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An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl (part 1)
Mary A. Turzillo


Illustration by Vincent Di Fate


A new world will develop its own cultures
with all the trimmings---which can lead to some very tangled webs!

Chapter 1

Free Ride

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 plane’s engine. For a minute she couldn’t remember why. Then her vision cleared and she saw the duct tape. Kapera’s rover: there’d 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 didn’t 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. "She’s awake," the first voice confirmed.

The back of Nanoannie’s 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, she’d 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 she’s going home."

Nanoannie’s vertigo turned to outrage. Little spread? Centime Pharm was bigger than Kapera Smythe’s pharm, and her parents had a huge installation in Hellas Planitia.

Kapera!

"Where is–"

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 Nanoannie’s 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 language–or to hide their identity. They sure weren’t 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; they’d rescue Kapera and take her somewhere.

Somewhere. Kapera no longer had a home.

Screeeebang.

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 shouldn’t 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 Earth–well, Earth orbitals, but it was a lot nuker than, say, Deimos or Phobos. She’d see all that nuke Earth stuff. She’d get to clubs and meet guys. Except she was too young to appreciate guys.

Kapera’s parents, Dr. and Dr. Smythe, had sold their pharm and were packing to catch the Down Escalator, to Earth. Martian schools didn’t 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 Mars–she had seen the calculations–and 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 system’s gravity, so toward the Sun is down.

Whatever.

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 Zloty’s upcoming first birthsol. Nanoannie was sick of how her parents doted on Zloty. Krona had gotten pregnant again with great difficulty after Nanoannie’s birth, or so they said. Nanoannie figured it was because they didn’t like having sex anymore, being too old. Krona had miscarried four times. Blamed it on Father Mars. What crap.

So she didn’t 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.

"I’m in trouble," said Kapera, soon as she got her helmet off.

Nanoannie peered at her. She’d 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. "What’s 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.

Kapera’s 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 didn’t like to wear her contacts (the fines got in everything) and she didn’t 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 vine–or 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."

"That’s 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! You’re scaring me!"

"They might be taking a nap. Maybe they can’t 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 he’s 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, it’s irresponsible to run off when your family is selling their pharm to go to Earth orbitals."

"Sure, sure, Nanoannie. But why don’t they answer now?"

"Why not peek in your parents’ puter?"

Even through the suit, she could see Kapera stiffen. "I don’t spy on them, and they don’t spy on me."

"Come on, hab-rat! That isn’t spying. I have a back door to my parents’ puter. Surely you must have a way in."

Kapera’s voice went slightly hard. "My mother spied on me. That’s why I keep my journal on my wrist puter. She got snoopy about it, too. But it’s too old to link to the house net. "

"So? Turnabout is fair play."

Kapera took a deep breath. "I have privileges in housekeeping and Daddy’s science areas. Let’s 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. He’s 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 didn’t 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 com’s memory.

"No clues," said Kapera.

"Let’s 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.

She’d 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 they’d get really mad. So she sealed her suit and made to follow Kapera.

Kapera frowned. "Shouldn’t you tell your folks you’re going?"

"Why? You took your parents’ rover without telling them, didn’t you?"

"I wanted to bring you my models and cuttings to keep until I come back."

"You’re coming back?"

"Darn right. Mars is my home. Earth orbitals are just a place we’re stopping awhile. A short while."

"So we’re 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 won’t 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 couldn’t be anybody inside it.

Anyway, if Nanoannie told her parents, they wouldn’t let her go. And she needed some excitement. She and Kapera would just cruise by Smythe Pharm. By that time, Kapera’s parents would be awake. They’d invite her in to look at Kapera’s 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 don’t 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. Didn’t 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 didn’t look right.

Kapera keyed into the house com and listened.

Nanoannie said, "What do you think that hissing is?"

"Don’t know. Air escaping?"

Nanoannie suddenly regretted leaving home. "Let’s call Intercorp."

"I did call them. Think they’ll come, being as my folks are freemen?"

"Sure." But Nanoannie wasn’t 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 I’ll call you if anything is wrong."

"Oh for heaven’s sake!" Nanoannie didn’t want to go inside that empty pharm, but she couldn’t let Kapera go in alone. That would be cowardly, and she was a woman of courage. A brave Martian Martialle. "I’ll come with you."

At the main airlock, Kapera paused. "I don’t hear pumps or ventilators. That hissing stopped."

