20040 words, novella
Polly and (Not) Charles Conquer the Solar System
This is Chapter Thirty or so in a whole ongoing saga that I don’t have time to get into right now. I’m jumping in at the point when my Machiavellian twin brother Charles decided to take over Mars, and I decided to help.
My big failing is I never figure these things out until I’m already in the middle of them. But I’ve survived this long, haven’t I?
I’d always wanted to be a starship captain. Then I made it to flight school and learned the awful truth: being an interplanetary starship captain mostly involved running computers and learning a lot about personnel management. The stories all lied.
Didn’t matter. I still wanted to make captain someday—I had it all planned out. I was a year into my first post, the Sunnyside Up.
I loved the Sunnyside Up. It was a Martian-registered freight hauler, crew of ten, making the run between Mars and Jupiter, with stops at Europa Station and one of two other commercial stations, depending on how the orbits lined up. I was off-shift systems manager and due to move to main shift soon. After another year doing that, I’d be up for a promotion and probably transfer to another ship or two, eventually making executive officer. Another three to five years after that I would qualify as captain of my own ship. I was sure it would happen. I would make it happen. By then the first crewed interstellar missions, currently in prep, would be ready to launch. I wanted to be on one of those ships.
I just had to avoid screwing up.
A week outbound from Mars, three of us off-shift duty officers were in the cramped ops compartment. Lieutenant Commander Gillan was in charge, in the place I wanted to be in a few years, so I watched her and took notes. Lieutenant Ren was the pilot. And me. My job was mostly watching a bunch of monitors and alarms and telling a higher-ranking officer than me if they started buzzing. Almost everything on a ship like this was automated, but we still had to be there, just in case. It was a kind of talismanic magic: ship systems behave when they know they’re being watched.
Sometimes I’d turn on an external monitor so I could watch . . . well. Not much. Space, where I spent my whole childhood dreaming of being, was mostly a lot of nothing. No, that wasn’t true: I saw potential. I saw deep time, and the possibility of doing and seeing things no one had ever done before.
Outside: potential. Inside: ship systems that were doing exactly what they were supposed to. All was well.
Ren pulled at the collar of his uniform and scowled.
“You okay there?” Gillan asked from the back of the compartment.
“Yeah yeah. I just . . . why do we even have to wear these?” We all had on tan and brown Martian Transport Service uniforms, which seemed designed to be just slightly uncomfortable. Keeping us on our toes.
“Tradition,” Gillan said, not missing a beat. “Identification.”
I leaned over the back of my seat. “My brother says uniforms are inherently fascistic, but I don’t think that’s totally right. I think they’re so people know who to look at when things go wrong.”
We both turned to Gillan, who drew back as if we’d aimed weapons at her. “Don’t look at me!”
“She’s right,” Ren said. “You just automatically look at the person with the most rank pips, don’t you?”
Gillan raised a brow. “If you don’t like uniforms you can leave.”
“Nope. This is the fastest way to earn points for shares. After working off the debt, of course.”
Gillan huffed in sympathy. “Oh, nobody ever works off the debt. It’s what makes it all a level playing field in the end, right?”
I stayed very quiet through this bit of conversation. I always stayed quiet when my crewmates started talking about debt and ownership shares. Everyone who came to Mars after the initial wave of settlement incurred some kind of debt just getting there, and the debt passed to heirs. I didn’t have debt, and I already had shares in Colony One, inherited from my grandfather, who had been one of the charter members and part of the founding government. It was not a level playing field, and I was here because of my connections. I knew that. But I tried to deserve to be here.
I never mentioned my background if I could help it because I didn’t want people to give me that sideways, suspicious look they always did when they found out. They heard my name, Polly Newton, and there was a flash, a suspicious twitch—one of those Newtons? Part of that family?—But they never followed up because why would one of those Newtons bother working Transport Service? I should have gone into planetary administration or trade negotiation or something respectable and lucrative. (The same thing, according to my mother, back in Chapter Ten or so.)
My brother Charles also didn’t need to work for shares. Instead, he was the youngest person ever elected to the Martian governing council. In fact, he ran against and took our mother’s seat. That was around Chapter Twenty-three. As part of his lecture on uniforms, Charles also said that you didn’t need to wear a uniform to be fascistic. Uniforms just made them easier to spot.
A comms notification beeped at Gillan’s station. We usually picked up regular communications packages a couple of times a day. Anything outside that was often, but not always, an emergency. An SOS? A change in schedule? We perked up.
Gillan called up the message. And looked at me. “Newton, it’s for you.”
Why was a personal message coming in on the ship’s comms? A personal message should have been waiting for me when we arrived at Europa Station, downloading to my ID when we docked. So it was an emergency.
The message came from Charles.
A message from Charles always involved several distinct conflicting feelings. First, relief: I loved my brother, and I was happy to hear from him because it meant he was alive. Given his talent for finding trouble, I fully expected to get a message someday, not from him, telling me that he wasn’t anymore. I didn’t know what I’d do then. Second: profound annoyance because if he wasn’t dead, he’d probably be asking me for a favor involving plans he wouldn’t explain.
Charles was always planning something.
This particular message revealed a third possibility: confusion. The message came from his ID, but it wasn’t from him.
To Lieutenant Second Class Polly Newton: From Mars Colony One Medical Center Prime.
Please be advised: Councilmember Charles Newton is currently under treatment for what is believed to be a stress-related heart condition. He is stable, but prognosis isn’t yet known. Since you are listed as his next of kin, it might be prudent, if at all possible, for you to return to Mars Colony One as soon as possible.
My very first impulse was to tell Ren to turn the Sunnyside Up around right now and go back to Mars even though it would take ten days, but if we pushed the drive hard enough we could make it in seven, and I needed to get home right now—
That wasn’t possible. I took a deep breath and read the message again. It was signed by a Dr. Anush Patel and sounded official. It sounded bad.
The message had an attached file, which only added to my confusion: an image, some kind of vintage picture of a fish man. The big, salmon colored, bulbous head of some imaginary humanoid fish, with gigantic gold eyes that somehow managed to convey a startled expression.
I did not understand why he sent a picture of the fish man.
I wondered if the whole message was a joke. Why didn’t Charles sign the message himself? Because he was incapacitated. Not able to. Which meant he was really sick.
“Newton?” Gillan asked. “What’s the matter?”
I must have looked dumbstruck, staring at my handheld. I felt dizzy. “I think I need to go home. I need to go home right now.”
Going straight home right now was a physical impossibility so I needed to find other solutions. Maybe I could summon and reprogram a mining drone from the closest asteroid, get in an EVA suit with extra cans of air, anchor myself to it, and send it hurtling to Mars—
Gillan said, calmly, as befitted someone in command of a ship and which was behavior I really ought to take note of and emulate, “That isn’t possible.”
“Yes, I know, but it’s a family emergency.” Really, it wasn’t impossible, just very difficult. I had been in situations more impossible than this and managed to make things happen.
I had gotten badly hurt once. (Chapter Fifteen.) Charles had been waiting for me in the hospital when I woke up. I had to do the same for him. Technically, we had our mother, but we didn’t trust her. We mostly didn’t speak to her.
“Wait until shift change and talk to Captain Sung.”
I was grateful for being on a smaller ship with a smaller crew where I could actually get to know the captain. Talking to the captain felt like the right call and not an imposition. And jumping on a hijacked asteroid mining drone was definitely the impulsive rather than the logical option. Maybe, first, I should just send a reply to the initial message.
Thank goodness nothing bad happened for the rest of that shift.
The main-shift command crew arrived. Captain Sung held a lidded cup of coffee in hand and seemed resigned. Gillan had a quiet word with him, and I fidgeted. Ren lingered to see what happened.
Sung glanced at me. “Newton. You’re authorized to use the emergency channel for one transmission. Then get food and sleep. There’s nothing else you can do now.”
“Yes, sir. Thanks.”
I replied to the message. I needed more information. Surely in the hours it took the message to get here, and the hours it took for my reply to return, the doctor would have a better idea of what was wrong with Charles. Maybe he’d gotten better. Maybe it was all a mistake. Charles was my age, we were twins, I was healthy, I didn’t have any stress-related heart conditions, why would he?
Charles himself would write back saying the doctors had panicked and everything was fine.
I called ops five hours before I was due back on shift, when I was supposed to be asleep, to find out if a reply had arrived yet. It was the absolute earliest I could expect a reply.
Instead of telling me if there was a reply, Olson, the main-shift ops manager, said, “Captain Sung would like to see you now.”
“But is there a message—”
“Now, lieutenant,” he said flatly, and the comm switched off.
Captain Sung’s office was a closet attached to his cabin, containing a narrow desk, a chair, and bench where underlings could sit while being dressed down. A display screen sat on the desk along with a stack of tablets waiting for him to review. A set of curtains in a red-gold brocade hung over the door to his cabin. The color broke up the gray, at least.
I stood in the hatchway, waiting. I hadn’t gotten any sleep and was probably even more bleary eyed than before. He could tell. He just gave me a look.
“Newton,” he said and pointed at me to sit.
“Sir. Is there a—”
“A message for you? Yes.”
He handed over a tablet.
It was from the same Dr. Patel, again sent through Charles’ ID, reiterating in even stronger language that it was very important I get back to Mars to see Charles. The same image file of the fish man was attached.
This was odd. This was . . . I didn’t know what this was and furrowed my brow as I reread the message. Charles wouldn’t have asked me to come home because he’d know how difficult it was. Dr. Patel might not have realized that you couldn’t just turn a ship around. How sick was Charles, really?
“What’s that about?” Captain Sung asked, pointing at the fish man.
“No idea.” The image didn’t look like something Dr. Patel would have sent. An automated attachment, maybe? Something in the account that Patel didn’t know about, but Charles set up in advance.
Charles was trying to tell me something. Don’t eat fish?
“Newton?” Sung prompted.
I didn’t know what to say, which was weird, because I was pretty good at saying whatever popped into my head. “Sir. I need another emergency comm authorization.”
I had to figure out what message to send to learn what I wanted. One option: ask Charles what the hell was up with the fish man. Except Charles wasn’t answering. If he hadn’t before he wouldn’t now.
Sung leaned back in his chair. “You’re not used to hearing ‘no,’ are you?”
I hadn’t really thought about it. My whole life seemed to be me bashing myself against the walls in front of me. Maybe I just hadn’t noticed when there weren’t walls.
I said, “I tried to get out of remedial PE when I was at school on Earth. I was told no.”
“What message do you want to send?”
I needed to contact the medical center to get specifics on Charles’ condition. I was listed as next of kin; if he was really incapacitated, I had a right to know. Maybe I could disembark at Europa, beg my way on to the next ship going to Mars, destroying my whole ten-year-plan for my career in the process—
Sung was right, I wasn’t really used to hearing “no.”
A new possibility popped into my mind, a sneaking and nefarious voice that sounded suspiciously like Charles: something strange was going on. This wasn’t normal. This wasn’t what normally happened when a family member got sick and next of kin was millions of kilometers away.
“Sir. I think I need to check the news feeds from Mars, to see if there’s anything—”
He picked a tablet from the pile in front of him and slid it toward me like he’d been planning it. Like he’d already checked. The replay was queued up to a standard news feed, five or so stories on repeat. I hit play. In the third item, an earnest voice narrated over archive footage of Charles at his swearing-in. He was tall, sandy-haired, and gave the impression of wispiness in his long limbs, but the intensity of his gaze belied that.
