectly natural to me, but was (I could see) impressive to others. And I was a good middle-distance runner—so that all in all, I was a confident youth, perhaps even a bit arrogant.
During my second year there I met Oleg Davydov. He was staying in Burroughs, the big government center to the north, doing some work for the Soviet mining cartel. We met in a restaurant, introduced by a mutual acquaintance.
He was tall and bulky, a handsome man. One of the Soviet blacks, they call them. I guess some of their ancestors came from one of the USSR’s client countries in Africa. The color had been pretty well watered down over the generations, and Davydov had coffee-and-cream-colored skin. His hair was black and wooly; he had thick lips under a thin, aquiline nose; a heavy beard, shaved so that his lower face was rough; and his eyes were ice blue. They seemed to jump out of his face. So he was a pretty good racial mix. But on Mars, where ninety-nine percent of the population is fish-belly white, as they say, any touch of skin color is highly valued. It made one look so…healthy, and vital. This Davydov was really extremely good-looking, a color delight to the eye. I watched him then, as we sat on adjacent stools in that Burroughs restaurant, talking, drinking, flirting a little…watched so closely that I can recall the potted palm and white wall that were behind him, although I don’t remember a word we said. It was one of those charmed nights, when both parties are aware of the mutual attraction.
We spent that night together, and the next several nights as well. We visited the first colony in the area, The Can, and marvelled at the exhibits in the museum there. We scrambled around the base of the Fluted Cliffs in Hellespontus Montes, and spent a night out in a survival tent. I beat him easily in a footrace, and then won a 1500-meter race for him at a Burroughs track. Every hour available to us we spent together, and I fell in love. Oleg was young, witty, proud of his many abilities; he was exotically bilingual (a Russian!), affectionate, sensual. We spent a lot of time in bed. I remember that in the dark I could see little more than his teeth when he grinned, and his eyes, which seemed light grey. I loved making love with him…I remember late dinners together, in Burroughs or out at the station. And innumerable train rides, together or alone, across the sere rust deserts between Burroughs and Hellas—sitting by the window looking out at the curved red horizon, feeling happy and excited…Well, those are the kind of times that you only live through once. I remember them well.
The arguments began quite soon after those first weeks. We were an arrogant pair and didn’t know any better. For a long time I didn’t even realize that our disagreements were particularly serious, for I couldn’t imagine anyone arguing with me for very long. (Yes, I was that self-important.) But Oleg Davydov did. I can’t remember much of what we argued about—that period of time, unlike the beginning, is a convenient blur in my memory. One time I do remember (of course the rest could be called up as well): I had come into Burroughs on the late train, and we were out eating in a Greek restaurant behind the train station. I was tired, and nervous about our relationship, and sick of Hellas. Hoping to compliment him, I made some comment about how much more fun it would be to be an asteroid miner like he was.
“We aren’t doing anything out there,” he said in response. “Just making money for the corporations—making a few people on Earth rich, while everything else down there falls apart.”
“Well, at least you’re out there exploring,” I said.
He looked annoyed, an expression I was becoming familiar with. “But we aren’t, that’s what I’m saying. With our capabilities we could be exploring the whole solar system. We could have stations on the Jovian moons, around Saturn, all the way out to Pluto. We need a solar watch station on Pluto.”
“I wasn’t aware of that fact,” I said sarcastically.
His pale blue eyes pierced me. “Of course you weren’t. You think it’s perfectly all right to continue making money from those stupid asteroids, and nothing more, here at the end of the twenty-second century.”
“Well?” I said, annoyed myself by this time. “We’re all going to live for a thousand years, so what’s your rush? There’s time for all of your great projects. Right now we need those asteroids.”
“The corporations need them. And the Committee.”
“The Committee’s just organizing all of our efforts for our own good,” I said.
“They just make the trains run on time, eh?” he said, taking a deep swallow from his drink.
“Yes,” I said, not understanding what he meant. “Yes, they do.”
He shook his head with disgust. “You’re an all-American girl, all right. Everything is oh kay. Leave the politics to the others.”
“And you are a true Soviet,” I retorted, struggling away from him in our dining booth. “Blaming your problems on the government…”
And we went on from there, senselessly and for no reason but pride and hurt feelings. I remember him making a grim prediction: “They will make a happy American Kremlin up here, and you won’t care, as long as your job is secure.” But most of what we said was less logical than that.
And a long, miserable week later, a blur of bitter fights, one of those times when you have ruined a relationship though you don’t know how, and wish desperately that time could be reversed and the unknown mistake undone, he left. The Soviet mining people wanted him in space again and he just left, without saying goodbye, though I called his dorm again and again in those last few days. And then I knew—I learned it, in the course of long black walks over the broad basin, standing alone on that rocky plain—that I could be spurned. It was a hard lesson.
In a few years I was out among the asteroids myself, working for Royal Dutch. I heard stories about Davydov getting in trouble with the Soviet mining command, but I didn’t pay much attention. It was a matter of pride to ignore anything I heard about him. So I never got the full story of what had happened to him.
Then, many years later—just three years before this mutiny, in fact—the Hidalgo disappeared out in the Trojans, breaking radio contact with the famous last words, “Now wait just a minute.” No wreckage was ever found, the matter was hushed up by the Committee censors, and no explanation was ever offered. Looking over the list of crew members I saw his name at the top—Oleg Davydov—and the pain flooded through me again, worse than ever before. It was one of the worst moments of my life. We had parted in anger, he had left me without even saying good-bye, and now, no matter how many years the gerontologists gave me, I would never be able to change those facts, for he was dead. It was very sad.
…Thus, when Eric Swann came to take me across to the Hi-dalgo, to see Davydov again, I did not know exactly what I felt. My heart beat rapidly, I had to strain to make casual, terse conversation with Eric. What would he look like? What would I say to him, or him to me? I didn’t have the slightest idea.
Well, he looked very much like he had sixty years before. Perhaps a little heavier, bearlike with his dark hair, his broad shoulders and chest and rump. His ice-blue eyes surveyed me without any visible sign of recognition.
We were on the empty bridge of the Hidalgo. At a nod from Davydov, Eric had slipped away down the jump tube. In the breathy vented silence I walked around the bridge slowly, my velcro slippers making little rip rip rip noises. My pulse was fast. I discovered that I was still angry with him. And I felt that he had personally deceived me with the news of his death. Or perhaps it was the mutiny.…
“You look much the same,” he said. The sound of his voice triggered a hundred memories. I looked at him without replying. Finally he said, with a stiff, slight smile, “Has Eric apologized for our kidnapping of you?”
I shook my head.
“I am sorry we shocked you. I hear you fought hard against the takeover. Eric probably explained that we kept you ignorant for your own protection.”
So smooth, he was. It just made me mad. He squinted at me, trying to gauge my mood. Hard without a voice.
“The truth of the matter is,” he went on, “the success of all the MSA’s years of effort depends on the creation of a fully closed life-support system in the starship. I believe our scientists will be able to do it, but Swann has always said your ability with BLS systems is extraordinary, and our scientists agree that you are the best. And they tell me we need your help.”
Did he think I would still be vain? “You’re not—” I cleared my throat. “You’re not going to get it.”
He stared at me, calm and bemused. “You still support the Committee? Even though they have jailed your father on Amor, isn’t that true?”
“Yes,” I said. “But the Committee doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“That is the equivalent of saying you still support them. But enough of that. We need your help. Why won’t you help us?”
After I didn’t reply, he began to stride back and forth, rip rip rip. “You know,” he said with a nervous glance, “what happened between us occurred a long time ago. We were both children then—”
“We were not children,” I broke in. “We were free adults, on our own. We were just as responsible for our actions then as we are now.”
“All right,” he said, pushing a hand through his hair. “You’re right. We were not children, admittedly.” This was turning out to be more difficult than he had expected. “But it was a long time ago.”
“This has nothing to do with that time, anyway.”
He looked confused. “Then why won’t you help?”
“Because what you are attempting is impossible,” I cried. “This is all a monstrous fantasy of yours. You’re ignoring the hard cold realities of deep space and leading people to a miserable death out there, all because of some boyish notion of adventure that you’ve been nursing all these years—for so long that you can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality anymore!” I stopped, surprised by my vehemence. Davydov was wide-eyed.
“It’s not my idea alone,” he said weakly. “Every member of the MSA believes it is possible.”
“There have been mass delusions larger than this,” I said, “following a fanatic leader.”
His eyes glittered angrily. (This effect is the result, I believe, of tensing the forehead muscles, thus shifting the layer of water over the eyes.) “I am no fanatic. We started as a group without a leader. I was made leader by the Committee when they tried to destroy us—they wanted to say it was a single person’s doing. Like you do. When we reorganized, I was the one everyone knew about. But there are other leaders—”
“You started the reorganization, right?” Somehow I knew this was true. “Started up your little secret society, invented the handshake—”
“The fact that we had to work in secret,” he said loudly, and then lowered his voice, “is incidental. A political reality, a fact of our time and place. A lot of work had to be done that the Committee didn’t want done. They wouldn’t support us, but that doesn’t make the project bad! We’re free of political motives, we are an act of cooperation between Soviets and Americans—we try to take humanity to permanent homes outside the solar system, while we still can.”
He stopped for breath, staring at me with his swarthy jaws bunched. “Now you”—pointing at me—“completely ignorant of all this, call me a fanatic. Leading fools in a fantasy world.” He looked away, out the wide bridge window. “I could have told Swann you would react like this.”
My face burned. There we were, exactly as we had left off sixty years before. Furiously I said, “You kidnap me, put my future in great danger, and then call me a fool because I don’t fall in with your fantastic schemes. Well you aren’t going to get my help, Oleg Davydov, you and your secret club.” I moved to the jump tube. “Just tell me when we can take Rust Eagle back to Mars. Until then I’ll be in my room.”
Crossing back over to our ship, Eric didn’t dare say a word to me. Once on Rust Eagle I left him and went to my room, hit the desk and nearly cracked my skull on the ceiling. I hate no-gee. I went to the centrifuge and ran, ignoring my complaining knee. Then I went back to my little room to brood and imagine crushing rejoinders to Davydov. Why do all the best lines come to you when the argument is over? What I should have said was…I know, I know. Only serious brooding will hatch those real crushers.
But why had I fought with him at all, when he was asking for my help?
• • •
Later that day Andrew Duggins told me that the people who were not members of the MSA were getting together in the lounge down the hall. I went to see who they were. There were fourteen of us. Among them were Ethel Jurgenson, Amy Van Danke, Al Nordhoff, Sandra Starr, Yuri Kopanev, and Olga Dzindzhik. The others had faces I knew but couldn’t put names to. We sat about exchanging our experiences during the rendezvous; everyone had been arrested, and most only released a few hours before. After these stories were exchanged we began to discuss possible courses of action, and the bickering began.
I told them what I knew, keeping to myself only the fact that I had been asked for help.
More discussion and arguing.
“We have to find out if there were any prisoners on Lermontov.”
“Or Hidalgo.” I thought about that—prisoners for three years.
“We have to act,” Duggins said. “We could organize another attack on the radio room. Take it over and put out a call to Mars or Ceres.”
“We could slip out of the ship,” Al put in. “Patch a radio onto the high gain antenna.…”
“They’re probably listening to us right now,” Yuri said, and Olga nodded. In the Soviet sector they’re used to such practices—or perhaps I should say they are more aware of them.