Nanoannie shivered. "Let’s check everything out before we unseal our suits."

Kapera glanced at the pharm entrance. "Even outside something sounds wrong."

"You can’t hear anything in Mars ambient." But that wasn’t true. Kapera had supersensitive hearing.

Creepy.

"I’m 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. "They’re giving you the silent treatment."

Kapera’s eyes got huge. "You don’t understand, Nanoannie. He was yelling not to come back."

Chapter 2

My Backup

Kapera Smythe, her diary. No date. No location.

Dear Sekou:

Nanoannie Centime is a stand-up friend, even if she’s 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 wouldn’t run off and leave me. No way.

Well, maybe Mother would. She’s so logical and all. But Dad wouldn’t run out on me.

Nah. Mother wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t leave me behind.

I feel bolder with Nanoannie as my backup. She’s 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. She’s 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 I’d 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 couldn’t measure up. I guess that’s just her way, but it sure does work on my nerves.

And she’s 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 don’t hold it against you, bro.

I just wish she’d–I don’t know–act natural, like Dad.

But about Nanoannie. She’s like a big sister, so I reckon that makes you and her sibs, in a soulful way. With our folks missing, I’m making up a pretend family. Like some old-fashioned girl.

But dust and rust! I think I’ve got us two old-fashioned Martian girls in a mess of new-fashioned trouble.

Chapter 3

Inside

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 I’ll never sign indenture with their boring old corp?

Little of both.

The girls cycled through the airlock, Nanoannie close on Kapera’s 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.

"What’s this red puddle on the floor?" Please, not blood. Gag. Blood was worse than nauseating. At least she couldn’t smell it through her helmet. If she actually stepped in it she’d have to throw her boot away.

"Bacterial pigment." Kapera threw the plants back in the drysink. "Let’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t working now.

"What’s in there?" Nanoannie asked.

Kapera froze, then darted toward the portal.

Miles and miles of shiny coppery stuff, like Nanoannie’s 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 hadn’t been something Dr. Smythe had picked up at a tunnel auction. Even Nanoannie knew they’d 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 fear–her own.

"Thing is," said Kapera, "I don’t see my mother and dad."

Obviously.

"Wouldn’t 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 didn’t want to upload to Marsnet."

"Dangerous?"

"I pay more attention to Daddy’s stuff; telomerase budding and modified stem cells." Kapera sounded irritatingly adult talking the tech stuff.

"Weapons? "

"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-sorter–Daddy 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.

Still settling.

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."

Nanoannie’s 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 Kapera’s 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. "There’s–can you feel it?"

Nanoannie couldn’t 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 Kapera’s 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 didn’t 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 Nanoannie’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t have a lot of leeway to adjust for Kapera’s 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! There’s a person inside that rover."

No. They knew Kapera was inside the rover. The whole point was to maroon Kapera and her at Smythe Pharm–then blow the place up.

Nanoannie ran to the rover and peered inside. Kapera’s chest was heaving, her eyes closed. Was the rover’s 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.

Kapera’s eyes opened. "Go back," she said. "I’ll try Intercorp again."

"They’re useless!"

"True words. But I’m 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.

Kapera’s gaze flicked up. "They’re bombing us?"

"They wouldn’t! It’ll 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 we’ll 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 rover–Sojourner?–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 suit’s 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 Kapera’s 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, that’s how Kapera had smelled. This was Kapera’s room.

The holo projector was easy to link to, but yielded no clues. And no pictures of Kapera’s brother Sekou as an adult.

Voices came through the pharm’s com system, transforming her snoopiness back to terror. "Martialle Centime! You are not safe! Tell us where you live, and we’ll take you home."

Could she risk a call to Kapera, find out if they’d gotten her? Using her suit com would lead them to her.

The intruders knew her name, but if they were from her parents, they wouldn’t have to ask where she lived.

Warn Kapera! She flipped on her suit com and broadcast: "Kapera! They’re not from our corp. Don’t 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 hab’s ventilation system. They weren’t harmless peacekeepers.

She struggled, but darkness tugged at her. An image flared, a creature from The Facer Nun Who Couldn’t Die. A sand vampire. Its distorted, silly face laughed deafeningly. She tried to bat it away, and then the harsh sky slammed her down.

Chapter 4

Yam Soup and Fake Yam Seeds

Somewhere–where?! Sometime around Summer-April 10, 2202:

Dear Sekou,

At least they didn’t swipe my wrist puter. And I’m 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 where’s my thermos of Hyper-K? I hope it didn’t get smashed, Sekou. Mother says it’s just a placebo, but it makes me feel better.