The report stated that Councilmember Charles Newton, youngest person ever elected to the council and nominal leader of a political coalition calling itself the Guthries, had been hospitalized for a stress-related condition. The image changed to show our mother, Martha Newton, in the lobby of the medical center. Perfectly turned out, not a hair out of place, wearing the uniform jacket of a Martian administrator but without insignia. She’d been voted out of that job, but she still wanted to look like she had it. She seemed somber, ducking her gaze once or twice as if to demonstrate sadness, pressing her lips into a thin smile. “I’m managing my son’s affairs while he’s indisposed. We’re watching Charles’ health carefully, of course. He’s taken on so much as such a young age. I’m afraid the pressure of his current position might be too much for him. I’ve always been worried that this might be the case.” A commentator went on to add that Charles’ unique position and accomplishments of course came with consequences.
The spin on that was so hard my weight increased three gravities. Charles thrived on stress. He manufactured stress on purpose.
A text addendum stated that Charles hadn’t been seen in public or issued a statement in three days. I set the tablet back on the desk.
I kept my voice calm. “Charles would never let our mother handle his business. He’d never let her get anywhere near the council through him.”
“Does anyone else know that?” he asked, and I wilted. “Your brother is very popular. I voted for him.”
“Yeah, so did I. I mean, he’s weird and conniving, but his heart’s in the right place most of the time and—”
“He upset a lot of people when he won his election.”
He’d really only upset the more traditional politicians and founders’ families. They’d been shocked—on paper, Charles should have been one of them. They couldn’t understand why he wasn’t. Our mother couldn’t understand why neither of us uncomplainingly went along with her plans for us to extend her own political influence. But the traditionalists wouldn’t have acted against him directly.
How do you gather information on Mars when you were tens of millions of kilometers away? The time-honored way. You send a probe.
“Sir, I . . . I need to find out if Charles is really sick.” The statement sounded huge. Who was I to make that kind of assumption?
Sung offered a thin smile. “You’re authorized for another emergency comms transmission.”
I took a second to catch my breath. “Okay. Thank you. I just need to figure out who to message.” Because Charles’ ID wasn’t going to tell me what I needed to know.
My first thought was to try his office or his assistant, but if our mother was managing his affairs, that would mean talking to her, and I didn’t trust her.
I could try someone else at the medical center, a different doctor or the nursing department, someone who could find a room number and take a picture of him giving me a thumbs up. That was all I wanted. I could contact the news agency, but they were likely to go straight to the medical center, just like I had, and I’d be back where I started. Mars didn’t have much in the way of independent journalism, since everything went through the Colony bureaucracy.
Maybe I needed to come at this sideways. Really sidewise.
Anda Guzman worked in the education manager’s office and was a cofounder of the Guthries coalition. She and Charles had done press conferences together, about plans to exempt education from the debt system. I’d met her once. She was intense, which I suspected someone had to be to do politics at all. But I knew that Charles liked her. Maybe even liked her, but he never talked about that.
I messaged her, asking to see if she could get in to see Charles. Or get a picture of him. Or confirm that he was really sick, and I should come home. I told her what Patel had told me, through Charles’ ID. I even attached a legal release, to act on my behalf as Charles’ next of kin.
And then I had to wait.
We were three days out from Europa Station, my last chance to jump ship. Or rather, to ask for a leave of absence so I could find a way back to Mars.
If Charles really was that sick, he might already be dead. I had to do something. But space was big and comms lag slow.
One day out from Europa I got a reply from Guzman.
Hello Polly. No one has spoken to Charles in a week. All his comm IDs are set to automated response. We (myself and my staff) were able to get a lead inside MedCenter (assistant’s brother is a nurse there).
Charles isn’t there. Our contact got eyes on every single bed. No Charles.
We’re following up. I’ll let you know what we find. I’d be grateful if you could keep me apprised of any new information. —Anda G.
Mars had never had a political assassination in its history. Leave it to Charles to be the first. I was definitely going to jump ship at Europa and find a way back to Mars.
Captain Sung called me to his office again, and I should have been intimidated and worried about how this was going to look on my record. But I wasn’t.
“What was the reply?” he asked.
Worried, I showed him my handheld, with Guzman’s message. It might not mean anything. I was being paranoid. You can’t prove a negative. Charles not being where he was supposed to be might have some reasonable explanation.
Sung turned to his main terminal and tapped a string of commands. My own handheld pinged.
“New orders for you, Lieutenant. The Corey is scheduled to leave Europa Station at about the same time we arrive. I think you’d really benefit from a temporary tour on another ship. I’ll expect a report on comparative systems management strategies when you return.”
“And . . . it’s on the inbound leg of its route,” I said.
“It should get back to Mars in two weeks. Her captain owes me a couple of favors and has agreed to wait an extra day so you can get on board.”
If Captain Sung thought something strange was going on, maybe I wasn’t being paranoid.
I winced. “Sir, how much of command is collecting favors and knowing when to call them in?”
He just smiled.
The Sunnyside Up docked—main shift was on duty, so I didn’t have anything to do but wait. I packed a small bag and arrived at the docking hatch when it was ready to open. Gillan checked the monitor to make sure the seal was good and the other side was clear.
Then she commed ops. “Sir, are we expecting a security detail?”
I impolitely squeezed in next to her. The display showed two uniformed guards with hats pulled low over their eyes, their hands resting on shock guns at their belts. They were here for me, which seemed like a deeply narcissistic and paranoid assumption. And yet.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Sung replied over the comm, sounding like he’d been presented with a complicated training scenario.
Gillan tilted her head. “It is?”
“I’ll be down in a minute. Don’t open the hatch.” Gillan narrowed her gaze at me.
Sung arrived, with Polk and a couple of other crew following. Sung himself tapped the comm to the other end of the docking hatch. “Officer, how may we assist you?”
The head of the detail put a hand to his ear, as if that would make the signal come through clearer. Why did people always do that?”
“Captain Sung, greetings. Sunnyside Up has been randomly chosen for a customs search. Shouldn’t take more than half an hour.”
“Bullshit,” Sung murmured.
“The hell?” Gillan asked.
“Lieutenant Newton hasn’t ever mentioned that her brother is Councilmember Charles Newton, has she?”
And there it was. They stared at me with that look. That “oh that Newton” and “what are you doing here” look. I slumped up against the bulkhead and didn’t react at all.
By now, everyone knew that Charles had gone missing. The fissure in Martian politics was starting to move to off-planet news feeds. If anyone was thinking I had any connection to him, they’d been too polite to ask. But really, with all those emergency comms happening at the same time as his disappearance, someone should have guessed.
Sung. Sung guessed.
He replied through comms, “Officer, please hold, thank you.” Then he tapped a message while delivering orders. “Polk, prep an EVA suit for Newton at the foredeck airlock.”
“Sir?” I asked, my voice pitched up more than was polite.
“The Corey’s waiting, Newton.”
Oh. This was how we were doing it? Excellent.
He could get in trouble for this. And not just for keeping the hatch sealed when security was trying to get in, but for getting involved in . . . in whatever this was. Whatever I was dragging him into. Correction: he was letting me drag him in. They all were.
If Captain Sung was worried about insubordination charges—or something worse—he didn’t show it. Transport Service answered to the Martian Council, and by extension the colony shareholders. It was right there in the oath, the same one I’d sworn. Charles was a councilmember, wasn’t he? The security of the council was part of our mandate.
At least, that was the argument I’d make in court.
I stuffed my handheld in a pocket and left everything else behind. Polk had the suit laid out by its lock, ready to go.
“I assume you’re checked out in this?”
“Yes.” I even had extra hours logged.
“So. You’re one of those Newtons. Why are you even out here?”
Good of him to actually ask out loud. I looked him square in the eye and said, “To get as far away from my mother as possible.”
He actually laughed.
Sung followed us, a gleam in his eye, thrilled—no coffee needed. “The Corey’s left dock and is coming around, they’ll get as close as they can without drawing suspicion, but you’ll still have a good distance to cross. Their lock will be open and waiting for you. Captain Obenwye is a friend of mine, she’s apprised of the situation.”
“All of it? The whole thing?”
“Yes.” He said it firmly, as if to also say he trusted her. Did Charles know he had the loyalty of the Transport Service? Or at least part of it? Would that matter to him? I hoped it would, and that I would get to tell him.
“Sir, I’m not really sure what to do next. I can’t just keep asking the same people to tell me what’s really going on.”
“Work backward, then. Who benefits from getting Charles off the council?”
“The original council membership. The traditionalists. Anyone who wants to discredit the Guthries.” I thought about it, took it that extra step. “Anyone with a stake in preventing reform of the shares system.”
“How do you find a location in space, Lieutenant?”
“Sir. Weren’t you in Martian Security before you went into transport?”
“That’s classified, Lieutenant Newton.”
Just then I loved Captain Sung, a little bit.
I paused, one bulky sleeve on and the other still hanging loose. “Sir, I hope you’re not thinking I’ll be able to do some kind of favor for you later on or get you an in with Charles, because I’m really not that well connected. And I’m not good at politics so I have to ask this sort of thing up front.”
He said, “Sometimes people do favors for each other just because it’s a nice thing to do.”
“Yeah. Okay. But you can see how growing up in my family makes that a little hard to see sometimes?”
“Here’s the favor: Most of my crew, including myself, are working for colony shares they’re never going to see and that’s not fair. Tell your brother that when you see him, all right?”
How long had he been in service? How many shares, if any, did he have to show for it? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. “Oh yes. I will.”
“Newton. Get going.”
“Yessir. Thank you.”
Polk checked the suit systems one more time and patted me on the shoulder.
Staying safe in space was all about the checklists. Air full. Comms on. Propulsion—compressed air jets—working. I didn’t step out of the lock without having those controls in hand.
The lock cycled. The outer hatch opened. I looked around. Triangulating. Finding the navigation marks. Europa Station was on my left, the moon itself way below my feet as a sliver of light reflecting off atmosphere. Jupiter, another sliver of light, hung in my peripheral vision. All very impressive and gorgeous, but right now I couldn’t afford to look anywhere but at the Corey. At first, I couldn’t even find the Corey. And suddenly there it was, running lights shifting against the black, moving faster than anything else. Its gleaming bulk seemed very far away. But I had my target now, and I . . . pushed off.
I couldn’t look into the black, or I would lose all sense of perspective, and maybe even lose track of my target. I was moving, I knew I was moving. I just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I had to trust. This was more like what I imagined being an intrepid ship captain would be like. I couldn’t say I was happy about it.
Bigger than the Sunnyside Up, the Corey was an independent shipper, with crew from all over the system. A combination freight hauler and passenger vessel with a secondary security mission—it could be converted to a gunship if needed. Way fancier than my ship, but I didn’t let it intimidate me. Not better, just different.
The trip took thirty minutes. If I counted each minute, I’d have gone crazy. Breathe steady. Don’t flinch. Don’t look around. Just do the thing. And . . . the ship loomed close. It seemed to go from way over there to right in front of me between one breath and the next. Suddenly I felt like I was going too fast, I was going to hit the hull and bounce right off and into infinity, and there was no one around to catch me if that happened. Not that I had much time to think about that. Fire a burst of air to slow down, find a handhold, grab—
They made the handholds inside airlocks really wide so you could just wrap your arm around it while your body bounced, bleeding off momentum. The outer hatch slid shut, locking out the planetary glare; someone on board must have been watching. I didn’t hear a thing. And then I did, hissing air getting louder and louder. A red warning light turned to green, the inner door opened, and I fell into ship’s artificial gravity without any grace at all. Not at all like an intrepid captain from the stories. Five years ago that would have bothered me.
