Blood Red Sphere [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Lawrence Barker
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: What is the Blood Red Sphere? Hamilton Helios, cactus juice addict, PTSD survivor and scavenger doesn't know, but everyone else on Mars seems to think he does. Why are Earth's central government, the break-away barons of the Oort Cloud, the native Martians, and more than a few sadistic criminals willing to kill for a nondescript sphere of red lacquer? Helios wishes he knew. Whatever the reason, secret agents, psychopathic religious fanatics, law enforcement officials, and wild Martians are all on his tail. To make matters worse, his business partner has been murdered, and Helios himself is under suspicion. Will Hamilton Helios learn the secret of the Blood Red Sphere before it plunges all of Mars, if not the whole solar system, into war? Or will he, like so many others before him, die for that secret?
eBook Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books, Published: 2009, 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2009
* * * *
Afternoon of Day One, Burroughs City Envirodome, One Hundred Eighty-Six Earthyears Later
2 Reader Ratings:
Cho Li's lungs ached as he ran over the dusty plain. His running, booted feet trampled airweed and vinegarfruit, among the most useful of plants to sprout from Mars' soil. Exhausted, he stopped behind a three-meter-tall rock shaped like a terrestrial squirrel's bushy tail. A series of wind-carved caves lay at the stony rodent's feet. Cho shone his emergency light into one.
A predatory ving, resembling a terrestrial vinegaroon but twice as large and three times as belligerent, rattled inside the cave. The ving's razored claws opened and closed, clicking with a hollow sound. Its acid-tipped triple claws quivered in the yellowish light.
Cho retreated a step. Taking refuge in a cave with creatures that could strip flesh from bone would be a bad idea indeed. He glanced over his shoulder at the dust cloud raised by the pursuing Martians. A moment's rest would be all he could afford. Cho leaned on a flat-topped rock, far from the ving's cave. His heart pounded as he adjusted the dial that regulated the air hissing into his envirosuit from the backpack.
The thin atmosphere carried the ahwoo-rumble-rumble that the Martians made as they rolled along on the six limbs radiating from their bulky central bodies. He glanced down at the canvas pouch he carried, opened it, and stared down at the contents. A blood red sphere about a meter and a half across lay within. He ran his fingers over the sphere, letting its dim internal glow wash over him. The energy that radiated from the sphere--a sort of something-large-and-hungry-is-watching-you prickle, filled with the simultaneous cold of deep space and the heat of an exploding star--entered his flesh through his thick synthleather gloves. Cho shivered and closed the pouch.
He glanced around at the dusty terrain, reddish-brown broomvine and purple-spotted bonethorns dotting the surface. Mars was more hospitable than scientists had thought after the first probes had landed. That didn't make it a welcoming environment, though.
Project Ares, back at the human base in Arsia Mons, was close to inserting genes from the South American bullet ant into humans. The resulting new species, Homo Aresia, wouldn't need breathers or envirosuits; according to some scientists, pure oxygen might even poison them. If he had undergone the transformation, he could outrun the Martians with ease. He would have avoided his current sorry state.
Cho snorted a strange half-laugh. The technology didn't exist yet, and for all he knew, might not work as intended. He might as well wish for one of those energy weapons that science fiction writers used to fantasize about. Better to devote his last moments to what was, not what might have been.
Cho glanced up at the pink sky, traces of blue-green on the horizon. Five years on Mars, and he still hadn't gotten used to a sky that reversed Earth's colors--a blue sunrise in a red sky. He shook his head and glanced from the pouch to the dust cloud.
Having made his decision to face reality and admit that he would not survive, Cho felt all fear drain away. "'I shall dwell in this place during the season of rains, and in this place in winter and summer; so thinks the fool, but he thinks not of death,'" Cho whispered in his native Hakka. There was no emotion in his voice as he quoted the Buddha.
No matter what, he could not let the Martians have the sphere. The consequences would be too terrible to contemplate.
He took the red sphere from his pouch and rolled it into the cave. It rattled as it descended into the depths, bouncing off stone walls. Cho smiled. The cave was deeper than he had thought; that made it a better hiding place for the sphere.
The Martians did not have the almost instinctive understanding of suffering that made humans so good at hurting one another. The six-limbed natives certainly did not understand terrestrial psychology or physiology. The Martians' ignorance of savagery, at least in the brutal form that humans understood it, gave Cho hope. Perhaps, when the Martians reached him, he would die quickly.
Cho Li turned and walked toward the charging Martians, his face as free of care as that of the holographic Buddha back at the envirodome.
Hamilton Helios leaned his elbows on the bar. He reached into the basket that rested there and pulled out a yellow-orange fortune cookie. He cracked it open, letting the thin crumbs trickle down over his hands. The fortune within said, The next week will change your life. "Not bloody likely," Helios muttered just before he bit into the almond-flavored alga-tab.
He pulled the cylinder of bottled pure oxygen to his mask, slipped on the mask, and took a deep breath. Helios smiled as the light-headedness crept over him one centimeter at a time.
A Martian's saw blade chirps sounded from just behind him, pulling him down from his oxygen buzz. Helios muttered a curse. Since laying off the cactus juice, bottled oxygen was the only high that his limited supply of labor credits could support.
Slipping off his oxygen mask, he let it dangle around his bull neck, out of proportion with his slender, almost birdlike frame. He pushed his dark hair, well past needing a trim, out of his eyes and rested his square chin in his long-fingered hand.
Helios studied the sandy-colored, sandpaper-skinned Martian that had disturbed him. Its three front eyes, the two in the top two limbs the normal sapphire blue and the one in the bottom limb an odd blue-gray, locked on Helios; the rear three eyes scoured the rest of the clientele of Ahmed's Oxygen Bar. The Martian, big for a city Martian, came roughly to Helios' seated chest. Its central body, containing its brain, both front and back mouths, and cloacae, sported the brass name tag Jake. The space where its human owner's name was supposed to go was illegible. Someone had gotten tired of feeding the Martian and dumped it to take care of itself.
Helios scowled. People who treated human-dependent Martians like that made his teeth ache. He settled back on his barstool. As much as he would like to help, he couldn't carry Mars' problems on his shoulders. He could barely heft his own. "If you're begging, stop wasting your effort," Helios muttered to the Martian. "Nothing to spare."
Jake the Martian released a cloying/sharp scent, a rose/myrrh mix. It circled two of its stubby tentacles, signing negation. It rotated one hundred and twenty degrees, switching which three of its six limbs supported it.
Helios' fingers drummed on the synthwood bar. The Martian reminded him of a holoanimation he had once seen, depicting Martians as terrestrial ochre starfish doing cartwheels. Two of the Martian's upper limbs, stubby yet sinuous, curled into the sign for trade. The third waved a bag, woven from the fabric of cast-off environmental suits.
Helios sighed. A generation or two past, a dredger like him could get rich scavenging the ruins of the Martian civilization. Big finds, like intact Highknives, could turn up in any cave, beneath any pile of blowing dust. Now, dredgers were lucky to find broken pottery or pebbles with Martian vings or slithers crudely engraved into them.
He started to wave his hand to dismiss the Martian. He stopped in mid-gesture. What kept Helios going, besides the chance for that big score hiding under Mars' red dust? He dropped his hand. "What you got?" he asked.
Jake the Martian turned over the bag it carried and shook. A dried black-brown raisin shape the size of a man's head tumbled onto the bare concrete floor, landing with a papery rattle. It bounced twice, its roll stopping just short of Helios' feet.
Helios wrinkled his nose. He instinctively drew his feet, boots still covered with dust from his last trip outside the Burroughs city dome, onto the barstool. The lump was a Martian mummy, one of the planet's ancient rulers, hollowed out and preserved in a lacquered coating of Martian hellebore. Nobody ever figured out why the ancient Martians preserved their dead; their descendants had no concept of an afterlife or lineage, a situation not conducive to ancestor worship.
A polished rod of blackstone, a cloudy form of native obsidian, protruded from the mummy, as though it had been shot with an arrow. Helios had never seen such a mummy. Why would the ancient Martians have stuck a carved stone through a preserved body?
Helios shook his head, gesturing the Martian away. "Let the dead rest in peace, I say. Martian or human, doesn't matter."
Jake squeaked, a piercing overblown pennywhistle note. The Martian's tentacles spelled out the obvious question to ask of a dredger who said that he did not disturb the dead.
"I deal in artifacts, not bodies," Helios answered. "If you sell corpse-pieces, find another buyer." The Martian waved its limbs in curiosity. "Go," Helios ordered, gesturing for the Martian to leave. The Martian scooped up the mummy and darted away.
The bar's music synthesizer clicked on, playing a soft piano version of Maple Leaf Rag. "Maybe the ragtime revival will last longer than the Zip music fad," Helios muttered to himself. He tapped his fingers in time to the music, something you could never do with Zip's skull-piercing flutes over amplified harpsichord and bull-roarer. "We can hope so," he added.
Helios turned to Ahmed, sitting behind the bar and surrounded by dozens of oxygen cylinders. "Give me another," Helios said. He tossed down a token, its edges worn rough by the many hands through which it had passed.
Ahmed, a dark-skinned, lumbering fellow with deep-set onyx eyes and a nose that would inspire a terrestrial eagle's envy, rose from his seat behind the bar. His hand, with a silvery tattoo of a man riding a Martian slither covering the back of it, took the coin. "Sure thing," Ahmed replied. Or at least Helios thought so; Ahmed's habit of swallowing final consonants sometimes made him hard to understand.
Ahmed passed Helios a green metallic cylinder. Helios transferred the mask to the new tank, slipped it back on, and turned the tab on the cylinder. Pure oxygen filled his lungs. It did little to recapture the mood that Jake had shattered.
Ahmed's bulky hand waved before Helios' eyes. The five stubby fingers clutched a five labor-credit token. Helios' eyebrows rose in confusion. "You gave me a ten," Ahmed rumbled. "This is your change."
"It was a five." Helios spoke without thinking, removing the mask so he could speak.
Helios blinked. An honest barman? Here in Burroughs? Must be one of the signs of the approach of Ragnarok that the Asatruars, the followers of the revived worship of the old Norse gods, always yammered about. Helios nodded his thanks to Ahmed and pocketed the coin. Helios settled back to enjoy his oxygen, covering his nose and mouth with the mask.
At least he tried; Jake the Martian's grating squeaks wouldn't let him. The Martian had focused in on a sallow-faced woman, the widow's band about her head indicating that her husband had died in the last Earthyear or half Marsyear, however you preferred to say it.
The woman's hair must have been fashionably shaved in the not-too-distant past. Or at least that was what was fashionable now. In another few Marsyears, who knew? Now her hair had grown into stubble, as though she were unable or unwilling to maintain her feminine hairlessness. The woman's eyes had the half-dead look of someone who wallowed in cactus juice, a look that Helios knew all too well.
Jake waved its stubby limbs at her, signaling questions. For a moment, the woman gave no sign of noticing the Martian. Then she turned to Jake and stared, her unfocused gaze locked on something beyond the horizon. Jake made a disappointed rattle and moved on.
The Martian's next target was a tall, thin man in a battered exosuit, the servomotor on its chest grinding with his every move. Most exosuits stopped at the shoulders. This one extended up the neck and wrapped around the stranger's forehead, as though he required support to keep his head upright.
Even if he had not required the suit to move, the stranger's dead white skin and dark glasses would have marked him as a native of the solar system's far reaches. Most natives of the Oort Cloud, a place where the sun's brightness only slightly surpassed that of the stars, looked like that. Exosuit sat in a corner by himself and nursed a Lavoisier's, a brand of luxury oxygen as far beyond Helios' budget as Phobos was above Burroughs' protective glassteel dome. Of course it was no better than any other oxygen. But those who wanted to pay extra for Earth-made cloisonné packaging could always find someone willing to sell it to them.
Helios shook his head in amazement. Exosuit bought fancy oxygen, but ignored upkeep on the machinery that made it possible for a man adapted to microgravity to keep standing upright--never mind the ability to function at a superhuman level that such a suit gave him. Helios had once seen an exosuit failure--an outer-system high roller who collapsed like a deflated balloon when his servomotor got too much dust in it and conked out. It was an unpleasant sight, and it was probably even worse from the inside.
Helios took a deep breath of the low-rent oxygen that he normally snorted. He glanced at Exosuit's cylinder of Lavoisier's while listening to the run-down servomotor's growls. No accounting for some people's priorities.
Exosuit turned toward Jake. His lips were locked in a teeth-barely-exposed grin, almost as though his face were a carved mask. His lips barely moved. A face like that could give you nightmares. Thinking of nightmares, Helios shifted in his seat and glanced down at his arm. The sleeve of his brownish coverall covered the scars, tattooed from the dust of Mars, which ran down its entire length. With the memories that came with those hidden scars, what else did he need to give him nightmares?
Jake made the trade signals and waved the mummy before Exosuit's bone-white face. Maybe Jake understood humans well enough to know that the real money came from the Oort Cloud. Helios doubted it. Probably, it was nothing more complicated than the grumbles from the servomotor on Exosuit's chest having attracted the Martian's attention.
Exosuit rose and adjusted his dark lenses. "Why should I bother with a worthless, beggarly Sixer?" he snorted, his gluey voice stuck somewhere in the contralto range.
Helios shifted in his seat. Sixer was the currently fashionable word among Martian-haters. Using the word didn't necessarily peg a man as a brainless bigot; if it did, a quarter of Burroughs qualified. But using such language certainly counted against its user.
"I only care about one Martian corpse," Exosuit continued. "That particular Martian is far too important for the likes of you to drag about, especially in a run-down dome like Burroughs." He snorted through his thin-nostriled nose. "After I acquire that one--and make no mistake, I will--my need for and interest in Sixers will have come to their mutual end." He flexed his fingers, bending as if the bones within the metal casing of the suit had gone soft from a life without gravity. "Now get out of my sight," Exosuit added. The servomotor on his suit's chest growled. His arm lifted. His open hand arced through the air, smashing into Jake.
Without the suit, Exosuit probably couldn't have lifted his arm. With it, he sent Jake flying as though the Martian were even more of an inflated balloon than his gas-filled Martian physiology really made him.
Helios gritted his teeth and shifted in his seat. He started to get up, to walk across the bar, and punch Exosuit's boney face. He stopped in mid-motion. Could he afford another run-in with the Magistrates? Helios had already had one this Marsyear, when another dredger had put a claim on some sling stones that Helios and his equalshare, Barabbas Stone, had brought in from the desert. Helios sighed and sank back down, disgusted with himself for putting his convenience ahead of what was right.
Helios had barely resumed his place when Ahmed spoke. "Finish your oxygen and go," Ahmed snapped at Exosuit. He crossed his arms. The bar's orange light reflected from his silvery tattoo. "Lots of places in Burroughs won't blink an eye if you start a fight," Ahmed continued. "This one will."
Helios' eyebrows rose in surprise. Ahmed was more of a decent sort than he had realized. Decent sorts in Burroughs were as rare as fish in the southern desert. Knowing one could only count in his favor.
Despite Ahmed's provocation, Exosuit's fixed, artificial smile never varied. He snorted down his bottled oxygen, rose, and strode to the door. Turning back, he cast one last, disdainful look at the bar, as though memorizing its layout. Then he disappeared through the door, out onto Burroughs' dusty streets.
Jake picked itself up, balancing on one limb as four of the others brushed the red dust from its body and the sixth cradled the mummy. Pained chirping came from both its front and rear mouths.
Helios sighed. He turned off the oxygen flow and removed his mask. "Hey you," he said, gesturing at Jake. The Martian stopped chirping. Its limbs made a sign indicating curiosity. "Yes, you," Helios answered. Jake scurried back over to Helios, cradling the mummy in two tentacles.
Helios took the mummy and studied it. A trace of cinnamon/ammonia scent of the Martian hellebore that the natives used in mummification clung to it. His fingers ran over the mummy's dry, rough surface. He shook it and listened to the soft rattling from within. Just as he had suspected, someone had woven an imitation mummy of dried Martian poppy stems--the leaves, roots, and stems could be handled in safety, even if the bright red seed pods meant a protracted painful death. The fake would fool the average miner or farmer. It would almost certainly fool a tourist. Helios could identify woven stems by touch; a fake mummy's bumps were broader and thinner than a real one's.
"You know this is bogus, don't you?" Helios asked. Jake signed a cringe-tentacled affirmative, the closest Helios had ever seen a Martian come to sheepishness. It paused a moment and then signaled that, in several of the poorer desert envirodomes far to the south, the primary occupation was making false mummies--like this one.
"That's why there's a blackglass rod? A more exotic mummy brings a higher price?" Helios asked.
Jake's tentacles waved an affirmative.
Helios nodded. "You know the penalties for passing off modern fakes as antiquities here in Burroughs? No matter what goes on in other envirodomes?" Again, the Martian signaled a discrete affirmative. Helios doubted that Jake had told the truth. The Investigative Magistrates, especially those from the biocomputer-linked Combine that ran most of what went on in the envirodome, took a dim view of fake antiquities. After all, Martian relics were about all Burroughs had going for it, except for the alga farms and the low-grade Helium-3 mines in the foothills. Let it get a reputation for fakes, and Burroughs might as well dry up and blow away.
Helios handed Jake a one labor-credit token. "Now take this, and don't let me see you again."
Jake took the coin. Tooting joyfully and releasing a lavender and burnt oak smell, it darted away. It paused just before it reached the door, turned back toward Helios, and made a few signs, too fast for Helios to follow.
Helios frowned. Had the Martian really made the signs for warning and planet-wide war? If it had, what did that mean? Before Helios could ask, Jake dashed out into the street, dragging its fake mummy behind it.
Helios rested his head in his hands. He had to watch himself to keep from going soft; sentiment could send someone in the hard-edged business of dredging into a tailspin. Helios put the oxygen mask back on and breathed. He sat there for some time, enjoying his buzz, and refused to let Jake the Martian disturb him. He had probably misunderstood. Or the signs had been the random babblings of a half-crazed, abandoned city Martian. Or maybe they had been hallucinations, a flashback from his bad old cactus-juice days.
Only no matter how many times he told himself that there was no problem, he just couldn't quite bring himself to believe it.
* * * *
Afternoon of Day One, Burroughs Envirodome
A familiar voice sounded behind Helios from a gaming table nearby, sending his oxygen high leaking away. Bottled oxygen depleted, he shoved the cylinder across the bar and slipped his green translucent mask into his pocket.
Helios rose from the barstool and turned. A short but broad-shouldered form with patchy, reddish-brown hair carefully glued into two pathetic drooping spikes stood facing away from him. The man's head hung so low above the three-dice craps game on the table that Helios couldn't see his face. No need to see the thin lips and protruding eyes to recognize the man. "Jarrad Loots," Helios said.
Abandoning the game, Loots stood and turned around. His face blanched. He eyed the door as if seeing if there was a quick way out. "Ham," he finally said, sticking out his hand, two of the fingers at odd angles from having been broken after getting caught with two extra aces in his sleeve. "Where you been?" Imitation exuberance filled his metal-rasp voice.
Helios flashed a scowl that would leach the pyrites from the soil. "Where are the fifty-seven labor credits you owe me?" he demanded.
Loots' eyes darted from side to side. He ducked as though avoiding a blow. "Well," he whined. "I've been having this run of hard luck."
Helios eyed the small stack of labor credit tokens at Loots' seat. One of the other players, a Helium-3 miner who looked like he could toss Loots clear around Phobos, scooped those up as his winnings. "So I see," Helios coldly observed.
"Hey, Loots," the miner called. He paused a moment to remove the toothpick from between his chipped incisors. He spun it between his fingers and then replaced it between his lips. "You still in the game?" the miner asked, the runic tattoos on his biceps glistening in the bar's murky light.
For a moment Helios stared at the tattoos and wondered why so many Asatruars, good citizens and lunatics alike, inked their symbols into their skins or painted them on their possessions. Did they really believe that an obsolete alphabet protected them? Was it something that came from the distant twentieth century, when their religion's revival had begun? Helios discarded the thought; the well of human follies was too deep for him to plumb.
"I'm going to sit the next few passes out," Loots called over his shoulder. He turned back to Helios. "Tokens?" he scoffed. "I got something better than tokens." He moved a step closer to Helios. "I heard from a friend of a friend about a cache of mummies in the Arsia Mons Mountains. Perfect preservation. The sort that some Oort Cloud baron would give his weight in Helium-3 to put on display. Impress all his blackspace buddies with his good taste."
Helios' brow rose in incredulity. "You believe this thousand and two nights' tale?"
"My source is the best. No false leads yet." Loots made the Asatruar Thor's Hammer sign with one hand and a Buddhist mudra gesture with the other, covering his bets.
"Let me guess. You want to recover these purported mummies and sell them." Helios' voice had the tone of a lead hammer hitting a lead anvil.
"What else would you do with them?" Loots looked genuinely perplexed.
"Only you can't do it alone," Helios added. His voice sounded as though he read from a script. "You know nothing about surviving outside the envirodome."
"There's lots of stuff I don't know." Loots crouched, making himself even shorter. "Envirosuits and knowing how to make sure they don't leak. Knowing when the airweed is ripe for plucking, in case the bottled air runs low. How to space out the water and harvest vinegarfruit when it goes short," Loots counted off on his fingers. "And," he added in a whisper, "how to avoid the wild Martians and Bastards."
Helios cringed. There were topics he preferred to avoid. The Bastards topped the list. He glanced at his scarred arm and shook his head. They topped it for a good reason. "You're looking for an equalshare who can handle the southern mountains," Helios continued, driving from his mind the image that Loots' words had summoned.
"Not exactly," Loots replied. "I'm looking for a thirdshare." His gaze fixed on Helios' frown. He swallowed and took a step back. "I meant a third for me, two-thirds for you," he hastily added.
"Sure you did." Helios shook his head. He cracked his knuckles. "Do I have a 'gyp me' sign on my back? First some Martian tries to sell me a fake mummy, and then you try this scam."
Loots shook his head. "No scam. May I dry up outside the envirodome if I'm lying."
"First of all," Helios mimicked Loots, counting down on his fingers, "I know you too well to believe you. I don't know how I let you talk me into giving you credit in an Omaha Hold-Em game, but convince me you did. I'm not trusting you again." He took a step forward, pushing into Loots' personal space. "Fourth, and most important, even if I did believe you, I don't deal in mummies. Artifacts are one thing, but leave the dead where they lay."
Loots raised an eyebrow. "You'd pass up a chance to earn enough to get out of Burroughs, maybe even get off-world, because you don't want to mess with dead Martians?"
"Maybe I don't want to leave Mars," Helios answered. He twisted his face into a mock-solemn expression. "Maybe I have a destiny here, safeguarding the fates of both humans and Martians."
Loots ran a finger along his drooping hair spikes. Despite his efforts, his hair remained thin and limp. "You're not serious, are you? Are you turning into one of those Martian Rights loonies?" Consternation flashed through his greenish eyes.
"What if I am?" Helios crossed his arms. "Martians don't take from Martians, unlike some species I could name."
"Yeah, bunch of Sixer freaks," Loots muttered, half-audibly.
Helios' eyes narrowed. Loots thought that Sixer was just slang. But the term didn't sit well with Helios. "It was their planet first," Helios answered. He couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if, before the humans arrived, the Martians had escaped the fuzzy mysticism that blanketed their thinking. What would the fateful encounter of species have been like if the Martians had developed their own technology?
"Their planet?" Loots echoed. "They weren't doing nothing with it." He scoffed. "Living in caves. Hunting with stone tools. Not trying to mine the Helium-3 or alga farming."
Helios shook his head, gesturing for Loots to back away. "You're not getting me into that. The bright boys at the university beneath Clarke's dome can beat each other over the head about whether it's right for us to be here. In the end, it doesn't matter. Humans are on Mars to stay." Helios breathed deeply. After breathing pure oxygen, the envirodome's atmosphere--even here in Ahmed's, where leakage of pure oxygen made the air richer--left him feeling like his lungs hungered for something that he just didn't have. "And, in the end, none of what you say matters either. I don't sell the dead, and that's not changing."
"So you're turning in your dredger's license?" Loots pulled himself up to his full height. His jaw locked in an almost defiant expression. "Even if you don't sell bodies, dredgers scour bare the Martian palaces' bones. Picking at corpses is picking at corpses, like Earthly buzzards."
Helios retreated a step. He licked his dry lips. In one sense, Loots was right. In another sense, Helios' livelihood didn't harm anyone. And the inarguable fact was that Loots owed him.
"Now about my fifty-seven labor credits," Helios snarled, redirecting the conversation.
Loots shook his head. "I don't have it with me."
"Of course not." Helios drummed his fingers on the table top. The music synthesizer had cycled Maple Leaf Rag until he was getting tired of it. "So I'm just going to stick with you until you 'remember' where you have fifty-seven labor credits stashed."
Loots swallowed. "Well, I might have a few tokens in my room at the Carter."
Helios nodded. The Carter, down by where the land-freighters docked, housed crew and passengers on their way through Burroughs to some place better. If Loots stayed there, then he had a scam going. Bilking freighter crews out of their pay in some confidence game? Crooked gambling? Helios didn't care. "Fine," he muttered. "We'll go to the Carter and see just how much of my fifty-seven you might happen to have."
A trapped-animal look flashed over Loots' face. "This might be a bad time."
Helios folded his arms. "Then we'll stay here until it is a good time."
Loots shook his head. "You're squeezing the life out of me, Ham. Squeezing the life."
* * * *
Afternoon of Day One, Burroughs Envirodome
The many-layered voices and the alga and cactus pear smells of the Sook, Burroughs' open-air market, swirled around Helios, and he silently swore. He could have marched Loots directly to the Carter, and collected at least some of what Loots owed him, but had not. Instead, he had let Loots talk him into this detour.
Loots had taken him through the gem-dealers' section, close to the bottled oxygen dealers. Loots had even stopped to look at, without buying, a knock-off of a bottle of Lavoisier's, a cheap imitation of the real luxury oxygen. The oxygen dealers were only a step from the corner where the cactus sellers hawked their wares.
The smell of the brewing extract of San Pedro cactus, sharp and jagged, grabbed Helios' nostrils and would not let go. Almost immediately on reaching Mars, humans discovered that alcohol was hard to produce; water that was neither salty nor acidic was expensive and yeast didn't do well. But the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus from Earth's Andes Mountains was a different story. San Pedro cactus thrived on Mars.
Helios slowly turned. Not three meters to his left stood a kiosk where a one-eared man with brown caterpillars for eyebrows brewed dried cactus sections into thin, greenish tea. One-Ear paid more attention to the portable synthesizer playing an insanely fast version of Dill Pickle Rag beside the stand than he did to brewing.
Helios bit his lip. His hand trembled as though it wanted to wrap itself around a cup of San Pedro tea and carry it to his lips. A part of him still wanted what a swallow of the One-Ear's weak San Pedro tea would bring, never mind what a mind-exploding injection would do. No matter how feeble a brewer One-Ear might be, San Pedro offered release from the hellish memories that tormented him, that only cactus juice could suppress.
Helios glanced back at Loots. Loots flashed him a weak smile, as feeble a copy of the real thing as the bottle of fake Lavoisier's that Loots had looked at earlier. Loots hoped to get lost in the crowd while Helios struggled with his old wants. If he surrendered to the old cactus juice urge, he would be unable to pursue Loots once he took off through the Sook.
Helios gritted his teeth. He had lost more Marsyears than he could count to a San Pedro haze. He wasn't going back to a drug that could make you either calm and mellow or angry and aggressive with no telling which each time, no matter what ghosts it exorcized.
"You're not giving me the dodge, Loots." Helios' words were as much designed to reassure himself as they were to deaden Loots' hopes. "It didn't work."
"What didn't work?" Loots' voice echoed with wronged innocence. The imitation was even less convincing than the mummy Jake the Martian had tried to sell.
Helios didn't answer as a familiar face emerged from the crowd. Helios froze. The blood drained from his head. His knees wobbled. San Pedro, he reminded himself, might banish his gut-ripping memories; the face from the crowd reminded him that the drug had cost him more than years.
She was still as beautiful as she had been the day he met her. He had been a new kid in Burroughs just off the alga farm, long before the San Pedro had gotten a hold on him. She had been, at least as he saw her at the time, a big city sophisticate. Who else had he ever met who could tell the difference between chemically produced and natural oxygen? Who else had he met who could quote the words of O'Magh, the unofficial poet laureate of Mars? Or even Wordsworth and Clark Smith of Earth? Or tell, at a glance, the works of Earth's Dali from those of Mars' oh-so-similar Leibowicz?
Back then, she had defied fashion by keeping her space-black and lightly curled hair at shoulder length. She still did, having only changed her appearance by adding a streak of dyed silver to her hair. The look complemented her slightly round face in a way that the usual shaved head could not possibly do. Marrying her had been the best thing that ever happened to Helios. But then came San Pedro, with its promise of escaping his nightmares that had grown in intensity through the years instead of, as he had hoped, diminishing. But cactus had only sped Helios' descent into the cold Martian night. San Pedro had so tangled him in its web that he hadn't even realized that Carlie was divorcing him until it was all over.
"Carlie," Helios said, none of the emotion within him making its way into his voice. "How you been?"
"Good, Ham." Her voice was a drink of pure water to a man four days in the Martian desert. "Barabbas tells me that you ask about me almost every day."
Helios swallowed hard. Barabbas Stone was his equalshare, each maintaining half an office, each claiming half of what the other recovered. They had come from the same background, boys off the alga farm in the "big city" of Burroughs.
Helios grimaced. He owed Barabbas Stone a debt that he doubted he would ever be able to repay. But when he thought of the former Carlie Helios now being Carlie Stone, his stomach lurched. It had lurched for years, and it still did any time he saw or even thought of her.
"What are you doing in this part of the Sook?" she asked, eyes cutting toward a booth lined with alternating geometrically-shaped bottles of San Pedro extract and vials of Wakey, the sober-up drug that brought a drinker down from a ride on the cactus rocket.
"Not what you think," Helios hastily responded. He turned, ever so slightly. Loots had, as Helios had expected, melted into the crowd, but at that moment Helios had more important matters on his mind than a few labor credits. "I'm clean now," he told her. "Been that way over a Marsyear."
"Sure you have," she answered.
Helios winced. The doubt in her voice hurt worse than being caught in the high mountains, where the airweed grows thin. "No, really." Before Helios could go further, a grating wail, sounding like two dentist drills accompanying a theremin, filled his ears: the cry of a distressed Martian.
Helios turned toward the sound, hands clenched into fists. Who would bring a city Martian into this part of the Sook? Give a Martian a drop of cactus juice, and you have a sodden lump. Hamilton Helios knew cactus-inspired stupors as well as any man on Mars.
One-Ear stood holding a Martian a half-meter from the ground, probably a city Martian that had tried to steal a swallow. The Martian's six tentacles struggled to break free from One-Ear's two arms. The Martian's human--a red-faced fat man who panted from the mild exertion of walking through the Sook--appeared from the crowd and demanded that One-Ear release his property. Red-Face grabbed the Martian, trying to pull it from One-Ear's grip. The Martian wailed a cry like a recorded call of an extinct terrestrial gray whale, played backwards and at the wrong speed.
Carlie dashed toward the combatants. "It's not the Martian's fault!" she cried. "Let it go!"
Sympathy for the individual Martian or concern for the entire species? Helios couldn't say; Carlie's kindness sometimes stretched into the irrational. Before Helios could puzzle through Carlie's motivations, the Martian's flailing tentacles overturned the brewing batch of San Pedro. The spilled liquid shorted out the music synthesizer in a popping-clicking storm of sparks.
One-Ear's face flushed as red as that of the Martian's fat owner. He dropped the Martian, who darted to its human and wrapped its limbs around his fat legs. Then One-Ear yelled for the Magistrates.
There was a moment of silence as the call sank in on the crowd. The tension on the faces closest to Helios was almost palpable.
In response to One-Ear's call, two blue-and-black-uniformed Enforcer Magistrates appeared. Both carried electroprods, dark and menacing rods with built-in capacitors. At the side of one Magistrate hung the usual crossbow pistol. The other wore a slug-throwing pistol.
Helios stared at the slug-thrower. He took a step backwards, fighting the memories that seeing such a weapon could bring. He collected his thoughts--this was no place for a fade into the past. Not many slug-throwers in Burroughs, he reminded himself. To fire outside the envirodome, they needed a built-in air supply; powder would barely burn with only Martian air to feed it. The resulting bulk made the pistol hard to use. Inside the dome? A slug, poorly aimed, could put a hole in the glassteel. A hole in the dome and a malfunctioning selfseal would be spectacularly bad news.
"Over here," One-Ear shouted, pointing toward the fat man and his Martian. "This Sixer attacked me. What are you going to do about it?"
Helios grimaced. One-Ear must be new in Burroughs to not know what the Magistrates were going to do about it. Well, he was about to find out.
The two Magistrates dashed into the crowd. Both shouted warnings to get out of the way. One shouted in clear English; the other threatened and blustered in an English-accented version of Hakka that hovered at the limit of Helios' understanding of the language. The Magistrate with the crossbow pushed his electroprod into a dark-skinned man covered with neo-tribal scars. Scarman yelped as static electricity arced from the prod. He collapsed on the ground, thrashing as his nervous system struggled to recover from the indignity. The rest of the crowd, seeing Scarman thrash, parted to make way for the Magistrates.
Slug-Man pulled his bulky weapon. Helios couldn't imagine why. A human versus human fight in the Sook warranted no such response. A human versus city Martian fight certainly didn't. But maybe the Magistrate and his wife had argued over money that morning; maybe he had failed to get the promotion he thought he deserved; maybe he was just nasty. For whatever reason, the Magistrate pulled the weapon.
The crowd had parted for the electroprod, but a waving slug-thrower took things to a higher level. The Sook's mob dissolved into a torrent of screaming, fleeing bodies.
Someone threw an unglazed clay pot at the Magistrates. The throw fell short, striking the panting fat man. The Martian at his feet yelped and took off into the crowd.
The fat man shouted a few unimaginative curse words. He turned and threw a punch at a cactus-sodden man in a checkered jacket who had the misfortune of standing in the direction from which the clay pot had come. Cactus-Soddy punched back, only he missed and hit a cactus dealer selling injectable San Pedro. The dealer fell, overturning his kiosk, and smashing into a group of Helium-3 miners, come to Burroughs to spend their labor credits. One of the miners swore in Hakka and punched the person standing closest. After that, the chain reaction went too fast to follow. The fight spread like a common cold explodes through an enclosed land-freighter's crew.
Helios' hands clenched into fists. He tried to push through the riotous crowd to reach Carlie to get her out of the path of the trampling mob, the spreading fight, and of any Magistrate all too hungry for another arrest to his credit.
The mob carried him like a dust devil pushing along a Martian poppy seedpod. He bounced from side to side, getting first a knee to the stomach and then an elbow to the chest.
Helios, not hitting back in an attempt to avoid getting caught in the fight, called for Carlie. The crowd's rumble, the tangled cries in an exotic mix of English and Hakka, swallowed his voice. He struggled to break free of the throng. The press of pushing, shoving, and hitting bodies was too much for him; his efforts came to nothing.
By the time Helios separated himself from the crowd, he was outside the Sook. He checked his reflection in a plateglass window. He had a few bruises and his coveralls were torn, but he looked otherwise intact. He turned to go back, to try to find out what had happened to Carlie, if not to help her.
As he did, he caught sight of Carlie pulling away in her city crawler, the treads raising clouds of red-gray dust. The crawler that she rode was a scooter-based Robinson model, one on which the passenger stood atop. The Robinson was Carlie's old favorite, designed to maneuver through a pedestrian-crowded street. Just last week, Barabbas had told him that Carlie planned to trade in her familiar sand-yellow crawler for a new, polished black model. She must have done just that.
The tension faded from Helios' body, although the ache from fighting his way through the crowd remained. Whatever had happened in the Sook, Carlie had escaped.
Helios' wrist-alarm chimed, a persistent electronic whine. He glanced down at it; he and Barabbas had an appointment with a potential paying customer, and Helios needed to keep it.
Helios glanced back toward the Sook. He would have to see to Loots later, but see to Loots he would. And when he did, the little weasel would not vanish down another ving-hole.
* * * *