Nanoannie Centime came awake with a galactic-size headache. Was she on a rover?
No, too smooth a ride. She was on a marsplane. Her many hours in the sky made that tilting, dipping motion familiar.
But the deck underneath vibrated harder than the Origami Firefly. To put the chromium plating on her headache, she was seeing everything double. And her hand! It throbbed as if she had stuck it in the planes engine. For a minute she couldnt remember why. Then her vision cleared and she saw the duct tape. Kaperas rover: thered been an accident.
She raised her good hand to her head and found she was wearing her helmet, her own helmet. She spoke the suit com on. "Excuse me? Help? Where are you taking me?"
No reply. She made a mental note: once her eyes focused, she was going to be scared spitless.
This was real trouble. Last mear when that guy wanted her to be a hostess on a Marsnet nightsite, she could have wriggled out of that easy, even without her parents butting in.
In fact, being a nightsite hostess topped what her parents planned for her, a life of servitude under Utopia Limited Corp. No lover and no friends.
"She woke up," said a voice. Synthetic, like through a translator. A guy or a babe?
"Oh, dust," said another voice, also synthetic, but quicker, sharper.
They didnt want her awake. Scary; maybe she should pretend to be asleep.
In her suit, she felt vibrations as one of them moved back toward her. "Shes awake," the first voice confirmed.
The back of Nanoannies head hurt. Had she fallen? She wanted to reach around and find out if she had a bruise. If they had hit her while she was unconscious, shed figure out how to get even. Her hand hurt too much to allow her to get up.
The two of them were in Mars camo, which was called red, though orange-tan was more accurate. Red suits. Scary. People wear camo so they can do you dirty.
One of the suits pushed her back down. "Anoxia. Stay still. I adjusted your suit to compensate."
"Where are you taking me?" Nanoannie thought she was shrieking, but the sound came out a gravely rasp. Her throat felt as if she had swallowed a shovelful of fines, mixed generously with other mineral specimens.
The other voice droned, "I found her parents little spread on Marsnet. Tell her shes going home."
Nanoannies vertigo turned to outrage. Little spread? Centime Pharm was bigger than Kapera Smythes pharm, and her parents had a huge installation in Hellas Planitia.
No. Better not mention Kapera.
"Where is what?" The first synthesized voice sounded preoccupied. "Sit up, please. Raise your arms. Lean forward." The redsuit looped straps over Nanoannies head. Buckled blue bundles to the back of her suit, to the top of her helmet, and to her backside. "This goes between your legs. Tight."
Who were they? The synthetic voices might be translators, because they spoke some weird languageor to hide their identity. They sure werent from Utopia Limited, her parents corp. Intercorp Police? Nah. Those cuy-brains only intervened in olympic dustups: wars between pharms, or squatter invasions.
Kapera. If she asked, they would know Kapera was back there at Smythe Pharm. Maybe she should ask. Maybe they were good guys; theyd rescue Kapera and take her somewhere.
Somewhere. Kapera no longer had a home.
Nanoannie looked down.
Way, way down, at a landscape of ice and fines, through a yawning hole in the fuselage.
Kapera. Kapera Smythe, that prepubescent runt. Two mears younger than Nanoannie, but in the same on-line math class. Where was Kapera now? Maybe Nanoannie shouldnt have jumped in to help her when she came rolling up to Centime Pharm in the rover she had "borrowed" from her parents, Dr. and Dr. Smythe.
If only Nanoannie lived in a big settlement like Equatorial or Sagan City, she would have a choice of careers and lots of friends. Nanoannie had never visited either city, but a kid from Sagan City in her on-line school said the habs were like Earth apartments.
Kapera Smythe had a ticket to Earthwell, Earth orbitals, but it was a lot nuker than, say, Deimos or Phobos. Shed see all that nuke Earth stuff. Shed get to clubs and meet guys. Except she was too young to appreciate guys.
Kaperas parents, Dr. and Dr. Smythe, had sold their pharm and were packing to catch the Down Escalator, to Earth. Martian schools didnt teach much about the Down Escalator, because Martians hardly ever could afford to take it, especially if they were planning to come back to Mars on the Up Escalator. The Up Escalator she knew more about, because her parents had come to Mars on it. It was an asteroid, actually, with tunnels inside. It had been steered into an orbit so it took people from Earth, down to Mars. Then it circled around in orbit beyond Marsshe had seen the calculationsand rendezvoused with Earth orbit to pick up the next batch of passengers.
The Escalators were named by Earth people, so they had it all upside down. When you come down to Mars, you come on the Up Escalator. When you go back up to Earth, you go on the Down Escalator.
Earth people called it the Down Escalator because the Sun is the center of the solar systems gravity, so toward the Sun is down.
Nanoannie had seen the rover coming from a long way away, kicking up a rooster-tail of dust from its rearmost axle. She first thought to run and tell her parents, Krona and Escudo Centime. But they were fussing over her sister Zlotys upcoming first birthsol. Nanoannie was sick of how her parents doted on Zloty. Krona had gotten pregnant again with great difficulty after Nanoannies birth, or so they said. Nanoannie figured it was because they didnt like having sex anymore, being too old. Krona had miscarried four times. Blamed it on Father Mars. What crap.