At least I managed to get back on my feet by the time the waiting crewmember helped take off my helmet. When we got the helmet off, I got a good look at him. And realized I knew him: Tenzig Jones. My nemesis.
“Well, hi,” he said, grinning.
I had no idea what to say to that.
I had a nemesis, from back in my horrible Earth-side school days. Non-earthers got bullied—not obviously, not always, but sometimes, and in an underhanded way that was seen as “building character,” not actual bullying. Tenzig, who came from an outer-system shipping family, had avoided it by teaming up with the Earth kids. That was Chapter Eleven, maybe. And then came flight school, where we continued the rivalry. The less said about that the better.
A whole big solar system, and I had to land on his ship. This was going to be a long couple of weeks back to Mars.
Sunnyside Up is a great ship. A nice ship. The Corey is a fancy ship.
It has multiple decks, flawlessly painted and labeled. Multiple departments and redundant crew. Automated signaling throughout the ship—no back-and-forth on the intercom trying to figure out where an air leak was coming from. Adjustable docking rings compatible with all station platforms, also automated, along with a couple of crewmembers whose job was to keep all those automated systems debugged.
And everyone on board had combat training. Just in case.
I did not have combat training. I had a small arms certification and that was it. I’d never wanted anything more.
The Corey’s captain insisted on pressed uniforms, polish, all of it. The crew looked sharp. I had just launched myself on a last-minute EVA with nothing but my rumpled uniform and handheld terminal. I smelled like sweat.
Hard not to feel small. I didn’t fit in. You’d think by now I’d be used to not fitting in.
Captains suited their ships. Captain Sung would have come down to the lock to meet anyone we picked up from open space. Captain Obenwye did not. Tenzig had been ordered to escort me to her office once I was on board. I mentioned the Corey was a big ship. That meant a long walk with my nemesis.
Charles was going to owe me when this was over.
I remembered Jones as kind of a laid-back, lazy annoyance. Or rather, he worked very hard to make it look like he hadn’t worked hard at all to achieve this lazy, rough style. Like he just floated into the world and took over by sheer charm. I might have been bitter because I’d actually fallen for the act once. Once.
At flight school, we sniped at each other the entire time, jockeying to beat the other in class rankings. We ended up about even, and Charles had the gall to suggest that if we hadn’t had the other to compete with neither of us would have done as well. We were both wearing the same rank pins, now.
He was tall, brown-skinned, his dark hair just long enough to brush back in casual waves. Stunning blue eyes. The old lazy charm had faded. The collar of his uniform was crisp, the buttons all buttoned. His stride was brisk. The corridor wasn’t quite wide enough to walk side by side. He let me go ahead, which made me twitch. Constantly looking over my shoulder would have been ridiculous, so I tried to manage.
“Up,” he said, when we reached a juncture with a ladder leading to decks above and below.
On the next deck up, we encountered other crewmembers, a range of age and types, but all of them stopped to give us a second look. A hard stare at me and a lifted brow at Jones, as if asking for a silent explanation. I could imagine him grinning in some kind of triumph, like I was a prize he’d caught. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I looked.
He wasn’t grinning but wore this determined grimace. So, I wasn’t a prize he’d caught but a bomb he had to defuse.
“When you found out it was me did you ask to be the one to meet me?” I asked bluntly.
“Why hello, Polly. I’m fine, thank you, and you seem to have done well the last couple of years.” His brow lifted sarcastically.
I huffed and turned back to watch where I was going. A couple of crew ducked out of our path.
“This just seems like a big coincidence,” I said.
“Yeah, except this is about you and Charles, and things just seem to happen around you. Doesn’t surprise me at all.”
We climbed another ladder up. I used it as an excuse to look back at him again. “So. What have you heard?”
The end of this next corridor opened up to a busy space, full of monitors and low chatter. Ops.
His expression got even grimmer somehow. “Charles is missing. And he didn’t plan it.” Yeah, Tenzig knew Charles. “You have any idea why?”
“I’m just worried about Charles. I don’t really care about the rest of it.”
“But the rest of it is why he’s in trouble.” He stopped me in front of a cabin, roughly the same place Captain Sung’s office was in relation to ops on the Sunnyside Up, but like everything else here seemed bigger and stretched out. An intercom panel indicated that the room on the other side of the hatch was occupied.
Tenzig hesitated before touching the call button. “You don’t have to trust me, but you can trust her.”
Before I could respond, he tapped to announce our arrival, and the hatch slid open.
Even with her sitting behind the desk, I could tell Captain Obenwye was tall, powerful. If she spent a lot of time in zero g, she worked out to make up for it. She had short-cropped dark hair, a scar by her right ear. She looked exactly like I imagined a heroic intrepid ship captain looking like, and I was too intimidated to take notes.
While Sung had tablets piled over his desk, hers was clear. She had three displays. I could only see part of one and it was scrolling information, which she seemed to be studying.
Tenzig ushered me inside and stood at attention. I did so as well, trying to make as good an impression as I could in my uniform that had been hopelessly rumpled by being squished in an EVA suit. I was suddenly very tired.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Jones, that’ll be all,” she said without looking up. She might have seemed different from Captain Sung, but she had the same flat Martian accent.
“Yes sir,” he said, more deferential than I’d ever heard him, and left. Only when the hatch slipped closed did Captain Obenwye look at me.
“Lieutenant Newton. Captain Sung says we have a problem.”
I tilted my head, questioning. “We?”
“You’ve gathered evidence suggesting a member of the Colony One governing council is missing. May I see what you have?”
I almost said no. I didn’t know her, Tenzig said I could trust her, but I wasn’t sure I trusted Tenzig. Though at this point I wasn’t sure I had a choice—if I didn’t trust her, I shouldn’t have gotten on her ship, where she could order me pushed out an airlock any time. I drew my handheld out of its pocket and set it on the desk.
“It’s circumstantial. Trying to prove a negative, right? But his allies don’t know where he is, and those who say they’re speaking on his behalf aren’t allies.”
Sometimes, you located an object in space by measuring the gravitational effect it had on the objects around it. The wobble.
“Lieutenant. I’m going to set my data analysis team on this. You’ll assist. Meanwhile, you’ll also take an off-shift watch rotation. You’re not off the hook for regular duty just because you’re at the center of . . . whatever this is.”
But I wasn’t at the center. I was just the one who spotted the wobble.
“Yes sir. Wouldn’t dream of it.”
The Corey was big enough to have a data analysis team. Turned out this was an intersection of personnel from ops and weapons system, and they usually did things like calculate trajectories of orbital debris and run theoretical combat scenarios. No interplanetary ships had ever been in combat, and I had never really stopped to think about who or what someone might be expecting to fight in a combat situation.
I was thinking about it now.
The three members of the team included the ship’s XO, Ven, also Martian, with a decade or so of experience in ops, so I was taking notes; Lucy, a navigation officer who dabbled in encryption; and Tenzig, who I gathered was there as a kind of apprentice.
The best part was they had unlimited access to comms. The bad part was if we started pinging the wrong people, we’d give ourselves away. Whatever mystery we were trying to uncover would fold back in on itself. We chose our pings carefully.
Triangulation. Parallax. Measure what points we had and look for the intersections. Dr. Anush Patel, who had once worked in the colony’s health management office and was now the med center’s administrator, wouldn’t normally be charged with communicating to a patient’s family—unless the patient was a councilmember. Former Councilmember Martha Newton, who had become the public face of the problem. Had she put herself there or been put there? We tracked the other members of the Council, members who identified as traditionalists. We tracked Anda Guzman and a couple of people from Charles’ office. Guzman told me that Charles had been preparing to introduce a resolution reducing citizenship eligibility from twenty years to five. It would never pass, would it? A third of the councilmembers were part of the Guthries. I hadn’t realized the coalition had spread that much.
We tracked where all those lines of communications intersected. One of the points was me. They intersected at Charles, our mother—and me.
We met a couple of times a day, when we could process the next comms packet from Mars. Captain Obenwye let us use her office, where we crammed in, sitting on stools around her desk, all the terminal screens lit up and all our handhelds at the ready.
“I don’t know why anyone would be interested in me,” I said, looking at the graphic the navigator, Lucy, had designed, where I was represented by a big glowing icon of intersections.
“I know, right?” Tenzig smirked.
I frowned back. “Your opinions are not helpful, Jones.”
“Stop sniping,” Ven pointed at us. We shut up.
“I assume your brother likes you?” Lucy said. “You’re leverage.”
Tenzig said, “And we’re taking her right back to Mars, just like they ask. Does this seem like a trap?”
I had a sudden thought. I finally did an image search on the fish man Charles sent. I found several dozen entries in various cultural indices showing that exact image with a caption: It’s a trap! A reference to a two hundred-year-old movie, and I wasn’t sure why exactly he expected me to know this.
That was when I realized Charles had expected me to do the image search immediately, not wait until I was already back at Mars. Well then. Sometimes I thought he didn’t know me at all. Haring off at the first sign of trouble was my thing.
We stared at the ancient vintage meme on the terminal, the warning that Charles had preprogrammed because he knew he was in trouble and was worried he was dragging me into it. Or, as Lucy said, trying to keep me from being used as leverage. Except it wouldn’t have mattered—Europa security had been prepared to act.
“Your brother is weird,” Tenzig said. “And Martian politics are psychotic.”
Ven sighed, scratched his bearded chin. “That’s because we’ve gotten too big for the ‘we’re all in this together’ story from the settlement days. But no one wants to admit it.”
I said, “As far as anyone but us and the Sunnyside crew knows I’m still on the Sunnyside Up, right?
We’d heard from Captain Sung: he’d finally let the security team on board for the bogus search. Security had very carefully not stated what they were actually looking for, and Sung and crew very carefully didn’t state that anything was unusual. Like, oh, a junior lieutenant leaving out the back door.
Maybe nobody who was looking for me knew where I was.
We crunched comms data: who was talking to whom and where.
“Just like the old days,” Ven murmured at one point.
“The old days with the captain?” Lucy asked with casual curiosity, but her eyes lit up.
Ven chuckled. “I’m not going to tell stories about the old days.”
Lucy glanced at me. “Obenwye used to be in Martian Security Services.”
“So did Captain Sung,” I said.
Ven chuckled again but didn’t elaborate.
“Well?” I pressed, adding a belated, “Sir? What’s the story there?”
“Newton, call up that whole comms data set.”
He overlaid several different graphics showing the network of comms chatter onto a physical map of Colony One. A couple of points of intersection positively glowed.
Martha Newton’s office was talking to Dr. Patel.
Dr. Patel was talking to a Sero Benjin in Martian Security Services. Ven said he didn’t know him personally, that he must have come in after his time. I wondered if he’d been brought in after everyone’s time. Ven made a quick call to ops and confirmed: Obenwye didn’t know him, either.
I wanted to talk to all of these people. In person, looking into their eyes.
“Newton, you’re on shift in five,” Ven ordered, and I was reminded that this wasn’t really my territory.
The ops station on the Corey was large, clean, full of stations for comms, navigators, and tactical officers. Nobody chatted. I sat up straight, paid attention. No alarms went off, and it was bad of me to hope for even a little alarm. A distraction.