Anyway, the conversation was killed for a while. We stared at each other. It was a strange situation: prisoners of our shipmates, on what had been our ship. The talk resumed, quieter than before, until disagreements about what to do brought the volume back up. “I don’t care if they steal the Committee blind,” Yuri said, “and I certainly wouldn’t risk myself to stop them.”
“What do you think we should do, Weil?” asked Andrew, refusing to look at Yuri. He seemed annoyed at my lack of involvement.
“I think we should sit tight, take Rust Eagle back to Mars when they let us, and then tell the authorities what we know. To try to stop them here just puts us in danger.”
Andrew didn’t like that either. “We should fight! Sitting here passively would be helping them, and the Committee will know it.” He squinted at me suspiciously. “You’re close friends with Swann, aren’t you? Didn’t he ever tell you what was going on?”
“No,” I said, feeling myself blush. They all watched me.
“You’re telling us he just let you walk into this situation without any kind of warning or anything?” Duggins said.
“That’s right,” I snapped. “You saw me in the radio room, Duggins. I was as surprised as anyone by the mutiny.”
But Duggins was unconvinced, and the rest of them looked skeptical as well. They all knew Swann was a considerate person, and it didn’t make sense to them that he would have deceived a good friend so. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Duggins stood up. “I’ll talk to some of you another time,” he said, and left the lounge. Suddenly angry, I left too. Looking back at the confused, suspicious people in the lounge, grouped in a disconsolate circle with their colored drink bulbs floating around them, I thought, They look scared.
When I got back to my room, two people were moving into it. A Nadezhda Malkiv, and a Marie-Anne Kotovskaya—both BLSS engineers, both members of the Soviet branch of the MSA. The other two ships were being emptied so that they could be worked on freely, they told me. Nadezhda was 124 years old, a specialist in the gas exchange; Marie-Anne was 108, a biologist whose study was the algae and bacteria in the waste recycling system. They were both from Lermontov, which they said, had been in the asteroid belt nearly four months before the MSA took over, broke radio contact with Mars, and circled around to the rendezvous behind the sun.
Shocked into a stiff silence by this new development, I went back into the halls, and then to the small lounge around the corner from my room. There I met the leader of the non-MSA people from Lermontov, a dour man named Ivan Valenski. He had been the Committee police leader aboard, until the mutiny. I did not like him—he was a sort of dully furious Soviet bureaucrat, a petty man used to giving orders and being obeyed. He seemed as little impressed by me as I by him. Duggins, I thought, would be more to his taste. They were men scarred by so many years of authority that they actively worked for its continuance—to justify their lives up to this point, perhaps. But how was I different from them?
I returned to my room. My new roommates left me the top bunk; the bottom, which I had used as a convenient counter, was occupied by Nadezhda. Marie-Anne planned to sleep in the corner where the walls met the ceiling. Their belongings were strapped all over the floor. I talked with them for a while in English, with some fumbling attempts on my part at Russian. They were nice women, and after the earlier meetings of the day I appreciated the company of calm, undemanding people.
That night Swann came by my room, and asked me if I wanted to eat dinner with him. After a moment’s thought I agreed.
“I’m glad you aren’t still angry with me,” he babbled, ingenuous as ever. Although I had to remind myself that he had been high in the councils of the MSA for as long as I’d known him. So how well had I known him?
“Shut up about that and let’s go eat,” I said. Somewhat subdued, he led the way to the dining commons through the dark halls.
Once there I looked around at the place, imagining it as the dining commons of the starship. People in neutral-toned one-piece suits walked up to the food counter; there they pushed the buttons for the meal they desired, most of them never looking up at the menu. The foods grown on ship—salads, vegetable drinks, fish or scallops or chicken or rabbit, goat cheese, milk, yoghurt—were supplemented by non-renewable supplies: coffee, tea, bread, beef.…They would run out of those things pretty fast. Then it would be the ship-grown stuff, in enclosed plates, with drinks in bulbs. I watched all the precise forking going on around me. It had a Japanese tea ceremony atmosphere.
“You’ll have to keep accelerating,” I said. “You can’t stay weightless for long, it would kill you.”
He smiled. “We’ve got forty-two cesium tanks.” I stared at him. “That’s right. This is the biggest theft in history, Emma. At least that’s one way to think of it.”
“It sure is.”
“So, we plan to keep a constant acceleration-deceleration pattern, and create half-Mars gravity most of the time.” We walked up to the food counter and punched out our orders. Our trays slid out of their slot.
We sat down against the wall away from the mirror wall; I don’t like to eat next to the mirror image of myself. The other three walls of the commons were bright tones of yellow, red, orange, yellow-green. It was autumn on Rust Eagle.
“We’ll keep up the seasonal colors on board the starship,” Swann said as we ate. “Shorten the daylight hours in winter, make it colder, colors all silver and white and black.…I like winter best. The solstice festival and all.”
“But it’ll just be a game.”
He chewed thoughtfully. “I guess.”
“Where will you go?”
“Not sure. No, seriously! There’s a planetary system around Barnard’s Star. That’s nine light-years. We’ll probably check that out, and at least resupply with water and deuterium, if nothing else.”
We ate in silence for a time. At the next table a trio sat excavating their trays, arguing about the hydrogen-fixing capabilities of a certain Hydrogenomonas eutropha. Engineering the rebirth of breath. At the next table a young woman reached up to capture an escaping particle of chicken. The diminution of it all!
“How long?” I asked, eating steadily.
Swann’s freckle-face took on a calculating look as he chewed. “We could go a hundred, maybe two hundred years.…”
“For God’s sake, Eric.”
“It’s only a quarter of our predicted lifetimes. It’s not like generations will live and die on the ship. We’ll have a past on Mars, and a future on some world that could be more like Earth than Mars is! You act like we’re leaving such a natural way of life on Mars. Mars is just a big starship, Emma.”
“It is not! It’s a planet. You can go outside and stand on the ground. Run around.”
Swann shoved his tray away, sucked on his drink bulb. “Your five-hundred-year project is the terraforming of Mars,” he said. “Ours is the colonization of a planet in another system. What’s the big difference?”
“About ten or twenty light-years.”
We finished our drinks in silence. Swann took our trays to the counter and brought back bulbs of coffee.
“Was—is Charlie one of you?”
“Charlie?” He looked at me strangely. “No. He works for the Committee’s secret police, didn’t you know that? Internal security?”
I shook my head.
“That’s why you don’t see him on miners anymore.”
“Ah.” Who did I know, I thought unhappily.
He was looking beyond me. “I remember…about 2220 or 21…Charlie dropped by one of our labs with one of his police friends. This was in Argyre. We had completely infiltrated the Soviet space research labs, and had requisitioned this particular one for some tests—reactor-mass conservation, I think it was. I was visiting to help with a supply problem. They couldn’t get all the cesium they wanted. And then there was Charlie and this woman, him saying hello how are you Eric, just dropped by to see how you’re doing.…And I could not tell whether the woman was his girlfriend and he really was just saying hello to me, or whether they were checking out the lab as part of their police work. I showed them all around the lab, told them that we were doing all the work for a Soviet-Arco-Mobil consortium, which of course the record would confirm. I remember walking around talking about old times with him, explaining some of the lab rooms, all the time wondering if both of us were acting, or just me. And I was scared, that somehow our security had broken, and this was the first sign of it.…” He shook his head, laughed shortly. “But computer government came through again. They scarcely knew enough to be aware of their losses. Computer bureaucracy—no wonder Earth is falling apart. I have no doubt all of those governments are being stolen blind.”
“There’s probably a Terran Starship Association that you’ve never heard of,” I said absently, thinking of the past.
He laughed. “I wouldn’t doubt it.” He put his drink bulb down. “Although we have kept pretty good track of the other underground organizations on Mars. In fact, we chose this particular time for the construction of the starship because we think that the Committee police will be too busy back on Mars to make much of a search for us.”
“Why is that?”
“A group called the Washington-Lenin Alliance is planning to start a revolt sometime in mid-August, when Mars is farthest from Earth. Some other groups are going to join them. We don’t know how big it will get, but there should be enough turmoil to keep the police occupied.”
“Great.” Oh, no, I thought. Not Mars, too. Please. Not Mars.
Swann moved his hands nervously. I sipped coffee.
“So you’re not going to help us?” he said suddenly.
I shook my head, swallowed. “Nope.”
The corners of his mouth tightened. He looked down at the table.
“Does that end your starship attempt?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “They’ll get very near full closure, I’m sure. It’s just—well, on a voyage this long, the slightest difference in the ship’s efficiency will mean a lot. Really a lot. You know that. And I know that if you were to help them the system would end up being more efficient.”
“Listen, Eric,” I said, and took a deep breath. “What I don’t understand is this. You people have been working on this problem for years. You and I have been friends for years, and all during that time you’ve known that I’m good at life-support systems. So why didn’t you ever tell me about it?”
He reddened, chewed his lower lip. “Oh—no reason—”
“Why, Eric? Why?”
“Well—at first it was Charlie, you know. Being your husband and all—”
“Come on, Eric. We were only married a few years. You and I have been friends a lot longer than that. Or was it like with Charlie in the lab that day—just acting?”
“No, no,” he said emphatically. “Not at all. I wanted to tell you, believe me.” He looked up from the table at me. “I just couldn’t be sure about you, Emma. I couldn’t be sure that you wouldn’t tell the Committee about us. You always spoke in favor of the Committee and its policies, whenever the subject came up—”
“I did not!”
He stared at me. “You did. You’d complain about being given too much work and being shunted from place to place, but you’d always end up saying you were glad the sectors were being coordinated, pulled off each others’ throats. And that you were pleased with the life the Committee arranged for you. That’s what you said, Emma!” He pulled at his cheeks as I shook my head. “Then when they jailed your father I thought you would change—”
“My father broke the law,” I said, thinking about things I had said through the years.
“So are we! See? What if I had told you about us back on Mars, and you had said, you’re breaking the law. I couldn’t take the chance. Davydov was against it, and I couldn’t take the chance on my own, although believe me I wanted to—”
“Damn you,” I said. “Damn Oleg Davydov—”
“How were we to know any better?” he asked, his blue eyes unflinching. “I’m sorry, but you asked me why. We thought you were Committee all the way. I was the only one who thought otherwise, and even with me it was just a hope. We couldn’t take the chance. It was too important, we were trying to accomplish something great—”
“You were pursuing a crackpot scheme that is going to kill sixty people for no reason,” I said harshly, standing up as I spoke. “A stupid plan that takes you off into space and leaves you there with no way to colonize a planet even if you found one—” I shoved my chair back and walked quickly away, my eyes filling with tears so that it was hard to balance. People were watching me; I had shouted.
I pulled myself furiously through the halls of the living quarters, cursing Swann and Davydov and the entire MSA. He should have known. How could they not have known? I crashed into my room, and happily it was empty. I banged from wall to wall for a time, crying and muttering angrily to myself. Why didn’t he know? Why couldn’t he tell, the idiot?
For a moment I caught sight of my reflection in my little washstand mirror, and I went over to look at it, floating in midair. I was so upset I had to squeeze my eyes shut as hard as I could, before I could look in the glass at myself: and when I did, I experienced a frightening thing. It seemed that the true three-dimensional world was on the other side of the glass, and that I was looking into it through a window. The person floating in there was looking out. She appeared distraught over something or other.…
And in this curious state I had the realization, at the moment of seeing that stranger there, that I was a person like everybody else. That I was known by my actions and words, that my internal universe was unavailable for inspection by others.
