|Credit: Joan J. Silvestre Bataller|
The red wind is blowing. It comes cold and stiff and sudden, sweeping down from the Valles Marineris with the speed and dusty pall of a cavalry charge. Whipped to hurricane pitch on Olympus’ flanks, rebounding off the titanic valley walls with their sand-blasted scars, it courses south to the Argyre’s open plains; to ride and roar over vast agricultural tracts, erecting mile-high towers of fertile terraformed earth. Ashley Duggins stands in a long white cotton shirt and faded denim overalls, staring into the breeze as it draws water from her eyes and dares her to shut them. She will not.
“Ash, gimme a hand!” she turns to face her mother, presently struggling to get a big black sheet over a heap of seed boxes. The change in angle pulls hair over her face, her eyes. Ashley hates wearing hats, but she should have remembered a hair tie.
She runs because her mother will grouse if she walks. She takes the loose corner to her mother’s right and together they pull the loops down to where her father has planted stakes deep in the topsoil. Which is important, because a good deal of that soil is about to be displaced. “Got it!” Ashley shouts over the elemental hum now filling the air like the first low note of a giant’s dirge. Thousands of wind farms stand at the Valles’ mouth to power the Argyre and break the wind below destructive speed: an ocean of standing storks whipped by the gale into a blurring frenzy. Their collective call rolls across the plains, thunder before lightning, a grim omen hailing the dust storm to come.
“Where’s Dad?” her mother asks.
Ash points to the squat one-story garage dome. “He’s closing up.”
“Your brother’s putting up the field screens. He’ll be back soon.” Indeed, a thin plume of dust from the road a half-mile distant indicates David Duggins’ approaching gyro-cycle.
“Does anything else need tarping?”
“Yes,” Ashley says having quickly thought it over. “The box gardens out back.” They hurry around the house—at two stories the highest of the several monolithic dome structures comprising the Duggins homestead—and find the garden already distressed. Wind has gouged out some loose soil furthest from the house’s shielding bulk and tamped verdant shoots of kale and chives down against the ground. The woman and the girl root between the box’s lip and the dome wall for another black tarp, find it, and pull it out by the corners to drape it gingerly over the greenery.
“I hate this,” says Ashley: the sort of blithely venomous announcement young girls make.
“Maybe if you just wandered out to the plain,” her mother suggests, “and stretched out your arms, the wind would just spirit you off to a grander life.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Ash mutters. She does not stop working at the ties, loops each of them two times around and once through before knotting them with tugs of her deft little fingers.
“I hate having to hide,” she says after a moment. “I want to live somewhere without the storms.”
“Ashley, I hate to break this to you, but there are storms everywhere. On every planet. Many are worse than this. Hell, this used to be worse than this. When your father moved me in here, they hadn’t finished the wind farms yet. We couldn’t keep anything that couldn’t fit indoors!”
“Why would you stay?” Ashley knows the question is slightly transgressive but if asked could not articulate how.
“What sort of question is that? I stayed for the same reason I came.”
“Yes! When you love someone, or something, you’re willing to put up with crap for it. Sometimes it’s a lot of crap.”
“I’ll never like someone enough to deal with dust storms.” And the emptiness, the god-awful drudgery of Martian seasons, the endless cycle of harvests and dirt and work and stink that never led anywhere except the next day’s labor and a lifetime of complaints. Over how damn wet it was, how dry it was, how every day summoned some fresh imp to rob you of a few dollars’ prosperity. People who to all appearances hated the land they worked but would never for a moment consider leaving it. That is her father. She knows it will never be her and she knows this will eventually break his heart, though at least Dave will remain. Dave is made for this place, the dust runs in his blood and this will be some consolation.
“You’d be surprised,” is all her mother says with a knowing smirk Ashley despises. She hates most of all the way it makes her age falls away, wipes the lines from her face and makes her for that instant a girl again: an unnerving reminder that we all start from somewhere, that our lives are products of cumulative choice. That we are made from lines of flesh and blood and will never truly vanquish them.
They finish securing the tarp, take a last look around the yard and circle to the dome’s front entry. “When I settle down,” Ashley says, “it won’t be anywhere with storms. It’ll be in space. I’ll buy my own ship and live in the stars. If I marry anyone it’ll be…a bounty hunter! We’ll be in business together and we’ll be the greatest.”
Her mother chuckles. “Sweetie, there aren’t bounty hunters. Not really. That’s just something in the vids.”
This is a bitter bill indeed and Ashley can’t decide quite how to react. “I’ll still have my own starship,” she decides, out loud.
“That’s something you can do,” her mother concedes. “If you find fifty million dollars in buried treasure.”
To Ashley this seems a reasonable proposition. Wind batters the big floppy brim of the hat strapped under her mother’s chin. The dust columns stand miles high, too large for her brain to process their scale. It is as though they were painted onto the background, distant and unreachable like the half-realized hulk of Olympus Mons on the northwest horizon. She thinks of the Ares City starport, the orbital cargo elevators rising impossibly high and dwindling out of sight. She wants to climb those dust clouds as gravity falls away and finally at the peak hop out into the universe. “Everything here is the same,” she says at last. “I want to see everything else.”
Her mother sighs, keeping blue eyes trained on the incoming gyro-cycle whose form resolves from its own dusty wake. Its ethane-driven mechanical keen rises higher than the windmills’ thrumming. “Ash baby, you can go wherever you like. But I think you’ll find no matter how far you go, the stars aren’t any nearer. It’s only more stars made from the same stuff. Hell, we’re all made from that stuff. The people you’ll meet are still people. There’s nothing truly new under the Sun.”
* * *
Ashley Duggins woke wrapped tightly around one of several extra pillows she kept on her bed. Five in total, all full-sized! She’d been so excited picking them out at the Corps warehouse. In the Duggins household the children got one pillow each—a teenaged Ashley fought tooth and nail for a second—and at the time this seemed a primordial law of nature, no less mutable than the prohibition of breakfast food at dinner. It was only with age, experience and perspective that she learned pillows were not luxuries. They weren’t even expensive! Her father, when confronted with this unjust deprivation, only laughed and called to her mother. “Mae! You know Ash’s still ragging on those damn pillows?”
We all command our little luxuries. Ashley released the badly mauled pillow and rolled to her back. “Time,” she said out loud, and a pleasant female voice recited the numbers. She’d slept for nearly six hours. A faint blue light pulses persistently from her handy’s screen: she’s got a text message. Anything labeled Urgent would have woken her.
“You could’ve gotten me up,” are the first words she said to Vivek Mohinder upon reaching the Galley.
“I know, but lately I’ve gotten some fresh perspective on the word ‘urgent,’” he mused, lifting a steaming spoonful of leafy saag from his bowl. A half-melted cube of cheese slipped towards the rim and he quickly popped the spoon in his mouth.
“You said we’ve got a heading. What changed?”
Vivek withdrew the spoon and swallowed. “A whole lot. Genz accidentally…well, maybe he just thought it was a good idea, but he made contact with what’s left of the Ouro ship’s A.I. By the time we knew what was happening it started in on our drives.”
“Jesus. Karl did that?”
“He didn’t know what would happen, but yes, he opened the channel.”
“Couldn’t have been too bad if you let me sleep.”
“Just the storage drives, is my understanding. The only real loss was about half the entertainment library.”
Ashley groaned. “That big German shithead.”
“Be that as it may, at the end of Genz’s data stream, the Ouro A.I. sent us a map, uncompressed. At least I think it’s a map. The topography matches this region of the O.T.”
“A map to where?”
“That’s what you’ll find out. I want you to take the big 3D render Genz put together—it doesn’t look like much at first, but zoom in anywhere and you’ll see what I mean—and match it with our charts.” He took another bite.
She nodded. “Should be quick if it’s really a map. Get one good ref point and project the rest, unless squid charts are that much better than ours.”
Vivek shook his head, swallowed again and clarified: “It’s not that. We don’t need to pick over every meter of space. The map’s got a path plotted already.”
This took Ashley aback. “What? That’s not right, V. Why would a half-dead A.I. dump that on a human ship? It shouldn’t even recognize our computer, right?”
“Genz used the docking protocols and I guess it clicked. Ask him about it. I’m sure you’ll get the whole story.”
“I’m sure,” she rolled her eyes. “So I’m guessing the Ouro nav data’s set up for their dives, right? Those short little goobers.”
“Yes, ‘goobers’ is how Corps-trained Pilots describe their emergence points,” the X.O. snickered and dipped once more into his bowl.
“You know what I mean! A.I. control, short dives, all of that.” When she saw he wasn’t about to respond quickly, she continued, “I’m supposed to use their dive points with our star maps and plot prelim courses.”
“Just so!” he said at last with a warm smile. Ashley saw his eyes leave hers abruptly to focus over her right shoulder. She craned her neck to see Maxi Leaf peeking around the doorway corner, leaning far enough in to be obvious.
“Sorry, am I interrupting?” Maxi asked innocently.
“No, just handling some business.” Vivek’s tone was pleasant. “Did you need anything, Miss Leaf?”
“No. Well, yes. I was about to poke around for some food.”
“Would you say you’re scavenging?” he asked, grinning ear-to-ear.
The pun was so terrible and came so fast it briefly froze Ashley in place. She stared aghast at Vivek for a moment until Maxi’s explosive snort broke the spell.
“Did you honestly?” she managed between escalating gusts of silent laughter. “I think that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Seriously, Miss Leaf, you’re our guest. Help yourself.”
“Well, I’m sure there are things Mizrahi’d wish I didn’t hear. Thank you,” she added belatedly.
“Any sensitive discussions we’ll keep behind closed doors. That’s our responsibility, not yours,” he lowered his chin respectfully. Maxi shuffled past them to the cabinets, slightly mortified at his kindness. She eased one open and perused the contents with an air of exquisite self-consciousness.
Vivek glanced back to Ashley. “Got everything you need to get?”
“Yes, sir,” she nodded stiffly. “When does Lor…when does the C.O. expect we’ll dive?”
“No word. When she’s satisfied we won’t find a specimen. Still got Karl looking as punishment for opening that channel.”
Ashley said a quick goodbye and left the Galley. What channel? Maxi badly wanted to ask but didn’t. Instead she picked out a can of cheese and potato soup, pulled its self-heating tab and set it on the table. “Where are the spoons?”
“Middle-left drawer,” Vivek pointed. “No, your other left.”
“Shit. Yeah,” Maxi stammered with embarrassment, slamming shut her first option and yanking at the second. Rows of polished metal utensils winked at her. “Sorry. I must still be half-asleep.”
Vivek, charitably, said nothing and merely tended to the last strings of saag. With his face bent towards the bowl, Maxi saw the flint of fluorescent lighting on his occipital implants. She’d spotted them before but still felt a twinge in her stomach. This man seemed so warm, so sensible—how had they convinced him to drill through his skull? It was disgusting. At the same time, his kindness kept her from asking about the little silver coins. Surely the topic would cause some pain; it would be uncomfortable at the least, she was certain.
“I’m sure you not totally comfortable,” he said, jolting her slightly. “Nobody would be.”
“Serious. Nobody. If I were in your shoes I wouldn’t even come out of my room unless I was practically dying of hunger.”
“Yeah, well, I’m used to having to ask for what I want. It’s not just waiting in a cupboard for a chance to heat itself,” she said archly, prising off the can’s lid to a pungent bloom of steam.
“That’s good. If there’s anything—anything—we can do to make your stay easier, just say the word. Say it to me, though. I know you and Lorena…clash.”
“What’s that mean?”
He licked his lips and seemed uncomfortable. She liked that, thought it was cute the way his hands flopped about in frustration. “Not everyone’s meant to work together. You’re both accustomed to dictating terms.”
“We worked together well enough on the wreck. Can’t really argue the second point.”
“So if there’s anything you need to discuss, approach me first. I think everything will go more smoothly with a little buffer between you two.”
“Okay, fine. I appreciate that,” Maxi said though a large chunk of her resented it. She dipped the spoon into her soup, stirred, admired the starchy chunks and the chowder thickness. When it came to cheese culture, one got what one paid for.
* * *
“Good Christ on toast,” said Ashley to no one in particular. It was one of Dave’s favorite expressions—“On toast? Were you supposed to spread Him?”—but seldom heard outside the Duggins household. Now it reverberated briefly around the Bridge and fell to silence. Before her, three meters on each side and so large its edges clipped through the high-backed seats, rotated Karl’s holographic cube. The great yellow cloud, the reds, the greens and the blues played in a festival before her dazzled eyes. Vivek had already marked the Baraheni Graveyard as a basic reference and she traced her vision down the green coil until after thousands of light-years it reached the glowing red point.
She realized she hadn’t blinked in far too long, squeezed her eyes shut, felt their grateful sting as drops welled from under her lids. Snapping them open again she tried to envision this not as a diagram but as a slice of space itself. How to begin? At the beginning, she supposed, as a very good place to start! pranced singsong through her brain. At the Graveyard, the spot where the A.I. believed itself to be.
Which was the wrong spot, as she swiftly discovered. Zooming in tight to the green trailhead, she spotted curiously abstracted versions of the titan-scale debris presently surrounding Konoko. The Ouro hadn’t charted anything in the region more carefully than with simple mass imaging, and so an enormous hanging-eye shape became a simple dish, a dinner plate stood on its side. These inaccuracies would have been cosmetic but for the fact that the A.I. now thought it lay on the far side! Ashley emitted a groan realizing the mistake: the break-up had confused it. Between severe damage from the crash and the time-dilation quirks of a collapsing Chen-Hau field, it mistook its own position by a quarter-Lear. With a satisfied hmph, she keyed in the proper coordinates.
“Nice one,” Beatrice grinned from the Comm Console seat. Holo-projected lights panned over her perfect features. Datum connected with interlocking datum in a beautiful rolling cascade like the lifting of a sheet and in seconds Konoko’s computer had overwritten every last stitch of the Ouro map. Only the tacking archipelago of green points remained.
“Thanks, but this part’s the real bitch. Got to assemble these emergence points into something resembling a course plot. Which I could do half-assed in about ten minutes just based on the coords, buuuuut….” she trailed off theatrically, panning over the points, “the squids lay ‘em out half blind. No wonder they end up cratered.”
“Squid. It’s the same no matter how many. Like fish.”
“Don’t care unless they’re deep-fried and delicious.”
“It occurs to me,” said Beatrice in a quick, cross cadence, “that as an officer in the Explorer Corps you might possibly maybe perhaps take an interest in the only other spacefaring life in the galaxy.”
“I never said I didn’t. They’re just squid is all. That’s what they look like, that’s what we called them in school, that’s what they are.”
“Look, I promise you: if there were monkey critters where they came from, they’d call us whatever they called those things. Hell, we even call ourselves monkeys, apes.”
“At least apes can see most of the way to reason. Call an Ouro ‘squid’ and you’re saying it’s just a dumb animal. You’re saying it’s food.”
“Believe me, I wouldn’t eat an Ouro.”
“You’re evading. Point is, if you can’t bring yourself to honor something in words, you don’t respect it. And the instant you’re face-to-face with it, you’ll start making mistakes.”
Ashley stared at the cube, chewing on her response. “I think I’ve handled all this Ouro stuff fine,” she said at last, an answer that would neither satisfy nor offend.
“How so?” Beatrice’s sardonically arched eyebrow suggested a trap.
So Ashley was careful not to overreach. “I suited up for that first EVA, didn’t I?”
“How many folks have even laid eyes on an Ouro ship, let alone jump into the gack?”
“Not too many.”
“And there may have been nerves at first, but once we got going I was fine. Better than the Doctor; Genz and I had to evac her! Lorena, I mean. I don’t know why I called her ‘the Doctor’ in front of you.”
“I can remember when she wasn’t any sort of doctor! Just a short, curly-haired dweeb who got her first period on the lunchroom bench and ran out crying.”
“No,” Ashley snickered with illicit glee.
“Hand to the God she believes in,” Beatrice flashed a grin. “Don’t say anything.”
“Of course not! She’d know it was you.” With a few decisive keystrokes Ashley conjured her first emergence point. It broke glorious sunny yellow over imagined space, a dimmer mustard path snaking out behind. “There’s one down! Out of the Graveyard, for real and for good,” she said.
NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART THIRTY-TWO: WITH ITS PRECIOUS CARGO SAFELY STOWED, KONOKO BLASTS OFF ON ITS NEW, OURO-PRESCRIBED COURSE. BUT THE OPEN TERRITORY MAY NOT BE SO FRIENDLY AS ITS NAME IMPLIES...