I should have been intimidated by all this, but mostly I felt restless. Sung wanted a report on comparative ops procedures? I started making notes. Like, the effects of the on-duty ops crew talking to each other versus not talking to each other and whether casual conversation ought to be allowed. I was thinking it should, to promote crew cohesion, but I didn’t think I’d say that to Obenwye.
I had a borrowed uniform, a borrowed jumpsuit, a borrowed bunk, and a borrowed job. I wanted to pull my weight, especially since everyone knew who I was and who my family was. It was important for me to show that I wanted to work. I did want to work.
When I was in school on Earth, people made assumptions because I was from Mars. On Mars, they made assumptions because I was from a founding family. I hadn’t noticed that so much as a kid—we were all supposed to grow up the same, right? The great egalitarian experiment? That might have worked for the first generation of settlers. But after that, there were “natives” and everyone else.
Politics. You never had people without politics, Charles said. Even two people stuck in a transport had negotiations about who was in charge of picking the destination and what music they played. Who got to make decisions.
I liked space because the laws of physics were predictable, calculable. I knew where I stood. Everything else—not so much.
We reached Mars orbit. The back of my mind seemed to have a countdown timer in it, rushing to zero. It had been almost three weeks since Charles had last been seen in public. His office, no doubt instructed by our mother, had issued press releases that his health was being closely monitored, but he sent his best wishes to his constituents and hoped he’d be back to work soon.
It didn’t sound anything like Charles. He’d never sent anyone best wishes.
My mother’s in-person statements sounded equally scripted. Effusive, sympathetic. Presenting the picture of a sorrowful mother but also the perfectly turned-out politician.
Oh. She was positioning herself to be appointed to Charles’ seat if . . . when . . .
I didn’t think about that.
In Mars orbit, we no longer had a communications delay. Permanent data connections existed. I could watch all the news feeds and send all the messages I wanted.
The only person I wanted to talk to was Charles.
The Corey was scheduled to dock with the main orbital transfer station for two weeks, to off-load incoming cargo, take on outgoing, and transfer personnel. Maybe a few days of shore leave for some. That timeline couldn’t be changed, so that was how long we had to poke at the problem and decide on a solution. Then Obenwye had no choice but to wash her hands of my situation before continuing on the Corey’s five-month circuit of the outer planets.
I had to make a decision about whether to disembark. I had to balance the hope that I might be able to untangle this with the fact that I was probably walking into a trap.
“I’m not going to order you to do anything,” Obenwye said. “If you ask for personal leave, I’ll grant it. But you’ll need to decide for yourself.”
I took a chance. “What would you do?”
She thought for a moment, then asked, “Have you contacted your mother? A letter from her other child would be comfort to her now, I’m sure.”
I didn’t want to talk to my mother. “Oh, I really don’t think—”
Her gaze narrowed and turned calculating. Like a cat’s. “Oh, I do think.”
I really, really wanted the stories about her and Sung in the Security Service.
The analysis group helped me figure out what to say but made me write it—text only—so it would sound like me and not like I was being coached. I pretended that all I knew about the situation was what I saw on the news and didn’t mention that I’d heard from Charles or anyone else directly. Ven scrubbed the originating data from the transmission and made it look like it came from the Sunnyside Up, with the comms-delay built into the time stamp.
The response, no matter what it was, would tell me some things.
“Hi, Mom. I know it’s been a while since I’ve messaged. Sorry about that. But I’m really worried about things I’m hearing in the news about Charles. Is he okay? Is there anything I can do? The last I heard from him was a note a couple of months ago, and he didn’t say anything about feeling sick. Please let me know what’s going on when you get the chance. Thanks. Polly.”
Ven wanted me to say “Love, Polly,” but I insisted that if I said that she’d know I was faking.
She sent back a video within the hour. She was as primly turned out as ever, but her eyes held a bleariness, and her skin was puffy. She hadn’t been sleeping.
“Polly. I do hope you’re well, it was lovely to hear from you. I understand you received a message from Charles’ physician saying you should come home. While I know you must be very worried, I don’t think the situation is that critical. Really, Charles is just overly tired, and I’m sure he’ll be back on his feet soon. I’ll make sure he sends you a message personally when he is. Until then, stay at your post, isn’t that what they say in the service?” Her smile was strained, trying to crack a joke, a thing she’d had no practice at.
So. My mother didn’t want me coming back to Mars either. Mom and Charles, wanting the same thing for maybe the first time ever.
“I don’t think she knows where Charles is, either,” I said. I wondered if she cared.
Lucy said, “You know her better than the rest of us. Does she seem worried about it?”
I sat back and frowned. “Yes. She does.”
We had a week left before the Corey’s scheduled departure.
Obenwye casually tapped a contact at Security, and the contact did not respond to her coded line asking for additional information. I exchanged a couple more messages with Anda Guzman—once again sending through Ven’s comms filters so it would look like I was back in Jupiter space somewhere. So no one would know I was here.
She said that Charles had last been seen leaving a council meeting. Door security on his quarters indicated that he’d never made it back home. Surveillance—the colony was covered with cameras, mostly for maintenance monitoring but of course the footage could be used for anything—showed him making a turn into a corridor linking a public sector with a residential sector and not leaving. Five minutes of footage was missing.
Guzman also said that all this information had been collected surreptitiously, through maintenance and IT personnel, not through official security channels, who still insisted that Charles was at the medical center despite evidence to the contrary. Her team had carefully tapped a few allies in maintenance to be on the lookout for a body.
I didn’t want to hear that. Particularly because a body could be put in a shallow grave outside and no one would ever find it.
All this also suggested that Security was not on our side, and I didn’t know what that meant.
Ven suggested an extreme move. “A bomb,” he called it, but not a literal bomb. Which would have been interesting, and I actually spent some time thinking about what would happen if we dropped a bomb right outside, say, the medical center. A smoke bomb maybe, not an actual explosive. Nothing that would damage habitat integrity. But that wasn’t what Ven was talking about.
Obenwye authorized Ven to package up all our data and send it anonymously to Anda Guzman and the other Guthrie coalition councilmembers. Nobody asked my opinion about it because I was a second lieutenant. But hey—might as well see what would happen.
Nothing. For two days, nothing.
“They’re just taking time to verify the information,” Ven said. “That’s good.”
Then, the coalition issued a statement that Charles Newton wasn’t actually at Medical Center Prime, and they showed proof. They claimed to have reviewed room assignments and spoken to nurses—who wouldn’t go on the record, of course—who said Charles wasn’t in their care. The med center administrator—not Patel, interestingly—immediately countered that Charles was admitted under a different name for security reasons. The Guthries asked for a picture. Just a few words from him. No, came the answer. His health was too precarious.
Then the coalition released a raft of information—way more than we had given them. They had images of Sero Benjin leaving Charles’ office and then meeting with Patel and Martha Newton. Security footage of Charles entering a service tunnel and not leaving. Copies of hatch logs that had been erased.
Now, finally, Charles would emerge, and we’d find out what this was all about. Right?
No. The next day, the dueling press releases continued. The traditionalists accused the Guthries of inciting panic, the Guthries accused the traditionalists of conspiracy, Martha Newton issued a tearful sentimental statement about how debased one had to be to manipulate a family’s difficult time. She did this in text, not video, because she would not have managed to sound convincing in video. In the Guthries’ press releases she was labeled “Disgraced Former Councilperson Martha Newton,” which sounded just lovely.
Still no Charles. Nothing was happening.
In two days, the Corey had to leave.
I could just stay on the Corey. I didn’t know what was happening, and I didn’t need to get involved. Let Charles’ political allies sort it out. While I trusted them to deal with the politics, I didn’t trust them to find my brother. I needed to go to the surface. I was trying to figure out how to get to the surface without Patel, my mother, and any cronies they had finding out about it. Sneaking to the surface of a world when you had to go through a transfer station was almost impossible. Should have been impossible. I was thinking I could hide in a cargo container, but there was always the chance of a container being put in an unpressurized hold, which would mean I’d need to bring air with me, and I still had no guarantee I could get away from it without being seen—
Meanwhile, the information bomb worked, sort of. It didn’t produce Charles, but it gave us new lines of communication, new connections that hadn’t come up before. Players in the situation, talking, maybe strategizing. The Guthries coalition didn’t reveal anything unexpected—they were speaking to council offices and their allies among Colony One personnel. All pretty standard.
The communication lines among Martha Newton and her contacts threw up a new cluster, a new data point. Benjin was talking to a location several hundred kilometers southwest from Colony One, on a bare patch of the surface where there wasn’t supposed to be anything. Except Lucy ran the point through the geographic database and found a mining claim deed for a plot that had been abandoned a decade ago. There shouldn’t have been anything there.
Ven and Lucy tried to track down ownership of the mining deed, but that was the problem, wasn’t it? It had been abandoned. That was the point.
“We won’t know what’s there until someone goes to look,” I said. Someone meaning me. I hoped that was clear.
“Send a drone,” Tenzig said.
“And if the drone actually finds something it’ll take that much more time to react to it, to send someone out like we should in the first place—”
Tenzig scowled. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Nice of you to care,” I said.
“Leave it to you to want to go in without any recon whatsoever—”
“I can recon on the way—”
“That is the most moronic thing I’ve ever—”
“Stop,” Ven said tiredly.
“Whatever is there, they put it across three hundred kilometers of desert exactly because they think no one would be crazy enough to go look,” I said.
Tenzig turned to Ven. “She’s crazy enough to do it.”
How weird was it that of all the people on this ship, in this situation, he knew me best.
Ven studied the display, scratching his chin and the stubble there. We’d been at this for a lot of hours. We only had a few left before the Corey broke orbit, whether or not we had solved this.
Please, I wanted to beg. Just get me to the surface, and I’ll figure it out. I tried to be composed and professional instead.
Finally, Ven said, “I think it might be useful to have you on the surface pushing the issue. But I don’t think you should do anything alone. Stay with Guzman and her people. Let them keep an eye on you until this gets sorted.”
I had gotten used to sitting by the side and getting out of the way while higher-ranking people made decisions. Obenwye and Ven worked on a plan to get me to the surface, where they would hand me off to a couple of Guthries reps who could spirit me away and then present me as some kind of evidence of the conspiracy. Like I was another data package.
I was starting to move beyond frustrated and into angry, but anger was not productive. When you were in an orbital shuttle that had sprung a leak, sure, you’d get angry at the leak, but that anger didn’t do anything. You find and repair the leak.
I said that this started when Charles decided to take over Mars, but on second thought I was pretty sure Charles had been planning this since we were in that prestigious and horrible prep academy on Earth. I didn’t notice because I was too busy trying to survive stupid Earth teenager social politics and dreaming about becoming an interplanetary starship captain. And working to get the grades and polishing my personality to a charismatic shine so I wouldn’t fail any psych tests so I could get into flight school. The thing about being Charles’ twin sister is that you start wondering if maybe both of you ought to be failing psych tests. But that raises the question: Earth psych tests, or Martian psych tests? I’ve already made that rant to anyone who will listen. The training academies for shipboard service all use the Earth psych tests, and that isn’t fair. I’d like to see Earthers pass a Martian psych test. Anyway. I think Charles would fail both, but he somehow gets out of ever taking them. It turns out, that’s the key, isn’t it?
The plan was that I would use Lucy’s ID until we got to the surface. Until someone actually laid eyes on me, the system wouldn’t ping that I was there. Nobody asked the junior lieutenant from a different ship—me—her opinion.