So she didnt tell them about the approaching visitor. Instead, she got binoculars to enhance the logo on the side of the rover.
Hm. Smythe Pharms.
She hated to admit how overjoyed she was at the prospect of talking to an in-the-flesh person besides her parents and Zloty.
She would show Kapera her makeup and the gowns she had designed and would create just as soon as Krona bought her a desktop manufacturing unit. Then they would discuss visiting a club in Borealopolis, or maybe even Sagan City.
Kapera would rub it in that she had been to Sagan City. But Kapera was too young to appreciate the city.
True, Nanoannie was also too young, but she could pass for ten mears, the legal age for regulated intoxicants.
She kind of hoped the Smythes had brought Kapera.
The rover stopped and spread out its solar cells to catch the low afternoon sun, but only one figure got out, a small person. No sign of Dr. and Dr. Smythe.
The small figure trudged up to the outer airlock. Nanoannie rushed to open it before Kapera even punched in her code. She fidgeted while the pressure built, then grabbed her own helmet (she had suited up already, she was so excited to have company) and trotted into the low-pressure room.
"Im in trouble," said Kapera, soon as she got her helmet off.
Nanoannie peered at her. Shed noticed online how Kapera was losing her hair and getting skinny. The stupid experimental diets the Smythes went on. They ought to import a little canned ham from Earth. "Whats up? You stole your folks rover? Does it have enough charge to get us to Borealopolis?"
Kapera went through the membrane to the middle pressure anteroom, undid her gloves, and then wiped her nose on the back of her hands.
Kaperas eyes seemed really big. Then Nanoannie realized why. Kapera must have shaved her head. Or even had gene therapy to eradicate her hair and eyebrows, too. Her eyes looked strange and wet with no lashes or brows.
Kapera said, "Link to my suit com. I have to show you something."
Nanoannie didnt like to wear her contacts (the fines got in everything) and she didnt have her helmet on, so she had to use a wall screen to look at what Kapera showed her.
Kapera s parents spread was built on the same plan as Centime Pharm, but the Smythes had, over the mears, built several middle pressure greenhouses on the surface.
The wall screen displayed a greenhouse-style lab, except a lot of plants were torn up and strewn all over. A vineor was that wiring?dangled from the ceiling swinging back and forth, as if just cut. Kapera fiddled with the perspective and focused on an airlock gaping open.
Kapera bit her lip. "See?"
Nanoannie bent the perspective around. Kapera took over, impatient, and zoomed in on a leg, visible behind a bench, as if somebody were lying on the floor. The leg was enclosed in an environment suit, but the body of the suit was under a bench.
Kapera said, "Does that look like a Sears environment suit?"
Weird question. "Who knows? Environment suits always come in that loud shade of blue in case you get lost outside. So they can find your body."
"Thats not funny!"
Something might be kind of wrong at Smythe Pharm. "Those are your parents?"
Kapera leaned into the picture and flipped on her two-way. "Daddy! Mother! Please, wake up! Youre scaring me!"
"They might be taking a nap. Maybe they cant hear you."
Kapera gnawed her lip. "Mother called me just after I left. I pretended the link was futzed up. But then Daddy called, super upset. And hes always the laid-back one."
"Well, of course." It would have been perfectly nuke if Nanoannie, an almost adult, had run off with the family rover. But Kapera was a mere child. "I mean, its irresponsible to run off when your family is selling their pharm to go to Earth orbitals."
"Sure, sure, Nanoannie. But why dont they answer now?"
"Why not peek in your parents puter?"
Even through the suit, she could see Kapera stiffen. "I dont spy on them, and they dont spy on me."
"Come on, hab-rat! That isnt spying. I have a back door to my parents puter. Surely you must have a way in."
Kaperas voice went slightly hard. "My mother spied on me. Thats why I keep my journal on my wrist puter. She got snoopy about it, too. But its too old to link to the house net. "
"So? Turnabout is fair play."
Kapera took a deep breath. "I have privileges in housekeeping and Daddys science areas. Lets look there." She finger-tipped into the puter, with Nanoannie as a tag-along. Letters, chore lists, recipes, corp business memos, and even family pix.
Nanoannie found a picture of an frisky little boy flirting with the camera, beside an even smaller girl. "Is that your brother Sekou and you?"
"Yep. Me and Sekou. Could you please not look at that?"
Huh? "Why not? I let you see pictures of my sister." This was not strictly true. Nanoannie had never shown Kapera pictures of Zloty. But she would have. If she thought of it.
"Never mind. Leave that picture be."
"How old is Sekou now?"
"Born about two mears before me. Stop asking about him. Hes none of your business. Please."
"You have recent pix of him? Is he cute?"
"No! And no!"
Would Sekou be open to a rendezvous in Borealopolis with a tall, blond, blue-eyed girl? Some Kiafricans were prejudiced against white-skinned Martians, but the Smythes seemed open-minded.
Maybe that didnt extend to romance-type things.
Kapera scrolled files. While she was occupied, Nanoannie scanned the picture of Sekou and Kapera and stored a copy on her coms memory.
"No clues," said Kapera.
"Lets go look in person."