That medico said I didn’t 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?

"Where’s Nanoannie?" I asked.

She beamed on me, like, who I was talking about?

"My friend," I said. "She’s 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 didn’t 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 Spirit’s 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. It’s not any Martian food I ever ate before, but then I didn’t see much of Mars until recently. The mess in the bowl tasted like insulation floating in yam soup. I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 you’re 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 Spirit’s forehead, and they both favor the Face on Mars.

Guess where I am.

I’ve been captured by Facers.

Yup, uh-huh, Summer-April 10, 2202. Later in the sol:

Dear Sekou,

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 I’ll call you–"

"Gray Moon."

She frowned. "That’s 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. "I’m fine. I just went all dizzy there for a minute."

She pursed her lips sympathetically. "Poor dear! When we get your pyramid treatment established, you’ll 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,

Dear Sekou,

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 he’d proved a theorem in geometry class and wanted the teacher to send him a gold star.

Dr. Sphynxeye’s 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 wouldn’t 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 wasn’t super dense, so it wouldn’t 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 won’t 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. It’s a sin to waste food, so I snuck one into my pocket in case I decide to bail.

Because I still didn’t 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 couldn’t hold enough to be worth taking to Earth."

"It was concentrated." I didn’t tell her it had this special fungus in it. Provivarin fungus, that’s what the Mormonite Jesuits called it.

"How interesting. We’ll have you talk to our lab people about it. Your parents grew it?"

I didn’t say a word.

"I’ll be sure you get it back if we find it."

The reason kids can’t figure out when adults are lying is that it’s hard to look up in the adult’s 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. She’s as phony as a ceramic yam seed.

But I reckon I’ll stick around.

Where would I go?

Cydonia Research Institute, Summer-April 11, 2202 :

Dear Sekou: Why won’t they give me my Hyper-K back?

Crystal Spirit says I’m too weak to go to any more lectures. She seemed upset because I asked so many questions after the last one.

I can’t snoop around much. This wrist puter doesn’t have a com–too 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 Nanoannie’s 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. I’ve 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 don’t trust these guys to doctor me, Sekou. They are what our daddy used to call wack. Don’t 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 weren’t 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,

Dear Sekou,

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 she’s 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.

"We’ll use the wheelchair," she said. "You’re late. Dr. Sphynxeye has been up all night conferring with the committee. They’ve 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 hall–running! 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 Sphynxeye’s 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 couldn’t 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 I’m important, they’ll be nice to me. But he was saying I was important to humanity. The Facers have different ideas about what’s 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 they’re running a game on you. So I thought, maybe if I crack a smile, he won’t see how scared I am, and won’t guess that humanity’s future isn’t on my calendar this week.

So I tried to smile.

Couldn’t do it.

"Don’t 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 weren’t 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 wouldn’t let me go to Earth to be cured.

They probably wouldn’t let me go find Nanoannie and our parents.

They probably wouldn’t give me back my Hyper-K.

And when they found out I wasn’t all that important after all, they would probably kill me.

"I don’t know anything important," I said. "That’s the cross-my-heart truth."

"Ah," said Dr. Sphynxeye. "But what about the extremophiles? The deinococcus radiodurans? Didn’t your mother learn how it could survive through eons in hard radiation? What about the bacteriorhodopsin?"

I shrugged. "That’s 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 don’t 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. You’ve been betrayed and deceived so long. But now you’re near the Face, the fountain of truth. You can tell us the truth."

"That is the truth. It’s 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. "She’s 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 she’s telling the truth."

"No chance. It’s too great a coincidence. She’s been–hypnotized. That’s it. Mormonite Jesuits hypnotized her."

Say what? I’d 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, she’s been brainwashed."

"You can’t 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, they’ll take you to be healed. I’ll go with you."

I didn’t 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 can’t just disappear us."

Dr. Sphynxeye had been squinnying his eyes up so they looked like my belly button. They popped open. "You pretend you don’t know where Doctors Zora and Marcus Smythe are?"

Uh-oh. That stopped me.

They really for true didn’t know. Meaning that they hadn’t kidnapped them.

Meaning that somebody else had.

Chapter 5

Centime Pharm

Nanoannie gawked through the hole, down, down, down at the fines, sand, and rocks rushing past below.