I studied layouts of the Colony One astrodome, the landing depot that transfer shuttles used. Where was the passenger departure area in relation to maintenance. Where were the exterior hatches. How did I get the equipment I needed in place. I was grateful we were in orbit with instant data transfer so I didn’t have to wait for information. I checked the depot’s inventory spreadsheets and requisition forms, showing what gear they had and when it had been last stocked. Colony One facilities that had exterior access were supposed to have a standardized set of emergency equipment and survival gear, in case environmental seals broke, in case someone got caught outside in a storm, in case vehicles broke down. The potential emergencies we studied and trained for since we were children read like a list of accidents that had actually happened in the first years of the colony, when the whole thing was just a couple of prefab habitats connected with plastic tubing. Accidents like that didn’t happen much anymore, but Martians seemed to have this cultural memory of being one mishap away from suffocating or being carried off by sandblasting winds. I found what I needed on the depot inventories. I found where the items were located. I could absolutely do this, I was sure of it.
But I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own. And that sucked.
It was SOP for a team from the crew to accompany cargo to the surface, sign off on it, and accompany incoming cargo back up. Escort any passengers who might be confused by procedures. Make the whole thing go smooth, right? The team would include the analyst group, since they were already in on the secret and wouldn’t need to be brought up to speed, except for Lucy because I’d be using her ID. I wasn’t going to be able to just sneak away from Commander Ven. I needed a distraction.
Twenty minutes before we were due to dock with the transfer station, I pulled Tenzig aside. “I need your help.”
A flash of surprise crossed his features before he tamped it down to his usual cool disinterest. “Oh? Say that again, Polly. I like the way that sounds. Here, let me record that so I can fall asleep to the sound.”
“Will you shut up! I’m serious. I need your help.” I had never said anything remotely resembling that to him in all the years I’d known him. There’d been a time when I would have rather cut off my own hands than ask him for help.
This was a risk. This was actually scarier than the prospect of heading out alone into the desert for a multi-day trek. Because if Tenzig said no, he’d turn right around and tell Ven and Obenwye, and then I was screwed.
He crossed his arms and slumped against the wall, leaning in. “So what’s your plan?”
“Help me get away from Ven.”
“You’re going to go check out the mining claim on your own.”
Yeah, I supposed my plan wasn’t that subtle after all. “Nobody’ll even know I’m out there. No one will notice. I’ll scope it out. If Charles isn’t there, the people who know where he is will be.”
“And you’re going to bring them in all by yourself?”
I expected him to mock me, but he said, thoughtfully, “If no one knows where you are, no one can catch you.”
“I hadn’t really thought of that. I’m just worried about Charles.”
“You haven’t changed a bit, Polly Newton. Still trying to save everybody.”
I huffed a deep sigh. “I don’t plan it that way, it just happens, I swear.”
“Fine. I’ll help. But you owe me one.” He said this ominously, with more weight than a casual statement should carry.
I narrowed my gaze. “Yeah, okay.”
“Say it, Polly. Say it!”
“I owe you one, Lieutenant Jones.”
He leaned back, smiling with satisfaction. “Oh yeah. Nice.”
“You’re still a jerk.”
“But I’m a jerk that you have to be nice to.”
Yeah, he wasn’t wrong.
I wasn’t supposed to be back on Mars for another six months. I hadn’t planned on going to the surface even when the Sunnyside Up came back on its circuit, and I was feeling strange about this trip. It felt like a retreat, like the gravity well was pulling me back.
It felt like the universe was always going to play havoc with my plans and maybe I ought to get used to that. Just do the next thing and see what happened.
We docked at the transfer station, and Obenwye acted like everything was normal. Everything was normal, as far as she was concerned. She was offloading some personnel was all. Just because we were trying to keep it off the records . . . The technical term was falsifying records. We could all get in a lot of trouble for this. But only if we were caught.
When I got my commission in the Transport Service, Charles made all kinds of comments about the military and hierarchy and fascism. He also looked me dead in the eye and said, “But if anyone can disrupt the paradigm, it’s you. Break things, Polly.”
Ven gave me a job, and that was good, because it kept me from being nervous. He put Tenzig and me in charge of double-checking manifests. We were carrying rare minerals, low-g pharmaceuticals, a few other specialties from Jupiter settlements, like the weird booze Europa Station distilled from hydroponic algae. We had to make sure everything coming off the ship was correctly recorded and logged, scanning and uploading serial numbers. We’d do the same on the surface. The transit station had a cargo manager and transport supervisor, and both of them checked our manifests. A receiving manager at the astrodome would do the same and take custody of the cargo, so the whole cargo was quadruple checked all the way through.
I was traveling under a false ID and no one caught it. But the mineral cargo alone was more valuable than I was, ultimately. That was what the managers looked at.
The surface shuttle undocked from the station and held orbit until the landing window opened, a synchronized bit of calculation to bring its descent in line with the depot at just the right time. Hardly needed any fuel, we just dropped right down. People had been using the technique to drop crap on Mars for centuries. I’d only done it myself a couple of times. We didn’t have viewports to look out, but a monitor showed the view, the rusted curve of the planet and windswept surface getting closer. The astrodome was a ways out from Colony One, but the main dome and outbuildings were visible, looking like strangely organic outgrowths partly covered by sand dunes.
The landing shook our bones, and we stretched and cracked joints under the change in gravity. My ears popped as the atmospheres equalized.
I was home.
Ven kept right by my side, like he thought someone would be waiting to whisk me away to whatever the trap was. We were due to stay for about an hour before returning to the Corey. Or rather, Ven and Tenzig were due to stay for about an hour. Anda Guzman was supposed to meet us here herself.
I had to get away before that. Assuming I could get away. Which was why I needed Tenzig.
Automated loaders physically moved the crates off the shuttle. We just had to count crates and scan numbers. I watched out for an opportunity, without looking like I was watching for an opportunity. Tenzig tapped me on the shoulder. Ven was talking to the cargo manager. The two were bent over a tablet, comparing manifests. If I took three steps around the corner of crates, I’d be out of sight.
“Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Tenzig asked in low voice.
“It’ll be just like basic survival,” I said with a lot of bravado. It was about all I had at that moment.
“Good luck,” he said, which was actually really sweet of him. I touched his sleeve and took three steps, out of sight.
Equipment at the exterior hatch and airlock included scooters for making inspection rounds. Scooters had basic survival packages, because sometimes, no matter how well a trip outside was planned, unexpected things happened. Extra air, signal flares, portable shelters, heating elements, rations. The standard gear could keep someone alive on the outside for a few days.
I took the extra air, rations, and battery packs from two other scooters and packed them into the one I planned to steal. I left alarms on the other scooters to signal that the survival packs were missing so I wouldn’t screw over anyone else. I got myself into a suit. Triple-checked the suit. Triple-checked the navigator on my handheld so I could be extra sure of where I was going and the route. This wasn’t frivolous. I knew what I was doing. At least, I sure hoped I did, but I didn’t give myself a chance to slow down and question it.
Didn’t give myself a chance to think about what Tenzig was telling Ven right about now. Yeah, Ven was going to be angry. I actually trusted Tenzig to explain it in a way that made sense, that would make it all okay. This is just what she does, I could almost hear him saying. She’s nuts, but it works.
I hoped it would work. I was pretty sure.
I cycled the airlock and popped the hatch. Started slow, so I wouldn’t raise too much dust. Followed the navigator, taking a route swinging far outside the colony buildings.
Once I got going, my heart unclenched, and my nerves settled. This, I knew. When I was a kid, before I went to Earth or anywhere else, I used to go riding to calm down, to clear my head. To get away from my mother and school and expectations and all of it, even for just an hour or two. I felt that now, the space opening around me, the view of the horizon in every direction, the jagged edges of distant mountains, and the infinite shades of brown under a tan sky. I loved my ship. I loved being out. But I had to admit that I had missed this. This was home, and I knew my way.
The thing was, the basic survival course that taught you what to do if you ever got caught on the surface assumed you’d be with other people. Someone to drive, another to navigate. A couple of people to set up the shelter and solar panels. I had to do it all by myself. I was starting to think that maybe a solo survival course wouldn’t be a bad idea. For the psych evaluation afterward, if nothing else. Because driving across Mars alone sure gave a person time to think.
The basic premise of any survival course was that you’re in this situation because things have gone very wrong. These skills were supposed to keep things from getting even more wrong. No one was supposed to race headlong into a survival situation voluntarily.
My thinking was that things had already gone spectacularly wrong. I was doing this to keep things from getting more wrong, and to fix the wrong that had started all this. Charles was missing, and I could say I just wanted to find him and nothing else, but his disappearance had implications. I couldn’t see that bigger tangled mess, but I had a feeling that bringing it to light was important.
One step at a time.
I had probably destroyed my career by doing this. I had broken several important regulations, if not actual laws. I could hope that if things really were broken the way I thought they were, that fixing them would get me some kind of hearing, some kind of pardon, and I could go back to where I was.
But I had to think about what I would do if things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to. What options would I have? Would a private shipping company hire me, or would they take one look at my record and laugh? Would I be stuck on the planet forever?
I was suddenly very motivated to find Charles because he would have ideas about what I should do next. Some of his ideas might even be good, and even if they weren’t, doing the opposite of what he suggested would give me options.
I hoped I found Charles.
The trip took two days. I spent one night in the emergency shelter, a skimpy tent hardly big enough to sit up in, wide enough for two people to lie down in if they liked each other. I used another can of air in the tent so I could pop my helmet, but I kept my suit on, just in case. Made careful note of all the air gauges, to see how I was doing. As long as I didn’t have to start running or get in any fistfights, I’d have enough. I ate cold rations and forced myself to drink more water than I wanted to. Packed away all my waste—that was one rule I didn’t break. Wasn’t any worse than trying to use a toilet in zero gravity.
It occurred to me I had a ridiculously eclectic set of skills and experiences. Surely I could find something interesting to do if I really had destroyed my career.
Wind rippled across the shelter, an endless snapping noise too loud to ignore. I had gotten to see the ocean while I was on Earth, and it was probably the best thing about Earth. The sound the ocean made—an entire planet’s worth of water slipping and churning at the edges, where it met the sand of the beach. While the sound was constant, it also changed. One wave would crash larger or smaller than the one before it, water would slide far up the sand or reach only a little ways. White noise, with no pattern, no matter how much you tried to find one. Earth folk talked about this noise being soothing. The wind against the fabric of a shelter was not soothing. It was the rattle of a jackhammer, trying to hurt you.
I didn’t sleep much, but not because of the noise. I was thinking too much about my career, Charles, his politics, our mother, and how they had managed to drag me into their mess. Staring at the neon yellow dome of the shelter, I imagined stars above, and the Corey, which would be leaving orbit soon.
Right at this moment, I was very, very alone. A speck on the surface where I couldn’t survive without a pile of equipment. What was I doing here?
I packed up at dawn, as thin light stretched at the horizon and slowly turned the sky gray.
My navigator beeped at my helmet comm when I reached a low ridge of weathered stone. So this was it, the glowing conjunction on our map of convergences.
There was a cave.
The cave entrance was too round and regular to be natural. Big enough for a truck to enter. Drilling equipment had bored into the rock face at one end of the ridge, which rose above the sand and dipped below it again, reaching hundreds of meters north. Iron rich, but maybe not containing a lot of other minerals to make a big operation worthwhile. I wasn’t a geologist. I was the opposite of a geologist.