They didn’t know.
They didn’t know, because I never told them. I didn’t tell them that I hated the Mars Development Committee—yes, admit it, I did hate them!—I hated those petty tyrants as much as I hated anything. I hated the way they had treated my foolish father. I hated their lies—that they were taking over power to make a better life on an alien planet, etc., etc. Everyone knew that was a lie. They just wanted power for themselves. But we kept our mouths shut; talk too much and you might get relocated to Texas. Or on Amor. The members of the MSA had compensated with a stupid plan, to escape to the stars in secret—but they resisted, they stole, they subverted, they disbelieved, they resisted! And me? I didn’t even have the guts to tell my friends how I felt. I had thought that cowardice was the norm, and that made it okay. I had thought that resistance necessarily would be like the rash and drunken words of my father, pointless and dangerous. I had been scared of the idea of resistance, and the worst of it was, I had thought that everyone was like me.
I looked at the stranger in the other room through the glass. There was Emma Weil. You couldn’t read her mind. She looked plain and grim, skinny, dedicated, unhumorous. What was she thinking? You would never know. She sounded pretty self-satisfied. People who sound self-satisfied usually are. But you would never know for sure. You could look in her eyes as hard as you wanted, for an hour and more: nothing there but empty, weightless black pools.…
• • •
For a couple of days I sat in my room and did nothing. Then one morning when Nadezhda and Marie-Anne were leaving to work on the starship, I said, “Take me with you.”
They looked at each other. “If you like,” Nadezhda said.
The two ships had been placed side by side. We took our boat into the bay of Hidalgo. I followed my roommates back to the farm, ignoring the occasional stare we received from other workers in the halls.
They had already added a few rows of vegetable tanks to the standard farm set-up. The glare of white light from the many lamps made me blink. I trailed behind the two women, listening as they talked to other technicians. Then we were off by ourselves, among the big suspension bottles, spotted green and brown, of the algae room. The glare of the lamps forced us to put on dark blue sunglasses.
“Chlorella pyrenoidosa with nitrate as its nitrogen source takes ten times less iron out of that nutrient medium than when urea is the nitrogen source, see?” Nadezhda was talking.
“But we have to use that urea somewhere,” Marie-Anne said.
“Sure. But I’m worried that the biomass created will eventually become too much to handle.”
“Feed it to the goats?”
“But what happens when the nutrient medium is exhausted? No source of iron in the vacuum, you know.…”
They had a problem there. There had to be a very close agreement between the photosynthetic coefficient for algae and the respiratory coefficient for the humans and animals; otherwise too much CO2 or too much oxygen would build up, depending. One way to deal with this is to provide different sources of nitrogen to different sections of algae, as this will alter the photosynthetic coefficient. But the algae use up their mineral supplies at different rates, depending on their type of nitrogen feed. And over long periods of time this could be significant; to keep up a balanced gas exchange might take more minerals than the rest of the biocenosis would be producing.
“Can’t you use urea and ammonia exclusively,” I asked them, “and shift amounts of pyrenoidosa and vulgaris to keep the exchange balanced? That way you’d be using more urea, and avoiding the problem of nitrates.”
They looked at each other.
“Well, no,” Nadezhda said. “See, look at this—the damn algae grow so fast with urea—too much biomass, we can’t use it all.”
“What about giving it less light?”
“But that makes for problems with the vulgaris,” Marie-Anne explained. “Stupid stuff, it either dies or grows wild.”
Clearly I was repeating the most obvious solutions. Problem-solving for a biologic life-support system is like a game. One of the very finest intellectual games ever devised, in fact. In many ways it is like chess. Now, Nadezhda and Marie-Anne were certainly grand masters at this game, and they had been working with this particular model for years. So they were a big step ahead of me at that moment, discussing modifications that I had never heard of. But I had never met anybody who had a flair for the game like I did—if it had been chess, I would have been Martian champion, I am sure. When I saw the patient look on Marie-Anne’s face as she explained why my suggestion wouldn’t work, something snapped in me, and my vague intentions for this visit crystallized.
“All right,” I said in a mean tone of voice. “You’d better give me the whole story here, all the details of your model, your new improvements that Swann told me about, everything. If you want me to help.”
The two women nodded politely, as if this request were the most ordinary thing in the world. And we got down to it.
So I helped them, yes, I did. And more than ever before, the I who thought and felt was distanced from the I who did the work on this particular example of the BLSS problem—more than ever the work seemed a game, a giant intricate puzzle that we would look at when we finished—we would stand back to look at it, and admire it, and then we would forget it and go home to dinner. In this frame of mind I was especially inventive, and I helped a lot.
It got to the point where I even began to return to the starship in the evenings after dinner, to wander the farm alone and type some figures into the model programs to check the results. Because they had a real problem on their hands—I’d never worked on a harder one. The two ships were Deimos PRs: about forty years old, shaped like decks of cards, just over a kilometer long; powered by cesium reactor-mass, deuterium-fueled, direct-explosion rockets. The crew of forty or forty-five lived in the forward or upper part of the ships, behind the bridges. Below them were the recreational facilities, the various chambers of the farms, and the recycling plants, and below those were the huge masses of the rocket systems, and the shield that protected the crews from them. The ships were biogeocenoses, that is, enclosed ecology systems, combining biologic and technologic methods to create closures. Total closure was not possible, of course; it approached eighty percent complete for a three-year period, tailing off rapidly after that. So they were good asteroid miners, they really were. But there were loss-points that had never been satisfactorily solved, and although these were the best closed biologic life-support systems ever built, they were no starships.
I walked in circles through the rooms of Hidalgo’s farm, following the course of the various processes as I tried to think my way through the system. Most of the rooms were darkened, but the algae rooms still required sunglasses. Here the whole thing began. Heat and light generated by the nuclear reactions in the rocketry provided energy for the photoautotropic plants, mostly the algae chlorella pyrenoidosa and chlorella vulgaris. These were suspended in large bottles under the lights, and I thought that, despite the nutrient problems, they could be manipulated genetically or environmentally to make the gas exchange as needed.
I took off the sunglasses and stumbled around the darkened aqua room until my sight returned. Here the excess algae was brought to feed the bottom of the food chain. Plankton and crustacea ate algae, little fish ate the plankton, big fish ate the little fish. It was the same in the barns farther along; under night lights I could make out the cages and pens for the rabbits, chickens, pigs and goats—and my nose confirmed their presence. These animals ate the plant wastes that humans didn’t use, and provided food themselves. Beyond the animals’ barn was the series of rooms planted with rows of vegetables—the farm proper—and here some lights were still on, providing a pleasant, mild illumination. I sat down against one wall and looked at a long row of cabbages. Beside me on the wall was drawn a simple schematic, left wordless like a religious token—a diagram of the system’s circular processes. Light fed algae. Algae fed plants and fish. Plants fed animals and humans, and created oxygen and water. Animals fed humans, and humans and animals created wastes which sustained microorganisms that mineralized the wastes (to an extent), making it possible to plow them back into the plants’ soil.
The cabbages glowed in the dim light like rows of brains, working on the problem with me. The circle made by the diagram, supplemented by physiochemical operations to aid the gas exchange and the use of wastes, was nearly closed: a neat, reliable, artificial biogeocenosis. But there were two major loss points that had me stumped; and I wasn’t going to see the solution walking around the farm. One was the incomplete use of wastes. Direct use of human waste products as nutrients for plant life is limited by the build-up of chlorine ions not used by plants. Sodium chloride, for instance, is a compound used by human beings as a palatable substance, but it isn’t required in equivalent amounts by the other components of the system. So the use of algae to mineralize wastes on Hidalgo had to be supplemented by physiochemical mineralization—thermal combustion in this case, which resulted in a small but significant amount of useless furnace ash. It would be difficult to find ways to return those poorly soluble metal oxides into the system.
The other major problem was the very minute disappearance of water. Though water could be filtered out of the air, and recaptured in a number of ways, a certain percentage would coat the interior of the ship, bond with various surfaces, pool in cracks and hidden spots on the floor, and even escape the ship if they ever had EVA.
And the more I thought of it, the more little problems appeared to augment these larger ones, and all of the problems impinged on each other, making a large and interconnected web of cause and effect, mostly measurable, but sometimes not…the game. The hardest game. And this time, by these people, played for keeps.
I got up nervously and paced between the long soil strips. They could create water using a fuel cell and electrolysis. With the power plant they had along, that might be all they would need. It would depend on their water recovery, their fuel supply, the amount of time they spent between stars. I turned and headed for the farm computers, intent on trying some figures. And as for those wastes, Marie-Anne had spoken of new mutant bacteria to mineralize them, bacteria that could chew up the metals they would slowly be piling up outside the system.…
The whoosh of the vents, the clicking of a counter, the soft snuffling of the animals in their sleep. Maybe they could do it, I thought. A very high degree of closure might be possible. But the question was, once accomplished, would they want to live inside it?
• • •
How long could humans live in a spaceship?
How long would they have to?
• • •
One morning after a night like that there was a knock at my door, and I opened it. It was Davydov.
“Yes?” I said.
He ducked his head. “I’m sorry about the way I behaved during our talk. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten any criticism of the project, I’d forgotten how to react to it. I guess I lost my temper.” Head raised, a shy little smile—Forgive me? Forgive me for kidnapping you and then yelling at you to boot?
“Umm,” I said cautiously. “I see.”
The smile disappeared, he pulled at his swarthy cheeks with one hand. “Could I perhaps, um, take you on a tour of the starship? Show you what we plan to do?”
I stood thoughtfully for as long as I could, knowing that I would accept the offer, curious to see what they had managed to steal from the Committee. “I suppose,” I said.
I saw from the boat’s dome, during our crossing, that they had finished connecting the two ships, with thin struts that held them side by side, and contained narrow passageways. It was one fat and ungainly-looking starship. Its windows gleamed like the luminous patches of ocean-floor fish. We were still in a tiny cluster of asteroids. The big one, I had learned, was Hilda, and around it were several daughter rocks.
It took Davydov several hours to show me what they had. They had: ore-holds full of minerals, medical supplies, food-stuffs, spices, clothing, equipment for planetfall, color panels and other material for the seasonal changes; a microfiche library of forty million volumes in three hundred languages; an equally vast collection of recorded music, with several each of almost every musical instrument; sports equipment; a lot of movies in English and Russian; a nursery full of toys and games; a room full of computers and computer parts; an observatory with several large telescopes.
During this ever more amazing tour we kept up a running debate, mostly joking. It was actually very enjoyable, although I think the sparring began to bother Davydov after a while. But I couldn’t help it. Their efforts had been so thorough, but still, there was something adolescent about it all, something surreal: all the details logically worked out, from an initial proposition that was absurd.
We ended up in the farm, among the splotched algae bottles that made the light green, in the rich scent of manure from the barn next door. Davydov looked funny in sunglasses. Here I was the guide, and Davydov the tourist. I told him about Nadezhda’s algae suspension tricks, Marie-Anne’s mutant bacteria.
“I hear you have been helping them.”
By now it could be said I was in charge of the project. “A little,” I said sarcastically.
“I appreciate it.”
“Oh, don’t take it personally.”
He laughed wryly. But I saw that I could wound him.