The woman pulled her to her feet, grabbing her hurt hand. Nanoannie shrieked with sudden pain, then gaped wildly around. A bundle wrapped in rags lay in a dim corner. A body? Was that blood on those rags?

Was that Kapera? Or was Kapera still back there, running out of life support while these people threw her out of a marsplane.

"My friend–"

One voice droned, "Pull your arms and legs in, chin tucked to your chest."

"Ready!" roared the other voice, staticky, com battery maybe running low.

"Off you go," said the first, and heaved Nanoannie into emptiness.

Nanoannie tumbled terrified. Those blue bundles! A parachute? No. Parachutes didn’t work on Mars. They were an Earth thing. Had to be a parachute! Maybe three or four parachutes, because one wouldn’t work.

How, how did you get them to open?

The rocks below got bigger. Came at her FAST.

She hit.

WHUMP.

She was dead now. Everything was dark, indigo darkness.

WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP whump whump whump whmp whmp wmp.

She was bouncing. Rolling!

Then she stopped bouncing. Scared. Hurt. Her head and throat and stomach and her hand, her hand, her hand hurt.

Dark. She was squeezed, like a cuy or a kitten, like Fuzzbutt, into a tiny tiny place. Like a giant put a cushion over her and sat on it.

Dark. Tight, squeezing. Being born into her next life?

Death clogged her breathing.

The squeezing let up and she saw a crack of light.

The squeezing let go, reluctant and slow. Above her the sky glittered with late spring stars. The Sun peeked an eye over the horizon like a holographic mouse taunting Fuzzbutt.

The ground felt soft, then hard, like under an air mattress with a slow leak.

They had dumped her out of the plane in the middle of nowhere. Abandoned her to die as her suit lost power. A horrible death. You suffocate as carbon dioxide builds up. Then the suit cooling breaks down, and you freeze if it’s night, or if the Sun is up slowly poach in your own sweat, like one of those eggs in the funny text-only books they wrote about a thousand centuries ago, what was the name of that author? Louisa May Wallflower?

Louisa May Wallflower? What was she thinking! And eggs! She didn’t even know exactly what eggs were, though the workers on the magnesium plantation kept some kind of hamster that made them.

She was dying! Why was she having such stupid thoughts? Your life was supposed to flash through your mind as you died.

She raised her head and looked around. Dark blue wrinkled things, like skin, surrounded her. She tried to sit up, but she was tangled.

The packages on her back, head, and butt–air bags?–were tying her down. She had fallen hundreds of meters from a speeding rocket plane only to freeze or fry or suffocate because she couldn’t move.

The rocket plane was now a twinkle in the northern sky.

Where was the release? She shrieked when she moved her injured hand.

With the good hand, she patted all over her chest and discovered the release.

So the guys in the plane hadn’t actually planned to kill her.

Maybe they were Intercorp Police agents. Not the guys that destroyed Kapera’s pharm looking for whatever. Should she have told them Kapera was hiding in the rover?

The releases were logical, once she figured them out. They linked to her suit com and said: THIS IS A RELEASE FOR YOUR EMERGENCY LANDING SYSTEM. ARE YOU SURE YOU WISH TO RELEASE?

She had to think hard about how to stand up. Her feet were tangled in a pile of blue skin (must be durafilm–that’s what they made air bags of).

Her nose was leaking. She touched her tongue to her upper lip and tasted salt. Just what she needed. A nosebleed.

Maybe she had a broken nose!

How would she ever attract men with an ugly broken nose?

Her nose started to hurt. She hadn’t noticed that before. On the other hand, she wasn’t dead. She wanted to escape a boring future as a corp hire, but not by dying.

She was lost. Nowhere.

Nowhere? She activated her suit APS and found she was within a kilometer of Centime Pharm. A lucky break–or what?

Can I walk?

Of course not. Nobody can be expected to walk when they have a sky-bit hand and a headache from being gassed and also a broken nose which will destroy forever their chances of being recognized as a beauty queen of Borealopolis or even getting a normal guy to sleep with them.

A kilometer. An entire kilometer.

No! I can’t do it! It’s not fair! You jerks! You evil redsuits and Krona and Escudo too, they got me into this, forbidding me to go with Kapera, so of course I had to go. Forbidding by inference. She hadn’t actually asked. It was also Kapera’s fault. But mostly Krona and Escudo.

One kilometer.

In a failing suit.

How much power did the suit have left?