My helmet had a scanner and magnifier, and I studied the area. I couldn’t see any vehicles or outbuildings. No tracks in the dust, but that didn’t mean much. The wind here was constant; dust devils flickered to life and vanished. The rock played havoc with the patterns.
An anemometer sticking up above the cave spun, along with a couple of short spires—comms antennae. Anyone coming here probably came by air, then. If the mining claim really was abandoned, the equipment would have been taken away. Mars wasn’t so prosperous that it could just leave stuff like that out. Not to mention they probably wouldn’t have lasted a decade without being repaired. This was an active site, no matter what the deed said.
Just because no one seemed to be here now didn’t meant they wouldn’t come back at any moment.
Carefully, I guided the scooter inside the tunnel and parked it by the wall, so it couldn’t be seen from the outside. Almost immediately, darkness closed in. Sunlight only reached a few paces past the entrance. Wind hissed and whistled at the edge of the cave, like even it was having trouble getting inside.
Here, I saw footprints in the dust, protected from being erased. Lots of them, coming and going, forming a track.
I slipped my handheld in a pocket and switched on my headlamp. If anyone was in here, this would give me away immediately. If someone found me? My plan was to switch off the lamp and run.
Thirty meters in, still nothing. Fifty . . . I encountered a barrier. Translucent, throwing a blurry reflection of my light back at me. It stretched across the whole tunnel, secured by a soft frame caulked up against the stone. The plastic was loose, pliable—the air pressure on both sides was equalized. A temporary airlock, designed to go over a construction site while the infrastructure was being put in. I poked at the seal. It was sturdy, recently installed. The airlock was a narrow closet inside a plastic printed frame, entirely manual, which was good—it meant I could get in. A permanent airlock—steel, automated, designed for full Earth-atmospheric pressure instead of the three quarters pressure this one was rated for—would probably have been locked and alarmed, if it even had power connected to be able to run the door and compressors. This here was a primitive operation, wasn’t it? They didn’t have a lot of power. Or they didn’t want anyone outside to notice them using a lot of power.
I didn’t have to release the valve or use the pedal-operated air pump to equalize pressure, so I unzipped the exterior door, entered the chamber, rezipped, and did the same on the interior door.
More habit, more training: leave all doors exactly as you found them. That this lock was sealed suggested that it got regular use. That it was equalized to Mars’ atmosphere suggested no one was here, but I couldn’t take that for granted.
As I continued on, I saw evidence of the excavators that had come through, digging. Some tire treads in the dirt. A pile of forgotten rebar and scrap metal, another of extruded waste from a printer. Construction detritus. My single beam of light made it all seem more abandoned and forlorn than it already was.
I didn’t see any movement. I held my breath to listen for whatever noise might travel through the thin air and my helmet. And what was I going to do if I ran into bad guys? I had put the signal flare in the suit’s leg pocket. Not really a weapon, but it could be made to serve as one. I didn’t want to shoot anyone. But I could almost hear Charles—and Tenzig, and Ven, and Captain Obenwye, and Captain Sung, and just about everyone telling me that if I wasn’t willing to shoot then I shouldn’t have walked into this situation.
One step at a time, always.
Ahead, the tunnel widened. I moved against the wall and inched forward to get my first look into the chamber at the end of the tunnel.
The rough oval space held a hodgepodge of equipment, disorganized, as if it had been dropped and forgotten. This must have been a workspace, as excavators branched off into what were supposed to be other portions of the mine. Half a dozen medium-sized shipping crates rested against one wall, another collection of dust-covered debris along another. I risked entering the chamber and panned my light around.
The light reflected off the windows of a portable habitat tucked against the far wall. No bigger than the cabin of a ship, a closet, for minimum survival. Dark. Abandoned, like the rest of the place.
Next to the portable habitat was another chamber. This one didn’t lead more than a dozen paces out of the chamber. Like the excavator had drilled in and immediately backed out. It contained what looked like a small office, along with a cot and cooker, as if people lived here, at least part time. A desk with a set of terminals. Status lights indicated the system was on. An air compressor with a wide fan and wires leading out to a bank of batteries sat by the wall. The whole chamber could be pressurized.
My heart rate ratcheted up. It was sheer luck I’d gotten here when no one else was here. I didn’t have much time. Okay, take a quick look around, see if I could get a copy of whatever was on those computers, then bug the hell out.
I panned my light across the rest of the chamber, flashing across the habitat windows again, and—suddenly a figure blocked the window, pressing hands against the glass, squinting into the light. The shape ducked away.
I gasped but the shock only lasted a moment. Then I ran for the habitat door because in that flash of a moment I recognized him: Charles. I couldn’t get my gloved hand around the recessed handle—not that it helped, because the door was locked. Not that I could open it anyway—if I did, Charles lost his atmosphere.
Well, this was a hell of a way to keep someone from running off.
He reappeared at the window, right next to my head. I turned the light away so it wasn’t blasting right at him. Even at the edge of the circle of light, he was squinting, holding his hand up to block it. He’d been in the dark; how long had he been sitting in the dark? Not long enough to make him shut up. He shouted, and I couldn’t quite make out the words until I pressed my faceplate to the glass.
He shouted again, “Polly, what the hell are you doing here!”
His hair had gone shaggy, and he hadn’t shaved in days. He had an actual beard, which I had never seen on him before. He was usually so fastidious. Honestly, he looked a little crazy just now. His T-shirt and slacks hung loosely on him.
“Looking for you!” I shouted back. We were right in front of each other and yet sounded like we were calling from different rooms.
“Didn’t you get my message?”
Was he talking about the fish man? “Maybe?”
“Then why didn’t you listen?”
“Because your message was stupid!”
“You were supposed to stay away!”
“And what would you have done if I did?” We hadn’t seen each other in a year and this argument was as comforting as an old blanket.
“I’d have figured something out.”
“Well look at me, I’m figuring something out too!”
“But Polly. You were supposed to stay safe.” His voice was hoarse, strained.
I stared, thinking of everything I’d done in the last couple of weeks to get to this moment, and none of it was safe. He looked so angry.
“That wasn’t your call,” I said. “We have to get out of here. I don’t know when they’re coming back—” And I didn’t know how to get him out without breathable atmosphere. He had no breathing equipment. “Charles, I’m going to turn on the compressor. Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
He pressed a fist against a window, biting his lip. Thinking. Normally, he just knew.
“How did you get here?” he asked finally.
“Scooter. It’ll carry us both.”
“How long has it been? I . . . I haven’t been able to keep track of time in a while. Someone brings meals and water sometimes.”
“Four weeks since you went missing.”
“Well shit,” he muttered. “What the hell’s been happening?”
“Can we get out of here first then talk about it?”
I didn’t even know why I was asking, I should just start. It could be hours before anyone showed up. Or they could be on their way right now.
“Yeah, okay,” he said, just as I turned to march to the compressor. Battery charged, lights green, button pressed. The motor revved up; I held my hand out and the fabric of my suit rippled with air.
If I was going to get Charles out, I needed to find another suit. While the chamber filled with air, I swept the headlamp back and forth, trying to take an inventory. The fact that we just had a layer of temporary habitat sheeting between us and the Martian non-atmosphere, and not a vacuum suit closet in sight, was really making me twitch.
Four equipment crates, the kind that could attach to the outside of an ATV, sat at the end of the secondary chamber. Fortunately, none of them were locked. Their prisoner was stuck in a room, after all. They clearly hadn’t been worried about him getting out. The third crate had what I was looking for, because not even nefarious assholes would set up a temporary habitat without vac suits on hand, even if they weren’t stored according to standard safety protocols.
I assessed the gear, which included a couple of air tanks stowed on the bottom, and I might have given a happy little shout when I saw the gauges reading FULL. We’d take them all.
A big mining chamber took a long time to fill. No point in running outside to check if we were still clear. We just had to put our heads down and go. I kept checking the pressure gauges, which seemed like they weren’t moving at all, and I finally lost patience and jumped the gun a little. Shut off my suit’s air and popped my visor. Took a breath. A shallow one at first, then deeper.
Thin. It took some effort to fill my lungs, but they filled, and I didn’t pass out. I turned to the window and gave Charles a thumbs up. His expression seemed particularly murderous in the weird, haloed light of my headlamp.
I still had to get the habitat door open. It had a mechanical lock, no code, no chip. I went to the little office looking for a key.
“Polly?” Easier to hear him, with the air pressure equalizing. “Wake up the computer system.”
That took a little hunting around, but I poked at a display and the system came to life. Data scrolled.
I double-checked the air—close enough—and shut down the compressor. I didn’t find a key but did find a crowbar and a hammer in one of the dusty crates. “Stand back.” It took just two swings to bash the lock into submission. Plastic and bits of metal shattered and flew. Thank goodness for cheap temporary materials. We both ducked away.
The door swung inward and air puffed out, close enough to equalized. It didn’t smell great, body odor and unwashed clothes—and latrine. I leaned in, panning the lamp around in the darkness. A pile of food wrappers lay in one corner and a bucket with a lid on it sat in the other. Opposite that, blankets and a thin camp pad. He’d been in here awhile. This was horrific.
The inside of the doorframe had scratches and grooves all up and down it. So did the window frames. I couldn’t see what he’d been using to try to pry them open. I hoped he’d only tried that when there was breathable air outside.
Finally, we stood face-to-face.
“Charles,” I breathed, my voice full of pity that I regretted as soon as I spoke. He didn’t need pity. Pity wouldn’t help us. “Are you okay?”
He stepped out of the habitat and marched a few paces out. Then he spread his arms and took a deep, deep breath, letting it out with a little bit of a sob. The only time I’d ever seen him express that much emotion was . . . well, Chapter Fifteen, when I almost died saving his life when our shuttle decompressed, and our friends dragged him out of there while I—never mind.
When he turned around to face me, his back was straight, chin up. He was Charles again. After all this, scruffy and unwashed, with a crazy-man beard, he was still Charles.
“We have to stop the Founders’ Committee,” he declared.
He went to the computer station and started typing.
“We don’t have time for that, and we already got a ton of information,” I told him. “How do you think I knew to come out here?”
He paused and looked back at me. “How did you?”
I fidgeted. “I had help?”
“Ah.” He relaxed, as if he believed I couldn’t have done this without help.
“I had to be nice to Tenzig Jones for this.”
He glanced sidelong at me. “Do you still have a crush on him?”
Why was I trying to rescue him again? “That was years ago! For like a week!” But Tenzig did still have those stunning blue eyes . . . “Charles, what is going on? What’s happening? Why are you here? What—”
He held up a hand. An infuriating gesture, all the more so because I really did just shut up. Next, he inserted a data stick in one of the devices. Okay, fine, that was his thing. I had to do mine. I went to prep the suit and get the extra air canisters ready to haul out.
He copied a second data stick and handed it to me, saying, “Redundancy.” I stuffed it down the front of my jumpsuit. He stuck his in the waistband of his pants. Then he trashed the computer bank. Took the crowbar I’d used to open the door and bashed the CPU, so that chips and silicon went flying. When he dropped the crowbar and turned to me, he looked fierce.
“Charles. What the hell is going on?”
“Unfucking the system before it can get fucked any worse.”
“And you’re the one who gets to decide what that means?”
“For now. Polly, we have to get out of here.”
“Then let’s go.” I picked up the suit I’d prepped for him.