And then we came to the back wall of the farm, and it had all been seen. Behind the wall the shield silently vibrated, protecting us all from the nuclear reactions in the rear of the ship. There was another part of their project that must hold without fail, and the arcane studies that enabled the shield technicians to do it were nearly beyond explanation to those of us who had not committed our lives to the mysteries. To us it was simply a matter of faith.
“But this is what I want to know,” I said at the wall. “Why do you have to do it this way? People will leave the solar system eventually, right? You don’t need to do it this way.”
He pulled at his face again. I remembered it was a gesture of Swann’s, and I thought, this is where Swann got it. “I don’t agree that it is inevitable that humans will leave the solar system,” he said. “Nothing is inevitable, there is no such thing as historical determinism. It is people who act, not history, and people choose their acts. We could have built a really adequate starship at any time since the late twentieth century, for instance. But it hasn’t been done. And it could be that those two hundred years are a sort of launch window, you know. A launch window that may close soon.”
“What do you mean?”
“That the chance may pass. Our ability to do it might disappear. There’s a revolution going on on Mars this very minute—Swann told you?”
“So who knows? We may be escaping the end of civilization! Life on Mars could end, and that would damage Earth—they depend on that Mars colony for minerals, you know. And those Terran governments are just bigger versions of the Committee, doing just as bad a job. They’ve taken Earth into another of its crisis periods.”
“They’ve gotten through those before,” I said, worrying about Mars.
“That doesn’t mean much. They never had a population of six billion before. Even the trouble on Mars may be enough to push them over the brink! It’s a very delicate, artificial ecology, Emma. Much like this little starship of ours. And if it falls apart, then the chance to go to the stars is gone for a long time. Maybe forever. So we’re doing it ourselves, right here and now.”
“You have a vision—”
“Not just me!”
“I meant all of you.”
“Ah. Sorry. English should make that distinction.”
“Not really.” We laughed.
The force of his ideas had impelled Davydov around the farm, and velcro rips had accompanied his words as he walked between the rows of vegetables. When he finished, I watched his dark face through the distorting glass of a spare algae bottle—his ice-blue eyes were the size of eggs, staring at me intently. I thought, He wants to convince me of these things. It matters to him what I think. This idea made me flush with pleasure, and it occurred to me that this was how he had become the leader of this visionary group. Not by any choice of the Mars Development Committee, looking for a scapegoat. He was the leader because he could make people feel this way.
The intercom system crackled. “Oleg?” It was John Dancer’s voice, sounding scared. “Oleg, are you hearing me? Respond quickly please.”
Davydov hurried to the wall with the intercom and flicked it on. “What is it, John?”
“Oleg! We need you on the bridge quick. Emergency.”
“What is it?”
“We’ve spotted three ships approaching through two-belt central. Looks like police craft.”
Davydov looked across at me. “I’ll be there right away,” he said. He ran between the vegetables to my side. “Looks like that trouble on Mars isn’t occupying all of them.” His voice was still light and joking, but his eyes were grim. “Come along.”
• • •
So I went with him, across to the bridge of Rust Eagle. There were about a dozen people there, a few attending to the Eagle, the rest to Davydov and Ilene Breton.
“They’re coming in an equilateral triangle pattern,” Ilene said. “Simon spotted them by visual check—after he had seen the one, he ran through the police patterns and found the other two. If they don’t make any adjustments, they’ll come by with one on each side of us and one below.”
“How long do we have?” Davydov asked.
“They’re decelerating now. They’ll pass this sub-group in about three hours.”
I have never seen such a grim collection of people in my life. Only the clicks and breath of the ship’s functions broke the silence that followed this announcement. I thought of it. Everything I had just seen, and the forty years of dangerous work it had taken to get it here, were now the prey of a diligent hunter. It could all end in four hours, in capture and imprisonment, return to Mars under guard, in the “starship.” Or it could end in sudden death. Those Committee ships carry quite the arsenals.
“How fast are they moving?” Davydov asked.
Ilene said, “Two or three k’s per second.”
“They’ve got a lot of space to search,” Swann said hopefully.
“They’re bracketing us!” Ilene said. “They’ll see us. By radar, heat scan, metal scan, visual, radio pick-up—somehow they’ll see us.”
“No more radio transmissions,” Davydov said.
“We’ve already shut down,” Ilene replied. Her white, pinched face looked impatient—she was waiting for everyone to catch up with her, and help.
They looked at each other.
“We could line up all of our lasers,” said Olga Borg, captain of Lermontov. “Fire them up their exhaust vents”—she realized that would have no effect on the shields—”or hit them in the bridges, or the reactor shield generators.”
“Those shields are too well protected,” Swann said. But several others were nodding, their mouths pressed tight. They couldn’t run—their backs were to the wall. They would fight and die. And, I thought, I would die too.
Ilene said, “If we give them any time they’ll have a message off, and our position will be revealed. Other police ships would be here in a week.”
“More than that—”
“Why don’t you just hide?” I interjected.
They all stared at me. It reminded me of Nadezhda and MarieAnne.
“We’re being bracketed,” Swann explained.
“I know that. But you aren’t at the exact center of the triangle, are you? So if you were to bring these ships right onto the surface of Hilda, or near it, and moved around the top as the bottom ship moved under you, if you see what I mean, then you might stay out of sight the entire time.”
“One of the side ships would see us,” Ilene said.
“Maybe,” I began, but Davydov interrupted: “We could shade to one side of Hilda, and keep Hilda itself between us and one side ship—then maneuver to keep one of the adjacent rocks between us and the other side ship. So Hilda would protect us from two of them, and one of her daughters from the third!”
“If that’s possible,” Ilene said.
“It won’t work,” Olga Borg declared.
“You tell me how they will detect you through an asteroid,” I said.
Swann was smiling, crookedly. “We can hide, but we can’t run.”
“We can’t use rockets to move around Hilda,” Ilene said practically. “They’d see the exhaust.”
It was like the games of hide-and-seek I had played as a child, on the broad boulder plains of Syrtis Major.
“You could pull the ships around with lines,” I said. “Anchor winches here and there on the surface, and haul us around the rock as the ships go by. That’d give you better control anyway.”
They liked that one. “But how will we see them?” Ilene asked. “What if they change directions while we’re behind Hilda?”
“We’ll put observers on the surface,” Davydov said. “They can report with hand signals. Relay teams of observers.” He thought about it. “Right. Let’s go with that.” He started pacing around the room, rip rip rip. “Let’s go, we don’t have much time! Ilene, get two boats onto the surface of Hilda. Make sure they take everything they’ll need, because they won’t be able to come back till it’s over. Have them place a couple of deadmen as deep as they can in fifteen minutes.”
The nice thing about the plan was that most of it was standard mining procedure: closing on a rock, preparing for drilling.…“Have John and the other mining people work out the lines. Oh—tell the boats to use their thrusters only in the boat bays and on the back side of Hilda.” A thought struck Davydov, and he started to look in my direction. Thought better of it. “All of the non-MSA people are to be paired with their roommates, where possible, or with someone else if the roommates are busy. I want Duggins, Nordhoff, and Valenski under close surveillance. Keep them in the living quarters and don’t tell them what’s going on. Emma, you stay here.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll miss my nap.”
With a nervous pattering of laughter the group scattered to their various tasks.
Davydov walked over to me. “Thank you, Emma. It’s a good plan.”
I waved a hand, wondering what I had done—or rather, why I had done it. “The only plan, I think.”
“Maybe. But still, it saved us time.” His smile and his eyes were bright in his dark face, but he wasn’t really thinking about me anymore. His jaw bunched with tension. Ilene called him and he turned and walked over to her.
I sat and waited.
When the lines had been set—it took nearly an hour—I went with Davydov and Olga to the little window room opposite the bridge, which gave a view from the other side of the ship. The lines stretching from us to Hilda (the asteroid was about seven kilometers long, I judged, not an over-large object to hide three ships behind) were like silver thread, only visible by a sort of act of the imagination. The pulling began and the lines came straight. Off to one side the lines leading to the starship could just be seen. Davydov left to return to the bridge. A long time passed; Hilda came closer. At last the bare, rough blue-gray rock of the asteroid was no more than a hundred meters away. Now the Eagle’s center rocket was expelling tiny puffs to keep the two objects from coming together—to keep us from falling (drifting, actually) onto the surface. I imagined I could feel the mysterious tug of gravity.
Swann came by and asked me to return to the bridge. As I walked up the tube (and now there was an up), I noticed an unusual silence. A lot of systems had been shut down. The three ships had become, to the outer world, inert objects.
Ilene had set up a computer display on the big viewscreen, which indicated our two ships, the outline of the asteroid as seen from our original location, and the three police ships. These were out of our radar view, and were being located by observers out on the asteroid’s surface—people crawling around in EVA suits, hiding behind rocks like the scouts of old Earth. The bridge was crowded again.
We waited, watching the green screen with its shifting purple lines and points. The computer people and John Dancer were still programming our maneuvers. The rest of us sat and watched.
“I’ve got them on visual,” came the report from one of the surface observers. “About ten degrees above my horizon, vertical ninety-five or a hundred.”
“Tell him to point his suit exhaust at the ground,” Davydov said into the mike.
The lines started to pull us around the asteroid, moving at a pretty snappy pace. On the green display screen we stayed near the center, two purple squares; the asteroid’s outline shifted down, and the tiny red circles of the police ships rose slowly toward the edge of the outline. If they broached it, they would be in our sky. One of them certainly would. Ilene introduced the small shape of one of the rocks following Hilda onto the screen, the daughter rock that would be between us and that cruiser, for a while at least.
Looking out the bridge’s wide plasteel window we could see Hilda curving away from us, the underside of the starship just above us, and behind it the vacuum sky, star-studded. The events on the computer screen could have been a movie, a war game, abstract art—for we could no more see the police than they could see us. Abstract art—and the esthetic was to keep all the dots within the irregular circle…
The quiet voices kept reporting in for the observers, giving us positions, and Ilene tapped them out accordingly. The little red dots skipped up the screen.
With the police ship below us, it was simple. It would fly by, and we would move up and around the asteroid, keeping it between us and them, and it would never see us. With the ship on our right it was the same, only there wasn’t such a big margin. We would remain just under the horizon to that one. This would put us just above the horizon for the third ship, for a few minutes. That was the bad part—but during that time a daughter rock, no more than two kilometers across, would be floating between us and the third ship. By the time this ship flew out from behind the daughter rock, we hoped to be over the horizon of Hilda again, and out of sight of all three of them.
We watched the screen. I looked over at Davydov. He stared impassively at the display, a quizzical, resigned look on his face.
The third ship came over Hilda’s horizon, behind the daughter rock. Davydov leaned forward. “Station Three, draw us toward you,” he said into the mike, overriding the program. He waved aside Ilene’s protest. “We’ve got some room to spare on that side,” he said. He concentrated on the screen. “Simon, tell us when you see them,” he said into the mike. I thought of Simon, prone on the surface—
“He says he sees them,” came his observer’s voice.
“Pull to Station One, as fast as you can,” Davydov said.
The little blip of the third ship crawled to the line demarcating the daughter rock, and there it sat, on the line—on our horizon, its detecting instruments just above or below it, who could say? “Pull,” Davydov whispered to himself, “pull.” I thought, alarm bells could be going off.…
After no more than two minutes, the dot marking the third ship slipped back down under the rock’s horizon, and then behind Hilda again. Now Hilda protected us from all three of them.
But we might have been visible, there, for those two minutes.
Simon kept sending us positions, and everyone on the bridge listened with consuming interest.
“They’re not slowing,” Swann ventured.
…And so they bombed on by, three police ships of my lawful government. I felt as happy as the others acted, and proud of myself. Although, really, they could have caught us in that minute on the horizon. So it hadn’t been that great a plan. But it had worked.
It had been five hours since the first sighting of them—five very long hours, during which I had had little to do but contemplate my life and its potential ending…the kind of dense thinking that is shorthanded by, “my whole life passed before my eyes.” A tornado of the mind. I was tired.
“We’ll stay behind Hilda for a day or so,” Davydov said. “Then back to work.” He heaved out a breath, grinned at us. “Time to get out of here.”
• • •
When the relieved celebration was over, and I had calmed down, I went into my room and fell into a deep sleep. Just before I woke up, I had a vivid dream:
I was a child, on Mars, and we were playing hide-and-seek, as we often did. We were at the station on Syrtis Major, on one of those broad desert plains that are strewn with boulders—boulders from the size of basketballs up to the size of a small room, all scattered across the plain in a regular pattern that used to baffle our elders. “There’s no way such even distribution could be natural,” my father would say, sitting on one of the rocks and staring out at the nearby horizon. “It looks like a stage set.”
But to us children it was perfectly natural. And in the late afternoons, after dinner, we would play hide-and-seek. In my dream it was near sunset, one of the dust sunsets, when you could look straight at the little red sun, and the sky was ribbed with pink bands of dust, and the rust-colored plain was marked by long black shadows, one for each rock. I was hiding behind a spherical boulder about waist-high, crouched down, watching the other kids make their dashes for home base. Home base was a long way away. I could see the wind, picking up swirls of sand, but in my suit I couldn’t feel it. There were giggles and quick breathing on the radio band, which was turned down so that the sounds were all very quiet. My mike was turned off. The person who was it gave up; there were too many boulders, too many shadows. “Olly olly oxen, free free free,” she called; singing the phrase in a quavering voice. “Olly olly oxen, free free free.”
But I couldn’t come in. There was another it, something I didn’t recognize, a tall dark thing like one of the long black shadows come alive. It was nearly sunset, the ruby sun was touching the old crater wall to the west. I was hiding in earnest. I could just dare to put one eye over the rock, to see the dark shape move around, looking behind one rock after the other. Where was home base? The radio transmitter hissed. No one called. The dark thing that was it was moving toward my hiding place, checking boulder after boulder. The shadow of the crater wall was stretching across the plain, blacking out everywhere.…
I shifted against the bed, half woke for a moment. Then my father had me by the hand. We were free of suits, under the dome. I was younger, about seven. We were walking across the baseball diamond. Dad had our gloves and the ball, one of the kids’ softballs that wouldn’t go very far when you hit it. “When I was your age and played baseball,” Dad told me, “the field was about the same size as this one.”
“This one’s little.”
“On Mars it is. But on Earth even the grown-up balls wouldn’t go very far when you hit them.”
“Because of gravity.” Whatever that meant.
“Right. The Earth pulls harder.” He gave me my glove and I stood behind home plate. He stood on the pitcher’s mound and we threw the ball back and forth. “That pitcher really got you yesterday.”
“Yeah. Right on my kneecap.”
Dad grinned. “I saw how you hung in there the next time you got up. I like that.” He caught and threw. “But why did you try to steal third when you had just been hit on the knee?”
“I don’t know.”
“You were out by a mile.” He fielded a low one. “And Sandy had just bunted and got out to get you to second. And once you’re on second you’re in scoring position.”
“I know,” I said. “I just took off when I got a good lead.”
“You sure did.” Dad was grinning, he threw a hard one at me. “That’s my Emma. You’re awful fast. You could probably steal third, if you worked hard enough. Sure. We work hard at it, you could be a real speedster.…”
And then I was running, across the open desert, the hard-baked oxidized sand of south Syrtis. In my dream the broad plain was like the Lazuli Canyon, filled with breathable air. I ran barefoot, in my gym shorts and shirt. In Mars’s gentle grasp I bounded forward, arms making a sort of swimming motion, as my father had taught me. No one had really worked on running in Martian gravity; I was working it out for myself, with Dad’s help. I was in some sort of race, far ahead of the others, pushing off the warm gritty sand with great shoves of my thighs; feeling the thin chill air rush by. I could hear my father’s voice: “Run, Emma, run!” And I ran across that red plain, free and powerful, faster and faster, feeling like I could run over the horizon before me and on forever, all the way around the planet.
Nadezhda and Marie-Anne woke me coming through the door, talking of excess biomass. My heart was thumping, my skin was damp. In my mind I still heard my father’s voice. “Run!”
• • •
They began working incessantly to complete the starship. Nadezhda and Marie-Anne stayed up to all hours in our room, poring over programs and program results. It was laughable, really, for having missed them the Committee police weren’t likely to pass that way again. Nevertheless they hurried, and my roommates grew more and more serious as days passed.
“…Degree of closure of any substance is established by its rate of consumption in the system, E, and the rate of flow in incomplete closure, e,” Nadezhda would mutter, as if praying, glancing balefully at me as I refused to work with them for more than several hours a day. The lights focused on the little desk, Marie-Anne hunched over the computer screen, copying down figures.…“The substance’s closure coefficient K is determined by K equals I minus e over E.…”
And closure for the whole system was a complex compilation of the degrees of closure for all the substances being recycled. But they could not get that master coefficient high enough, do what they might. I tried hard to figure out something myself. But perfect closure is not natural, it does not exist anywhere, except perhaps in the universe as a whole. Even there, no doubt each big bang is a little bit smaller.…In the starship, the leaks would be in waste recycling. They couldn’t deal with the accumulation of chlorides, or the accumulation of humic matter in the algal reactors. And they wouldn’t be able to completely recycle corpses, neither animal nor human. Certain minerals…if only they could be re-introduced into the system, made useful to something which would transform them into something back in the mainstream of the cycle.…So we worked, for hours and hours, mutating and testing bacteria, juggling the physiochemical processes, trying to make a tail-in-mouth snake that would roll across the galaxy.
One night when they were gone I typed out the full program and filled in estimated figures of my own, to find the point where the accumulations would imbalance the system enough to break it down. I got about seventy years.
It was an impressive achievement, given what they were given, but the universe is a big place, and they needed to do better.
One day while thinking about this problem of closure, a week or more after the fly-by, Andrew Duggins, Al Nordhoff, and Valenski stopped me in the hall. Duggins looked fat and unhealthy, as if the situation were taking its toll on him.
“We hear that you helped the mutineers evade a Committee police fleet that came near here,” he accused.
“Who told you that?” I said.
“It’s the talk of the ship,” he said angrily.
“Among whom?” I asked.
“That doesn’t matter,” Valenski said in his clipped, accented English. “The question is, did Committee police pass us by while we three were incarcerated last Friday?”
“Yes, they did.”
“And you were instrumental in making the plans to hide from them?”
I considered it. Well, I had done it. And I wanted to be known for what I was. I stared Valenski in the eye. “You could say that, yes.” A strange feeling, to be in the open—
“You helped them escape capture!” Duggins burst out. “We could have been free by now!”
“I doubt it,” I said. “These people would have resisted. The police would have blown us all to dust. I saved your lives, probably.”
“The point is,” said Valenski, “you aided the mutineers.”
“You’ve been helping them all along,” Duggins said. The animosity flowing from him was almost tangible, and I couldn’t understand it. “Your part in the attack on the radio room was a sham, wasn’t it? Designed to get you into our confidence. It was you who told them about our plans, and now you’re helping them.”
I refrained from pointing out the lack of logic in his indictment. As I said, paranoia on spaceships is common. “What do you think, Al?” I said flippantly.
“I think you’re a traitor,” quiet Al Nordhoff said, and I felt it.
“When we return to Mars,” Valenski pronounced, “your behavior will have to be reported. And you will have no part in commanding the return flight. If you return.”
“I’m going back to Mars,” I said firmly, still shaken by Al’s words.
“Are you?” Duggins sneered. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to jump out of Oleg Davydov’s bed when the time comes?”
“Andrew,” I heard Al protest; by that time I was taking an alternative route to the dining commons, walking fast, rip rip rip.
“Damned treacherous woman,” Duggins shouted after me. His two companions were remonstrating with him as I turned a corner and hurried out of earshot.
Upset by this confrontation, aware of the pressures that were steadily mounting on me from all sides (when would I be compressed to a new substance, I wondered?), I wandered through the complex of lounges outside the dining area. The autumn colors were getting closer to winter: torpid browns, more silver and white. In the tapestry gallery, among the complicated wall hangings, there was a bulletin screen filled with messages and games and jokes. I stopped before it, and a sentence struck my eye. “Only under the stresses of total social emergencies do the effectively adequate alternative technical strategies synergetically emerge.” Jeez, I thought, what prose artist penned that? I looked down—the ascription was to one Buckminster Fuller. The quote continued: “Here we witness mind over matter and humanity’s escape from the limitations of his identity with some circumscribed geographical locality.” That was for sure.
Part of the bulletin screen was reserved for suggestions for the name of the starship. Anyone could pick his color and typeface, and tap a name onto the space on the screen. It was getting crowded. Most of them were dull: First, One, The Starship. Others were better. There were classical allusions, of course: The Ark, Santa Maria, Kon-Tiki III Because It’s There. The names of the two halves of the ship had been joined—Lerdalgo, Himontov—I doubted they would be chosen. In the center of the screen was the suggestion rumored to be Davydov’s: Anicarus. I liked that one. Also Transplutonia, which sounded like the Vampires of Outer Space. About a third of the names were in the Cyrillic alphabet, which I can barely transliterate. And the names would have been Russian, anyway. They all looked good, though.
Looking at the names I thought about all that had happened, about Davydov, Swann and Breton, Duggins and Valenski. I would be in trouble if I returned to Mars…if I returned? When I returned! Seized by undirected danger, I was suddenly inspired to add a name to the screen. In the biggest letters available, in orange, just below Davydov’s suggestion, I typed out THE SHIP OF FOOLS. The ship of fools. How perfect. We would make an illustration for the allegory, with me large among the foreground characters. It made me laugh, and feeling better, though I knew that was illogical, I went to eat.
But the next day the feeling of pressure returned. I felt like a chunk of chondrite being transformed to Chantonnay. My life’s course had been bent by this event, and there was no way to straighten it out; all my choices lay in a new direction, where eventual disaster seemed more and more likely. This sense of pressure became unbearable, and I went to the centrifuge to run. It felt good to get in the gravity and run like a hamster in a wheel, like a creature without choices.
So I was running. The floor of the centrifuge was made of curved wooden planking, the walls and ceiling were white, dotted by numbered red circles to tell runners where they were. There were unmarked, informal lanes—slow to the right, fast to the left. Usually I just went to the left wall and started running, looking at the planks as they passed under me.
This time I heard the thump of feet directly behind me, and I moved over, thinking, stupid sprinters. It was Davydov. He drew even with me.
“Mind if I run with you?”
I shook my head, although I don’t like running with others. We ran side by side for a few revolutions.
“Do you always run this fast?” he said.
Now when I run, I am doing a middle-distance workout, and the point is to get up to about ninety percent maximum pulse rate and keep it there for up to twenty or thirty minutes. It is working to the limit. When Davydov asked me this question I had been going for almost half an hour, and I was about to collapse. Nevertheless, I said, “Or faster.”
He grunted. We ran on. His breathing quickened.
“You about ready to take off?” I asked.
“Yeah. A few days. I think.”
“Going to make closure?”
He glanced at me briefly; he knew that I knew that they weren’t. Then he looked back at the floor, thinking about it.
“No,” he said. A few strides. “Water loss. Waste build-up. Not enough fuel.”
“How long can you go?”
“Eighty. Eighty years.”
I smiled for a moment, pleased with the accuracy of my own calculations. They should have had me from the start, I thought. I said, “Doesn’t that worry you?”
Again he watched the floor. We took quite a few strides, nearly circled the run.
“Yes,” he expelled suddenly. A slight stumble to mark the admission. “Yes, I’m worried.” Several strides. “I’ve got to. Stop now. Join me? In game room?”
“In a few minutes.” He slowed abruptly and dropped back to the right. I waved a hand without turning and started to run freely again, thinking about the look on his face and the sense of release when he said yes, I’m worried.
After six thousand meters I climbed up to the hub and got out of the centrifuge, took a quick sponge bath. I walked down to the game room, feeling much better, tired and strong in the no-gee.
Davydov was over in an isolated corner of the game room, sitting at a table for two, staring out the tiny port in the wall beside him. It seemed that the seasons were accelerating aboard our ship, for the room was walled in somber tones, brown and thunderhead blue and silver. I sat down beside him and we stared at the little square of stars. He got me a bulb of milk. His big dark face was lined with concern, and he didn’t meet my gaze.
“Eighty years isn’t very long,” I observed.
“No. It could be enough, if we’re lucky.”
“But it isn’t as much as you had hoped for.”
“No.” His mouth was set. “Not at all.”
“What will you do?”
He didn’t answer. He took sips from his bulb, pulled at his rough face. I had never seen such an expression of uncertainty on his face before. I thought of it. He had committed much of his long life to the idea of the starship and its voyage. Suddenly the idea was realized!—and it was not as perfect as the idea had been; thus more dangerous. And he was filled with doubts. He now saw that he could be leading people to death; I saw it in his expression. That transition, from idea to reality, had had its usual effect on him—it had clarified the possibility of failure, heightened his sense of danger, frightened him.
“You could just take it back,” I said. “You could fly it into an Earth orbit and tell the Terrans what you’ve done and why. You could advocate a real starship. The Committee wouldn’t dare attack you in Earth space.”
He was shaking his head. “They wouldn’t have to. The American and Soviet military would do it for them. Board us and take us down and ask the Committee what they’d like done with us.”
“Not if the Committee’s been overthrown by this revolt you’ve told me about.”
“I doubt that will happen. The Committee controls too much, and they have the Earth powers behind them.”
“Well, you’ve got eighty years—you could play hide-and-seek in the system, radio Earth and Mars and tell them about yourselves, avoid capture until you become a cause céèbre and no one will dare harm you—”
Again he was shaking his head. “They’d just hunt us down. That isn’t what we did all this for.”
“But eighty years isn’t long enough for interstellar flight!”
“Yes, yes it is—”
“Oleg,” I said. “You can’t say it’s enough just because it might be enough to get you to one of the nearest stars. You’re going to have to search for a habitable planet, and eighty years isn’t enough time for that.”
He stared out the window, took several sips from his bulb. “But during that time,” he said, “we’ll improve the life-support system. And that will give us more time.”
“I don’t know how you can say that.”
“We’ve got a lot of equipment and parts with us, and one of the finest system-design teams ever assembled. If they’re good enough, then we’ll have all the time we’ll need.”
I stared at him. “That’s a big if.”
He nodded, the worried expression still on his face. “I know it is. I just have to hope that the systems team is the best one it could possibly be.”
We sat in silence for a while longer, and then Ilene’s voice called Davydov back to some business or other, and I was left to brood over the meaning of that last statement of his. It wasn’t all that obscure, and I gritted my teeth as I felt the pressure mount.
Later that day, still feeling the slow progress of compression and transformation, I ate dinner with Swann. He was in an excellent mood, and talked at length about improvements made in the R and G of the starship. They were going to have to switch from acceleration to deceleration quite a few times, and now they would be able to do it using less fuel.
“What’s with you?” he asked, when he noticed how much of the conversation he was supplying.
“How are you going to get out of the solar system?” I replied. “Without the Committee police seeing your exhaust?”
“We’re going to keep something between us and them the whole time our rockets are firing. At first we’ll have the sun between us and Mars, then we’ll shut down until we meet with Saturn. Orbit it for a while, then coast out to Pluto.” He looked at me oddly. “That’s only a few open bursts. But you’ll keep this all a secret?”
“Unless they drag it out of me,” I said morosely. “Or drug it out of me. You’d probably better not tell me any more.”
“Duggins and Valenski plan to tell the Committee that I collaborted with you. I may end up on Amor, for all I know.”
“Oh my. Oh, Emma—you’ll have to deny their accusations. Most of the people returning will support you.”
“Maybe. It’s going to be a mess.”
“Here. I’m going to get a liter of wine.” They made a good white wine on Rust Eagle, with only a few vines. While he got it I tried to remember whether the starship would have any grapevines. No. Too much waste.
I proceeded to drink most of the wine, without responding much to Swann’s conversation. After dinner we went down to our rooms. In front of my door Eric kissed me, and almost angrily I kissed back, hard. Drunk.…“Let’s go to my room,” he said, and I agreed, surprising myself. We went, and it never occurred to me, then, to wonder if this was exactly the man I had in mind to go to bed with.…In his room we turned off the lights and undressed as we floated about kissing. Making love was the usual clumsy, pleasant affair in the weightlessness—holding onto the bed, moving slowly at unfortunate moments, using the velcro straps. I lost myself in the sensations, marveling once again at how open lovers become to one another. I felt a surge of affection for this friend of mine, this cheerful and gentle man, this crazy exile fleeing from humanity. How to think of him? What was he fleeing, after all, but the turmoil and repression on Mars, the absolute madness of Earth, our home world, our home—fleeing all the hatred and war. If only they all understood, that everyone is as human as your lover is.…Maybe on the starship they would remember it, I thought disconsolately.
“Emma,” he said, as we floated quietly in our embrace. “Emma?”
“Please come with us.”
“Please, Emma. We need you. It’ll be a good life, one of the great human lives. And I want you along. It will make all the difference for me—”
“Eric,” I said.
“I want to live on Mars. That’s my home.”
“But—” He stopped, sighed.
We floated, and for once the weightlessness felt like gravity, gravity pressing from every direction. Tears leaked out of my eyes.
This was my chance to join humanity’s greatest voyage. I wished I hadn’t drunk so much. “I want to go back to my room,” I whispered. I switched on the desk lamp, retrieved my clothes from the air, avoided Eric’s sad gaze. I kissed him before I left.
“Think about it?” he said.
“Oh I will,” I said. “I will.…”
• • •
In the last few days they gutted the Rust Eagle, leaving it just able to get home. Nadezhda and Marie-Anne looked haggard. One day I helped them get their belongings together, as they were moving to the starship. Marie-Anne dabbed at her eyes and embraced me and the three of us stood there, a triad of sane femininity in a crazy world…but they left.
The bare empty room was very oppressive. I left it and floated through the ship, disdaining the velcro-and-balance routine, making lazy fingertip-turns to negotiate the frequent bends. I flew as if in a dream, touring the ship, refusing to acknowledge the few people I passed. It was night-time, the halls were dimmed to nothing but guidance lights. Occasional clumps of people sat in the lounges, talking softly, drink bulbs hovering over them like djinn-jars. They didn’t look up as I passed.
Through the quiet living quarters (in open doors people packed their goods to cross to the starship), up to the huge, dark bays at the top, amongst the mining equipment that was left, the waldoes like monsters or sad mangled robots, half seen in the shadows they cast. Down the long jump tube back to the power station, where it was bright, humming, empty. And then back up the tube to the bridge, where I stood before the broad window and looked across at the thing.
Well, I thought, there it is. I could go on the first flight to the stars. I felt that it somehow should have been more momentous, an invitation filled with ceremony: interviews by large committees, batteries of tests, acceptance by videogram, the attention of two worlds. Instead, two old miners fused by insubordinate friends—and me invited by these friends, including two men I had cared about for years. It didn’t seem right. I recalled all the stories in literature about interstellar flight, all the deranged, degenerate, incestuous little societies. Yet this expedition, its members living through and beyond the voyage, would not turn out like that. Or would it? Maybe the dream of the savannah would drive them mad. Suddenly I was acutely conscious of the fact that I was in a little bulb of air like an extended spacesuit—I was in a submarine, millions of fathoms deep in a vacuum ocean.
No, I could not go with them. They might be able to do it—if I went, Nadezhda and I could keep that life-support system working, surely—but I could not go. I needed to be able to walk on ground, bare Mars ground.
The vision of the books struck me again, and I saw the double ship floating out there empty, light years away, the skeleton of a failed idea.
I could prevent them from leaving. The thought made me glance furtively at the silent figures sitting at the ship’s controls. They ignored me.
I couldn’t do anything to the starship. But if I disabled Rust Eagle, they would be forced to—to what? They wouldn’t kill us, and so perhaps all would be saved.…There were key codes in Davydov’s cabin, that would open the cocks in the deuterium holds.
Without really thinking about it I drifted out of the bridge, and, still floating about like a disembodied spirit, I came to Davydov’s room off in a corner bend of the upper hall. The door was about a quarter open. It was light inside.
I tapped the door, holding the jamb beside it for support. No reply. I stuck my head in and looked around. Empty? A single desk lamp lit the room. I was about to put my feet to the velcro strip on the floor, but thought better of it—too noisy. I pushed the door open a little farther and slipped in.
He was asleep. He had put two chairs together, and was draped across them head and shoulders on one, knees on the other. His mouth hung open, and he breathed easily. Under the lamp I noticed that his hair had the same kinked texture as the velcro carpet below him.
For a long time I coasted through the air, watching his dark face, darker still in the shadows. He looked so ordinary.
On the desk, in the lamp’s gleam under a clamp, were a few scattered papers. I was already intruding; I tiptoed off a wall and floated over to look at them.
They were diagrams, several versions of the same thing. Under one sheet lay a compass and straight-edge. The diagrams were all circular, or near it: constructions made with several arcs of the compass, that resulted in circles flattened slightly on one side. Around this faint circumference were little rectangles, set at different angles, blackened by pencil. I looked at a faint scrawl, written under a long series of numbers. “Something to leave a mark on the world, something to show we were here at all—” The penciling was smeared, as if by the back of a hand. The final dash trailed off across the page.
I stared at the little black rectangles for a long time, looking over at Davydov once or twice. Plans for a monument to themselves, to a group leaving all that humans knew and shared together. “Something to show we were here at all.…” Floating in the dark room, no sound but the airy hooooooo of the vents, the desolation began to fill me, the vacuum. We all will die. It was the first time in my life I had had that thought and truly believed it. The postponements we have devised make it easy not to think of, for it might be a millennium away. But it will come. The diagrams below me seemed like circles of gravestones. Designs for a tomb. That’s how we show we were here; that’s all we can do.
I floated over the sleeping man, stretched out horizontally above him. Even the exile wants to be remembered. This poor ragged group, with their stupid dream…I wished I were a succubus, and could possess him without his full awakening, without his becoming conscious and human. He breathed on. With a convulsive shudder I drifted away, touched off a wall to the door, slipped out and down the hall, my plan to disable the Eagle abandoned. It was not my part to interfere with anyone else’s method of dying, or of leaving their mark before.
Soon they all would be gone.
• • •
Back in my room I drifted off into a troubled sleep. Once I half woke and found myself wedged in a corner, lying upright beside the bed. I groped about until my hand hit a velcro strap, stuck it against the stick-strips on either side of me, and fell asleep again. It was that sort of sleep in which you wake every hour and think to yourself that you have not been sleeping at all; you can remember dreams that are like reflections, daytime thinking slightly warped. I slept and slept, sleepfloated down to the toilet and back, slept yet again. I didn’t want to wake up. I was tired.
Many hours later I was awakened by a knock on the door. I burst out of my velcro strapping, landed on the far wall. I collected myself and answered the door.
It was Davydov. I blinked, confusing this moment with the last time I had seen him. Still dreaming.
“We’d like everybody to come over to the starship for a final meeting. It’ll be in a couple of hours.”
“Is it time?”
He nodded. “Would you like to go over there with me? I’m crossing in a little while.”
“Uh. Sure. Let me get myself together.”
After I had cleaned up I joined him in the boat bay, and we crossed the space separating the two ships. The starship looked the same, a work in progress.
Lermontov was emptier than I remembered. Davydov took me through the rough tunnel of the lock-tube connecting the two ships, and showed me the living quarters of Hidalgo: walls had been knocked out, and all of the bedrooms were twice as big as before. The hospital had been extended, mostly for storage space. We passed stacks of plastic boxes, one nearly blocking a hallway. “Still moving in,” Davydov said. He seemed full of quiet pride, the captain of a bright new spaceship, all of his doubts vanished in the night while mine had accumulated.
“I’m tired,” I complained.
We returned to the bridge of Lermontov. There was still some time before the meeting. After that, those of us returning would cross to Rust Eagle. It was time for the parting.
They were going to leave Rust Eagle one boat, and just enough fuel to accelerate to about fifty km/sec and decelerate again—that meant a weightless coast around the sun, for most of the return, in fact. I cursed when Davydov told me that. So sick of no-gee!
“I’m sorry about what we’ve done to you,” he said from the window. “All the impositions—the danger we’ve put you in.”
“Eh,” I said.
He stayed with his back to me. “Everything should be calm by the time you get back.”
“Hope so.” I didn’t want to think of it. We deserved to return to calmness.
“I’m sorry you’re not coming with us, Emma.”
That woke me up. I looked at his back. “Why is that?”
“You…were the last outsider. And I hadn’t talked with any outsiders for years—not really talked, I mean. If…if you had decided to join us, it would have meant a lot to me.”
“You wouldn’t have to feel guilty about sending me back to whatever’s happening on Mars,” I said cruelly.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “I suppose that’s true. And—and I wouldn’t have to consider what happened between us so long ago finished.…” Finally he turned and faced me, rip-ripped over to me. “I would have enjoyed your company,” he said slowly.
“And if I were going,” I said, “I would have enjoyed your company too. But I’m not going.” I clung to that.
“I know.” He looked away, searching for words, it seemed. “Your approval has become important to me.”
Wearily I said, “Not all that important.” Which was true.
He winced. I watched his mouth tighten unhappily. Somewhere in me a tide turned, my mood began to lighten. After a long silence I stood up carefully (I had been leaning on the navigator’s chair, I noticed), approached him, reached up on tiptoe (hand on his shoulder) and kissed him, lightly on the lips. A thousand phrases jammed on my tongue. “I like you, Oleg Davydov,” I said inadequately. I stepped away as he reached for me. “Come on, let’s go down to that soccer field. The meeting can’t start without you.” I led the way to the door, quite certain that I didn’t want the conversation to continue any longer.
At the doorway he stopped me, and without a word pulled me into his arms, into one of those big Russian bear hugs that let you know that you are not the only consciousness in the world, because of the intensity of the flesh. I hugged back, remembering when we were young. Then we pulled our way down the jump tube to the enlarged recreation field.…And so we parted.
There was a final meeting in the big space they had cleared in the Lermontov, a meeting strange and tentative. To each group there the other was dying. I felt as if miles of plasteel separated me from everyone else. Then they were all milling about, saying good-bye. It all happened very quickly. I felt very tired. Nadezhda and Marie-Anne found me and hugged me. I moved with the others toward the corridor leading to the boat bay, saying “Good-bye…farewell…good-bye.” Then Eric was standing before me, holding me. Davydov was at his side. They looked at each other. Davydov said, “She’s what you leave behind, eh?” Then he took my arm, led me to the corridor. “Good-bye!” Eric called. “Yes,” I mumbled. Then we were in the boat bay.
“Good-bye, Emma,” Davydov said. “Thank you for your help.”
“Don’t run into anything,” I said, my voice tight.
He shook his head.
“Good-bye, Oleg Davydov.” I could hardly say it.
He turned and walked out of the bay. I got on the boat and we shot out into space, back to Rust Eagle where we began. Once there the new crew members looked at each other. Three MSA members who had decided to return; ten or a dozen people bitterly opposed to the starship effort, clustered around Valenski and Duggins; and another dozen people who had not cared, or who had helped the effort. We moved to the bridge by unspoken consent. I went to the window and looked at the starship again. The sun was behind us, and for a second our shadow crossed over the double ship.
I stood inside the window, watching. I couldn’t think—every thought I had short-circuited and died.
The starship moved forward. Helplessly I moved along the window with it, watching with the others as it receded, angling away: first a bright belt, then a necklace, a bracelet, a ring, and lastly a silver jewel, that diminished and diminished and disappeared.
All that was left was to go home, home to the red planet. At the thought, over everything else, I felt immense relief.
• • •
Since then we have all taken on the various tasks we are capable of, and I, in the privacy of my empty room, have written this record—an attempt to save, for the Emma of the following centuries, some account of these months.
Without a doubt this is the strangest crew Rust Eagle has ever carried. Ethel Jurgenson, Yuri Kopanev and I have taken over the work on the bridge, which is mostly monitoring at this point. Valenski in turn monitors us, walking about the bridge like a teacher during a test. Ginger Sims and Amy Van Danke and Nikos Micora, one of the MSA people who decided to return (very quiet he is), are taking care of the farm, with the help of three or four others, including Al Nordhoff. They report to me, but Valenski insists on being present all the time we are working.
Despite this suspicious atmosphere, the relations between the various factions aboard are better than they were at first. About four days into our return Yuri and Duggins started a fight in the dining commons; they had to be pulled apart by Sandra and several others. The two principals were pretty well bruised, Duggins from flying backwards over a table, a wonderful sight to my eyes. For a couple of days we were like two armed camps. Eventually I went to Valenski’s room to talk. “You mind your own business and we’ll mind ours. Everybody just do their job. When we get back to Mars they’ll take the ship into custody and we can all say what we like.”
“Fine with me,” he said. “It’s you who’ll be in trouble then, not me.”
True enough, perhaps. But since then things have been relatively calm. In our private meetings Yuri suggested taking over the ship and going to Earth, but the idea was rejected. First of all, no one wanted to risk a violent confrontation with the loyalists. But more importantly, I think, no one was willing to face the idea of going to Earth. With its wars, its hungry billions, its gravity—we all instinctively felt that nothing on Mars could be as bad. Besides, as Sandra pointed out, Earth is no more than the home of the Committee’s bosses, and so not much of an asylum.
So we coast toward Mars and wait. I have spent these days like a somnambulist, my mind existing in the past months as I wrote this record, or wandering toward Saturn with the starship and its crew, my friends. At first I was helpless to control this behavior, and I floated through Rust Eagle without responding to my mates. Later I cultivated it as a sort of act, as I noticed that it tended to subdue everyone else aboard.
We have no transmitter, so we have listened mutely to what we can hear on the receiver. There isn’t much. Clearly the trouble has continued on Mars, and that makes it hard—not knowing what we are returning to.
But it won’t be much longer until we know. I have filled up the weeks with this record, inadequate though it certainly is, for who can translate the amazing bombardment of experience into words? Yet it has passed the time. Deceleration starts today, bringing the blessed attraction to the floor. And soon we will be back in Mars space. If I can I will continue penning away in this little notebook, to give it a sort of ending. But I fear they will throw us all in jail.
It was the rebels who met us.
I’ll never forget the look on Andrew Duggins’ face. Reality had betrayed him; the brave were springing up everywhere, even on his home ground where he might least expect it, and he couldn’t escape them.
And yet I am sure that several of us collaborators were not much less dismayed to be received by anti-Committee forces.
Well, this is how it happened. They met us just outside the orbit of Amor, in one of those little police craft that are used to patrol the space around Phobos and Deimos, and to take prisoners up to Amor. As I stared out the bridge window at the red crescent of the planet, wondering if I would set foot on it again, they hurried out of the jump tube—about ten tense-looking men and women, dressed in working one-pieces. They pointed long-nosed weapons at us, hot light guns, and for a long adrenaline-filled moment I thought they were removing all the witnesses to the mutiny.…
“Is this Rust Eagle?” asked a blond-haired man, for we had been unable to respond to their angry questions by radio.
“Yes,” two or three of us replied.
The man nodded. “We are the Texan cell of the Washington-Lenin Alliance. You have been liberated—” He smiled, at our expressions I suppose. “And we are taking you as quickly as we can to New Houston, a free city.”
That was when Duggins looked as if the world had turned upside down. Ethel and I looked at each other open-mouthed—Yuri held us both in a hug, moving slowly in front of the guns. It was he who began to explain us to the blond man, but he hadn’t got far before we were ushered to the boat bay, to transfer to the police craft. There we were separated into smaller groups and interviewed by a pair of the rebels. Soon I was led to a room containing the blond man and a woman about my age.
“You’re Emma Weil?”
I told them I was. They asked me some questions about the MSA and their adventures, and I confirmed the story that Yuri and the others had told.
“So there has been a revolution?” I said. “And the Committee overthrown?”
They were both shaking their heads. “The battle is still on,” said the woman, whose name was Susan Jones.
The blond man was her brother. “Actually,” he said, “we aren’t doing so well.” He stood. “At first the uprising was planet-wide, but now—we still hold Texas—”
“Of course,” I said, and they grinned.
“And the Soviet sector. There’s still fighting in Mobil and the Atlantic, and in the tunnels on Phobos. But everywhere else, the Committee troops have regained control.”
“Royal Dutch?” I asked, my windpipe suddenly constricted.
They shook their heads. “Committee.”
“Has it been very violent?”
Susan Jones said firmly, “A lot of people have been killed.”
Her brother said, “They broke the dome at Hellas. Killed a lot of people inside.”
“They couldn’t have!” I cried. Hellas…
“They did. They don’t care how many people they kill. There’s always more on Earth to take their places.”
“They’re careful of property, though,” Susan said bitterly. “That’s to our advantage. Otherwise I have no doubt they would have destroyed New Houston outright by now.”
“It sounds like you’re losing,” I said.
They didn’t contradict me.
Suddenly the gravity shifted up, and we became heavier. Heavier still.
“But I’m with you,” I said, without planning to. “I’m with you if you’ll have me.”
They both nodded. “We’ll have you,” Andrew Jones said. “We’re going to need life-support people, one way or another.”
The gee diminished to the familiar pressure of Mars. A minute later there was a gentle bump-and-rock. I was home again.
So I joined the revolution.
When we had been settled in the apartment the revolutionaries were using for their command post—it’s in the Dallas district, the industrial section of town near the air and water facilities, under the rim of New Houston’s crater—I asked Susan Jones what they were doing with Duggins, Valenski, and their group.
She smiled. “We explained the situation to them, and gave them their choice—join us, or be detained. We told them the truth about the Committee, explained Amor to them. We told them that if any of them joined us and then did anything anti-revolutionary, we’d shoot them.”
“Not all of them have decided yet. Most who have decided have chosen to be detained.”
“That Al Nordhoff is a good man-”
“He chose detention.”
Of course. And all of us who helped build the starship have chosen to join the revolution. No surprise, although I still have the feeling some of us might have preferred to be met by the Committee. (Am I one of those?)
We were taken to a short meeting with the revolutionary command herea different sort of committee, a smelly and disheveled group of about twenty-five. They looked like my farm crew used to look after a hard day’s work. Or worse. Susan Jones told them what she knew of our adventure, and the story of our rescue—or whatever it was. We answered some questions. They looked pleased to see us; here was an anti-Committee project that had succeeded. I became very tired. It had been a long time since I had last slept. Finally they led us back to our rooms, and I fell asleep the moment I hit the bed.
Today they want us to rest. Andrew Jones says some of them want to talk to us again. I’ve taken the opportunity to get down the story of our arrival. Now, again, I’m going to sleep. The Martian gravity I love feels pretty heavy these days.
I talked to Andrew Jones this afternoon. He told me that the revolution began all at once, in every major city on the planet. The entire Soviet space fleet rebelled and pearl-harbored the rest of the Committee’s spaceships, with devastating success. “That’s why we were able to go up there and intercept you. We still have partial control of Marsspace.” The railroad tracks connecting the cities were sabotaged, especially at bridges and other problem points. Air and water buildings in every city were stormed, as were some of the police barracks. These last attacks had uneven success. There were as many police as rebels, so it had been a pitched battle from the start. Fighting in the streets, in every city.…”The U.S. and U.S.S.R. have sent reinforcements to the Committee,” Andrew finished. “They’ve arrived recently. A few big spaceships, really long-distance killers, and some advanced weapons. Personnel killers.”
“They must not be too worried about you,” I said, “if they’re still trying to save the buildings and facilities.”
“I know,” Andrew said, discouraged and bitter. “They think they can just kill us and walk back into their property.”
“And you’ve lost contact with a lot of rebel-held cities?”
“You bet.” He became grimly cheerful. “They’ve retaken most of the sectors, like I told you. They drop in on the air and water buildings and blast the people there—if there’s still resistance in the city, they take away the air. A lot of buildings are self-contained, but that’s just mopping up. These cities”—he grimaced—“they’re too centralized. Some of the rebel cells have set up underground retreats in the chaos. We hope they made it out to them.”
“What about the general population?”
“Most of them fought for us. At first. That’s why we did so well.”
“A lot of people must be dead.”
Thousands of people dead. Killed. People who would have lived a thousand years. My father—jail may have protected him, but on the other hand, he may be dead. And my turn may be coming.
They asked me to make a small speech for the rebels in New Houston, which they would then transmit to the other rebel outposts. “When the revolt began,” Susan Jones told me, “the MSA members still here joined the fight, and they told everyone about the starship effort. It’s been a big story, people are very interested and excited about it. To hear you announce that the starship has taken off would be good for morale.”
They’re in bad shape, I thought to myself. But I got the dozen of us who had helped Davydov’s people to sit with me at another meeting in the lounge of the command building. The same group, slightly larger and slightly more exhausted, was gathered there. A couple of video cameras were trained on us, and I was given a mike. I said,
“The Mars Starship Association was part of the revolution. They worked isolated from the main effort, and have existed for the last forty years.” I told them what I knew of the Association’s history, aware as I spoke of the strangeness of the fact that it was me telling them this story. I described the starship and its capabilities, and events from the previous two months flashed in my mind, disturbing my concentration. “When I left Mars on Rust Eagle I didn’t know there was an MSA. I didn’t know there was an underground movement dedicated to the overthrow of the Committee. I did know that—I did know…”—suddenly it was hard to talk—“that I hated the Committee and its control over our lives. When I found out about the MSA, sort of by accident out there”—a sympathetic laugh—“I helped it. So did my friends sitting up here with me. Now that we’re here, we want to help you, too. I’m glad—I’m glad that the Mars Development Committee wasn’t here to greet us.” I paused to catch my breath properly. “I hope they never rule Mars again.”
And at that they stood up and cheered. Clapped and cheered. But I hadn’t been finished! I had wanted to say, Listen, there is a starship leaving the solar system! I wanted to say that out of all our petty and stupid and destructive squabbles on this planet, a pure, feeble effort had struggled away—that the revolution had been responsible for it, partially, and that it was a historical event to stun the imagination.…
But I never got to say any of that. My friends from Rust Eagle crowded around me, familiar faces all, filled with affection, and my speech was over. We looked at each other with a new tenderness—now, and perhaps from now on, we were each other’s only family. Noah’s cousins, left behind.
Not much time left. The city has been broached by police troops, and we’ll be evacuating soon.
I was up on the crater’s rim with Andrew Jones when the missiles started falling on the spaceport to the north of the city crater. The explosions were bright enough to leave blue after-images in our eyes, and they lofted tall, lazy clouds of rusty dust above the larger chunks of spaceport.
Inside our daysuits the attack had been soundless, though I felt the thumps of the explosions even in Mars’s thin air. “Our turn,” Andrew said without emotion. “We’d better get back inside.”
We went to the passage lock in the crater’s dome, and hurried down the escalator on the rim wall. We were just outside the command building when the dome fell. I guess the police weren’t worrying about property anymore; perhaps New Houston is the last rebel city left, and they are anxious to be done with us. We saw the starring appear around the perimeter, saw the huge sections of thin plasteel crack and tilt as they slowly dropped toward us. Then we were under the eaves of the building and in the protection of the door lock.
The plasteel rained down for over a minute. Police troops followed immediately, coming down on individual rocket backpacks. Figures in suits began pouring into our lock from indoors, not worrying about air loss. Andrew and I were handed two of the long-nosed light rifles, and we slung the straps over our shoulders and stepped out of the lock.
There were a lot of them falling, in pale red suits. But it was a vulnerable way to come down. Beams of light laced the dark pink sky, and the police troops shot back as they descended. But they had to control their rocket packs, and they were falling. Their aim was bad. We shot them out of the sky. I pushed the trigger button on my gun and watched the beam intersect with a human form that was falling and shooting in my direction. Suddenly he tilted over and his rockets powered him down into buildings a few blocks away. I sat down, feeling sick, cursing the Committee for attacking in such a stupid and wasteful manner, cursing and cursing. The common band roared with voices. A beam hissed near me and I scrambled for cover under a building’s eave, thinking, not rain drops but death beams, these eaves are for…stupid stuff like that. I looked up again. If a beam hit the rocket packs for more than an instant they exploded. Little pops like obscene firecrackers burst everywhere above me. I cursed and sobbed, hit the wall of the building with my gun, pointed it at the sky and shot again.
Over on the other side of the city the defense wasn’t doing well. Hundreds of police descended in the residential district across the crater from us. Then they stopped falling.
A voice on the radio said, “Enemy is trapped in the residential quarter, northwest. Return to headquarters or to outposts five, six, seven or nine.” This was the first sentence in half an hour I had understood. I found Andrew and followed him to the command building. It was just three hours after dawn, when we had ascended the crater wall.
In the command apartment everyone took off the head-pieces. Andrew looked fierce, desperate. Others were helping a man who was shaking uncontrollably.
After an hour to clear our senses and take accounts, there was a meeting in the central lounge. Susan Jones, still in her silver day-suit, sat down beside me. “We’re going to evacuate the city.”
“And go where?” I asked dully.
“We have a contingency plan for this situation.”
Ethel and Sandra and Yuri joined us, and Susan raised her voice to include them.
“There was always the chance this would happen, of course. We had to risk it.” Her mouth pursed. “Anyway, we’ve got some retreats in the chaos to the north of here. Hidden colonies, underground or in caves. They’re all small and well separated. Since we took over the cities we’ve been stocking them and supplying them with the equipment we’ll need to make them self-contained systems.”
“They’ll spot us from satellite photos,” I said.
She shook her head. “There’s almost as much land surface on Mars as on Earth. And geographic features so impenetrable as to defy belief. I know, I’ve been up there. Even if they photograph it all, they’ll never have the time or the people to examine all the photographs.”
“Can only catch regular shapes. Ours are disguised and hidden. They’d have to check all the photos by eye, and even then they wouldn’t see us. Mars is too big, and the retreats too well hidden. So. We have a refuge, and it’s ready.
“The other choice,” she continued, looking at our faces, “is to fade away in the city, and pretend you were neutral and hiding the whole time. Could be tough. But we’ve programmed a lot of imaginary people into the city register, and you could become one of those.”
Then the meeting was called to order by a tall thin man, and Susan joined him. “The police are contained for now,” he said. “But our situation in New Houston is untenable, as you know. As soon as it’s dark, we’re going to disperse, and either evacuate or infiltrate the city. Field cars hidden in Spear Canyon will take off for the north. There we’ll start the revolution over again.” The man looked tired, disappointed. “You all knew this was a possibility. That the best we would do this time would be to establish the hidden outposts. Well, that’s how it has turned out. I’m afraid we’re losing space control. And that we’re one of the last cities left holding out.” He consulted with Susan. “Those of you who want to continue on in the city, we’ve got a list of apartments near here that still have air. And we’ve got the fake identities ready for your pictures and fingerprints and all.”
He whispered with the people around him some more. Ginger Sims joined us. Conversations began among the forty or fifty people in the room. “Okay. Get some rest before sunset. That’s all for now.”
So there it is. Ethel and Yuri are in the next room, arguing about what to do. But I never even thought about it. I’m going into the chaos. In a curious way it is as though I had decided to go with the starship after all…enclosed in a little underground colony, where we will have to work hard to establish a life-support system, I have no doubt. And yet we are still on Mars, and still opposing the Committee. So I have what I want. I’m satisfied.
There is little time left. I am too nervous to rest, I have been writing for an hour or more. We will leave soon. All of my friends from Rust Eagle are coming along—Ethel and Yuri have just decided. I think of the starship, flying away from all this…of my father. My thoughts are dense and confused, it’s hard to write one thing at a time.
The police will follow us into the chaotic terrain. The Committee will want to wipe out every vestige of resistance. But this desire is part of what insures that we will succeed. We didn’t come to this red planet to repeat all the miserable mistakes of history, we didn’t. Even if it looks like it so far. Martians want to be free; truly free.
I’m going to go in the car with Andrew, so he tells me. His sister and my companions will be along. That will be the most dangerous part, the escape tonight. It looks as though it will all happen as I dreamed it out there with the starship, in the asteroid belt—I will run over the surface of red Mars forever and ever, for the rest of my life. Except in the real world they’ll be chasing me.
Copyright © 1984 by Kim Stanley Robinson