A little bit, said the battery. Maybe twenty minutes.

A kilometer.

She walked, cradling her hurt hand in front of her. If she let it dangle, every bounce made it burn like it was stuck in rocket fire. Even so, each step sent a jolt through her thumb.

Twenty more steps.

Her thumb! What if she lost her thumb? She’d be maimed. She’d never be the toast of Club Equatorial.

Twenty more steps.

And her nose was broken!

No. Didn’t hurt any more. Her upper lip itched like mad, though. Dried blood. She crossed her eyes trying to see her reflection in the inner surface of her helmet.

Forty more steps.

She stumbled. As she wheeled her arms to keep her balance (pain! don’t tear your suit!) she glimpsed a flash of blue a hundred meters away.

Tilted solar cells (old-fashioned blue ones), were slowly chasing the Sun on clockwork bases.

The suit was failing. She broadcast, loud as she could, "Mama!"

Her helmet displays went dark.

They’d gone into sleep mode! Conserving energy for life support. After life support went, they’d broadcast a location signal. A last gasp. Suits were programmed to do that after everything else died.

Sure, it would be too late. It wasn’t like you would be in suspended animation. But at least they wouldn’t have to search all night.

How long before the suit went down completely? Ten minutes?

"Martials Escudo and Krona Centime," she whimpered into her com.

Another com, somewhere on Mars, was broadcasting, monotonously, "–range of this broadcast. Martialle Nanoannie Centime, daughter of Escudo and Krona, please report if you are in range–"

"Mama!" she yelled.

Her com went dead.

Chapter 6

Worse than the Disease

New Pyramid, Cydonia Research Institute, Summer-April 12, 2202

Dear Sekou:

Tell me, brother: is this what it’s like to pass over and be shut up in a tomb?

I’m in this big pyramid. Not a sacred pyramid in The City. A fake, made of Mars bricks.

Crystal Spirit says things in this pyramid "vibrate with the carrier wave, common to all elements, leading to their purity and perfection." So they locked me up here.

In a wheelchair. With my wrists strapped down.

That old squinty-eyed Doctor Sphynxeye gave the sign, and bam! they shoved me in that wheelchair, strapped my hands to the armrests, and wheeled me away.

I hoped to bail out when it came time to transfer me from the main complex into the pyramid. Hoped they’d give me back my environment suit. But no, there’s this tunnel which leads straight here. Just a few airlocks in case of leaks.

Crystal Spirit trotted alongside my wheelchair, lecturing, "Now be a good girl, this is a great honor, don’t be surprised if miracles happen."

They centered me on what they called "magnetic lines"–magnetic? on Mars?–and said to keep my eyes on a picture of the Face on the north wall.

And here I am, strapped down in this chair, madder than a lonesome cuy in heat. Bound and determined I will not look at that stupid Face!

At least they didn’t cop this wrist puter diary.

Thank Mars and stars I put the puter on subvocal mode. If they heard me calling the Face "stupid" I’ll be on ice for real.

Come to think of it, I am in ice. I have to go to the bathroom, bad.

What if I disrespected the place by screaming my head off?

AAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHH!

Cydonia, The City, Summer-April 12, 2202:

Dear Sekou:

What happens is I got a personal nursemaid, but not Crystal Spirit.

This guy about Nanoannie’s age with frizzy sand-brown hair sticking straight out in most directions, skin the color of Noachis terrain, comes streaking in.

He screeched to a halt and cocked his head as if I were a real puzzle. "Who are you?"

"I’m Kapera Smythe, and I might ask you the same."

"Kay-See. Spelled C-A-Y-C-E."

"I need a bathroom, for real," I said, nice as I could.

"Nothing like that here." He had one of those Face bindis, one with long eyelashes and a sweet expression "It would foul up the sacred well." I don’t think they sent him. I think he was just sneaking around.

"Sacred well?" That sounded so foolish I almost forgot how much I had to go.

"There’s an aquifer under this temple. They expect to find it real soon."

Sekou, I bet that I could find that aquifer. Daddy says I have divining ability, only he calls it hoodoo.

Maybe I could trade my hoodoo talent for something. But what? They said they didn’t know where our parents are. "Tell me how they know about this aquifer," I asked, crossing my legs.

"How come you can cross your legs?" Cayce asked. "Being you’re in that wheelchair and all."

"I’m not crippled, just weak. They say the pyramid will cure me. Something about a carrier wave and etheric energies."

"Oh, sure, that’s real true. I had this lizard, and a cleaning robot ran over it, and I brought it here to be cured."

"So was it cured?"

"Well, no. They took it out and it died. But I got in trouble because this place is sacred, and the lizard wasn’t good enough for it. You must be high class, or you wouldn’t be here."

"I guess." I reckon I should feel honored, Sekou. I still wanted him to turn me loose, but I was nosy: "This lizard, was it a pet?"

"I planned to breed it. I had a lucrative business. Or would have, if they hadn’t killed one of my three females. Of course I’d have to tithe 90 percent to the Generation Starship Effort." He glanced around as if he wasn’t supposed to be talking to me, but his Face bindi winked.

"So why are you here now?"

"I left a clutch of eggs here, not that it’s any of your business. Hoping more of them would hatch." He tugged on one of those sandy kinks in his hair. "My turn. Where are you from?"

I paid no never mind to his question. "You believe this cuy crap about magnetic lines?"

"Everybody else believes it." He winked. "So it must be true, right?"

"Okay. You seem straight up, so I’ll answer your question. I’m from Smythe Pharm and Laboratories, Arctic Circle."

His Face bindi blew me a kiss. "How come you get the special treatment?"

Special treatment? I shivered. "Don’t ask me. I had some fermented tea with me, and your Sphynxeye guy got all nosy about it. And about my folks." Should I trust this guy? He talked like a kid, but his eyes seemed old.

He whistled. "They haven’t discussed this in the evening lectures. Must be top secret."

"While you’re thinking about top secrets, could you please turn me loose and show me the facilities? I’m about ready to float away."

He started working on the buckles. Once he got them loose, I staggered out of the chair. "Okay! Now, where’s the bathroom?"

"Like I said, there isn’t one."

I drew in a breath to scream again.

He put a hand over my mouth. I almost wet my pants, but he let me go and said, "Don’t do that!"

"Why? Will they execute me for screaming in their sacred pyramid?" ( If they got hinkty I’d say I was possessed by an ancient spirit. I’m good at storying, Sekou, as you must know.)

"Because I’m not supposed to be here, idiot."

"So I should care?"

"No. But you seem like a nice little brat, not whiny like my little bitch sisters."

"You’ll get in a lot of trouble?"

"Shitfire, kid, I’m undergrounded for my smart mouth. And for the caper with the lizard. Solitary until Summer-May."

"How’d you get out?"

He grinned. "My secret."

"Hm. You must know your way around. If I promise not to scream, will you show me a bathroom? And a com. I need to contact somebody."

"And if I don’t, you’ll scream?"

I grinned my most bratty grin.

He cocked his head. "Will you tell them who let you loose?"

"Course not." Then I had to ask. "Why did they leave me alone, anyway?"

"Can’t say for sure, but the pyramid is extremely powerful. Power lines run all through it. They say a normal person could fry from such high vibrational energy."

That sent a twinge to my bladder. "And I’m not normal?"

"Guess not. Listen, I can’t stand around and baby-sit you. We better evaporate."

"What about your lizard eggs?"

"Gone. Rats must have got them."

He strode on his long legs toward the wall. I didn’t see a door, but he looked over his shoulder and said, "You coming?" and the wall opened.

One of those trick walls you see in videos of habs owned by rich people.

Then, bam! the opening slapped shut again. Cayce almost smashed into the wall.

He drew up short, then eyeballed me as if I’d slammed that door myself.

I shrugged.

Then, WHUMP! The ground shook.

Are there such things as Mars quakes? I can’t take a stand, but I do know the ground shook.

Brick fragments showered from the top of the pyramid.

"What’s going on?" I asked Cayce.

"Shit if I know." He went down on his knees to look at the crack where the door was supposed to open.

A com sputtered on. No visible speakers. Must be one of those new jobs that float around and vibrate the air with teeny fans like insect wings.

"Kapera, keep calm." The voice sounded like Dr. Sphynxeye. "We have ill-mannered visitors, but you are safe inside the pyramid."

"You trapped us!" screamed Cayce. "Cuy crap! Fish rot! Stop imitating the honcho, and let us out!"

Say what?

A boom just about busted my ears. A brick slammed into the ground. It almost hit me! Another brick. Two more! A singing, vibrating buzz. Sekou, I’m afraid! If the room depressurizes, what…

Be sure to read

the exciting conclusion

in out July/August issue,

on sale now!

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