Charles froze, staring. I still avoided looking directly at him so my lamp wouldn’t blind him—he’d been living in the dark for a long time. But I got a sidewise glance at him, and I’d never seen my brother look so . . . lost? Usually he was the one with the plan. He had a set of tools he usually built those plans out of—computers, data, communications, insightful and vicious assessments of his opponents’ personality flaws. This wasn’t in his set of tools.
But that was why I was here.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” he said. “I’m not trained for this.”
“I know. I’ll talk you through it. Just take it slow.”
“You can take the data out, and I’ll stay here, and you can send help—”
“You can do this. I promise you, you can do this.”
We took it slow.
I was the older of us only by virtue of the fact that my embryonic self had been created and frozen first. But we’d been artificially gestated and had taken our first breaths at exactly the same time. I’d never felt like the older one. Charles was smarter in most of the ways that mattered. He always had a plan. I . . . I had dreams. A mission, maybe. But it wasn’t the same as a plan.
Now, here, with this, I told him what to do and he didn’t argue. I made him put on a thermal suit—he didn’t seem to notice he was shivering. I’d gotten air into the chamber but there was no heat outside the habitat. Then the suit. Put it on like this, check the seals like this. Here was the air gauge, here was the comm channel so we could talk. And he listened to me, doing everything I told him. It was weird.
Everyone on Mars had some training in what to do in case of decompression, blow outs, vent malfunctions, and the like. In the colonies, that usually involved grabbing an emergency breath mask and heading for a shelter. We all went outside once a year during school for a kind of patriotic “this is your home, this is how to live with it” exercise, but after school most people stayed inside, underground, and marveled at the storms outside through the thick reinforced windows of the domes.
This, suiting up and going out for an extended period—most Martians never did that.
The plastic sheeting that made up the temporary seal was now taut, puffed out from the air pressure inside the cavern. Now, the airlock was important. Unzip the door, enter, zip it back in, release the valve to the exterior to let the air out, and so on—
“This is so primitive,” Charles said.
“Do you have a knife?” Charles asked.
“Um.” I patted pockets and looked over the bag of gear I’d carried from the chamber. I didn’t really have a knife, but I offered him my utility tool, which had a couple of extensions that might substitute for a knife in a pinch.
He found the screwdriver and jammed it right into the plastic wall, clenching his jaw, determined. The plastic popped like a balloon, the ripped edges rattling as air poured out. He dragged the tool down until he’d made his own door.
Now, no one else could use the chamber without suits, until they repaired it.
The other thing about destroying the habitat meant we couldn’t go back. Only way out now was forward, and that might have been part of Charles’ plan. Toward the tunnel entrance, natural light streamed in, and the wind still hummed. Charles squinted and held up his hand, still not used to so much light. He stared outside at the wide, buff-colored plain, breathing a little too fast. I made him look at me. You could usually tell when someone in a suit was about to freak out because their eyes would get really round, showing too much white. But he wasn’t freaking out. My scooter was still parked by the wall, and I guided it out.
If Tenzig had given me away, if I’d been followed, if we’d been discovered, whatever, the entrance would be swarming with vehicles and security—and whoever had done this to Charles. The desert was unpopulated, all the way to the rocky horizon. Still daylight; we probably had a half an hour until sunset. It seemed like I’d been in the cavern all day.
Charles stepped away from the tunnel, scuffing a boot in the dirt, face turned up to the washed-out sky. I walked in front of him and checked his face again. No panic. In fact, his eyes were closed.
“You okay?” I asked. I expected some kind of biting sarcastic reply, but all he said was, “Yes.” He opened his eyes and nodded grimly. Then, he hugged me. Wrapped both arms around me and squeezed. I got an arm around him before he pulled away.
Then he glared at the scooter, brow raised. “You couldn’t find anything a little . . . more?”
I grinned. “Anything more than this and it wouldn’t be as exciting, right?”
“Wait. Do you hear that?” He raised a hand.
Mars didn’t have much of an atmosphere, but it had enough for sound to travel. The deep buzz of a motor vibrated through it. I could almost feel it rattle the ground. A large drone or a small aircraft, coming closer. The trouble was, even if we had time to get away, the scooter would kick up a dust trail that would point straight at us. We might not have a choice.
“Run for it?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said.
Actually, I had an idea. We couldn’t get away, not right this minute. But maybe we could be patient. I hopped up, made Charles get on behind me, and switched on the motor. Took me a minute to get the balance right; I wasn’t used to passengers. But I got it.
Instead of taking off across the plain, I circled around the end of the ridge. Charles clung to the seat frame instead of me. When the tunnel entrance and the plain before it were out of sight, I brought the bike as close to the rock as I could and shut down.
We waited. The engine noise grew, changed. A small two-seater flyer soared in and sank behind the ridge. A wall of dust rose up, reaching to the top of the ridge, then settling. The sky turned hazy, and the buzzing sound of the engine dimmed.
Charles and I didn’t say a word. We waited. Waited.
Whoever was in that flyer would know immediately that something was wrong when they saw the trashed habitat seal. The question was, would they return to the flyer, or continue into the chamber to see what else was wrong? We’d know in the next couple of minutes. Would the engine roar back, or not?
The bike’s chronometer read a minute. Two. Nothing changed. Three minutes. Ten minutes.
I looked over my shoulder; Charles shook his head—wait. Twenty minutes. Forever.
Then the engine cranked up again, rattling in the thin air. The dust swirled around the top of the ridge. We caught a glimpse of the vehicle skimming away.
Charles tapped my shoulder; I looked back. Thumbs up. Time to go. I switched on and pushed the bike as hard as it would go, out and away.
The scooter didn’t exactly have enough space for both of us. At least not to ride comfortably for more than a little while. Like, maybe an hour, tops. I had located a couple of science stations we could get to in just a couple of hours. We might even be safe there. It wasn’t impossible. Just uncomfortable. I drove, and Charles perched behind me. We both kept looking everywhere, but nothing came after us. Yet.
We turned our comms back on.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Charles asked.
“Oh no, I just thought we’d drive all over the desert while I figure out what to do next.”
For half a second, the idiot thought I was serious. “Polly,” he said sternly. If he was still unhappy about spending this much time outside in a suit, he was hiding it well.
“There’s a research station a couple hours out. We can stay there until . . . I don’t know. Until things get sorted.”
“Do we have enough air and battery to get back to Colony One?”
Another full day, at least. I’d counted a couple extra days in my rationing, just in case.
“We should. But that’s an overnight trip.” That was a hint.
“It was an overnight trip to get there in the first place, right?” He asked this cautiously, like he wasn’t sure. Like it only just now occurred to him what I did to come get him.
“Yeah. I’ve got an emergency shelter. It’ll hold two if we don’t need our dignity.”
“Then go to Colony One.”
“But Charles—” That was where the bad guys came from. They’d be waiting for us. I didn’t have a plan for how to face down Charles’ enemies.
Charles apparently did. “Trust me.”
I hated when he said that. Because I always did.
The sun was on the western horizon when I stopped, hoping to set up the shelter before we lost the light. The whole time I glanced upward and paused to listen for the sound of aircraft engines. Nothing I could do about that now, a couple hundred kilometers from safe habitat. At this point, either we’d be found, or we wouldn’t.
It was a relief to take off our helmets, get something to eat. Relieve ourselves, and wasn’t that awkward. Such an adventure. I’d have to put it in the memoirs.
Then it was the two of us packed together, in the dark, with a little bit of canned air.
“Can you finally tell me what happened?” I asked. “Who did this to you? Why?”
He sighed. Scratched his head. We were both shadows, backlit by starlight showing through the shelter. “I’ve been investigating—”
Frustrated, I said, “Don’t you have staff for that? You’re on the council, you’re not supposed to—”
He held up a hand. “I’m doing it myself. I got a message from an informant about some key information. I went to the meeting.”
“It was a trap,” I said flatly.
Even in the dark I could feel his glare. “I felt that it was worth the risk. I put contingencies in place.”
“You wanted me to stay away because you thought I was in danger too. Why?”
“They’d use you to get to me.”
“Security was waiting for us at Europa Station,” I said. “We think they were under orders to look for me.”
“How did you get away?”
“Turns out you have a lot of supporters in the Transport Service.” Don’t screw them over, okay? I almost added but didn’t. Because he wouldn’t. “See? I’m learning politics because of all this.”
“This isn’t politics, it’s terrorism,” he said softly.
“Terrorism is just . . . politics with bad anger management strategies.”
He said, “I found something I wasn’t supposed to. A radical faction of the traditionalists calling themselves the Founders’ Committee wants to change the governing structure of the colony. They want to freeze shares and make voting rights dependent on share ownership. They’re declaring that the colony is now stable and viable and therefore no longer in need of the kind of investment capital represented by the share system. However many shares exist now will be all that would ever exist, which means their value will—” He just shook his head at this.
That would change everything. The point of shares was to give everyone on Mars a stake in the colony’s success . . . but that was at the beginning, decades ago. The colony was successful. Stable. So now what? “If they freeze shares, then the value goes up so much no one will ever be able to buy in.”
“And they’re saying the founders and their heirs should be the only ones who have a say in what happens to Colony One. That’s . . . ” He shook his head. “That’s unsustainable.”
I thought of everyone on the Sunnyside Up, loyal to this idea that they were working toward something. I said, “And they’re trying to subvert the council to push this through.”
“Killing me would raise too many questions, but they thought if they could win me over. Suborn me. Threaten me.”
“By threatening me.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You really should have stayed away.”
“They got Mom, didn’t they?”
“Yes. But they were using her, too. Holding her own colony shares hostage. I was supposed to come back from this ‘illness’ with a change of heart and a hill of rhetoric about how this was best for Mars’ future. They wanted me to introduce the proposal.”
“They don’t know you very well, do they?” I said. He chuckled, running a hand over his raggedy beard.
The wind howled. I didn’t expect we’d sleep much.
Charles flinched away from a particularly threatening blast. “Is it always like this? I mean, yes, of course it is. But I’ve never been out in it.”
“You never really get used to it. The air will last longer if we talk less.”
We laid down side by side and tried to sleep.
In the morning, after some food and water, Charles seemed to be back to his focused, determined self. Last night’s uncertainty, gone.
“Does your handheld have an uplink?” he asked.
“Yeah but I shut it off so I couldn’t be tracked.”
“Hm.” The closest he ever got to complimenting me. “May I see it?”
He held out his hand, and I gave it to him, dammit. He started punching commands.
“What’re you doing?”
He smiled. And that was actually really great. He was going to be okay. Maybe everything was going to be okay. We suited up and put away the shelter. I checked the battery charges and air gauges.
“Maybe not so much talking until we get back,” I said. The extra air I’d taken from the mining site would help, but we didn’t have much of a margin.
He nodded and gave my handheld back. I poked around and saw he’d turned on the uplink and sent messages. Just a couple, to numerical addresses.
So, yeah, this was going to be a surprise.
This stretch was flat, wide open, and the wind had died down, so I ramped up our speed. We’d burn the battery faster but save air by saving time. And if the scooter died? Well, by this time we were close enough to Colony One to call for a rescue. I had no idea if that fit with Charles’ plan.
When the first outbuildings appeared, they seemed far away. We drove for another hour, and they didn’t seem to get any closer. Suddenly, the astrodome structure curved up, struts glinting in sunlight.
“Go to the main airlock,” he said over the comm.
