Mars, A.D. 2184
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
THE MARTIAN GIRL YOU NEVER WANT TO MEET
"Someday I want to be rich. Some people get so rich they lose all respect for humanity. That's how rich I want to be." - Rita Rudner
"Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option.” - Mark Twain.
Mars, A.D. 2184
HER NAME WAS Tamara. She was seventeen. Tall. Dark hair. Golden body that was all slender curves. Pert breasts. Dark eyes that dared, and told Kea no dare was forbidden—if he had the courage to follow through. She was also Austin’s sister.
She did not look more than passingly like him. She was perfect. Perhaps Kea realized that what the gods had failed to give Tamara, the finest plas surgeons had. But he probably would not have cared. It was a measure of Kea’s intoxication with other things that it took some time before he became aware of her.
His brain-drunk had begun as soon as the ship had lifted. A Mars trip was still a rich man’s pleasure, costing, in real credits, about what a first cabin on an Earth ocean liner would have cost during the days of the Cunards. The suite he shared with Austin, and one of the family factotums burdened with reports, was one of the largest on the transport. It measured four meters wide by seven meters long. Austin told Kea that this was always the worst part of the passage—he felt trapped.
Kea never noticed. For one thing, the suite was not much larger than the cramped apartment he and Leong Suk had shared. And for another, the suite had a “port”—actually a vid screen linked to through-hull pickups mounted at various places around the transport. Mars grew in the forward pickup. As the transport closed on the wargod’s world, Kea could pick out details. Valles Marineris. Tharsis. Olympus Mons. All spectacular—but what most riveted Kea’s attention were the works of man. Not just the haze of Mars’s new atmosphere, or the oceans and lakes, or the twinkled lights of the new cities, but the offplanet marvels, some of which had been allowed to remain, as reminders and memorials. A space station. The First Base on Deimos. One of the great mirrors, in a geosynchronous orbit over the north pole, that had helped melt Mars’s ice caps.
That, he realized, wasn’t a deliberate monument. It was the centerpiece of a junk heap. He cozened his way to the bridge, learned how to use the pickup’s controls, and scanned the orbiting scrap, for reasons he was never sure of. There were dead deep-space ships he recognized from books, museums, or models he’d never been able to afford as a boy. A longliner that had never been completed or launched. A space station, peeled and shattered—Kea remembered reading about that disaster of a hundred years earlier.
And, to one side, by itself, a tiny ship. Another one of the starships. The second one he’d seen. He wondered why he seemed to be the only one who saw them as a mingle of triumph and defeat. Promise and tragedy. For want of a nail.
Hell, for want of a goddamned energy source…
Kea went back to the “suite” and prepared for landing. Bargeta senior, Austin’s father, was waiting for them. He was frightening. Kea wondered if he would have felt the same about the older man if he didn’t know how much power he wielded. He decided yes, he would. It was Bargeta’s face. Hard, measuring eyes. The thin lips of a martinet. And yet the jowls of a sybarite and the body of someone kept in shape only by highly paid trainers, not from physical labor. It was, Kea realized, the same face Austin would wear, if he was chosen to replace Bargeta, in forty years or so.
Mr. Bargeta was very friendly to Kea. He was grateful to the man who’d helped his boy out of that imbecilic school slump he’d fallen into. In his letters, Austin had mentioned Richards frequently, he said. Kea knew this to be a lie—Austin never communicated with his family except to plea, directly and briefly, for an advance on next period’s allowance. The older man said that before Kea returned to Earth, they would have to talk. About the future. Kea’s future.
Kea felt as if he were in the middle of a twentieth-century mafia vid and about to be made a member of a crime family. Perhaps, he thought, that wasn’t just a piece of romantic foolishness. He put the thought aside.
There were ten or fifteen Bargetas—including cousins and relatives-by-marriage—resident in the compound. And the family retainers. He asked—and was told that thirty men or women were required for each “guest.” More, for “special occasions.” Kea was reminded that, truly, the very rich were not as common folk.
The Bargeta compound was only a hundred meters from the near-vertical cliff that led down to the sea that had been the Ophir Chasm. The compound had originally been one of the earliest bubbles; it had been acquired by the Bargetas and truly turned into a pleasure dome, even after the no-longer-needed plas was stripped away. There were main buildings and outcabins. Halls for drinking or playing tennis—even Kea became fascinated with what a ball could do in a low-g world. Lawns. Heated pools. A cabana had been recently built on the cliff-edge. From it, a round clear elevator shaft, with McLean plates, dropped down to a floating dock and the effervescent ocean.
That was where Tamara swam into his consciousness. Literally. He was perplexing over the sails and rigging of a trimaran tied up to the dock. Kea had done some sailing on Earth, but only on a monohull. He was trying to figure out, if he tacked sharply, whether the boat would spin out, a wing would shatter and he’d be trying to navigate a catamaran, or if the craft would just go into irons, when Tamara sealed out of the ocean onto the deck.
At first he thought she wasn’t wearing anything—and then realized the color of the small one-piece suit was exactly matched to her deeply tanned skin. He wondered—after he’d begun recovering from the basic arrival, why she wasn’t shivering. He himself was wearing a one-piece shorty wetsuit against the chilly breeze and cold water. Then he noticed the tiny heatpak in the suit, tucked at the base of her spine. Tamara padded forward, without saying anything. She eyed Kea intently. Kea turned slightly to the side. His suit was tight, and he would rather not embarrass himself.
“You are Austin’s Saint George.” Her voice was a purr.
“I am. I left my card in my other armor. Dragons rescued, virgins slain, my specialty.”
Tamara laughed. “Well, there certainly aren’t any dragons on Mars, either. So you can relax.” She introduced herself, curled down beside him, shoulder touching his. “I guess the family owes you for helping my brother,” she said.
Kea shrugged. “Not by my calcs. The scale’s zeroed.”
“Perhaps. You’ll be staying with us all summer?”
“Right. My return ticket’s an open booking. But Austin said we’d best take the… what is it, Copernicus. It’s set to lift on… hell, I still haven’t figured out the months here… Earthdate in the first week of September.” Kea dimly realized he was babbling.
“A long time,” she said. “We’ll have to make sure you aren’t bored. Won’t we?”
“I, uh, don’t think that—I mean, how can you be bored on Mars?”
“That is not,” Tamara announced conclusively, “the sort of boredom I was talking about.” She ran her fingernail down Kea’s arm, and it seared like a branding iron. Then she was standing. “You know,” she said, “moonrise is special on Mars. The best place to see it is from the cabana. It’s away from the compound so there’s no lightspill.”
She walked to the edge of the trimaran. “Far enough,” she went on, “for as much privacy… as anyone could ever need.” She smiled as if at a secret memory or thought, and then flat-dove into the bubbling, CO2-charged water. Kea’s mouth was dry.
The cabana had four bedrooms, each of them made up. It was staffed by four blank-faced men. They asked if Kea wished anything, or any service. Showed him where drinks were iced and snacks were kept. Told him he had but to touch the com and someone would be there within minutes. Then they disappeared. The cabana’s main room was circular, with glass walls that would opaque at the touch of a switch. In its center, a huge sunken sofa was around a hooded fireplace, with wooden logs arranged to roar into flames at the touch of a match. A fireplace? On Mars? Not likely, between pollution laws and the incredible permits required to do anything to a tree. It was, of course, false, as Kea discovered. After a few moments, he found the correct setting, so that the logs were guttering down, flames flickering shadows against the walls. Now, for the drinks.
And Tamara was there. She wore a teal-green pair of flaring pants, and a matching sleeveless top. The pants were scooped far below her navel, and the top ended approximately at Tamara’s rib cage. Approximately. Tamara picked up two already-filled glasses she must have poured from the cloth-wrapped bottle that sat in a bucket beside her.
“To… to the night,” she said They drank. And they refilled their glasses, and went back to the couch. They talked. Kea could never remember the exact conversation. But he had told her his life story—and Tamara listened, completely fascinated, sitting very close to him. He ran out of words.
Tamara put her glass down. Somehow they’d emptied that bottle of sparkling wine. She reached out, and touched his lips.
“Soft,” she murmured. She leaned closer, and her tongue flicked across Kea’s lips. He started to kiss her—and she pulled back. She unfolded, and walked away from him—hips swaying. There must have been some sort of hidden fastener on the halter top, because it was suddenly gone. Tamara flipped it over her shoulder. Turned back and looked at him. Her face serious.
She touched her midriff, and the pants fell into a silk pool about her ankles. Tamara stepped clear of them. She stretched, long and lingeringly. Kea stared, unable to speak or move. She walked slowly into a darkened room. She looked back at him and smiled. Then she disappeared into the bedroom. Light flared, as a mock candle was lit
Kea was free. Free to follow her.
“No,” Tamara said. “This time… this time you’ll just watch.” She unwound the scarf, and began knotting it at intervals. “Next time… that’s yours.”
Mars became a shadow, a blur. The center of the world was Tamara’s body. Nights were a swirl of movement, ecstasy, a sudden flash of sweet torture. Days were exploration and daring, making love anywhere and everywhere. Tamara’s passion seemed to increase the greater the risk of discovery or embarrassment. Particularly if the discovery might be made by a member of the family. Not that Kea came to Tamara’s bed as an innocent. She learned from him, as well. She wanted something new. And so, shyly at first, he showed her some of the techniques he’d heard of or even, once or twice, had demonstrated in the cribs of Maui.
She learned well and then eagerly practiced those dexterities. She combined them with other skills she was already familiar with. The style of lovemaking she preferred was prolonged, exotic, and would have a lightning-shock of pain/pleasure at the climax. Kea felt as if he were a bit of wood, floating at the edge of a maelstrom, and then being drawn down, deep into its center.
He was in love with Tamara. That could mean disaster. Ruin. But it was a fact. What made it worse—or, perhaps, better—was that Tamara seemed to be as besotted, as passionate and overwhelmed, as Kea. Kea allowed himself to dream of a future—a very different future than he had conceived of before. One which would be for two people.
Kea was amazed. Anything he wanted to do, Tamara seemed delighted to oblige him in. It was as if he were the ruler, instead of… His mind shied away from the rest. Once, they went to the dockyards at Capen City. He was fascinated by the array of ships of varying types. Here, torchships were landed in great aboveground cradles rather than ported in water, and Kea could even walk under their bulging enormity and fully realize just how huge they were. Tamara, not terribly interested in the ships themselves— “Darling, we own half of them”—was fascinated by the color, squalor, and lurking danger. Several times she told him how safe she felt with him.
Something was bothering Kea. Why were the spacecrews dressed in such a slovenly manner—very different from the heroic posturing of the vid that still occasionally dealt with space travel? Why were there so many notices tagged outside the local hiring hall? And why were the notices so weathered, as if they’d been posted for a long time, with no one desperate enough to answer them?
Tamara and Richards found seats in a crowded dive that called itself a cafe, drinking some terribly sweet concoction Tamara’d ordered from the barkeep, and he tried to think it out. Ignoring the groundpounders, almost everyone they had seen was a spaceman(woman). High vacuum and all that. So, why were all of the conversations he overheard about drink or drugs and how iced they had been the previous night. Or else how terrible the conditions were aboard ship, and which was the least ghastly hellship to sign aboard on. Their language wasn’t that of science or engineering, but the lazy-palated monotones or drunken sudden rage of the poor and desperate. It sounded like Wino Row. Why were the eyes of these brave space pioneers so dull? So dead?
He heard, for the first time, of Barrier Thirty-three, the term used as if it were some sort of gateway to Hades. He asked— and found it was the standard bulkhead division between the crew/engine spaces and the cargo/passengers. Something was very wrong. But he didn’t know what. He drained his glass and took Tamara’s hand. She was staring, entranced, at a woman down the bar whose tattoos covered every inch of skin that could be seen outside the stained cut-down shipsuit. The woman seemed as interested in Bargeta.
Tamara frowned when Kea said he wanted to hat up—but didn’t say anything. She gave the tattooed spacewoman a long smile—and Kea remembered that smile from other, private times—as they left the bar. That night, he slept alone, not wanting to disturb Tamara with his dark mood, still disturbed by what he had seen and still wondering what it meant. She laughed away his apologies the next day. She had gone back into Capen City. And looked up some “old friends.”
The end came in bright sunlight, on the deck of the trimaran where it had begun, about an Earth-week later. Kea had spent the morning preparing himself. Making sure he had the correct words. Then he was ready—as prepared, he hoped, in this matter of the heart as if it were the most important examination he would ever take. Which it was.
Tamara listened quietly to his stammer that grew into fluency. Then he was finished. Kea waited for her response. It came as a giggle. Then a full laugh. “Kea,” she said, when the laugh died away. “Let me understand. You’re saying that you think the two of us should… be together? When this summer is over? Back on Earth, even?”
Kea, feeling his guts writhe, as if he’d just stepped into a gravshaft and the McLean power was off, nodded.
“Live together? Or—do you mean like a covenant? Kea, darl’, you sound like an oldie, talking about marriage! Oh dear. This is delicious. You? With me? Oh, my, my.” And she dissolved into laughter. Kea got up, and walked numbly across the dock, and found the elevator up to the clifftop.
Later, he found himself in the main house. It was dark. Kea had not eaten, nor gone back to his room. He had tried to be invisible, especially to any of the Bargetas. A couple of the retainers asked if he needed anything. Kea shook his head. He saw one woman’s eyes soften. She started to say something, but just put her hand on his arm. Then she looked frightened and hurried away.
He didn’t know what he would do next. How could he stay out of Tamara’s way for the rest of the summer, a summer that had gone from paradise to purgatory? He couldn’t just leave. Austin was his friend. All he wanted was a secret, hidden place, to crawl into and lick the gaping tear Tamara had ripped.
He heard laughter. Austin. “Oh dear, oh dear,” he said. “Was he serious?"
“If not, he’s the best japer on Mars.” Tamara.
“I guess it shouldn’t be unexpected,” another voice said thoughtfully. Bargeta senior.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Tamara said. “But I thought—”
“You needn’t bother with an apology,” her father interrupted. “I’m hardly concerned that you found the rustic to be handsome. Nor how you chose to scratch an itch. It would be most hypo-critical for me to suggest my daughter behave as if she were a Renunciant, when we know the family has always had a taste for the… rawer side of life, eh?”
There was laughter. Shared laughter. Family laughter at the casual mention of a minor secret.
“So it’s my fault.” Austin.
“Not really,” his father explained. “You’ve just been reminded of a lesson you perhaps let slip from your mind, when you rewarded this young man’s assistance by letting him into your life. But it’s not a new lesson. Remember how hard it was when you realized your nannies weren’t Bargetas and had to be treated a certain way? Or the children we allowed the servants to have, so you’d have playmates, and how you cried when it was time for them to be sent away? So don’t chastise yourself, Austin. It’s a lesson we have to learn and relearn.”
“So what do we do?” Tamara. “I mean, I can see that letting Kea sulk around for the rest of the summer like some moonstruck swain out of a poem will be really boring.”
“Don’t worry,” Bargeta senior said. “Perhaps he’ll simply vanish. Or jump off a cliff. Or sail off into the sunset. Moonstruck yokels do things like that.”
The clink of glasses as someone poured a drink. Then, Austin’s voice: “Actually, Father, when you stop to think about it, this whole thing is very funny. Isn’t it?”
Tamara’s titter. A chuckle from Bargeta. And then all three of them were laughing very hard. Harsh, unrelenting laughter. Kea heard no more. Their mirth vanished. As did the Bargetas and Yarmouth itself.
The only thing in the entire universe was a tattered, yellowing PLACES AVAILABLE notice, on a spacecrew hiring hall.
NEXT: SEARCH FOR ANOTHER UNIVERSE
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Posted by Allan Cole at 4:48 AM