Cabin fever. Some Martian-born girls got so used to their home habs that they never wanted to leave. Scared to leave. Happy corp slaves. Not Nanoannie.
Shed use any excuse.
Krona and Escudo were in their bedroom whispering and making stupid giggly noises. Probably plotting against her again. Nanoannie considered stealing their marsplane, the Origami Firefly, but theyd get really mad. So she sealed her suit and made to follow Kapera.
Kapera frowned. "Shouldnt you tell your folks youre going?"
"Why? You took your parents rover without telling them, didnt you?"
"I wanted to bring you my models and cuttings to keep until I come back."
"Youre coming back?"
"Darn right. Mars is my home. Earth orbitals are just a place were stopping awhile. A short while."
"So were going for a joy ride?"
"No joy, just a ride. Why not tell your folks? They could get Intercorp Police to help us."
"Nah. We wont go inside if anything looks funny. We can call Intercorp ourselves."
Kapera was being a hysterical little kid. Why call the cops? So Smythe Pharm was messy. So the Smythes dropped an environment suit on the floor. There couldnt be anybody inside it.
Anyway, if Nanoannie told her parents, they wouldnt let her go. And she needed some excitement. She and Kapera would just cruise by Smythe Pharm. By that time, Kaperas parents would be awake. Theyd invite her in to look at Kaperas games and models, or get on line to the sites her own parents had blocked.
"So. What exactly are you scared of?" Now that they were on their way, Nanoannie was scared too, and she wanted something concrete to be scared of. The rover bumped along toward Smythe Pharm.
Kapera drew a big breath. "I dont know. When I call in, nobody answers."
"The power is down?"
"Not sure. Thought I saw a light shining from the skylight in my room. And I heard some noises through the com connection. Hissing noises."
"Hissing?" Nanoannie suddenly remembered that sand vampires hiss.
Sand vampires, however, were the invention of Nausicaa Azrael, the only person on Mars who actually made a living writing fiction.
Wait. Didnt early explorers have legends of people who disappeared on the polar ice cap leaving only empty environment suits?
They crested a hill and saw Smythe Pharm in the distance.
Lights shone pallidly in the spring afternoon sunshine. Something didnt look right.
Kapera keyed into the house com and listened.
Nanoannie said, "What do you think that hissing is?"
"Dont know. Air escaping?"
Nanoannie suddenly regretted leaving home. "Lets call Intercorp."
"I did call them. Think theyll come, being as my folks are freemen?"
"Sure." But Nanoannie wasnt sure. Intercorp Police did investigate serious crimes. Murder, for example. But not always. Consider the dust-up over that apartment in Sagan City, two brothers both claiming possession. When the younger turned up dead, nothing was done, except for a newsnet editorial.
"I have to go in," said Kapera. "Stay here and Ill call you if anything is wrong."
"Oh for heavens sake!" Nanoannie didnt want to go inside that empty pharm, but she couldnt let Kapera go in alone. That would be cowardly, and she was a woman of courage. A brave Martian Martialle. "Ill come with you."
At the main airlock, Kapera paused. "I dont hear pumps or ventilators. That hissing stopped."
Nanoannie shivered. "Lets check everything out before we unseal our suits."
Kapera glanced at the pharm entrance. "Even outside something sounds wrong."
"You cant hear anything in Mars ambient." But that wasnt true. Kapera had supersensitive hearing.
"Im scared, Nanoannie."
Nanoannie had been scared for some time, but she said, "Look, pebble-head, your parents are just asleep. They turned off their suit coms."
Kapera keyed the airlock. As it cycled, she gazed straight ahead.
"Your dad probably yelled at you because he was mad," said Nanoannie. "Theyre giving you the silent treatment."
Kaperas eyes got huge. "You dont understand, Nanoannie. He was yelling not to come back."
Kapera Smythe, her diary. No date. No location.
Nanoannie Centime is a stand-up friend, even if shes boy-crazy. And I mean hot-blooded. She even asked about you, brother mine.
How we got in this sorry mess: we should have stopped and told her folks, Martial and Martialle Centime, but Nanoannie just jumped in the rover with me.
I have to find our folks, brother. I wish I could just wait and let them find me, but we have only six sols to get the shuttle from Equatorial City to the Down Escalator. And I know they wouldnt run off and leave me. No way.
Well, maybe Mother would. Shes so logical and all. But Dad wouldnt run out on me.
Nah. Mother wouldnt either.
I mean, Mother is very cold-blooded, like the way she up and sold the pharm and had us packing before I got a chance to say goodbye to Mars. But she wouldnt leave me behind.
I feel bolder with Nanoannie as my backup. Shes older than me, by almost two mears, turning into a pre-ten, which means she gets all worked up over fancy clothes and makeup and sex sites on Marsnet. Shes tall, frizzy yellow hair, full of sass, but not really disrespecting folks. And smart. Knows how to fly a marsplane. Her folks taught her when she was four mears old. That translates to eight in your Earth years, brother.
How Nanoannie and I got to be friends: she told me she has a kitten. We were studying together online, and she mentioned this kitten, Fuzzbutt. I said Id love to see it, and she said some time I could come to her pharm and pet it.
They must be stone rich. Must raise baby mice or cuy just to feed that kitten.
Nanoannie asked to see pictures of our family, specifically your picture. She knows about you because she saw me recording in this diary.
How can I explain about you? You know, how Mother always thought you were just so fine, and smart, and all. She made me feel I couldnt measure up. I guess thats just her way, but it sure does work on my nerves.
And shes so jumpy! Never lets me out of her sight, always nagging: eat my yams and bananas and cuy, and did I check my suit three times. Dad just lets me be me.
But I dont hold it against you, bro.
I just wish shedI dont knowact natural, like Dad.
But about Nanoannie. Shes like a big sister, so I reckon that makes you and her sibs, in a soulful way. With our folks missing, Im making up a pretend family. Like some old-fashioned girl.
But dust and rust! I think Ive got us two old-fashioned Martian girls in a mess of new-fashioned trouble.
Nanoannie asked herself, why did I run off with Kapera, anyway? To show Kapera what a scaredy rat she was? Or to show Escudo and Krona Ill never sign indenture with their boring old corp?
Little of both.
The girls cycled through the airlock, Nanoannie close on Kaperas heels.
Dim sunlight filtered through the skylight. The pharm had one of those mirror lighting systems, which reflects light down from the surface, but it seemed screwed up. Kapera used her thumblight beam.
Nanoannie realized right away this was not merely messiness from moving. Racks were tossed over on the floor, shelves broken, potshards everywhere.
Like somebody had picked the hab up and shaken it.
What were they looking for?
A dust cloud drifted. The air handlers were still working.
Someone or something had stomped the plants, cut them up, dragged them to the drysink and poured liquid fertilizer over them. Kapera gave a little sob, then stuck her gloved hands into the drysink mess, pulling out vines.
"Whats this red puddle on the floor?" Please, not blood. Gag. Blood was worse than nauseating. At least she couldnt smell it through her helmet. If she actually stepped in it shed have to throw her boot away.
"Bacterial pigment." Kapera threw the plants back in the drysink. "Lets go to the imaging center."
Nanoannie could make out a mess of broken glass and plastic and bent tubing. Kapera wailed, "No! That was our scanning electron microscope."
It sure wasnt a scanning electron microscope anymore. Somebody had taken a sledgehammer to it.
"Can you buy another?" But Nanoannie knew the answer.
"Dad picked it up cheap. Said it was so old it must have come to Mars with Jeffrey Allan. Still worked, though."
It sure wasnt working now.
"Whats in there?" Nanoannie asked.
Kapera froze, then darted toward the portal.
Miles and miles of shiny coppery stuff, like Nanoannies own hair, coiled around the room, all over the place. "What is it?" she asked.
Kapera sounded tired. "It was a seven tesla magnet."
Seven tesla? Well, that hadnt been something Dr. Smythe had picked up at a tunnel auction. Even Nanoannie knew theyd only started making magnets that strong a few mears ago. And it had been unwrapped. How could they do that?
What had they been looking for?
Further into the hab, Nanoannie recognized parts of several atomic force microscopes, so thoroughly totaled that it was impossible to tell whether there had been two, three, or four. Somebody had even melted down the metal base and shattered the ceramic casing.
Inside her suit, Nanoannie smelled the kind of sweat that comes from fearher own.
"Thing is," said Kapera, "I dont see my mother and dad."
"Wouldnt they leave a message on the computer?" But the house puter eye showed only a popping bubble pattern. The display was working, but the puter itself was down.
"I just thought of something," Kapera pulled a ladder loose from the broken vines and smashed shelving, opened it, and kicked aside the mess so it could stand on all four legs. Gasping for breath, she clambered up to the skylight. In seconds, she was back down. "The skylights are busted."
They ran up the tunnel to the low-pressure greenhouse and cycled through the airlock. The Sun was too low to see much, but glass sparkled over the solar arrays: frames were bent, covers in glittering shards.
The invaders had smashed the solar cells first. The nuke was still working, hence the lights. But the lights were dimming.
Outside the imaging lab, Nanoannie almost stepped in a pile of what looked like fish scales, or iridescent cereal flakes. She stifled a shriek. Storage microdisks.
Kapera explained. "Mother was planning to pack those. She was working on something she didnt want to upload to Marsnet."
"I pay more attention to Daddys stuff; telomerase budding and modified stem cells." Kapera sounded irritatingly adult talking the tech stuff.
"She said for sure it was no weapon."
Kapera kept mumbling. "Rhodopsin-based peptide activity detector": that machine was twisted apart and jammed with planting medium. How did Kapera know all this tech talk? Her parents must put her to work, big time.
More smashed stuff: Kapera groaned. "Time-of-flight mass spectrometers, hybrid quadruple laser cell-sorter/fluorescent cell-sorterDaddy sort of invented that one."
Looked like the searchers had lost patience here. The apparatus had been thrown so hard the case was embedded in the cement wall.
Nanoannie was really scared now. Her armpits felt damp and squishy inside her suit liner. She whispered, "Kapera, look at the air handler intakes."
Dust was still swirling around them.
She and Kapera looked at each other, then turned and rushed back down the tunnel, through the air lock into the medium pressure greenhouse.
Kapera stopped, transfixed.
"Nanoannie," she said. "Look at your suit display."
Nanoannies gaze flicked to her display.
A big red RADIATION ALERT.
A thin stream snaked down the greenhouse floor. Nanoannie almost stepped in it, before her suit screamed.
The nuke coolant system was leaking. They watched the radioactive coolant lazily convert another flotilla of microdisks into miniature shipwrecks on a poison sea.
Then Nanoannie saw the invaders.
She put a hand on either side of Kaperas helmet and pointed her head.
Two figures in environment suits stood in shadow, just inside the greenhouse tunnel.
Could those be projectile weapons? Rifles?
Nanoannie hissed, "Run!"
"No!" said Kapera. "Therescan you feel it?"
Nanoannie couldnt feel anything, but looking up, she saw motion through one of the mirror-maze skylights.
A big, red rocketplane, much bigger than the Origami Firefly, streaking toward the pharm.
She grabbed Kaperas hand and ran toward the main airlock. They cycled it and stood outside gaping as the rocketplane dropped a grapple.
"Our rover!" Kapera screamed.
The hook snagged the rover. Flipped it on its side.
Kapera ran to the rover. She braced her shoulder against the roll bar to right it. It didnt budge.
The rocketplane did a stall-and-loop and headed back toward them. She darted out to haul Kapera away from the rover and back under cover.
But Kapera was determined. Her arms windmilled, fending off Nanoannies rescue attempts. Nanoannie gave up and helped her tip the rover back on its wheels.
Kapera crawled in and started the rover, leaving Nanoannie to dither. The rover bumped forward. It wasnt built for speed, that had been obvious on the way over.
From the rocketplane, the grapple dangled like the tail of an angry rat. The hook bounced at the end of the tether. The pilot didnt have a lot of leeway to adjust for Kaperas driving, but the hook struck the top of the rover and skittered over it.
From the sidelines, Nanoannie yelled, "Get out and run!" But Kapera drove the rover forward. Having the advantage of knowing the terrain, she headed toward a pair of boulders. Nanoannie saw her plan: between two taller objects, the rover would be harder to snare.
But Kapera hit a hole. The rover skidded around and whacked the leftmost rock.
The rocket plane started its third pass.
Nanoannie spoke her com into broadcast mode and yelled, "Hey, you! Theres a person inside that rover."
No. They knew Kapera was inside the rover. The whole point was to maroon Kapera and her at Smythe Pharmthen blow the place up.
Nanoannie ran to the rover and peered inside. Kaperas chest was heaving, her eyes closed. Was the rovers nuke containment breached? She had to get Kapera out!
She reached through a gash in the door. Bad idea! Jagged sheet metal snagged her glove.
Kaperas eyes opened. "Go back," she said. "Ill try Intercorp again."
"True words. But Im trapped. What else can we do?"
The rocket plane receded into the distance. No. It circled back, and a suited figure in the cargo hatch was pushing some big dark thing out onto the wing.
Kaperas gaze flicked up. "Theyre bombing us?"
"They wouldnt! Itll destroy whatever they were looking for."
"Maybe they already found it. Look, the rover com may not have power to reach Intercorp. Go back and try calling from inside."
Three steps away from the rover Nanoannie realized something was very wrong with her left hand. Suit displays told all: her glove was breached.
NO! She would be maimed and never be beautiful!
She raced back into the hab, and ransacked a utility drawer. Duct tape! Would it hold in the cold? She wrapped and wrapped, until her hand looked like a lumpy ball.
She could hear Kapera trying to contact Intercorp. Where was the main house broadcast?
Intercorp was answering Kapera! Thank heaven.
Intercorp said, "No unit in your area, but well try to contact travelers passing near who might be willing to help."
Try to contact? Might be willing to help?
She scanned the hab entry room wildly. She had to get help! The airlock scissored shut behind her, and she picked an interior tunnel at random.
At the end, she burst into a tiny, well-lit room with a mirror-maze skylight.
The room seemed untouched by the invaders. A crude model of an antique Mars roverSojourner?sat atop an ancient holo machine. She turned on the holo, hoping it would camouflage her if they came looking for her.
She glanced at her suits readings. The room was at hab pressure. Good thing, since she was trapped here.
Terror receded and she glanced around curiously. Her math teacher once told her she had a short attention span.
If she was trapped, why not play detective? The memory in that old-fashioned holo machine might hold clues why two sets of bad guys invaded Smythe Pharm. Or more pictures of Kaperas brother, as a grown-up guy.
Taking a deep breath (in case her sensors were wrong), she snapped her helmet seal and took the helmet off, laying it on the neat cot.
The room smelled like soap and some plant. Not an expensive fragrance like those she had sniffed at that Borealopolis boutique last summer-November. Lavender? In her brief face-to-face time with Kapera, suitless, thats how Kapera had smelled. This was Kaperas room.
The holo projector was easy to link to, but yielded no clues. And no pictures of Kaperas brother Sekou as an adult.
Voices came through the pharms com system, transforming her snoopiness back to terror. "Martialle Centime! You are not safe! Tell us where you live, and well take you home."
Could she risk a call to Kapera, find out if theyd gotten her? Using her suit com would lead them to her.
The intruders knew her name, but if they were from her parents, they wouldnt have to ask where she lived.
Warn Kapera! She flipped on her suit com and broadcast: "Kapera! Theyre not from our corp. Dont come to them!"
Instantly, she smelled harsh perfume, like phenol or a solvent in her parents lab.
And she was giddy. Then very very sleepy.
She snapped awake. Gas: they were piping anesthetic gas through the habs ventilation system. They werent harmless peacekeepers.
She struggled, but darkness tugged at her. An image flared, a creature from The Facer Nun Who Couldnt Die. A sand vampire. Its distorted, silly face laughed deafeningly. She tried to bat it away, and then the harsh sky slammed her down.
Yam Soup and Fake Yam Seeds
Somewherewhere?! Sometime around Summer-April 10, 2202:
At least they didnt swipe my wrist puter. And Im in a comfortable room. How long was I out? This old puter is in sorry shape, but it says only a few hours went by since
Since I got kidnapped from our own family pharm.
When those guys in the rocket plane bashed on our rover, I freaked. Not only was that a super expensive rover, even if it was getting old and cranky, it was the only ride Nanoannie and I had. Nanoannie tried to help, but
I called Intercorp, then hid in the cargo compartment.
Which was plain stupid. They came and dragged me out. I fought, Sekou, but they injected something into my air. Smelled like a lab solvent. Then I lost track.
I woke up ailing and headachy. Darn them! I hate when I get sick.
And wheres my thermos of Hyper-K? I hope it didnt get smashed, Sekou. Mother says its just a placebo, but it makes me feel better.
That medico said I didnt need it if we were going to Earth orbitals. He said they could fix me up there, good as new. Then we could come back to Mars.
But now these people claim they can fix me. Say what?
Right away when I woke up, this woman in boss new red rags came in. The room must be bugged. Her name is Crystal Spirit. An Earther name?
"Wheres Nanoannie?" I asked.
She beamed on me, like, who I was talking about?
"My friend," I said. "Shes way tall, eight mears old, blond hair, super blue eyes." Crystal Spirit pulled her scarf back, and I saw she had a lump, size of my thumb, on her forehead. Not a growth: a little bitty face.
"Another little girl?" She smiled. "The rescue crew didnt mention one."
I just itched to know about the teeny face on her forehead, but Nanoannie was more important. "Not little. Taller than my daddy. She has a womanish figure already."
"Nobody like that there."
I bet they did find her, Sekou. What was Crystal Spirits game? "What is this place? How did I get here?"
"Dear child, an overflight detected a crashed rover near your pharm. We assumed your parents abandoned you."
"They did not abandon me! They were kidnapped!"
The face on her forehead smiled, kindly. "You should replenish your energy."
She handed me a bowl of this grassy mess. Its not any Martian food I ever ate before, but then I didnt see much of Mars until recently. The mess in the bowl tasted like insulation floating in yam soup. I didnt want more than about two spoonfuls.
"Eat, child. Build your strength." She had a big stomach. Must want me to fill out like her.
I didnt tell her about the leukemia, but she guessed I was sick. "Your chakras are out of tune," she said. "This will cleanse your pituitary, and then your first chakra will vibrate with your second."
"These chakras, are they from Earth, or a gene-modified Mars plant?" I asked.
"Darling child!" She slapped a hand on my forehead and stood humming, her hand vibrating, eyes closed. The little face on her forehead stared at me like a laser.
She opened her eyes. "I see youre looking at my Face bindi. Would you like one someday?"
I shook my head and pushed the nasty soup away.
After she left, I peeped around the room. Maybe the insulation soup did help. I struggled out of bed and tried the door.
It was locked. Imagine that.
This humongous mask hung over the bed, plus posters of Mars landscapes with humongous pyramid-shaped buildings.
The big face on the wall favors the little face on Crystal Spirits forehead, and they both favor the Face on Mars.
Guess where I am.
Ive been captured by Facers.
Yup, uh-huh, Summer-April 10, 2202. Later in the sol:
What did I tell you?
Crystal Spirit came back with a white long dress for me. Fine material, if a mite itchy. Might could be Martian-made, maybe from real plants. It was airish in that room, so I was just as glad to put it on. It came with a red belt with little pyramid tassels.
"Are you well enough to go to our evening lecture, dear?"
I reckoned I would learn a power from a lecture, so I nodded yes so hard my eyeballs wobbled.
"Uh, Martialle Spirit?"
She beamed her phony smile at me. I tried not to stare at that Face bindi thing on her forehead. "No honorifics here, sweet child. Just call me Crystal Spirit, and Ill call you"
She frowned. "Thats not what the rescue crew told me."
"I thought I should take a new name." Where did that fib came from, Sekou? I reckon I wanted to get over on these people. Who knows what they already knew about me? "Uh, I had this jar of stuff with me. Did you notice what happened to it?"
"No, dear. You had nothing except your suit and that cute little antique wrist puter."
She was jiving. Even without my hoodoo, I knew they swiped it. But why?
I hopped off the bed and fell flat on my sass.
Crystal Spirit caught my arm. "Poor darling! Shall I send for a wheelchair?"
"No!" I yelled. Then I thought, better not seem too crazy. "Im fine. I just went all dizzy there for a minute."
She pursed her lips sympathetically. "Poor dear! When we get your pyramid treatment established, youll feel much better."
Pyramid treatment? This was scarier than I thought.
Not only was I talking with a Facer nun. I was at their headquarters, Cydonia Institute for People of the Face.
Cydonia Institute, later that evening,
You can learn a power by just playing dumb.
The lecture was by one Dr. Sphynxeye. I remembered him from some yellow news site, but there he was, in the flesh. A teardrop-shaped guy, skinny on top with a big stomach and butt. His head wobbled forward as he spoke, and his eyes were all kind of squinty, as if he had grit in them. He flashed this big grin at the end of each sentence, as if hed proved a theorem in geometry class and wanted the teacher to send him a gold star.
Dr. Sphynxeyes lecture was called, "Preparing for the Upcoming Solstice: What Will the Face Reveal in Mid-Summer?" He told us about laser sitings to see if some of the markings on the Face would line up with any particular star. They had decided which one: Eta Cassiopeiae. A double star. Five planets orbit the bigger of the two stars. The smaller was a red dwarf, way far out so it wouldnt bother the planet he liked. He had known for a long time, but kept it secret. Facers seem to like secrets. They decoded a message from the way the Face and two of the pyramids were aimed. One of the planets was about twice the diameter of Mars. Its core wasnt super dense, so it wouldnt have crushing bad gravity.
They had a name for it: Yggdrasil.
It was the home planet.
Yggdrasil is the home planet? Grownups call Earth our home planet, although Mars is my home planet.
You must have heard about the interstellar ship. One of the corps, Utopia, I think, is building it for the Facers, but it wont be ready for a whole nother fifty or maybe a hundred mears. They need to make this extra-fast spaceship drive for it. Otherwise, the people on it would all be a bunch of dead corpses when they got to Yggdrasil. Even their great-great-great-great-grandchildren would be dead.
It was costing a heap of money, but the Mars Facers and the Earth Facers banded together and kept sending money to keep the project rolling.
They really want to get to that home planet.
After Dr. Sphynxeye shut up, they passed out chlorella cookies. They were nasty, just like always, even when Daddy makes them. Its a sin to waste food, so I snuck one into my pocket in case I decide to bail.
Because I still didnt trust these Facers. I needed to have a little heart-to-heart with Crystal Spirit, my honorary nursemaid.
"Did you ask about my thermos?" I asked when she came to collect me.
"No, child." She grinned. "What was in it, anyway?"
"Just some special tea. I was saving a taste for my brother on Earth." (Oh boy, would she swallow that one?)
"Tea? We have any kind of tea you want here. Surely a thermos couldnt hold enough to be worth taking to Earth."
"It was concentrated." I didnt tell her it had this special fungus in it. Provivarin fungus, thats what the Mormonite Jesuits called it.
"How interesting. Well have you talk to our lab people about it. Your parents grew it?"
I didnt say a word.
"Ill be sure you get it back if we find it."
The reason kids cant figure out when adults are lying is that its hard to look up in the adults face without being obvious. Nanoannie and I talked about that once, on line. She said once she got to be tall, she could look people in the eye and figure them out.
So now, to calculate if a grownup is playing me, I look up at them with my big brown eyes, all sweet and trusting. Looks natural, not sneaky at all. And I check out their expressions.
I bet Crystal Spirit knows where our folks are. Shes as phony as a ceramic yam seed.
But I reckon Ill stick around.
Where would I go?
Cydonia Research Institute, Summer-April 11, 2202 :
Dear Sekou: Why wont they give me my Hyper-K back?
Crystal Spirit says Im too weak to go to any more lectures. She seemed upset because I asked so many questions after the last one.
I cant snoop around much. This wrist puter doesnt have a comtoo old and half busted. And my fine Sears suit (used, but reconditioned) has come up missing, and my personal com with it.
If I had my personal com, I could slick around, link to their main com, and call Nanoannies folks.
Cydonia Research Institute, Summer-April 11, 2202:
Crystal Spirit keeps fetching me these nasty messes to eat. Says the other nuns are calculating how to treat my leukemia. Scary. Ive only got five sols before the Down Escalator passes through Mars orbit toward Earth, and we have to catch the shuttle up to meet it.
I dont trust these guys to doctor me, Sekou. They are what our daddy used to call wack. Dont ask me how I know. It has something to do with the taste of Insulation Yam Broth Soup. Or the names they take. I found out Dr. Sphynxeye took his from some book that says aliens ran around leaving graffiti all over in the form of giant buildings and humongous walls you could see from orbit.
Sure. Except the aliens planted all these great clues back when humans werent climbing any higher than the second story of their mud huts.
The name I chose, Gray Moon, fits right in. Crystal Spirit liked it right away.
Cydonia Institute, Summer-April 12, 2202,
Something really scary happened.
Crystal Spirit came super early this morning and shook me in my bed. She has different ideas about manners than normal folks. Is her big stomach a sign shes got mothering hormones going?
I told her "I can dress myself!" but she threw that white robe onto me, then grabbed a wet rag and scrubbed my face.
"Well use the wheelchair," she said. "Youre late. Dr. Sphynxeye has been up all night conferring with the committee. Theyve made a determination."
Determination? Say what?
Anyway, she shoved me into this wheelchair. I bet I have bruises on the backs of my legs. Then she rolled it down the hallrunning! Every time we came to an airlock, she had me get out so she could jam it and the two of us into it. It was humiliating.
She finally slowed down. I thought she was out of breath, but no, she was just getting ready to meet the honcho. Doctor Sphynxeye.
I wanted to ask why so many people wore glasses and why there were so many children, but before I could open my mouth, Crystal Spirit pushed me past a lot of secretaries, and bam! we were in a big room with dark blue walls and fake stars on the ceiling.
And standing behind this desk was Doctor Sphynxeye. He scowled, as if I had interrupted him doing something world-shaking like picking his nose.
"The child," he rumbled.
I pushed myself up out of that wheelchair. Crystal Spirit just stood there, too embarrassed to push me back. Seemed scared of Doctor Sphynxeye.
Doctor Sphynxeyes Face bindi was bony, starved-looking. It watched me with a sad look.
He sat down behind the desk, so only the top, skinny part of his body showed, and you couldnt tell he had a big butt. He squinted at me. "You are a special child, precious to the future of humanity."
Sekou, this scared the spit out of me.
See, you might figure if they think Im important, theyll be nice to me. But he was saying I was important to humanity. The Facers have different ideas about whats good for humanity than, say, you or I or Mother or Daddy might have. Their plans for my future might be a mite scary.
Nanoannie says sometimes adults smile to hide little quivers and jerks that show theyre running a game on you. So I thought, maybe if I crack a smile, he wont see how scared I am, and wont guess that humanitys future isnt on my calendar this week.
So I tried to smile.
Couldnt do it.
"Dont be afraid, little one." He got up and shuffled around the desk. He plunked his hand on my head. A hot, heavy, damp hand. Then he hunkered down with his fat butt sticking out behind and said right into my face, "What do you know about your parents discoveries?"
Sekou, that did not make me feel good.
See, I do know a little about our folks "discoveries." And they werent so important that Crystal Spirit should be shaking all over as if Carl Sagan and Jeffrey Allen popped up in the room and shook hands over a recipe to terraform Mars and Pluto both. As if I were a cork they could pull, and out would gush an underground Martian ocean.
If I was all that important, they wouldnt let me go to Earth to be cured.
They probably wouldnt let me go find Nanoannie and our parents.
They probably wouldnt give me back my Hyper-K.
And when they found out I wasnt all that important after all, they would probably kill me.
"I dont know anything important," I said. "Thats the cross-my-heart truth."
"Ah," said Dr. Sphynxeye. "But what about the extremophiles? The deinococcus radiodurans? Didnt your mother learn how it could survive through eons in hard radiation? What about the bacteriorhodopsin?"
I shrugged. "Thats just the red stuff that likes salt and we make computer chips out of it." We sold those to some computer companies. Only on Mars, though. The corps dont like you dealing with Earthers or Luners.
"What was in the thermos?" He squinted even harder into my eyes.
"A Mormonite Jesuit gave me that. If you just give it back, I have the recipe"
Dr. Sphynxeye got up again. I once saw a school vid of an elephant kneeling on its front knees and then getting up. Dr. Sphynxeye reminded me of the elephant. "Child, child," he said, "Trust us. Youve been betrayed and deceived so long. But now youre near the Face, the fountain of truth. You can tell us the truth."
"That is the truth. Its just some bubbly tea that Padre Walter gave me."
"But it has special medical properties, does it not?"
What if they analyzed it and used it all up? "Could you let me contact Padre Walter?"
Dr. Sphynxeye plodded back behind his desk. "What does that screwball cult have to do with your parents discoveries?"
Crystal Spirit murmured. "Shes just a little girl. How could she know anything about the tea or about the extremophile research?"
I was about to say I did too know about extremophiles, and even had my own experiment going with the UV-protective cuticle on frost flowers, but Dr. Sphynxeye cut in, "She knows more than she lets on. She may even be psychic, and her mother has research that could described as diabolic."
Crystal Spirit spoke up again. "Or maybe shes telling the truth."
"No chance. Its too great a coincidence. Shes beenhypnotized. Thats it. Mormonite Jesuits hypnotized her."
Say what? Id know if I was hypnotized! I opened my mouth to tell them this, but Doctor Sphynxeye clapped his hands, and bam, two other women dressed like Crystal Spirit came charging in. He said, "Take this poor girl for treatment. Besides having leukemia, shes been brainwashed."
"You cant do that! My parents are freemen!"
Crystal Spirit pushed the big strong women away and knelt by my side. She hugged me and stroked my hair. "Darling, theyll take you to be healed. Ill go with you."
I didnt like Crystal Spirit right then. She maybe thought she was on my side, but she was disrespecting my intelligence.
"I want my father," I said. "You better tell me where my folks are. You cant just disappear us."
Dr. Sphynxeye had been squinnying his eyes up so they looked like my belly button. They popped open. "You pretend you dont know where Doctors Zora and Marcus Smythe are?"
Uh-oh. That stopped me.
They really for true didnt know. Meaning that they hadnt kidnapped them.
Meaning that somebody else had.