I tried to glance back, but I only saw the edge of my helmet. “That’s not a great way to stay sneaky.”
“I know. Go to the main building airlock.”
“Maybe say please?”
“You know I’ve probably destroyed my career because of all this.” I almost said, because of you, but cut off the words. It wasn’t true. I could have stayed on the Sunnyside Up and not done anything. This was all my choice. And I’d do it again.
I expected him to scoff or make some cutting jab about my career and his opinion of uniforms. But he didn’t. Almost gently he said, “We’ll figure it out.”
Maybe we would. I steered around to the main airlock. Parked.
Charles waited for me to open the hatch door, like I was menial labor—no, because it had been so long since he’d been outside, he would have had to stop to think about how to open the hatch, and I just did it by habit.
I stepped aside to let him enter, followed him in, sealed the hatch, and started the cleaning cycle to vacuum up the dust. Then we had to wait for the lock to pressurize. Charles had his face pressed to the interior hatch window, and his gloved hands clenched.
“Is there a comm panel in here?” he asked.
The vacuum shut off, but the pressurization cycle hadn’t started yet.
“Yeah, here.” It was a simple comm so someone in the lock could contact someone outside in case of trouble. I jumped out of his way as he marched to it and started working.
The atmosphere still wasn’t pressurizing. I went to look out the hatch window.
Our mother, Martha Newton, was standing there.
We couldn’t open the interior hatch until we pressurized. We couldn’t take off our suits until we pressurized. I checked our gauges—Charles gave me an annoyed glare when I pulled his arm over to look at his. We had maybe an hour of air. Extra cans were sitting on the scooter outside. I didn’t dare go outside while someone else had control of the lock overrides.
In something that might have looked like panic to an outside observer, I went to the exterior hatch, popped the manual control panel, and jammed the lock override. Now, no one could open the exterior hatch remotely. That seemed important right now.
Outside the interior hatch was a combination storage and changing room, lined with closets on one side and benches on another. This was a different area than where I’d left from—three days before? Was that all? We were a long way from the cargo dock.
Martha Newton wasn’t alone and more people were arriving, cramming in until there wasn’t room for anyone else. Trying to press my curved helmet visor to the flat window was a challenge—I had to shift back and forth to get a good view. I recognized all the players of the last month’s drama: Anush Patel was there in a plain suit, with a determined frown, trying to edge toward our mother. And there was Sero Benjin in a buttoned-up Security Services uniform, way in the back. He met my gaze through the window and snarled. A couple of other uniformed personnel accompanied him. Some of Charles’ allies from the Guthries were also here, including Anda Guzman, a tall woman wearing a bright yellow wrap-around tunic, lifting her handheld up high to record this. A couple of others held up tablets with press credentials emblazoned on the back.
I turned to Charles. “Now what’s happening?”
“I called a press conference.”
“You did—” I shut my mouth and stopped asking for explanations.
People in the crowd seemed to be talking. Maybe even shouting, trying to be heard through the hatch, but the comms weren’t on, and we didn’t have enough air to make it sound like anything more than distant chatter.
Charles displaced me in front of the window; there wasn’t quite room enough for both of us to look out. We were in danger of jostling in front of it like a couple of kids. But I had maybe found some level of dignity over the years. Honor of the uniform and all that. Assuming I still had a career. Charles and our mother kept their stares locked on each other, even as the crowd devolved into chaos, with shouting and shoving.
I held out my arm. The fabric of the suit rippled slightly, in response to a stream of air. Coming in or going out? I heard it. The hissing grew louder. The air was coming in.
“The door’s probably going to open in about twenty seconds,” I warned him. I assumed I wouldn’t have to open it manually, since we didn’t seem to be in control of the situation. Well, I couldn’t say that about Charles.
“I’m ready,” he said, full of confidence.
“You uploaded all your information somewhere, didn’t you?” His data stick was inserted in the comm panel.
“To everyone, yeah. System-wide emergency comms. Can I take this thing off yet?” He pointed at his helmet.
I popped my own visor first and took a long, incredibly nice-smelling breath of clean air. Charles watched my face and when I didn’t turn blue, he unlatched his helmet. Didn’t get it on the first try, so I helped, pulling it off just as the hatch opened. And there was Charles, framed in the doorway like some kind of propaganda poster.
Here was the thing: right now, Charles looked exactly like a rugged Martian explorer. Or rather a fanciful, fictional version of one. The one invented for the stories we heard when we were kids. A Founder in the flesh, in a suit stained brown with Martian sand, helmet tucked under his arm, its visor scratched from spending two days in the Martian wind. His beard curled over the neck seal, and he had a wild look in his eyes, determined to fight for the survival of every single person in his habitat, even if he had to go out and put sealant on air compressors himself.
The media had their vids up, recording. Probably live. People all over Mars were seeing this, and the images would be transmitted through the solar system.
I just stood there next to him, blinking, like some pale rat dragged from its hole.
Patel had finally reached our mother’s side, and he stared at me. “How did you get here? We were watching all the transports, you aren’t supposed to be here!”
Charles stepped out and squared his shoulders.
“My name is Charles Newton. I serve on the Colony One Council, and Mars belongs to all of us.”
I’d never understand him and how he managed to do shit like this.
A brief pause, as everyone processed this. Then a third of the crowd cheered. A different third—including Martha Newton and Anush Patel—glanced around nervously as if suddenly aware that they were not near escape routes.
That was when Sero Benjin drew his gun and pointed it at us. A gun with bullets, not a shock gun. In a room with just one layer between us and the outside. Was he insane? Yes, probably.
I got in front of Charles. Didn’t think of it, just did it. Someone screamed, the crowd surged, and Benjin disappeared. Tackled, the people around him grabbing hold and dragging him down. I found out later that one of his own security officers immobilized his arm and took the weapon. Everyone else just sat on him.
Classic Martian determination, right there.
A cynical person might claim that this was all engineered by Charles as a publicity stunt. That he rigged his own kidnapping, planted incriminating evidence, arranged communication, all of it, everything, it order to generate sympathy for the Guthrie coalition.
I liked to think I knew Charles better than anyone in the whole universe, and the cynical person would be wrong. Because Charles would never work that hard when he could use the pieces already lying around, taking advantage of the incriminating conspiracy already in progress.
We stayed together through the ensuing chaos, letting Anda steer us to a hostel where we could wash and eat and finally sleep. We watched each other’s backs, just in case. Before she left us to go write more press releases or whatever she needed to do, Anda gave Charles a long, heartfelt hug. And he hugged her back. He finally relaxed a little.
We spoke briefly with our mother. “I’d never have let them hurt you,” she insisted. Which was proof enough that the entire thing really had happened. “I only went along with them because they threatened to hurt you.”
She didn’t want me to come back to Mars, I remembered.
“Can we talk about this after I’ve gotten some sleep?” Charles said tiredly.
Her expression flickered with a moment of frustration. Not used to hearing no. A family trait. “Of course.”
When she looked at me, expecting . . . I don’t know what she was expecting, I didn’t have much to say. “You could have told me what was happening,” I said.
“And what would you have done, Polly?”
“Come back to Mars and found Charles.”
She had nothing to say to that.
When I finally got Charles alone, I only had one more question. “How were you going to escape if I hadn’t come to rescue you?”
He said with all his usual smug confidence, “They weren’t going to be able to hold me forever. Your rescue didn’t change anything but the timetable.”
I stared. “Sure. Right.”
We never bought it up again.
I didn’t completely sink my career, it turned out.
A benevolent conspiracy among the captains and bureaucrats of the Transport Service arranged for my records to show a retroactive leave of absence. Not only did I not sink my career, Obenwye offered to request a transfer to the Corey for me, if I wanted it.
Maybe later. I wasn’t finished with the Sunnyside Up yet. I still had a report to deliver to Captain Sung. And I was suddenly hyperaware of how all this looked, because people noticed me lurking in the background of Charles’ press conference and wondered if Charles was angling for a foothold in the Transport Service through his relatives. Like, if Charles wanted his own fleet of starships or something. The thing was, that didn’t sound entirely out of the realm of possibility. The traditionalists ought to be worried that Charles had the loyalty of a big chunk of the Service. But it wasn’t clear yet if the traditionalists were going to survive this.
Going back to the Sunnyside Up meant no one could accuse me of trying to get some kind of personal advancement out of this whole mess, or of conspiring with Charles.
I was getting better at politics. I wasn’t happy about it.
The Service named it the Enterprise because nostalgia will never die. Also, it was seen as politically safe, unlike another proposal, the Solidarity.
I boarded it as second-shift executive officer.
After a three-month shakedown cruise, our first tour was scheduled to last three years, to visit the Centauri system and return.
Charles actually left Mars and came to the transfer station at the edge of Jupiter space to see me off, which was very nice of him because he was busy back home. He was always busy back home. He served two terms as the council’s chair and then retired before age forty. What was he going to do next? Start a terraforming think tank. It was time, he said. He and Anda had two children together. Not twins.
“That’s a big plan,” I said.
“So is interstellar travel,” he answered.
“Mom always wanted us to do big things.”
“No, she wanted us to do her things.”
In a scene full of clichés, we sat in a café with a viewport over the shipyard where Enterprise was docked. It was a cylinder of a ship with redundant engine pods, the interstellar-rated M-drive bulging on one end, communications array on the other. The painted impact shielding made it appear gray and shadowy. A trick of the light, unless you were looking right at it. Big, sleek, crew of fifty. Unlike anything humanity had done before. I was so excited.
Except it meant not seeing Charles and his family for a while. The few hours of delay communicating between Mars and the rest of the system was going to seem fast, when we were halfway to Centauri. We were leaving comms buoys and M-drive equipped drones to speed along signal packages, so hypothetically it wouldn’t take years to talk back and forth. Hypothetically—it was all experimental. Part of our mission was working on strategies and solutions that would, we hoped, become standard procedure when this sort of thing became routine. We hoped this sort of thing would become routine.
Lotta hope going on here.
He was drinking coffee. I had a whiskey because I wasn’t on duty until morning. First shift. Very first shift, ever. A lot of dignitaries were here to see the grand departure. Charles was one of them—the famous Martian councilmember Charles Newton. He got his own invitation, he didn’t even need to be my guest.
I turned to him. “Who’s going to rescue you if you get in trouble while I’m gone?” It wasn’t like I’d be able to engineer an emergency return.
“I’ll just have to be careful.” Then, “Do you really have to go?”
“Yeah,” I said softly.
“I know. But I had to ask.”
We said goodbye the next morning outside the restricted crew corridor that went straight to docking. Actually, we didn’t say much of anything. Some people talked about twin telepathy, saying that twins were supposed to be able to communicate on some psychic level, that they shared some kind of special connection. I didn’t think Charles and I had ever had that, but then we weren’t really twins. Not identical, and we hadn’t gestated next to each other. We’d just taken our first breaths within moments of each other, in the same room.
But right now, right this moment, I was sure of what he was thinking. He was thinking it so loud I just knew. Or I’d finally spent so much time with him that I could guess.
“I’ll miss you too,” I said.
He ducked his gaze and smiled. Actually smiled. “Maybe bring me back a nice rock or something, if you find any.”
We parted, him walking back along the corridor, me to the docking hatch, each of us traveling into our own futures.
Carrie Vaughn’s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times Bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series, over twenty novels and upwards of one hundred short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent novel, Questland, is about a high-tech LARP that goes horribly wrong and the literature professor who has to save the day. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado.