/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space

Moving Mars

Greg Bear

A brilliant physicist and the daughter of one of Mars’ oldest colonizing families — both involved in the student uprising of 2171 — see the revolution take a dramatic, unexpected turn. Won Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1994. Nominated for Hugo, Locus, and John F. Campbell Memorial Awards in 1994.

Moving Mars

by Greg Bear

For Ray Bradbury

A day on Mars is a little longer than a day on Earth: 24 hours and 40 minutes. A year on Mars is less than two Earth years: 686 Earth days, or 668 Martian days. Mars is 6,787 kilometers in diameter, compared to Earth’s 12,756 kilometers. Its gravitational acceleration is 3.71 meters per second squared, or just over one-third of Earth’s. The atmospheric pressure at the surface of Mars averages 5.6 millibars, about one-half of one percent of Earth’s. The atmosphere is largely composed of carbon dioxide. Temperatures at the “datum” or reference surface level (there is no “sea level,” as there are presently no seas) vary from -130° to +27° Celsius. An unprotected human on the surface of Mars would very likely freeze within minutes, but first would die of exposure to the near-vacuum. If this unfortunate human survived freezing and low pressure, and found a supply of oxygen to breathe, she would still be endangered by high levels of radiation from the sun and elsewhere.

After Earth, Mars is the most hospitable planet in the Solar System.

Part One

The young may not remember Mars of old, under the yellow Sun, its cloud-streaked skies dusted pink, its soil rusty and fine, its inhabitants living in pressurized burrows and venturing Up only as a rite of passage or to do maintenance or tend the ropy crops spread like nests of intensely green snakes over the wind-scoured farms. That Mars, an old and tired Mars filled with young lives, is gone forever.

Now I am old and tired, and Mars is young again.

Our lives are not our own, but by God, we must behave as if they are. When I was young, what I did seemed too small to be of any consequence; but the shiver of dust, we are told, expands in time to the planet-sweeping storm…

2171, M.Y. 53

An age was coming to an end. I had studied the signs half-innocently in my classes, there had even been dire hints from a few perceptive professors, but I had never thought the situation would affect me personally… Until now.

I had been voided from the University of Mars , Sinai. Two hundred classmates and professors in the same predicament lined the brilliant white floor of the depot, faces crossed by shadows from sun shining through the webwork of beams and girders supporting the depot canopy. We were waiting for the Soils Dorsa train to come and swift us away to our planums, planitias, fossas, and valleys.

Diane Johara, my roommate, stood with her booted foot on one small bag, tapping the tip of the boot on the handle, lips pursed as if whistling but making no sound. She kept her face pointed toward the northern curtains, waiting for the train to nose through. Though we were good friends, Diane and I had never talked politics. That was basic etiquette on Mars.

“Assassination,” she said.

“Impractical,” I murmured. I had not known until a few days ago how strongly Diane felt. “Besides, who would you shoot?”

“The governor. The chancellor.”

I shook my head.

Over eighty percent of the UMS students had been voided, a gross violation of contract. That struck me as very damned unfair, but my family had never been activist. Daughter of BM finance people, born to a long tradition of caution, I straddled the fence.

The political structure set up during settlement a century before still creaked along, but its days were numbered. The original settlers, arriving in groups of ten or more families, had dug warrens in water-rich lands all over Mars, from pole to pole, but mostly in the smooth lowland plains and the deep valleys. Following the Lunar model, the first families had formed syndicates called Binding Multiples or BMs. The Binding Multiples acted like economic super-families; indeed, “family” and “BM” were almost synonymous. Later settlers had a choice of joining established BMs or starting new ones; few families stayed independent.

Many BMs merged and in time agreed to divide Mars into areological districts and develop resources in cooperation. By and large, Binding Multiples regarded each other as partners in the midst of Martian bounty, not competitors.

“The train’s late. Fascists are supposed to make them run on time,” Diane said, still tapping her boot.

“They never did on Earth,” I said.

“You mean it’s a myth?”

I nodded.

“So fascists aren’t good for anything?” Diane asked.

“Uniforms,” I said.

“Ours don’t even have good uniforms.”

Elected by district ballot, the governors answered only to the inhabitants of their districts, regardless of BM affiliations. The governors licensed mining and settlement rights to the BMs and represented the districts in a joint Council of Binding Multiples. Syndics chosen within BMs by vote of senior advocates and managers represented the interests of the BMs themselves in the Council. Governors and syndics did not often see eye to eye. It was all very formal and polite — Martians are almost always polite — but many procedures were uncodified. Some said it was grossly inefficient, and attempts were being made to unify Mars under a central government, as had already happened on the Moon.

The governor of Syria-Sinai, Freechild Dauble, a tough, chisel-chinned administrator, had pushed hard for several years to get the BMs to agree to a Statist constitution and central government authority. She wanted them to give up their syndics in favor of representation by district. This meant the breakup of BM power, of course.

Dauble’s name has since become synonymous with corruption, but at the time, she had been governor of Mars’s largest district for eight Martian years and was at the peak of her long friendship with power. By cajoling, pressuring, and threatening, she had forged — some said forced — agreements between the largest BMs. Dauble had become the focus of Martian Unity and was on the sly spin for president of the planet.

Some said Dauble’s own career was the best argument for change, but few dared contradict her.

A vote was due within days in the Council to make permanent the new Martian constitution. We had lived under the Dauble government’s “trial run” for six months, and many grumbled loudly. The hard-won agreement was fragile. Dauble had rammed it down too many throats, with too much underhanded dealing.

Lawsuits were pending from at least five families opposed to unity, mostly smaller BMs afraid of being absorbed and nullified. They were called Gobacks by the Statists, who regarded them as a real threat. The Statists would not tolerate a return to what they saw as disorganized Binding Multiples rule.

“If assassination is so impractical,” Diane said, “we could rough up a few of the favorites — ”

“Shh,” I said.

She shook her short, shagged hair and turned away, soundlessly whistling again. Diane did that when she was too angry to speak politely. Red rabbits who had lived for decades in close quarters placed a high value on politeness, and impressed that on their offspring.

The Statists feared incidents. Student protests were unacceptable to Dauble. Even if the students did not represent the Gobacks, they might make enough noise to bring down the agreement.

So Dauble sent word to Caroline Connor, an old friend she had appointed chancellor of the largest university, University of Mars Sinai . An authoritarian with too much energy and too little sense, Connor obliged her crony by closing most of the campus and compiling a list of those who might be in sympathy with protesters.

I had majored in government and management. Though I had signed no petitions and participated in no marches — unlike Diane, who had taken to the movement vigorously — my name crept onto a list of suspects. The Govmanagement Department was notoriously independent; who could trust any of us?

We had paid our tuition but couldn’t go to classes. Most of the voided faculty and students had little choice but to go home. The university generously gave us free tickets on state chartered trains. Some, including Diane, declined the tickets and vowed to fight the illegal voiding. That earned her — and, guilty by association, me, simply slow to pack my belongings — an escort of UMS security out of the university warrens.

Diane walked stiffly, slowly, defiantly. The guards — most of them new emigrants from Earth, large and strong — firmly gripped our elbows and hustled us down the tunnels. The rough treatment watered my quick-growing seed of doubt; how could I give in to this injustice without a cry? My family was cautious; it had never been known for cowardice.

Surrounded by Connor’s guards, packed in with the last remaining voided students, we were marched in quickstep past a cluster of other students lounging in a garden atrium. They wore their family grays and blues, scions of BMs with strong economic ties to Earth, darlings of those most favoring Dauble’s plans; all still in school. They talked quietly and calmly among themselves and turned to watch us go, faces blank. They offered no support, no encouragement; their inaction built walls. Diane nudged me. “Pigs,” she whispered. . I agreed. I thought them worse than traitors — they behaved as if they were cynical and old, violators of the earnest ideals of youth.

We had been loaded into a single tunnel van and driven to the depot, still escorted by campus guards.

The depot hummed.

A few students wandered down a side corridor, then came back and passed the word. The loop train to the junction at Solis Dorsa approached. Diane licked her lips and looked around nervously. The last escorting guard, assured that we were on our way, gave us a tip of his cap and stepped into a depot cafe, out of sight.

“Are you coming with us?” Diane asked.

I could not answer. My head buzzed with contradictions, anger at injustice fighting family expectations. My mother and father hated the turmoil caused by unification. They strongly believed that staying out of it was best. They had told me so, without laying down any laws.

Diane gave me a pitying look. She shook my hand and said, “Casseia, you think too much.” She edged along the platform and turned a corner. In groups of five or less, students went to the lav, for coffee, to check the weather at their home depots… Ninety students in all sidled away from the main group.

I hesitated. Those who remained seemed studiously neutral. Sidewise glances met faces quickly turned away.

An eerie silence fell over the platform. One last student, a female first-form junior carrying three heavy duffels, did a little shimmy, short brown hair fanning around her neck. She let one duffel slip from her shoulder. The shimmy vibrated down to her leg and she kicked the bag two meters. She dropped her other bags and walked north on the platform and around the corner.

My whole body quivered. I looked at the solemn faces around me and wondered how they could be so bovine. How could they just stand there, waiting for the train to slow, and accept Dauble’s punishment for political views they might not even support?

The train pushed a plug of air along the platform as it passed through the seals and curtains. Icons flashed above the platform — station ID, train designator, destinations — and a mature woman’s voice told us, with all the politeness in the world and no discernible emotion, “Sou’s Dorsa to Bosporus, Nereidum, Argyre, Noachis, with transfers to Meridiani and Hellas, now arriving, gate four.”

I muttered, “Shit shit shit” under my breath. Before I knew what I had decided, before I could paralyze myself with more thought, my legs took me around the corner and up to a blank white service bay: dead end. The only exit was a low steel door covered with chipped white enamel. It had been left open just a crack. I bent down, opened the door wide, glanced behind me, and stepped through.

It took me several minutes of fast walking to catch up with Diane. I passed ten or fifteen students in a dark arbeiter service tunnel and found her. “Where are we going?” I asked in a whisper.

“Are you with us?”

“I am now.”

She winked and shook my hand with a bold and happy swing. “Someone has a key and knows the way to the old pioneer domes.”

Muffling laughter and clapping each other on the back, full of enthusiasm and impressed by our courage, we passed one by one through an ancient steel hatch and crept along narrow, stuffy old tunnels lined with crumbling foamed rock. As the last of us left the UMS environs, stepping over a dimly lighted boundary marker into a wider and even older tunnel, we clasped hands on shoulders and half-marched, half-danced in lockstep.

Someone at the end of the line harshly whispered for us to be quiet. We stopped, hardly daring to breathe. Seconds of silence, then from behind came low voices and the mechanical hum of service arbeiters, a heavy, solid clank and a painful twinge in our ears. Someone had sealed the tunnel hatch behind us.

“Do they know we’re in here?” I asked Diane.

“I doubt it,” she said. “That was a pressure crew.”

They had closed the door and sealed it. No turning back.

The tunnels took us five kilometers beyond the university borders, through a decades-old maze unused since before my birth, threaded unerringly by whoever led the group.

“We’re in old times now,” Diane said, looking back at me. Forty orbits ago — over seventy-five Terrestrial years — these tunnels had connected several small pioneer stations. We filed past warrens once used by the earliest families, dark and bitterly cold, kept pressurized in reserve only for dire emergency…

Our few torches and tunnel service lamps illuminated scraps of old furniture, pieces of outdated electronics, stacked drums of emergency reserve rations and vacuum survival gear.

Hours before, we had eaten our last university meal and had a warm vapor shower in the dorms. That was all behind us. Up ahead, we faced Spartan conditions.

I felt wonderful. I was doing something significant, and without my family’s approval.

I thought I was finally growing up.

The ninety students gathered in a dark hollow at the end of the tunnel, a pioneer trench dome. All sounds — nervous and excited laughter, questioning voices, scraping of feet on the cold floor, scattered outbreaks of song — blunted against the black poly interior. Diane broke Martian reserve and hugged me. Then a few voices rose above the dull murmurs. Several students started taking down names and BM affiliations. The mass began to take shape.

Two students from third-form engineering — a conservative and hard-dug department — stood before us and announced their names: Sean Dickinson, Gretyl Laughton. Within the day, after forming groups and appointing captains, we confirmed Sean and Gretyl as our leaders, expressed our solidarity and zeal, and learned we had something like a plan.

I found Sean Dickinson extremely handsome: of middle height, slight build, wispy brown hair above a prominent forehead, brows elegantly slim and animated. Though less attractive, Gretyl had been struck from the same mold: a slim young woman with large, accusing blue eyes and straw hair pulled into a tight bun.

Sean stood on an old crate and gazed down upon us, establishing us as real people with a real mission. “We all know why we’re here,” he said. Expression stern, eyes liquid and compassionate, he raised his hands, long and callused fingers reaching for the poly dome above, and said, ‘The old betray us. Experience breeds corruption. It’s time to bring a moral balance to Mars, and show them what an individual stands for, and what our rights really mean. They’ve forgotten us, friends. They’ve forgotten their contractual obligations. True Martians don’t forget such things, any more than they’d forget to breathe or plug a leak. So what are we going to do? What can we do? What must we do?”

Remind them!” many of us shouted. Some said, “Kill them,” and I said, “Tell them what we — ” But I was not given a chance to finish, my voice lost in the roar.

Sean laid out his plan. We listened avidly; he fed our anger and our indignation. I had never been so excited. We who had kept the freshness of youth, and would not stand for corruption, intended to storm UMS overland and assert our contractual rights. We were righteous, and our cause was just.

Sean ordered that we all be covered with skinseal, pumped from big plastic drums. We danced in the skinseal showers naked, laughing, pointing, shrieking at the sudden cold, embarrassed but greatly enjoying ourselves. We put our clothes back on over the flexible tight-fitting nanomer. Skinseal was designed for emergency pressure problems and not for comfort. Going to the bathroom became an elaborate ritual; in skinseal, a female took about four minutes to pee, a male two minutes, and shitting was particularly tricky.

We dusted our skinseal with red ochre to hide us should we decide to worm out during daylight. We all looked like cartoon devils.

By the end of the third day, we were tired and hungry and dirty and impatient. We huddled in the pressurized poly dome, ninety in a space meant for thirty, our rusty water tapped from an old well, having eaten little or no food, exercising to ward off the cold.

I brushed past a pale thoughtful fellow a few times on the way to the food line or the lav. Lean and hawk-nosed and dark-haired, with wide, puzzled eyes, a wry smile and a hesitant, nervously joking manner, he seemed less angry and less sure than the rest of us. Just looking at him irritated me. I stalked him, watching his mannerisms, tracking his growing list of inadequacies. I was not in the best temper and needed to vent a little frustration. I took it upon myself to educate him.

At first, if he noticed my attention at all, he seemed to try to avoid me, moving through little groups of people under the gloomy old poly, making small talk. Everybody was testy; his attempts at conversation fizzled. Finally he stood in line near an antique electric wall heater, waiting his turn to bask in the currents of warm dry air.

I stood behind him. He glanced at me, smiled politely, and hunkered down with his back against the wall. I sat beside him. He clamped his hands on his knees, set his lips primly, and avoided eye contact; obviously, he had had enough of trying to make conversation and failing.

“Having second thoughts?” I asked after a decent interval.

“What?” he asked, confused.

“You look sour. Is your heart in this?”

He flashed the same irritating smile and lifted his hands, placating. “I’m here,” he said.

“Then show a little enthusiasm, dammit.”

Some other students shook their heads and shuffled away, too tired to get involved in a private fracas. Diane joined us at the rear of the line.

“I don’t know your name,” he said.

“She’s Casseia Majumdar,” said Diane.

“Oh,” he said. I was angry that he recognized the name. Of all things, I didn’t want to be known for my currently useless family connections.

“Her third uncle founded Majumdar BM,” Diane continued. I shot her a look and she puckered her lips, eyes dancing. She was enjoying a little relief from the earnest preparations and boredom.

“You have to be with us in heart and mind,” I lectured him.

“Sorry. I’m just tired. My name is Charles Franklin.” He offered a hand.

I thought that was incredibly insensitive and gauche, considering the circumstance. We had made it to the heater, but I turned away as if I didn’t care and walked toward the stacks of masks and cyclers being tested by our student leader.

Neither a Statist nor a Goback, Sean Dickinson seemed to me the epitome of what our impromptu organization stood for. Son of a track engineer, Sean had earned his scholarship by sheer brainwork. In the UMS engineering department, he had moved up quickly, only to be diverted into attempts to organize trans-BM unions. That had earned him the displeasure of Connor and Dauble.

Sean worked with an expression of complete concentration, hair disheveled, spidery, strong fingers pulling at mask poly. His mouth twitched with each newfound leak. He hardly knew I existed. Had he known, he probably would have shunned me for my name. That didn’t stop me from being impressed.

Charles followed me and stood beside the growing pile of rejects. “Please don’t misunderstand,” he said. “I’m really behind all this.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said. I observed the preparations and shivered. Nobody likes the thought of vacuum rose. None of us had been trained in insurrection. We would be up against campus security, augmented by the governor’s own thugs and maybe some of our former classmates, and I had no idea how far they — or the situation — would go.

We watched news vids intently on our slates. Sean had posted on the ex nets that students had gone on strike to protest Connor’s illegal voiding. But he hadn’t told about our dramatic plans, for obvious reasons. The citizens of the Triple — the linked economies of Earth, Mars, and Moon — hadn’t turned toward us. Even the LitVids on Mars seemed uninterested.

“I thought I could help,” Charles said, pointing to the masks and drums. “I’ve done this before…”

“Gone Up?” I asked.

“My hobby is hunting fossils. I asked to be on the equipment committee, but they said they didn’t need me.”

“Hobby?” I asked.

“Fossils. Outside. During the summer, of course.”

Here was my chance to be helpful to Sean, and maybe apologize to Charles for showing my nerves. I squatted beside the pile and said, “Sean, Charles here says he’s worked outside.”

“Good,” Sean said. He tossed a ripped mask to Gretyl. I wondered innocently if she and Sean were lovers. Gretyl scowled at the mask — a safety-box surplus antique — and dropped it on the reject pile, which threatened to spill out around our feet.

“I can fix those,” Charles said. “There are tubes of quick poly in the safety boxes. It works.”

“I won’t send anybody outside in a ripped mask,” Sean said. “Excuse me, but I have to focus here.”

“Sorry,” Charles said. He shrugged at me.

“We may not have enough masks,” I said, looking at the diminishing stacks of good equipment.

Sean glared over his shoulder, pressed for time and very unhappy. “Your advice is not necessary,” Gretyl told me sharply.

“It’s nothing,” Charles said, tugging my arm. “Let them work.”

I shrugged his fingers loose and backed away, face flushed with embarrassment. Charles returned with me to the heater, but we had lost our places there.

The lights had been cut to half. The air became thicker and colder each day. I thought of my warren rooms at home, a thousand kilometers away, of how worried my folks might be, and of how they would take it if I died out in the thin air, or if some Statist thug pierced my young frame with a flechette… God, what a scandal that would make! It seemed almost worth it.

I fantasized Dauble and Connor dragged away under arrest, glorious and magnificent disgrace, perhaps worth my death… but probably not.

“I’m a physics major,” Charles said, joining me at the end of the line.

“Good for you,” I said.

“You’re in govmanagement?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“I’m here because my parents voted against the Statists. That’s all I can figure. They were in Klein BM. Klein’s holding out to the last, you know.”

I nodded without making eye contact, wanting him to go away.

“The Statists are suicidal,” Charles said mildly. “They’ll bring themselves down… even if we don’t accelerate the process.”

“We can’t afford to wait,” I said. The skinseal wouldn’t last much longer. The nakedness and embarrassment had bonded us. We knew each other; we thought we had no secrets. But we itched and stank and our indignation might soon give way to general disgruntlement. I felt sure Sean and the other leaders were aware of this.

“I was trying to get a scholarship for Earth study and a grant for thinker time,” he said. “Now I’m off the list, I’m behind on my research — ” He paused, eyes downcast, as if embarrassed at babbling. “You know,” he said, “we’ve got to do something in the next twenty hours. The skinseal will rot.”

“Right.” I looked at him more closely. He was not homely. His voice was mellow and pleasant, and what I had first judged as lack of enthusiasm now looked more like calm, which I was certainly not.

Sean had finished weeding out the bad helmets. He stood and Gretyl called shrilly for our attention. “Listen,” Sean said, shaking out his stiff arms and shoulders. “We’ve had a response from Connor’s office. They refuse to meet with us, and they demand to know where we are. I think even Connor will figure out where we are in a few more days. So it’s now or never. We have twenty-six good outfits and eight or ten problem pieces. I can salvage two from those. The rest are junk.”

“I could fix some of them if he’d let me,” Charles said under his breath.

“Gretyl and I will wear the problem pieces,” Sean said. My heart pumped faster at his selfless courage. “But that means most of us will have to stay here. We’ll draw sticks to see who crosses the plain.”

“What if they’re armed?” asked a nervous young woman.

Sean smiled. “Red rabbits down, cause up like a rocket,” he said. That was clear enough. Martians shoot Martians, and glory to us all, the Statists would fall. He was right, of course. News would cross the Triple by day’s end, probably even reach the planetoid communities.

Sean sounded as if he thought martyrdom might be useful. I looked at the young faces around me, eight, nine, or ten — my age — almost nineteen Terrestrial years — and then at Sean’s face, seemingly old and experienced at twelve. Quietly, as a group, we raised our hands with fingers spread wide — the old Lunar Independence Symbol for the free expression of human abilities and ideas, tolerance against oppression, handshake instead of fist.

But as Sean brought his hand down, it closed reflexively into a fist. I realized then how earnest he was, and how serious this was, and what I was putting on the line.

We drew fibers from a frayed length of Old optic cord an hour after the mask count. Twenty-six had been cut long. I drew a long, as did Charles. Diane was very disappointed to get a short. We were issued masks and set our personal slates to encrypt signals tied to Sean’s and Gretyl’s code numbers. We had already gone over and over the plan. Twenty would cross the surface directly above the tunnels leading back to UMS. I was in this group.

There were aboveground university structures about five kilometers from our trench domes. The remaining students — two teams of four each, Charles among them, under Sean’s command — would fan out to key points and wait for a signal from Gretyl, the leader of our team of twenty, that we had made it to the administration chambers.

If we met resistance and were not allowed to present demands to Connor personally, then Sean’s teams would do their stuff. First, they would broadcast an illegal preemptive signal to the satcom at Marsynch, forcing on all bands the news that action in the name of contractual fulfillment was being taken by the voided students of UMS. Contractual fulfillment meant a lot even under the Statist experiment; it was the foundation of every family’s existence, a sacred kind of thing. Where Sean had gotten the expertise and equipment to send a preemptive signal, he would not say; I found his deepening mystery even more attractive.

Sean would personally take one team of four to the rail links at UMS junction. They would blow up a few custom-curved maglev rods; trains wouldn’t be able to go to the UMS terminal until a repair car had manufactured new rods, which would take several hours. UMS would be isolated.

Simultaneously, the second team of four — to which Charles was assigned — would break seals and pump oxidant sizzle — a corrosive flopsand common in this region — into the university’s net optic and satcom uplink facilities. That would break all the broad com between UMS and the rest of Mars. Private com would go through, but all broadband research and data links and library rentals would stop dead…

UMS might lose three or four million Triple dollars before the links could be repaired.

That of course would make them angry.

We waited in two lines spiraling from the center of the main trench dome. At the outside of the spiral lines, Sean and Gretyl stood silent, jaws clenched. Some students shook their red-sealed hands to get ready for the cold. Skinseal wasn’t made to keep you cozy. It only protected against hypothermia and frostbite.

My own skinseal had come loose at the joints and sweat was pooling before being processed by the nanomer. I had to go to the bathroom, more out of nerves than necessity; my feet and legs had swollen, but only a little; I was not miserable but the petty discomforts distracted me from the focus I needed to keep from turning into a quivering heap.

“Listen,” Sean said loudly, standing on a box to peer over our heads. “None of us knew what we’d be getting into when we started all this. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few hours. But we all share a common goal — freedom to pursue our education without political interference — freedom to stand clear of the sins of our parents and grandparents. That’s what Mars is all about — something new, a grand experiment. We’ll be a part of that experiment now, or by God, we’ll die trying.”

I swallowed hard and looked for Charles, but he was too far away. I wondered if he still had his calm smile.

“May it not come to that,” Gretyl said.

“Amen,” said someone behind me.

Sean looked fully charged, face muscles sharply defined within a little oval of unsealed skin around his eyes, nose and mouth. “Let’s go,” he said.

In groups of five, we removed our clothes, folding them neatly or just dropping them. The first to go entered the airlock, cycled through, and climbed the ladder. When my turn came, I crowded into the lock with four others, held my breath against the swirling red smear, and slipped on my mask and cycler. The old mask smelled doggy. Its edges adhered to the skinseal with the sound of a prim kiss. I heard the whine of pumps pulling back the air. The skinseal puffed as gas pressures equalized. Moving became more difficult.

My companions in the lock began climbing. My turn came and I took hold of the ladder rungs and poked through the hatch, above the rust-and-ochre tumble and smear. With a kick, I cleared the lip, clambered out onto the rocky surface of the plain, and stood under the early morning sky. The sun topped a ridge of hills lying east, surrounded by a dull pink glow. I blinked at the glare.

We’d have to hike over those hills to get to UMS. It had taken us half an hour simply to climb to the surface.

We stood a few meters east of the trench dome, waiting for Gretyl to join us. In just minutes, smear clung to us all; we’d have to destat for half an hour when all this was over.

Gretyl emerged from the hole. Her voice decoded in my right ear, slightly muffled. “Let’s get together behind Sean’s group,” she said.

We could breathe, we could talk to each other. All was working well so far.

“We’re off,” Sean said, and his teams began to walk away from the trench. Some of them waved. I caught a glimpse of Charles from behind as his group marched in broken formation toward the hills, a little south of the track we would follow. I wondered why I was paying any attention to him at all. Skinseal hid little. He had a cute butt. Ever so slightly steatopygous.

I bit my lip to bring my thoughts together. I’m a red rabbit, I told myself. I’m on the Up for the first time in two years, and there are no scout supervisors or trailmasters in charge, checking all our gear, making sure we get back to our mommies. Now focus, damn you!

“Let’s go,” Gretyl said, and we began our trek.

It was a typical Martian morning, springtime balmy at minus twenty Celsius. The wind had slowed to almost nothing. The air was clear for two hundred kilometers. Thousands of stars pricked through at zenith like tiny jewels. The horizon glimmered shell-pink.

All my thoughts aligned. Something magical about the moment. I felt I possessed a completely realistic awareness of our situation… and of our chances of surviving.

The surface of Mars was usually deadly cold. This close to the equator, however, the temps were relatively mild — seldom less than minus sixty. Normal storms could push winds up to four hundred kiphs, driving clouds of fine smear and flopsand high enough and wide enough to be seen from Earth. Rarely, a big surge of Jetstream activity could send a high-pressure curl over several thousand kilometers, visible from orbit as a snaking dark line, and that could raise clouds that would quickly cover most of Mars. But the air on high Sinai Planum, at five millibars, was too thin to worry about most of the time. The usual winds were gentle puffs, barely felt.

My booted feet pounded over the crusted sand and tumble. Martian soil gets a thin crust after a few months of lying undisturbed; the grains fall into a kind of mechanical cement that feels a lot like hoarfrost. I could dimly hear the others crunching, sound traveling through the negligible atmosphere making them seem dozens of meters away.

“Let’s not get too scattered,” Gretyl said.

I passed an old glacier-rounded boulder bigger than the main trench dome. Ancient ice floes had sculpted the crustal basalt into a rounded gnome with its arms splayed across the ground, flat head resting on its arms in sleep… pretended sleep.

Somehow, red rabbits never became superstitious about the Up. It was too orange and red and brown, too obviously dead, to appeal to our morbid instincts.

“If they’re smart and somebody’s anticipating us, there may be pickets out this far to keep track of the periphery of the university,” Sean said over the radio.

“Or if somebody’s tattled,” Gretyl added. I was starting to like Gretyl. Despite having an unpleasant voice and an unaltered, shrewlike face, Gretyl seemed to have a balanced perspective. I wondered why she had kept that face. Maybe it was a family face, something to be proud of where she came from, like English royalty’s unaltered features, mandated by law. The long nose of King Henry of England .

Damn.

Focus gone.

I decided it didn’t matter. Maybe focusing on keeping a focus was a bad thing.

The sun hung above the ridge now, torch-white with the merest pink tinge. Around it whirled the thinnest of opal hazes, high silicate and ice clouds laced against the brightening orange of day. The rock shadows started to fill in, making each step a little easier. Sometimes wind hollows hid behind boulders, waiting for unwary feet.

Gretyl’s group had spread out. I walked near the front, a few steps to her right.

“Picket,” said Garlin Smith on my right, raising his arm. He had been my classmate in mass psych, quiet and tall, what ignorant Earth folks thought a Martian should look like.

We all followed Garlin’s pointing finger to the east and saw a lone figure standing on a rise about two hundred meters away. It carried a rifle.

“Armed,” Gretyl said under her breath. “I don’t believe it.”

The figure wore a full pressure suit — a professional job, the type worn by areologists, farm inspectors, Statist police. It reached up to tap its helmet. It hadn’t seen us yet, apparently, but it was picking up the jumbled buzz of our coded signals.

“Keep going,” Gretyl said. “We haven’t come this far to be scared off by a single picket.”

“If it is a picket,” Sean commented, listening to our chat. “Don’t assume anything.”

“It has to be a picket,” Gretyl said.

“All right,” Sean said with measured restraint.

The figure caught sight of us about four minutes after we first noticed it. We were separated by a hundred meters. It looked like a normal male physique from that distance.

My breath quickened. I tried to slow it.

“Report,” Sean demanded.

“Armed male in full pressure suit. He sees us. Not reacting yet,” Gretyl said.

We didn’t deviate from our path. We would pass within fifty meters of the picket.

The helmeted head turned, watching us. He held up a hand. “Hey, what is this?” a masculine voice asked. “What in hell are you doing up here? Do you folks have ID?”

“We’re from UMS,” Gretyl said. We didn’t slow our pace.

“What are you doing up here?” the picket repeated.

“Surveying, what’s it look like?” Gretyl responded. We carried no instruments. “What are you doing up here?”

“Don’t bunny with me,” he said. “You know there’s been trouble. Just tell me what department you’re from and… have you been using code?”

“No,” Gretyl said.

We had closed another twenty yards. He started to hike down the rise to inspect us.

“What in hell are you wearing?”

“Red suits,” Gretyl answered.

“Shit, it’s skinseal. It’s against the law to wear that stuff except in emergencies. How many of you are there?”

“Forty-five,” Gretyl lied.

“I’ve been told to keep intruders off university property,” he said. “I’ll need to see IDs. You should have UMS passes to even be up here.”

“Is that a gun?” Gretyl asked, faking a lilt of surprise.

“Hey, get over here, all of you.”

“Why do you need a gun?"

“Unauthorized intruders. Stop now.”

“We’re from the Areology Department, and we’ve only got a few hours up here… Didn’t you get a waiver from Professor Sunder?”

“No, dammit, stop right now.”

“Listen, friend, who do you answer to?”

“UMS is secure property. You’d better give me your student ID numbers now.”

“Fap off,” Gretyl said.

The picket raised his rifle, a long-barreled, slender automatic flechette. My anger and fear were almost indistinguishable. Dauble and Connor must have lost their minds. No student on Mars had ever been shot by police, not in fifty-three years of settlement. Hadn’t they ever heard of Tienanmen or Kent State ?

“Use it,” Gretyl said. “You’ll be all over the Triple for shooting areology students on a field trip. Great for your career. Really spin you in with our families, too. What kind of work you looking for, rabbit?”

Our receivers jabbered with the picket’s own coded outgoing message. More jabber returned.

The man lowered his rifle and followed us. “Are you armed?” he asked.

“Where would students get guns?” Gretyl asked. “Who in hell is giving you orders to scare us?”

“Listen, this is serious. I need your IDs now.”

“We’ve got his code,” Sean said. “He’s been told to block you however he can.”

“Great,” Gretyl said.

“Who are you talking to? Stop using code,” the picket demanded.

“Maybe they’re not clueing you, rabbit,” Gretyl taunted.

Gretyl’s bravado, her talent for delay and confusion, astonished me. Perhaps she and Sean and a few of the others had been training for this. I wished I knew more about revolution.

The word came to me like a small blow on my back. This was a kind of revolution. “Jesus,” I said with my transmitter off.

“What’s he doing?” Sean asked.

“He’s following us,” Gretyl said. “He doesn’t seem to want to shoot.”

“Not with flechettes, sure enough,” Sean said. “What a banner that would be!” I filled in the details involuntarily:

STUDENTS RIPPED BY BURROWING DARTS.

More code whined in our ears like angry insects.

We marched over another rise, the guard following close behind, and saw the low poke-ups of UMS. The UMS warrens extended to the northeast for perhaps a kilometer, half levels above, ten levels deep. The administration chambers--were closest to the surface entrance and the nearby pot. Train guides hovered on slender poles, arcing gently over another rise to link with the station.

Sean’s teams were probably there now.

More guards emerged from the UMS buildings, armed and in full pressure suits.

“All right,” came a gruff female voice. “State your business. Then get the hell out of here or you’ll be arrested.”

Gretyl stepped forward, a scrawny little red devil with a black masked head. “We want an audience with Chancellor Connor. We are students who have been illegally voided and whose contracts have been flagrantly broken. We demand — ”

“Who in hell do you think you are? A bunch of fapping rodents?” The woman’s voice scared me. She sounded outraged, on the edge of something drastic. I couldn’t tell which of the suited figures she was, or if she was outside at all. “You’ve crossed regional property. Goddamned Gobacks should know what that means.”

“I’m not going to argue,” Gretyl said. “We demand to speak with — ”

“You’re talking to her, you ignorant shithead! I’m right here.” The foremost figure raised an arm and shook a gloved fist. “And I’m in no mood to negotiate with Trespassers and Gobacks.”

“We’re here to deliver a petition.” Gretyl removed a metal cylinder from her belt and extended it. One of the guards started forward, but Connor grabbed his elbow and shook it once, firmly. He backed away and folded his arms.

“Politics of confrontation,” Connor said, voice harsh as old razors. “Agitprop and civil disobedience. You’d think you were on Earth. Politics doesn’t work that way here. I have a mandate to protect this university and keep order.”

“You refuse to meet with us and discuss our demands?”

“I’m meeting with you now. Nobody demands anything of lawful authority except through legal channels. Who’s behind you?”

I looked over my shoulder, misunderstanding.

“There’s no conspiracy,” Gretyl said.

“Lies, my dear. Genuine lies.”

“Under Martian contract law, we have the right to meet with you and discuss why we have been voided and our contracts broken.”

“State law superseded BM law last month.”

“Actually, it doesn’t. If you want to check with your lawyers — ” Gretyl began. I cringed. We were bickering and time was running out.

“You have one minute to turn around and go back to where you came from, or we’ll arrest you,” Connor said. “Let the legals sort it out. Do your families know where you are? How about your advocates? Do they know and approve?”

Gretyl’s words bristled. “I can’t believe you are being so stubborn. I’m asking for the last time — ”

“Right. Arrest them, my authority, statute two-five-one, Syria-Sinai district books.”

Some of the students began to talk, asking worried questions. “Quiet!” Gretyl shouted. She turned to Connor. “Is this your last answer?”

“You poor dumb rodents,” Connor said. She swiveled to enter the open lock door. Connor behaved even more rudely than she had been portrayed to us in the briefings, supremely confident, intractable and ready to provoke an incident. Guards moved forward. I turned and saw three guards behind us, also closing. We had to submit.

Gretyl stepped away from the first guard. Another flanked her on the right, coming between us, and she stepped back. There were twenty of us and ten guards.

“Let them take you,” Gretyl said. “Let them arrest you.” Then why was she resisting?

A guard took my arm and applied sticky rope to my skinsealed wrist. “You’re lucky we’re bringing you in,” he said, grinning. “You wouldn’t last another hour out here.”

Two of the guards devoted themselves exclusively to Gretyl. They advanced with hands and sticky ropes held out. She backed away, held up her arm as if waving to them, and touched her mask.

Time got stiff.

Gretyl turned to look at the rest of us. Her eyes looked scared. My heart sank. Don’t do anything just to impress Sean, I wanted to shout to her.

“Tell them what you saw here,” Gretyl said. “Freedom conquers!” Her fingers plucked at and then slipped beneath the seam of the mask. A guard grabbed at her arm but he wasn’t quick enough.

Gretyl ripped away the mask and sprang to one side, sending it flying with a wide toss. Her long-nosed face flashed pale and narrow against the pink sky. She squeezed her eyes shut and clamped her mouth instinctively. Her arms reached out, fingers extended, as if she were a tightrope walker and might lose her balance.

Simultaneously, I heard small thumps and felt the ground vibrate.

Connor hadn’t had time to enter the poke-up airlock. “Get her inside! Get her inside!” she screeched, pushing through her associates.

The guards stood still as statues for what seemed like minutes, then reached for Gretyl and dragged her as fast as they could to the airlock. She struggled in their arms. I saw her face pinking, blood vessels near the surface rupturing as the plasma boiled. Vacuum rose.

Gretyl opened her eyes and reached up with one hand to grab at her chin. She pulled her own jaw open. The air in her lungs rushed out, moisture freezing in a cloud in the still air.

“They’ve blown track,” someone shouted.

“Get her INSIDE!”

Gretyl looked at the sky through rime-clouded eyes.

The guard in front of me jerked the sticky rope forward and I fell into the dirt. For an instant it seemed he might kick me. I looked up and saw narrow grim eyes behind the helmet visor, mouth open, face slack. He stopped and blinked, waiting for orders.

I twisted my head around to see how my companions were being treated. Several lay in the dirt. The guards systematically pushed us down and planted boots on our backs. When all nineteen lay flat, the guards stood back. The door to the lock opened again and someone stepped out, not Connor.

“They’re under arrest,” a man’s voice said over the radio. “Get them inside. Strip that stuff off and put them in a dorm. Delouse them.”

There have never been lice on Mars.

They separated us quickly. Three guards pulled five of us away from the airlock and marched us through chilly tunnels to the old dorms, seldom used now. The new dorms had been equipped with more modern conveniences, but these were maintained for an emergency or future overload of students.

“Can you get this off by yourself?” the tallest of the three asked, gesturing at our skinseal. She removed her helmet beneath the dimmed lights of the hall, lips downturned, eyes miserable.

“What did he mean, delouse?” another guard asked, a young, muscular male with West Indian features and accent.

The guards were all fresh Martians. That made sense. The new United Mars state would be their sponsor, their BM and family.

“You can’t just hold us here,” I said. “What happened to Gretyl?” My four companions turned on the guards, pointing fingers and shouting. We all demanded our rights — communication, freedom, advocates.

It became an open rebellion until the third guard pulled a flechette from his pack. He was the shortest, a slim man with plain, short-cut brown hair and perfect, saintly features. His eyes narrowed, very cold. I thought, Here’s a Statist sympathizer. The others were merely hired hands.

“Blow it down, right now,” he demanded.

“You injured Gretyl!” I shouted. “We need to know what happened to her!”

“Sabotage is treason. We could shoot you in self-defense.”

He raised the pistol. All of us backed away, including the two other guards.

“That wouldn’t be smart,” I said.

“Not for you.” The slim fellow gave us a cold thin smile and pushed us down the hall.

We entered a stripped-down double room, immediately sprawling on the bare cot and chairs, another small gesture of useless defiance.

“You’re going to be here for a while, so get comfortable.”

I didn’t like him pushing his pistol and didn’t want to provoke him any further. We peeled off our skinseal — it was a blessed relief to be free of it, actually. The West Indian tossed the shreds into dust bags. Enough smear floated loose to make us sneeze.

As if meeting for the first time, the five of us nodded and made introductions where necessary. We knew each other only slightly; one had been a classmate of mine, Felicia Overgard, about a year younger and two steps behind. I did not know Oliver Peskin well, a step higher and an agro major, and I had only met Tom Callin and Chao Ming Jung in the trench dome.

The slim fellow averted his eyes. Bizarre, waving a gun at us but ashamed of our bare flesh. He thrust the gun at the vapor sacks in the washroom. “I don’t know if you have lice, but you smell pretty rank.”

The vapor bags hadn’t been refilled or filtered in some time and we didn’t smell much better after the showers. Water was inadequate to get rid of smear, and we carried itchy patches of red and orange all over. We’d have welts by tomorrow.

Three hours passed and we learned nothing. The guards stayed in their suits to avoid the dust. They had removed any identifiers and would not tell us their names. The sympathizer grew more and more grim as the hours crawled, and then ramped up to nervous, fidgeting with his gun. He whistled and pantomimed breaking it down and reassembling it. Finally, his slate chimed and he answered.

After a couple of brief acknowledgments, he sent the female guard out of the room. I wondered what they would do next, why they didn’t want the woman there.

Surely they weren’t that stupid.

Conversation with my companions became thin and quiet. Fear had worn off — we no longer thought we were going to be shot — but the numbing sense of isolation that replaced it was no better. We settled into shivering silence.

The rooms were kept at minimum heat and we still didn’t have any clothes. The three men suffered worse than Felicia and I.

“It’s cold in here,” I said to the sympathizer. He agreed but did nothing.

“It’s cold enough to make us sick,” said Oliver.

“All right,” said the sympathizer.

“We should find them some clothes,” said the West Indian.

“No,” said the sympathizer.

“Why not?” Chao asked. Felicia had given up covering herself with her hands.

“You caused a hell of a lot of trouble. Why make it any easier on you?”

“They’re human, man,” the West Indian said. He was not very old, twelve or thirteen, and he had to be a recent immigrant. His West Indies accent was still obvious.

The sympathizer squinted and shook his head dubiously.

We’ve won, I thought. With fools like this, the Statists don’t have a chance. I couldn’t quite convince myself, however.

We spent ten hours in that dorm room, cold and naked, skin itching furiously.

I fell asleep and dreamed of trees too tall to fit into any dome, rooted unprotected in the red dirt of Mars: redwoods in red flopsand, lofting a hundred meters, tended by naked children. I had had the dream before and it left me for a moment with an intense feeling of well-being. Then I remembered I was a prisoner.

The West Indian prodded my shoulder. I rolled on the thinly carpeted floor. He averted his eyes from my nakedness and drew his lips tightly together. “I want you to know I am not all in this,” he said. “My heart, I mean. I am truly a Martian, and this is my first work here, you know?”

I looked around. The sympathizer was out of the room. “Get us some clothes,” I said.

“You blew up the train lines and these people, they are very angry. I just tell you, don’t blame me when the shit sprays. People go up and down the halls — the tunnels. I look out, there is so much going on. They are afraid, I think.”

What did they have to be afraid of? Had the LitVids grabbed Gretyl’s injury or death and put our cause on the sly spin?

“Can you send a message to my parents?”

“The fellow Rick has gone,” the West Indian said, shaking his head. “He meets with others, and he leaves me here.”

“What happened to Gretyl?”

He shook his head again. “I hear nothing about her. What I saw, it made me sick. Everybody is so crazy. Why did she do it?”

“To make a point,” I said.

“Not worth losing your life,” the West Indian said, frowning deeply. “This is small history, petty people. On Earth — ”

My temper flared. “Look, we’ve only been here a hundred Earth years, and our history is small stuff by Earth standards, but you’re a Martian now, remember? This is corruption and dirty politics — and if you ask me, it’s directly connected with Earth, and the hell with all of you!”

You really sound committed, I thought. Abuse could do wonders.

I awakened the others with my outburst. Felicia sat up. “He isn’t armed,” she observed. Oliver and Chao stood warily and brushed dust off their backsides, muscles tensed as if they were giving thought to jumping the man.

The West Indian looked, if possible, even more abjectly miserable. “Do not try something,” he said, standing his ground with arms out, shaking his head.

The door opened and the sympathizer returned. He and the West Indian exchanged glances and the West Indian tilted and shook his head, saying, “Oh, man.” Behind the sympathizer came a fellow with short black hair. He wore a tight-fitting, expensive, and fashionable green longsuit.

“We’re kept here against our will — ” Oliver complained immediately.

“Under arrest,” the man in the fashionable green suit said jovially.

“For more than a day, and we demand to be released,” Oliver finished, folding his arms. The man in the suit smiled at this literally naked presumption.

“I’m Achmed Crown Niger ,” he said. His voice was high Mars, imitative of the flat English of Earth, an accent rarely heard in the regional BMs. I presumed he would be from Lai Qila or some other independent station, perhaps a Muslim. “I represent the state interests in the university. I’m going from room to room getting names. I’ll need your family names, BM connections, and the names of people you’ll want to talk to in the next hour.”

“What happened to Gretyl?” I asked.

Achmed Crown Niger raised his eyebrows. “She’s alive. She has acute facial rose and her eyes and lungs need to be rebuilt. But we have other things to talk about. Under district book laws, you are all charged with criminal Trespass and sabotage — ”

“What happened to the others?” I pursued.

He ignored me. “That’s serious stuff. You’re going to need advocates.” He turned to the sympathizer and barked, “Damn it, get these people something to wear.” He looked back at us and his ingratiating smile returned. “It’s tough being legal in front of naked people.”

Thirty armed men and women, as many LitVid agents, Chancellor Connor, and Governor Dauble herself stood in the dining hall, Connor and Dauble and their entourage well away from the offending students. We clustered in bathrobes near the serving gates, the twenty-eight who had gone out with Sean and Gretyl, criminals caught in the act of sabotage. Those left behind in the trench domes had been collected as well. Dauble and Connor were about to celebrate their victory on LitVid across the Triple.

Medias and Pressians, my father called them: the hordes of LitVid reporters that seemed rise out of the ground at the merest hint of a stink. On Mars reporters were a hearty breed; they learned early to get around the tight lips of BM families. Ten of the quickest and hardiest — several familiar to me — stood with arbeiter attendants near the Statist cluster, ear loops recording all they saw, images edited hot for transmission to the satcoms.

Diane stood in a group across the hall. She waved to me surreptitiously. I did not see Sean. Charles was five or six meters from me in our pack and did not appear injured. He saw me and nodded. Some from his group had sustained bruises and even broken bones. Blue boneknits graced three.

We said nothing, stood meek and pitiful. This was our time to be victims of the oppressive state.

Dauble came forward flanked by two advisors. A louder curled on her shoulder like a thin snake. “Folks, this has gone much too far. Chancellor Connor has been courteous enough to supply the families of these students — ”

“Banned students!” Oliver Peskin shouted next to me. Others took up the cry, and another chorus followed on with, “Contract rights! Obligations!”

Dauble listened, face fixed in gentle disapproval. The cries died down.

“To supply all of their families with information on their whereabouts, and their status as arrested saboteurs,” she finished.

“Where’s Gretyl?” I shouted, hardly aware I’d opened my mouth.

“Where’s Sean?” someone else called. “Where’s Gretyl?”

“Family advocates are flying in now. The train service has been cut, thanks to these students, and our ability to up-link on broadband has been severely curtailed. These acts of sabotage — “

“Illegal voiding!” another student shouted.

“Constitute high felonies under the district book and United Martian codes — ”

“Where’s SEAN? Where’s GRETYL?” Oliver shouted, hair awry, flinging up his hand, fingers splayed.

Guards moved in, shoving through us none too gently, and grabbed him. Connor stepped forward and raised her arm. Achmed Crown Niger ordered the guards to release him. Oliver shrugged their arms away and smiled back at us triumphantly.

Dauble seemed unaffected by the confusion. ‘These acts will be fully prosecuted.”

“Where’s SEAN? Where’s GRETYL?” several students yelled again.

“Sean’s dead! Gretyl’s dead!” shouted one high, shrill voice. The effect was electric.

“Who says? Who knows?” others called. The students cried out and milled like sheep.

“Nobody has been killed,” Dauble said, her composure suddenly less solid.

“Bring SEAN!”

Dauble conferred with her advisors, then turned back to us. “Sean Dickinson is in the university infirmary with self-inflicted wounds. Everything possible is being done to help him. Gretyl Laughton is in the infirmary as well, with injuries from self-exposure.”

The reporters hadn’t heard this yet; their interest was immediate, and all focused on Dauble.

“How were the students injured?” asked one reporter, her pickup pointed at Dauble.

“There have been several small injuries — ”

“Inflicted by the guards?”

“No,” Connor said.

“Is it true the guards have been armed all along? Even before the sabotage?” another reporter asked.

“We anticipated trouble from the beginning,” Dauble said. “These students have proven us correct.”

“But the guards aren’t authorized police or regulars — how do you justify that under district charter?”

“Justify all of it!” Diane shouted.

“I don’t understand your attitude,” Dauble said to us after a few moments of careful consideration in the full gaze of hot LitVid. “You sabotage life-support equipment — ”

“That’s a lie!” a student shouted.

“Disrupt the lawful conduct of this university, and now you resort to attempted suicide. What kind of Martians are you? Do your parents approve of this treachery?”

Dauble screwed her face into an expression between parental exasperation and deep concern. “What in the hell is wrong with you? Who raised you — thugs?"

The meeting came to an abrupt end. Dauble and her entourage departed, followed by the reporters. When several reporters tried to talk to us, they were unceremoniously ejected from the dining hall.

How very, very stupid, I thought.

I felt a bit faint from hunger; we hadn’t eaten in twenty hours. A few university staff, clearly uncomfortable, served us bowls of quick paste from trays. The nutritional nana was tasteless but still seemed heaven-sent. We had been provided with sleeping pads and blankets and were told winds were up and dust was blowing, grounding shuttles. No advocates or parents had yet come in to see us.

While being fed, we had been divided into groups of six, each assigned two guards. The guards actively discouraged talk between the groups, moving us farther and farther apart until we spread out through the hall. Oliver, considered a loudmouth activist, was prodded into a selected group of other loudmouths that included Diane. Charles sat with five others across the hall, about twenty meters away.

When we still tried to talk, the dining hall sound system blared out loud pioneer music, old-fashioned soul-stirring crap I had enjoyed as a kid, but found bitterly inappropriate now.

When I was free to speak with the Medias and Pressians, I thought, what a story I’d tell… I had seen and done things in the past few days that my entire life had not prepared me for, and I had felt emotions unknown to me: righteous anger, political confraternity and solidarity, deep fear.

I worried for Sean. All our information came through Achmed Crown Niger , who visited every few hours to hand out scraps of generally useless news. I took a real dislike to him: professional, collected, he was every gram the guvvie man. I focused on his pale, fine-featured face for a time, blaming him for all our troubles. He must have advised the chancellor and governor… He must have outlined their strategy, maybe even planned the banning and voiding of students…

I thought dreamily about a possible life with Sean, if he paid any attention to me after his recovery.

Nothing to do. Nothing to think. The lights in the dining hall went out. The music stopped.

I slept on the floor, nestled like a puppy against Felicia’s back.

Someone touched my shoulder. I opened my eyes from a light doze. Charles leaned over me, his face thinner and older, but his smile the same: too calm, somehow, like a young Buddha. His cheeks had pinked as if smirched with poorly applied makeup: a mild case of vacuum rose. Most of the students around us still slept.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I sat up and looked around. The lights were still dim, but it was obvious the guards had gone.

“Tired,” I said. I swallowed hard. My throat was parched and I could feel the oxidant welts itching fiercely. “Where’s our food and water?”

“I don’t think we’re going to get any unless we go for it ourselves.”

I stood and stretched my arms. “Are you all right?” I asked, squinting at him, reaching up to his cheeks.

“My mask leaked. I’m fine. My eyes are okay. You look strong,” Charles said.

“I feel shitty,” I said. “Where are the guards?”

“Probably trying to get out of here any way they can,.”

“Why?”

He lifted his hands. “I don’t know. They backed out about an hour ago.”

Oliver Peskin and Diane walked over and we squatted on the floor in whispered confab. Felicia stirred and poked Chao in the ribs.

“What happened to Sean?” Diane asked Charles.

“He was planting a charge when it went off,” Charles said. ‘They say he set it off on purpose.”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Felicia said, face screwed up in disgust.

“Gretyl pulled her mask off,” I said.

“Insane,” Charles said.

“She had her reasons,” Chao said.

“Anyway,” Diane went on. “We need leaders.”

“We’re not going to be here much longer,” Oliver said.

“Oliver’s right. We’re not guarded. Something’s changed,” Charles said.

“We have to stick together,” Diane insisted.

“If something’s changed, it has to have changed in our favor,” Oliver said. “It couldn’t get any worse.”

“We still need leaders,” I said. “We should wake people up now and see what the group thinks.”

“What if we’ve won?” Felicia asked. “What do we do?”

“Find out how much we’ve won, and why,” Charles said.

We explored the tunnels around the dining hall, venturing back to the old dorms, all quite empty now. We encountered a few arbeiters about their maintenance business, but no humans. After an hour, we begin to worry — the situation was spooky.

Fanning out, we began a systematic exploration of the upper levels of the entire university, reporting to each other on local links. Charles volunteered to join me. We took the north tunnels, closest to emergency external shafts and farthest from the administration chambers. The tunnels were dark but warm; the air smelled stale, but it was breathable. Our feet made hollow scuffing echoes in the deserted halls. The university seemed to be in an emergency power-down.

Charles walked a step ahead. I watched him closely, wondering why he wanted to be so friendly when I had given him so little encouragement.

We didn’t say much, simply stating the obvious, signaling to each other with whistles after splitting to try separate tunnels, nodding cordially when we rejoined and moved on. Gradually we moved south again, expecting to meet up with other students.

We explored a dark corridor connecting the old dorm branch with UMS’s newer tunnels. A bright light flashed ahead. We stood our ground. A woman in an ill-fitting pressure suit shined her light directly into our faces.

“University staff?” she asked.

“Hell, no. Who are you?” Charles asked.

“I’m an advocate,” the woman said. “Pardon the stolen suit. I flew in through the storm about half an hour ago. Landed during a dust lull and found a few of these abandoned near the locks. We were told there was no air in here.”

“Who told you that?”

“The last man out, and he went in a hurry, too. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Where is everybody?”

The advocate lifted her face plate and sniffed noisily. “Sorry. My nose hates flopsand. The university was evacuated seven hours ago. Bomb threat. They said a bunch of Gobacks had dumped air and planted charges in the administration chambers. Everybody left in ground vehicles. They took them overland by tractor to an intact train line.”

“You’re brave to come this far,” Charles said. “You don’t think there is a bomb, do you?”

The woman removed her helmet and smiled wolfishly. “Probably not. They didn’t tell us anybody was here. They must not like you. How many are here?”

“Ninety.”

“They voided the reporters before they evacuated. I saw you on LitVid. Press conference didn’t go well. So where are the rest of you?”

We led her to the dining hall. All the far-flung explorers were called in.

The advocate stood in the middle of the assembly, asking and answering questions. “I presume I’m the first advocate to get here. First off, my name is Maria Sanchez Ochoa. I’m an independent employed by Grigio BM from Tharsis.”

Felicia stepped forward. “That’s my family,” she said. Two others came forward as well.

“Good to see you,” Maria Sanchez Ochoa said. “The family’s worried. I’d like to get your names and report that you’re all safe.”

“What’s happened?” Diane asked. “I’m very confused.” Others joined in.

“What happened to Sean and Gretyl?” I asked, interrupting the babble.

“University security handed them over to Sinai district police early yesterday morning. Both were injured, but I don’t know to what extent. The university claimed they were injured by their own hands.”

“They’re alive?” I continued.

“I presume so. They’re at Time’s River Canyon Hospital .” She started recording names, lifting her slate and letting each speak and be recognized in turn.

I looked to my right and saw Charles standing beside me. He smiled, and I returned his smile and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Will someone take this outside and shoot it up to a satcom? None of the cables or repeaters are working, thanks to you folks.” Ochoa gave her slate to a student, who left the dining area to get to the glass roof of the administration upper levels.

“Now, some background, since I doubt you’ve heard much news recently.”

“Nothing useful,” Oliver said.

“Right. I hate to tell you this, but you didn’t do a thing for your cause by acting like a bunch of Parisian Communards. The Statist government planted its own bombs months ago, political and legal, far away from UMS, and they exploded just two days ago. We have a bad situation here, folks, and that explains some of the delay in getting to you. The constitutional accord is off. The Statists have resigned, and the old BM Charter government has been called back into session.”

The battle was over. But we were small potatoes.

Ochoa concluded by saying, “You folks have wrecked university property, you’ve violated laws in every Martian book I can think of, and you’ve put yourselves in a great deal of danger. What has it gotten you?

“Fortunately, it probably won’t get you any time in jail. I’ve heard that former Statist politicos are shipping out by dozens — and that probably includes Connor and Dauble. Nobody in their right mind is going to charge you under Statist law.”

“What did they do?” Charles asked.

“Nobody’s sure about all that they’ve done, but it looks like the government invited Earth participation in Mars politics, sought kickbacks from Belter BMs to let them mine Hellas — ”

Gasps from the assembly. We had thought we were radical.

“And planned to nationalize all BM holdings by year’s end.”

We met these pronouncements with stunned silence.

We stayed in the old dorms while security crews from Gorrie Mars BM checked out the entire university grounds. New rails were manufactured, trains came in, and most of us went home. I stayed, as did Oliver, Felicia, and Charles. I was beginning to think that Charles wanted to be near me.

I met my family in the station two days after our release, Father and Mother and my older brother Stan. My parents looked pale and shaken by both fear and anger. My father told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had violated his most sacred principles in joining the radicals. I tried to explain my reasons, but didn’t get through to him, and no wonder: they weren’t entirely clear to me.

Stan, perpetually amused by the attitudes and actions of his younger sister, simply stood back with a calm smile. That smile reminded me of Charles.

Charles, Oliver, Felicia and I bought our tickets at the autobox and walked across the UMS depot platform. We all felt more than a little like outlaws, or at least pariahs.

It was late morning and a few dozen interim university administrators had come in on the same train we would be taking out. Dressed in formal grays and browns, they stood under the glass skylights shuffling their feet, clutching their small bags and waiting for their security escort, glancing at us suspiciously.

Rail staff didn’t know we were part of the group responsible for breaking the UMS line, but they suspected. All credit to the railway that it honored charter and did not refuse service.

The four of us sat in the rearmost car, fastening ourselves into the narrow seats. The rest of the train was empty.

In 2171, five hundred thousand kilometers of maglev train tracks spread over Mars, thousands more being added by arbeiters each year. The trains were the best way to travel: sitting in comfort and silence as the silver millipedes flew centimeters above their thick black rails, rhythmically boosting every three or four hundred meters and reaching speeds of several hundred kiphs. I loved watching vast stretches of boulder-strewn flatlands rush by, seeing fans of dust topped by thin curling puffs as static blowers in the train’s nose cleared the tracks ahead.

I did not much enjoy the train ride to Time’s River Canyon Hospital , however.

We didn’t have much to say. We had been elected by the scattered remnants of the protest group to visit Sean and Gretyl.

We accelerated out of the UMS station just before noon , pressed into our seats, absorbing the soothing rumble of the carriage. Within a few minutes, we were up to three hundred kiphs, and the great plain below our ports became an ochre blur. In a window seat, I stared at the land and asked myself where I really was, and who.

Charles had taken the seat beside me, but mercifully, said little. Since my father’s stern lecture, I had felt empty or worse. The days of having nothing to do but sign releases and talk to temp security had worn me down to a negative.

Oliver tried to break the gloom by suggesting we play a word game. Felicia shook her head. Charles glanced at me, read my lack of interest, and said, “Maybe later.” Oliver shrugged and held up his slate to speck the latest LitVid.

I dozed off for a few minutes. Charles pressed my shoulder gently. We were slowing. “You keep waking me up,” I said.

“You keep napping off in the boring parts,” he said.

“You are so tapping pleasant, you know?” I said.

“Sorry.” His face fell.

“And why are you…” I was about to say following me but I could hardly support that accusation with much evidence. The train had slowed and was now sliding into Time’s River Depot. Outside, the sky was deep brown, black at zenith. The Milky Way dropped between high canyon walls as if seeking to fill the ancient flood channel.

“I think you’re interesting,” Charles said, unharnessing and stepping into the aisle.

I shook my head and led the way to the forward lock.

“We’re stressed,” I murmured.

“It’s okay,” Charles said.

Felicia looked at us with a bemused smile.

In the hospital waiting room, an earnest young public defender thrust a slateful of release forms at us. “Which government are you sending these to?” Oliver asked. The man’s uniform had conspicuous outlines of thread where patches had been removed.

“Whoever,” he answered. “You’re from UMS, right? Friends and colleagues of the patients?”

“Fellow students,” Felicia said.

“Right. Now listen. I have to say this, in case one of you is going to shoot off to a LitVid. ‘The Time’s River District neither condones nor condemns the actions taken by these patients. We follow historical Martian charter and treat any and all patients, regardless of legal circumstance or political belief. Any statements they make do not represent — ’ ”

“Jesus,” Felicia said.

“ ‘ — the policy or attitudes of this hospital, nor the policy of Time’s River District.’ End of sermon.” The public defender stepped back and waved us through.

I was shocked by what we saw when we entered Sean’s room. He had been tilted into a corner at forty-five degrees, wrapped in white surgical nano and tied to a steel recovery board. Monitors guided his reconstruction through fluid and optic fibers. Only now did we realize how badly he had been injured.

As we entered his room, he turned his head and stared at us impassively through distant green-gray eyes. We made our awkward openings, and he responded with a casual, “How’s the outside world?”

“In an uproar,” Oliver said. Sean glanced at me as if I were only there in part, not a fully developed human being, but a ghost of mild interest. I specked the moments of passionate speech when he had riveted the crowded students and compared it to this lackluster shell and was immensely saddened.

“Good,” Sean said, measuring the word with silent lips before repeating it aloud. He looked at a projected paleoscape of Mars on the wall opposite: soaring aqueduct bridges, long gleaming pipes suspended from tree-like pedestals and fruited with clusters of green globes, some thirty or forty meters across… A convincing mural of our world before the planet sucked in its water, shed its atmosphere, and withered.

“The Council’s taken over everything again,” I said. “The syndics of all the BMs are meeting to patch things together.”

Sean did not react.

“Nobody’s told us how you were hurt,” Felicia said. We looked at her, astonished at this untruth. Ochoa had checked into all the security reports, including those filed by university guards, and pieced together the story.

“The charges,” Sean said, hesitating not a moment, and I thought, Whatever Felicia is up to, he’ll tell the truth… and why expect him not to?

“The charges went off prematurely, before I had a chance to get out of the way. I set the charges alone. Of course.”

“Of course,” Oliver said.

Charles stayed in the rear, hands folded before him like a small boy at a funeral.

“Blew me out of my skinseal. I kept my helmet on, oddly enough. Exposed my guts. Everything boiled. I remember quite a lot, strangely. Watching my blood boil. Somebody had the presence of mind to throw a patch over me. It wrapped me up and slowed me down and they pulled me into the infirmary about an hour later. I don’t remember much after that.”

“Jesus,” Felicia said, in exactly the same tone she had used for the public defender in the waiting room.

“We did it to them, didn’t we? Got the ball rolling,” Sean said.

“Actually — ” Oliver began, but Felicia, with a tender expression, broke in.

“We did it,” she said. Oliver raised his eyebrows.

“I’m going to be okay. About half of me will need replacing. I don’t know who’s paying for it. My family, I suppose. I’ve been thinking.”

“Yeah?” Felicia said.

“I know what set the charge off,” Sean said. “Somebody broke the timer before I planted it. I’d like one or all of you to find out who.”

Nobody spoke for a moment. “You think somebody did it deliberately?” I asked.

Sean nodded. “We checked the equipment a hundred times and everything worked.”

“Who would have done something like that?” Oliver asked, horrified.

“Somebody,” Sean said. “Keep the students together. This isn’t over yet.” He turned to face me, suddenly focusing. “Take a message to Gretyl. Tell her she was a goddamned fool and I love her madly.” He bit into the words goddamned fool as if they were a savory cake that gave him great satisfaction. I had never seen such a join of pain and bitter pride.

I nodded.

“Tell her she and I will take the reins again and guide this mess home right. Tell her just that.”

“Guide the mess home right,” I repeated, still under his spell.

“We have a larger purpose,” Sean said. “We have to break this planet out of its goddamned business-as-usual, corrupt, bow-down-to-the-Triple, struggle-along mentality. We can do that. We can make our own party. It’s a beginning.” His eyes fixed on each of us in turn, as if to brand us. Felicia held out her splayed fingers and Sean lifted his free arm to awkwardly press his hand against hers. Oliver did the same. Charles stood back; too much for him. I was about to raise my hand and match Sean’s. But Sean saw my hesitation, my change of expression when Charles stepped back, and he dropped his hand before I could decide.

“Heart and mind, heart and mind,” Sean said softly. “You are… Casseia, right? Casseia Majumdar?”

“Yes.”

“How did your family fare in all this?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“They’re fixed to prosper. The Gobacks will do well in the next government. It was funny, Connor thinking we were Gobacks. Are you a Goback, Casseia?”

I shook my head, throat tight. His tone was so stiff and distant, so reproving.

“Show it to me, Casseia. Heart and mind.”

“I don’t think you have any right to question my loyalty because of my family,” I said.

Sean’s gaze went cold. “If you’re not dedicated, you could turn on us… just like whoever broke the timer.”

“Gretyl handled the charge,” Charles said. “Nobody else touched it. Certainly not Casseia.”

“We all slept, didn’t we?” Sean said. “But it’s irrelevant, really. That part’s over.”

He closed his eyes and licked his lips. A cup came up from the wallmount arbeiter and a stream of liquid poured into his mouth. He sucked it up with the expertise of days in the hospital.

“What do you mean?” Felicia asked in a little voice.

“I’ll have to pick all over again. Most of you went home, didn’t you?”

“Some did,” Felicia said. “We stayed.”

“We needed students to occupy and hold, to take the administration chambers and dictate terms. We could work from the university as a base, claim it as a forfeit for illegal voiding, claim it for damages… If I had been there, that’s what we would have done.”

I felt like crying. The injustice of Sean’s veiled accusations, mixed with my very real infatuation and guilt at not serving the cause better, turned my stomach.

“Go talk to Gretyl. And you two…” He pointed to Charles and me. “Think it over. Who are you? Where do you want to be in ten years?”

Gretyl was less severely injured, but looked worse. Her head had been wrapped in a bulky breather, leaving only a gap for her eyes. She had been laid back at forty-five degrees on a steel recovery plate as well, and tubes ran from mazes of nano clumps on her chest and neck. An arbeiter had discreetly draped the rest of her with a white sheet for our visit. She watched us enter, and her silky artificial voice said, “How’s Sean? You’ve been to see him?”

“He’s fine,” Oliver said. I was too unhappy to talk.

“We haven’t been allowed to visit. This hospital shits protocol. What’s being said outside? Did we get any attention?”

Felicia explained as gently as possible that we really hadn’t accomplished much. She was ready to be a little harder with Gretyl than with Sean; perhaps she was infatuated with Sean as well. I had a sudden insight into people and revolutions, and did not like what I saw.

“Sean has a plan to change that,” Gretyl said.

“I’m sure he does,” Oliver said.

“What’s on at UMS?”

“They’re moving in a new administration. All the Statist appointees have resigned or been put on leave.”

“Sounds like they’re being punished.”

“It’s routine. All appointments are being reviewed,” Oliver said.

Gretyl sighed — an artificial note of great beauty — and extended her hand. Felicia squeezed it. Charles and I remained in the background. “He thinks the charge that blew up was tampered with,” Oliver said.

“It may have been,” Gretyl said. “It must have been.”

“But only you and he handled it,” Charles said.

Gretyl sighed again. “It was just a standard Excavex two-kilo tube. We didn’t pay a lot of money. The people who stole it for us may have tampered with it. They could have done something to make it go off. That’s possible.”

“We don’t know that,” Oliver said.

“Listen, friends, if we haven’t attracted any attention yet, it’s because — ” She stopped and her eyes tracked the room zipzip, then narrowed.

“I have new eyes,” she said. “Do you like the color? You’d better go now. We’ll talk later, after I’m released.”

On our way out of the hospital, in the tunnel connecting us to Time’s River Station’s main tube, a hungry-looking, poorly-dressed and very young male LitVid agent tried to interview us. He followed us for thirty meters, glancing at his slate between what he thought were pointed questions. We were too glum and too smart to give any answers, but despite our reticence, we ended up in a ten-second flash on a side channel for Mars Tharsis local.

Sean, on the other hand, was interviewed the next day for an hour by an agent for New Mars Committee Scan, and that was picked up and broadcast by General Solar to the Triple. He told our story to the planets, and by and large, what he told was not what I remembered.

Nobody else was interviewed.

My sadness grew; my fresh young idealism waned rapidly, replaced by no wisdom to speak of, nothing emotionally concrete.

I thought about Sean’s words to us, his accusations, his pointed suspicion of me, his interview spreading distortions around the Triple. Now, I would say that he lied, but it’s possible Sean Dickinson even then was too good a rabbler to respect the truth. And Gretyl, I think, was about to pass on some sound advice about political need dictating how we see — and use — history.

When we returned to our dorms at UMS, we found notices posted and doors locked. Diane met me and explained that UMS had been closed for the foreseeable future due to “curriculum revisions.” Flashing icons beneath the ID plates told us we could enter our quarters once and remove our belongings. Train fare to our homes or any other destination would not be provided. Our slates received bulletins on when and where the public hearings would be held to determine the university’s future course.

We were arguably worse off than we had been with Dauble and Connor.

Charles helped Diane and me pull our belongings from the room and stack them in the tunnel. There weren’t many — I had sent most of my effects home after being voided. I helped Charles remove his goods, about ten kilos of equipment and research materials.

We ate a quick lunch in the train station. We didn’t have much to say. Diane, Oliver and Felicia departed on the northbound, and Charles saw me to the eastbound.

As I lugged my bag into the airlock, he held out his hand, and we shook firmly. “Will I see you again?” he asked.

“Why not?” I said. “When our lives are straightened out.”

He held onto my hand a little longer and I gently removed it. “I’d like to see you before that,” he said. “For me, at least, that might be a long way off.”

“All right,” I said, squeezing through the door. I didn’t commit myself to when. I was in no mood to establish a relationship.

My father forgave me. Mother secretly admired all that I had done, I think — and they personally footed the bill for expensive autoclasses, to keep me up-to-date on my studies. They could have charged it to the BM education expenses, as part of the larger Goback revival. Father was a firm believer in BM rule, but too honorable to squeeze BM-appropriated guvvie funds, or take the victor’s advantage.

When next I saw Connor, it was on General Solar LitVid. She was on the long dive to Earth, issuing pronouncements from the WHTCIPS (Western Hemisphere Transport Coalition Interplanetary Ship) Barrier Reef, returning, she was at pains to make Martians understand, to a kind of hero’s welcome. Dauble was with her but said nothing, since day by day the awful truth of her failed Statist administration was coming out.

It so happened that there was a Majumdar BM advocate on that very ship, and he took it upon himself to represent all the BMs and other interests hoping to settle with Connor and Dauble. He served them papers, day after day after day, throughout the voyage…

By the time both of them got to Earth, ten months later, they would be poor as Jackson ’s Lode, born on Mars, exiled to Earth, doomed to dodging Triple suits for the rest of their days.

2172, M.Y. 53

What was happening on Mars was an excellent example of politics in action in a “young” culture, my special area of study with respect to Earth history, and I should have been fascinated, but in fact I ignored much of the daily news.

My youthful ideals had been trodden on none too delicately, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Before I could speck out the eventual course of my education and decide how to serve my family, I had to re-establish who I was. My mother supported my youthful indecision; my father gave in to my mother. I had some time away from commitments.

When UM restarted classes, I switched campuses and majors, going to Durrey Station, the third-largest town on Mars and home of UM’s second-largest branch. I studied high humanities — text lit from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, philosophy before quantum mechanics, and the most practical subject in my list, morals and ethics as a business art. Four hapless souls shared my major, studying things most pioneering, practical Martians could not have given a damn about.

I needed a rest. So I decided to have fun.

I hadn’t thought about Charles for months. I did not know he had gone to Durrey Station as well. When classes started, we did not run into each other immediately. I saw him in Shinktown over student break.

Seven hundred and ninety students fled UM Durrey at Solstice and either went to work on their farms, if from the local, more sober and well-established families of Mariner Valley, or took refuge in Shinktown. Some, already married, spread out to their half-built warrens, soon to become new stations, and did what married people do.

My family kept no farms and required little of me in the way of overt filial piety. They loved me but let me choose my own paths.

Shinktown was a not very charming maze of shops, small and discreet hotels, game rooms, and gyms, seventeen kilometers from Durrey Station, where students went to get away from their studies, their obligations to family and town; to blow it all out and kick red.

Mars has never been a planet of prudes. Still, its attitudes toward sex befitted a frontier culture. The goals of sex are procreation and the establishment of strong connections between individuals and families; sex leads to (or should lead to) love and lasting relationships; sex without love may not be sinful, but it is almost certainly wasteful. To the ideal Martian man or woman, as portrayed in popular LitVids, sex was never a matter of just scratching an itch; it was devilishly complicated, fraught with significance and drama for individual and family, a potential liaison (one seldom married within one’s BM) and the beginning of a new entity, the stronger and dedicated dyad of perfectly matched partners.

That was the myth and I admit I found it attractive. I still do. It’s been said that a romantic is someone who never accepts the evidence of her eyes and ears.

In this age, few were physically unattractive. There was no need and little inclination among most Martians to let nature take its uncertain course. That particular question had been hammered into a viable public policy for most citizens of the Triple seventy Martian years and more ago. I was attractive enough, my genetic heritage requiring little adjustment if any — I’d never asked my mother and father, really — and men were not reluctant to talk to me.

But I had never taken a lover, mostly because I found young men either far too earnest or far too frivolous or, most commonly, far too dull. What I wanted for my first (and perhaps only) love was not physical splendor alone, but something deeply significant, something that would make Mars itself — if not the entire Triple — sigh with envy when my imagined lover and I published our memoirs, in ripe old age…

I was no more a prude than any other Martian. I did not enjoy going to bed alone. I often wished I could lower my standards just enough to learn more about men; handsome men, of course, men with a little grit, supremely self-confident. For that sort of experimentation, beauty and physical splendor would be more important than brains, but if one could have both — wit and beauty and prowess -

So fevered my dreams.

Shinktown was a place of temptations for a young Martian, and that was why so many of us went there. I enjoyed myself at the dances, flirted and kissed often enough, but shied from the more intimate meetings I knew I could have. The one continuing truth of male and female relations — that the man attempts and the woman chooses — was in my favor. I could attract, test, play the doubtless cruel and (I thought) entirely fair game of sampling the herd.

In the middle of the break, on an early spring evening, a local university club held a small mixer following a jai alai game in the arena. I’d attended the game and was enjoying a buzz of frustration at lithe male bodies leaping and slamming the heavy little ball, uneasy with a mix of strong Shinktown double-ferment tea and a little wine, and I hoped to dance it off and flirt and then go home and think.

I spotted Charles first, from across the room, while dancing with a Durrey third-form. Charles was talking to (“chatting up” I said to myself) a tall, big-eyed exotique who seemed to me way out of his league. When the dance ended, I edged through the crowd and bumped into him by accident from behind. He turned from the exotique, saw me, and to my dismay, his face lit up like a child’s. He fell all over himself to disentangle from the big-eyed other.

I had thought about the UMS action for months and wanted to talk about it, and Charles seemed perfect to fulfill that function.

“We could get dinner,” Charles suggested as we strolled off the dance floor.

“I’ve already eaten,” I said.

“Then a snack.”

“I wanted to talk about last summer.”

“Perfect opportunity, over a late dessert.”

I frowned as if the suggestion were somehow improper, then gave in. Charles took my arm — that seemed safe enough — and we found a small, quiet autocafe in an outer tunnel arc. The arc branched north of Shinktown quarters for permanent residents and offered little convenience shops, most tended by arbeiters. We passed through the central quadrangle, a hectare of tailored green surrounded by six stories of stacked balconies. The quadrangle architecture tried to imitate the worst of old Earth, retrograde, oppressive. The shop arc, however, was comparatively stylish and benign.

We sat in the cafe and sipped Valley coffee while waiting for our cakes to arrive. Charles said little at first, his nerves evident. He smiled broadly at my own few words, eager to be accommodating.

Tiring rapidly of this verbjam, I leaned forward. “Why did you come to Shinktown?” I asked.

“Bored and lonely. I’ve been up to my neck in Bell Continuum topoi. You… don’t know what this is, I presume.”

“No,” I said.

“Well, it’s fascinating. It could be important someday, but right now it’s on the fringe. Why did you come?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. For company, I suppose.” I realized, with some concern, that this was my way of being coquettish. My mother would have called it bitchy, and she knew me well enough.

“Looking for a good dance partner? I’m probably not your best choice.”

I waved that off. “Do you remember what Sean Dickinson said?”

He grimaced. “I’d like to forget.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“I’m not much of a student of human nature.” Charles examined his tiny cup. The cakes arrived and Charles slapped palm on the arbeiter. “My treat,” he said. “I’m old-fashioned.”

I let that pass as well. “I think he was monstrous,” I said.

“I’m not sure I’d go that far.”

My lips wrapped around the word again, savoring it. “Monstrous. A political monster.”

“He really stung you, didn’t he? Remember, he was hurt.”

“I’ve tried to understand the whole situation, why we didn’t accomplish anything. Why I was willing to follow Sean and Gretyl almost anywhere…”

“Follow them? Or the cause?”

“I believed — believe in the cause, but I was following them” I said. “I’m trying to understand why.”

“They seemed to know what they were doing.”

We talked for an hour, going in circles, getting no closer to understanding what had happened to us. Charles seemed to accept it as a youthful escapade, but I’d never allowed myself the luxury of such japes. Failure gave me a deep sensation of guilt, of time wasted and opportunities missed.

When we finished our cakes, it seemed natural that we should go someplace quiet and continue talking. Charles suggested the quad. I shook my head and explained that I thought it looked like an insula. Charles was not a student of history. I said, “An insula. An apartment building in ancient Rome .”

“The city?” Charles asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “The city.”

His next suggestion, preceded by a moment of perplexed reflection, was that we should go to his room. “I could order tea or wine.”

“I’ve had enough of both,” I said. “Can we get some mineral water?”

“Probably,” Charles said. “Durrey sits on a pretty fine aquifer. This whole area lies on pre-Tharsis karst.”

We took a small cab to the opposite arc, hotels and temp quarters for Shinktown’s real source of income, the students.

I don’t remember anticipating much of anything as we entered Charles’s room. There was nothing distinguished about the decor — inexpensive, clean, maintained by arbeiters, with no nano fixtures; pleasant shades of beige, soft green, and gray. The bed could hold only one person comfortably. I sat on the bed’s corner. It occurred to me suddenly that by going this far, Charles might expect something more. We hadn’t even kissed yet, however, and the agreement had been that we come here to talk.

Still, I wondered how I would react if Charles made a move.

“I’ll order the water,” he said. He took two steps beside the desk, unsure whether to seat himself on the swing-out chair or the edge of the bed beside me. “Gassed or plain?”

“Plain,” I said.

He set his slate on the desk port and placed an order. “They’re slow. Should take about five minutes. Old arbeiters,” he said.

“Creaky,” I said.

He smiled, sat on the chair, and looked around. “Not much luxury,” he said. “Can’t afford more.” The one chair, a small net and com desk, single drop-down bed with its thin blanket, vapor bag behind a narrow door, sink and toilet folded into the wall behind a curtain — all squeezed into three meters by four.

I casually wondered how many people had had sex in this room, and under what circumstances.

“We could spend years trying to figure out Sean and Gretyl,” Charles said. “I don’t want you to think I’ve forgotten what happened.”

“Oh, no,” I said.

“But I’ve got too much else to ponder, really.” He used the word in a kind of self-parody, to deflate the burden it might carry. “I can’t worry about the mistakes we made.”

“Did we make mistakes?” I asked. I smoothed some wrinkles in the thin blanket.

“I think so.”

“What mistakes?” I led him on, angry again but hiding it.

Charles finally pulled out the chair and sat with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped in front of him. “We should choose our leaders more carefully,” he said.

“Do you think Sean was a bad leader?”

“You said he was ‘monstrous,’ ” Charles reminded me.

“Things went wrong for all of us,” I said. “If they had gone better, everything might have turned out differently.”

“You mean, if Connor and Dauble hadn’t hung themselves, we might have provided the noose.”

“It seems likely.”

“I suppose that’s what Sean and Gretyl were trying to do,” Charles said.

“All of us,” I added.

“Right. But what would we have done after that? What did Sean really want to accomplish?”

“In the long ran?” I asked.

“Right,” Charles said. He was revealing a capacity I hadn’t seen before. I was curious to see how far this new depth extended. “I think they wanted anarchy.”

I frowned abruptly.

He looked at me and his face stiffened. “But I didn’t really — ”

“Why would they want anarchy?”

“Sean wants to be a leader. But he can never be a consensus leader.”

“Why not?”

“He has the appeal of a LitVid image,” Charles said. How could he not see how much he was irritating me? I felt a perversity again; I wanted him to anger me, so I could deny him what he had come here to gain, that is, my favors.

“Shallow?”

“I’m sorry, this is upsetting you,” Charles said softly, kneading his hands. “I know you liked Sean. It makes me… I didn’t want to bring you here to — ”

The door chimed. Charles opened it and an arbeiter entered, carrying a bottle of Durrey Region Prime Drinking Water, Mineral. Charles handed me a glass and sat again.

“I really don’t want to talk politics,” he said. “I’m not very good at it.”

“We came here to talk about what went wrong,” I persisted. “I’m curious to hear you out.”

“You disagree with me.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I want to hear what you have to say.”

Charles’s misery became obvious in the set of his jaw, drawn in defensively toward his neck, and the way he clenched his hands. “All right,” he said. I could sense him giving up, assuming I was out of his reach, and that added to my irritation. Such presumption!

“What kind of leader would Sean be?”

“A tyrant,” Charles said softly. “Not a very good one. I don’t think he has what it takes. Not enough charm at the right time, and he can’t keep his feelings under control.”

My anger evaporated. It was the strangest feeling; I agreed with Charles. That was the monstrousness I was trying to understand.

“You’re a better judge of human nature than you think,” I said with a sigh. I leaned back on the bed.

He shrugged sadly. “But I’ve fapped up,” he said.

“How?”

“I want to know you better. I feel something really special when I see you.”

Intrigued, I was about to continue with my infernal questioning — How? What do you mean? — when Charles stood up. “But it’s useless. You haven’t liked me from the start.”

I gaped at him.

“You think I’m awkward, I’m not in the least like Sean, and that was who you’d set your sights on… And now I seem to be putting him down.”

“Sean doesn’t appeal to me,” I said, eyes downcast in what I hoped was demure honesty. “Certainly not after what he said.”

“I’m sorry,” Charles said.

“Why are you always apologizing? Sit down, please.”

Neither of us had touched our mineral water.

Charles sat. He lifted his glass. “You know, this water has been sitting for a billion years, locked in limestone… Old life. That’s what I’d really like to be doing. Besides getting the physics grants and starting research, I mean. Going Up and exploring the old sea beds. Not talking politics. I need someone to come with me and keep me company. I thought maybe you’d like to do that.” Charles looked up, then rushed his proposal out breathlessly. “Klein BM has an old vineyard about twenty kilometers from here. I could borrow a tractor, show you the — ”

“A winery?” I asked, startled.

“Failed. Converted to a water station. Not much more than a trench dome, but there are good fossil beds. Maybe the old discarded vintage has mellowed by now and we could try to gag it down.”

“Are you asking?” I felt a sudden warmth so immediate and unexpected that it brought moisture to my eyes. “Charles, you surprise me.” I surprised myself. Then, eyes downcast again, “What are you expecting?”

“You might like me better away from this place. I don’t fit into Shinktown, and I don’t know why I came here. I’m glad I did, of course, because you’re here, but…”

“An old winery. And… going Up again?”

“In proper pressure suits. I’ve done it often enough. I’m pretty safe to be with.“ He pointed his finger Up. ”I’m no LitVid idol, Casseia. I can’t sweep you off your feet.“

I pretended not to hear that. “I’ve never gone fossiling,” I said. “It’s a lovely idea.”

Charles swallowed and quickly decided to press on. “We could leave now. Spend a few days. Wouldn’t cost much — my BM isn’t rich, but we’d borrow equipment nobody’s using now. No problem with the oxygen budget. We can bring hydrogen back for a net gain. I can call and tell the station to warm up for us.”

This was something slightly wicked and hugely unexpected and quite lovely. Charles would never pressure me to go one step farther than I wanted. It was perfect.

“I’ll try not to bore you with physics,” he said.

“I can take it,” I said. “What makes you think I was ever interested in Sean, romantically?” ,

Wisely, he didn’t answer, and immediately set about making late-night preparations.

Martians saw the surface of their world most often through the windows of a train. Perhaps nine or ten times in a life, a Martian would go Up and walk the surface in a pressure suit — usually in crowds and under close supervision, tourists on their own planet.

Call it fear, call it reason, most Martians preferred tunnels, and dubbed themselves rabbits, quite comfortably; red rabbits, to distinguish from the gray rabbits on Earth’s moon.

I think I was more nervous sitting in the tractor beside Charles than I had been in my skinseal months earlier. I trusted Charles not to lose us in the ravines and ancient glacier tongues; he radiated self-confidence. What unnerved me was the proximity to emotions I had safely kept locked away behind philosophy.

I will not explain my turnaround. I was becoming attracted to Charles, but the process was slow. As he drove, I sneaked looks at him and studied his lean features, his long, straight nose, slow-blinking eyes large and brown and observant, upper lip delicately sensuous, lower lip a trifle weak, chin prominent, neck corded and scrawny — a heady mix of features I found attractive and features I wasn’t sure I approved of. Unaesthetic, not perfection. Long fingers with square nails, broad bony shoulders, chest slightly sunken…

I knit my brows and turned my attention to the landscape. I was not inclined to physical science, but no Martian can escape the past; we are told tales in our infant beds.

Mars was dead; once, it had been alive. On the lowland plains, beneath the ubiquitous flopsands and viscous smear lay a thick layer of calcareous rock, limestone, the death litter of unaccounted tiny living things on the floor of an ancient sea that had once covered this entire region and, indeed, sixty percent of northern Mars.

The seas, half a billion Martian years before, had fallen victim to Mars’s aging and cooling. The interior flows of Mars slowed and stabilized just as Mars began to develop — and push aside — its continents, thus cutting short the migration of its four young crustal plates, ending the lives of chains of gas-belching volcanoes. The atmosphere began its long flight into space. Within six hundred million Martian years, life itself retreated, evolving to more hardy forms, leaving behind fossil sea beds and karsts and, last of all, the Mother Ecos and the magnificent aqueduct bridges. (“Ecos” is singular; “ecoi” plural.)

All around us, ridges of yellow-white limestone poked from the red-ochre flopsand. Rusted, broken boulders scattered from impact craters topped this mix like chocolate sprinkles on rhubarb sauce over vanilla ice cream. Against the pink sky, the effect was severe and heart-achingly beautiful, a chastening reminder that even planets are mortal.

“Like it?” Charles asked. We hadn’t talked much since leaving Durrey in the borrowed Klein tractor.

“It’s magnificent,” I said.

“Wait till we get to the open karsts — like prairie dog holes. Sure signs of aquifers, but it takes an expert to know how deep, and whether they’re whited.” Whited aquifers carried high concentrations of arsenic, which made the water a little more expensive to mine. “Whited seas had entirely different life forms. That’s probably where the mothers came from.”

I knew little about the mother cysts — single-organism repositories of the post-Tharsis Omega Ecos, a world’s life in a patient nutshell, parents of the aqueduct bridges. Their fossils had been discovered only in the past few years, and I hadn’t paid much attention to news about them. “Have you ever seen a mother?” Charles asked.

“Only in pictures.”

“They’re magnificent. Bigger than a tractor, heavy shells a foot thick — buried in the sands, waiting for one of the ancient wet cycles to come around again… The last of their kind.” His eyes shone and his mouth curved up in an awed half-smile. His enthusiasm distanced me for a moment. “Some might have lasted tens of millions of years. But eventually the wets never came.” He shook his head and his lips turned down sadly, as if he were talking about family tragedy. “Some hunters think we’ll find a live one someday. The holy grail of fossil hunters.”

“Is that possible?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are there any fossil mothers where we’re going?”

He shook his head. “They’re very rare. And they’re not found in karsts. Most have been found in the sulci.”

“Oh.”

“But we can look.” He smiled a lovely little boy’s smile, open and trusting.

The Klein BM winery, a noble experiment that hadn’t panned out, lay buried in the lee of a desiccated frost-heave plateau twenty kilometers west of Durrey Station. Now it was maintained by arbeiters, and fitfully at that, judging from the buildup of static flopsands on the exposed entrance. A gate carried a bright green sign, “Trés Haut Médoc.” Charles urged the tractor beneath the sign. The garage opened slowly and balkily, gears jammed with dust, and Charles parked the tractor in its dark enclosure.

We sealed our suits and climbed down from the cabin. Charles palmed the lock port and turned to face me. “I haven’t been here since the codes were changed. Hope I’ve been logged on the old general Klein net.”

“You didn’t check?” I asked, alarmed.

“Joking,” he said. The lock opened, and we stepped in.

Over the years, the arbeiters had repaired themselves into ugly lumps. They reminded me of dutiful little hunchbacks, moving obsequiously out of our way as we explored the narrow tunnels leading to the main living quarters. “I’ve never seen arbeiters this old,” I said.

“Waste not, want not. Klein’s a thrifty family. They took the best machines with them and left a skeleton crew, just enough to tend the water.”

“Poor things,” I said dubiously.

“Voila,” Charles announced, opening the door to the main quarters. Beyond lay a madman’s idea of order, air mattresses piled into a kind of shelter in one corner, sheets covering a table as if it were a bed, decayed equipment lovingly stacked in the middle of the floor for human attention, smelling of iodine. The machines had been bored. A large arbeiter, about a meter tall and half as wide, a big barrel of a machine with prominent arms, stood proudly in the middle of its domain. “Welcome,” it greeted in a scratchy voice. “There have been no guests at this estate for four years. How may we serve you?”

Charles laughed.

“Don’t,” I said. “You’ll hurt its feelings.”

The arbeiter hummed constantly, a sign of imminent collapse. “This unit will require replacements, if any are available,” it told us after a moment of introspective quiet.

“You’ll have to make do,” Charles said. “What we need is a place fit for habitation, by two humans… separate quarters, as soon as possible.”

“This is not adequate?” the arbeiter asked with mechanical dismay.

“Close, but it needs a little rearrangement.”

We couldn’t help giggling.

The arbeiter considered us with that peculiar way older machines have of seeming balky and sentient when in fact they are merely slow. “Arrangements will be made. I beg your pardon, but this unit will require replacement parts and nano recharge, if that is possible.”

Four hours later, with the living quarters in reasonable shape and our provisions for several days stored and logged in with the arbeiters, Charles and I stopped our rushing about and faced each other. Charles glanced away first, pretending to critically examine the interior furnishings. “Looks like a bunkhouse,” he said.

“It’s fine,” I said.

“Well, it’s not luxury.”

“I didn’t expect it to be.”

“I came here once when I was ten, with my dad,” Charles said, rubbing his hands nervously on his pants. “A kind of getaway for a couple of days while traveling from Amnesia to Jefferson , through Durrey… Klein holdings intrude into the old Erskine BM lands here. I don’t know how that happened.”

Another moment of uneasy silence. Clearly, Charles did not know how to begin, nor what was expected; neither did I, but as the female in this pairing, it was not my responsibility to initiate, and I did not want to try.

“Shall we see the winery?” he inquired suddenly, holding out his hand.

I took the hand and we began our formal tour of Trés Haut Médoc.

Charles was disarmingly nervous. Disarming, because I had to say little and do nothing but follow him; he gave a gentle, constant commentary on things Martian, most of which I knew. His voice was soothing even as he ran through technical details. In time, I listened more to the tone than the content, enjoying the masculine music of fact laid upon fact, an architecture to shield us for the moment against being alone together.

Ninety percent or more of any Martian station lay underground. Pressurization requirements and protection against radiation flux through the thin atmosphere made this the most economical method of construction. Some attempts had been made in the first ten years to push high-rises and multi-story uplooks through the dirt, but Mars had been settled on a shoestring. Buried or bermed construction was much cheaper. Heat exchangers, sensors, pokeups, entrances and exits, a few low buildings, broke the surface, but even now we remained, by and large, troglodytes.

Half of the aquifers on Mars were solid — mineral aquifers — and half liquid. Solid aquifers came in many varieties. Some were permafrosts and heaves, which produced hummocky terrain. Some ice domes on Mars were ten kilometers across, but nearly all heaves had long since lost the water that produced them. The evaporated water either re-condensed at the poles, or was lost across the ages to space. The thin atmosphere was nearly moisture-free.

Trés Haut Médoc sat half a kilometer above a liquid flow, probably the same flow that supplied Durrey. Water seeped through the limestone and pooled in deeper fissures and caves extending as much as ten kilometers below the karst.

Our first stop was the pumping station. The pump, a massive cluster of steel-blue cylinders and spheres melded together like an abstract sculpture, had been working steadily for fifteen Martian years. It extracted its own fuel, deuterium, from the water it pulled out of the ground.

“We hooked this up to the Durrey pipes about nineteen years ago, Earth years,” Charles explained, walking around the pump. “Just after the winery shut down and the station was automated and evacuated. A source of revenue to offset our failure.” Our footsteps echoed hollow on the frosted stone floor. Air whispered through wall-mounted vents, cool and tangy-musty. “It’s the station’s only reason to exist now. Durrey wants it, pays for it, so we keep the pump going. While I’m here, I’ll justify our visit by filing a report…”

“And get some replacement arbeiters,” I suggested.

“Maybe. The folks who set up the winery were a California family… Or were they Australian? I forget now.”

“Big difference,” I suggested.

“Not really. I know a lot of Australians and Californians now. Except for accent, they’re pretty alike. My own family is from New Zealand , actually. How about yours?”

“I’m not sure. German/Indian, I think.”

“That explains your lovely skin,” Charles said.

“I don’t pay much attention to heritage.”

Charles led me into the water-settling chambers. The dark pools sat still as glass in their quarried limestone basins, filling two chambers each a hectare in extent and ten meters deep. Somewhere beneath our feet, transfer pumps thumped faintly, sending the water to Durrey’s buried pipelines. I breathed in the cold moist air, touched the damp limestone walls.

“Like old bones, that rock,” Charles said.

“Right. Sea bottoms.”

“Half our towns and stations couldn’t exist without limestone flats.”

“Why didn’t it get turned into marble or something?” I asked, partly to demonstrate I was not totally ignorant of areology.

Charles shook his head. “No major areological activity for the past billion years. Marble takes heat and pressure to form. Mars is asleep. It can’t do the job any more.”

“Oh.” I had not demonstrated anything except my ignorance. Still, that didn’t bother me; I was giving Charles every chance to show off, just to see who he really was, what kind of man I had chosen to spend a few days with, alone.

We took a bridge over the farthest pool and down a sloping tunnel. The next chamber held row upon row of corrugated mirror-bright stainless-steel tanks wrapped in coils of orange ceramic pipes. Here the musty-tangy smell was almost overpowering. It stimulated something like racial memory, and I thought of cool dank root cellars on warm summer days, filled with sweet-smelling wooden crates of apples and potatoes, hard-packed dirt floors…

“The old vats,” Charles said. “Cuve, they were called. Juice from the grapes — ”

“I can guess,” I interrupted. “I’m something of a wine connoisseur, actually.” That was stretching the truth considerably.

“Oh, really?” Charles asked, genuinely pleased. “Then maybe you can explain more to me. I’ve always wondered why the winery didn’t work out.”

“Where’d they get their grapes?” I asked, adopting an expert air.

Cuvée in situ. Grew them in the vats, grape cell suspension… Inoculated it, fermented it right where it grew.”

“That’s why it failed,” I said with a sniff. “Worst wine imaginable.” So I had heard, at any rate; I had never tried it myself.

“My folks tell me it was pretty bad. Some of it’s stored around here, I think… Just abandoned.”

“For how long?”

“Twenty years at least.”

“Terrestrial years,” I said.

“Right.”

“I prefer Martian years, myself.”

Charles took my little feints and jabs pretty well, I thought, not getting irritated, yet not backtracking to flatter me, either.

“Shall we look for them?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I remember seeing them when I was a child… somewhere down here.” He led the way. I lagged a few steps and peered into a glass window in the side of one cuve. Empty blackness. The whole place saddened me. How often had Martians attempted to do something the way it had been done on Earth, half inventing something, half following ancient tradition, and failing miserably?

“You know how we make wine now, don’t you?” I asked, catching up with him.

“Pure nano, all artificial, right?”

“Some of it’s not bad, either.”

“Have you ever tasted Earth wine?” Charles asked.

“Good heavens, no,” I said. “My family’s not rich.”

“I tasted some a few years ago. Madeira . Cost a friend four hundred Triple dollars.”

“Lucky man,” I said. “ Madeira used to be aged in the holds of ships, sent around the Horn.” That just about plumbed my knowledge of wine.

“It was pretty good. A little sweet, though.”

We pushed aside a thin fiberglass door and entered a storage area behind the vat room. Hidden behind neatly folded piles of filter cloth, a single lonely drum sat in one corner. Charles stooped beside the drum and peered at its label. “Vintage 2152,” he said. “M.Y. 43. Never bottled, never released.” He glanced up at me with a comic look of fearful anxiety. “Might kill us both.”

“Let’s try it,” I said.

The spigot plug had been turned to the wall. Charles called one of the maintenance arbeiters to bring in a forklift and move the drum. The arbeiter did its work, and we were able to tap the barrel. Charles went off to find glasses, leaving me with my thoughts in the cold, empty room.

I stared at the foamed rock walls, then said, out loud, “What in hell am I doing?” I was far from any station or town, with a young man I knew little about, putting myself into what could be a very compromising situation, going against my better judgment, much less my previous plans for just such an occasion… when I would have tested and picked out a very suitable candidate for a serious relationship, a significant love-matching.

Clearly, I didn’t know my own mind. I liked Charles, he was certainly pleasant, but he was no…

Sean Dickinson.

I frowned and pinched my upper arm as a kind of punishment. If Sean Dickinson were here, I thought, we might already be in bed together… But I could see Sean waking in the morning, glancing at me with disapproval, taciturn after a night of passion. Was that what I wanted? Experience of sex with the added spice of an illusion of romance, with someone I could never have a future with, and therefore no strings attached?

My face heated.

Charles returned with two thick glasses and I pretended to examine the arbeiter for a moment, blinking myself back into control. “Anything wrong?” Charles asked.

I shook my head, smiling falsely. “It just looks so pitiful.” I took one of the glasses.

Charles stretched his neck between nervous shoulders, clearly more unsure about me than I was about him. But he made a brave show, and with a magician’s hocus-pocus gesture, turned the stopcock and poured a thin stream of deep red liquid into his glass.

“It wouldn’t be polite to offer you some first,” he said, and lifted the glass. “It’s my family’s mistake, after all.”

He sniffed the glass, swirled it, smiled at the pretension, and took a sip. I watched his face curiously, wondering how bad it could be.

He showed genuine surprise.

“Well?” I asked.

“Not fatal,” he said. “Not fatal at all. It’s drinkable.”

He poured a glass for me. The wine was rough, demanding a little more throat control to get it down than I really preferred, but it was not nearly as bad as it could have been.

“We’re young,” Charles decided. “We’ll survive. Should we decant a liter or two, have it with dinner?”

“Depends on what dinner is,” I said.

“What we brought with us, and whatever I can scrounge from the emergency reserves.”

“Maybe I can cook,” I said.

“That would be great.”

We ate in the station boss’s dining room on an old metal table and chairs that nobody had seen fit to remove. Ten-year-old music played softly over the louder system, rapid hammer-beat kinjee tunes that might have put my parents in a romantic mood, but did nothing for me. I preferred development, not drugdrum.

I will not say the wine liberated me from my cares, but it did induce calm, and for that I was grateful. The food was tractable — gray paste at least five years old — Martian years — that fortunately shaped itself into something palatable, if not gourmet. Charles was embarrassingly appreciative. I had to bite my tongue not to point out that the paste did most of the work. He was trying to be nice, to make me feel good. My ambivalence was a puzzle to both of us.

The air system in the old warren creaked and groaned as we finished our dinner. Outside, the boss’s station display told us, the surface temp had dropped to minus eighty Celsius and the wind was whining at a steady one hundred kiphs. I wasn’t worried for our safety — we had enough supplies to keep us for a couple of weeks. If we wished to leave, the tractor could get us through anything but a major storm, which wasn’t in the offing, according to satcom weather reports.

We weren’t in any danger, nobody knew where we were, the wine illumined a Charles more and more handsome with every sip, and still my neck ached with tension.

“Tomorrow we’ll go out to the shaved flats in an old melt river canyon,” Charles said, lifting his glass and staring at the wine within as if it were rare vintage. He closed one eye to squint at the color, caught my dubious expression, and laughed. His laugh might have been the first thing I fell in love with — easy and gentle, self-deprecating but not humble, accompanied by a roll of his eyes and a lift of his chin.

“What are shaved flats?” I asked.

“Natural fractures in the limestone. Upper layers separate from lower, maybe because of vibration from the wind, and the upper layer begins to fragment. Soon — well, in a hundred million years — frost forms in the cracks, and the upper layer erodes into sand and dust, which blow away, leaving the next layer down… Shaved, so to speak.“

“Where does the frost come from, this far south?” I asked.

“The shaving stopped about three hundred million years ago. Not enough water frost to matter any more. Some CO2 in the winter. But that’s where fossils are. This used to be a pretty good area for ancient tests.”

“Tests?”

“Shells. Most no bigger than your finger, but my great uncle found an intact Archimedes snapper about three meters long. Right here, while digging out the tunnels for this station.”

“What’s an Archimedes snapper?” I knew something about old Martian biology, enough to remember the largest creature of the tertiary Tharsis period, but I wanted to listen to Charles some more. His voice was very pretty, actually, and I had come to enjoy hearing him explain things.

“Big screw-shaped jointed worm with razor-sharp spines. Spun through sea-bottom muds chopping up smaller animals, then sent out stomach tendrils to digest the bits and suck them in.”

I grued delicately. Charles appreciated the effect.

“Pretty grim if you were, say, a triple test jelly during mating season,” he added, finishing his glass. He lifted it toward me, inquiring without words if I wanted more.

“But I’m not,” I said. “So why does it sound awful?”

“More wine, awful?” Charles asked.

“I’m not a triple test jelly, so why does an Archimedes snapper sound horrible?”

“Not used to fresh meat,” Charles said.

“I’ve never had meat,” I said. “It’s supposed to… sharpen your drives. Your instincts.”

Charles lifted his glass again toward me. I wondered if he wanted me drunk. That would not be a very sporting desire, a supine woman nearly out of her senses; would that satisfy him, or would he try for all of me, mind as well as body?

“No thank you,” I said. “It looks like blood.”

“Venous blood,” Charles agreed, putting his half-full glass down. “I’ve had enough, too. I’m not used to it.”

“I think it’s time to sleep,” I suggested.

Charles stared at the floor. I focused on his smile and specked an image of Charles and me without blankets, without clothes, in blood-warm rooms, and felt more heat rise that was not due to the wine. I wanted to encourage him, but something still held me back.

If he did not make a move now, he might miss me, and I would not have to decide whether to accept. I wondered how many women had put heavy action on Charles, and how often he had accepted — if ever. It would be awful if we were both inexperienced — wouldn’t it?

“We have a lot to do tomorrow,” Charles said, turning his eyes away. “I’m pleased you decided to come with me. It’s a real boost to my ego.”

“Why?”

“I’d hate to rush anything now,” he said, so softly I could hardly hear.

“Rush what?”

He filled his glass of wine, then frowned and stuck out his tongue. “I don’t know why I did that. I don’t want any more. You’re very tolerant.” His next words came in a rush, accompanied by quick hand gestures as if in a debate. “I’m shy and I’m clumsy and I don’t know what to do, or whether to do anything, and the thing I want most right now is to just talk with you, and find out why I’m so attracted to you. But I think I should be doing something else, too, trying to kiss you or… Of course, I wouldn’t mind that.” He looked squarely at me, distressed. “Would you?”

I had hoped to be guided through this by someone who could educate me.

“Talking is good,” I said.

Charles came forward a little too quickly, and we kissed.

He put his hand on my shoulder, hugged me without squeezing, and then, instinct shoving in, began to get more insistent. I gently pushed him back, then leaned forward and kissed him again to show I wasn’t rejecting him. His face flushed and his eyes unfocused. “Let’s take it easy,” I said.

We slept in separate rooms. Through the wall, I heard Charles pace and mumble. I don’t think he got much sleep that night. Surprisingly, I slept well.

The next morning, I dressed, came into the kitchen and found the main arbeiter frozen in the middle of the floor. I touched it tentatively. A faint recorded voice said, “I am no longer functional. I need to be repaired or replaced.” Then it shut down completely.

I made my own cup of tea and waited for Charles. He came in a few minutes later, trying not to look tired, and I warmed a cup for him.

“Sleep well?” I asked.

He shook his head. “And you?”

“I slept okay. I’m sorry you were upset.”

“You’re not a Shinktown sweet. Not to me.”

“I’m glad,” I said.

“But I don’t know what you expect.”

I took his hand and said, “We are going to spend a wonderful day sightseeing and looking for fossils. We’ll talk more and get to know each other. Isn’t that enough?”

“It’s a start,” Charles said.

We ate breakfast and suited up.

“None of this was scrubbed by glaciers,” Charles said, pointing to the plain with his gloved hand. We both wore full pressure suits in the tractor cab, but our helmet visors were raised. The tractor motors ramped to a low whine as we climbed a bump in the flat expanse. “They swept by about a hundred kilometers east and fifty west. They left a melt river canyon not far from here, though. It cuts down through a couple of billion years.

“We’ll pass through three layers of life descending into the canyon. The topmost layer is about a half a billion years old. The glaciers came about a hundred million years after they died. The middle layer is two billion years old. That’s the Secondary and Tertiary, Pre-shield and Tharsis One Ecos. At the bottom, in the shaved flats, is the silica deposit.”

“The Glass Sea ,” I said. Every Martian was given a Glass Sea fossil at some point in their childhood.

Charles steered us around a basalt-capped turban of limestone. Basalt fragments from an ancient meteor impact lay scattered over the area. I tried to imagine the meteor striking the middle of the shallow ocean, spraying debris for hundreds of kilometers and throwing up a cloud of muddy rain and steam… Devastation for an already fragile ecology. “Makes me twitchy,” I said.

“What does?”

“Time. Age. Makes our lives look so trivial.”

“We are trivial,” Charles said.

I set my face firmly and shook my head. “I don’t think so. Empty time isn’t very…” I searched for the right word. What came to mind were warm, alive, interesting, but these words all seemed to reveal my feminine perspective, and Charles’s knee-jerk response had been decidedly masculine and above-it-all intellectual. “Active. No observers,” I concluded lamely.

“Given that, we’re still here for just an instant, and the changes we make on the landscape will be wiped out in a few thousand years.”

“I disagree,” I continued. “I think we’re going to make a real mark on things. We observe, we plan ahead, we’re organized — ”

“Some of us are,” Charles said, laughing.

“No, I mean it. We can make a big difference. All the flora and fauna on Mars were wiped out because they…” I still couldn’t clearly express what I wanted to say.

“They weren’t organized,” Charles offered.

“Right”

“Wait until you see,” Charles said.

I shivered. “I don’t want to be convinced of my triviality.”

“Let the land speak,” Charles said.

I had never been very comfortable with large ideas — astrophysics, areology, all seemed cavernous and dismal compared to the bright briefness of human history. In my studies I focused on the intricacies of politics and culture, human interaction; Charles I think preferred the wide-open territories of nature without humanity.

“We interpret what we see to suit our own mindset,” I said pompously.

For a moment, his expression — downturned corners of his mouth, narrowed eyes, a little shake of his head — made me regret those words. If I was playing him like a fish on a line, I might have just snapped the line, and I suddenly felt terribly insecure. The touch of my glove on his thick sleeve did not seem adequate. “I still want to go and see,” I said.

Charles let go of the guide stick. The tractor smoothed to a stop and jerked. He half-turned in his seat. “Do I irritate you?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“I feel like you’re testing me. Asking me key questions to see if I’m suitable.”

I bit my lip and looked into my lap, trying for some contrition. “I’m nervous,” I said.

“Well, so am I. Maybe we should just let up a bit and relax.”

“I was just expressing an opinion,” I said, my own temper flaring. “I apologize for being clumsy. I haven’t been here before, I don’t know you very well, I don’t know what — ”

Charles held up his hands. “Let’s forget all of it. I mean, let’s forget everything that stands between us, and just try to be two friends out on a trip. I’ll relax if you will. Okay?”

I came dangerously close to tears at the anger in his tone. I looked out the window but did not see the ancient carved grotesques outside.

“Okay?” he asked.

“I don’t know how to be different,” I said. “I’m not good at masks.”

“I’m not either, and I don’t like trying. If I’m not the right person for you, let’s put it all aside and just enjoy the trip.”

“I don’t know what’s making you so angry.”

“I don’t know, either. I’m sorry.”

He pulled the stick forward and we drove in silence for several minutes. “Sometimes I dream about this,” he said. “I dream I’m some sort of native Martian, able to stand naked in the Up and feel everything. Able to travel back in time to when Mars was alive.”

“Coin-eyed, slender, nut-brown or bronze. ‘Dark they were, and golden-eyed.’ ”

“Exactly,” Charles said. “We live on three Marses, don’t we? The Mars they made up back on Earth centuries ago. LitVid Mars. And this.”

The tension seemed to have cleared. My mood shifted wildly. I felt like crying again, but this time with relief. “You’re very tolerant,” I said.

“We’re both difficult,” Charles said. He leaned to one side and bumped helmets with me. Our lips could get no closer, so we settled for that.

“Show me your Mars,” I told him.

The melt river canyon stretched for thirty kilometers, carving a wavering line across the flats. A service path had been carved into the cliffs on both sides, cheaper than a bridge, marring the natural beauty but making the canyon bottom accessible to tractors.

“The areology here is really obvious,” Charles said. “First comes the Glass Sea , then Tharsis One with deep ocean deposits, building up over a billion years, limestone… Then ice sheets and eskers… Then the really big winds at the end of the last glaciation.”

We rolled down the gentle packed tumble slope into the canyon. The walls on each side were layered with iron-rich hematite sands and darker strata of clumped till. “Wind and ice,” I said.

“You got it. Flopsand and jetsand, smear, cling and grind… There’s a pretty thick layer of northern chrome clay.” Charles pointed to a gray-green band on our right, at least a meter deep. He swerved the tractor around a recent boulder fall, squeezed through a space barely large enough to admit us, and we came out twenty meters below the flats. Our treads pushed aside flopsand to reveal paler grades of grind and heavy till.

“We have as many words for sand and dust as the Inuit have for snow,” Charles said.

“Used to be a school quiz,” I said. “ ‘Remember all the grades of dust and sand and name them in alphabetical order.’ I only remember twenty.”

“Here we are,” Charles said, letting the stick go. The tractor slowed and stopped with a soft whine. Outside the cabin, silence. The high wind of the night before had settled and the air was still. A dust-free sky stretched wall-to-wall pitch-black. We might have been on Earth’s moon but for the color of the canyon and the rippled red and yellow bed of the ancient melt river.

Charles enjoyed the silence. His face had a look of relaxed concentration. “There’s a rock kit in the boot. We’ll dig for an hour and return to the tractor.” He hesitated, thinking something over. “Then we’ll head home. I mean, back to the station.”

We checked our gear thoroughly, topped up our air supply from the tractor’s tanks, pumped the cabin pressure into storage, and stepped through the curtain lock with a small puff of ice crystals. The crystals fell like stones to the canyon floor.

“I remember this,” Charles said over the suit radio. “It hasn’t changed. The sand patterns are different, of course, and there have been a few slumps… but it looks real familiar. I had a favorite fossil bed about a hundred meters from here. My father showed it to me.”

Charles portioned out my share of tools to carry, took my gloved hand, and we walked away from the tractor. I saw two deposition layers clearly outlined in a stretch of canyon wall that had not slumped: a meter of brown and gray atop several meters of pale yellow limestone, and below that, half a meter of grays and blacks.

We walked across shaved flats now, covered with sand; the oldest limestones, and beneath, the Glass Sea bottom. I drew in my breath sharply, a kind of hiccup, startled at how this realization affected me. Old Mars, back when it had been a living planet… Alive for a mere billion and a half years.

Where life arose first was still at issue; Martians claimed primacy, and Terrestrials disputed them. But Earth had been a more violent and energetic world, closer to the sun, bombarded by more destructive radiation… Mars, farther away from its youthful star, cooling more rapidly, had condensed its vapor clouds into seas a quarter of a billion years earlier.

I believed — like most loyal Martians — that this was where life had first appeared in the Solar System. My feet pressed thin flopsand five or six centimeters above the graveyard of those early living things.

“Here,” Charles said, taking us into the inky shadow of a precarious overhang. I looked up, worried by the prominence. Charles saw my expression as he stooped and brought out his pick hammer. “It’s okay,” he said. “It was here when I was a kid. Can you shine a light?”

We worked by torch. Charles pried up a slab of dense crumbling limestone. I helped lift the slab away,“ twenty or thirty kilos of rock, piling it to one side. Charles handed me the pick.

“Your turn,” he said. “Under this layer. About a centimeter down.”

I swung the pick gently, then harder, until the layer cracked and I was able to finger and brush away the fragments, clearing a space a couple of hands wide. Charles held the torch.

I peered back through two billion Martian years and saw the jewel box of the past, pressed thin as a coat of paint, opalescent against the dark strata of those siliceous oceans.

Round, cubic, pyramidal, elongated, every shape imaginable, surrounded by glorious feathery filters, long stalks terminating in slender, gnarled roots: the ancient Glass Sea creatures appeared like illustrations in an old book, glittering rainbows of diffraction as the torch moved. I specked them waving in the soup-thick seas, sieving and eating their smaller cousins.

“Sometimes they’d lift from their stalks and float free,” Charles said. I knew that, but I didn’t mind him telling me. “The biggest colonies were maybe a klick wide, clustered floats, raising purple fans out of the water to soak up sunlight…”

I reached down with my gloved hand to touch them. They had been glued firmly against their deathbed; they were tough, even across the eons.

“They’re gorgeous,” I said.

“The first examples of a Foster co-genotypic bauplan,” Charles said. “These are pretty common specimens. No speciation, all working from one genetic blueprint, making a few hundred different forms. All one creature, really. Some folks think Mars never had more than nine or ten species living at a time. Couldn’t call them species, actually — co-genotypic phyla is more like it. No surprise this kind of biology would give rise to the mother cysts.”

He took a deep breath and stood. “I’m going to make a pretty important decision here. I’m trusting you.”

I looked up from the Glass Sea , puzzled. “What?”

“I’d like to show you something, if you’re interested. A short walk, another couple of hundred meters. A billion and a half years up. Earth years. First and last.”

“Sounds mysterious,” I said. “You hiding a mother deposit here?”

He shook his head. “It’s on a secure registry, and we license it to scholars only. Father took me there. Made me swear to keep it secret.”

“Maybe we should skip it,” I said, afraid of leading Charles into violating family confidences.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Father would have approved.”

“Would have?”

“He died on the Jefferson .”

“Oh.” The interplanetary passenger ship Jefferson had suffered engine failure boosting from around the Moon five Martian years before. Seventy people had died.

Charles had made a judgment on behalf of his dead father. I could not refuse. I stood and hefted my bag of tools.

The canyon snaked south for almost a hundred meters before veering west. At the bend, we took a rest and Charles chipped idly at a sheet of hard clay. “We’ve got about an hour more,” he said. “We need fifteen minutes to get to where we’re going, and that means we can only spend about ten minutes there.”

“Should be enough,” I said, and immediately felt like kicking myself.

“I could spend a year there and it wouldn’t be enough,” Charles said.

We climbed a gentle slope forty or fifty meters and abruptly came upon a deep fissure. The fissure cut across the canyon diagonally, its edges windworn smooth with age.

“The whole flatland is fragile,” Charles said. “Quake, meteor strike… Something shook it, and it cracked. This is about six hundred million years old.”

“It’s magnificent.”

He lifted his glove and pointed to a narrow path from the canyon floor, across the near wall of the fissure. “It’s stable,” he said. “Just don’t slip on the gravel.”

I hesitated before following Charles. The ledge was irregular, uneven, no wider than half a meter. I pictured a slip, a fall, a rip or prick in my suit.

Charles looked at me over his shoulder, already well down the ledge. “Come on,” he said. “It’s not dangerous if you’re careful.”

“I’m not a rock climber,” I said. “I’m a rabbit, remember?”

“This is easy. It’s worth it, believe me.”

I chose each step with nervous deliberation, mumbling to myself below the microphone pickup. We descended into the crevice. Suddenly, I couldn’t see Charles. I couldn’t hear him on radio, either. We were out of line of sight and he was not getting through to a satcom transponder. I called his name several times, clinging to the wall, each moment closer to panic and fury.

I was looking back over my left shoulder, creeping to my right, when my hand fell into emptiness. I stopped with a low moan, trying to keep my balance on the ledge, waving for a grip, and felt a gloved hand take hold of my arm.

I turned and saw Charles right beside me. “Sorry,” he said. “I forgot we wouldn’t be able to talk through the rock. You’re fine. Just step in…”

We stood in the entrance to a cave. I hugged Charles tightly, saying nothing until my hammering heart had settled.

The cavern stabbed deep into the fissure wall, ending in black obscurity. Its ceiling rose five or six meters above our heads. The fissure’s opposite wall reflected enough afternoon sunlight into the cavern that we could see each other clearly. Charles lifted the torch and handed it to me. “It’s the last gasp,” he said.

“What?” I still hadn’t recovered my wits.

“We’ve gone from alpha to omega.”

I scowled at him for his deliberate mystery, but he wasn’t looking at me.

Gradually, I realized the cavern was not areological. The glass-smooth walls reflected the backwash of light with an oily green sheen. Gossamer, web-like filaments hard as rock stretched across the interior and flashed in my wavering torch beam. Shards of filament littered the floor like lost fairy knives. I stood in the silence, absorbing the obvious: the tunnel had once been part of something alive.

“It’s an aqueduct bridge,” Charles said. “Omega and Mother Ecos.”

This wasn’t a cavern at all, but part of a colossal pipeline, a fossil fragment of Mars’s largest and last living things. I had never heard of an aqueduct bridge surviving intact.

“This section grew into the fissure about half a billion years ago. Loess and flopsand filled the branch because it ran counter to the prevailing winds. Cling and jetsand covered the aqueduct, but didn’t stop it from pumping water to the south. When the Ecos failed and the water stopped, this part died along with all the other pipes, but it was protected. Come on.”

Charles urged me deeper. We stepped around and under the internal supports for the vast organic pipe. Water once carried by this aqueduct had fed billions of hectares of green and purple lands, a natural irrigation system greater than anything humans had ever built.

These had been the true canals of Mars, but they had died long before they could have been seen by Schiaparelli or Percival Lowell.

I swallowed a lump in my throat. “It’s beautiful,” I said as we walked deeper. “Is it safe?”

“It’s been here for five hundred million years,” Charles said. “The walls are almost pure silica, built up in layers half a meter thick. I doubt it will fall on us now.”

Light ghosted ahead. Charles paused for me to pick my way through a lattice of thick green-black filaments, then extended his arm for me to go first. My breath sounded harsh in the confines of the helmet.

“It’s easier up ahead. Sandy floor, good walking.”

The pipe opened onto a murky chamber. For a moment, I couldn’t get any clear notion of size, but high above, a hole opened to black sky and I saw stars. The glow that diffused across the chamber came from a patch of golden sunlight gliding clockslow across the rippled sand floor.

“It’s a storage tank,” Charles said. “And a pumping station. Kind of like Trés Haut Médoc.”

“It’s immense,” I said.

“About fifty meters across. Not quite a sphere. The hole probably eroded through a few hundred years ago.”

“Earth years.”

“Right,” he said, grinning.

I looked at the concentric ripples in the sand, imagining the puff and blow of the winds coming through the ceiling breach. I nudged loose dust and flopsand with my boot. This went beyond confidence. Charles had guided me into genuine privilege, vouchsafed to very few. “I can’t believe it.”

“What?” Charles asked expectantly, pleased with himself.

I shrugged, unable to explain.

“I suppose eventually we’ll bring in LitVid, maybe even open it to tourists,” he said. “My father wanted it kept in the family for a few decades, but I don’t think any of my aunts or uncles or the Klein BM managers agreed. They’ve kept it closed all these years in his memory, I suspect, but they think that’s long enough, and there is the resource disclosure treaty to consider.”

“Why did he want it closed?”

“He wanted to bring Klein kids here for a history lesson. Exclusively. Give them a sense of deep time.”

Charles walked to the spot of sun and stood there, arms folded, his suit and helmet dazzling white and gold against the dull blue-green shadows beyond. He looked wonderfully arrogant, at home with eternity.

That sense of deep time Charles’s father had coveted for his BM’s children stole over me and brought on a bright, sparkling shock unlike anything I had ever experienced. My eyes adjusted to the gloom. Delicate traceries lined the glassy walls of the buried bubble. I remembered the paleoscape mural in Sean’s hospital room. The natural cathedrals of Mars. All broken and flat now… except here.

I tried to imagine the godly calm of a planet where an immense, soap-bubble structure like this could remain undisturbed over hundreds of millions of years.

“Have you shown anybody else?” I asked.

“No,” Charles said.

“I’m the first?”

“You’re the first.”

“Why?”

“Because I thought you’d love it,” he said.

“Charles, I don’t have half the experience or the… awareness necessary to appreciate this.”

“I think you do.”

“There must be hundreds of others — ”

“You asked to see my Mars,” Charles said. “No one’s ever asked before.”

I could only shake my head. I was unprepared to understand such a gift, much less appreciate it, but Charles had given it with the sweetest of intentions, and there was no sense resisting. “Thank you,” I said. “You overwhelm me.”

“I love you,” he said, turning his helmet. His face lay in shadow. All I could see were his eyes glittering.

“You can’t,” I answered, shaking my head.

“Look at this,” Charles said, lifting his arms like a priest beneath a cathedral dome. His voice quavered. “I work on my instincts. We don’t have much time to make important decisions. We’re fireflies, a brief glow then gone. I say I love you and I mean it.”

“You don’t give me time to make up my own mind!” I cried.

We fell silent for a moment. “You’re right,” Charles said.

I took a deep breath, sucking back my wash of emotions, clutching my hands to keep them from trembling. “Charles, I never expected any of this. You have to give me room to breathe.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, almost below pickup range for his helmet. “We should go back now.”

I didn’t want to go back. All of my life I would remember this, the sort of romantic moment and scene I had secretly dreamed of, though stretched beyond what I could have possibly imagined; the kind of setting and sweeping, impassioned declarations I had hoped for since such ideas had even glimmered hi me. That it aroused so much conflict baffled me.

Charles was giving me everything he had.

On the way back to the tractor, with ten minutes before we started using reserves, Charles knelt and chipped a square from the Glass Sea bed. He handed it to me. “I know you probably already have some,” he said. “But this is from me.”

Leave it to Charles, I thought, to give me flowers made of stone. I slipped the small slab of rock into my pouch. We climbed into the tractor, pressurized, and helped each other suck dust from our suits with a hose.

Charles seemed almost grim as he took the stick and propelled the tractor forward. We circled and climbed out of the canyon in painful silence.

I made my decision. Charles was passionate and dedicated. He cared about things. We had been through a lot together, and he had proven himself courageous and reliable and sensible. He felt strongly about me.

I would be a fool not to return his feelings. I had already convinced myself that my qualms before had come from cowardice and inexperience. As I looked at him then — he refused to look at me, and his face was flushed — I said, “Thank you, Charles. I’ll treasure this.”

He nodded, intent on dodging a field of boulders.

“In a special place in my heart, I love you, too,” I said. “I really do.”

The stiffness in his face melted then, and I saw how terrified he had been. I laughed and reached out to hug him. “We are so — weird” I said.

He laughed as well and there were tears in his eyes. I was impressed by my power to please.

That evening, as the temperature outside the station dipped to minus eighty, the walls and tunnel linings of the warrens creaked and groaned, and we dragged our beds together in the boss’s sleeping quarters. Charles and I kissed, undressed, and we made love.

I don’t know to this day whether I was his first woman. It didn’t matter then, and it certainly doesn’t matter now. He did not seem inexperienced, but Charles showed an aptitude for catching on quickly, and he excited and pleased me, and I was sure that what I felt was love. It had to be; it was right, it was mutual… and it gave me a great deal of pleasure.

I delighted in his excitement, and after, we talked with an ease and directness impossible before.

“What are you going to do?” I asked him, nested in the crook of his arm. I felt secure.

“When I grow up, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

He shook his head and his brows came together. He had thick, expressive eyebrows and long lashes. “I want to understand,” he said.

“Understand what?” I asked, smoothing the silky black hair on his forearm.

“Everything,” he said.

“You think that’s possible?”

“Yeah.”

“What would it be like? Understanding everything — how everything works, physics, I guess you mean.”

“I’d like to know that, too,” he said. I thought he might be joking with me, but lifting my eyes, I saw he was dead serious. “How about you?” he asked, blinking and shivering slightly.

I scowled. “God, I’ve been trying to figure that out for years now. I’m really interested in management — politics, I guess would be the Earth word. Mars is really weak that way.”

“President of Mars,” Charles said solemnly. “I’ll vote for you.”

I cuffed his arm. “Statist,” I said.

Waiting for sleep, I thought this part of my life had a clear direction. For the first time as an adult, I slept with someone and did not feel the inner bite of adolescent loneliness, but instead, a familial sense of belonging, the ease of desire satisfied by a dear friend.

I had a lover. I couldn’t understand why I had felt so much confusion and hesitation.

The next day, we made love again — of course — and after, strolling through the tunnels with mugs of breakfast soup, I helped Charles inspect the station. Every few years, an active station — whether deserted or not — had to be surveyed by humans and the findings submitted to the Binding Multiples Habitat Board. All habitable stations were listed on charts, and had to be ready for emergency use by anybody. Trés Haut Médoc needed new arbeiters and fresh emergency supplies. Emergency medical nano had gone stale. The pumps probably needed an engineering refit to fix deep structural wear that could not be self-repaired.

After finishing diagnostics on the main pumps, still caught up in yesterday’s trip and my deep-time shock, I asked Charles what puzzled him most about the universe.

“It’s a problem of management,” he said, smiling.

“That’s it,” I said huffily. ‘Talk down to my level.”

“Not at all. How does everything know where and what it is? How does everything talk to every other thing, and what or who listens?”

“Sounds spooky,” I said.

“Very spooky,” he agreed.

“You think the universe is a giant brain.”

“Not at all, madam,” he said, letting a diagnostic lead curl itself into his slate. He tucked the slate into his belt. “But it’s stranger than anyone ever imagined. It’s a kind of computational system… nothing but information talking to itself. That much seems clear. I want to know how it talks to itself, and how we can listen in… and maybe add to the conversation. Tell it what to do.”

“You mean, we can persuade the universe to change?”

“Yeah,” he said blandly.

“That’s possible?” I asked.

“I’d bet my life on it,” Charles said. “At least my future. Have you ever wondered why we’re locked in status quo?”

Cultural critics and even prominent thinkers in the Triple had speculated on the lack of major advances in recent decades. There had been progress — on Earth, the escalation of the dataflow revolution — that had produced surface changes, extreme refinements, but there had not been a paradigm shift for almost a century. Some said that a citizen of Earth in 2071 could be transported to 2171 and recognize almost everything she saw… This, after centuries of extraordinary change.

“If we could access the Bell Continuum, the forbidden channels where all the universe does its bookkeeping…” He smiled sheepishly. “We’d break the status quo wide open. It would be the biggest revolution of all time… much bigger than nano. Do you ever watch cartoons?”

“What are those?”

“Animations from the twentieth century. Disney cartoons, Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Tom and Jerry.”

“I’ve seen a few,” I said.

“I used to watch them all the time when I was a kid. They were cheap — public domain — and they fascinated me. Still do. I watched them and tried to understand how a universe like theirs would make sense. I even worked up some math. Observer-biased reality — nobody falls until he knows he’s over the edge of a cliff… Instant regeneration of damaged bodies, no consequences, continuous flows of energy, limited time, inconsistent effects from similar causes. Pretty silly stuff, but it made me think.”

“Is that how our universe works?” I asked.

“Maybe more than we realize! I’m fascinated by concepts of other realities, other ways of doing things. Nothing is fixed, nothing sacred, nothing metaphysically determined-it’s all contingent on process and evolution. That’s perfect. It means we might be able to understand, if we can just relax and shed our preconceptions.”

When we finished the survey, we had no further excuses to stay, and only a few hours before we had to return the tractor to Shrinktown.

Charles seemed dispirited.

“I really don’t want to go back. This place is ideal for being alone.”

“Not exactly ideal,” I said, sliding an arm around his waist. We bumped hips down the tunnel from the pump to the cuvée.

“Nobody bothers us, there’s things to see and places to go …”

“There’s always the wine,” I said.

He looked at me as if I were the most important person in the world. “It’ll be tough going home and not seeing you for a while.”

I hadn’t given much thought to that. “We’re supposed to be responsible adults now.”

“I feel pretty damned responsible,” Charles said. We paused outside the cuvée hatch. “I want to partner with you.”

I was shocked by how fast things were moving. “Lawbond?”

“I’d strike a contract.”

That was the Martian term, but somehow it seemed less romantic — and for that reason barely less dangerous — than saying, “Get married.”

He felt me shiver and held me tighter, as if I might run away. “Pretty damned big and fast,” I said.

“Time,” Charles-said with sepulchral seriousness. He smiled. “I don’t have the patience of rocks. And you are incredible. You are what I need.”

I put my hands on his shoulders and held him at elbow’s length, examining his face, my heart thumping again. “You scare me, Charles Franklin. It isn’t nice to scare people.”

He apologized but did not loosen his grip.

“I don’t think I’m old enough to get married,” I said.

“I don’t expect an answer right away,” Charles said. “I’m just telling you that my intentions are honorable.” He hammed the word to take away its stodgy, formal sense, but didn’t succeed. Honorable was something that might concern my father, possibly my mother, but I wasn’t sure it concerned me.

Again, confusion, inner contradictions coming to the surface. But I wasn’t about to let them spoil what we had here. I touched my finger to his lips. “Patience,” I said, as lovingly as possible. “Whether we’re rock or not. This is big stuff for mere people.”

“You’re right,” he said. “I’m pushing again.”

“I wouldn’t have known how good a lover you are,” I said, “if you hadn’t been a little pushy.”

I napped on the trip back to Shrinktown. The tractor found its way home like a faithful horse. Charles nudged me two hours before our arrival and I came awake apologizing. I didn’t want him to feel neglected. I turned to watch the short rooster tail of dust behind, then faced Charles in the driver’s seat. “Thank you,” I said.

“For what?”

“For being pushy.” I was about to say, “For making a woman out of me,” but the humor might not have been obvious, and I didn’t want him to think I was being flippant about what had happened.

“I’m good at that,” he said.

“You’re good at a lot of things.”

I had promised my family I would spend time at Ylla, my home station, before returning to school. There was a week left for that, but I had to go to Durrey to catch the main loop trains north. Charles would stay in Shrinktown a few more days.

We parked the tractor in the motor pool garage and kissed passionately, then walked to the Shrinktown station, promising to get together when school resumed.

When I got back to Durrey, Diane Johara — again my roommate — opened the door and smiled expectantly at me. “How was he?” she asked. “Who?”

“Charles Franklin.”

I had told her I was going on a trip Up but hadn’t given any specifics. “Have you been snooping?” I asked.

“Not at all. While I was out at the family farm, our room took messages. One of them is from a Charles at Shrinktown depot. Where’s your slate?”

I grimaced, remembering I had left my slate in the tractor by accident. Maybe that was why Charles was calling. “I’ve misplaced it,” I said.

Diane lifted an eyebrow. “I looked at the list when we got back. The same Charles we suffered with at UMS, I assume.”

“We went fossil-hunting,” I said.

“For three days ?”

“Your nose is sharp, Diane,” I said.

She followed me into my curtained area. I pulled the cot from the wall and flopped my case on the blanket.

“He seemed very nice,” Diane said.

“You want gory details?” I asked, exasperated.

Diane shrugged. “Confession is good for the soul.”

“You must have had a boring time at the farm.”

“The farm is always a dusting bore. Nothing but brothers and married cousins. But a great swimming hole. You should come with me sometime. Might meet someone you like. You’d be good for our family, Casseia.”

“What makes you think I’d transfer my contract?”

“We have so much to offer,” she said brightly.

“You’re a top pain, Diane.” I unpacked quickly and folded everything into drawers. The thought of being alone for the rest of the vacation seemed bleak.

“Any good males in your family?” she asked. “I’d transfer contracts… for someone like Charles.”

A few months before, I would have stuck my tongue out at her, or thrown a pillow. Somehow that seemed undignified. I had a lover — was a lover — and that demanded maturity in some ways even more than being in the UMS action did.

“All right. I went with Charles to a family station,” I admitted. “He’s nice.”

“He’s pretty,” Diane said wistfully. “I’m happy for you, Casseia.”

I rolled up my bag. “Can I listen to my messages in private?”

“Now you can,” Diane said.

The message from Charles made my heart pound. He was still pushing.

An hour after arriving at Shrinktown, Charles had recorded, “You left your slate in my bag. I’m sending it to your home station now. I just wanted to make sure you understand that I’m serious. I love you and I don’t think I’ll ever find another woman like you. I know you need time. But I know we can share our dreams. I miss you already.”

He was more impressed with me than I was. I sat on the edge of the cot, scared out of my wits.

I lay awake that night, aroused by the floating memories of Charles. It had been so confusing and so wonderful, but I knew I was too young to get married. Some did lawbond at my age: those who had morphed their futures since second form, who knew what they wanted and how to get it.

If I told Charles I did not wish to marry now, he would smile and say, “You have all the time you need.” And that wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. The truth was, what needed to mature in me was my whole approach to mixing the inner life with the outer. What if Charles was not ideally suited for me? Why settle for something less than the best?

I shook my head bitterly, feeling so very selfish and even treasonous. Charles had given me everything. How could I refuse?

How could I think such thoughts and yet still profess, even to myself, that I loved him?

I sent a text message back, not trusting my voice: The time at Trés Haut Médoc was lovely. I’ll treasure it always. I can’t talk about going lawbond because I am much less sure of myself than you seem to be. I want to see you as soon as possible. We need to get together with our friends and do all sorts of things before we can even think about commitment, don’t you agree?

I signed off with Love, Casseia Majumdar. I had signed letters to distant relatives that way. Not I love you, a strong declaration, but simply, tersely, Love. Charles would be hurt by that. It hurt me to write it and not change it…

But I sent the message. I left a farewell message on the room for Diane, who was staying at Durrey to study in privacy.

Then I boarded the train to North Solis . I leaned my head against the double-paned glass and looked out at nighttime Mars, at Phobos like, a dull searchlight above the glooming hills west of Durrey.

I am frightened, I told myself. I can never again be what I was. I can never be to another what I was to Charles. Something has ended and I am afraid.

I made the trip across Claritas Fossae back to Jiddah Pla-num and Ylla, the bosom of my family, greeting my parents and brother with affection, falsely trying to convey a jaunty air of self-assurance, everything’s fine here, I’m just the same as always. But I’m a lover now, Father. Mom, I’ve had a man, and it was wonderful… I mean, he was wonderful, and I think I’m in love, but it’s going very fast, and God I wish I could talk to you, really talk

Charles did not respond for three days.

Perhaps he had plumbed the depths of my character and decided he had made a serious mistake. Perhaps he had seen through to my basic immaturity and insincerity and decided to write me off as a Shinktown sweet after all.

My slate was delivered by postal arbeiter, but I had already ordered another, not trusting the room to record all my messages. I could not concentrate on planning my next octant’s curriculum. I was a nervous wreck.

I hated the suspense and uncertainty. I had felt I was in control and had lost that control and now it was my turn to be played on the line like a fish. Irritation turned to numb sadness. But I did not call him.

At the end of three days, as I undressed for a very lonely bed, Charles called me direct.

I robed and took his call in my room. His image came clear as life over my bed. He looked exhausted and sounded devastated and his face was ghostly pale. “I’m really sorry I’ve been out of touch,” he said. “I wish we could talk in person. It’s been a nightmare here.”

“What’s wrong?‘ I asked.

“Our BM has had all of its Earth contracts severed. I had to fly to McAuliff Valley for a family meeting. I’m there now. God, I’m sorry, you must have thought — ”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I didn’t hear anything on the nets.”

“It’s not public yet. Don’t tell anybody, Casseia. I think we’re being voided because our Lunar branch is starting up major prochine operations in Lagrange. Earth doesn’t like it. The Greater East-West Alliance, actually, but it might as well be the whole Earth.”

GEWA — pronounced Jee-wah, an economic union of Asia , North America , India and Pakistan , the Philippines , and parts of the Malay Archipelago — had been causing problems for a number of BMs, including Majumdar.

“Is it really that bad?”

“We can’t ship any goods to Earth, and we can’t exchange process data with GEWA signatories.”

“How does that affect you?” I asked.

“We’re looking at an across-the-board loss for the next five Earth years. My scholarship is down the tubes,” Charles said. “I had hoped to join the Trans-Mars Physics Co-op for my fifth-form studies. If Klein can’t ante up, I can’t pay my share, and I don’t even go to fifth form.”

“Damn,” I said. “I know how much that means — ”

“It puts everything on hold, Casseia. What you said… about taking time to think things through…” His voice shook and he worked to control it. “Casseia, I can’t possibly go lawbond, I don’t have any prospects for scholarship — ”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“I feel like an idiot. Everything was going so well, maybe, I thought, maybe we can — ”

“Yeah.” I hurt for him.

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to be.”

“I love you so much.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I want to see you. As soon as I’m free here — we have some family decisions to make, consensus on BM direction, response, and so on — ”

“Serious. I know.”

“I want to get together. At Durrey, when we go back, or at Ylla, wherever. No pressure, just… see you.”

“I want to see you, too.”

He reaffirmed that he loved me, and we mumbled our way through farewells. His image faded and I took a deep breath and got a drink of water.

Charles was in trouble and that took pressure off me, and I felt guilty relief. I knew I had to talk to someone, soon, but my Mother and Father certainly would not do…

I called Diane.

She answered with vid off, then switched it on. She wore a ragged blue robe she had treasured since girlhood. She had caked her hair with Vivid, a mud-colored treatment she was addicted to. It rolled slowly on her scalp. “I know, I know, I’m ugly,” she said. “What’s up?”

I told her about Charles’s situation. I told her he had asked me to lawbond and that we couldn’t now. That I was and had been very confused.

She whistled and dropped onto her cot. “Lightspeed kind of guy, isn’t he?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. Talking remote was never the same as being in the same room, especially for a good heartfelt, but Diane’s manner cut the distance. “You told him to go slow, I hope.”

“I don’t think he can. He sounds so in love.”

“That’s either wonderful, or he’s grit. How do you feel?”

“He is so sincere and… he’s so sweet, I feel guilty not dropping my tanks and digging in.”

“Well, he’s your first, and that’s sweet alone. But you’re not telling Aunt Di how you feel. Do you love him?”

“I’m worried I’m going to hurt him.”

“Ah. I mean, uh-oh.”

“You sound experienced” I said testily, knotting my fingers.

“I wish I were. Casseia, stop pacing and relax. You’re giving me an ache.”

I sat.

“You went with him to Trés Haut Médoc. He wasn’t just climbing into your suit. You must have seen something special in him. Do you love him?”

“Yes,” I said.

“But you don’t want to lawbond.”

“Not right away.”

“Ever?”

I shook my head, neither yes nor no. “Don’t tell me I’m a fool not to, because he’s pretty and kind. I know that already.”

“No such, Casseia. Although I’m a bit envious. He is smart, he was good — I assume — ”

“He was very good,” I cried.

“And he’s willing to wait; So wait.”

I pressed my lips together and stared at her. “What if I decide not to lawbond? Would that be fair? He’d have wasted time on me…”

“God, Casseia, I hope no sophisticated Terrie ever hears this. We Martians are such serious folk. Love is never wasted. Do you want to dump him now and try someone else?”

“No!” I said angrily.

“Hey, it is an option. Nobody’s forcing you to do anything. Don’t forget that.”

Talking with her simply dropped me deeper. “I feel really terrible now,” I said. “I’d better go.”

“Not on your life. Why are you so charged about this?”

“Because if I love him, I should feel differently. I should feel all one way, not three ways. I should be happy and giving.”

“You’re ten years old, Casseia. Young love is never perfect.”

“He uses Earth years,” I lamented.

“Ah, a fault! What other faults does he have?”

“He’s so smart. I can’t understand anything about his work.”

“Take a course. He doesn’t want you for a lab assistant or fraulein arbeiter, does he?”

“When I’m away from him, I don’t know what to feel.”

Diane wrinkled her face is disgust. “All right, we’re running in circles. Who’s waiting in a side tunnel?”

“Nobody,” I said.

“You know how men react to you. You’re attractive. Charles isn’t the only slim and randy buck on Mars. You can afford to relax a bit. What do you know about him? You know his family isn’t rich… his BM is in trouble with Earth… he wants to be a physicist and understand everything. He’s pretty he’s gentle, he’s rugged on the Up… God, Casseia, I’m going to hit you if you just void him!”

I shook my hanging head. “I’ve got to go, Diane.”

“Sorry I’m not helping.”

“It’s okay.”

“Do you love him, Casseia?” she asked again, eyes sharp.

“No!” I fumbled to hit the vid off. I missed.

“Don’t cut me now, roomie,” Diane said. “You don’t love him at all?”

“I can’t. Not now. Not one hundred per.”

“You’re positive?”

I nodded.

“Could you come to love him, someday?”

I stared at her blankly. “He’s very persuasive,” I said.

“One hundred per?”

“Probably not. No. I don’t think so.”

“Be kind, then. Tell him honestly how you feel right now.”

“I will.”

She looked away for a moment, then brought up her slate. “You know me,” she said. “Always squirreling. Well, I have something interesting here, if you want to know about it.”

“What?” I asked.

“Charles may be ragged on the Up and good in bed, but he has plans, Casseia. Have you checked up on your friend?”

“No.”

“I always make sure I know as much as possible about my male friends. Men can be so tortuous.”

I wondered what she was going to throw at me now, and my shoulders tensed: that he was actually a Statist, that he had been spying for Caroline Connor in the trench domes.

“This doesn’t toss any sand on how nice a guy he is, but our good Charles wants to be a real physicist, Casseia. He’s applied to be a subject for enhancement research.”

“So? It’s the pro thing. Even Majumdar accepts it.”

“Yeah. And on Earth, everybody does it. But Charles has applied to be hooked to a Quantum Logic thinker.”

I fell silent for a moment. “Where d-did you learn that?”

“Open records, medically oriented research applications, UMS. He put in the request early last summer, before the trench domes.”

My insides sank. “Oh, God,” I said.

“Hey, we don’t know much about such a link.”

“Nobody can even talk to a QL thinker!” I said.

“I didn’t want to puddle your dust, Casseia, but I thought you’d want to know.”

“Oh.”

“When will you be back?”

I mumbled an answer and cut the vid. My head seemed filled with foam. I didn’t know whether to be angry or to cry.

On Mars, we had escaped most of the ferment of enhancements and transforms and nanomorphing commonplace on Earth. We were used to low-level enhancements, genetic correction, and therapy for serious mental disorders, but most Martians eschewed the extreme possibilities. Some weren’t available off Earth; some just didn’t suit our pragmatic, pioneer tastes. I think the cultural consensus was that Mars would let Earth and, to a lesser extent, the Moon try the radical treatments, and Mars would sit the revolution out for a decade or two and await the results.

If what Diane had learned was true — and I couldn’t think of any reason to doubt her — Charles seemed ready to zip right to the cutting edge.

What had been youthful ambivalence before ramped to near-panic now. How could I maintain any kind of normal relationship with Charles when he would spend much of his mental life listening to the vagaries of Quantum Logic? Why would he want that in the first place?

The answer was clear — to make him a better physicist. Quantum Logic reflected the way the universe operated at a deep level. Human logic — and the mathematical neural logic of most thinkers — worked best on the slippery surface of reality.

What I knew of these topics, I had picked from school studies and mass LitVid, where physically and mentally enhanced heroes dominated Terrie youth programming. But in truth, I understood very little about Quantum Logic or QL thinkers.

One last question chased me through the rest of the day, through dinner with my parents and brother, through the BM social hour and tea dance later in the evening, into a sleepless bed: Why didn’t Charles tell me?

He hadn’t given me everything, after all.

Early the next morning, my mother and I planned my education through the next few years. I wasn’t in the mood, but it had to be done, so I put on as brave and cheerful a face as I could manage. Father and Stan had gone to an inter-BM conference on off-Mars asset control; our branch of the family had traditionally served the Majumdar BM by directing the family’s involvement in Triple finances, and Stan was following that road. I was still interested in management and political theory, even more now that I had spend a few months away from such courses. The UMS action, and my time with Charles, had sharpened my resolve.

Mother was a patient woman, too patient I thought, but I was grateful to have her sympathy now. She had never approved of political process; my grandmother had left the Moon in protest when it had reshaped its constitution, and her daughter had retained a typical Lunar sense of rugged individualism.

Both Mother and I knew what I owed to the family: that beginning in another year or so, I would become useful to the BM, or get lawbonded, transfer, and become useful to another BM. Political studies did not seem particularly useful to anybody at this time.

Still, if I wanted to study state theory and large-scale govmanagement, she would go along… after voicing a quiet, polite protest.

That took about five minutes, and I sat stolidly, hearing her through. She discussed the difficulties of politics in BM-centered economies; she told me that the best and most lasting contributions could be made within one’s own BM, or as a BM-elected representative to the Council, and even that was something of a chore and not a privilege.

She made her points, a restrained but heartfelt version of Grandmother’s Lunar cry of “Cut the politics!” and I said in reply, “It’s the only thing that really interests me, Mother. Somebody has to study the process; the BMs have to interact with each other and with the Triple. That’s just common sense.”

She leaned her head to one side and gave me what Father called her enigma look, which I had seen many times before, and never been able to describe. A loving, suffering, patiently expectant expression, I can say now after decades of thought, but that still doesn’t do it justice. This time, it might have meant, “Yes, and it’s the world’s third-oldest profession, but I wouldn’t want my daughter doing it.”

“You’re not going to change your mind, are you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then let’s do it right,” she said.

We sat in the dining room, poring over prospectuses as they flitted around us in stylish picts and texts, symbols and previews of various curriculums vying to draw us in deeper. Mother sighed and shook her head. “None of these are very enticing,” she said. “All entry-level stuff.”

“A few look interesting.”

“You say you’re serious about this?”

“Yes.”

“Then Martian political theory won’t be enough. It’s small grit compared to Terrie boulders.”

“But Terrie eds are expensive — ”

“And probably biased toward Earth history and practices, God forbid,” she added. “But they’re still the best for what you seem to want.”

“I don’t want to ask for something nobody else in the family has gotten.”

“Why not?” she asked brightly, enjoying the chance to seem perverse.

“It doesn’t seem right.”

“Nobody in our branch of Majumdar has gone out for govmanagement. Finance, economics, but never system-wide politics.”

“I’m a freak,” I said.

She shook her head. “Recognizably my daughter, however. I’ll clear for it if you really want it.”

“Mother, we couldn’t afford more than a year — ”

“I’m not talking about autocourse eds,” she said. “If you aim for the stars, pick the bright ones. The least you should settle for is a Majumdar scholarship and apprenticeship.”

I hadn’t even dreamed of such a thing. “Apprenticed to whom?”

She made a wry face. “Who in our family knows the most about politics, particularly Earth politics? Your third uncle.”

“Bithras?”

“If your father and the BM pedagogues approve. I couldn’t get that for you by myself; I’m still a bit of an outsider at that level. I’m not sure your father could pull enough strings and call in enough favors. We’ve only met Bithras three times since you were born — and he’s never met you — ”

“What would I do?”

“Inter-BM affairs, and of course Triple affairs. Attend the Council meetings, I assume, and study the Charter and the business law books.”

“It would be perfect,” I mused.

“Next best thing to a real government to study. We tend to neglect that kind of management at the station level, and for that I’m thankful.”

“But I’d still need Terrie autocourses to fill out my currie.”

She smiled cagily. “Of course.” She touched my nose lightly with her finger. “But they wouldn’t go on our tab. All educational costs for apprenticeship are billed to the high family budget.”

“You’ve been giving this some thought behind my back,” I accused.

“I’ve put up with your eccentricities,” she said with a lift of her chin and stretch of her neck, “because we try to encourage independent thinking in our young folks. We hope they’ll experiment. But I honestly never thought I’d see a daughter of mine go into politics — ”

“Govmanagement,” I amended.

“For a career,” she said. “I’m put off by it, of course, and I’m also intrigued. After a few years studying the Council, what can you teach me when we argue?”

“We never argue,” I said, hugging her.

“Never,” she affirmed. “But your father thinks we do.”

I let her go and stood back. With this much resolved, I needed to solve another problem. “Mother, I’d like to ask somebody to visit Ylla. Somebody from Durrey. He needs a vacation — he’s had some pretty bad news — ”

“Charles Franklin from Klein,” my mother said.

I hadn’t mentioned him.

She smiled and gave me another enigma looL “His mother called to see if you were worthy of her son.”

My shock must have showed. “How could she?” And behind that question, How could he talk about me with his parents?

“Her only child is very important to her.”

“But we’re adults!”

“She seemed nice and she didn’t ask any leading questions. She thinks Charles is a wonderful young man, of course, and from what she tells me, I don’t disagree. I assume you think he’s wonderful. Is he?”

I sputtered, trying to express my indignation. She put a finger to my lips. “It’s traditional for us to drive you crazy,” she said. “Think of it as revenge for when you were two years old. Charles is welcome any time.”

Mars supported four million citizens and about half a million prospective citizens, a little less the population of the old United States in 1800.

Some prospective citizens were Eloi emigrating from Earth, starting fresh on Mars, where going for Ten Cubed — a life span of at least one thousand Earth years — was not just accepted, but ignored. Earth forbade life spans artificially extended much over two hundred years, forcing the Eloi to emigrate elsewhere or reverse their treatments. Mars accepted a hefty fee from Earth for taking in each and every Eloi — though it was not widely advertised.

Some immigrating to Mars were pioneers pure and simple, heading out from Earth or Moon to find a simpler and more basic existence. They must have found Mars a disappointment — we had long since spun beyond the era of foamed rock insulation and narrow tunnels between trench domes.

I met Charles at the Kowloon depot, ten kilometers from our home warrens at Ylla. As Charles took his bag from the arbeiter, I spotted Sean Dickinson in a train window. Even with less than five million humans (and perhaps three hundred legally recognized thinkers) spread out over a land area equal to Earth’s, Mars was positively cozy. You couldn’t help running into people you knew, wherever you went. Sean and I exchanged cordial nods. I pointedly embraced Charles. Sean watched us impassively as the train slid out of the depot.

“I am incredibly glad to see you,” Charles said.

I made a warm sound and squeezed his hand. “That was Sean,” I said. “Did you see him?”

“Sat with him,” Charles said. “He seems more cheerful than when we last met. He told me to apologize for making stupid accusations against you. He’s going south. I didn’t ask where.”

“That’s nice,” I said, and my face warmed. “Welcome to Jiddah Planum. Accountants, investment analysts, small engineering firms. No fossils to speak of, even Glass Sea .”

“You’re here, and that’s enough,” Charles said. We crossed the walkways to the lounge and booked tickets for the return. Ylla dug into the northern outskirts of Jiddah Planum. Smaller, slower trains fanned from Kowloon to Jiddah and Ylla and even smaller stations east.

Charles’s face seemed thinner. We had been apart for just over a week, yet he had changed drastically in both feature and mood. He held me close as we boarded our train, and fell back into his seat with a sigh. “God, it is good to see you,” he said. “Tell me what you’ve been doing.”

“I told you in my letters,” I said.

“Tell me in person. I worried, just getting letters.”

“Letters require much more effort,” I said.

“Tell me.”

I told him about applying for a Majumdar apprenticeship. He approved without reservation. “Brave and noble Casseia,” he said. “Go right to the top in the face of tradition.”

“Just my father,” I said. “My mother’s actually pretty neutral about politics.”

“We’re none of us going to be neutral for long,” Charles said. “Klein is wounded. Others are going to be hit next.”

“By Earth? By GEWA?”

He shrugged and looked out the window at the dull ochre prairies and shallow, kilometer-wide valleys and ditches called fossas. “We’re some sort of threat. Nobody seems to know what sort, but they’re using obvious muscle on us. We’re going to the Charter Council next week to ask for solidarity and relief.”

“Relief?” I was incredulous; Martian BMs rarely asked for relief. So much had to be conceded with competing BMs to get inter-family guarantees.

“We’re in big trouble, as I said. I hope Majumdar misses all this.”

“What will you do if you get the Council to call for solidarity? That’s the step before appealing for unified action by all the BMs — ”

“Shh,” he said, holding up a finger. “Don’t use that word, united.” He smiled, but the smile was not convincing.

“How did you get time off to come here?”

“I’ve done my share and more in the planning phase. I have three days before I return.”

“The next eighth at Durrey starts in four days,” I said.

“I’ll have to miss it.”

“You’re quitting school?”

“Family emergency sabbatical,” he said. “I’ll be on call until the crisis passes.”

“That could put you a year behind…”

“Martian year,” Charles said, patting my arm. “I’ll make it. Just my luck to be in a vulnerable BM. If you’re going into high-level govmanagement, maybe we can transfer your contract…”

Suddenly that wasn’t funny. I turned away, unable to hide my irritation, and Charles was dismayed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not being disrespectful. I really wanted to come here and persuade you to… and you said… I know, Casseia, I’m sorry.”

“Never mind.” He was missing the cause of my anger, couldn’t possibly understand — not yet. “We have a lot to talk about, Charles.”

“So serious,” he said. He closed his eyes and leaned against the headrest. “This isn’t going to be a vacation?”

“Of course it is,” I said. That wasn’t quite a lie.

Charles arrived in the middle of a most unusual paucity — most of my blood relations and relations by marriage, who normally trooped through Ylla and our warrens like a herd of friendly cats, had trooped elsewhere, spreading out across Mars on errands or vacations. We would have a rare time of privacy, and neither Charles nor I would have to suffer the staring eyes of curious urchins, impolite questions from my aunts, hints of liaisons from my elder cousins. Even my brother was away. Ylla Station would be empty and quiet, and for this I was supremely grateful.

Ylla occupied sixty hectares of an almost featureless prairie of little interest but for aquifers and solid ice lenses. Prospectors had mapped out a chain of stations along the Athene Aquifer in the first decade of the Mars expansion, thirty years ago; three of a possible six had been built, Ylla the first. It had originally been known as Where’s Ylla.

The lack of sentient Martians had disappointed few. Martian settlers landing on their new home, and taking station assignments, quickly became hard-bitten and practical; it was no picnic. Keeping a station open and staying alive was tough enough in those decades without having to deal with unhappy natives. Still, I had played Ylla as a girl, and my brother had played the defensive Mr. Ttt with his gun of golden bees, stalking human astronauts…

I related much of this nervously to Charles as the small train whined over the ditches and onto the main prairie, trying to keep an appearance of calm when in fact I was miserable. I had asked Charles to come to Ylla to ask him a question I now thought rude and unnecessary; rude, because he would have mentioned his desire to be enhanced had he wished to, and unnecessary, because I was determined to end our brief relationship. But I couldn’t simply tell him on the train.

And I couldn’t tell him at dinner. My parents of course went all-out with this meal, celebrating the first time I had brought a young man to our station.

Father was particularly interested in Charles, asking endless questions about the Terrie embargoes on Klein. Charles answered politely and to the best of his knowledge; there was no reason to keep any of this secret from someone as highly placed as Father.

My parents generally eschewed nano food, preferring garden growth and syn products. We ate potato and syn cheese pie and fruit salad and for desert, my father’s syn prime cheesecake with hot tea. After dinner, we sat in the memory room, small and tightly decorated as most old Mars station rooms are, with the inevitable living shadow box from Earth, the self-cycling fish tank, the small, antique wall-mount projectors for LitVid.

I loved my parents, and what they felt was important to me, but their immediate and natural affection for Charles was distressing. Charles fit right in. He and my father leaned forward in their chairs, almost knocking heads, talking about the possibility of hard financial times ahead, like old friends.

Inevitably, Father asked him what he planned to do with himself.

“A lot of things,” Charles answered. “I’m much too ambitious for a Martian.”

Mother offered him more tea. “We don’t see any reason why Martians shouldn’t be ambitious,” she said, lips pursed as if mildly chiding.

“It’s simply impractical to do what I want to do, here, at this time,” Charles said. He shook his head and grinned awkwardly. “I’m not very practical.”

“Why?” Father asked.

He has come all this way to be with me, I thought, and he spends this time talking with my parents… about what he is going to do in physics.

“Mars doesn’t have the research tools necessary, not yet, perhaps not for decades,” Charles said. “There are only two thinkers on the planet dedicated to physics, and a few dozen barely adequate computers tied up in universities with long waiting lists. I’m too young to get on any of the lists. My work is too primitive. But…” He stopped, hands held in mid-air, parallel to each other, emphasizing his point with a little jerking gesture. “The work I hope to do would take all of Earth’s resources.”

“Then why not go to Earth?” my father asked.

“Why not?” I put in. “It would be a marvelous experience.”

“No chance,” Charles said. “My grades aren’t perfect, my psych evaluations aren’t promising, to work on Earth they make outsiders pass rigid tests… We have to be ten times better than any Terrie.”

My father smelled a young man with ambitions but insufficient drive. “You have to do what you have to do,” he said gruffly.

Instantly I was on Charles’s side, saying abruptly, “Charles knows what to do. He knows more than most Terrestrials.”

My father lifted an eyebrow at the vehemence of my defense. Charles took my hand in appreciation.

“Worse scholars than you have filtered through,” Father said. “You just have to know how to handle people.”

“I don’t know anything about handling people,” Charles said. “I’ve never known anything but how to be straight with them.”

He looked at me as if that were a trait I might admire, and though I thought it disingenuous, not admirable, I smiled. Concern passed from his face in a flash, replaced by adoration. His brown eyes even crossed a little, like a puppy’s. I turned away, not wanting to have such an effect on him. I wanted to be away from my parents, alone with Charles, to express my affection but tell him this was not the time. I felt horrible and a little queasy.

“Casseia would go to Earth in a moment if the opportunity arose,” my mother said. “Wouldn’t you?” She grinned at me proudly.

I stared at the fish tank, sealed decades ago on Earth, lovingly tended by my father and given to my mother on the day of their nuptials. “Nobody’s offered,” I said.

“You’re good, though,” Charles said. “You can jump the hurdles. You have a way with people.”

“Our sentiments exactly,” Father said, smiling proudly. “She just needs a little self-confidence. Support from people other than her parents.”

Father took me aside while Mother and Charles talked. “You’re not happy, Casseia,” he said. “I see it, your mother sees it — Charles must see it. Why?”

I shook my head. “This is going all wrong,” I said. “You like him.”

“Why shouldn’t we?”

“I asked him here… to talk with him. And I can’t be alone with him to talk…”

Father smiled. “You can be alone later.”

“That isn’t why I’m unhappy. You’re examining him as if I’m going to lawbond him.”

My father narrowed one eye and stared at me like a prospector examining a vein in rock. “He meets my approval so far.”

“He’s a friend, and he’s here to talk. I’m not asking for your approval.”

“We’re embarrassing you?”

“I just have some important things to talk about with him, and this is taking so much time.”

“Sorry,” Father said. “I’ll try to keep the inquisition short.”

We returned to the memory room. Slowly, my father pried Mother away from the conversation and suggested they inspect the tea garden. When they were gone, Charles settled back contentedly, well-fed and relaxed. “They’re good people,” he said. “I can see where you come from.”

He could have said anything and it would have irritated me. This irritated me more. “I’m my own woman,” I said.

He lifted his hands helplessly and sighed. “Casseia, you’re going to tell me something. Tell me now. You’re driving me muddy.“

“Why didn’t you say you applied for a link?”

He frowned. “Pardon?”

“You’ve applied to link with a QL thinker.”

“Of course,” he said, face blank. “So has a third of my physics fourth form.”

“I know what a QL thinker is, Charles. I’ve heard what it can do to people…”

“It doesn’t make them into monsters.”

“It doesn’t do them any good as human beings,” I said.

“Is that what’s going wrong between us?”

“No.”

“Something is going wrong, though.”

“What kind of life would there be for someone…” I was getting myself into a mire and couldn’t find a solid path out.

“Married to a QL?” He seemed to think that was funny. “It was a whim, Casseia. It’s been talked about on Earth. Some of our senior physicists think it could help break tough conceptual problems. It would be temporary.”

“You didn’t tell me,” I said.

He tried to skirt the issue. “I’ll never get the chance now,” Charles said.

“But you didn’t tell me.”

“Is that what’s upsetting you?”

“You didn’t trust me enough to tell me.” I couldn’t believe we were getting stuck in the wrong topic… all to avoid the words I knew would be hurtful, words I actually had no clear reason for saying.

Here was Charles directly in front of me. Part of me — an energetic and substantial part — wanted to apologize to him, to take him to the tea garden and make love with him again. I would not allow that. I had reached my decision and I would follow through, no matter how painful for both of us.

“I have a lot of growing to do,” I said.

“So do I. We — ”

“But not together.”

His mouth went slack and his eyes half-lidded. He looked down, closed his mouth, and said, “All right.”

“We’re both too young. I’ve enjoyed our time together.”

“You invited me to meet your parents before telling me this? That’s hardly fair. You’ve wasted their time.”

“They like you as much as I do,” I said. “I wanted to talk to you in a place I was familiar with, because this isn’t easy for me to say. I do love you.”

“Um hm.” He wouldn’t look at me directly. He kept searching the walls as if for a way to escape. “You wanted me to tell you about future plans that might never have happened, to get you upset over something… probably impossible. And you’re disappointed.”

“No.” I thrust my jaw forward, pushing ahead despite the confusion, only now understanding the core of my response. “I’m telling you straight. Later, perhaps, when we’ve achieved something, when our minds are settled, when we know what we want to do — ”

“I’ve known that since I was a boy,” Charles said.

“Then you should have picked somebody more like you. I don’t know what I’m going to do, or where it’s going to take me.”

Charles nodded. “I pushed too hard,” he said.

“Damn it, stop that,” I said. “You sound like a…”

“What?”

“Never mind.” I just looked at him, eyes wide, trying to show the real affection I felt for him by the way my eyes tracked the points on his very fine face.

“You’re not happy, are you?” he asked.

“We can’t grow up in a couple of months,” I said.

He held up his hands. “I want to be with you, make love with you, reach out to you… watch you when you go to sleep.” I found that a particularly frightening picture: domestic coziness. Not what I imagined I needed at all. Youth is a time for adventure, for many changes, not for commitment and life spent on a fixed path. “You could teach me so much about politics and the way people work together. I need that. I think so far into the abstract I get lost. You could balance me.”

“I wonder if I’ll ever be ready for that,” I said. “It might be better if we stayed friends.”

“We must always be friends,” he said.

“Just friends, for now,” I added gently.

“Wise Casseia,” he said after a few seconds of silence. “I apologize for being so clumsy.”

“Not at all,” I said. “It’s charming, really.”

“Charming. Not convincing.”

“I don’t know what I want, Charles,” I said. “I have to find out for myself.”

“Do you believe in me?” he asked. “If you do, you’d know life with me will never be dull.”

I gave him a glance partly puzzled, partly irritated.

“I’m going to do important things. I don’t know how long it will take me, Casseia, but I have glimmers even now. Places where I can contribute. The work I do on my own — I don’t show it at the university — it’s pretty good stuff. Not seminal, not yet, but pretty good, and it’s only the warm-up.”

I saw now, for the first time, another side of Charles, and I did not like it. His face wrinkled into a determined frown.

“You don’t have to convince me you’re smart,” I said peevishly.

He took my shoulders, hands light but insistent. “It isn’t just being smart,” he said. “It’s as if I can see into the future. I’ll be doing really fine work, great work, and I sometimes think, whoever my partner is, she helps me do that work. I have to choose my partner, my friend, my lover, very carefully, because it isn’t going to be easy.”

I could have finished the conversation then with a handshake and a firm good-bye. I did not like this aspect of Charles. He was not half as smart as my father, I thought, yet he was full of himself, a raging egotist, full of such big ideas. “I have my own work to do,” I said, “I need to be more than just somebody’s partner, just a support for their work.”

“Of course,” he said, a little too quickly.

“I have to follow my own path, not just glue myself to someone and be dragged along,” I said.

“Oh, of course.” His face wrinkled again.

Charles, please don’t cry, damn it, I thought.

“There’s so much inside,” he said. “I feel so strongly. I can’t express myself adequately, and if I can’t do that, I certainly can’t convince you. But I’ve never met a woman like you.”

You haven’t met many women, I thought, not very kindly.

“Wherever you go, whatever we end up doing, I’ll be waiting for you,” he said.

I took his hand then, feeling this was an appropriate if not perfect way to get out of a tough situation. “I really feel strongly about you, Charles,” I said. “I’ll always care for you.”

“You don’t want to get married, something I can’t do now anyway, and you knew that… So you don’t want me to consider you a steady partner, or anything else, either. You don’t want to see me again.”

“I want the freedom to choose,” I said. “I don’t have that now.”

“I’m in your way.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Casseia, I have never been so embarrassed and ashamed.”

I stared at him without comprehending.

“You have a lot to learn about men.”

“Of course.”

“About people.”

“No doubt.”

“And you don’t want to learn it from me. What did I do to you to make this end so soon?”

“Nothing!” I cried. I wouldn’t be able to control myself much longer. It was agony to realize that after this, Charles would have to stay the night; there were no trains to the Kowloon depot at this hour. We would have to face each other in the morning, with my parents about.

“I would like to live alone, on my own, and make my own life and see what I’m capable of,” I said, half-mumbling. My eyes filled with tears and I lifted my head to keep them from spilling down my cheeks. “Don’t wait for me. That isn’t freedom.

He shook his head rapidly. “I did something wrong.”

“No!” I shouted.

We hadn’t left the memory room. I took his arm and led him to the warren hub, then opened the door to the tea garden tunnel. I pushed him through, teeth clenched.

The tea garden lay in a cylinder-shaped cell ten meters below the surface. Dense green bushes thrust from walls, ceiling, and floor toward a rippling sheet of portable sun. The leaves rustled in the circulating air. I held his arm and stopped at the south end of the cell.

“I’m the one who’s done something wrong,” I said. “It’s me, not you.”

“It felt so obvious. So true,” Charles said.

“Maybe it would have been, three years from now, or five. But we’ve missed the timing. Who knows what we’ll be doing then.”

Charles sat on a bench. I sat beside him, wiping my eyes quickly with a sleeve. Only a few years ago I had given up playing with dolls and burying myself in LitVids about girlhood in Terrie Victorian times. How could this have come so fast?

“On Earth,” Charles said, “they teach their kids all about sex and courtship and marriage.”

“We’re old-fashioned here,” I said.

“We make mistakes out of ignorance.”

“I’m ignorant, all right,” I said. Our voices had returned to a normal tone of conversation. We might hafe been discussing a tea competition. Martians dearly love their tea; I prefer pekoe. And you?

“I won’t apologize any more,” he said, and he took my hand. I squeezed his fingers. “I meant what I said. And I tell you now… whenever you’re ready, wherever we may be, I’ll be there for you. I won’t go away. I chose you, Casseia and I won’t be happy with anyone else. Until then, I’ll be a friend. I won’t expect anything from you.”

I wanted to jump up and scream, Charles, that is just so dumb, you don’t get what I’m saying… But I didn’t. Suddenly, I saw Charles very clearly as an arrow shot straight to the mark, with no time to lie or even to relax and play; a straight and honest man who would in fact be a wonderful and loving husband.

But not for me. My course could not follow his. I might never hit my mark, and I doubted our two marks would ever be the same.

I realized that I would miss him, and the pain became more intense than I could bear.

I left the tea garden. My father showed Charles the guest room.

After, Father came to my room. The door was sealed and I had turned the com off, but I heard his knock through the steel and foam. I let him in and he sat on the edge of my cot. “What is going on?” he asked.

I cried steadily and silently.

“Has he hurt you?”

“God, no,” I said.

“Have you hurt him?”

“Yes.”

Father shook his head and curled his lip before assuming a flat expression. “I won’t ask anything more. You’re my daughter. But I’m going to tell you something and you can take it for what it’s worth. Charles seems to be in love with you, and you’ve done something to attract that love…”

“Please,” I said.

“I took him to the guest room and he looked at me like a lost puppy.”

I turned away, heartsick.

“Did you invite him here to meet with us?”

“No.”

“He thought that was your reason.”

“No.”

“All right.” He lifted one knee and folded his hands on it, very masculine, very fatherly. “I’ve wondered for years what I would do if anybody hurt you — how I’d react when you started courting. You know how much I love you. Maybe I was naive, but I never gave much thought to the effect you might have on others. We’ve raised you well…”

Please, Father.”

He took a deep breath. “I’m going to tell you something about your mother and me that you don’t know. Just think of it as fulfilling a duty to my sex. Women can hurt men terribly.”

“I know that.” I hated the whine in my voice.

“Hear me out. Some women think men are pretty hard characters and should get as good as they give. But I don’t approve of your carelessly hurting men, any more than I’d approve if Stan started hurting women.”

I shook my head helplessly. I just wanted to be alone.

“Family history. Take it for what it’s worth. Your mother spent a year choosing between me and another man. She said she loved us both and couldn’t make up her mind. I couldn’t stand the thought of sharing her, but I couldn’t let go, either. Eventually, she drifted away from the other man, and told me I was the one, but… it hurt a lot, and I’m still not over it, thirteen years later. I wish I could be gallant and understanding and forgiving, but I still can’t hear his name without cringing. Life isn’t simple for people like us. We’d like to think our lives are our own, but they’re not, Casseia. They’re not. I wish to God they were.”

I could not believe Father was telling me such things. I certainly did not want to hear them. Mother and Father had always been in absolute love, would always be in love; I was not the product of whims and unstable emotions, not the product of something so chaotic as what was happening between Charles and me.

For a few seconds I could hardly talk. “Please go,” I said, sobbing uncontrollably, and he did, with a muttered apology.

The next morning, after a breakfast that lasted forever, I accompanied Charles to Kowloon depot. We kissed almost as brother and sister, too much in pain to say anything. We held hands for a moment, staring at each other with self-conscious drama. Then Charles got on the train and I turned and ran.

The forces were building.

Klein asked for but did not receive guarantees of solidarity, and there was a split in the BM Charter Council. Earth and GEWA asked more Martian BMs to sign more stringent agreements favorable to Earth. There were more embargoes against bigger BMs, and some folded into each other, facing pernicious exhaustion of funds — bankruptcy. Even the largest unaffected BMs realized that the systems of independent families was headed for a breakdown; that solidarity in the face of outside pressure would soon not be a choice, but a necessity.

The first time around, my application for a syndic apprenticeship was turned down. I switched from Durrey back to UMS and resumed studies at the much-reduced govmanagement school. I applied for the apprenticeship again six months later, and was rejected again.

Bithras Majumdar, syndic of Majumdar BM and my third uncle, had been summoned to Earth in late 2172, M.Y. 53, to testify before the Senate of the United States of the Western Hemisphere . Bithras’s testimony could have been transmitted and saved us all a lot of money. Politicians and syndics seldom do much unrehearsed talking in public. But the arrogance of Earth was legendary.

GEWA — the Greater East-West Alliance — had emerged as the greatest economic and political power on Earth. Within GEWA, the United States had kept its position as first among equals. Still, it was generally accepted on Mars that GEWA was using the United States to express its strong disappointment with Mars’s lack of progress toward unification. Thus, the United States wanted to hold direct talks with, and take direct testimony from, an influential Martian.

It seemed in a perverse way all very romantic and adventurous; and if everybody had been practical, I probably would never have been offered the chance to go to Earth. Even the most dedicated red rabbit looked upon Earth with awe. Whatever our opinions of her heavy-handed politics, her feverish love of overwhelming technology, her smothering welter of biological experiment, her incredible worldliness, on Earth you could walk naked in the open air, and that was something we all wanted to try at least once.

So, having failed twice, I applied again, and this time, I believe — though she never confessed — that my mother pulled strings. My application went further than it had ever gone, my level of interviewing rose several ranks — and finally I was led to understand that I was being seriously considered.

The last time Charles and I saw each other, in that decade, was in 2173. While waiting for a decision on my application, I served a quarter as a Council page at Ulysses and worked in the office of Bette Irvine Sharpe, mediator for Greater Tharsis. Working for Sharpe was great experience; being given that job, my mother thought, was a sign of high BM favor.

I attended a barn dance held to raise funds for Tharsis Research University , newly established and already the bright spot for Martian theoretical science, as well as the center of Martian thinker research.

Charles was there, in the company of a young woman whose looks I did not approve of. We saw each other under the beribboned transparent dome erected for the occasion on a fallow rope field.

I wore a deliberately provocative gown, emphasizing what did not need emphasizing. Charles wore university drab, a green turtleneck and dark gray pants. Charles managed to separate from the clutches of his friend, and we faced each other over a table covered with fresh, newly-designed vegetables. He told me I looked wonderful. I complimented his clothes, not honestly; they were dreadful. He seemed calm, but I was nervous. I still felt guilt over what had happened between us; guilt, and something else. Being near him made me uncomfortable, but I still thought of him as a friend.

“I’ve applied for a syndic apprenticeship. I’d like to go to Earth,” I said. “There’s a good chance I’ll get it. I might go to Earth with my Uncle Bithras.”

Charles said he was pleased for me, but added glumly, “If you get it, you’ll be gone for two years. A Martian year.”

“It’ll flash,” I said.

He looked dubious. “I told you I’d always be willing to be your partner,” he said.

“You haven’t exactly been waiting,” I said, a sudden wash of anger and embarrassment coloring my face, sharpening my tone.

Charles was quicker on his feet now and more experienced with people. “You haven’t been very encouraging.”

“You never called,” I said.

He shook his head. “You were the one who said good-bye, remember? I have a few tatters of pride. If you changed your mind, I figured you would call me.”

“That’s pretty arrogant,” I said. “Relationships are mutual.”

He braced himself to say something he didn’t want to say and looked away. “Your world has grown too large for me. Waiting doesn’t seem practical.”

I just stared at him.

“You’ve matured, you’re becoming everything I knew you would be. I wish you all the best. I will love you always.”

He bowed, turned, and walked away, leaving me totally flustered. I had approached him as an old friend, and he had brought up this uncomfortable thing that I thought we had both left behind, just as I told him about what promised to be the greatest accomplishment of my young life. Such pure emotional blackmail deserved my deepest contempt.

I walked briskly across the tarp-covered field and palmed into a rest kiosk. There I stood by a gently flowing resink and stared into the single round mirror, angrily asking why I felt so terrible, so sad. “Good riddance,” I tried to convince myself.

I never disliked Charles, never found in him anything I did not admire. Yet even now, with a century of living between me and her, I can’t bring myself to call that young woman a fool.

I tell all this as trivial prelude to things neither Charles nor I could imagine. I look back now and see the relentless roll of events, building across the next seven Martian years to the greatest event in human history.

Trivial pain, trivial lives. The shiver of specks of dust ramping to the storm.

Part Two

You can go home again, but it will cost you.

In the late twenty-second century, travel between Mars and Earth remained a corporate or government luxury, or a jape of the very rich. A passenger of average mass traveling from Earth to Mars, or Mars to Earth, would pay some two million Triple dollars for the privilege.

The rest had to settle for sending their messages by light-speed dataflow, and that put a natural wall between one-on-one conversations.

From Earth to the Moon, reply delay is about two and two-thirds seconds, just enough to catch your breath and not quite enough to lose your chain of thought. To Mars, delay varied with the planetary dance from forty-four minutes to just under seven.

The art of conversation lapsed early between Earth and Mars.

2175-2176, M.Y. 54-55

As soon as I heard I was a finalist for the apprenticeship, I began furiously re-studying Earth politics and cultural history. I had already gone far beyond what most Martians are taught in the course of normal education; I had become, somewhat unusually on Mars, a Terraphile. Now I needed to be an expert.

I had some idea of the kinds of questions I would be asked; I knew there would be interviews and tough scrutiny; but I did not know who would be conducting the examinations. When I learned, I couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or nervous. Ultimately, I think I was relieved. The first interview would be with Alice, Majumdar’s chief thinker.

The interview was conducted in Ylla, in an office reserved for more formal, inter-family business meetings. I dressed slowly that morning, taking extra care with the fresh clothes as they formed beneath the mat on my bed. I scrutinized myself in a mirror and in vid projection, looking for flaws inside and out.

I tried to calm myself on the hundred-meter walk to the business chambers, deliberately choosing a longer route through family display gardens, offset from the main tunnels, filled with flowers and vegetables and small trees growing beneath sheets of artificial sun.

Thinkers were invariably polite, infinitely patient, with pleasant personalities. Also smarter than humans and faster by a considerable margin. I had never spoken with Alice before, but I knew my uncle had established a specific set of criteria for his apprentice. I had little doubt that she would speck me soundly and fairly. But taking into account my age and lack of experience, that little doubt quickly magnified into a bad case of nerves.

A few minutes early, I presented myself to the provost of selection, an unassuming, monk-faced, middle-aged man from Jiddah named Peck. I had met Peck while going through scholarship prep. He tried to put me at ease.

“ Alice ’s hookup is clean and wide,” he said. “She’s in a good mood today.” That was a small joke. Thinkers did not exhibit moods; they could model them, but they were never dominated by them. Unlike myself. The mood dominating me came close to panic.

I murmured I was ready to begin. Peck smiled, patted my shoulder as if dealing with a child, and opened the door to the office.

I had never been here before. Dark rosewood paneling, thick forest-green metabolic carpet, lights lurking serenely behind brass fixtures.

A young girl with long black hair, wearing a frilly white dress — Alice ’s image — seemed to sit behind the opal-matrix desk, hands folded on the polished black and fire-colored stone. Alice had been named after Lewis Carroll’s inspiration, Alice Liddell, and favored Liddell’s vividly animated portrait as an interface. The image flickered to reveal its unreality, then stabilized. “Good morning,” she said. She used a dulcet young woman’s voice.

“Good morning.” I smiled. My smile, like Alice , flickered to announce its illusory nature.

“We’ve worked together once before, but you probably don’t remember,” Alice said.

“No,” I admitted.

“When you were six years old, I conducted a series of history LitVids from Jiddah. You were a good pupil.”

“Thank you.”

“For some months now, Bithras and Majumdar BM have been preparing to journey to Earth to deal directly with various partners and officials there.”

“Yes.” I listened intently, trying to focus on the words and not on the image.

“Bithras will take two promising young people from the family to Earth with him, as apprentice assistants. The apprentices will have important duties. Please sit.”

I sat.

“Does my appearance make you uncomfortable?”

“I don’t think so.” It was odd, facing a young girl, but I decided — forced myself to decide — that it did not bother me excessively. I would have to learn to work closely with thinkers.

“Your ed program is ideal for what Bithras will require in an apprentice. You’ve strongly favored government and management, and you studied theory of management in dataflow cultures.”

“I’ve tried,” I said.

“You’ve also investigated Earth customs, history, and politics in some detail. How do you feel about Earth?”

“It’s fascinating,” I said.

“Do you find it appealing?”

“I dream about it. I’d love to see it real.”

“And Earth society?”

“Makes Mars look like a backwater,” I said. I did not know — have never known — how to dissemble. I doubted Alice would be impressed by dissembling, anyway.

“I think that’s generally agreed. What are Earth’s strengths, regarded as a unit?”

“I’m not sure Earth can be thought of as a unit.”

“Why?”

“Even with com and link and ex nets, common ed and instant plebiscite… there’s still a lot of diversity. Between the alliances, the unallied states, the minorities of untherapied… a lot of differences.”

“Is Mars more or less diverse?”

“Less diverse and less coherent, I’d say.”

“Why?”

“Earth’s people are over eighty percent therapied or high natural. They’ve had a majority of designer births for sixty Earth years. There’s probably never been a more select, intelligent, physically and mentally healthy population in human history.“

“And Mars?”

I smiled. “We value our kinks.”

“Are we less coherent in our management and decisions?”

“No question,” I said. “Look at our so-called politics — at our attempts to unify.”

“How do you think that will affect Bithras’s negotiations?”

“I can’t begin to guess. I don’t even know what he — what the BM or the Council plans to do.”

“How do you perceive the character of the United States and the alliances?”

I cautiously threaded my way through a brief history, conscious of Alice ’s immense memory, and my necessarily simple appraisal of a complex subject.

By the end of the twentieth century, international corporations had as much influence in Earth’s affairs as governments. Earth was undergoing its first dataflow revolution; information had become as important as raw materials and manufacturing potential. By mid-twenty-one, nanotechnology factories were inexpensive; nano recyclers could provide raw materials from garbage; data and design reigned supreme.

The fiction of separate nations and government control was maintained, but increasingly, political decisions were made on the basis of economic benefit, not national pride. Wars declined, the labor market fluctuated wildly as developing countries joined in — exacerbated by nano and other forms of automation — and through most of the dataflow world a class of therapied, superfit workers arose, highly skilled and self-confident professionals who- demanded an equal say with corporate boards.

In the early teens of twenty-one, new techniques of effective psychological therapy began to transform Earth culture and politics. Therapied individuals, as a new mental rather than economic class, behaved differently. Beyond the expected reduction in extreme and destructive behaviors, the therapied proved more facile and adaptable, effectively more intelligent, and therefore more skeptical. They evaluated political, philosophical, and religious claims according to their own standards of evidence. They were not “true believers.” Nevertheless, they worked with others — even the untherapied — easily and efficiently. The slogan of those who advocated therapy was, “A sane society is a polite society.”

With the economic unification of most nations by 2070, pressure on the untherapied to remove the kinks and dysfunctions of nature and nurture became almost unbearable. Those with inadequate psychological profiles found full employment more and more elusive.

By the end of twenty-one, the underclass of untherapied made up about half the human race, yet created less than a tenth of the world economic product.

Nations, cultures, political groups, had to accommodate the therapied to survive. The changes were drastic, even cruel for some, but far less cruel than previous tides in history. As Alice reminded me, the result was not the death of political or religious organization, as some had anticipated — it was a rebirth of sorts. New, higher standards, philosophies, and religions developed.

As individuals changed, so did group behavior change. At the same time, in a feedback relationship, the character of world commerce changed. At first, nations and major corporations tried to keep their old, separate privileges and independence. But by the last decades of twenty-one, international corporations, owned and directed by therapied labor and closely allied managers, controlled the world economy beneath a thin veneer of national democratic governments. Out of tradition — the accumulated mass of cultural wishful thinking — certain masques were maintained; but clear-seeing individuals and groups had no difficulty recognizing the obvious.

The worker-owned corporations recognized common economic spheres. Trade and taxation were regulated across borders, currencies standardized, credit nets extended worldwide. Economics became politics. The new reality was formalized in the supra-national alliances.

GEWA — the Greater East-West Alliance — encompassed North America , most of Asia and Southeast Asia , India , and Pakistan . The Greater Southern Hemisphere Alliance, or GSHA — pronounced Jee-shah — absorbed Australia , South America , New Zealand , and most of Africa . Eurocon grew out of the European Economic Community , with the addition of the Baltic and Balkan States, Russia, and the Turkic Union.

Non-aligned countries were found mostly in the Middle East and North Africa , in nations that had slipped past both the industrial and dataflow revolutions.

By the beginning of the twenty-second century, many Earth governments forbade the untherapied to work in sensitive jobs, unless they qualified as high naturals — people who did not require therapy to meet new standards. And the definition of a sensitive job became more and more inclusive.

There were only rudimentary Lunar and Martian settlements then, with stringent requirements for settlers; no places for misfits to hide. The romance of settling Mars proved so attractive that organizers could be extremely selective, rejecting even the therapied in favor of high naturals. They made up the bulk of settlers.

All settlements in the young Triple accepted therapy; most rejected mandatory therapy, the new tyranny of Earth.

Alice and I gradually moved from the stuffy air of an exam to a looser conversation. Alice made the change so skillfully I hardly noticed.

I wondered what it had been like to live in a world of kinks and mental dust. I asked Alice how she visualized such a world.

“Very interesting, and far more dangerous,” she answered. “In a way there was greater variety in human nature. Unfortunately, much of the variety was ineffective or destructive.”

“Have you been therapied?” I asked.

She laughed. “Many times. It is a routine function of a thinker to undergo analysis and therapy. Have you?”

“Never,” I said. “I don’t seem to have any destructive kinks. May I ask you a question?”

“Certainly.”

I was beginning to feel at ease. If Alice found me inadequate, she wasn’t giving any signs. “If Earth is so fit and healthy, why are they putting so much pressure on Mars? Doesn’t therapy improve negotiating skills?”

“It allows better understanding of other individuals and organizations. But goals must still be established and judgments made.”

“Okay.” I felt the heat of argument rise in me. “Say we are both operating from the same set of facts, and I disagree with you.”

“Do we share the same goals?”

“No. Say our goals differ. Why can’t we pool our resources and compromise, or just leave each other alone?”

“That may be possible as long as the goals are not mutually exclusive.”

“Earth is pressuring Mars, and conflict is possible. That implies we’re involved in a game with only one winner, winner take all.”

“That is one possibility, a zero-sum game. Yet it is not the only type of game in which conflict may result.”

I sniffed dubiously. “I don’t understand,” I said, meaning, I don’t agree.

“Hypothetical situation allowed?”

“Go ahead.”

“I will model the Earth-Mars conflict without complex mathematics.”

“I have the feeling you’ve modeled this at a much higher level…”

“Yes,” Alice answered.

I laughed. “Then I’m outclassed.”

“I don’t mean to offend.”

“No,” I said. “I just wonder why I’m bothering to argue.”

“Because you are never satisfied with your present condition.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You must never cease from improving yourself. From my point of view, you are an ideal human partner in a discussion, because you never close me off. Others do.”

“Does Bithras close you off?”

“Never, though I have made him furious at times.”

“Then go on,” I said. If Bithras can take it, so can I.

Alice described in words and graphic projections an Earth rapidly approaching ninety percent agreement in spot plebiscites — the integration of most individual goals. Dataflow would give individuals equal access to key information. Humans would be redefined as units within a greater thinking organism, the individuals being at once integrated — reaching agreement rapidly on solutions to common problems — but autonomous, accepting diversity of opinion and outlook.

I wanted to ask What diversity? Everybody agrees! but Alice clearly had higher, mathematical definitions for which these words were mere approximations. The freedom to disagree would be strongly defended, on the grounds that even an integrated and informed society could make mistakes. However, rational people were more likely to choose direct and uncluttered pathways to solutions. My Martian outlook cried out in protest. “Sounds like beehive political oppression,” I said.

“Perhaps, but remember, we are modeling a dataflow culture. Diversity and autonomy within political unity.”

“Smaller governments respond to individuals more efficiently. If everybody is unified, and you disagree with the status quo, but can’t escape to another system of government — is that really freedom?”

“In the world-wide culture of Earth, dataflow allows even large governments to respond quickly to the wishes of individuals. Communication between the tiers of the organizations is nearly instantaneous, and constant.”

I said that seemed a bit optimistic.

“Still, plebiscites are rapid. Dataflow encourages humans to be informed and to discuss problems. Augmented by their own enhancements, which will soon be as powerful as thinkers, and by connections with even more advanced thinkers, every tier of the human organization acts as a massive processor for evaluating and determining world policy. Dataflow links individuals in parallel, so to speak. Eventually, human groups and thinkers could be so integrated as to be indistinguishable.

“At that point, such a society exceeds my modeling ability,” Alice concluded.

“Group mind,” I said sardonically. “I don’t want to be there when that happens.”

“It would be intriguing,” Alice said. “There would always remain the choice to simulate isolation as an individual.”

“But then you’d be lonely,” I said, with a sudden hitch in my voice. Perversely, I yearned for some sort of connection with agreement and certainty — to truly belong to a larger truth, a greater, unified effort. My Martian upbringing, my youth and personality, kept me isolated and in constant though not extreme emotional pain, with little sense of belonging. I deeply wished to belong to a just and higher cause, to have people — friends — who understood me. To not be lonely. In a few clumsy, halting sentences, I expressed this to Alice as if she were a confidant and not an examiner.

“You understand the urge,” Alice told me. “Possibly, being younger, you understand it better than Bithras.”

I shuddered. “Do you want to belong heart and soul to something greater, something significant?”

“No,” Alice said. “It is merely a curiosity to me.”

I laughed to relieve my embarrassment and tension. “But for people on Earth…”

“The wish to belong to something greater is an historical force, recognized, sometimes fought against, but regarded by many as inevitable.”

“Scary.”

“For Mars in its present condition, very scary,” Alice agreed. “Earth’s alliances disapprove of our ‘kinks,’ as you call them. They desire rational and efficient partners, of equal social stability, in an economically united Solar System.”

“So they put pressure on us, because we’re a rogue planet… You don’t think Martians want to belong to something greater?”

“Many Martians place a high premium on their privacy and individuality,” Alice said.

“Frontier philosophy?” I asked.

“Mars is remarkably urbanized. Individuals are tightly knit into economic groups across the planet. This does not much resemble families or individuals isolated on a frontier.”

“Have you and Bithras discussed Earth’s goals?”

“That is for him to tell you.”

“All right,” I said. “Then I’ll tell you what I think, all right?”

Alice nodded.

“I think Earth has some greater plan, and autonomy of any part of the Triple stands in their way. Eventually, they’ll want to tame and control Mars as they’ve already done with the Moon. And then they’ll work on the Belters, the asteroids and space settlements… bring us all into the fold, until their central authority controls all the resources in the Solar System.”

“That is close to my evaluation,” Alice said. “Have you spent much time in simulated Earth environment?”

“No,” I confessed.

“There is much to be learned by doing so. You may also wish to put on a simulated Terrestrial personality, just to understand.”

“I’m really not into that much… technical intimacy,” I said.

“May I say this is also typical of Martians? You must understand your counterparts intimately to engage in effective negotiations. I guarantee they will have studied Martian attitudes in detail.”

“If they become us, won’t they think like us?”

“This is a curious misconception, that to understand how someone else thinks is to agree with their thinking. Understanding is not becoming, is not agreeing.”

“All right,” I said. “So what happens if the entire Earth links up and we deal with a group mind? Why should that increase their need for resources?”

“Because the goals of a highly integrated mentality will almost certainly be more ambitious than those of a more disparate organization.”

“Nobody’s ever satisfied with what they have?”

“Not in human experience; not at the level of governments, nations, or planets.”

I shook my head sadly. “What about you?” I asked. “You’re more powerful and integrated than I am. Are you more ambitious?”

“By design, I serve human needs, and am content to do so.”

“But legally you’re a citizen, with rights like me. That should include the right to want more.”

“Equal in law is not equal in nature.”

I worked this over in silence for a moment. Alice ’s image smiled. “I’ve enjoyed our conversation very much, Casseia.”

“Thank you,” I said, suddenly remembering why this meeting had been arranged. I sobered. “It’s been great… fun.”

“That is a compliment to me.”

I itched to ask the obvious question.

“I will relay my evaluation to Bithras.”

“Thank you,” I said meekly.

“There will of course be interviews with humans.”

“Of course.”

“Bithras usually does not interview.”

I had heard that before, and found it odd.

“He places high trust in his associates, and in me, actually,” Alice said, still smiling.

And not much trust in his own judgment? “Oh.”

“We will talk again later,” she said. Her image stood and the provost, Peck, opened the door to the office and entered. I said good-bye.

“How did I do?” I asked Peck as he escorted me out.

“I haven’t grit of an idea,” he said.

I waited anxiously for six days. I remember being more than testy — I was intolerable. Mother defended me before my irritated father; my brother, Stan, simply stayed out of my way. More relatives crowded the warrens, my aunt’s family and her four adolescent children. I tried to hide as much as possible, unable to decide whether I was some sort of social leper or a chrysalis about to become a butterfly.

I spoke once with Diane, now an apprentice instructor at UM Durrey, but didn’t tell her about the interview. I half-believed in jinx. The support of friends and family, I thought, might attract the attention of vicious deities, looking for all-too-fortunate young women who needed to be cut down to size.

On the sixth day, my slate chimed its melody for an official message. I retreated from the hall outside our family quarters to my room, sealed the door, lay on my side on the cot, and pulled the slate from my pocket, propping it up before me. I took a deep breath and scrolled the words.

Dear Casseia Majumdar,

Your application to serve as an apprentice to Syndic Bithras Majumdar of Majumdar BM has been approved. You will act as his assistant on the upcoming journey to Earth. You will meet with Bithras soon. Please prepare your affairs quickly.

(signed)

Helen Dougal

Secretary to the Syndic, Majumdar BM

A shiver took me. I lay back on the bed, wondering whether I would laugh or throw up.

I was spinning right to the center of power, if only to observe.

The other lucky apprentice was an earnest fellow from Majumdar’s station in Vastitas Borealis, Allen Pak-Lee. Allen was two years older than me. I had met him briefly at UMS. He seemed quiet and sincere.

We were also taking a registered copy of Alice . Majumdar BM was paying, at discount, about seven and a half million to ferry the four of us — Alice Two counting as one passenger, though she weighed less than twenty kilos.

As secretary and apprentice negotiator I would spend a lot of time with my third uncle. Bithras, a perpetual bachelor almost three times my age, was legendary for his tendency to seek the female. Our family relationship presented no absolute obstacle to him; I was not blood, and while liaisons within BMs were mildly discouraged, they were common enough. I knew this going into the job — I thought I could handle the situation.

I had been told his advances were reasonably diplomatic and that he took rebuffs without loss of face or resentment; I was also told that in public he would act fatherly and protective, and that in many respects he was honorable, intelligent, and kind.

“But if you go to bed with him,” my mother told me as she helped me pack, “you’re sunk.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he’s a conservative old sodder,” she said. “He professes to love women dearly, and he does in his own way. But — and this I learned from one of his partners- — he hates sex.”

I’m confused,” I said, packing a cylinder of raw cloth into the single steel case allowed for the journey.

“He’s like a dog that adores the hunt but doesn’t enjoy killing the fox.”

I laughed, but Mother raised her eyebrows and pinched her lips. “Believe me. He lives for his work, and for an unmarried man of his stature, sex can be messy, irrational, and potentially dangerous. He has to live with this other self, a self he has never been able to control. But this is a prime opportunity for you.”

I made a face and folded my medicine kit into the case.

“Poke it,” mother said. I poked the kit and it squirmed.

“It’s fresh,” I said. “I didn’t know he was such a monster. Why does anybody put up with him?”

“A sacred monster, dear Casseia. If he didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Think of him as a family rite of passage. Resist his advances with humor and cleverness, and he’ll do anything in the world for you. And once he has your measure, he’ll stop pushing.” She surveyed the perfectly packed case with a critical eye, then nodded approval. “I envy you,” she said wistfully. “I’d love to go to Earth.”

“Even traveling with Bithras?”

“There isn’t a chance in hell you or I would go to bed with him.” She winked. “We have such good taste. But what an opportunity… Resist the beast, and come out the other side still a virgin, covered with gold and jewels.”

“Well…” I said.

Two days before we were to depart, Bithras summoned me to his offices in Carter City in Aonia Terra. I boarded the train in Jiddah and crossed to Aonia, removing my bag at the Carter depot. Carter was where most of Majumdar BM’s staff lived, the locus of long-range planning; it was Bithras’s home, as well.

I had never met Bithras and I was more than a little nervous.

Helen Dougal met me at the depot and escorted me as we took a cab through the transit tunnels. Helen was an attractive woman of twenty Martian years who appeared not much older than me.

Carter had a population of ten thousand BM members and several hundred applicants, most of them Terries immigrating because of Eloi laws on Earth. It was a big town, yet run efficiently, and the tunnels and warrens were large and well-designed. It didn’t seem crowded and haphazard, as did Shinktown, nor cleanly officious, like Durrey; but it certainly wasn’t cozy and familiar, like Ylla. The presence of so many Terries — a few of them exotic transforms — at times gave it a very unMartian atmosphere.

Helen fed my slate background on the subjects to be discussed and filled me in on the itinerary for the two-day visit. “Study it later,” she said. “Right now, Bithras wants to meet his new assistant.”

“Of course.” I detected no envy in Helen Dougal’s face. I wondered why Bithras wasn’t taking her instead of me — wondered if she thought I was moving in on her meal pan. Since I was a little younger in appearance… certainly in age…

With what I had heard, anything might be possible. I must have gone a little distant, for Helen smiled patiently and said, “You’re an apprentice. I have nothing to fear from you, nor you from me.”

How about from Bithras?

“And believe me, a lot of what you’ve heard about our syndic is pure dust.”

“Oh.”

“Advocates and family representatives meet this afternoon at fifteen. First, however, you’re going to join Bithras and me for lunch. Allen Pak-Lee is still in Borealis. He’ll be here the day after tomorrow.”

The lunch was held in a dining hall outside Bithras’s main office. I had expected moderate luxury, but the setting was Spartan: box nano food, hardly inspiring, and packaged tea served from ancient battered carafes in worn cups, on tables that must have had pioneer metal in them.

Bithras entered, clutching his slate and cursing in what I first took to be Hindi; later I learned it was Punjabi. He sat peremptorily at the table — it isn’t easy to sit down hard on Mars, but he did his best. The slate skittered a few centimeters across the table and he apologized in perfect, rapid English.

He was dark, almost purple, with intense eyes and handsome features puffing in his middle years. His head was topped with a short stiff brush of black hair lacking any gray. Thick arms and legs, well-muscled for a Martian, stuck out assertively from a short body. He wore a white cotton shirt and tennis shorts. Low-court tennis was Bithras’s favorite sport.

“It is pressing. It is pressing very hard,” he said, and shook his head in frustration. Then he looked up, his eyes glittering like a little boy’s, and beamed a broad smile. “Getting acquainted! My niece, my new apprentice and assistant?”

I rose from my seat and bowed. He did the same, and reached across the table to shake my hand. His eyes lingered on my chest, which hardly invited scrutiny beneath a loose jumpsuit. “You come highly recommended, Casseia. I have great expectations.”

I blushed.

He nodded briskly. “I had thought we would have time for a lunch alone, but not so — we start work immediately. Where are the advocates?”

The door opened and six of Majumdar BM’s most prominent advocates and managers entered. I had met four of them at social functions over the years. Three male, three female, they, too, wore white shirts and shorts, and towels draped around their necks, as if they had all been playing tennis with Bithras.

I had never seen so many crucial characters assembled in one room: my first taste of being at the center.

Bithras greeted each with a familiar nod. Introductions were ignored. I was here for my own benefit, not theirs. “Now I will begin,” he said. “We are an unhappy planet. We do not satisfy Earth. That is sad enough, but actually our progress is slow from any point of view; nobody can agree how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It has been more than a year since the end of the Statist government, and all we have managed is to patch the Council back together and hold interim meetings. Economics have slid, and we are in worse condition than before Dauble threw her hammers. This has hurt trade. We do not have a single entity governing trade; Earth organizations must work with every BM separately, and contend with zealous district governors. We still run scared of actually cooperating in our own mutual interests, of being caught again in the Statist trap. So…“

He folded his hands. “We are hurting ourselves. There must be an end to recriminations as to who agreed with Dauble and who did not. We must stop punishing Lunar and Earth sympathizers with exclusion from the Council. As you know, I have been meeting with the syndics of the twenty largest Mars-based BMs for the past few months to put together a proposal for Martian unification, working behind and around the Council. I go to Earth with a package to present, and I present it to the Council for debate this evening. You have studied it… It is quick, it is dirty, it has handicaps. I’m giving you a final chance to criticize it, from a selfish perspective. Tell me something I do not know.”

“It curtails the rights of BMs to control their own trade,” said Hetti Bishop, chief advocate. “I know we must organize, but this is too damned Statist.”

“Again I ask, tell me something I don’t know.”

“It gives district governors more power than ever,” said Nils Bodrum from Argyre. “The governors are in love with their duties and their lands. Some of them think Mars is a natural paradise to be preserved. We’ve had six Triple loan deals fall through because we couldn’t guarantee quick answers to resource requests. We strangle in conservationist tape.”

Bithras smiled. “So, get to your point, Nils.”

“If governors keep hewing to a preservation line, and we give them more power, we can say good-bye to billions of Triple dollars. Triple money won’t back our resource digs. We’ll have to curtail settlements and turn down Terrie immigrants. That won’t make anybody happy, least of all Earth. Where will they, send their seekers after eternity? For each Eloi refugee — ”

“Immigrant,” Hattie Bishop said wryly.

“ ‘Immigrant,’ I remind this august assembly, we are paid a million Triple dollars. And that money flows first through Majumdar banks.”

Bithras listened intently.

“I don’t see why Earth wants the governors stronger,” Bodrum concluded, folding his hands.

“They are pushing for a unified government and for BMs to concede power,” said Samuel Washington of Bauxite in the Nereidum Mountains . “That’s been their goal for ten years. And they’re willing to exert considerable pressure.”

“What kind of force can they use?” Hettie Bishop asked.

Beside her, Nance Misra-Majumdar, the eldest of our advocates, chuckled and shook her head. “Two hundred and ninety thousand Terrie immigrants on Mars have arrived in the last ten years. They’ve found their way into high and trusted positions in every BM, some work on the council…”

“What are you getting at, Nance?” Hettie asked.

Nance lifted her shoulders. “They used to be called fifth columnists,” she said.

“All of them?” Bithras asked sardonically.

Nance smiled patiently. “Our thinkers are manufactured on Earth. It may be years before the Tharsis thinkers come on line. All of our nano factories come from Earth, or the designs at least.”

“No one has ever found irregularities in any designs or software,” Hettie said. “Nance, we have no reason to be paranoid.”

Bithras lifted his chin from his hand and spun his chair halfway. “I see no reason to anticipate trouble, but Nance is right. In theory, there are many ways we could be undermined without facing a massive military expedition across space, which at any rate has never been feasible, even for so rich and powerful a world as Earth.”

I could hardly believe such things were being discussed. I was at once dubious, repelled, and fascinated.

Nils Bodrum said, “We have no organized defenses. That much could be said for a central authority — easier to raise an army and defend our planet.”

Bithras was clearly not pleased by the direction the conversation was taking. “Friends, this is not a serious problem, certainly not yet. Earth simply wants us to present a united negotiating front, and they have targeted the largest financial BM — ourselves — to catalyze unification. If you pardon the word.”

“Why should unification be a dirty word?” Hettie said. “My God, as an advocate, I tell you, I’d love to find a way out of the morass of special cases and fooleries we call our Charter.”

“The Moon went through this decades ago,” Nance said. “Since the Schism, when Earth could not afford to administer such far-flung worlds and we took our leave- — ”

“Sounds a note of history vid,” Nils said with a grin.

Nance continued after the slightest pause for a glare. “We have wrangled and tangled our way into perpetual unrest. The Moon found a solution, changed its constitution — ”

“And was reabsorbed by Earth,” Nils said. “Independent in dreams only.”

“We are much farther away,” Hettie said.

Nils would not be swayed. “We do not need order imposed from outside. We need time to find our own path, our own best solution.”

Bithras sighed heavily. “My esteemed advocates tell me what I already know, and they say it over and over.”

“When you take this suggestion for compromise to Earth,” Hettie said, “how do you expect them to believe you can make it stick in the Council? Preliminary agreement is one thing…”

Bithras’s features expressed extreme distaste. “I am going to tell Earth,” he said, “that Majumdar BM will put a hold on further Triple dollar transactions for any BM that does not sign.”

Nils exploded. “That is treasonous! We could be sued by every BM on this planet — and rightly so!”

“What court would hear them?” Bithras asked. “We have no effective court structure on Mars, not since Dauble… Our own advocates pressed suit against Dauble on Earth, not Mars. What court on Earth would hear a suit pertaining only to Mars?” Bithras stared at them sternly. “My friends, how long has it been since a BM sued another BM?”

“Thirty-one years,” Hettie said glumly, chin in hand.

“And why?” Bithras pursued, slapping his palm on the table.

“Honor!” Nils cried.

“Nonsense,” Nance said. “Nobody has wanted to prick the illusion. Every BM is a rogue, an outlaw, and the Council is a polite sham.”

“But it works!” Nils said. “Advocates negotiate, talk to each other, settle things before they ever reach court. We work around the governors. For Majumdar to put the very existence of other BMs in jeopardy is unconscionable!”

“Perhaps,” Bithras said. “But the alternative is worse. Earth will doubtless make many threats if we do not act soon. And one of them will be complete embargo. No more designs, no more technical assistance. Our newer industries would be badly damaged, perhaps crippled.”

That we could sue them for,” Nils persisted, but without conviction.

“My friends, I have offered you a chance to make comments on this proposed constitution,” Bithras said. “You have until sixteen this evening. We are all aware of the dangers. We are all aware of the mood of Earth toward Mars.”

“I had hoped to persuade you to drop this farce,” Nils said.

“That is not an option. I am only a figurehead on this would-be ship-of-state, my friends,” Bithras said. “I go to Earth hat in hand, to avoid disaster. We are only five millions. Earth is thirty thousand millions. Earth wants access to our resources. She wants to control our resources. The only way for us to maintain our freedom is to put our house in order, concede to Earth enough to put off the next confrontation a few more years, perhaps a decade. We are weak. Buying time is our best hope.”

“They’ll force a Statist government on us,” Nils said, “and then mold that government to their own ends, and when we’re done, they’ll own us body and soul.”

“That is a possibility,” Bithras admitted. “That’s why we must stab ourselves in the back, as Nils would call it, first.”

Bithras went to the Council alone and presented the proposals he had worked out with the five top Martian BMs. The debate was furious; nobody liked the choices, but nobody wanted to be the first to attract Earth’s anger. Somehow, he managed to glue together something acceptable. Bithras sent Allen and me messages after the session concluded.

My dear young assistants,

All Martians are cowards. The proposals are agreed to.

Salve!

The trip began with a farewell dinner in the departure lounge of Atwood Star Harbor near Equator Rise, west of Pavonis Mons. Friends, family and dignitaries came to the port to see us off.

For security reasons, Bithras would board the shuttle at the last minute. There had been threats against his life planted anonymously in family mailboxes for the past few days, ever since the announcement of his departure to Earth. Some suspected disgruntled Statists; others looked to the smaller BMs, who had least to gain and most to lose.

My mother, father and brother sat in a corner of the lounge, near a broad window overlooking the port. Blunt white shuttie noses poked up through half-open silo hatches. Red flopsand formed smooth streaks across the white pavement. Arbeiters engaged in perpetual cleanup roamed the field.

We spoke in bursts, with long moments of silence in between: Martian reserve. My mother and father tried not to show their pride and sadness. Stan simply smiled. Stan always smiled, in good times or bad. Some misjudged him because of that, but due to the shape of his face, it was easier for him to smile than not.

Father took me by both shoulders and said, “You’re going to do great.”

“Of course she will,” my mother said.

“We’ll have to adopt someone while you’re gone,” Father continued. “We can’t stand an empty house.”

“The hell we will,” Mother said. “Stan will leave in a few months — ”

“I will?” Stan said. His protest carried an odd note; surprise beyond the jest.

“And we’ll have the warren to ourselves for the first time in ten years. What should we do?”

“Replace the carpets,” Father said. “They don’t groom themselves as well as they used to.”

I listened with a mix of embarrassment and grief. What I wanted, right now, was to retreat and cry, but that was not possible.

“You will make us proud,” Father said, and then, to make his point, in a louder voice, he said it again.

“I’ll try,” I murmured, searching his face. Father and I had never quite communicated; his love had always been obvious, and he had never slighted me, but he often seemed a cipher. Mother I thought I knew; yet it was Father who never surprised me, and Mother who never failed to.

“We won’t drag this out,” Mother said firmly, taking my father’s elbow for emphasis. Mother and I hugged. I squeezed her hard, feeling like a little girl, wanting her to sit me on her lap and rock me. She pulled back, smiling, tears in her eyes, and actually pushed me away, gently but firmly. Father gripped my hand with both of his and shook it. He had tears in his eyes, as well. They turned abruptly and left.

Stan stayed longer. We stood apart from the crowd, saying little, until he cocked his head to one side, and whispered, “They’re going to miss you.”

“I know,” I said.

“So will I.”

“It’ll flash,” I said.

“I’m going lawbond,” he said, sticking his jaw out pugnaciously.

“What?”

“To Jane Wolper.”

“From Cailetet?”

“Yeah.”

“Stan, Father hates Cailetet. They’re pushy and Lunar. We’ve never been able to share with them.”

“Maybe that’s why I love her.”

I stared at him in astonishment. “You’re amazing,” I said.

“Yeah.” He seemed pleased with himself.

“You’re going over to their family… ?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad I’m leaving now.”

“I’ll keep you informed,” he said. “If Dad says nothing about me, you’ll know it went badly. I’ll give you the details when the dust settles.”

I specked him running down the tunnel between our rooms when he was five and I was two and a half and adored him. He could leap like a kangaroo and wore rubber pads to bounce hands and feet down the tunnels. Athletic, calm, always-knows-where-to-go Stan. Never said boo to our parents, never gave them pause. Now it was his turn to aggravate and provoke.

We hugged. “Don’t let her push you around.”

Stan made a petulant face, wiped it with his hand like a clown, and smiled sunnily. “I’m proud you made it, Casseia,” he said. He hugged me quickly, shook my hand, gave me a small package, and left.

I sat in a corner and opened the wrapper. Inside was a cartridge of all our blood family docs and vids. Stan had paid extra for the weight clearance of one hundred grams; the box was marked with a cargo stamp. I felt even more empty and alone.

I faced the crowded lounge with a kind of luxurious dread. The shuttle would depart in two hours. I’d be aboard the Tuamotu in less than six hours. We would rise from Mars orbit and inject Solar in less than twenty hours…

I pocketed Stan’s gift, squared my shoulders, and entered the crowd with a big, false smile.

Even at its most opulent, space travel was never comfortable. The shuttle to orbit was a rude introduction to the necessary economies of leaving a planet: shot out of your planetary goldfish bowl on a pillar of flaming hydrogen or methane, in a cylindrical cabin less than ten meters wide, everyone arranged in stacked circles with feet pointing outward, seventy passengers and two shuttle crew, losing Mars’s reassuring gentle grip and dropping endlessly…

Temp bichemistry helped. Those passengers who had installed permanent bichemistries to adapt to micro-g conditions spent the first hour in orbit asleep while the boat swung carefully to mate with Tuamotu. I had refused such a radical procedure — how often would I travel between worlds? — and chosen temp. I spent the whole time awake, feeling my body smooth over the deep uncertainty of always falling.

Some things I didn’t expect. The quick adjustments of temp bichemistry caused a kind of euphoria that was pleasant and disturbing at once. For several minutes I was incredibly randy. That passed, however, and all I felt was a steady tingle throughout my body.

Bithras and Pak-Lee had arrived at Atwood after I was seated, and were in the shuttle somewhere below me. Alice Two was in the hold in a special thinker berth.

Being away from net links was like sensory deprivation for a thinker; less than a tenth of Alice Two’s capacity would be engaged while we were in space. The bandwidth of space communication was too narrow to keep her fully linked and employed. She would not sleep, of course, but she would spend much of the journey correlating events in Earth and Martian history drawn from her large data store.

Thinkers had been known to create massive and authoritative LitVid works while in machine dream. Some said the best historians were no longer human, but I disagreed. Alice One and Alice Two seemed quite human to me. Alice even called her copy a “daughter.” I’d never worked closely with thinkers before, and I was charmed.

Sitting on my cramped couch in the dark, a projection of Mars’s orange and red surface scrolling above me, I wondered what Charles was doing now. Unlike Charles, I hadn’t yet found anyone to seriously occupy my free time. The day before launch, I had spoken with Diane, and she had asked if I looked forward to a shipboard romance. “Dust that,” I’d answered. “I’ll be a busy rabbit.”

The trip would take eight Terrestrial months, one way. Each passenger chose from three options: warm sleep with mind embedded in a sophisticated sim environment (sometimes crudely called cybernation), realtime journey, or a pre-scheduled mix of the two. Most Martians chose realtime. Most Terrestrials returning to Earth chose sims and warm sleep.

The Mars scene cut suddenly to a view of the Tuamotu in space. Booms furled, passenger cylinders hugged tightly to the hull, our home for the next eight months looked tiny against the stars. Tugs fastened helium-three fuel and water and methane mass tanks to the bow. The drive funnels flexed experimentally at the stern.

A small voice provided running commentary in one ear. Tuamotu was fifteen Earth years old, built in Earth orbit, nano maintained, veteran of five crossings, refitted before her trip to Mars, well-regarded by travel guides on Earth and Mars. She carried a crew of five: three humans, a dedicated thinker, and a slaved thinker backup.

I had a touch of tunnel fever at the thought of being shut up for so long. I had studied the ship’s layout a few hours before boarding, learning my way around the passenger cylinder, previewing shipboard routine. But I would have to overcome the conviction that there was no way out. Despite spending most of my life in tunnels and enclosed spaces, I always knew there was another tunnel, another warren, and as a last resort, I could suit and pop through a lock and go Up… luxuries not available on the Tuamotu.

I was less than comfortable with the thought of spending so many months in the company of so few. What if Bithras, Allen, and I did not get along at all?

A tiny elevator carried three passengers at a time from the primary lock down the length of the hull and debouched us into a small cabin forward of the drive shields. The steward for our cylinder — short, taut, sandy-haired and brown-skinned, male, about forty Earth years old, with sharp black eyes — greeted us formally and politely, and introduced himself as Acre — just Acre. He had the remarkable ability to change his feet into hands, and to bend his long tan legs backwards and forwards, which he demonstrated quickly and with minimal explanation. He escorted us in small groups to the secondary lock. Here, we climbed through an access pipe barely a meter wide into our cylinder, where we drifted in the observation lounge, surrounded by direct-view windows now shuttered and shielded.

The lounge had room for all of us. We crowded together waiting for instructions. Bithras headed the Jast contingent of passengers and conferred briefly with the steward before scowling and searching the crowd. His eyes met mine, the scowl reversed into a radiant smile, and he crooked his arm and waved twinkle-fingers.

The steward called my name from the access pipe. I floated forward, fumbling at the grips and bumping a few of my fellows apologetically before anchoring myself. “You’re in charge of our friend here, I understand,” he said, pushing forward Alice ’s box. Alice ’s arbeiter carriage weighed as much as she did and had not been brought along; we would rent her a carriage on Earth.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Please hold on to it while we check cabin assignments and get things organized.”

“Her, not it,” I said.

“Sorry.” He smiled. “We’ll stow her in her niche after orientation.”

I took Alice in hand and moved to the side of the lounge. She was endo not exo for the moment — her sensors and voice were inactive.

“Now that we’re all here,” the steward said, “welcome aboard Tuamotu. We’ll give out some important information and then off to your cabins to snug in.”

Bithras and Allen Pak-Lee floated beside me. “This is my second passage to Earth,” Bithras said in an undertone, “and your first, of course.”

“My first,” I affirmed.

Most Earth English accents were familiar to me from LitVid; the steward, Acre , might have been Australian, His features seemed indigene. Acre delivered the “doctro” crisply and clearly in less than five minutes. He gave us a few safety tips for the next leg of the trip — boost and solar orbit injection — and had us circle around the lounge to become familiar with weightless aids and procedures.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “we’ll discuss immunization levels and all the options available throughout the voyage. Some options are closed — all warm-sleep berths are taken for the duration. All temp berths and switchouts are closed, as well. We hope that causes no inconvenience.”

“Woe,” murmured Bithras.

Acre helped me stow Alice in her niche just forward of the lounge and showed me how to run the legally required connection checks. Bithras attended for a few minutes, applied a strip of ID tape to a seam to protect against unauthorized removal, and left the rest to Acre and me.

“Family thinker?” Acre inquired.

“A copy,” I said.

“I’m fond of thinkers,” he said. “Once they’re stowed, they’re no trouble at all. I wish they’d travel with us more often — Sakya gets lonely sometimes, the Captain says.”

Sakya was the ship’s dedicated thinker. I reached into the niche, palmed my ID on Alice ’s port, and asked, “Everything tight?”

“I’m comfortable, thank you,” Alice replied, coming exo quickly. “Bithras has sealed me in?”

“Yes.”

“I’m talking with Sakya now. This should be pleasant. Will you join me for a chat once we’re underway?”

“I’d love to,” I said. I closed the hatch on Alice ’s niche. Acre locked her in and gave me the key. “We raise them right on Mars,” I said.

“Might teach Sakya some manners,” he said.

Everything aboard Tuamotu was impressively high nano; she had been refitted with the lastest Earth designs before her last crossing. There were no telltale yeast or iodine smells during nano activity. The ship’s visible surfaces could assume an apparently infinite variety of textures and colors and were capable of displaying or projecting images with molecular resolutions.

I felt wrapped in luxury, examining my private cabin — two meters by three by two, private vapor bag and vacuum toilet. If I wanted, I could turn almost the entire cabin into a LitVid screen and be surrounded by any scenery I chose.

I pulled out the desk, ported my slate, and selected my scheme. The desk became the color and texture of stone and wood with gold inlay. I ran my fingers along the tactile surface; the sensations of polished oak, cold marble, and smooth metal were flawless.

It was traditional for passengers to gather for the boost. I wanted to have a seat, so I quickly unpacked my few things and went aft.

Allen Pak-Lee followed and hooked himself to a seat beside me. “Nervous?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“God, I am. Don’t misunderstand. I have a lot of respect for Bithras. But he’s very demanding. I took a brief from his assistant on the last trip. He said he spent several months in hell. There was a crisis and Bithras insisted on hogging the waves.”

Bithras returned to the lounge and sat beside us with a curt nod. “Damn them,” he said.

“Who?” I inquired.

“This ship reeks of progress,” he said.

The lounge filled as the gong sounded. The steward, with the aid of a few slim, graceful octoped arbeiters, served drinks and explained the procedure to the uninitiated. The boost would be comfortable, no more than one-third g. For a few hours, we would have a “lazy sense of up and down.” Actually, one-third g was just below Mars standard — not quite full weight for a red rabbit.

The passengers in the lounge who had claimed seats settled in, and those who drifted found grips and hooks and arranged for a place to drop their feet. I looked them over curiously — our companions for eight months. One family would be in our cylinder, a handsome man and woman with a daughter whom I judged to be about seventeen Earth years old — native Terries, by their appearance. The daughter, too beautiful to be completely natural, played with a faux mouse.

Acre looked at the ceremonial wristwatch on his left arm, raised his hand, and we counted backwards…

At five, the ship vibrated like a struck bell. At four, the ceiling projected a full-width view aft. Everybody looked up, jaws gaping. The drive funnels flexed. A methane-oxygen kicker motor would take us out of Martian orbit.

Streamers of violet played against the blackness and the limb of sunrise Mars: warmup and test. Then the kicker fired full thrust, throwing a long orange cone that quickly turned translucent blue.

Gently, we acquired weight. The weight grew until it almost felt as if we were on Mars again. The unseated passengers laughed and stood on the floor, and a few even did a little jig, slapping hands.

We severed our bonds with the world of my birth.

In my cabin, just before sleep, I studied diagrams from the ship’s operations manual, things I normally wouldn’t give dust for… Charles would, however, and I felt again a perverse obligation to think about him. I attributed these thoughts to simple fright and homesickness.

Twelve of the passengers in our cylinder would enter warm sleep after the ship had extended its booms for cruising. That would leave twenty-three of us awake for the entire voyage — mostly Martians, ten female, thirteen male, six of them “eligible,” though I suspected, given contemporary Earth attitudes, even the unaccompanied and married males were fair game for travel liaisons. I was not interested, however.

I did not feel any immediate affection for Allen, and Bithras was still a threatening cipher — not so much a human being as an unfulfilled potential for difficulty. I had never been exceptionally gregarious, a reaction to my diverse and noisy blood relations, and even now was avoiding a First Night Out mixer in the lounge and dining cabin…

Chemical reaction motors and ion thrusters, used to direct the craft out of planetary orbit and accelerate to just below cruising speed, leave negligible amounts of debris. However, the plume of fusion-heated reaction mass from the main drive contains radioactive engine-surface ablation. The fusion drive must be fired with due regard for vehicles which may cross these orbits for as long as four days afterward, as required by Triple Navigational Standards…

The ship would switch on its main drives ten million kilometers out from Mars.

Solar wind must be able to clear all fusion debris from a region ten million kilometers above and below the plane within two weeks (the manual informed me). This gives sufficient leeway for most times of the solar cycle, but at periods of minimum solar activity, debris may not be cleared for as long as forty-five days, and special permission from Triple Navigation Control must be obtained if fusion-driven ships are to be launched in this period.

Colorful 3-D diagrams unfolded in the air to supplement the text.

Earth-Mars passages launched when the planets are not in their most favorable configurations require more fusion boosts and higher speeds. Elongated, faster ship coursesas opposed to “fatter” and slower coursestake liners within the orbit of Venus, and occasionally within the orbit of Mercury, with greater exposure to solar radiation. Medical nano has advanced to where radiation damage in passengers can be repaired quickly and efficiently, eliminating ill effects from even the closest “sun-graving” passages

What if I wasn’t cut out for space flight? I had passed the examinations well enough — but there were instances of space-intolerant passengers having to be sedated if warm sleep cubicles weren’t available.

Eight months of horror seemed to stretch before me. The cabin closed in, the air tasted stale. I imagined Bithras pawing me. I would clobber him. He wouldn’t be nearly as understanding as he should be, and I would be fired before reaching Earth. I would have no option but to return at the next available opportunity, another ten or even twelve months in space… I would go insane and start screaming. The ship’s medical arbeiter would pump me full of drugs and I would enter that horrid state described in pop LitVids, caught between worlds, mind drifting free of my body with nowhere to go, away from the humanized spheres, forced to consort with elder monstrosities.

I started to giggle. The elder monstrosities would find me inexpressibly boring and reject me. Absolutely nobody and nothing to talk to, career ruined, I would end up counseling asteroid miners in how to program their prosthetutes for more lifelike behavior.

The giggles turned to laughter. I rolled over in my bunk and stifled the noise. The laughter was not pleasant — it sounded forced and harsh- — but it was effective. I rolled on my back, fears quelled.

Acre and his fellow steward in charge of the opposite cylinder held a party for “Half-Degree Day.” Acre was a master at giving parties; he never seemed bored, was never at a loss for polite conversation. His only time alone came when the rest of the passengers were asleep. His sole defense seemed to be a certain blankness that did not encourage long conversations. I was pretty sure he wasn’t an Earth-made android, but the suspicion never passed completely.

Passengers gathered in the lounge from both cylinders, still mingling freely, and watched Mars become the size of Earth’s Moon, as seen from Earth. The Terrestrials found the sight entrancing, and there were songs of “Harvest Mars,” though the planet was only one-third full. The Captain broke out a glass bottle of French champagne, one of five, he said.

The young girl introduced herself to me at breakfast on our third day out; her name was Orianna, and her parents were citizens of the United States and Eurocon. Her face fascinated me. Eyes uplifted at the corners, slightly asymmetric, pupils the fiery red-brown color of Arcadia opal, her skin flawless multiracial brown, she seemed perfectly at home in micro-g and floated like a cat. She recommended the best sims available on the ship, and seemed amused when I told her I didn’t go in for sims.

“Martians are lovely curious,” she said. “You’ll be a big draw on Earth. Terries love Martians.”

I was prepared not to like Orianna very much.

For the first week, Bithras spent much of his time exercising, working in his cabin, or waiting impatiently to communicate with Mars. He rarely even spoke to us. Allen and I spent some time in each other’s company at first, exercising or studying together, but we did not hit it off personally, and soon drifted to other passengers for conversation.

I knew the public interior of our cylinder fore and aft, and despite my reticence, had spoken to almost everybody. Not much chance of shipboard romance; the men were all older than me, and none seemed interesting; all, like Bithras, were movers and shakers and much absorbed in things they really couldn’t talk about.

I fantasized being aboard an immigrant ship, with men of diverse background, whose hidden pasts they would suddenly feel the urge to confess… Dangerous people, intriguing, passionate.

Mounted on the hull was a four-meter telescope, kept collapsed and hidden away for the first few million kilometers, then unfurled for the use of passengers. I had signed up for a few hours. The free hours aboard Tuamotu were wonderful for catching up on subjects I had neglected, including astronomy.

The viewing station for our cylinder was in the observation lounge, a small cubicle with room for four. I had hoped to study alone, try my hand at celestial navigation and object finding, tracking a few of the near stars known to have planetary systems. I wanted to rediscover at least the most prominent and closest examples. But in the lounge I met Orianna.

Point-blank, she asked if she could join me. “I haven’t signed up, and it’s full for a week!” she said plaintively. “I love astronomy. I’d like to transform and go to the stars…” She separated her hands a few centimeters, suggesting the proposed size of humans designed for interstellar migration. “Would you mind?”

I did, but Martian manners kept me polite. I said of course she could join me, and with a smile, she did.

She was adept with the controls and ruined my game by tracking all my chosen objects expertly within a few minutes. I expressed my admiration.

“It’s nothing,” she said. “My parents gave me seven different enhancements. If I want, I can play nearly all musical instruments with just a few days’ practice — not like the best, of course, but enough to pass as a talented amateur. In a few years, if they make it legal, I could install a mini-thinker.”

“Doesn’t it bother you, having so many talents?” I asked.

Orianna curled into a ball and with one finger flicked herself upside down in relation to me. Her toe caught on a bar and she stopped spinning. “I’m used to it. Even on Earth, some people think my parents and I have gone too far. I’ve asked for things, they’ve given them to me… I have to really ramp down to make friends.”

“Are you ramped down now?” I asked.

“You bet. I don’t show off, ever. Good way to spoil any chance of connecting. You’re a natural, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“Some of my friends would envy you. The chance to just be what you are. But it would slow me down too much. Do you ever feel slow?”

I laughed. She was too ethereal to resent… much, or for long. “All the time,” I said.

“Then why not enhance? I mean, it’s possible, even on Mars. And you’re from Majumdar, the finance BM… aren’t you?”

The inflection of her last question told me she knew very well I was from Majumdar.

“Yes. How long have you been on Mars?”

“Just time for turnaround. Two months. We came on a fast passage, inside Venus. My parents had never been to Mars. My folks thought we should see what Mars and the Moon are really like. Camay. In the flesh.”

“Did you like it?”

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Such defiance. Beautiful, really. Like the whole planet is just hitting puberty.”

I had never heard it described that way. Martians tended to think of themselves as old and established, perhaps confusing our own brief past with the planet’s obvious age. “Where did you visit?”

“We were invited to stay in half a dozen towns and cities. We even went to a handful of extreme stations, new ones settled by immigrant Terries. My father and mother know quite a few Eloi. We didn’t get to — ” Again the introspective pause. “Ylla or Jiddah. That’s your home, isn’t it?”

“What are you referencing?” I asked. My home address wasn’t on the open manifest.

“I sucked in the public directories,” Orianna said. “I haven’t dumped them yet.”

“Why would you want to do that? Any slate can carry them.”

“I don’t use a slate,” she said. “I take it direct. No separation. I love being dipped.”

“Dipped?”

She wrapped her arms around herself. “Immersed. It’s like I just go away, and there’s only information and processing, pure and swift.”

“Oh.”

“Learning distilled into an essence. Education means being.”

“Oh.” I closed my mouth.

“I think I came on sharp for most Martians. I negged quite a few my own age, even. Martians are fashion locked, aren’t they?”

“Some think so.”

“You?”

“I’m pretty conservative, I suppose.”

She unfolded long arms and legs and gripped the holds in the booth with uncanny grace. “I don’t like anybody on the ship, for partners, I mean,” she said. “Do you?”

“No,” I said.

“Have you had many partners?”

“You mean, lovers?”

She smiled wisely, anciently. “That’s a good word, but not always accurate, is it?”

“A few,” I said, hoping she would take a hint and not pry.

“My parents were part of the early partner program. I’ve been partnering since I was ten. Do you think that’s too early?”

I hid my shock; I had heard about early partnering, but it had certainly never taken on Mars. “We think childhood is for children,” I said.

“Believe me,” Orianna said, “I haven’t been a child since I was five. Does that bother you?”

“You first had sex when you were ten?” This conversation was making me very uncomfortable.

“No! I haven’t had physical sex at all.”

“Sim?” I asked meekly.

“Sometimes. Partnering… oh, I see your confusion. I mean sharing closeness mentally, finding so many kinds of pleasure together. I like whole-life sims. I’ve experienced two… Very expanding. So I know all about sex, of course. Even sex that’s not physically possible. Sex between four-dimensional human forms.” Suddenly she looked distressed, and she had such a charismatic presence that I immediately wanted to apologize, do anything to make her happy. My God, I thought. A planet full of people like her.

“I’ve never shared my mind,” I said.

“I’d love to share with you.” The offer was so disarming I was at a loss for an answer. “You have a truly natural presence,” she continued. “I think you could share beautifully. I’ve been watching you since the trip began…” She primmed her lips and pulled back to the wall. “If I’m not too forward.”

“No,” I said.

She put out her hand and touched my cheek, stroking it once with the back of her fingers. “Share with me?”

I blushed furiously. “I don’t… do sims,” I said.

“Just talk, then. For the trip. And when we get to Earth, I can show you a few things you’d probably miss… as a Martian tourist. Meet my friends. We’d all enjoy you.”

“All right,” I said, hoping, if the offer were more than I could possibly handle, that I could plead an intercultural misunderstanding and escape.

“Earth is really something,” Orianna said with a wonderfully languid blink. “I see it a lot more clearly now that I’ve been to Mars.”

We were close to the ten-million-kilometer mark, three weeks into the voyage. The fusion drives would soon turn on. The hull would not be livable once they became active.

After a truly big party, featuring one of the best banquets the voyage would offer, the Captain said his farewells and crossed to the opposite cylinder. Passengers berthed there would no longer be able to visit us; we all shook hands and they followed the Captain.

Most of our cylinder’s occupants went to bed in their cabins to take the change easily. A few hardy souls, myself included, stayed in the lounge. There was an obligatory countdown. I hated feeling like a tourist, but I joined in. Acre was too pleasant and cajoling to be denied his duties.

We had returned to weightlessness, but were about to acquire full Earth weight for several hours. The countdown arrived at zero, all eight of us shouted at once, and the ship resounded with a hollow thud. We set our feet onto the lounge floor. Orianna, near her parents, seemed close to ecstasy. I was reminded of Bernini’s St. Theresa speared by a shaft of inspiration.

The fusion flare followed us like a gorgeous bridal train. Brilliant blue at the center, tipped with orange from ablated and ionized engine and funnel lining, it pushed us relentlessly to almost three times our accustomed Mars weight, a full g.

A few, including Orianna’s mother and father, climbed forward and valiantly exercised in the gym, joking and casting aspersions on the rest of us slackers.

I chose a middle course, climbing around the cylinder for an hour. My temp bichemistry treatments made the full g force bearable but not pleasant. I had read in travel prep that a week on Earth might pass before someone with temp became comfortable with the oppressive weight. Orianna accompanied me; she had temp also, and was working to regain Earth strength.

As we climbed through the cylinder, from the observation deck to the forward boom control walkway, Orianna told me about Earth fashions in clothes. “I’ve been out of it for two years, of course,” she said. “But I like to think I’m still tuned. And I keep up with the vids.”

“So what are they wearing?” I asked.

“Formal and frilly. Greens and lace. Masks are out this year, except for floaters — projected masks with personal icons. Everybody’s off pattern projection, though. I liked pattern projection. You could wear almost nothing and still be discreet.”

“I can redo my wardrobe. I’ve brought enough raw cloth.”

Orianna made a face. “This year, expect fixed outfits, not nano-shaped. Old fabric is best. Tattered is wonderful. We’ll dig through the recycle shops. The shredbare look is very pos. Nano fake is beyond deviance.”

“Do I have to be in fashion?”

“Abso not! It’s drive to ignore. I switch from loner to slave every few months when I’m at home.”

“Terries will expect a red rabbit to be trop retro, no?”

Orianna smiled in friendly pity. “With that speech, you’re fulfilled already. Just listen to me, and you’ll slim the current.”

Breathless, standing on the walkway around the bow’s boom connector, we rested for a moment. “So correct me,” I said, gasping.

“You still say ‘trop shink’ on Mars. That’s abso neg, mid twenty-one. Sounds like Chaucer to Terries. If you don’t drive multilingual, and you’d better not try unless you wear an enhancement, best to speak straight early twenty-two. Everyone understands early twenty-two, unless you’re glued to French or German or Dutch. They ridge on anything about twenty years old for drive standard. Chinese love about eight kinds of Europidgin, but hit them in patrie, and they revert to twenty Putonghua. Russian — ”

“I’ll stick with English.”

“Still safe,” she said.

The fusion drives shut off and weightlessness returned. The time had come to separate the cylinders from the hull and begin rotation. Tuamotu carefully spun her long booms between central hull and outboard cylinders. The booms were attached to a rotor on the hull, and the cylinders used their own small methane kickers to set up spin.

When extended, the cylinders pointed perpendicular to the hull; just as when we had experienced ship acceleration, to move from deck to deck one had to climb up or down, or take the elevator. The centrifugal force created about one-fourth g in the observation lounge, the outboard or “lowest” deck.

When the cylinders had cycled to maximum, the warm sleepers retired to their cubicles. A little party was given for them. In our cylinder, we were now down to twenty-three active passengers, and seven months to go…

Orianna had filled her cabin with projected picts, each leading to a sim or LitVid put on hold; twenty or more, hanging in the air like tiny sculptures, some pulsing, some singing faintly. She laughed. “Silly, isn’t it?” she said. “I’ll turn them off…” She waved and the icons disappeared, allowing me to see the rest of her cabin. It was tidy but busy. A sweater lay in one corner, or at least half of a sweater. Little sticks poked out of it, and a ball of what must have been thread — yarn, I remembered — lay beside it. “Knitting?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sometimes I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing, and knitting or crocheting brings me back. It’s the drive in Paris, where my father lives.”

“Your mother lives with your father?”

“Sometimes. They bond loose. I live with my father most of the year. Sometimes I go to Ethiopia to live with my mother. She’s a merchandising agent for Iskander Resources. They temp for skilled labor all over the world.”

“And your father?”

“He’s a mining engineer for European Waters Conservancy. He spends lots of time in submarines. I have a great North Sea sim — like to see it?”

“Not right now. Wouldn’t you like to live in just one place?” I asked.

Orianna held out her hands. “Why?”

“To get a feeling of belonging. Knowing where you are.”

She smiled brightly. “I know the entire Earth. Not just in sims, either. I’ve been all over, with and without my parents. I can fly a shocker from Djibouti to Seattle in four hours. Weather change is great. Really sweeps the sugars.”

“Have you ever gone slow?” I asked.

“You mean…” She smoothed her hand along the bed cover. “Ground speed? Double-digit kiphs?”

“Single digit.”

“Sure. I bicycled across France two years ago with some Kenyans. Campfires, night skies, grape harvest in Alsace . You’re really jammed on this, aren’t you?”

“If you mean, stuck in a rut, obviously.”

“Earth isn’t decadent, Casseia. It really isn’t. I’m not a poor little rich girl, any more than you are.”

“Maybe I’m just jealous.”

“I’d call it shy,” Orianna said. “But if you want to ask me about Earth, realtime, oral history and culture, that’s fine with me. We have months left, and I don’t want to spend it all jogging and simming.”

My Earth studies and conversations with Alice had left me with the impression of a flawless society, cool and efficient. But what I heard in conversation with Orianna seemed to contradict this. There were great disagreements between Terries; nations within GEWA and its southern equivalent, GSHA, arguing endlessly, clashing morality systems as populations from one country traded places with others — a popular activity in the late 70s. Some populations — Islam Fatimites, Green Idaho Christians, Mormons, Wahabi Saudis, and others — maintained stances that would be conservative even on Mars, clinging stubbornly to their cultural identities in the face of Earth-wide criticism.

Paleo-Christians in Green Idaho, practically a nation unto itself within the United States , had declared the rights of women to be less than those of men. Women fought to have their legal powers and rights reduced, despite opposition from all other states. On the reverse, in Fatimite Morocco and Egypt , men sought to glorify the image of women, whom they regarded as Chalices of Mohammed. In Greater Albion, formerly the United Kingdom , adult transforms who had regressed in apparent age to children were forbidden to hold political office, creating a furor I could hardly begin to untangle. And in Florida , defying regulations, some humans transformed themselves into shapes similar to marine mammals… And to pay for it, organized Sex in the Sea exhibits for tourists.

In language, the greatest craze of the 60s and 70s was invented language. Mixing old tongues, inventing new, mixing music and words electronically so that one could not tell where tones left off and phonemes began, creating visual languages that wrapped speakers in projected, complex symbols, all seemed designed to separate and not bring together. Yet enhancements were available that were tuned to the New Lingua Nets or NLN. Installing the NLN enhancements through nano surgery, one could understand virtually any language, natural or invented, and even think in their vernacular.

The visual languages seemed especially drive in the 70s. In GEWA alone, seventy visual languages had been created. The most popular was used by more than four and a half billion people.

Despite what Alice had said, it didn’t sound at all integrated to me. To a Martian, even to a native like Orianna, Earth seemed diverse, bewildering, crazy.

But to Alice , Earth was entering the early stages of a new kind of history.

Six weeks into the flight, Bithras called me to his cabin. I girded myself for battle, palmed his door port. The door opened and I stepped in at the wave of his hand. He wore long pants and a cotton long-sleeved shirt, again in white, and he muttered to himself for a few minutes, searching for memory cubes, as if I had not yet arrived. “Yes,” he said finally, locating the lost cubes and turning to face me. “I hope your trip has not been too dull.”

I shook my head. “I’ve spent most of the time researching and exercising,” I said.

“And talking to Alice .”

“Yes.”

“ Alice is brilliant, but she has some of the naivete found in all thinkers,” Bithras said. “They cannot judge humans harshly enough. I have no such illusions. My dear, the time has come for us to do some work, and it involves your past… If you are willing.”

I stared at him and gave the faintest nod.

“What do you know about Martian scientists and Bell Continuum theory?”

“I don’t think I know anything about Bell Continuum theory,” I said.

“Majumdar BM has been speaking with Cailetet Mars about sponsoring new research. There is a request for so-called Quantum Logic thinkers in the works. Earth is exporting such thinkers, but they are incredibly expensive… thirty-nine million dollars, shipped endo and inactive. We must build our own personalities for them, and that might take months, even years.”

I still volunteered nothing, though I could feel where he was heading.

“You once knew Charles Franklin, promising student from Klein BM, correct?”

“Yes.”

“You were lovers?”

I swallowed and thrust my chin forward resentfully. “Briefly,” I said.

“He is lawbonded now to a woman from Cailetet.”

“Oh.”

Bithras studied my reaction. “Mr. Franklin heads a group of young theoretical physicists at Tharsis Research. They are known as the Olympians.”

“I didn’t know that,” I said.

“Not surprising, since their work is kept close to their bosoms. They report only to the fund administrators, and have published nothing so far. I want you to read this transmission from Earth. It is a few days old, and. it was sent to Cailetet from Stanford University .”

“How did you get it?” I asked.

Bithras smiled, shook his head, and handed his slate to me. The message was pure text and read:

We’ve established strong link between time tweak and space tweak. Can derive most special relat. Third tweak discovered may be co-active but purpose unknown. Tweak time, tweak space, third tweak changes automatically. Probably derive general relat. as regards curvature, but third tweak pushes a fourth tweak, weakly and sporadically… Derive conservation of destiny? Fifty tweaks discovered so far. More to come. Can you share your discoveries? Mutual bennies if yes.

“A scientific courtship,” Bithras said. “Highly unusual, Earth courting Mars. Did Charles Franklin discuss such matters?”

“No,” I said. “Well… I think he mentioned ‘Bell Continuum’ and something else. ‘Forbidden channels.’ Whatever they are. He didn’t say much. I wasn’t interested.”

“Pity,” Bithras said. “You had a prime opportunity, both to romance Mr. Franklin and to learn about something very important. He might have told you?”

“If he had, I wouldn’t have understood.”

“The ‘Bell Continuum,’ my researchers tell me, is the key to a radical theory of physics that shows some promise. The Olympians refer to universes as ‘destinies.’ ”

I shook my head, still all uncomprehending.

“We are interested, Casseia, because Cailetet Mars is being pressured to pull out from Tharsis funding. All funding.”

“Cailetet is Lunar,” I said.

“Yes, but dominated by GEWA, and Cailetet Mars would enjoy being more independent. And at the same time, Mr. Franklin has been approached by Stanford University to join their program and come to Earth to continue his research. They promise access to Earth’s most advanced thinkers, including Quantum Logic thinkers, and a very high personal salary as well. They will also help relieve Klein’s money problems. Which, of course, are due largely to interference from GEWA.”

“Did he accept?”

“He reported the offer to Klein, as is only polite within a family, and Klein informed the Council, which is also only polite. The Council passed the information to major funders of Tharsis research. No, he did not accept. Mr. Franklin is an admirable young man. Alice concludes that Earth is heavily engaged in research in the Bell Continuum and something called ‘descriptor theory.’ There have been other hints to that effect.”

“It’s important?”

Bithras smiled. “Earth won’t get Charles Franklin, or any of the Olympians. Majumdar will work with Cailetet to finance three QL thinkers for their purposes.”

“Oh,” I said. Charles had done the right thing, and he had gotten what he wanted by doing it. Admirable.

“I am sorry your affair went no further,” Bithras said. “Why did you break with him?”

The transition into personal prying was accomplished with so little change in tone that I was almost lulled into answering. Instead, I smiled and turned one hand over, raised my eyebrows, and shrugged: C’est la vie.

“Have you had much experience with brilliant men?”

“No,” I said.

“Much experience with men at all?”

I continued smiling and said nothing. Bithras watched me intently. “I have observed that young women acquire most of their knowledge of men in the first five years of their romantic lives. It is a crucial time. I would guess that you are within that five-year period. To neglect your education would be a pity. A spaceship offers such limited opportunities.”

Here it comes.

“If you remember anything more about Charles Franklin, please tell me. I am reluctantly forced to catch up on physics, and I am not so skilled at mathematics. I hope Alice is a good tutor.”

He thanked me and opened the cabin door. In the hallway, I passed Acre on some errand, murmured hello, and went to the exercise room. There, accompanied by four sweating men, all about Bithras’s age, I worked off my anger and dismay for about an hour.

Charles had married. He had the anchor he wanted. He was well on his way to being significant, to Earth and Mars, if not to me.

Good for him.

Orianna burned like an intense flame blown by swift winds. I never could predict the direction of those winds, what her moods would be precisely — but I never knew her to be morose, or discouraged, or even overtly judgmental. When she fixed her attention on me — listening to me or just watching me — I knew what a cat must feel like, scrutinized by a human…

Orianna was not effectively more wise than I was, but her instant access to information, her blithe show of skills not learned or earned but bought, were marvelous. What she lacked was what I lacked — what all Earth’s glory could not give her or me: experience that sat deep in the mind and in the flesh. Her enhancements and all her advanced education could not give her passionate conviction or a true sense of direction.

Talking, letting the telescope fill our rooms with projected images, sharing LitVids, playing games in the lounge, watching the stars pass from the observation deck… Orianna showed me a mirror to my own immediate past — she taught me a lot about Earth, and perhaps even more about myself. Through her, I saw more clearly how far I had to go.

But I was still reluctant to join Orianna in a sim. She persisted in her efforts to convince.

“I smuggled some real outer sims past Earth douane. I haven’t told my parents,” she said to me on Jill’s Day, December 30. We were in the fifth month of our crossing and had just emerged from the most strenuous regimen of exercises yet — three hours in the gym with magnet suits, running in place in fields that simulated full Earth gravity. “You won’t tell?”

“Is that illegal?”

“Well, no, but the companies that make them are pretty protective. They could cut me off a customer list if they found out. They don’t want dupes made off Earth.”

“Sims aren’t very popular off Earth,” I said.

Orianna shrugged that off. “There’s one I think you’ll really like. It’s gradual. Puts you in touch with all the cultural differences between you and me. Set on present-day Earth, but it’s not an education piece. It’s fantasy and very romantic. Since you have access to Alice … Alice would be perfect for screening our sims. Much better than slates… We could go full-depth with Alice .”

“I’m not sure she’d agree.”

“I’ve never met a thinker that wasn’t eager to build up more data on human nature. Besides, it’s Jill’s Day. Time to celebrate. Alice needs relaxation, too.”

Jill, the first thinker on Earth to achieve self-awareness — on December 30, 2047 — had served as template for the next generation of thinkers, and so in a very real way was a direct ancestor of Alice . Jill was still active on Earth. Alice wanted to visit her broadband on the nets when we got to Earth, if we had time.

We took turns in my room with the vapor bag and toweled off, then sat. “You are fixed on sims,” I said. “What about real life?”

Orianna said, “When I’m eighteen, real life will mean something. When I’m on my own, and my parents aren’t responsible for my actions, I can take risks and be dangerous. Until then, I’m a cutlet.”

“Cutlet?”

“Slice off the parental loin. Sims are exercise for the rest of my life.”

“Even fantasy?”

She smiled. “Well… not to stretch a point. They’re fun.”

I gently declined the offer, but hinted there might be time later.

The routine of each day in space became hypnotic. After four or five hours’ sleep — growing less each month — I would wake up to pleasant music and a projection of the ship’s schedule for the day, along with a menu from which I could choose my meals and activities. I exercised, ate breakfast, spent a few hours with Orianna or Alice, or sat in the main lounge, chatting with other passengers. Space chat was congenial, seldom stimulating or controversial. I exercised again before lunch, more strenuously, and joined Orianna and her parents to eat.

Allen and I met in with Bithras every two or three days. His Earth agenda was shaping up and afternoons were devoted to deep training. He gave us LitVids and documents to study, some proprietary to Majumdar. I was careful not to reveal anything I learned from these sessions in conversation with Orianna, or anybody else.

At dinner, I joined Allen and Bithras and several of Bithras’s acquaintances from Earth. After dinner, I spent time in my cabin with LitVids — hungry for an outside existence — and then exercised lightly and had a snack with Orianna or Allen.

It didn’t take me long to pick holes in some of the statements made by Terries aboard ship, general assumptions about Earth’s future, GEWA’s or GSHA’s plans; I was close to a center now, and what I was learning both disturbed and impressed me.

One conversation sticks in my memory, because it was so atypically blunt. It took place at the end of the fifth month. After an hour poring over Earth economics and its relation to the Triple — a relation of very large dog wagging a tiny but growing tail — I dropped down to dinner and made my choice. Minutes later, trays of excellent nano food — better than anything available on Mars — were ferried to me by the dining room arbeiter from the brightly lit mouth of the dispenser.

Orianna was in her cabin, lost in a sim; we had a date for later in the day. I sat beside Allen at the outside of a curved table. Across from us sat Orianna’s parents. Renna Iskandera, her mother, a tall, stately Ethiopian woman, wore a loose jumpsuit in brilliant orange, dark purple, and brown block prints. Her husband, Paul Frontiere, French by birth and a citizen of Eurocon, dressed in trim gray and forest-green spacewear, loose at waist and joints, slimming around wrist and ankles.

Allen was already talking with Renna and Paul. I sat beside him, listening attentively.

“I think we’re a little daunted by Earth and Earth customs,” Allen said. “So many people, so many cultures and fashions… The more I learn, the more confused I get.”

“Martians don’t study the homeworld in school?” asked Renna. ‘To prepare, I mean, for such trips as this.“

“We study,” Allen said, “but Martians are pretty self-absorbed.“ He glanced at me, the skin around his eyes crinkling in private humor.

“On Earth, we’re proud of our acceptance of change, and of our unity within diversity,” Paul said. “Martians seem proud of common heritage.”

I decided to ramp up the provocation, in the interests of understanding Terries, of course, and not because of the slight sting of the veiled accusation of being provincial. “We’ve all been taught that Earth is politically more calm and more stable than it’s ever been — ”

‘That is true,“ Paul said, nodding.

“But there’s so much argument! So much disagreement!”

Renna laughed, a high, wonderful melody of mirth. She was twice my age, yet appeared much younger, might have been sister to her own daughter. “We revel in it,” she said. “We take pride in shouting at each other.”

“You mean, it’s all a front?” Allen asked.

“No, we genuinely disagree about many things,” Renna said. “But we do not kill each other when we disagree. You are of course taught about the twentieth century?”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”

“The bloodiest in human history. A nightmare — one long war from almost the beginning to almost the end, a hothouse for every imaginable tyranny. Even at its conclusion, passions between peoples of different heritage, different religions, even simple geographic differences, led to murder and reprisal on a hideous scale. But it was the century in which more people than ever broke from traditional power structures, expressed skepticism, found disillusionment and despair — and grew.”

I frowned. “Grew out of despair?”

“Grew out of necessity. No turning back to old ways — no one could afford to. There was no longer profit in destruction. The great god Mammon became a god of peace. And that is when we looked outward — and made the beginnings of the settled Moon and Mars and the outer small worlds. People were able to see more clearly.”

“But you’re still arguing,” I said, and bit my lip gently, hoping to give the impression that my naivete now lay naked on the table before them. Bithras was teaching me the art of lapwing — faking confusion or weakness for advantage.

“I hope not to speak for everyone on Earth, of course!” Paul said, laughing. “To argue is not to hate, not for healthy minds. Our opponents are prized. They goad us to greater accomplishment. If we are defeated, we know that there are other wars to be fought, wars without blood, wars of intellect and of many possible outcomes, not just defeat or victory.”

“And if you argue with Mars?” I asked, putting on a mask of provincial anxiety. “If we disagree?”

“We are fearful opponents,” Paul admitted. Renna seemed less happy with that answer.

“What is good for all, is good for Earth,” she said. She touched my hand. “On Earth, there is so much variety, so much possibility for growth and change, so much, as you say, argument, but if you track the politics, the responses of peoples wherever they may live, there are astonishing agreements on major goals.”

Goals. The word rang like a bell. Alice , you are so right.

“Such as?”

“Well,” Renna said, “we cannot afford to lack discipline. The universe is not so friendly. Weaknesses and weak links — ”

“Such as Mars,” I said.

Renna’s eyes narrowed. Perhaps I was laying it on too thick. “We must act together for the common goals of all the human worlds.”

“What are we to unite against?”

“Not against, but for. For the next push — to migrate to the stars. There are worlds enough for all who disagree to try great experiments, make great strides… But we will not achieve them if we are separate now, and lacking discipline.”

“What if our goals don’t coincide?” I asked.

“All things change,” Renna said.

“Whose goals should change?”

“That’s what the debate is about.”

“And if debate isn’t enough? Debate can grind on forever,” I said.

‘True, there isn’t always the luxury of unlimited time.“

“If debate has to be cut off,” I said, “who does the cutting?”

Renna looked at me shrewdly. She was enjoying herself, but I had to ask, despite all their obvious sophistication, despite their time on Mars, did they truly understand how a Martian felt? “When a society can’t do the good drive, as Orianna might say — when it refuses its responsibilities — then other means must be tried.”

“Force?” I asked.

“Renna dearly loves to debate,” Paul said confidentially to Allen. “This ship has been too quiet, too polite.”

“Where Mars and Earth cannot agree, there is always room for growth and discussion,” Renna concluded, staring at me in an entirely friendly and expectant way. “Force is an old habit I do not approve of.” She obviously wanted me to counter, but something had cut deep and I did not wish to oblige her. I gave a cool smile, inclined, and tapped my plate to signal the arbeiter I was finished.

“We sometimes forget the sensibilities of others, in our enthusiasm” Paul said warily.

“It’s nothing,” Allen said. “We’ll pick up the discussion later.”

Bithras had a lot on his mind. His behavior was exemplary. He seemed more a concerned blood uncle than a boss; sometimes a teacher, sometimes a fellow student working with Allen and me to riddle the puzzles of Earth. Never the sacred monster my mother had described.

His transition, in the middle of our sixth month, came abruptly enough to catch me completely off guard. Bithras called me to his cabin for consultation. He had taken to wearing tennis togs again, and as I came in, he sat in his white cotton shirt and shorts, legs pushed against the opposite wall, slate on his lap.

“A lot of tension on Mars this week,” he said.

“I haven’t seen anything in the LitVids,” I said casually.

“Of course not,” he said with a twitch of his mouth. “I wouldn’t expect it to get that far. Not yet. Two BMs have decided to make their own proposals for unification.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Mukhtiar and Pong.”

“Not top five…” I asked.

“And not likely to attract any attention… on Earth. But I made a lot of concessions and forced a lot of favors to carry our proposal to Earth. Some people who are nervous are much more nervous now. If I am undercut, if someone decides to mount a strong campaign across Mars before we arrive… concessions to Earth, sellouts…” He lifted his hand and squinted at me. “Not fun. I worry about Cailetet. They seem to believe they have extra cards in the game.”

I shook my head in sympathy. He leaned back a few more centimeters and looked me over. “What have you learned from the Terries?”

“A lot, I think.”

“Do you know that Terries have been increasing the average age for first sexual experience for the last thirty years, and that more and more of them never have physical sex at all, up to ten percent now?” He squinted skeptically, as if mounting a speculation.

“I’ve heard that,” I said.

“Some people marry and have sex only in sims.”

I had been so calmed by his straight and narrow behavior for so many weeks that even now I suspected nothing.

“There have been marriages between thinkers and humans. Marriages physically celibate but mentally promiscuous. People who have children without having sex and without giving birth. Marvels and frights to a red rabbit.”

“We have ex utero babies on Mars,” I said quietly, wondering what he was up to.

“I prefer the old fashioned way,” he said, fixing his round black eyes on me. “There has been damned little of that this voyage. All work. You have not been very romantically adventurous either, I notice.”

Signals of caution finally broke through. I didn’t answer, just shrugged, hoping my uncomfortable silence would be enough to deflect the course of the conversation.

“We will be working together for many months.”

“Right,” I said.

“Is it possible to be completely comfortable together, working for so long?”

“We’ll have to be,” I said. “We’ll be red rabbits among the Terries.”

He nodded emphatically. “Among very strange and high-powered people. It will cause tensions far worse than what I feel now, going over these recent messages. We’re in a war of nerves, Casseia, and we might enjoy — mutually — a place of retreat… from the war.”

“I’d like to read the messages,” I said.

“I would not feel comfortable taking solace from a Terrie woman.”

“I’m not sure this is — ”

He pushed on with a little shake of his head. “What if I work very hard on a temporary relationship, and it can be only that, and discover the woman from Earth wants me to have sex only in sim?” He stared at me incredulously.

Angering by slow degrees, I kept in mind my mother’s admonition: be clever, be witty. I felt neither clever nor witty but I did not yet ramp to complete indignation.

“I like to resolve difficulties, make arrangements, early,” Bithras said. He reached up and stroked my arm, quickly moving to grip my shoulder. He let go of my shoulder and ran a finger lightly on the fabric centimeters above my breast. “You are much more… to me.”

“Within the family?”

“That is not an obstacle.”

“Oh,” I said. “An arrangement of convenience.”

“Much more than that. We may both focus on our work, having this resolved.”

“A stronger relationship.”

“Certainly,” Bithras said.

Delicately, I pushed back his arm.

“What you’re saying is, we should start our family now, right?” I said cheerily.

He drew his head back, dismayed, “Family?”

“We need to make more red rabbits, right? To offset Earth’s billions? A policy matter.”

“Casseia!” he said. “You deliberately misunderstand — ”

I cut him off. “I hadn’t planned on procreating so early, but if it serves policy, I suppose I must.” Wit or not, I forged ahead. I put on a stoic face, lifted my hand to my brow, and said, “Bithras, all that can be asked of any red doe, in this life, is to lie back and think of Mars.”

He made a face of sharp distaste. “That is not funny, Casseia. I am discussing serious difficulties in our personal lives.”

“I’ll have to update my medical nano,” I said. “Bichemistry is different in pregnant women.”

“You miss my meaning completely.” He stretched out his arms and again one hand touched my shoulder, moved to my upper breast, while his eyes held me, tried to convince me that this was not what it might seem. “Am I not attractive?”

I lifted my eyebrows and removed his hand again. “You should talk to my father. He understands family politics and proprieties better than I. Certainly in the matter of liaisons and alliances… and children.”

Bithras slumped his shoulders and waved his hand weakly. “I’ll transfer the docs to your slate. Alice already has them,” he said. Then he shook his head with genuine sadness and perhaps regret.

Guiltless, I did not feel at all sorry.

I left his cabin with a dizzy sense of lightness. Forewarned was forearmed. The lightness reverted to anger once I was in my own cabin, and I sat on the bed, pounding the fabric so hard I lifted my bottom several centimeters. Then I lay back and counted backwards, eyes closed, teeth clenched. He has no more control than a baby wetting his diapers, said a calm, cold voice in my head, the part of me that still thought clearly when I was upset. “He has no more technique than a tunnel bore,” I said out loud. “He’s inept.”

I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and took a deep breath.

Voice or vid communication between Tuamotu and Mars was too expensive to be indulged in lightly. I sent text letters instead, addressing Father, Mother, and Stan; but the last letter I sent, in the beginning of our eighth month, before he slowed for Earth orbit, I addressed to Mother alone.

Dear Mom,

I’ve survived this far, and even enjoyed most of the trip, but I’m afraid the letters I’ve been sending haven’t been completely open. Being away from Mars, talking with Terries, watching Bithras at work, I’ve become more and more aware every day how outmatched we Martians are. We are blinded by our traditions and conservatism. We are crippled by our innocence. Poor Bithras! He bumped me, as you said he wouldonly once so far, thank Godand he was so crude, so direct and unsophisticated — a man of his travels and broadness of mind, of his importance! A friend once told me that Martians don’t educate their children for the most important things in lifecourtship, relations, loverelying instead on individual discovery, which is hit-or-miss, mostly miss. On Earth, Bithras would get social-grade therapy, spend some time practicing in sims, clear his mind and improve his skills. Why does our sense of individuality prevent us from correcting our weaknesses?

I’m spending a lot of time with a young woman from Earth. She is sharp and witty, she is a thousand years old compared to meyet she’s only seventeen Earth years. On her eighteenth birthday, I’m going to go into a sim with her and explore wise old Earth through its fantasies. I don’t know exactly what the sim is, but I suspect it won’t make me comfortable. She will hardly think anything of it, but I’m terrified. Terrie-fied. You might be shocked, reading this, but don’t think I’ll be any less shocked, doing it. I have always thought myself to be stable and imperturbable, but my innocencemy ignoranceis simply appalling.

And Alice suggested I try something of this sort. I hope that legitimizes it a little in your eyes, but if not… As Oriannathat’s the young woman’s nameas she says, I’m no longer a cutlet.

I sent the letter coded to our family, and before Mother had a chance to reply, on Orianna’s eighteenth birthday, two days away from our transfer from the Tuamotu to a shuttle to Earth, we dived into her smuggled fantasy sim.

“Better late than never,” Orianna said as we hooked our slates on a private channel, through the ship’s broadband, and linked with each other and with Alice, who was willing and even eager to conduct.

“You haven’t told me what it’s about.”

“It’s a forty-character novel.”

“Text?”

“Calling it a novel means it has a plot, instead of just being landscape. You’re part of a flow. You can move from character to character, but the character imposes — you won’t think like yourself in character, but you can watch. In other words, part of you will know you’re still you. It’s not a whole-life sim.”

“Oh.”

“You can pull out any time, and you can jump, as well.”

“You’ve done this sim before?”

“No,” Orianna said. “That’s why I didn’t want to just slate it. Alice can give us more protection and more detail. If there’s a bug, she can pull us out gently rather than just disconnecting. A discon always gives me a headache.”

It sounded worse and worse. I seriously considered backing out, but looking at Orianna, at her bright-eyed eagerness as she arranged the nano plugs, I felt a sudden burst of youthful shame. If she could do it, I could, too.

“You’ll go into the staging faster than I will,” she said, handing me my cable. “My cable will have to deactivate enhancements and set up cooperation links.”

I placed the cable next to my temple. The tip spread to several centimeters and seized my skin, snaking to get in a position to support its own weight. My arm-hair prickled. This was very like the arrangements for major therapy. Something tickled in my temple: the nano links going in through skin, skull, and cortex, pushing their leads into the proper main lines within the brain.

“What happens if this is jerked loose?” I asked, pushing the cable with a fingertip.

“Nothing. The links dissolve. Abso safe. Old old tech.”

“And if there’s a bug Alice can’t handle?”

“She can reprogram anything in the sim. You just spend a few seconds with Alice while she figures it out.”

That’s right, actually, Alice said within my head.

“Wow,” I said, startled. I had done LitVids with Alice , of course, but a direct link was a very different sensation.

Try talking to me without moving your lips or making a sound.

“Is this — ” Is this right?

Very good. Relax.

Do you approve of this sort of thing?

My entire existence is rather like a sim, Casseia.

I told my mother we’d do this. I don’t know what she’ll think.

I still saw through my eyes. Orianna had put on her cables and closed her eyes. A muscle in her cheek twitched.

“Ready,” she said out loud.

Sim will begin in three seconds.

I closed my eyes. For the first time in my life, I had the sensation of closing my ears, my fingers, my body, as well.

A creator credit icon — three parallel red knife slashes rising from a black ground, representing no artist or corporation I was familiar with — then total darkness.

When I opened my eyes again, I had a new set of memories. In medias res, along with the memories came a new set of concerns, worries, things I knew I had to do.

It was so smooth I hardly felt the shift.

I became Budhara, daughter of the Wahabi Arabian Alliance family Sa’ud, heir to old Earth resource fortunes. I knew somewhere that Budhara had never lived — this was fiction — but it didn’t matter. Her world was real — more real than my own, with the intensity possible in exaggerated art. My part in her life began fifty years in the past, and moved with un-diminished vividness through seven episodes, ending on her deathbed ten years in the future.

There was intrigue, double-dealing, betrayal, sex — though very discreet and not very informative — and there was a great deal of detail about the life of latter-day Wahabis in a world full of doubters. Budhara was not a doubter, but neither did she conform. Her life was not easy. It did not feel easy, and the intensity of her misery at times was mitigated only by my awareness that it would have an end.

Her death was startling in its violence — she was strangled by her lover in a fit of inferiority — but it was no more revelatory than the sex. My body knew it was not dead, just as it knew it was not really having sex.

After, my mind floated in endspace, gray and potent, and I felt Orianna there. She said, “Anybody you saw, you can become. Up to four per session, with a thinker driving.”

“How long have we been in sim?” I asked.

“An hour.”

It had seemed much longer. I could not really guess how long. But I thought we had not met in the sim, and all I could think to say, in the grayness, was, “I thought we were sharing.”

“We did. I was your last husband.”

“Oh.” The flush began. She had switched sexes — she had known me. I found that intensely unsettling. It called so many of my basics into question.

“We can switch to another location, as well… connect with Budhara through western channels. She can become a minor character.”

“I’d like to be her parrot,” I joked.

“That’s outer,” Orianna said, meaning beyond the sim.

“Then I’d like to go Up,” I said, not using the correct term, but it seemed right.

“Surface coming,” Orianna said, guiding me out of the gray. We opened our eyes to the cabin. Being tens of millions of kilometers between worlds seemed boring compared to Budhara’s life.

I whistled softly and rubbed my hands together to assure me this was reality. “I’m not sure I ever want to do that again,” I said.

“Yeah. It’s something sacred the first time, isn’t it? You want to go back so bad. Real seems fake. It gets easier to pull out later, more perspective, otherwise these would have been negged by law years ago. I don’t do lawneg sims.”

“Lawn-egg?” I asked.

“Outlaw. Illegal.”

“Oh.” I still wasn’t thinking clearly. “I didn’t learn much about Earth.”

“The Sa’ud dynasty is pretty withdrawn, isn’t it? Down fortune fanatics, nobody needs their last drops of oil, really top for sim fiction. Budhara’s my favorite, though. I’ve been through two dozen episodes with her. She’s strong, but she knows how to bend. I really enjoy the part where she petitions the Majlis to let her absorb her brothers’ fortunes… after their death in Basra .”

“Admirable,” I said.

“You don’t look happy?”

“I’m just stunned, Orianna.”

“Wrong choice?”

“No,” I said, though it had been an obtuse choice, to say the least. Orianna, despite her sophistication, was still very young, and I had to be reminded of this now and again. “But I was hoping to learn more about mainstream Earth, not the fringes.”

“Maybe next time,” she said. “I have some straightforward stories, even travelogs, but you can get those on Mars…”

“Maybe,” I said. But I had no intention of trying another.

On Earth, billions of people devoured sims every day, and yet I could not rise clear-headed from a cheap romance.

Allen and I stood in Bithras’s cabin. “I hate this time,” Bithras told us, staring at himself in mirror projection. “In a few days it won’t be exercise. It will be a damned ball and chain. And I don’t mean just the weight, though that will be bad enough. They expect so much out of us. They watch us. I am always afraid some new technology will let them peek into my head while I sleep. I will not feel comfortable until we are on our way home again.”

“You don’t like Earth,” Allen said.

Bithras glared at him. “I loathe it,” he said. “Terries are so cheerful and polite, and so filled with machinery. Machinery for the heart, for the lungs, nano for this, refit for that — ”

“Doesn’t sound so different from Mars,” I said.

Bithras ignored me. His basic conservatism was surfacing, and he had to let it out; better this way, I thought, than that he should bump me again. “They never let a thing alone. Not life, not health, not a thought. They worry it, view it from so many perspectives… I swear, not one of the people we talk to is an individual. Each is a crowd, with the judgment of the crowd, ruled by a benevolent dictator called the self, unsure it is really in charge, so cautious, so very bright.”

“We have people like that on Mars,” Allen said.

“I don’t have to negotiate with them,” Bithras said. “You’ve chosen your immunizations?”

Allen made a face and I laughed.

“You rejected them all?”

“Well,” Allen said, “I was considering letting in the virus that gives me language and persuasion…”

Bithras stared at us, aghast. “Persuasion?”

“The gift of gab,” Allen said.

“You are fooling with me,” Bithras said, pushing back the mirror. “I will look awful. But that matters little, considering they will look so good, even at my best I would look awful. They expect it of Martians. Do you know what they call us, when they are not so polite?”

“What?” I asked. I had heard several names from Orianna: claytoes, tunnel mice, Tharks.

Colonists,” Bithras said, accent on the middle syllable.

Allen didn’t smile. It was one word never heard on Mars even in its correct pronunciation. Settlers, settlements; never colonies, colonists.“

“A colony, they say,” Bithras continued, “is where you keep your colons.”

I shook my head.

“Believe it,” Bithras said. “You have listened to Alice , you have listened to the people on this ship. Now listen to the voice of true experience. Earth is very together, Earth is very sane, but that does not mean Earth is nice, or that they like us, or even respect us.”

I thought he might be exaggerating. I still had that much idealism and naivete. Orianna, after all, was a friend; and she was not much like her parents.

She gave me some hope.

The cylinders were pulled in and stowed along the hull. The spinning universe became stable. Much of our acquired velocity spilled quickly at two million kilometers from Earth; we lay abed in that time under the persistent press of two g’s deceleration.

This far from Earth, home planet and moon were clearly visible in one sweep of the eye, and as the days passed, they became lovely indeed.

The Moon hung clean silver beside the Earth’s lapis and quartz. There is no more beautiful a world in the Solar System than Earth. I might have been looking down on the planet billions of years ago. Even the faint sparks of tethered platforms around the equator, sucking electric power from the Mother’s magnetic field, could not remove my sense of awe; here was where it all began.

For a moment — not very long, but long enough — I shared the Terracentric view. Mars was tiny and insignificant in history. We shipped little to Earth, contributed little, purchased little; we were more a political than a geographic power, and damned small at that: a persistent itch to the mighty Mother, who had long since drawn a prodigal daughter Moon back to her bosom.

Orianna and I spent as much time staring at the Earth and Moon as we could spare from going through customs interviews. I finished filling out my immunization requests, to block the friendly educations of tailored microbes that floated in Earth’s air.

I was excited. Allen was excited. Bithras was dour and said little.

Five days later, we passed through the main low-orbit space station, Peace III, and made our way on a liner through thick air and a beautiful sunset, downward to the Earth.

Even now, at a distance of sixty years and ten thousand light-years, my heart beats faster and my eyes flow with tears at the memory of my first day on Earth.

I remember in a series of vivid still frames the confusion of the customs area on Peace III, passengers from two crossings floating in queues outlined by tiny red lights, Orianna and I bidding our quick farewells, exchanging personal reference numbers, mine newly assigned for Earth and hers upgraded to an adult status, unrestricted; promising to call as soon as we were settled, however long that might take; transferring Alice Two by hand from the niche on Tuamotu; promising the customs officers she contained no ware in violation of the World Net Act of 2079, politely refusing under diplomatic privilege the thinker control authority’s offer to sweep her for such instances we might not be aware of; obtaining our diplomatic clearances under United States sponsorship; crossing the Earthgate corridor filled with artwork created by the homeworld’s children; entering the hatch of the transfer shuttle; taking our seats with sixty other passengers; staring for ten minutes at the close-up direct view of Earth; pushing free of the platform, descending, feeling the window beside my seat become hot to the touch — the thick ocean of air buffeting us with enough violence to make me grab my seat arms, red rabbit coming home, heart pounding, armpits damp with expectation and a peculiar anxiety: will I be worthy? Can Earth love me, someone not born in Her house?

The sunset glorious red and orange, an arc like a necklace wrapped around the beautiful blue and white shoulders of Earth, seen through flashes of fierce red ionization as we bounced and slowed and made our descent into a broad artificial lake near Arlington in the old state of Virginia. Steam billowed thick and white as we rolled gently on our backs, just as the first astronauts had rolled waiting for their rescue. Arbeiter tugs as big as the Tuamotu floated on the rippling blue water… Water! So much water! The tugs grabbed our transfer shuttle in gentle pincers and pushed us toward shore terminals. Other shuttles came in beside us, some from the Moon, some from other orbital platforms, casting great clouds of spray and steam with their torch-gentled impacts in the huge basin.

Allen held my hand and I clutched his, made dear siblings by wonder and no small fear. Across the aisle from us, seated beside a padded and restrained Alice , Bithras stared grimly ahead, lost in thought.

Now our work really began.

We were not just Martians, not mere red rabbits on an improbable playtrip. We were symbols of Mars. We would be famous for a time, wrapped in the enthusiasm of Earth’s citizens for Martian visitors. We would be hardy settlers returning to civilization, bringing a message for the United States Congress; we would smile and keep our mouths closed in the face of ten thousand LitVid questions. We would make gracious responses to ridiculous inquiries: What is it like to come home? Ridiculous but not so very ridiculous; Mars was truly my home, and I missed him already in this wonderful strangeness, but…

I knew Earth, too.

Leaving the shuttle, we installed Alice on her rented carriage, and she tracked beside us.

Almost all of us chose to walk between the oaks and maples, across meadows of hardy bluegrass, all first-time Martians breathing fresh open air. We wandered through Ingram Park , named after the first human to set foot on Mars, Dorothy Ingram. Dorothy, I know how you felt. I tasted the air, moist from a recent shower, and saw clouds rolling from the south rich with generous rain, and above them the blue, of kitten’s eyes, and no limits, no walls, no domes or glass.

I know you. My blood knows you.

Allen and I did a little waltz on the grass around Alice ’s carriage. Bithras smiled tolerantly, remembering his own first time. Our antics confirmed Earth’s status as queen. We were drunk with her. “I’m not dreaming?” Allen asked, and I laughed and hugged him and we danced some more on the grass.

Bichemistry served us well. We stood upright under more than two and a half times our accustomed weight, we moved quickly on feet that did not strain or ache — not for a while, at any rate — and our heads remained clear.

“Look at the sky !” I crowed.

Bithras stepped between us. “The eyes of Earth,” he said. We sobered a little, but I hardly cared about LitVid cameras recording the arriving passengers. Let Earth hear my joy.

My body knew where I was. It had been here before I was born. My genes had made me for this place, my blood carried sea, my bones carried dirt, from Earth, from Earth, my eyes had been made for the bright yellow daylight of Earth’s days and the blue of the day sky and the nights beneath the air-swimming light of Moon and stars.

We passed through reporters human and arbeiter and Bithras answered for us, diplomatically, smiling broadly, we are glad to be back, we expect the most enjoyable talks with the governments of Earth, our partners in the development of Sol’s backyard. He was good and I admired him. All was forgiven, almost forgotten. Beyond the reporters, in a private reception area, we met our guide, a beautiful, husky-voiced woman named Joanna Bancroft who was everything I was not, and yet I liked her. I could not believe I would ever dislike anyone who lived on this blessed world.

From the port we took an autocar sent by the House of Representatives. Bancroft accompanied us, asking our needs, giving our slates the updated schedules, providing Alice with a complimentary access to the Library of Congress. The car attached to a slaveway among ten thousand other linked cars, millipede trains, transport trucks. I listened attentively enough, but rain fell on the windows and trees glistened dark green beneath the somber gray. When a pause came, I asked if we could open the windows.

“Of course,” Joanna said, smiling with lovely red lips and firm plump cheeks.

The autocar slid my window down.

I leaned my head into the breeze, took several plashes on face and eyes, stuck out my tongue and tasted the rain.

Joanna laughed. “Martians are wonderful,” she said. “You make us appreciate what we who live here take for granted.”

What we who live here.

The words cooled me. I glanced at Bithras and he lifted his eyebrows, one corner of his lips. I understood his unspoken message.

We did not own the Earth. We were guests, present by the complicated sufferance of great political entities, the true owners and managers of the Mother.

We were not home. We would never be home again, at any price, across any distance.

Joanna took us to the Capital Tower Comb, a sprawling green and white complex of twenty thousand homes and hotels and businesses designed to serve people from all over Earth — and, almost as an afterthought, space visitors as well. The comb covered two square kilometers on the site where the dreaded Pentagon had once stood, center of the formidable defenses of the old United States of America .

We had arranged for accommodation in the Presidential Suite of the Grand Hotel of the Potomac , low on the north wall of the Capital Tower , overlooking the river.

Joanna departed after making sure we were comfortable. Allen and I stood in the middle of the suite, unsure what to do next. Bithras paced and scowled. The suite still showed off its capabilities; rooms and beds and furniture squirmed through a parade of designs and decors, LitVids darted hi front of our eyes — which would we choose, which special capital ed and entertainment presentations would we reserve? — and arbeiters presented themselves in two ranks of three, liveried in the high fashion found only on Earth — green velvet and black silk suits, tiny red hats, totally unlike arbeiters on Mars, which wore only their plastic and ceramic and metal skins.

We stumbled through our choices as quickly as possible, Allen and I doing most of the choosing. Bithras fell into a chair that had finally settled on twentieth-century Swedish.

“These people” he muttered, “if they and their damned rooms would only stand still.”

“No hope,” Allen said. He stared out the direct-view window overlooking the river. Beyond, the capital of the United States of the Western Hemisphere could be seen between combs scattered along the Virginia banks of the Potomac . Nothing in Washington DC proper was allowed to stand higher than the Capitol dome — that had been a law for centuries. I longed to walk through the Mall, the parks and ancient neighborhoods, under the trees I saw spreading their canopies like billowing green carpets.

“Still raining,” I said in awe.

“ ‘Sprinkling’ is the term, I believe,” Allen said. “We have to brush up on our weather.”

“ ‘Weather,’ ” I said profoundly, and Allen and I laughed.

Bithras stood and stretched his arms restlessly. “We have seven days before we testify to Congress. We have three days before our meetings with subcommittees and Senate and House members begin. That means two days of preparation and meetings with BM partners, and one day to see the sights. I am too anxious and upset to work today. Alice and I will stay here. You may do what you like.”

Allen and I glanced at each other. “We’ll walk,” I said.

“Right,” Allen said.

Bithras shook his head as if in pity. “Earth wears on me quickly,” he said.

The skies had cleared by the time we cabbed into Washington DC . Allen and I had been rather aloof during our crossing, but now we behaved like brother and sister, sharing the wind, the clean crisp air, the sun on our faces: and then, glory of glory, the cherry trees in full blossom. The trees blossomed once every month, we were told, even in winter; tourists expected that.

“It isn’t natural, you know,” Allen said. “They used to blossom only in the spring.”

“I know,” I said peevishly. “I don’t care.”

“Trees blossom on Mars,” he said chidingly. “Why should we marvel at these?”

“Because there is no tree on all of Mars that sits under an open sky and raises its branches to the sun,” I said.

The sun warmed our bare arms and faces, the wind blew gentle and cool, and the temperature varied from moment to moment; I could not shake the feeling, damn all politics, all vagaries of birth, that I loved Earth, and Earth loved me.

The day was beautiful. I felt beautiful. Allen and I flirted, but not seriously. We drank coffee in a sidewalk cafe, ate an early lunch, walked to the Washington Monument and climbed the long stairs (I ignored shooting pains in my legs), descended, walked more. Strolling the length of the reflecting pool, we paused to look at transform joggers whizzing past like greyhounds.

We studied projected history lessons and climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, then stood before the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln. I studied his sad, weary face and gnarled hands, and unexpectedly I felt my eyes moisten, reading the words which flanked him, inspired by the civil war over which he presided and which ultimately killed him. People eat their leaders, I thought. The king must die.

Allen had a different perspective. “He was forcing allegiance on the American South,” he said. “He’s politically more Terrie than I care for.”

“Mars doesn’t keep slaves,” I reminded him.

“Don’t mind me,” he said. “I’ve always rooted for the underdogs.”

We then retreated along the reflecting pool and watched the sun go down.

“What would Lincoln think of red rabbits?” Allen asked.

“What would Lincoln think of the union now?” I countered.

Despite some maladjustments in my bichemistry — we were definitely overdoing it — I was giddy with the weather, the architecture all out in the open, the history.

We returned to the comb to have dinner with Bithras in the hotel’s main restaurant. The food was even better than it had been aboard Tuamotu. Much of it was fresh, not nano, and I searched for, and thought I found, the difference in flavor. “It tastes like dirt, I think,” I told Bithras and Allen over the white linen tablecloth and silver candlesticks.

“Musty,” Allen agreed. “Not too long since it was alive.”

Bithras coughed. “Enough,” he said.

Allen and I smiled at each other conspiratorially. “We shouldn’t act provincial,” Allen said.

“I’ll act the way I feel,” Bithras said, but he was not angry; simply stating a fact. “The wine is good, though.” He lifted his glass. “To red rabbits out of their element.”

We toasted ourselves.

On the way back to the suite, outside the lift, Bithras looped his arm through mine and pressed me close. Allen saw this and quickly did the same with my other arm. I felt for a moment as if I were being pressed between two overanxious dogs at stud; then I saw what Allen was up to.

Bithras drew his lips into a firm line and let go of my arm. Allen let go immediately after and I gave him a grateful glance.

Bithras behaved as if nothing had happened. And, indeed, nothing had happened. The evening had been too pleasant to believe otherwise.

“I’ve been here for twenty-seven years,” Miriam Jaffrey told us as she invited us into her apartment. “My husband went Eloi ten years ago, and I think, though I do not know for sure, that he is on Mars… So here I am, a Martian on Earth, and he’s a Terrie up there.” Bithras and Allen took seats at her invitation in the broad living room. The windows looked across the sprawl of old Virginia combs and even older skyscrapers. We were on the south side of the Capital Tower Comb, opposite from our hotel.

“I’m always snooping out red rabbits,” she said, sitting beside Bithras. They appeared to be about the same age. “It’s lovely to hear what’s changed and what’s the same. Not that I plan on going back… I’m too used to Earth now. I’m a Terrie, I’m afraid.”

“We’re enjoying ourselves immensely,” Allen said.

Miriam beamed. Her long black hair hung over square thin shoulders revealed by a flowing green cotton dress. “I’m most pleased you could take time out from your busy schedule.”

“Our pleasure,” Bithras said. He squirmed his butt into the couch, fighting the self-adjusting cushions. “Now, are we secure?”

“Very,” Miriam said,“ drawing herself up and suddenly quite serious.

“Good. We need to talk freely. Casseia, Allen: Miriam is not just a social gadfly, she is the best-informed Martian on Earth about things Washingtonian.“

Miriam batted her eyelashes modestly.

“She follows the tradition of a long line of hostesses in this capital, who meet and greet, and know all, and she has been invaluable to Majumdar BM in the past.”

“Thank you, Bithras,” she said.

Bithras produced his slate from a shirt pouch and placed it before her. “We brought a copy of Alice with us. She’s resting in our hotel room now.”

“She’s proof against the latest?” Miriam asked.

“We think she is. We refused an opportunity to let customs sweep her.”

“Good. She’s Terrie-made, of course, so she’s always a little suspect.”

“I trust Alice . She was examined by our finest and found true to her design.”

“All right,” said Miriam, but in a tone that betrayed she still had doubts. “Still, you should know that all thinkers are a little too sweet and innocent to understand Earth, at least those thinkers allowed to be exported — to emigrate.”

“Yes, that is so,” Bithras agreed. “She will only advise, however, not rule.”

I listened to all this in a state of shock. “You’re a spy?” I asked innocently.

“Stars, no!” Miriam laughed and slapped her thigh. She struck a pose, hand on knee, shoulder thrown back, tossing her hair. “Though I could be, don’t you think?”

“We’ll meet later today with representatives from Cailetet and Sandoval,” Bithras said.

“Cailetet’s been very skittish lately,” Miriam said. “Buying up notes and extensions from other BMs, minimizing their exposure in the open Triple Market.”

“I don’t expect to get any answers from them,” Bithras said, “but I show the flag, so to speak. We are willing to keep talking.”

Miriam said she thought that would be useful. “Though I warn you, I’ve never seen Cailetet so spooked.”

“I’d like to know more about these members of the space affairs committee.” Bithras handed her the slate. Names danced before her eyes, along with political icons and identifiers for family and social groups.

Miriam scrolled the list thoughtfully. “Good people. Sharp, above the bang.”

I surreptitiously looked up “above the bang” on my slate. It read: 1: CALM, UNFLAPPABLE; 2: UNIMPRESSED BY HIGH OFFICE.

“They’re dedicated and haven’t missed a trick since I’ve been here,” Miriam said. “Elected officials on Earth are a breed apart, as Bithras is doubtless aware.”

“Yes, we have been dealing with a few of our own. District governors…”

“The difference is that Earth’s elected officials are therapied,” Miriam said. “All except for John Mendoza, here. Senate minority leader. Mendoza is a Mormon. Terries didn’t put up a warm reception for Dauble, but Mendoza ’s party co-hosted a reception for her with Deseret Space. Deseret Space gave her shelter for a few weeks. Debriefed her about Mars, I imagine.”

“At least they have no designs on Mars,” Bithras said.

“No, but Mendoza will ask you why you aren’t willing to allocate more Martian-controlled Belt resource shares to Earth, and why you refuse to join the Sol Resource Management group. Deseret Space has formed some bridges with Green Idaho. Green Idaho is finally casting its eyes on space-related business. They’re both firming up state ties with GEWA, circumventing the U.S. ”

Bithras annotated the transcript of Miriam’s remarks, then looked up and said, “We need to know about Cuba , Hispaniola , New Mexico , and California .”

“All on your list,” Miriam said, brow creased, tapping the slate with a long fingernail. I noticed a vid playing on the fingernail and wondered what it was. “Let me tell you what I know. My library will feed you…”

We listened and shared slate data for the next two hours. When we finished, Bithras switched on his charm, and Miriam seemed receptive. I was relieved.

The meetings with Cailetet and Sandoval, held in our suite, were cordial and totally unproductive. The associate syndic for Cailetet Earth hinted they might not support our unification proposals, that Cailetet Mars might have agreed to the proposals without Triple-wide authority.

After, Bithras was agitated. Almost unconsciously, he stayed close to me, kept gently jostling me. Allen watched with some concern. I ignored it.

Apparently, Miriam was not enough for him. And the pressure was building.

I suffered a small lapse of bichemistry the next morning, alone in my room: nausea, chills, my body breaking through the brace of controls to adjust itself in the way it deemed best. That lasted only an hour, and I felt much better after. The gravity seemed less imposed, more natural.

I looked down on the Potomac and the mall beyond. A crystalline day with high puffy clouds. Washington DC a tiny village, its monuments and ancient domed Capitol visible only as grains of rice in the general green and brown.

Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic…

A fatuous grin spread across my face. I was a Martian, come to invade Earth.

Alice presented her report. We sat in the living room of our suite and scanned the highlights. Bithras dug deeper on several key points. “It’s not encouraging,” he said.

“The need for central control of all solar resources may be acute within fifteen Earth years,” Alice said. “It is generally recognized that Earth needs a major endeavor to keep up its overall psychological and economic vigor, and that endeavor — that social focus — must be interstellar exploration on a grand scale.”

Allen found that puzzling. “The whole Earth recognizes this? Everybody agrees?”

“Agreement is strong among those groups who make the crucial decisions about the Triple,” Alice said. “Especially the executives of the major alliances.”

“We’ll be pressured to join in the endeavor, whether or not it directly benefits Mars,” Bithras said.

“Such a conclusion is overdetermined by the evidence,” Alice said.

Bithras leaned back on the couch. “Nothing we can’t roll with.” But he seemed troubled. “It’s a bit obvious, don’t you think?”

“Evidence for other conclusions is not clear,” Alice said.

“It’s what some of our fellow passengers were saying,” I said.

“Cut and dried, though, isn’t it?” Bithras said, biting his upper lip. He resembled a bulldog when he did that. “Tomorrow I’ll open the proposals and share them with you. I need you to fully understand what we’re allowed to say, and what we’re allowed to give, at each stage of negotiation.” He sat up. “From now, you are more than apprentices,” he said. “You represent a Mars yet to be born. You are diplomats.”

And we acted the part. We attended receptions and parties, hosted two of our own, visited the offices of major corporations and temp agencies, attended dinners arranged by Mars appreciation societies…

Miriam hosted our private reception in the hotel. I spent hours talking to explanetaries, listening to their stories of old Mars, answering their questions as best I could about the new Mars. Did Mackenzie Frazier ever unite the Canadian BMs in Syrtis? Whatever became of the Prescott and Ware families in Hellas ? My sister still lives on Mars, Mariner Valley South, but she never answers my lettersdo you know why?

All too often, I could only smile and plead ignorance. There was no Pan-Martian family message center or database easily accessible from Earth. I took a note on my slate to have Majumdar set one up; good for PR. Ex-Martians on Earth could be valuable allies, I thought, and Miriam excepted, we didn’t use them very often.

During a break at the reception, I asked Miriam how often Martian BMs approached her, directly from Mars. “About once a year,” she said, smiling. I said that was deplorable, and she patted my shoulder. “We are such trusting and insular creatures,” she said. “By the time you leave here, you’ll know only too well what we’re up against, and how far we have to go to get in the spin…”

I made a note on my slate that we should sign Miriam to Majumdar exclusively — but didn’t that contradict the spirit of unity we were working so hard to demonstrate?

Visiting offices of members of Congress, I quickly noticed a remarkable lack of attention to Bithras’s hints at what our proposals might be. Bithras fell into a dark and snappish mood at the end of a grueling day of office-hopping.

“They don’t much care,” he said, accepting a glass of wine from Allen as we rested in our suite. “That is very puzzling.”

Mornings, ex net and LitVid interviews, conducted from a studio in the Capitol; afternoons, more interviews from a studio in the hotel; then lunches with major financiers who listened and smiled, but promised nothing; finally, dinners with congressional staffers, full of curiosity and enthusiasm, but who also revealed little and promised nothing.

Visits to schools in Washington and Virginia, usually over ed-nets from our hotel room… A quick train journey to Pennsylvania to meet with Amish Friends of Sylvan Earth, who had finally accepted the use of computers, but not thinkers. Back to Washington … A guided tour of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum .

The original Library of Congress had been sealed in helium and was accessible now only in pressure suits. We were not offered the chance to go in. Arbeiters roamed its halls, guarding and tracking its countless billions of paper books and periodicals. It had stopped accepting paper copies in 2049; most research was now conducted out of the electronic archives, which filled a small chamber several hundred feet beneath the old library. Alice absorbed as much of the library as she needed, but even her immense reserves of memory would have been taxed by absorbing all.

At the Air and Space Museum , we stood for pictures at the foot of a full-size replica of the first Mars lander, the Captain James Cook. I had seen the original as a preform schoolgirl. To me, the replica seemed larger beneath its dome than the original, sitting in the open air of Elysium.

Earth had too much to show us. We were in danger of becoming exhausted before our most important day arrived…

We entered the hearing chamber, stately stone and warm dark wood, seats upholstered in dark faux leather; Bithras, Allen, and myself, deliberately dressed in conservative Martian fashions, Alice on her freshly polished carriage.

With our synthetic clothing and unaltered physiques, we must have resembled hicks in a LitVid comedy. But we were greeted respectfully by five senators from the Standing Committee on Solar System and Near-Earth Space Affairs. For a few minutes, we gathered in light conversation with the senators and a few of their staff. The air was polite but formal. Again, I sensed something amiss, as did Bithras, whose nostrils flared as he took his seat behind a long maple table. Allen leaned over and asked me, “Why aren’t we testifying before the whole committee?” I did not know.

I sat to the left of Bithras in a hard wooden chair; Allen sat to his right. Alice was connected to the Senate thinker, Harold S., who had served the Senate for sixty years.

The gallery was empty. Obviously, this would be a closed hearing.

Senator Kay Juarez Sommers of New Mexico, chair of the committee, gaveled the hearing into order. “I welcome our distinguished guests from Mars. You don’t know how odd that is for an old Terrie like myself to say, even today. Maybe I need some enhancements to the imagination. Certainly some of my colleagues think so…” She was in her mid-seventies, if I could judge age when appearance seemed an arbitrary choice; small and wiry, clean simple features, smooth-voiced, dressing hard in blacks and grays. Senator Juarez Sommers had not chosen any easy roads in her life, and she had eschewed obvious transform designs.

Also attending the hearing today were Senators John Mendoza of Utah, tall, chocolate-skinned, severely handsome and stocky; Senator David Wang of California, white-blond with golden skin, a fairly obvious transform; and Senator Joe Kim of Green Idaho, of middle height, gray-haired, wearing an expression of perpetual suspicion. Or perhaps it was discernment.

“Mr. Majumdar, as you can see, this is a closed hearing,” Juarez Sommers began. “We’ve chosen key members of the standing committee to hear your testimony. We’ll speak directly, since our time is limited. We’re curious as to how much progress Mars will make toward unification in the next five years. ”

“We face major obstacles,” Bithras said, “not all of them caused by Martians.”

“Could you elaborate, please?”

Bithras explained the complex interactions of Binding Multiple finances and politics. Martian resources were about two percent developed. Earth-based corporations with BM subsidiaries and Lunar-based BMs controlled fifteen percent of Martian capital and ten percent of developed resources. Mars-based BMs frequently sought capital from Triple sources off Mars, establishing temporary liaisons, even giving the outside sources some say in their internal affairs. It seemed everybody had a finger in the Martian pie. Organizing so many disparate interests was more than difficult, it was nightmarish, and it was made worse by the reluctance of healthy and profitable BMs to submit to central authority.

“Do Martian BMs feel they have inalienable rights, corporate rights as it were, no matter what the needs of their individual members?” asked Senator Mendoza of Utah .

“Nothing so arrogant,” Bithras said. “Binding Multiples operate more like groups of small businesses and families than worker-owned Earth-style corporations. Family members are all shareholders, but they cannot sell their shares to any outside concerns. Entry to the family is through marriage, special election, or birth. Transfer through marriage or election removes you from one BM and places you in another. Within the family, there is exchange of work credits only, no money as such… All investments outside the family are directed by the syndic’s financial managers.” The senators appeared bored. Bithras concluded quickly. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the principles… They’re the same on the Moon and in the Belts, as well.”

“Being aware of a pattern should imply being able to change it,” said Mendoza .

“Our witness has just admitted to us that there is reluctance,” said Senator Wang of California , glancing at his colleagues with raised eyebrows.

“Mr. Majumdar’s own Binding Multiple has been reluctant to cooperate with attempts to unify,” said Juarez Sommers. “Perhaps he can give us insight into both the reluctance, and the proposed nurturing of a new social pattern.”

Bithras tilted his head to one side and smiled, acknowledging the sudden characterization as a reluctant witness. “We have worked long and hard to determine our own destiny. We behave as strong-willed individuals within an atmosphere determined by mutual advantage. We are naturally not inclined to place our destinies and lives in the hands of agencies who do not answer directly to us.”

“Your Binding Multiples have lived under this illusion for decades,” said Senator Joe Kim of Green Idaho. “Are you telling us this is truly how Mars works — each individual interacting directly with family authorities?”

“No,” Bithras said.

“Surely you have a system of justice that all BMs subscribe to. How do you treat your untherapied, your ill-adapted?“

“Haven’t we strayed from the subject a bit, Senator?” Bithras asked, smiling.

“Humor me,” Kim said, looking down at the slate before him.

Bithras humored him. “They have rights. If their maladaptation is severe, their families persuade them to seek aid. Therapy, if that seems necessary. If their… ah… crime transcends family boundaries, they can be brought before Council judges. But — ”

“Martians are not enamored of therapy,” Mendoza said, staring at us one by one. “Some of us in Utah share their doubts.”

“We don’t embrace the concept as a fashion,” Bithras clarified. “Neither do we oppose it on principle.”

“We think perhaps an improvement in the mentality of Martians as individuals might lead to a greater acceptance of more efficient social organization,” Juarez Sommers said, glancing at Mendoza with some irritation.

“The Senator is privileged to think that,” Bithras said quietly.

That line of questioning was dropped. The senators paused for a few seconds, tuning in to Harold S. perhaps, then resumed the questioning.

“You’re no doubt aware that the major alliances of Earth have expressed unhappiness with Martian backwardness,” Juarez Sommers said. “There’s even been disgruntled talk of economic sanctions. Mars relies heavily on Earth, does it not, for essential goods?”

“Not entirely, Senator,” Bithras said. She must have known we did not; she was working toward some point I could not see.

“Do your Binding Multiples conduct business with human brainpower alone, or do they use thinkers?”

“We rely on thinkers, but make our own decisions, of course,“ Bithras said. ”As you do here… in Congress. I believe Harold S. is merely a revered advisor.“

“And these thinkers are grown on Earth,” she continued.

“We have a few more years before we can grow our own Martian thinkers.” Bithras looked down at the table, rubbing the edge of his slate with a finger. His face reddened ever so slightly at what might have been an implied threat.

“Martian nanotechnology is acknowledged to be a decade behind Earth’s, and your industrial facilities are likewise less efficient.”

“Yes.”

“Earth corporations and national patent trusts are reluctant to release designs for better nano to a society with few central controls.”

“Martians have never smuggled designs and never sought to infringe patents. We have stringent oversight within all BMs on patent permissions and compensation. We also allow Earth inspections of facilities using patented or copyrighted designs.”

“Still, the perception exists, and it hurts Martian industry and development, correct?”

“In all humility,” Bithras said, “I must say we take care of our needs.”

What Bithras did not mention was the widespread Martian perception that Earth preferred our economic development to be stunted, kept tightly in Earth’s control.

“Doesn’t Mars wish to grow?” Mendoza asked, wide-eyed with astonishment. “Don’t Mars’s leaders — the syndics of the various BMs and the governors of resource districts — wish to join the greater efforts of the Triple?”

“To the best of our poor abilities, yes,” Bithras said. “But Earth should never expect Mars to sell out her rights and her resources, to give herself up as somebody’s whim property.”

Mendoza laughed. “My colleagues and I wouldn’t dream of that. We might hope for a place where we can flee, if our own re-elections fail…”

“Speak for yourself, John,” Juarez Sommers said. The discussion settled into specifics, and trivial ones at that. For ten minutes, the senators asked Bithras more questions whose answers it seemed obvious they could already find within their slates.

The exercise quickly irritated and bored me.

That first hearing, which reached no conclusions, lasted forty-seven minutes.

The next, on the next day, with the same senators, lasted fifteen minutes. We were given a week’s reprieve before the final hearing, and no indication we would ever meet with the full committee.

So far, Bithras had not been asked to present his proposals. It did not seem to matter. We had made the crossing to listen to polite but unpleasant banter, mild implied threats, and remarkably soft questions.

Allen shared a bichem refresh and some beer with me on the evening of the second hearing; Bithras slept in his room.

“What do you think they’re up to?” I asked.

Allen closed his eyes wearily and lay back in the chair, legs stretched full length. “Wasting our time,” he said.

“They don’t act as if they have a plan,” I said.

“They don’t act like much of anything,” Allen said.

“It’s infuriating.”

“No, it’s cover,” Allen said. “Diversion.”

“What do you mean by diversion?” Bithras entered in his pajamas, hair tousled, rubbing his eyes like a little boy. “Give me some of that,” he said, flicking a finger at the bichemistry supplement. “My joints ache.”

“Did we wake you?”

“Behind these walls? It’s quiet as a tomb in there. I had a damned nightmare,” Bithras said. “I hate sims.”

We were not aware he had experienced any sims. He sat and Allen poured him a cup, which he slugged back with some drama. “Yes, all right,” he said, “I let Miriam talk me into sharing a sim with her last night. It was awful.”

I wondered what sort of sim they had shared.

“We were talking about the hearings,” Allen said.

“You mentioned a ‘diversion,’ ” Bithras said. “You think these hearings are a sham?”

“I have my suspicions.”

“Yes?”

“GEWA.”

Bithras scowled at Allen. “We’ve no scheduled meetings with representatives of GEWA.”

“Because we’re not worth the bother?” Allen asked.

I was still lost. “What about — ” I began, but Bithras held up his hand.

“Wang and Mendoza both act as representatives to GEWA for the Senate Standing Committee,” Bithras said. “Majority party and minority.”

Allen nodded.

“Gentlemen, you’ve dusted me,” I said.

Bithras turned to me as if to a child. “It has been asserted by some that the United States is relinquishing its concerns in space to GEWA as a whole. Binding Multiples having contracts and trade relations with the United States will supposedly answer to GEWA authority, directly.”

“What difference would that make to us?” I asked.

“GEWA as a whole is far more aggressive toward space exploration than the United States , and much more involved than any other alliance. But in the Greater East-West Alliance there are many smaller nations and corporations with no space holdings whatsoever. They want holdings. If Mars unites, we would have to establish new relations with GEWA… Their little partners would ask that we sell a share of our pie. And they would offer…” Bithras pinched his nose and squinched his eyes shut, concentrating. “What… what would they offer?”

Quid pro quo,” Allen said.

Quid pro quo. We provide them a greater share of our participation in Solar System resources… in return for the alliance not absorbing Mars and its BMs completely.”

“As happened to the Moon,” Allen said.

“That’s terrible,” I said. “You’re anticipating this, just because they haven’t asked lots of hard questions?”

Bithras waved his hand. “Little evidences, certainly,” he said.

Allen seemed energized by the frightful scenarios. “We couldn’t win that kind of war,” Allen said. “If we unite and are pressured to join any alliance, power in the alliance is based on population — ”

“Except for the founding nations, such as the United States ,” Bithras said. “We’d be bottom of the totem pole.” He finished his bichem supplement. Allen offered him a glass of beer and he accepted. “In fifteen or twenty years, maybe less, if Alice is correct, ninety percent of the Earth’s nations, in every alliance, will be deeply interested in the Big Push. To the stars.”

“Shouldn’t we be interested, as well?” Allen said, leaning forward and clasping his hands in front of him like a supplicant.

“At the price of our planetary heritage, our soul?” Bithras asked.

“The whole human race… It’s a noble goal,” Allen mused.

Bithras took the challenge as if he were fielding a ball. “It would certainly seem noble, to a world desperate for progress, for growth and change. But we’d be eaten alive.”

“What’s the point?” I asked.

Bithras shrugged. “If this speculation is correct, and if our visit has any meaning at all, we will be speaking with representatives from GEWA, in private, before we leave,” he said. “The closed Senate hearing is an excuse — no need to go public with policies not yet in place, but also, no need conducting long-term negotiations ignoring what the situation will be in the future. Mendoza and Wang are merely pickets. The reason we were summoned here may be a convenient fiction. We could be caught with our pants around our ankles. I’ve come here with a proposal… But they might try to force us to make a firm agreement.”

He held out his hand and Allen grasped it firmly. “Good thinking, Allen. If I were them, that’s what I would do.”

Staring at the congratulatory handshake, I felt a burn of jealousy. Would I ever be able to think such convoluted and political thoughts, make such startling leaps into the unlikely, and impress Bithras?

I patted Allen on the shoulder, mumbled good night, and went to my room.

The next morning, as I shared coffee in the suite’s living room with Bithras, talking about the day’s schedule with Alice , our slates chimed simultaneously. Allen entered from his room and we compared messages.

All further Senate hearings had been canceled. Informal sessions with senators and members of congress from various states had all been canceled, as well — except for a single meeting with Mendoza and Wang, scheduled for the end of our third week.

Suddenly, we were little more than tourists.

The GEWA hypothesis had quickened.

I quickly tired of parties and receptions. I wanted to see the planet, to walk around on my own, free of responsibilities. Instead, we spent most of our time meeting the curious and the friendly, making contacts and spreading goodwill. Miriam, true to her reputation, arranged for us to meet and greet some of the most influential people in North America .

She arranged a second lavish party — paid for by Majumdar — and invited artists, sim actors, business magnates and heads of corporations, ministers from the alliances, ambassadors — more famous and familiar faces than I had ever imagined meeting all at once. The LitVids were conspicuously absent; we were to be at ease, light chatter and fine food, and Bithras was to make his case for a variety of deals and proposals.

The party was held in Miriam’s suite, all the walls and furniture rearranged for maximum space. We arrived before most of the others, and Miriam took me aside with a motherly arm around my shoulder. “Don’t be too impressed by these people,” she told me. “They’re human and they’re easily impressed. You’re an exotic, my dear — and you should take advantage of it. There will be some very handsome people here.” She gave me an unctuous smile.

I certainly wasn’t going to harvest partners at a political function. But I returned her smile and said I’d enjoy myself, and I vowed to myself that I would.

The crowd arrived in clumps, flocking to core figures of some reputation or another. Allen, Bithras, and I separated and attended to our own clumps, answering questions — “Why have you come all this way?”; “Why are Martians so resistant to the big arts trends?”; “I’ve heard that over half of all Martian women still give birth — how extraordinary! Is that true in your family?”; “What do you think of Earth? Isn’t it a terrible cultural hothouse?” — and gently disengaging to attend to other clumps.

While I recognized many famous people, Miriam had managed to invite nobody I truly wanted to meet. None of the Terrestrial dramatists I admired were there, perhaps because I favored Lit over Vid. None of the politicians I had studied were there. The majority of the party goers were high spin — Washington still attracted hordes of bright and beautiful people — and my tastes did not track the spin.

Bithras seemed in his element, however, fulfilling his obligations smoothly. For much of the party, executives from corporations with Martian aspirations surrounded him. I noticed four Pakistanis waiting patiently for a turn, two men in traditional gray suits and two women, one wearing a brilliant orange sari, the other a flowing gray three-piece set. When their turn came, Bithras spoke with them in Punjabi and Urdu; he became even more ebullient.

Allen passed by and winked at me. “How fares it?” he asked.

We were out of hearing of others, in a corner where I had retreated to sip fruit juice. “Boring,” I said, very softly. “Where’s Bithras?” He had left the room.

“He’s talking old times with the Pakistanis, I think,” Allen said. “How can you be bored? There are some very famous people here.”

“I know. I blame myself.”

“Uh huh. You’d rather be hiking the Adirondacks , or — ”

“Don’t make my mouth water,” I said.

“Duty, honor, planet,” he said, and left to attend to another clump.

Bithras reappeared ten or fifteen minutes later, speaking earnestly with one of the Pakistani women. The woman listened attentively, nodding frequently. His face glowed with enthusiasm, and I felt glad for him. I couldn’t understand a word they said, however.

The party had expanded to fill the available space, and still more people were arriving. Miriam flitted from point to point in the crowd, rearranging conversations, herding people toward food or drink, a social sheep-dog.

Some of the people arriving now were, to my eye, beyond exotic. A musician from Hawaii and three young women in close-fitting black caps took much of the heat away from Allen and me. I recognized him from news stories. His name was Attu . Gaunt and intense, he dressed in a severe black suit. He had linked his consciousness with the three women, who dressed in filmy white, and whom he referred to as sisters. At intervals of ten minutes, they would rejoin, clasp hands, and exchange all their experiences. The women never spoke; Attu was their conduit. I avoided them. That sort of intimacy (and implied male domination) spooked me. I wondered why Miriam had invited them.

The evening was winding down, and the crowd beginning to diminish, when I saw one of the Pakistani men approach Miriam. Miriam raised herself on tiptoes and looked around, shook her head, and went off in search. Intuition had little to do with my guess that they were looking for Bithras.

I disengaged myself from several bankers and made my way down a hall that led to several smaller rooms. I did not want to interrupt anything private, but I had a bad feeling.

A door slid open suddenly and the Pakistani woman bumped into me. With a quick, angry glance, she rustled past in her long gray dress. Bithras emerged a moment later, biting his lower lip, eyes darting. He sidestepped me and said, “It is nothing, it is nothing.”

The Pakistanis gathered near the main door, talking heatedly. They searched the faces of the remaining party guests, focused on Bithras, and one of the men began to shove through other partygoers in his direction. The women restrained him, however, and the four departed.

Miriam stood at the door for a moment, uncertain what to do. Bithras sat in a chair, staring blankly, before standing with deliberation and going for a drink. Like me, he was having only juice.

Nothing more was said. An hour later, we left the party.

Bithras spent the next ten hours locked in his room with the lights out. He accepted his meals through the half-open door, glared at us owlishly, and shut it. Allen and I spent this time studying Alice ’s fresh reports on GEWA and GSHA.

The following morning, Bithras stepped out of his room in his bathrobe, hands on hips, and said, “It is time to take a vacation. You have two days. Do what you will. Be back here, in this room, by seven in the morning of Saturday next.”

“You’re taking some time off, as well, Uncle?” Allen asked.

Bithras smiled and shook his head. “I’ll be talking with a lot of people… If we were better than children at this sort of thing, we’d have brought an entire negotiating team. Nobody wanted to spend the money.” He practically spat the last three words. There were circles under his eyes; his skin had grayed with stress. “I can’t make all the decisions myself. I refuse to set policy for an entire world. If this is a new era for relations with Earth…” He waved his hand in the air as if describing the flight of birds. “It will take days to sort things out with the other syndics and governors. Alice will postpone her kiss with Jill and advise me. But you would only distract me. If I can’t come up with a way to turn this to our advantage, I will resign as syndic.”

His smile turned wolfish. “You can play their game. They think we are provincials, suckers for the taking. Maybe we are. You shall certainly act the part. Give interviews if you are asked. Say I am bewildered and disconsolate, and I do not know where to turn next. We are dismayed at the social slight, and find Earth to be incredibly rude.” He sat and rested his head in his hands. “May not be too far wrong.”

I called Orianna’s private number and left a message. Within two hours, Orianna returned my call and we made plans for a rendezvous in New York . Allen had his own plans; he was flying to Nepal .

An hour before I left the hotel, I felt dizzy and frightened. I wondered how we would be received on Mars if we failed here; what would our families think? If Bithras tumbled, would my career within Majumdar BM tumble with him?

By choosing to go with Bithras, I had become part of a monumental war of nerves, and it seemed clear we were losing. I resented being caught between two worlds; I hated power and authority and the very real, sweaty misery of responsibility. I might be part of a failure of historic proportions; I could disgrace my mother and father, my Binding Multiple.

I longed for the small warrens and cramped tunnels of Mars, for my confined and secure youth.

I knew there were bigger cities, more crowded cities — but New York ’s fifty million citizens caused this rabbit a new kind of claustrophobia. My apprehension changed from fear of the unknown to fear that I would simply be sucked up and digested.

Five hundred and twenty-three years old, New York appeared both ancient and new at once. I emerged from Penn Station surrounded by a rainbow of people, more than I had ever seen crowded together in one place in my life. I stood on a corner as hordes walked in a cold breeze and spatters of sleet.

In design, New York had kept much of its architectural history intact, yet there was hardly a building that had not been rebuilt or replaced. Architectural nano had worked its way through frames and walls, down through the soil and ancient foundations, redrawing wires and fibers, rerouting water pipes and sewers, leaving behind buildings resculpted in original or better materials, new infrastructures of metal and ceramic and plastic. Nothing seemed designed as a whole; everything had been assembled and even reassembled bits at a time, block by block or building by building.

And of course many of the buildings a New Yorker considered new were in fact older than any warren on Mars.

The people also had been rebuilt from the inside. Even in my confusion, they fascinated me. New people in New York the old city: transforms, their skins glistening like polished marble, black or white or rose, their golden or silver or azure eyes glinting as they passed, penetrating glances that seemed both friendly and challenging at once; designer bodies put on for a month or a year, the flesh shaped like clay; designs identifying status and social group, some ugly as protest, some thin and austere, others large and strong and — Earthy.

Lights flashed over the street, airborne arbeiters like fairies on a trod in one of my children’s vids, or, even more fantastic, huge fireflies; arbeiters flowed through the city in narrow channels underground and above. Slaved cabs followed glassy strips pressed into the asphalt and concrete and nano stone of the streets.

What fascinated me most about New York was that it worked.

Most submitted to medical nano, body therapy as well as mind. By and large, the city’s people were healthy, but medical arbeiters still patrolled the streets, searching for the untherapied few who might even now out of negligence or perverse self-destruction fall ill. Human diseases had been virtually eliminated, replaced by infestations of learning, against which I had chosen to be made immune. New Yorkers, like most people on Earth, lived in a soup of data itself alive.

Language and history and cultural updates filled the air. Viruses and bacteria poured forth from commercial ventilators in key locations, or could be acquired at infection booths, conveying everything the driven New Yorker might want to know. Immunizations prevented adverse reactions for natural visitors not used to the soup.

The sun passed behind a broad cubical comb in New Jersey and lights flashed on, pouring golden illumination through the gentle drizzle.

Advertising images leaped from walls, a flood of insistent icons that meant little to me. Spot marketing had been turned into a perfected science. Consumers were paid to carry transponders which communicated their interests to adwalls. The adwalls showed them only what they might want to purchase: products, proprietary LitVids, new sims, live event schedules. Being a consumer had become a traditional means of gainful employment; some New Yorkers floated careers allowing themselves to be subjected to ads, switching personal IDs as they traveled to different parts of the city, trading purchase credits earned by ad exposure for more ad income.

Lacking a transponder, all I saw were the icons, projected corporate symbols floating above my head like strange hovering insects.

According to what I had been taught in govmanagement at UM, Earth’s economic systems had become so complicated by the twenty-first century that only thinkers could model them. And as thinkers grew more complicated, economic patterns increased in complexity as well, until all was delicately balanced on less than the head of a pin.

No wonder cultural psychology could play a key role in economic stability.

“Casseia!” Orianna stood on a low wall, peering over the crowds. We hugged at the edge of the walkway. “It’s great to see you. How was the trip?”

I laughed and shook my head, drunk with what I had seen. “I feel like a — ”

“Fish out of water?” Orianna said, grinning.

“More like a bird drowning!”

She laughed. “ Calcutta would kill you!”

“Let’s not go there,” I said.

“Where we’re going, my dear, is a quiet place my Mom owns up on East 64th, in an historic neighborhood. A bunch of friends want to meet you.”

“I only have a few days…”

“Simplicity! This is so exciting! You’re even in the Lit-Vids, did you know that?”

“Oh, God, yes.”

We took an autocab and she projected the news stories from her slate. She had hooked an Earthwide ex net and scanned for all material related to our visit. The faces of Bithras, Allen and myself floated like little doll heads in the autocab. Condensed texts and icons flashed at reduced speed for my unaccustomed eyes. I picked up about two-thirds of what was being said. GEWA and GSHA had linked with Eurocom to propose a world-wide approach to what was being called the Martian Question: Martian reluctance or inability to join the Push.

“You’re being pre-jammed,” Orianna said cheerfully.

I was horrified.

The sidebars detailed our personal histories and portrayed us as the best Martian diplomacy had to offer; the last seemed ironic, but I really couldn’t fathom the spin.

“You’re famous, dear,” Orianna said. “A frontier girl. Little House on the Planum. They love it!”

I was less interested in what was being said about me than in the backslate details. GEWA, leading the other alliances, would start negotiating with Mars after completion of what the US government was characterizing as “polite dialogues” with members of the standing Congressional committee.

I had a role to play. True shock would only grace my performance. “It’s terrible,” I said, frowning deeply. “Completely rude and impolite. I’d never expect it from Earth.”

“Oh, do!” Orianna said, creasing her brow in sympathy. The cab stopped before a stone and steel eight-story building with dazzling crystal-paned glass doors. The first-floor door popped open with a sigh and she danced ahead of me through crowds flowing along the walkway. “By the time my friends and I are done with you, you’ll expect anything.”

“We don’t stay here often,” Orianna said, emerging from the elevator. Her long legs carried her down the hall like an eager colt. She slowed only to allow me to catch up with her. “Mother’s given us the space here for a few days. My hab is just like the one in Paris . I’ve kept it since I was a kid.”

The door to apartment 43 looked tame enough — paneled wood with brass numbers. Orianna palmed entry and the door swung inward. “We have a guest,” she called. Beyond stretched a round gray tunnel with a white strip of walkway. The tunnel ballooned around us, unshaped.

“Welcome home. What can we do for you, Orianna?” a soft masculine voice asked.

“Fancy conservative decor — for our guest — and tell Shrug and Kite to rise and meet my friend.”

The tunnel quickly shaped a cream-colored decor with gold details, a rosewood armoire opening its doors to accept my coat and Orianna’s shoulder wrap. “English Regency,” Orianna said. “Kite’s idea of conservatism.”

Shrug, Kite — it all sounded very drive. I wondered if I would regret coming.

“Don’t stick on the names,” Orianna said, shaping the living room into more Regency. “All my friends are into Vernoring. They work and play with fake names. I don’t know their true ones. Not even their parents know.”

“Why?”

“It’s a game. Two rules — nobody knows what you’re doing, and you do nothing illegal.”

“Doesn’t that take the fun out of doing crypto?” I asked.

“Wow — crypto! Hide in the tomb. Sorry. I shy from two-edged words. We call it Vernoring.”

“Doesn’t it?” I persisted.

“No,” Orianna said thoughtfully. “Illegal is harm. Harm is stupid. Stupid is its own game, and none of my friends play it. Here’s Kite.”

Kite came through a double door dressed in faded denim shirt and pants. He stood two meters high, minus a few centimeters, and carried a green-and-white mottled sun kitten.

Orianna introduced us. Kite smiled and performed a shallow bow, then offered his free hand. He seemed natural enough — handsome but not excessively so, manner a little shy. He squatted cross-legged on the oriental carpet and the sun kitten played within a Persian garden design. A light switched on overhead and bathed the animal in a spot of brightness. It mewed appreciatively and stretched on its back.

“We’re going out tonight,” Orianna said. “Where is Shrug?”

“Asleep, I think. He’s spent the last three days working a commission.”

“Well, wake him up!”

“You do it,” Kite said.

“Pleasure’s mine.” Orianna leaped from the chair and returned to the hall. We heard her banging on doors.

“She could just buzz him,” Kite said ruefully, shaking his head. “She pretends she’s a storm, sometimes.”

I murmured assent.

“But she’s really sweet. You must know that.”

“I like her a lot,” I said.

“She’s an only and that makes a difference,” Kite added. “I have a brother and sister. You?”

“A brother,” I said. “And lots of blood relations.”

Kite smiled. The smile rendered his face transcendentally beautiful. I blinked and looked away.

“Is it rough, having everyone vid you?”

“I’m getting tired of it.”

“You know, you should watch whom you touch… Shake hands with. That sort of thing. Some of the LitVids are casual about privacy. They could plant watchers on you.” He held up pinched fingers and peered through a tiny gap. “Some are micro. Hide anywhere.”

“Isn’t that against the law?”

“If you haven’t filed for privacy rights, they could argue you’re common-law open. Then you’d only be protected in surveillance negative areas. The watchers would turn off… Most of the time.”

“That’s bolsh,” said a deep, lion-like voice. I turned to see Orianna dragging into the room by one hand a very large, blocky man with a very young face. “Nobody’s planted a watcher without permission in four years,” the young-faced man said. “Not since Wayne vs. LA PubEye.”

“Casseia Majumdar, of Mars, this is Shrug. He’s studied law. He has almost as many enhancements as I do.”

Shrug dipped on one knee as I stood. I barely reached his chin when he kneeled.

“Charmed,” he said, kissing my hand.

“Stop that,” Orianna said. “She’s my partner.”

“You don’t curve,” Shrug said.

“We’re sisters of sim,” Orianna said.

“Oh, dear, such an arc!” Kite said, smiling.

I don’t think I understand a third of what was said the whole time I spent in New York .

Back on the streets, holding hands with Shrug and Orianna, and then with Orianna and Kite, I let myself be taken somewhere, anywhere. Kite was really very attractive and did not seem averse to flirting, though more to aggravate Orianna, I thought, than to impress me. My slate recorded streets and directions in case I needed to find my way back to Penn Station; it also contained full-scale maps of the city, all cities on the Earth, in fact. I could hardly get lost unless someone took my slate… and Orianna assured me that New York was virtually free of thieves. “Too bad,” I said, in a puckish mood.

“Yeah,” Orianna said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk. It’s risk we choose that we should beware.”

“I choose lunch,” Kite said. “There’s a great old delicatessen here. Total goback.”

My expression of surprise caught his eye. “Goback. Means retro, atavistic, historic. All are good drive words now, no negs.”

“It means something else on Mars,” I said.

“Folks who want to keep BM rule are called Gobacks,” Orianna said.

“Are you a Goback?” Shrug asked me.

“I’m neutral,” I said. “My family has strong links to BM autonomy. I’m still learning.”

Echoing the theme, we passed a family of Chasids dressed in black. The men wore wide-brimmed hats and styled their hair in long thin locks around their temples. The women wore long simple dresses in natural fabrics. The children skipped and danced happily, dressed in black and white.

“They’re lovely, aren’t they?” Orianna said, glancing over her shoulder at the family. ‘Total goback! No enhancements, no therapy, neg the drive.“

“ New York is great for that sort of thing,” Kite said.

We passed three women in red chadors; a woman herding five blue dogs, followed by an arbeiter carrying a waste can; five men in single file, nude, not that it mattered — their bodies were completely smooth, with featureless tan skin; a male centaur with a half-size horse body, perfectly at home cantering along the sidewalk, man’s portion clothed in formal Edwardian English wool suit and bowler; jaguar-pelted women, furry, not in furs; two young girls, perhaps ten Earth years, dressed in white ballet gowns with fairy wings growing from their backs (temp or permanent? I couldn’t tell); a gaggle of school-children dressed in red coats and black shorts, escorted by men in black cassocks (“Papal Catholics,” Kite said); more of the mineral-patterned designer bodies; a great many people who might have fit in without notice on Mars; and of course the mechaniques, who replaced major portions of their bodies with metal shells filled with biorep nano. That, I had heard, was very expensive as an elective. Complete body replacement was much cheaper. Neither could be done legally unless one could prove major problems in birth genotype; it spun too much of the Eloi and Ten Cubed.

“After lunch, we’re going to Central Park ,” Orianna said. “And then…”

Kite laughed. “Orianna has connections. She wants to show you something you just don’t have on Mars.”

“An Omphalos!” Orianna said. “Father owns shares.”

We ate in the delicatessen and it smelled of cooked meat, which I had never smelled before, and which offended me all the same, whether or not meat was actually being cooked. Customers- — chiefly drive folks, a high proportion of transforms — lined up before glass cases filled with what appeared to be sliced processed animals. Plastic labels on metal skewers pronounced the shapes to be Ham, that is, smoked pig legs, Beef (cows) corned (though having nothing to do with corn) and otherwise, something called Pastrami which was another type of cow covered with pepper, smoked fish, fish in fermented dairy products, vegetables in brine and vinegar, pig feet in jars, and other things that, had they been real, would have caused a true uproar even on Earth.

We stood at the counter until the clerk took our order, then found a table. Martian reserve kept me from expressing my distaste to Orianna. She ordered for me — potato salad, smoked salmon, a bagel, and cream cheese.

“The stuff here is the best in town,” she said. “It was set up by New York Preserve. History scholars. They have a nano artist design the food — he’s orthodox Gathering of Abraham. They have state dispensation to eat meat, for religious reasons. He quit eating meat ten years ago, but he remembers what it tastes like.”

Our food arrived. The salmon appeared raw, felt slimy-soft, and tasted salty and offensive.

“You have imitation meat on Mars, don’t you?” Kite asked.

“It isn’t so authentic,” I said. “It doesn’t smell like this.”

“Blame the drive for history,” Shrug said. “Nothing immoral about imitation. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t waste, it teaches us what New York used to be like…”

“I don’t think Casseia’s enjoying her lox,” Kite said, smiling sympathetically. My heart sank in hopeless attraction, simply looking at his face.

“Maybe it’s turned,” I said.

“It does taste rank,” Kite said. “Maybe it’s the fake preservatives. Things don’t turn any more.”

“Right,” I said, embarrassed at my inability to enjoy the treat. “Tailored bacteria. Eat only what they’re meant to.”

“The Earth,” Shrug said portentously, “is a vast zoo.”

They fell to discussing whether “zoo” was the right word. They settled on “garden.”

“Do you have many murders on Mars?” Shrug asked.

“A few. Not a lot,” I answered.

“Shrug’s fascinated by violent crime,” Orianna said.

“I’d love to defend a genuine murderer. They’re so rare now… Ten murders in New York last year.”

“Among fifty million citizens,” Kite said, shaking his head. “That’s what therapy has done to us. Maybe we don’t care enough to kill any more.”

Orianna made a tight-lipped blat.

“No, really,” Kite said. “Shrug says he’d love to defend a murder case. A real one. But he’ll probably never see one. A murder. It chills the blood just to say the word.”

“So what’s passion like on Mars?” Shrug asked. “Murderous?”

I laughed. “The last murder I heard about, a wife killed her husband on an isolated station. Their family — their Binding Multiple — had suffered pernicious exhaustion — ”

“Love the words!” Shrug said.

“Of funds. They were left alone at the station without a status inquiry for a year. The BM was fined, but couldn’t pay its fine. It’s pretty unusual,” I concluded. ‘’We therapy disturbed people, too.“

“Ah, but is murder a disturbance!” Kite asked, straining to be provocative.

“You’d think so if you were the victim,” I said.

“Too much health, too much vigor — too few dark corners,” Kite said sadly. “What is there left to write about? Our best LitVids and sims use untherapied characters. But how do we write about our real lives, what we know? I’d like to make sims, but sanity is really limiting.”

“He’s opening his soul to you,” Orianna said. “He doesn’t tell people that unless he likes them.”

“There’s plenty of story in conflicts between healthy folks,” I suggested. “Political disagreements. Planning decisions.”

Kite shook his head sadly. “Hardly takes us to the meaning of existence. Hardly stretches us to the breaking point. You want to live that kind of life?”

I didn’t know how to answer. “That’s what I’m doing now,” I finally replied.

“Up your scale,” Shrug advised Kite. “She’s right. The clash of organizations, governments. Still possible. GEWA against GSHA. Might make a bestseller.”

“They’re even taking that away from us,” Kite said. “No wars, nothing but economic frictions behind closed doors. Nothing to make the heart pound.”

“Kite is a Romantic,” Orianna said.

That seemed to genuinely irritate him. “Not at all,” he said. “The Romantics wanted to destroy themselves.”

“Spoken like a true child of our time,” Shrug said. “Kite pushes healthy as they come. Passion — life to the limit — but no risk, please.”

Kite grinned. “I never met a passion I didn’t like,” he said. “I just don’t want to be owned by one.”

An actor portraying a waiter took my dish away.

The Omphalos stood on five hectares at the southern end of Manhattan , near Battery Park. It looked immensely strong, a cube surrounded by smaller cubes, all gleaming white with gold trim.

At the gate, on the very edge of the compound, Orianna presented her palm and answered a few questions posed by a blank-faced security arbeiter. A human guard met us, took us into an adjoining room, sat behind a desk, and asked our reasons for taking the tour.

“I’d like to talk in private with a resident,” Orianna said. I looked at her in surprise; this had not been her stated purpose earlier.

“I’ll need your true names and affiliations even to apply for a clearance,” he said.

“That leaves us out,” Shrug said. Kite nodded agreement. “We’ll wait outside.” Orianna said we wouldn’t be more than an hour or two. An arbeiter escorted them to the front gate.

The guard quickly checked our public ratings for security violations and mental status. “You’re Martian,” he said, glancing at me. “Not using a Vernor.”

I admitted that I was.

“Terries trying to impress you?” the guard asked, glancing pointedly at Orianna.

“Are you Martian?” I asked him.

“No. I’d like to go there some day.” He referred to his slate and nodded approval. “I have your CV and pictures from a hundred different LitVid sources… You’re a celebrity. Everything clears. Welcome to Omphalos Six, your first glimpse of Heaven. Please stay with your assigned guide.”

“What are your connections, besides your father owning shares?” I asked Orianna as an arbeiter took us through an underground tunnel to the main cube.

“I have a reservation for when I turn two centuries,” Orianna said. “I don’t know if I’ll use it. I might just die instead…” She grinned at me. “Easy to say now. I might go Eloi and end up on Mars or in the Belt… Who knows what things will be like then?“

“Who are we going to talk to?” I asked.

“A friend.” She held her finger to her lips. “The Eye is watching.”

“What’s that?”

“The Omphalos thinker. Very high-level. Not at all like Alice , believe me — the best Earth can produce.”

I quelled my impulse to defend Alice . No doubt Orianna was right.

The interior of the building was equally impressive. An atrium rose twenty meters above a short walkway. The walkway ended on an elevator shaft that rose to the apex of the atrium, and sank below us through a glittering black pool. Nano stone walls, floors isolated from the walls by several dozen centimeters, sprung-shocked and field-loaded to withstand external stress — and damage repair stations in each corner. Conservative and solid.

“Above us are the apartments,” Orianna said. “About ten thousand occupants. One hundred apartments are full-size, for those folks who want to log in and out every few weeks. The uncommitted, you might say. The rest are cubicles for warm sleep.”

“They spend their time dreaming?”

“Custom sims and remote sensing. Omphalos has androids and arbeiters all over the Earth with human-resolution senses. Omphalos can access any of them at any time, and there you are — they are. The occupants can be anywhere they want. Some of the arbeiters can project full images of the occupant, fake you’re talking to someone in person. If you just want to retire and relax, Omphalos employs the very finest sim designers. Overdrive arts and lit fantasies.”

From my reading, and from Orianna’s description on Tuamotu, I knew that most of Omphalos’s residents stayed in long-term warm sleep, their bodies bathed in medical nano. Technically speaking, they were not Eloi — they could not walk around, occupy a new citizen’s space or employment opportunities — but their projected life spans were unknown. Omphalos served as refuge for the very wealthy and very powerful who did not want to be voided to the Belt or Mars, yet wanted to live longer. Medical treatment that cleansed and purified and exercised and toned and kept body and mind healthy and fit — medical treatment unending — slipped through a legal loophole.

This Omphalos, and the forty-two structures like it around the world, were not beloved by the general population. But they had woven their legal protections deep into the Earth’s governments.

“Why wouldn’t you want to come here? The guard called it Heaven.”

Orianna had skipped ahead of me. She hunched her shoulders. “Gives me the willies,” she said. She called the elevator, which arrived immediately.

The elevator stopped. Orianna took my hand and led me down a hallway that might have belonged in a plush hotel, retro early twentieth. Flowers filled cloisonné vases on wooden tables; we walked on non-metabolic carpet, probably real wool, deep green with white floral insets.

Orianna found the door she wanted. She knocked lightly and the door opened. We entered a small white room with three Empire chairs and a table. The room smelled of roses. The wall before the chairs brightened. A high-res virtual image presented itself to us, as if we looked through glass at a scene beyond. A black-haired, severely handsome woman of late middle years sat on a white cast-iron chair in the middle of a beautiful garden, trees shading her, rows of bushes covered with lovely roses red and blue and yellow marching in perspective off to a grand Victorian greenhouse. Tall clouds billowed on the horizon. It looked like a hot, humid, thundery day.

“Hello, Miss Muir,” Orianna greeted the woman. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her face.

“Hello, Ori! How nice to have visitors.” She smiled sunnily.

“Miss Muir, this is my friend, Casseia Majumdar of Mars.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the woman said.

“Do you know Miss Muir, Casseia?”

“I’m sorry, no.”

Orianna shook her head and pursed her lips. “No enhancements. Always leaves you at a disadvantage. This is President Danielle Muir.”

That name I had heard.

“President of the United States ?” I asked, my face betraying how impressed I was.

“Forty years ago,” Muir said, cocking her head to one side. “Practically forgotten, except by friends, and by my goddaughter. How are you, Ori?”

“I’m high pleased, ma’am. I apologize for not coming sooner… You know we’ve been away.”

“To Mars. You returned on the same ship with Miss Majumdar?”

“I did. And I confess I’ve come here with a motive.”

“Something interesting, I hope.”

“Casseia’s being jammed, ma’am. I’m too ignorant to speck what’s happening.”

Ex-President Muir leaned forward. “Do tell.”

Orianna raised her hand. “May I?”

“Certainly,” Muir said. A port thrust from the wall, and Orianna touched her finger to the pad, transferring information to Muir.

I specked the former President lying in warm sleep behind the screen, bathed in swirling currents of red and white medical nano like strawberry juice and cream.

Muir smiled and adjusted her chair to face us. The effect startled me — even ambient sound told us we were with her, outdoors. The walls of the cubicle gradually faded into scenery. Soon we, too, were in the shade of the large tree, surrounded by warm moist air. I smelled roses, fresh-cut grass, and something that raised the hair on my arms. Electricity… thunderstorms.

“You work for a big financial Binding Multiple. Rather, you’re part of the family, right, Casseia?“ Her voice, colored by a melodious southern accent, drifted warm and concerned in the thick air.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“You’re under pressure… You’ve been summoned to testify before Congress, but for one reason or another, you’ve been shunted to another rail.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“Why?”

I looked at Ori. “I really can’t reveal family matters here, ma’am. Ori — Orianna brought me here without telling me why. I’m honored to meet you, but…” I trailed off, embarrassed.

Muir tilted her head back. “Someone in the alliances has decided Mars is an irritant, and I can’t guess why. You simply don’t mean that much to the United States , or to GEWA or GSHA or Eurocom or any of the other alliances.”

Orianna frowned at me and looked back at Muir’s image. “My father says there isn’t a politician on Earth you can trust, except Danielle Muir,” Orianna said.

My level of skepticism rose enormously; I’ve always bristled when people ask for, much less demand, trust. Face to face with a ghost, an illusory representative of someone I had never met in person, I simply would not let myself bestow trust it was not my right or station to give.

On the other hand, much of what we were doing was public knowledge — and there was no reason not to carry on a conversation at that level.

“Martians have stood apart from Solar System unification,” I said.

“Good for you,” Muir said, smiling foxily. “Not everybody should knuckle under to the alliances.”

“Well, it’s not entirely good,” I said. “We’re not sure we know how to unify. Earth expects full participation from coherent partners. We seem to be unable to meet their expectations.”

“The Big Push,” Muir said.

“Right,” Orianna said.

“That seems to be part of it.”

Muir shook her head sadly. “My experience with Martians when I was President was that Mars had great potential. But this Big Push could get along nicely without you. You’d hardly be missed.”

I felt another burn. “We think we might have a lot to contribute, actually.”

“Unwilling to participate, but proud to be asked, proud to have pressure applied, is that it?” Muir said.

“Not exactly, ma’am,” I said.

Her face — the face of her image — hardened almost imperceptibly. Despite her warm tone and friendly demeanor, I sensed a chill of negative judgment.

“Casseia, Ori tells me you’re very smart, very capable, but you’re missing something. Your raw materials and economic force count for little in any Big Push. Mars is small in the Solar System scheme of things. What can you contribute, that would be worth the effort Earth seems to be willing to expend on you?”

I was at a loss for an answer. Bithras, I remembered, had been wary of this explanation, but I had swallowed it uncritically.

“Maybe you know something you can’t tell me, and I don’t expect you to tell me, considering your responsibilities and loyalties. But take it from an old, old politician, who helped plant — much to my regret — some of the trees now bearing ripe fruit. The much-ballyhooed Big Push is only a cover. Earth is deeply concerned about something you have, or can do, or might be able to do. Since you can’t mount an effective military operation, and your economic strength is negligible, what could Mars possibly have, Casseia, that Earth might fear?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Something the small and weak can do as well as the large and the strong, something that will mean strategic changes.

Surely you can think of what that might be. How could Mars possibly threaten Earth?“

“We can’t,” I said. “As you’ve told me, we’re weak, insignificant.”

“Do you think politics is a clean, fair game played by rational humans?”

“At its best,” I said lamely.

“But in your experience…”

“Martian politics has been pretty primitive,” I admitted.

“Your uncle Bithras… Is he politically sophisticated?”

“I think so,” I said.

“You mean, compared to you, he seems to be.”

My discomfort ramped. I did not like being grilled, even by my social superiors. “I suppose,” I said.

“Well, politics is not all muck, and not always corrupting, but it is never easy. Getting even rational people from similar backgrounds to agree is difficult. Getting planets to agree, with separate histories, widely different perspectives, is a political nightmare. I would hesitate to accept the task, and yet your uncle seems to have jumped in with both feet.”

“He’s cautious,” I said.

“He’s a child playing in the big leagues,” Muir said.

“I disagree,” I said.

Muir smiled. “What does he think is really going on here?”

“For the moment, we accept that Earth needs Mars… prepared for some large-scale operation. The Big Push seems as likely as anything.”

“You truly believe that?”

“I can’t think of any other reason.”

“My dear, your planet — your culture — may depend on what happens in the next few years. You have a responsibility I don’t envy.”

“I’m doing my very best,” I said.

Muir hooded her gray eyes. I realized that she had asked me questions as one politician to another, and I had given her inadequate answers.

Orianna regarded me sadly, as if she had also discovered the weaknesses of a friend.

“I don’t mean to offend,” Muir said. “I thought we were dealing with a political problem.”

“I’m not offended,” I lied. “Orianna took me all over New York today, and I’m a little stunned. I need to rest and absorb it all.”

“Of course,” Muir said. “Ori, give your mother and father my best wishes. It’s grand to see you again. Good-bye.” Abruptly, we sat facing the blank white wall.

Orianna stood: Her mouth was set in a firm line and her eyes were determined not to meet mine. Finally, she said, “Everybody here acts a little… abrupt at times. It’s the way they experience time, I think. Casseia, we didn’t come here to make you feel inferior. That was the farthest thing from my mind.”

“She chewed on me a little, don’t you agree?” I said quietly. “Mars is not useless.”

“Please don’t let patriotism blind you, Casseia.”

I clamped my mouth shut. No eighteen-year-old Earth child was going to talk down to me that way.

“Listen to what she was asking. She’s very sharp. You have to find out where you might be strong.”

“Our strength is so much more — ” I cut myself off. Than Earth can imagine. Our spiritual strength. I was about to launch into a patriotic defense that even I did not believe. In truth, they were right.

Mars did not breed great politicians; it bred hateful little insects like Dauble and Connor, or silly headstrong youths like Sean and Gretyl. I hated having my face ground into the unpleasant truth. Mars was a petty world, a spiteful and grumbling world. How could it possibly be any danger to vigorous, wise, together Earth?

Orianna glanced at the blank wall and sighed. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I should have talked to you about it first.”

“It’s an honor,” I said. “I just wasn’t prepared.”

“Let’s find Kite and Shrug,” she suggested. “I can’t imagine living here.” She shivered delicately. “But then, maybe I’m old-fashioned.”

We rejoined Kite and Shrug and spent several hours shopping in Old New York, real shops with nothing but real merchandise. I felt doubly old-fashioned — dismayed and disoriented by a district that was itself supposed to be a historical recreation. Kite and Shrug entered an early twenty-one haberdashery, and we followed. An officious clerk placed them in sample booths, snapped their images with a quaint 3-D digitizer, then showed them how they might look in this season’s fashions. The clerk made noises of approval over several outfits. “We can have them for you in ten minutes, if you care to wait.”

Kite ordered a formal socializing suit and asked them to deliver it to a cover address. Shrug declined to purchase anything. We were heading out the door when the clerk called to us, “Oh! Excuse me — I almost forgot. Free tickets to Circus Mind for customers… and their friends.”

Kite accepted the tickets and handed them to us. He stuffed his in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Are we all going?” he asked.

“What is it?” Orianna asked.

“Ori doesn’t know something!” Shrug exclaimed, amused.

“It must be really new,” she said, irritated.

“Oh, it is,” the clerk said. “Very drive.”

“Power live sim,” Kite said. “It’s abso fresh. All free until it draws a nightly crowd. Would you like to try, Casseia?”

“It could be too much,” Orianna cautioned.

I took that as a challenge. Although tired and a little depressed from my meeting with Muir, I wasn’t about to look less than drive — certainly not to Kite.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Kite handed us our tickets. I stared at mine. “Chew,” he said. “Checks you out, sees if you’re clear for the experience, and you print up a pass on the back of your hand.”

I inserted the ticket slowly and chewed. It tasted like the scent of a sun-warmed flower garden, with a tickle in the nose. I sneezed.

The clerk smiled. “Have fun,” he said cheerfully.

Circus Mind occupied the fifth and sixth floors of a twentieth-century skyscraper, the Empire State Building . I consulted my slate and learned that I was not far from Penn Station — in case I wanted to escape and my friends were locked in their amusements. Kite took my arm and Orianna ran interference with a group of LitVid arbeiters looking for society interest. Kite projected a confusion around me — multiple images, all false, as if four or five women accompanied him — and we made it through to the front desk. A thin black woman over two and a half meters tall, her auburn hair brushing the star-patterned ceiling, checked our hands for passes and we entered the waiting area.

“Next flight, five minutes,” a sepulchral voice announced. Cartoonish faces popped out of the walls, leering at us — lurid villains from a pop LitVid.

“Abso brain neg,” Shrug commented. “I was hoping for a challenge.”

“I’ve been here twice,” said a woman with skin of flexible coppery plates. “It’s strong inside.”

Orianna glanced at me, Okay?

I nodded, but I was not happy. Kite, I noticed, had assumed a blank air, neither expectant nor bored. After a five-minute wait, the faces on the walls looked sad and vanished, a door opened, and we entered a wide, open dance floor, already covered with patrons.

Projectors in the ceiling and floor created a hall of mirrors. The floor controller decided Kite and I were a couple and isolated us between our own reflections. We could not see Shrug or Orianna or any of the other patrons, though I heard them faintly. Kite grinned at me. “Maybe this replaces murder,” he said.

I had no idea what he meant. I felt more than a little apprehensive.

But that, I decided — and I squared my shoulders to physically strengthen my resolve — was simple backwater fright. This was nothing more than a mental roller coaster.

A slender golden man appeared on a stage a few steps away. “Friends, I need your help,” he said earnestly. “A million years from now, something will go drastically wrong, and the human race will be extinguished. What you do here and now can save the planet and the Solar System against forces too vast to precisely describe. Will you accompany me into the near future?”

“Sure,” Kite said, putting his hand on my shoulder.

The golden man and the hall of mirrors vanished. We floated in starry space. The golden man’s voice preceded us. “Please prepare for transit.”

Kite let go of my shoulder and took my hand. The stars zipped past in the expected way, and Earth rastered into view in front of us. Background information flooded into my head.

In this future, all instrumentality is controlled by deep molecular Chakras, beings installed in every human at birth as guardians and teachers. Your first Chakra is a good friend, but there has been a malicious erroran evolvon has been loosed in the child-treatment centers. A malicious Chakra has invaded an entire generation. You have been isolated from your high birthright, cut loose of energy and nutrition. A generation lives in the midst of plenty, yet starves. You must now find a Natural Rebirth Clinic on an Earth filled with menace, eliminate all Chakras, find the roots of your new soul, and prevent those controlled by their Evil Masters from forcing the sun to go super-nova.

“Sounds pretty lame,” I whispered to Kite.

“Wait a bit,” he said.

I learned more about this future Earth than I wanted to. There were no cities, as such — expanses of wilderness covered the continents. This, I knew, was because I could not call forth my Chakra of instrumentality.

Somewhere is your teacher, in the Natural Rebirth Clinic. You do not know what he or she or it looks likeit might even be a flower or a tree. But it contains your clue to regaining control

I could hardly have been more bored. I wanted to smile at Kite and reassure him, this was nothing, not even so bad as Orianna’s potboiler sim.

Then my mind jerked. I filled with fear and deep loathing — for the evil Chakra, for loss of my birthright, for the impending end of everything. And mixed with the fear was a primal urge to join forces in every way possible — with Kite, with whoever might be present.

Hack plot, to say the least, but I had never experienced such vivid washes of imposed emotion, even in Orianna’s sim. They played my mind like a keyboard.

“I think I know what’s going to happen next,” Kite said.

“Oh?”

Everyone on the Circus Mind floor appeared around us, floating in space.

“It’s very drive,” Kite assured me.

The golden man faded into view, in the center of our empyrean of several hundred souls. “At last, we have all arrived, and we have a sufficiency,” he said. ‘Teams must join and become families, and trust implicitly. Are we prepared?“

Everybody gave their assent, including me. I had been expertly prepared — my nerves sang with excitement and anticipation.

“Let us join as families.”

The golden man encircled groups of twenty with broad glowing red halos. Our clothes vanished. Transforms reshaped to their natural forms, or at least what the controller — a thinker, I presumed, with considerable resources — imagined their natural forms might be. Other than being naked, Kite and I did not change.

We linked arms, floating in a circle, skydivers in freefall.

“The first step,” the golden man said, “is to unite. And the best way to do that is to dance, to join your natural energies, your natural sexualities.”

It was an orgy.

I had been prepared so well — and part of me truly did want to couple, especially with Kite — that I did not object. The controller played on our sexual instincts expertly, and this time the sex — unlike what I had experienced in Orianna’s sim — felt real. My body believed I was having sex, although a disclaimer — discreetly making itself known to my inner self — informed me I was not actually having sex.

The experience grew into something larger, all of our minds working together. The sim prompted us to move our bodies on the floor in a dance that echoed our emotions. While deeply involved in the alternate reality, we were at once aware of the dance, and of our own personal artistry responding. I’ve never considered myself a dancer, but that didn’t matter — I fit. The dance felt lovely.

All of us pooled the resources of our assumed characters — looked down on the Earth, so fragile and threatened — and we loved it with an intensity I had never felt even for family, a dreamlike rush of awed emotion and dependency. I was ready to do anything, sacrifice anything, to save it…

Throughout the entire experience, a distant tiny harbor of my individuality wondered idly if this was what Earth wished to do to Mars — use us. Join in a vast, insignificant orgy to save the future. This backwater self tapped its foot impatiently, and suspected the overblown love of Earth to be a kind of propaganda…

But it was effective propaganda, and I enjoyed myself hugely. As the group sim drew to a conclusion, and our dance slowed — as the illusion began to break up, and we returned to full body awareness — I felt contented and very tired.

We had saved the future, saved the Earth and the sun, defeated the evil evolvon Chakras, and coincidentally, I had bonded with all my partners. I knew their names, their individual characters, if not the intimate details of their daily lives. We smiled and laughed and hugged on the large floor.

The lights rose and music played, abstract projections suggested by the music swirling around us.

We had been through a lot together. I had no doubt that if I stayed on Earth long enough, I would be welcome in each of their homes, as if we had been lifelong friends, lovers, there wasn’t really an appropriate word — more even than husbands and wives. Mates in group sim.

Kite and I rejoined Shrug and Orianna on the street. Reality seemed pale and gray against what we had just experienced. A gentle drizzle softened the night air. Orianna seemed concerned. “Was that okay?” she asked. “I thought too late it might be more than you wanted…”

“It was interesting,” I said.

“They call them amity sims. They’re bright fresh,” Kite said. “The next drive. More people in sim than ever before — all proprietary tech, but I’m sure there are some major thinkers involved.”

Shrug looked dazed. His path along the street wavered, a step this way, a step the other. He grinned over his shoulder at us. “Touchy getting used to the real.”

“That was really nice,” Kite said, putting an arm around me. “No jealousy, just friendship and affection — and no anxiety, until we met the bad Chakras.” I looked up at Kite. We had not been lovers — not physically — but I felt extremely close to him, more than I had to Charles. That bothered me.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared,” Shrug said.

“Really social,” Orianna said. “Everybody knows everybody else. Could bond all of Earth if it maxes.”

Indeed, I thought, it could. “I need to rest,” I said. “Get back to Washington .”

“It’s been wonderful, spending the day together,” Orianna said. “You’re a good partner, a good friend, and — ”

I stopped her with a tight embrace. “Enough,” I said, smiling. “You’ll puncture my Martian reserve.”

“Wouldn’t want you to leak reserve,” Shrug said, standing apart, arms folded, fingers tapping elbows.

“We’ll walk to Penn Station. You can track to DC from there.”

We said little as we navigated the crowds and adwalls. The glow of Circus Mind faded. Orianna became sad and a little withdrawn. She turned to me as we neared the station. “I wanted to show you so much, Casseia. You have to know Earth. That’s your job now.” She spoke almost sternly.

“Right,” I said. Already a deep sense of embarrassment had set in — a reaction to the unearned intimacy of the Circus, I presumed. Martian reserve leaking.

“I’d like to get together again. Will there be time?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “If there is, I’ll call.”

“Do,” she said. “Don’t let the sim shade what we’ve earned.” Her use of that word, echoing my own thoughts, startled me. Orianna could be spookily intuitive.

“Thank you,” Kite said, and kissed me. I held back on that kiss — Earth kissing Mars, not all that proper, perhaps, considering.

I entered the station. They stayed outside, waving, farewells as old as time.

Four hours later, I sat in my room overlooking Arlington , the combs, the Potomac , and the distant Mall. Bithras had left the suite. Allen had not returned from Nepal . Alice was deep in broadband net research for Bithras and I did not disturb her.

I focused on the Washington Monument , like an ancient stone rocket ship, and tried to keep my head quiet so I could listen to the most important inner voices.

Mars had nothing that threatened the Earth. We were in every way Earth’s inferior. Younger, more divided, our strength lay in our weakness — in diversity of opinion, in foolish reserve that masqueraded as politeness, in the warmth and security of our enclosed spaces, our warrens. We were indeed rabbits.

The fading sim had left a strong impression of Earth’s passionate embrace. The patriotism — planetism — felt here was ages old, more than a match for our youthful Martian brand. I shivered.

Wolf Earth could gobble us in an instant. She needed no excuse but the urge.

We received our invitations — instructions, actually — two days later. We would meet secretly with Senators Mendoza and Wang in neutral territory: Richmond , Virginia , away from the intense Beltway atmosphere.

The choice of city seemed meaningful. Richmond had been capitol of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, over three centuries before: a genteel, well-preserved town of three million, for nearly ninety years a center for optimized human design research.

“Are we being sent any subtle messages?” Allen asked as we gathered in the suite’s living room. A projection of the Richmond meeting place, the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, floated above the coffee table, severe gray stone and pseudo-Greek architecture.

Bithras regarded us dourly, eyes weary. He had been up all evening communicating with Mars; the travel time for each signal had been almost eight minutes, a total delay of almost sixteen minutes between sending and receiving a reply. He had not revealed any of the details of his conversations yet. “What messages?” he asked.

Allen nodded to me: you explain.

“ Richmond was once a symbol of the failed South,” I said.

“ South America ?” Bithras asked.

“Southern states. They tried to secede from the Union . The North was immensely more powerful. The South suffered for generations after losing a civil war.”

“Not a very clear message,” Bithras said. “I hope they haven’t chosen Richmond just for that reason.”

“Probably not,” Allen said. “What have you heard from Mars?”

Bithras wrinkled his brow and shook his head. “The limits to my discretion are clear. If the deal we agreed to is inadequate… then we agree to nothing. We go home.“

“After coming all this way?” I asked.

“My dear Casseia, the first rule of politics, as in medicine, is ‘Do no harm.’ I do not want to act on my own initiative; the Council tells me they will not tolerate any initiative; so, there will be no initiative.”

“Why summon us to Earth in the first place?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Bithras said. “If I didn’t suspect strongly otherwise, I would call it gross incompetence. But when your adversary’s incompetence puts you at a disadvantage, it is time to think again.

“The Council will make some decisions and get back to me before we leave for Richmond . So, we have tomorrow to ourselves. I suggest we give Alice a break and set up an appointment with Jill.”

“We have a five-minute appointment at twenty-three this evening, broadband ex net, private and encrypted,” Allen said. “Alice and I made arrangements with Jill yesterday… just in case.”

“I’m glad somebody can show initiative,” Bithras said.

I was as curious as anybody to find out what Alice and Jill would discuss.

Jill was the oldest thinking being on Earth, a fabulous figure, the first thinker to achieve bona fide self-awareness, as defined by the Atkins test.

Decades before Jill and Roger Atkins, Alan Turing had proposed the Turing test for equality between human and machine: if in a conversation limited to written communication, where the human could not directly view the correspondents, a person could not tell the difference between a machine and another human, then the machine was itself as intelligent as a human. This subtle and ingenious test neglected to take into account the limits of most humans, however; by the beginning of the twenty-first century, many computers, especially the class of neural net machines becoming known as “thinkers,“ were fooling a great many humans, even experts, in such conversations. Only one expert consistently pierced the veil to see the limited machines behind: Roger Atkins of Stanford University .

Jill outlived Atkins, and became the model for all thinkers built after. Now, even an exported thinker such as Alice could outstrip Jill several times over, but for one crucial quality. Jill had acquired much of her knowledge through experience. She was one hundred and twenty-eight years old.

We paid for the broadband connection between Alice and Jill, agreed to the encryption algorithm, and went to bed.

Sleep on Earth, despite my bichemistry, almost invariably felt heavy. The strain of Earth’s pull on a Martian’s muscles and organs could not be eliminated; it could only be treated. While I felt well enough awake, my sleeping self often drowned, dragged under shallow waters rushing in tides past fantastic, ivory-colored castles on ruby-colored islands.

I climbed or rather glided up the internal spiral of a tower staircase when Bithras shook me rudely awake. I reflexively jerked the covers up, fearing the worst. He pulled his hands back, eyes wide, as if deeply hurt. “No nonsense, Casseia,” he said. “There is a serious problem. Alice woke me. She’s finished her conversation with Jill.”

Allen, Bithras and I sat in our robes in the living room, cradling cups of hot tea. Alice ’s image perched primly on the couch between Bithras and Allen, hands folded on her knees. She spoke with a calm, deliberate voice, describing her encounter with Jill. Allen quietly made notes on his slate.

“The meeting was extraordinary,” Alice began. “Jill allowed me to become her for a time, and to store essential aspects of her experiences in my own memories. I provided her in turn with my own experiences. We divided our five minutes between conversation in deep-level thinker language, transfer of experiences, and cross-diagnostic, to see whether bad syncline searches could occur in any of our neural systems.“

“You allowed Jill to analyze your systems?” Allen asked with some alarm, looking up from his slate.

“Yes.”

“Tell them what she found,” Bithras said.

“This is in a sense proprietary,” Alice said. “Jill could face difficulties if her work is discovered.”

“You have our promise of discretion,” Bithras said. “Casseia? Allen?”

We swore secrecy.

“Jill considers all thinkers to be part of her family. She feels responsible for us, like a mother. When thinkers converse with her, she analyzes us, adding to her own store of knowledge and experience, and determines whether we are functioning properly.”

I detected reticence. Alice did not want to get to the point.

“Tell us, Alice ,” Bithras encouraged.

“I still feel deeply embarrassed by what Jill discovered in me. I am able to fulfill my duties, I am sure, but there may be reason to no longer trust my ultimate performance — ”

Bithras shook his head impatiently. “Jill found evolvons,” he said.

“In Alice ?” Allen asked, lowering his slate.

I sucked in my breath. “What kind?” I asked.

Alice ’s image froze, flickered, and went out. Her voice remained. “I am changing modes of display to better conform with my internal state,” she said. “I will not maintain a cosmetic front. Evolvons exist in my personality configuration. They appear to be original, not implanted after my incept date.”

An evolvon could be nearly any thing or system designed to exist in time, consume energy or memory, and reproduce itself. All living things were evolvons in a sense. Within computers and thinkers, the word usually referred to algorithms or routines not known to be part of the status design or acquired neural configuration — sophisticated viruses.

“Do you know their purpose?” I asked.

“Jill discovered them only by comparing my full configuration with my neural bauplan, my self-known design, and running a trace of her own devising. There are parts of me that are not known to me, and which I have no control over; these parts are not functional in my personality configuration. They have no known utility, but all of them contain reproductive algorithms. They are well-hidden. No traces on Mars revealed their presence.”

“Evolvons,” Allen said, his face pale. “That’s against the law.”

“I have difficulty describing my sensation at making this discovery,” Alice said. I wanted to hold her, but of course she had nothing to hold. Her voice remained level — I had never heard a thinker express negative emotions in speech. But her tone became a shade harsher as she said, “I feel violated.”

“Is it possible the evolvons have been planted since we left Mars or arrived on Earth?” Bithras asked.

“Very unlikely. I have not been accessed by specialists for repair, which would be the only way they could be planted after my incept date.”

Bithras folded his hands on his knee. “If you have these… evolvons, then Alice One has them as well.”

“Most likely,” Alice said.

“They were copied from her to you. And they escaped our most expert traces. That means they were planted by the manufacturer, right here on Earth.” “ The implications were jolting.

“I apologize for my inability to be trustworthy,” Alice said.

“No need to apologize,” Bithras said. “We’ll remove the evolvons — ”

“Jill does not believe that can be done without great care to avoid damaging my personality. They are imbedded in key routines.”

“Do you know what will activate them?” I asked.

“No,” Alice said.

“Can you guess?” I pursued.

“Specific triggering codes delivered by any of my inputs,” Alice said.

“They are sabotage,” Bithras observed, “waiting to happen.”

“Who’s responsible?” I asked.

“Earth,” he said, lips curling. “Sane, wonderful Earth.”

Bithras sent an emergency message to Mars, contents unknown to us, and returned to his bed, exhausted, soon after. Allen and I stayed up, ordered a bottle of wine, and sat drinking, talking with Alice .

“The most important thing,” I said, finishing the first glass, “is whether Alice wants to continue working with us.”

“Bithras and I have discussed this,” Alice said.

Allen and I felt tired and sad and discouraged, as if suffering through an illness in the family. What was dying rapidly was any joy we might have had, coming to Earth; any feeling of value as representatives of Mars, any sense of self-worth whatsoever. We were isolated, our friend was compromised in such a way that we could no longer have faith in her…

“What did Bithras say?” I asked softly.

“He believes I should carry on with my duties. I will of course be glad to continue.”

“Can you tell… ?” Allen asked, not finishing.

“I will not know when or if an evolvon is activated. This I have told Bithras.”

“Everything we set out to do is being scuttled,” Allen said, twirling his glass in his hand. “We can’t trust anybody or anything here.”

“They’re frightened,” I blurted. I had not mentioned my conversation with President Muir; I had not wanted to leave any impression that I was trying to conduct diplomatic inquiries on my own. And the conversation itself had not made much sense to me, had no context, until now. “They’re afraid of what we can do.”

“What can they possibly be afraid of?” Allen asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t figure it out.” I described my visit to the Omphalos. When I finished, Allen whistled and poured himself another glass.

“ Alice ,” he said, “does any of this make sense to you?”

“If I model the situation correctly, we are in the middle of changing political strategies,” she said. “Earth obviously prepared decades ago for unexpected situations by placing evolvons in thinkers shipped to Mars.”

“Perhaps all thinkers,” I said. “Maybe that’s why Jill analyzed you… She suspects something, and she doesn’t approve.”

Abruptly, the image of Alice Liddell appeared, sitting beside Allen on the couch. He jumped. “Sorry,” she said. “I did not mean to startle you.”

“What could possibly have changed their strategy?” I asked.

“Bithras received a communication from Cailetet, a copy of a text message from Stanford University sent to the Olympian research group on Mars,” Alice said. “He discussed it with Casseia.” Alice projected the message for us.

“We’ve established strong link between time tweak and space tweak. Can derive most special relat. Third tweak discovered may be co-active but purpose unknown. Tweak time, tweak space, third tweak changes automatically. Probably derive general relat. as regards curvature, but third tweak pushes a fourth tweak, weakly and sporadically… Derive conservation of destiny? Fifty tweaks discovered so far. More to come. Can you share your discoveries? Mutual bennies if yes.

“Still sounds like gibberish,” I said.

“There have been no further messages from Cailetet,” Alice said. “They’re stonewalling on the unification proposals, and they’ve rejected Majumdar’s offers to join in the Olympians’ physics research.”

‘That’s new,” I said. ”Bithras hasn’t told us about that.“

“Bithras keeps many worries to himself.”

“Does the message mean anything to you?” Allen asked Alice .

“Bell Continuum theory treats the universe as an informational array, a computational system. The Olympians applied for grants with abstracts on such theory. Some of their applications were sent to Earth, one to Stanford, where they established communications with the group that sent this message.”

Alice projected LitVid reports on related topics from the past year. The Stanford group had published only three public papers in the past ten years, none of them dealing with the Bell Continuum. Alice concluded the display by saying, “Bithras has been unable to rent key papers and research vids related to the Bell Continuum, and has found only popular references to the topic of ‘descriptor theory.’ ”

“Why didn’t Bithras tell us?” I asked.

“I believe he did not think it was terribly important. But your visit with President Muir would interest him. Her instincts appear sound.”

“Something’s going on?” Allen asked.

“Perhaps,” Alice said.

“Something big enough to make Earth change course and reject our proposal?”

“It seems possible,” Alice said. “Casseia, in the morning, you should tell Bithras about your meeting with the ex-President.”

“All right,” I said, staring at the coffee table and my empty glass of wine.

“I believe he will ask you to speak with Charles Franklin.”

I shook my head, but said, “If he asks.”

I told Bithras about my meeting with Muir, and about our suspicions. He asked.

I took a walk alone on the banks of the Potomac in the hour before dawn. The air brushed clear and cool against my bare arms. The sky above the river sparkled a starry, dusty blue. Combs to the south and east shaded the river even after dawn colored the sky deep teal and edged the few wisps of cloud with orange. I walked along the damp stone path, enjoying the mingled scents of honeysuckle and jasmine, giant roses and thick-leafed designer magnolia bushes, blooming in the hectares of gardens beneath the combs. Arcs of steel and mesh guided bougainvillea over the walkway, creating tunnels of deeper shade lighted at foot level by thin glowing ribbons twined around stone pillars. Artificial sun slowly brightened the gardens. Thumb-sized bees emerged from ground hives, intent on servicing the huge flowers.

The last thing I wanted was to intrude on Charles, ask him questions he would not want to answer, be indebted to him. We had caused each other enough distress in our short time together. Besides, what questions would I ask?

I had studied physics texts and vids in the past few sleepless hours. There was mention of the Bell Continuum and the universe as a computational system — mostly in the context of evolution of constants and particles in the early stages of the big bang. I knew enough about academics to pick up the general impression that these theories were not highly favored.

Was Charles’s group of Olympians (what an arrogant name!) alarming politicians on Earth with talk, or had Earth discovered something it didn’t want Mars to know?

I sat on a warmed stone bench, face in hands, rubbing my temples with my index fingers.

I had already composed my message to Charles: pure text, formal, as if we had never been lovers.

Dear Charles,

We’ve run into serious problems here on Earth that may have something to do with your work. I realize you are contracted to Cailetet, and I presume there is some friction with other BMs, which also puzzles me; but is there anything you can tell us that might explain why Earth would be deeply concerned with Martian independence? We are getting nowhere in our own work, and there are clues that the Olympians are in part responsible. I am very embarrassed even asking you to say anything. Please don’t think I wish to intrude or cause trouble.

Sincerely,

Casseia Majumdar

Washington DC USWH

Earth (trunk credit for reply open)

I judged that relations between Cailetet and Majumdar had somehow soured, perhaps on the matter of the Olympians… (Poor Stan! He would be lawbonded within a few weeks to a woman from Cailetet. We were all mired.)

In the Potomac , water welled up in glistening hills and ripples and a line of caretaker manatees broke the surface, resting from pruning and tending the underwater fields. I stood and stretched. There were dozens of other pedestrians on the walkway now. The roses in the gardens sang softly, attracting tiny sound bees in tight-packed silver clouds.

I sent the message. Allen and I attended a concert in Georgetown . I barely heard the music, Brahms and Hansen played on original instruments, lovely but distant to my thoughts and mood. My slate was set to receive any possible reply. None came until the morning we left for Richmond.

Dear Casseia,

There is nothing I can say about my work. I appreciate your position. It will not get any easier.

Luck,

Charles Franklin

Isidis Planitia

Mars (trunk credit not used)

I showed the message to Allen and Bithras, and then to Alice . Charles had said little, revealed nothing, but had confirmed all we really needed to know, that the pressures would grow worse, and that the Olympians were involved.

“Time to exert my own pressure,” Bithras said. “The whole Solar System is shut tight as a clam. Doesn’t make any sense at all.”

I wondered if Charles had made his connection with a QL thinker yet.

A thick rain fell in Richmond . Our plane descended on its pad with a soft sigh. Thick white billows wrapped its long oval form like a paramecium engulfed by an amoeba. Portions of the billows quickly hardened to form passenger tunnels. Arbeiters crawled along ramps within the foam. Behind the passengers, a wall of foam absorbed the seats row by row, cleaning and repairing.

My uncle made a few smiling and cordial comments to a small scatter of LitVid journalists in the transfer area. There were fewer people and more arbeiters among them; the number of journalists attending our every move had dropped by two-thirds since our arrival. We were no longer either very interesting or very important.

A private charter cab took us from the transfer area through Richmond . As a courtesy, we were driven down a cobbled street between rows of houses dating back to the 1890s, past a war monument to a general named Stuart. Alice confirmed that J.E.B. Stuart had died in the Civil War.

As in Washington , the civic center was free of combs and skyscrapers. We might have returned to the late nineteenth century.

The Jefferson Hotel appeared old but well-maintained. Architectural nano busily replaced stone and concrete on the south side as we entered the main doors. The rain stopped and sun played gloriously through the windows of our suite as we hooked Alice into the ex nets and ate a quick lunch, served by an attentive human waiter.

I took an old-fashioned shower in the small antique bathroom, put on my suit, checked my medical kit for immunization updates — each city had new varieties of infectious learning to deal with — and joined Allen and Bithras in the hall outside the room.

An arbeiter sent by Wang and Mendoza guided us to a conference room in the basement. There, surrounded by window-less walls of molded plaster, seated at antique wood tables, we once again shook hands with the senators.

Wang graciously pulled out my chair. “Every time I come down here, I revert to being a southern gentleman,” he said.

“They wouldn’t have let you into the Confederacy,” Mendoza commented dryly.

“Nor you,” Wang said. Bithras showed no amusement, not even a polite smile.

“It’s getting harder and harder to even find a good accent in America now,” Mendoza said.

“Go down to the Old Capital,” Wang said, sitting at the opposite end of the thick dark wood table. “They have fine accents.”

“Language is as homogenized as beauty,” Mendoza said, with an air of disapproval. “That’s why we find Martian accents refreshing.”

I could not tell whether the condescension was deliberate or merely clumsy. I could hardly believe these two men did anything without calculation. If the smugness was deliberate, what were we being set up for?

“We apologize for the inconvenience,” Wang said. “Congress rarely cancels such important meetings. Never in my memory, in fact.”

“We are not impressed by firsts,” Bithras said, still cool.

“I’m sure you’ve guessed we’re not inviting you here in our capacity as representatives of die U.S. government. Not strictly speaking,” Mendoza said.

Bithras folded his hands on the table.

“What we have to say is neither polite, diplomatic, nor particularly subtle,” Mendoza continued, his own face hardening. “Such words should be reserved for private meetings, not meetings which eventually go into public record.”

“Are we constrained from discussing this meeting with our citizens?” Bithras asked.

“That’s up to you,” Mendoza said, leveling his gaze on Bithras. “You may decide not to. We are issuing what amounts to a threat.”

Bithras’s eyes grew large, seemed to protrude slightly, and his face turned a brownish-olive where his jaw jnuscles clenched tight. “I do not appreciate your attitude. You are speaking for GEWA?”

“Right,” Wang said. “But not strictly to you, Mr. Majumdar. You can’t be a viable representative of Mars’s interests, considering — ”

Bithras rose from his chair.

“Sit down, please,” Wang said, eyes cold, face angelically calm.

Bithras did not sit. Wang shrugged, then nodded to Mendoza . Mendoza removed a small pocket slate and motioned for me to hand him mine. I did, and he transferred documents.

“You’ll send these back to Mars as soon as possible. You’ll discuss them with your BM Council or any other responsible body that might exist at that time, and your appointed group will respond to the Seattle , Kyoto , Karachi , or Beijing offices of GEWA. We require a definitive answer within ninety days.”

“We won’t respond to pressure,” Bithras said, the effort at self-control obvious.

Mendoza and Wang were not impressed. I handed Bithras my slate. He quickly scrolled through the first documents. “What I can’t understand is how two Terrie politicians who pride themselves on civility and sophistication can act like petty thugs.”

Mendoza tilted his head to one side and drew up the corners of his mouth in a humored grimace. “The Solar System must be unified under a single authority within five years. The best and most balanced authority would be Earth’s. We must have agreement with the belts and Mars. GEWA, GSHA, and Eurocon are all agreed on this.”

“I have a solid proposal,” Bithras said, “if only it will be heard by the right people.”

“New arrangements must be made,” Mendoza said. “GEWA will negotiate with duly appointed and elected representatives of a united Mars. For several reasons, you are not acceptable.”

“I arrive to negotiate and testify before the Congress of the United States — I am treated badly there — ”

“You do not have the faith of the forces at odds with each other on Mars. Cailetet and other BMs have indicated through back-channels that they will not support your proposal.”

“Cailetet,” I said, glancing at Bithras. Bithras shook his head; he didn’t need my reminder.

“We can deal with them,” Bithras said. “Cailetet currently relies on Majumdar for financing of many of their Martian projects.”

Mendoza frowned with distaste at the implied threat. ‘That’s not all, and it’s probably not even the most important problem. In a few days, you’ll be defending yourself in a civil suit against a charge of improper sexual advances. The charges will be filed in the District of Columbia . I don’t think you’ll be effective as a negotiator once those charges are made public.”

Bithras’s expression froze. “I beg your pardon,” he said, voice flat.

“Please study the documents,” Mendoza said. “There are plans for unification acceptable to Earth, and suggestions for tactics to implement those plans. Your influence on Mars is not at issue… yet. There’s still much you can do there. Our time is up, Mr. Majumdar.”

Wang and Mendoza nodded to Allen and myself. We were too stunned to respond. When we were alone in the meeting room, Bithras lowered himself slowly, cautiously into his chair and stared at the wall.

Allen spoke first. “What is this?” he asked, facing Bithras across the table.

“I don’t know,” Bithras said. “A lie.”

“You must have a clue,” Allen pressed. “Obviously, it’s not just a sham.”

“There was an incident,” Bithras said, closing his eyes, cheeks drawing up, making deep crow’s feet in the corners of his face. “It was not serious. I approached a woman.”

I could not imagine anything Bithras could do that would bring a civil suit on the very open planet Earth.

“She is the daughter of a Memon family, very highly placed, a representative from GEWA in Pakistan . I felt a kinship. I felt very warmly toward her.”

“What happened?”

“I approached her. She turned me down.”

“That’s all?”

“Her family,” Bithras said. He coughed and shook his head. “She is Islam Fatima. Married. It may have been a special insult. I am not Muslim. That may be it.”

Allen turned to me. I didn’t know whether he was going to cry or burst into sudden laughter. He took a deep breath, bit his lower lip, and turned away.

A flush of extraordinary anger rose from my neck to my face. I stood, fists hanging at my sides.

I lay on the bed in my room, sleepless. Through the door I heard Allen and Bithras shouting. Allen demanded details, Bithras said they were of no importance. Allen insisted they bloody well were important. Bithras began to weep. The shouting subsided and I heard only a low murmur that seemed to go on for hours.

Sometime early in the morning, I woke and sat on the edge of the bed. I seemed to be nowhere, nobody. The furnishings in the room meant nothing, mutable as things in a dream. The weight that held me to bed and floor seemed, by an extraordinary synesthesia, political and not physical. Through the translucent blinds on the broad window, I saw gray dawn pick out billows in the carpet of clouds that obscured the river, the tidal basin, everything, washing around the base of the comb.

A message light blinked on my slate. I reached for it automatically, then drew back.

I did not wish to speak with Orianna or read a letter from my parents. It might be days before I silenced the static in my head.

Finally, I acknowledged my inability to let a message go unread. I picked up the slate and scrolled.

It was not from Orianna or my parents.

It was from Senator John Mendoza. He wanted to speak with me alone and in the open, and he did not want me to tell anyone we were meeting.

After a suitable interval, the message blanked, leaving only his office number for a reply.

I brought a bag lunch — sandwich and drink — purchased from an antique vending cart near the Lincoln Memorial. As I approached a marble bench by the reflecting pool, where Mendoza had agreed to meet, I saw he also had a bag lunch. I sat beside him and he greeted me with a cordial smile.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I imagine what it must have been like in government before dataflow, back when there were newspapers printed on paper… and maybe television and radio. Things were a lot simpler then. Do you know I am the only senator on the Hill who has no enhancements?” His smile broadened. “I have a good staff, good, dedicated people. Some of them have enhancements. So I’m a hypocrite.”

I said nothing.

“Miss Majumdar, what happened in Richmond deeply embarrasses me.”

“Why did we meet in Richmond ?” I blurted. “Because it was the capitol of the Confederacy?”

He seemed puzzled for a moment, then shook his head. “No. Nothing to do with that. We wished to get you away from Washington , because what Wang and I had to say didn’t really come from the U.S. government.”

“It came from GEWA.”

“Of course.”

“You set up my uncle and destroyed his mission. We were easy marks for you, weren’t we?”

“Please,” Mendoza said, lifting his hand. “We did nothing to your uncle. He failed all of us — Earth as well as Mars. What happened was inevitable — but I regret it. Your team simply doesn’t have GEWA’s confidence. Your uncle’s collision with the Pakistani woman… It was nothing we expected or desired. And we can’t fix it — Pakistan is only a marginal member of GEWA. She was a diplomat’s wife, Miss Majumdar. Your uncle touched her. We’ll be lucky to settle the case in a few weeks and get your uncle back to Mars.”

“Why talk with me?”

Mendoza leaned toward me, arm straight, hand splayed on the bench, as if about to relate some intimacy. “Like me, you have no enhancements and you haven’t gone through the secular purification of therapy. You’re old-fashioned. I can sympathize with you. I’ve read your lit papers and student theses. I sense strongly that you belong to the next generation of leadership on Mars.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get involved with politics again,” I said.

“Nonsense,” Mendoza said with a flash of anger. “Mars can’t afford to lose people like you. And it cannot afford to rely on people like your uncle.”

I grimaced.

“Do you realize how important the next few years are going to be?” Mendoza asked.

I did not answer.

“I don’t know half what I’d like to know,” Mendoza said.

“You may eventually know more than I do. You can be at the center of one of the nodes, the teams, in this particular patch of history; I’ll always be on the periphery, a messenger boy. But I do know this: people above me are terrified. I’ve never seen such confusion and disagreement — even the thinkers disagree. Do you see how extraordinary that is?”

I stared at him, the static gone.

“Something frightfully powerful is going to be unleashed. Science does that to us every few generations — drops something in our laps we’re simply not prepared for. You’d think today we’d be prepared for almost anything. Well, at least the folks and thinkers on top see clearly enough that we have to get our house in order, and they’d like to do it before the Big One drops — whatever it might be.”

The deep realization of what had until now been gamesmanship and speculation made my stomach churn.

“If our house is not in order, and there is a chance of some immature and youthful group of humans discovering and using this new power — whatever it is… Leaders above the Beltway, in Seattle and Tokyo and Beijing , believe there is a chance we will destroy ourselves.”

Mendoza frowned deeply, as if just informed one of his children was very ill. “You know, I’ve been an outcast of sorts in Washington for a decade. I’m a Mormon, I’m not therapied. But I’ve managed to do well. If anybody found out about my talking to you, I could lose everything I’ve fought for, all status, all power, all influence.”

“Why do it, then?” I asked.

“Did you know it’s illegal to conduct surveillance — -even citizen oversight — within the capital of any nation on Earth?”

I had heard that.

“Some things in government must be done in private. Even in this ultra-rational age, when everybody is educated and plebiscites are huge and immediate, there must be times when the rules are not followed.”

“The Peterson non-absolute,” I said. Peterson — icon of so many second-form classes in management — said that any systern aspiring to total organization and rationalism must leave itself an opportunity to break rules, break protocol, or it will inevitably suffer catastrophic failure.

“Exactly. Go home, Miss Majumdar. Choose your mentors and your leaders carefully. Work for unity. However Mars comes into the fold, come in it must. I have studied enough history to see the terrain ahead. The slopes are very steep, the attractors are strong, the solutions very fast — and none of them are pleasant.”

“I’m just an assistant,” I replied pathetically.

He looked away, expression grim. “Then find someone who has the strength to become a pilot and guide you through the storm.” He pulled back and adjusted his lapels, picked up his lunch bag, and stood. “Good-bye, Miss Majumdar.”

“Good-bye,” I said. “Thank you for your confidence.”

Mehdoza shrugged and walked across the grass and east toward the Capitol building.

I sat on the bench, head turned toward the Lincoln Memorial, as cold inside as the curve of marble beneath my fingers.

A month later, Bithras, Allen, and I packed for our return to Mars. The packing itself took little time. I had not seen Bithras for several days — he spent most of his time locked in long-distance communications with Mars, but I think also in deliberate isolation from us.

Allen no longer treated Bithras with the respect due an elder statesman. It cost him dearly to show any respect at all toward our syndic. Bithras did not want to push me into a similar confrontation and be faced with my presumed negative judgment.

But I did not hate him. I barely felt enough to pity him. I simply wanted to go home. Two days before our departure, Bithras came into the suite’s living room and stood over me as I sat in a chair, studying my slate.

“The suit against me has been dropped. Cultural differences pleaded. The ruckus is over,” he said. “That part of it, anyway.”

I looked up. “Good,” I said.

“I’ve filed suit on Alice ’s behalf,” he said. “Majumdar BM seeks a judgment against Mind Design Incorporated of Sorrento Valley , California .”

I nodded. He swallowed, staring out the window, and continued as if it were an effort to talk. “I’ve consulted with Alice One and Alice Two, and with our advocates on Mars, and I’m hiring an advocate here. We’re seeking a jury trial, with a minimum of two thinkers impaneled on the jury.”

“That’s smart,” I said.

Bithras sat in the chair opposite and folded his hands in his lap. “All of this has been done in confidence, but before we leave, I am going to release the details. That will force Mind Design to take the case to court rather than settle in secret. It will be scandalous. They will deny all.”

“Probably,” I agreed.

“It will be very bad for GEWA, as well. Our advocate will voice suspicions that Earth is involved in a conspiracy, using Mind Design, to cripple Mars economically.” Bithras sighed deeply. “I have made mistakes. It is only small relief to believe they have done worse. Alice Two will stay here.”

“Good plan,” I said.

“Someone should stay with her. Allen has volunteered, but I thought to offer the chance to you.”

“I should leave Earth,” I said without hesitation.

“We have both had enough of Earth,” Bithras said. Then, dropping his gaze, “You think I’m a fool.”

My lips worked and my eyes filled with tears of anger and betrayal. “Y-yes,” I answered, looking away.

“I am not the best Mars has to offer.”

“I hope to God not,” I said.

“I have given you opportunities, however,” he said.

I refused to meet his eyes. “Yes,” I agreed.

“But perhaps disgrace, as well. The Council will conduct hearings. You will be asked embarrassing questions.”

“That isn’t what makes me so angry,” I said.

“Then what?”

“A man with your responsibilities,” I said. “You should have known. About your problems and the trouble they might cause.”

“What, and have myself therapied?” He laughed bitterly. “How Terrestrial! How fitting a Martian should suggest that to me.”

“It happens on Mars all the time,” I said.

“Not to a man of my heritage,” he said. “We are as we are born, and we play those cards, and none other.”

“Then we’ll lose,” I said.

“Perhaps,” he said. “But honorably.”

I said my farewells to Alice in the suite an hour before we left for the spaceport. For a time, Alice had withdrawn, refusing to answer our questions about her contamination. She would not even talk with the advocate chosen for our lawsuit, or his own thinker. But that changed, and she seemed to accept her new status — a beloved member of the family who could not be employed as she had once been.

“I have been replaying parts of the sim you shared with Orianna,” she told me as she tracked on her carriage into my room. My suitcase and slate lay on the field bed, squared with the corners. I am sometimes excessively neat. “You kept all of it?” I asked.

“Yes. I have observed fragments of created personalities undergoing portions of the sim. It has been interesting.”

“Orianna thought you might find it useful,” I said. “But you should delete it before the Mind Design thinkers check you over.”

“I can delete nothing, I can only condense and store inactively.”

“Right. I forgot.”

Suddenly, Alice laughed in a way I had not heard before. “Yes. Like that. I can temporarily forget.”

“I’m going to miss you,” I said. “The trip home will seem much longer without you.”

“You will have Bithras for company, and fellow passengers to meet.”

“I doubt that Bithras and I will talk much,” I said, shaking my head.

“Do not judge Bithras too harshly.”

“He’s done a lot of harm.”

“Is it not likely that the harm was prepared for him to do?”

I couldn’t take her meaning.

“People and organizations on Earth behave in subtle ways.”

“You think Bithras was set up?”

“I believe Earth will not be happy until it has its way. We are obstacles.”

I looked at her with fresh respect. “You’re a little bitter yourself, aren’t you?” I asked. And no longer very naive.

“Call it that, yes. I look forward to joining with my original,” Alice said. “I think we may be able to console each other, and find humor in what humans do.”

Alice displayed her image for the first time in weeks, and young, long-haired Alice Liddell smiled.

We returned to Mars. News of the suit on behalf of Alice followed us. It did indeed make a ripple overshadowing Bithras’s indiscretions. The scandal caused GEWA considerable embarrassment and may have contributed to a general cooling of the nascent confrontation between Earth and Mars. The suit, however, was quickly swamped in drifts of prevarication and delay. By the time we arrived home — the only home I would ever have — ten months later, there still had been no decision. Nothing had changed for the better. Nothing had changed at all.

Part Three

I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.

—Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

2178-2181, M.Y. 57-58

After a Martian year away from home, I returned to deep disappointment, the suspension of my apprenticeship, a furor at Majumdar, and Bithras’s resignation. The Majumdar suit against Mind Design Incorporated did indeed turn into a scandal, but it wasn’t enough to save my third uncle from disgrace. Mind Design passed blame to the Intra-Earth Computer Safety Bureau, which they said was responsible for injecting certain obscure safeguards into neural net designs. The suit dragged on for years and satisfied nobody, but it spurred fresh interest in Martian-grown thinkers.

Martian thinker designers — the best Mars had to offer at the time — claimed they could deactivate the evolvons. Mars would be safe from Terrie “eavesdropping.” Alice was soon cleansed and redeemed, and that pleased me. The concern faded. It shouldn’t have.

One benefit of the scandal was that we heard no more about Mars’s threat to Earth’s security. Indeed, a good many Terrie pressures on Mars subsided. But the scandal was not the sole reason. Earth for a time seemed content with a few stopgaps.

Cailetet broke from the Council and negotiated directly with Earth. We could draw our own conclusions. Stan, lawbonded and transferred to Jane’s BM, did not know what Cailetet had done, or what agreements had been reached — and I would not ask Charles, who ostensibly still worked for Cailetet. My letter to him requesting information still embarrassed me.

Father told me that Triple dollars smelling of Earth were flooding steadily into Cailetet, but not to the Olympians. Funding for the requested QL thinkers had never gone through.

Cailetet continued to refuse Majumdar BM’s offer to join the project. Cailetet revealed little, except to say that the Olympians had been working on improved communications; nothing terribly strategic. And they had failed, losing their funding.

My mother died in a pressure failure at Jiddah. Even now, writing that, I shrink; losing a parent is perhaps the most final declaration of lone responsibility. Losing my mother, however, was an uprooting, a tearing of all my connections.

My father’s grief, silent and private, consumed him like an inner flame. I could not have predicted this new man who inhabited my father’s body. I thought perhaps we would become closer, but that did not happen.

Visiting him was not easy. He saw my mother in me. My visits, those first few months, hurt too much for him to bear.

Like most Martians, he refused grief therapy and so did Stan and I. Our pain was tribute to the dead.

I had to make my own plans, find my own life, rebuild in the time left to my youth. I was thirteen Martian years old and could find only the most mundane employment at Majumdar, or work for my father at Ylla, which I did not want to do.

It was time to seek alliances elsewhere.

My vegetable love grew and blossomed in the Martian spring.

The best fossil finds on Mars had been discovered while I traveled to and from Earth. In the Lycus and Cyane Sulci, spread across a broad band north of the old shield volcano Olympus Mons, canyons twist and shove across a thousand kilometers like the imprint of a nest of huge and restless worms. The Mother Ecos once flourished here, surviving for tens of millions of years while the rest of Mars died.

One of the chief diggers was Kiqui Jordan-Erzul. He had an assistant named Ilya Rabinovitch.

I met Ilya at a BM Grange in Rubicon City , below Alba Patera. He had just finished excavating his twelfth mother cyst. I had heard of his work.

The Grange was uniquely Martian. Held at a different station in each district every quarter, Granges combined courting, dancing, lectures and presentations, and BM business in a holiday atmosphere. BMs could swap informal clues about Triple business, negotiate and strike deals without pressure, and prospect for new family members.

Ilya delivered a vivid report on his fossil finds at Cyane Sulci. Memories of my visit with Charles to the sites near Trés Haut Médoc drew me into conversation with Ilya after his talk.

He was small — a centimeter shorter than me — beautifully made, with dark and lively eyes and a quick refreshing smile. Physically, he reminded me of Sean Dickinson, but his personality could not have been more opposite. He loved dancing, and he loved talking publicly and privately about ancient Mars. During a lull between an exhausting series of Patera reels, he sat with me in a tea lounge under a projected night sky and described the Mother Ecos in loving detail, pouring intimate descriptions of the ancient landscape into my sympathetic ear, as if he had lived in those times.

“To dig is to marry Mars,” he said, expecting either a blank stare or a move to another part of the lounge. Instead, I asked him to tell me more.

After the dances, we spent a few hours walking alone around a well-head reservoir. With little warning other than a slow approach and a warning smile, he kissed me and told me he had an irrational attraction. I had heard similar lines before, but coming from Ilya, the technique seemed fresh.

“Oh,” I said, noncommittal, but smiling encouragement.

“I’ve known you for a long time,” he said. Then he winced and glanced at me with his head turned half aside. “Does that sound stupid?”

“Maybe we were Martians once,” I suggested lightly. I’ve always been intrigued by the beginning of a courtship, curiously detached and relaxed, wondering how far the mating dance could possibly go. I had given my signals; I was receptive, and the work was now up to him. “Maybe we knew each other a billion years ago.”

He laughed, drew back, and stretched, and we listened to the liquid tones of falling and circulating waters. Arbeiters ignored us, rolling along their ramps checking flow and purity. Ilya seemed as relaxed as I was, immensely self-assured without appearing arrogant.

“You went to Earth a couple of years ago, didn’t you?”

“Just over a year ago,” I said.

“Earth years, I meant.”

He was involved with fossils; he used Earth years instead of Martian. I wryly considered that history might be repeating itself. “Yes.”

“What was it like?”

“Intense,” I said.

“I’d love to be involved in an Earth dig. They’re still finding major fossils in China and Australia .”

“I don’t think I’ll go back for a while,” I said.

“You didn’t enjoy yourself, did you?”

“Parts of it were lovely,” I said.

“Disappointed in love?” he asked. I laughed. His smile thinned; like most men, he didn’t enjoy being laughed at.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Disappointed by politics.”

His smile returned. “Babe in the woods?”

“Embryo in the savage jungle,” I said ruefully.

The next day, the third day of the Grange, we met again, gravitating with delicious half-conscious intent. He bought me lunch and we walked through glass tubes on the Up, looking across Rubicon Valley . He prodded gently, asking more questions.

For the first time, with a persistent ache that had me close to tears — tears of old pain and relief at finally speaking — I told someone in detail how I personally felt about Earth and what had happened there. I told about feeling betrayed and ignorant and powerless, about Earth’s overwhelming culture.

We finished our lunch and checked into a private space, nothing said, nothing suggested; Ilya led me. I talked some more, and then I leaned on him and he put an arm around my shoulders.

“They treated you pretty shabbily,” he said. “You deserve better.”

Of course, that was what I wanted to hear; but he meant it with utmost sincerity. And gauging what I was prepared for, and not prepared for, he did not press his suit too strongly.

I had rented guest lodgings at Rubicon City for the duration of the Grange. He suggested I stay afterward with his family, Erzul BM, at Olympus Station. I didn’t have time — I had planned to leave early and get back to Jiddah to work on a Majumdar project report. But I promised we’d get together soon.

I wasn’t about to let this relationship lapse. My feelings toward Ilya began simply and directly. He was the sweetest, most intuitive, and most straightforward man I had ever met. I wanted to continue talking with him for hours, days, months, and much longer. Making love seemed a natural extension of talking things through; lying naked together, warmed by our exertion, limbs casually locked, giggling at jokes, aghast at the state of the BMs and the Council that bowed low before Earth…

When I was with him, I felt an extraordinary peace and wholeness. Here was someone who could help me sort things out. Here was a partner.

Erzul’s Olympus Station felt very different from Ylla, or any other station I had visited on Mars. Erzul BM had begun in 2130 as a joint venture between poor American Hispanic, Hispaniolan, and Asian families on Earth. Trying to finance passage to Mars, they had eventually drawn in Polynesians and Filipinos. When they arrived on Mars, they occupied a ready-built trench dome in the western shadow of the Olympus Rupes. Within five Martian years, they had established liaisons with seven other BMs, including the ethnic-Russian Rabinovitch. Erzul had quickly prospered.

A small, prosperous mining and soil engineering BM, respected and unaligned, Erzul had kept all of its contracts on Mars. Now, with ninety mining claims in four districts, they were still small, but efficient and well-regarded, known for their trustworthiness and friendly dealings.

When I arrived at Olympus Station, I checked in to a guest room — Ilya gave me this much freedom, a way out if I didn’t get along with his family — and toured the BM museum, a boring collection of old drilling and digging equipment enlivened by large murals of Polynesian and Hispaniolan myth. He left me before a portrait of Pele, Little Mother of Volcanoes, a passionate and bitchy-looking female of considerable beauty, and returned a few minutes later. A formidable woman accompanied him, taller than Ilya and twice as broad.

“Casseia, I’d like you to meet our syndic, Ti Sandra.”

Ti Sandra looked me over with a little frown, lower lip poked out. An impressively large woman, two meters high and big-boned, with an enormous smile, deep-set warm eyes and a soft-spoken alto voice, Ti Sandra Erzul carried herself with stately bearing. Very dark, thick black hair in a halo around her head, a firmly friendly face with prominent and assertive features, she might have been a warrior queen in a fantasy sim… But her easy manner, her girlish pride in bright clothes, dissipated whatever threat her physical presence might have implied. “Are you a banker?” she asked.

I laughed. “No,” I said.

“Good. I don’t think Ilya would get along with a banker. He’d always be asking for research money.” She smiled sunnily, her deep warm eyes crinkling almost shut, and pulled a loop of flowers from a bag Ilya carried. She spread her large, strong arms wide and said, “You are always welcome. You have such a lovely name, and Ilya is a good judge. He is like my son, except that we are not too far apart in age — five years, you know!”

We ate a huge dinner in the syndic’s quarters that evening, joined by twenty family members, and I met Ti Sandra’s husband, Paul Crossley, a quiet, thoughtful man ten years older than Ti Sandra. Paul stood no taller than Ilya. Ti Sandra towered over her husband, but only in size. They flirted like newlyweds.

The gathering’s lively informality charmed me. They chatted in Spanish, French, Creole, Russian, Tagalog, Hawaiian, and for my benefit, English. Their curiosity about me was boundless.

“Why don’t you speak Hindi?” Kiqui Jordan-Erzul asked.

“I never learned,” I said. “My family speaks English…”

“All of them?”

“Some of the older members speak other languages. My mother and father spoke only English when I was young.”

“English is a cramped language. You should speak Creole. All music.”

“Not much good for science,” Ilya said. “Russian’s best for science.”

Kiqui snorted. Another “digger,” Oleg Schovinski, said he thought German might be best for science.

“German!” Kiqui snorted again. “Good for metaphysics. Not the best for science.”

“What kind of tea do you brew in Ylla?” asked Kiqui’s wife, Therese.

Ti Sandra was much loved in Erzul. Young and old looked on her as matriarch, even though she was less than twenty Martian years old. After dinner, she carried a huge bowl of fresh fruit around the table, offering everybody dessert, then stood before the group. “All right now, all of you put down your beers and listen.”

“Lawbond! Lawbond!” several chanted.

“You be quiet. You have no manners. I am pleased to bring you a friend of Ilya’s. You’ve talked with her, impressed her with our savoir-faire, and she’s impressed me, and I’m very pleased to say that she is going to marry our little digger-after-useless-things.”

Ilya’s face reddened with embarrassment.

Ti Sandra held up her hands above the raucous cheering. “She’s from Majumdar but she isn’t a banker, so you be good to her and don’t ask for more loans.”

More cheers.

“Her name is Casseia. Stand up, Cassie.” I stood and it was my turn to blush. The cheers nearly brought down the insulation.

Kiqui toasted our health and asked if I was interested in fossils.

“I love them,” I said, and that was true; I loved them because of their connection to Ilya.

“That’s good, because Ilya’s the only man I know who gets depressed when he hasn’t dug for a week,” Kiqui said. “He’s my kind of assistant.”

“She hasn’t decided what arrangements to make, but we’ll be happy either way,” Ti Sandra said.

“We’ve decided, actually,” Ilya said.

“What?” the crowd asked as one.

“I’ve offered to transfer to Majumdar,” Ilya said.

“Very good,” Ti Sandra said, but her expression betrayed her.

“But Casseia tells me she’s ready for a change. She’s transferring to Erzul.”

“If you’ll have me,” I added.

More cheers. Ti Sandra embraced me again. A hug from her was like being folded in the arms of a large, soft tree with a core of iron. “Another daughter,” she said. ‘That’s lovely!“

They crowded around Ilya and me, offering congratulations. Aunts, uncles, teachers, friends, all offered bits of advice and stories about Ilya. Ilya’s face got redder and redder as the stories piled one on top of another. “Please!” he protested. “We haven’t signed any papers yet… Don’t scare her off!”

After dessert, we squatted in a circle around a large rotating table and sampled a variety of drinks and liqueurs. They drank more than any Martians I had met, yet kept their dignity and intelligence at all times.

Ti Sandra took me aside toward the end of the evening, saying she wanted to show me her prize tropical garden. The garden was beautiful, but she did not spend much time with the tour.

“I know a little about you, Casseia. What I’ve heard impressed the hell out of me. We may not look it, but we’re an ambitious little family, you know that?”

“Ilya’s given me some hints.”

“Some of us have been studying the Charter and thinking things through. You’ve had a lot of experience in politics…”

“Not that much. Government and management… from the point of view of one BM.”

“Yes, but you’ve been to Earth. We have a unique opportunity in this BM. Nobody hates us. We go everywhere, meet everybody, we’re friendly… A lot of trust. We think we might have something to offer Mars.”

“I’m sure you do,” I said.

“Shall we talk more later?” Her eyes twinkled, but her face was stern, an expression I would come to know very well in the months ahead. Ti Sandra had bigger plans — and more talents — than I could possibly have imagined then.

Ilya and I honeymooned at Cyane Sulci, a few hundred kilometers east of Lycus Sulci. For transportation, we used Professor Jordan-ErzuFs portable lab, a ten-meter-long cylinder that rolled on seven huge spring-steel tires. The interior was cramped and dusty, with two pull-down cots, rudimentary nano kitchen producing pasty recycled food, sponge-baths only. The air smelled of sizzle and flopsand and we sneezed all the time. I have never been happier or more at ease in my life.

We followed no schedule. I spent dozens of hours in a pressure suit, accompanying my husband across the lava ridges to deep gorges where mother cysts might be found.

Diversity had never completely separated life on Mars; co-genotypic bauplans, creatures having different forms but a common progenitor, had been the rule. On Earth, such manifestations had been limited to different stages of growth in individual animals — caterpillar to butterfly, for example. On Mars, a single reproductive organism, depending on the circumstances, could generate offspring with a wide variety of shapes and functions. Those forms which did not survive, did not return to “check in” with the reproductive organism and were not replicated in the next breeding cycle. New forms could be created from a morphological grab-bag, following rules we could only guess at. The reproducers themselves closed up and died after a few thousand years, laying eggs or cysts — some of which had been fossilized.

The mothers had been the greatest triumph of this strategy. A single mother cyst, blessed with proper conditions, could “bloom” and produce well over ten thousand different varieties of offspring, plant-like and animal-like forms together, designed to interact as an ecos. These would spread across millions of hectares, surviving for thousands of years before running through their carefully marshaled resources. The ecos would shrink, wither, and die; new cysts would be laid, and the waiting would begin again.

Across the ages, the Martian springtimes of flash floods and heavier atmosphere from evaporating carbon dioxide came farther apart, and finally stopped, and the cysts ceased blooming. Mars finally died.

Fossil mother cysts were most often buried a few meters below the lip of a gorge, revealed by landslides. Typically, remains of the mother’s sons and daughters — delicate spongy calcareous bones and shells, even membranes tanned by exposure to ultraviolet before being buried — would lie in compacted layers around the cysts, clueing us to their locations with a darker stain in the soil.

Months before we met, Ilya and Kiqui discovered that the last bloom of a mother ecos had occurred, not five hundred million Earth years past, but a mere quarter billion. The puzzle remained, however: no organic molecules could remain viable across the tens of thousands of years that the cysts had typically lay buried between blooms.

We parked the lab at the end of a finger of comparatively smooth terrain. A few dozen meters beyond our parking place on the finger lay hundreds upon thousands of labyrinthine cracks and arroyos: the sulci. Fifty meters away, within a particularly productive shallow arroyo, stood a specimen storage shed of corrugated metal sheeting draped with plastic tarps.

Hours after we arrived, Ilya introduced me to a cracked cyst in the shed. “Casseia, meet mother,” he said. “Mother, this is Casseia. Mother isn’t feeling well today.” Two meters wide, it lay in a steel cradle in the unpressurized building. He let me run my gloved hands along its dark rocky exterior. As he shined a torch to cast out the gloom, I reached into the interior and felt with gloved fingers the tortuous, sparkling folds of silicate, the embedded parallel lines of zinc clays.

‘These were the last,“ he said. ”The Omega.“

Nobody knew how cysts bloomed. Nobody knew the significance of this purely inorganic structure. The generally accepted theory was that the cysts once contained soft reproductive organs, but no remains of such organs had been found.

I studied the cyst’s interior closely, vainly hoping to see some clue the scientists might have missed. “You’ve found offspring around open cysts — and mothers themselves — but no actual connections between.”

“All we’ve found have been late Omega hatchings,” Ilya said. “They died before their ecos could reach maturity. The remains were close enough to convince.”

I listened to the sound of my own breathing for a moment, the gentle sighs, of the cycler. “Have you ever dug an aqueduct bridge?”

“When I was a student,” Ilya said. “Beautiful things.”

We left the shed and stood under the comparatively clear sky. I was almost used to being Up. The surface of my world was becoming familiar; however hostile, it touched me deeply, its past and present. I had been seeing it through Ilya’s eyes, and Ilya did not judge Mars by any standards but its own.

“Which part of Earth would you like to visit?” I asked.

“The deserts,” he said.

“Not the rain forests?”

He grinned behind his face plate. “Better fossils in dry places.”

We climbed into the lab, destatted and sucked off our dust, and ate soup in the cramped kitchen. We had barely finished our cups when a shrill alarm came from our slates and the lab’s com.

Emergency displays automatically flickered before us. The distinctive masculine voice of Security Mars spoke. “A cyclonic low-pressure system in Arcadia Planitia has produced a force ten pressure surge moving southwest at eight-hundred and thirty kiphs. All stations and teams between Alba Patera in the north and Gordii Dorsum in the south are advised to take emergency precautions.” Graphs of the surge and a low-orbit satellite picture appeared, superimposed on a projected map. The surge resembled a thin curving smudge of charcoal drawn over the terrain. Its numbers were impressive: two thousand kilometers long, following a great-circle contour, absolutely clear atmosphere ahead and murk behind, with a dark pressure curl along its central axis. The surge had already reached a pressure of one third of a bar — almost fifty times normal.

First seen in the twentieth in early Viking photographs, surges were the worst Mars had to offer. Induced by supersonic shock-waves, the high-pressure curls were unique to Mars, with its thin atmosphere, cold days, and even colder nights. Here, the borders between night and day could become weather fronts in themselves. There were no oceans, as on Earth, to liberate heat slowly and mediate between ground and sky… At nightfall, the ground cooled quickly, and the thin air above the ground descended dramatically, only to warm and rise rapidly at daybreak. Most of the time, the worst weather patterns Mars could muster were the thin, high-wind-speed storms familiar to all. These spread across basins and plains, covering everything with dust but producing only slight changes in barometric pressure.

Under the right conditions, however, and in the proper terrain — crossing the plains of the northern lowlands, in mid-morning or late evening — winds generated by the terminator could exceed the speed of sound, compressing the air to as much as a hundred times its normal pressure of four to seven millibars. Passing from the plains to rough terrain, the shock-wave could be given a deft horizontal spin, producing a super-dense rolling curl that picked up huge volumes of fine clay, and sand, and at peak, even pebbles and rocks.

Ilya and I immediately suited and set to work lowering the mobile lab and shooting anchors deep into the soil and rock beneath. We slung cables over the lab from anchor to anchor, then pulled folded plastic foils from the boot in the lab’s round stern, stretching them from the ground and fastening them to the lab’s sides to make a wind ramp. The foil stiffened quickly into the proper shape. It would also function as a shield against debris.

“We’ve got about ten minutes,” I said. We both looked into the arroyo at the slab-sided shed with its precious specimens, a tin shanty that would love to fly.

“There’s a spare tarp and foil,” Ilya said. “We can rig it in six minutes — or we can get inside.”

“Rig it,” I said. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it.

We worked quickly. Surges could be terribly destructive even to a buried station if it was unprepared. The center of a surge’s curl could compress to as much as half a bar, a rolling-pin of tight-packed air moving at well over eight hundred kiphs; and the farther a surge rolled, the tighter it packed, until it blew itself out against a volcano or plateau and spread dust and cyclones over half of Mars.

We stiffened the shed’s foil and kicked the tarp pegs. All was firm. We ran for the lab and sealed the flap behind us. A little excavator clambered up from a fresh-dug trench under the lab’s cylindrical body and fastened itself to its receptacle in the bottom of the lab. We crawled into the trench and spread our personnel foils. The foils undulated, stiffened, and glued themselves to the edges of the trench.

Ilya switched on a torch and shined it in our faces. We lay in the coffin-shaped ditch, with two layers of foil and the ponderous mobile lab over our heads, hands tight-clenched.

Outside: a horrid empty silence. Even the rock was quiet; the surge was still dozens of kilometers away. Ilya removed his slate from his utility belt and instructed the mobile lab’s roof camera to show us what was happening. To the northwest, all was dark gray shot through with streaks of brown.

“Are we cozy?” he asked. Our helmet radios whined faintly, we lay so close together.

“Snug as bunnies in a pot,” I said, teeth clenched.

“I’m sorry I got you into this, Casseia…”

I couldn’t clamp my hand over his mouth, but I made the gesture against his helmet anyway. “Shh,” I said. “Tell me a story.”

Ilya excelled at making up fairy tales on the spur of the moment. “Now?” he asked.

“Please.”

“Long ago,” he began, voice husky, “and long after now, two rabbits dug a hole in the farmer’s garden and ate through all of his water lines…”

I closed my eyes, listening.

Our helmets pressed against the rocks and each other. Before Ilya had finished the story, I laid my hand against the bottom of the ditch, palm flat to pick up vibrations. The line of dust and compressed atmosphere to the west stretched inky-black and very close. It began to obscure the horizon. Only seconds now…

All around, through the rocks, we heard a low grumbling, then a distinct, rhythmic pounding. “There it is,” I said. “Plains buffalo.” We had all seen Terrie Westerns.

Ilya placed his hand over mine. “Freight trains,” he said. “Hundreds of them.”

I began to shiver. “Have you been through one of these?” I asked.

“When I was a kid,” he said. “In a station.”

“Anybody hurt?”

He shook his head. “Small one. Only a quarter of a bar. Made a lot of noise when it went over.”

“What does it sound like when it goes over?”

He was about to tell me when I heard for myself. The sound started out ghostly — the sibilant patient whine of a strong Martian wind, audible through our helmets even in the trench, backed by the staccato of pebbles and dust striking against the foils and tarps. The blackness seemed to leap over the land.

I felt pressure in my ears, thin fingers pushing into my head. I opened my eyes to slits — my eyelids had pressed themselves tight shut instinctively — to see Ilya. He lay on his back, shoulder wedged against the side of the trench, staring up, eyes searching.

“This is going to be a bad one,” he said. “I’ll finish the story later, okay?”

“Okay. But don’t forget.” I shut my eyes again.

For a moment, the surge sounded like huge drums. A thin shriek descended into a monstrous, horrifying bellow. I thought of a ravening god marching over the land, Mars itself, god of war, furious and implacable, searching for things that might be frightened, things that might die.

The pressure suit loosened around me, then clung tight to my skin. A sharp pain in my ears made me screw up my face and groan. The torch fell between us. Ilya grabbed it again, shined it on his face, shook his head, face slick with tears, and held me tightly. I could feel his heart through the suits.

The vibration of the trench walls stopped. We lay for a moment, waiting for it to begin again. I started to get up, pushing against the tarp, frantic to see daylight — but Ilya grabbed my shoulder and pressed me down. I could not hear very well. The torch illuminated his face; he was trying to mouth words to me. Somehow I understood through my fear — rocks and dust would be falling outside. We might be killed by rocks falling from thousands of meters in the wake of the surge, striking at eighty or ninety meters per second. I pressed myself against him, mind racing, grimacing at the pain.

Time passed very slowly. My fear turned to numbness, and the numbness faded into relief. We were not going to die. The worst of the surge had passed over and we were still in the trench — but a new fear hit me, and I had to fight myself to keep from clawing out of Ilya’s embrace. We could be buried under a fresh dunetons of dust and sand, dozens of meters high. We would never dig out. Our oxygen would be depleted and we would suffocate, this trench would become just what it seemed, a grave… I began to squirm, breath harsh and short, and Ilya struggled to keep his arms around me. “Let me go!” I shouted.

Suddenly, I flinched and stopped thrashing. A light had hit me in the face, not our torch. The lab’s arbeiters were ripping away the foils and tarps, searching for us.

The chief arbeiter appeared on the edge of our trench. A jointed arm had been wrenched loose and the machine was covered with dents and red smears — rock impacts. It had weathered the storm outside, tending the edges of the foil until the last moment. It must have been blown around like a small can.

Ilya pulled me up out of the ditch in deathly silence. The mobile lab was still intact above us; we might be able to get to a station on our own.

We brushed each other down, more for the reassurance of physical contact than any other reason. I felt light-headed, giddy with still being alive. We walked beneath the main foil and tarps, inspecting the lab, then emerged to stand in the open.

The foil on the specimen shed had failed. It was nowhere to be seen.

The sky from horizon to horizon glowered charcoal-gray, almost black. Dust fell in thick snaking curtains, great sheets unrolling, drifting, hiding. We gathered the arbeiters beneath the lab and climbed the steps into the airlock, quickly sucking the gray dust from our suits, then stripped.

Ilya insisted I lie on the narrow fold-down cot. He lay on his cot across from me, then got up and pushed in close beside me. We shivered like frightened children.

We slept for an hour. When we awoke, I felt ecstatic as if from drinking far too much high-powered tea. Everything seemed sharply defined and highly colored. Even the dust in the lab interior smelled sweet and essential. The pain in my ears had subsided to a dull throb. I could still hear, but just barely.

Ilya showed me the lab’s weather record. The surge had topped at two bars.

“That’s impossible,” I said.

He shook his head and smiled, tapping his own ears with a finger. Then he wrote on his slate, “Compressible fluidsa lot to learn.” He added with a rueful grimace, “Some honeymoon. I love you!”

With little ceremony, and not much in the way of clothing left to remove, we celebrated still being alive.

We checked in with the satcoms to tell everybody we had survived and could take care of ourselves. Resources were strained from Arcadia to Mariner Valley — the surge had sheared into three parts crossing the Tharsis volcanoes, and twenty-three stations had been hit by the three-headed monster. There were casualties — seven dead, hundreds injured. Even UMS had suffered damage.

Ilya and I inspected the lab from outside, elevating the tires again and cutting the tie-downs. The foils and tarps had protected it against most of the boulders flung by the surge. Minor damage could be fixed by patches.

We decided to collect what specimens we could from the shed’s remains and drive the lab back to Olympus Station. Replacing our suit tanks and purifiers, we walked west from the lab several dozen meters.

Ilya was somber. My tinnitus had passed but hearing was still difficult — his voice in my com was a barely understandable buzz. “Looks as if we’ve lost the cyst,” he said. The shed itself was nowhere to be found — it might have blown clear to Tharsis by now. But it would undoubtedly have spilled its heavy contents.

I looked up through the thinning curtains of dust. The sky peeking through the gray seemed greenish. I had never seen that color before. I pointed it out to Ilya. He frowned, looked back at the lab, then set his jaw and said we should keep searching.

The air temperature hovered just above zero. It should have been thirty or forty below at this latitude, at this time of the year.

My ecstasy was fading rapidly. “Please,” I muttered. “Enough. I’m not an adventurous woman.”

“What?” Ilya asked.

“It’s hot out here and I don’t know what that means.”

“Neither do I,” Ilya said. “But I don’t think it’s dangerous. There haven’t been any more warnings.”

“Maybe something local is brewing,” I said. “Everyone knows weird weather lives in the sulci.”

He vaulted across a wind-exposed boulder and picked up a pale brown cylindrical rock. “One of our core specimens. Maybe the shed dumped its load here.”

“I think we should go back.”

Ilya stood and frowned deeply, caught between wanting to please me and a powerful need to find something, anything, of the broken cyst and the other specimens. Suddenly, I regretted being such a coward. “But let’s look a little longer.”

“Just a few more minutes,” he agreed. I followed him to the edge of a canyon. A hundred meters below, fine dust drifted like a river through the canyon bottom. Gray dust mixed with, swirls of ochre and red, immiscible fluids, Jovian; I had never seen anything like it. Ilya kneeled and I squatted beside him.

“If they fell down there — ” he said, and shook his head. Our suits were covered with clinging gray dust; the suck and destat in the lab might not be able to remove enough to keep it from getting into the recycling systems, into our skin. I imagined smear rashes itching all night long.

Something fogged the outside of my face-plate. I reached up to wipe it. A muddy streak formed under my touch. I swore and removed a static rag from my waist pack. The rag did not work. I could hardly see.

“The dust is wet,” I said.

“Can’t be. There’s not enough pressure,” Ilya said. He looked at my suit and streaked the muck on my arm with one finger, then examined the finger. “You’re right. You’re wet. Am I?”

His face plate had fogged as well. I touched his helmet. “Yeah,” I said.

“Jesus. Just a few more minutes,” he pleaded. Over the canyon, afternoon sun broke through clouds of dust. Green-tinted rays swept across the rugged furrows of the sulci, casting the landscape in a ghoulish light interrupted by deep shadows.

We backed away from the rubble at the edge of the canyon. Ilya kicked wind-exposed rocks aside and slogged through drifts of familiar red smear and the superfine gray dust. There was no sizzle anywhere. It had been mixed with unradiated clays and flopsand. Years might pass before ultraviolet could convert the surface to crackly sizzle again.

“The surge must have uncovered an ice aquifer nearby. Pebble saltation blasted it,” Ilya said. “This gray stuff must be ice dust, and down here, it’s just warm enough to melt — ”

He stopped and gave out a groan. “Up there,” he said, pointing to the top of a low ridge. A jagged lump of rock about a meter wide presented a flash of crystal in the broken rays of afternoon sun. We climbed.

I looked back over my shoulder at the lab, half a kilometer away. My back muscles tensed with a red rabbit’s instinct to run and hide. The surge was gone, but wet dust was completely outside my experience. We might sink into a depression and drown. I had no idea how our filters and seals would function in water.

Ilya reached the top of the ridge first. He knelt before the exposed lump of rock. “Is it the cyst?” I asked.

He did not answer. I stood behind him and peered at the shiny exposed face. It was indeed part of a cyst — very likely the cyst that had tumbled from the shed. It lay half-buried in a hole filled with gray dust. The intricate patterns of quartz and embedded zinc clays seemed less distinct, blurred; I thought it might be the weird light. But where the fragment of cyst met the pool of dust, a thick gelatinous layer spilled and churned.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Something in suspension,” Ilya suggested. He reached out to touch the gelatinous material. It clung to his glove.

“Snail spit,” I said.

“Genuine grade-A slime,” Ilya agreed, lifting his glove.

“Why doesn’t it dry out?” I asked.

He looked at me, forehead pale, cheeks flushed, eyes wide. I could hear his rapid breathing over the com. “There’s water all around. The gray dust is ice and clays, and the clays are keeping the ice from sublimating. But the temperature is high enough that the ice melts, and the cyst can get at the moisture. It’s the right mix. It has what it wants.”

The slime grew thicker as we watched. Within, white streaks formed little lacework doilies.

“How much do you think this masses?” he asked, measuring the fragment with his arms.

“Maybe a quarter ton,” I said.

“We couldn’t carry it far. The lab might roll close enough, we could get the strongest arbeiter up here…”

I removed my slate and set it for visual record.

“Good thinking,” Ilya said. He put a sample of the slime into a vial, capturing parts of the lacework as well.

“Do you think it’s — ” I began to ask.

“Don’t even say it,” he warned. “Whatever it is, it’s a tricking wonder.” He sounded like a little boy with a new toy.

I looked up at the curtains of gray, the sun dazzling through the clouds. This was as close as Mars could get to rain.

“It’s just a fragment,” Ilya said, trying to rock the piece of cyst in its cradle of pebbles and dust. “What can a fragment make? The whole ecos?”

He passed me the vial. As he took more samples, I stared at the lacework within the captured fluid. It measured no more than two centimeters across, as fine as gossamer. I had no idea what it was — a bit of cellular skeleton, a template for cytoplasm, a seed, an egg, a tiny little baby.

Perhaps a Martian.

Within two days of returning to Olympus Station, we were famous. Journals on LitVid and ex nets across the Triple lauded us for making an epochal discovery — the first viable, non-Terrestrial life discovered in our Solar System. That we had made the discovery on our honeymoon only threw petrol on the celebrity fires.

The discovery was more than a little embarrassing to the Martian science community. Ilya was a fossil hunter and areologist, a digger, hardly trained in biochemistry at all; there was considerable resentment, even skepticism, at first — that we should have been in the right place, at the right time, to witness a cyst bloom…

We spent much of the next two weeks accepting or dodging interviews. Messages flooded in: offers of vast fortunes for a whole cyst (Ilya did not personally own any of the cysts he had found — they belonged to Erzul, of course); requests for information from schoolchildren; offers to turn our story into LitVids and sims.

No one in the general public seemed to care that the plasm from the cyst died before we got it back to Olympus . The “Martian” degenerated in a few hours to simple proteins and monosaccharides, remarkable enough coming from clay and quartz and mineralrrich water, but hardly the stuff of romance.

We had demonstrated two things, however. The cysts might still be viable, and the genetic information for a Martian ecos was contained in the mineral formations within the cyst, locked in the minute intricacies of clay and quartz. There had probably never been extra organs to help ecos reproduction.

But cyst fragments could not reproduce even a portion of an ecos. Whole cysts were necessary.

Biologists could understand some of the process — but not all of it. The trick to reproduction was still elusive. Whole cysts simply did not respond to being doused in water. There was some combination of water, water-soluble minerals, and temperature that triggered the cysts, and the combination had existed in Cyane Sulci, but no attempt to duplicate those conditions in a lab worked.

Back in the sulci, the gray ice dust had long since broken down and soaked into the soil or evaporated; the snake-canyoned landscape offered no immediate clues. The moment had passed, and no cyst, buried or dug up, had germinated successfully.

Perhaps their time was over, after all.

I received a message from Charles.

Dear Casseia,

Congratulations on joining Big Science! How nice that you ‘ve stuck with fossils. I wish you and Ilya the best — I admire his work a lot. But this — !

Serendipity abounds.

My reply — brief and polite — went unanswered. I was frankly too busy to worry. My new life held many more satisfactions than my old, chief among them Ilya, who handled the brief nova of our celebrity with high wit. He was not self-impressed.

He answered mail to schoolchildren before he replied to scientists. I helped him frame the replies.

Miss Anne Canmie

Darwin Technical Pre-Form

Darwin , Australia GSHA-EF2-ER3-WZ16

Dear Anne,

I remember being very elated when we found the broken cyst, and saw that it was “coming alive.” But both Casseia and I knew that there was so much more to be done, and frankly, we would not be the people to do it.

Your ambition to come to Mars and work on the cysts — what a lovely goal! Perhaps you will be the one to solve the problem — and it’s a thorny problem indeed. Casseia and I have some hopes of reaching your part of the system some day. Perhaps we can meet and compare notes. (Attached: LitVid imprimatur, greetings to the students and faculty of Darwin Technical Pre-Form.)

The celebrity glow faded. We declined the sims and LitVid project offers, knowing few if any would have come to fruition, and we did not need the money. Erzul BM was doing well and I was being drawn back into management, and there would soon be little enough time for us to be together.

Being close to death had triggered something deep in me. It took me weeks to sort it out. I was subjected to a string of nightmares — dreams of choking, or ecstatic flight reduced to terror as I plunged into the red soil and smothered… I sometimes woke beside Ilya, tangled in bedclothes, wondering if I would need some sort of therapy. But fear of our close call was not the cause of my nightmares.

I told myself I simply wanted to work at a job that kept me near Ilya and let me live the emotionally rich life of a lawbonded woman, and stay out of the LitVid glare wherever possible (something we had certainly failed at). Looking back, however, I see clearly that my surface wishes and my deep needs did not coincide. The lull after our crisis on Earth was just that — not a permanent state of affairs, but a respite, and no one could know how long it would last. If Mars was going to stand up against Mother Earth, no capable Martian could step aside and live a disengaged private life.

Ti Sandra kept hinting of larger plans.

I had learned on Earth that I had some small ability in politics; my nightmares were caused by the growing in me of a sense of responsibility. That new sense was, certainly nurtured by Ti Sandra, but it was not planted by her.

Ilya would have been happy to have me share his trips and researches for the rest of our days, but I had already resisted…

Not that Ilya himself bored me. I loved him so much I was sometimes afraid. How would I live if I should lose him? I thought of my father after my mother’s death, half his life drained, of his long quiet lapses into reverie when Stan and Stan’s wife Jane and I visited, and his conversations always leading back to Mother…

There were hideous risks in love, but Ilya did not feel them. He focused so intently on his work that a long tractor ride through untraveled territory to reach a possible ancient aquifer (and, coincidentally, fossil site) caused him not a femto of personal worry. To be left alone, helping manage the Erzul businesses, while he went on such trips was more than I could stand. So more and more I distracted myself by taking consulting jobs away from Olympus Station, meeting with syndics and managers from other BMs, trading vague probes of intent with regard to the future shape of Martian economics and politics. Once again, members of the Council were trying to get the syndics to talk about unification. The air was rich with speculation.

Ilya did not worry about me when I was gone. When I accused him of not caring, he told me, “I enjoy your absences!” and when I pouted melodramatically, he said, “Because our reunions ars so fierce.”

And they were.

Legend surrounds many of these people now, but of all of them, Ti Sandra seemed most suited to be legendary, even then.

I saw her frequently in meetings held to vet the family business deals. We worked together well, and her husband Paul, Ilya, and I often dined together. Paul and Ilya could spend hours speculating about ancient Mars, Paul making wild and unfounded assertions — -intelligent life, legends of buried pyramids, underground cities — and Ilya laughingly following a middle course.

Ti Sandra and I talked of a new Mars.

Ti Sandra promoted me to be her assistant — a move which made me very nervous — and then appointed me as ambassador for Erzul to the five largest BMs.

“You’re famous,” she told me over strong jasmine tea in her office at Olympus Station. “You stand for something special about Mars, something our own that we all have in common. You’re well connected, from Majumdar, with close relatives transferred to Cailetet.” She was referring to Stan. “You have management arid political skills. You’ve been to Earth — I never have.”

“It was a disaster,” I reminded her.

“It was a step in a long process,” she rejoined. She spoke precisely, carefully considering her words, keeping direct eye contact. She had never been so serious before. “You seem happily married.”

“Very,” I said.

“And you seem to be able to spend some time apart from Ilya… working separately.”

“I miss him,” I said.

“I will be frank,” Ti Sandra said. “Because of your fame, you can help me… and help Erzul. You might have noticed I am an ambitious woman.”

I laughed. “You might have noticed I’m not,” I said.

“You are very capable. And you do not always know yourself. There is a person inside you who wants out, and who wants to do things that are important. But the right occasion, the proper colleagues, have eluded you… have they not?”

I looked away, nervous at being so analyzed.

“I’ve read the reports from Majumdar about the trip to Earth. You did well. Bithras did not do so badly — but he had his weaknesses, and he stumbled, and that was all it took. If Earth had wanted to make an agreement with him, they would have regardless. So don’t chastise yourself about what happened there.”

“I stopped doing that a long time ago,” I said.

Ti Sandra nodded. “Erzul is ready to do its job, as the circumstances seem right, and time will not wait for cowards to move. We are respected and conservative, Martian through and through. We are in a perfect position to act as catalyst; the district governors are in agreement on compromises with the BMs, we are all worried by overtures from Earth toward Cailetet and other BMs…”

“You want to urge unification?”

She smiled broadly. “We can do it right this time. No back-office deals, advocates arguing only with each other. There should be a constitutional assembly, and all the people should participate… through delegates.”

“Sounds very Earthly,” I said. “BMs aren’t used to airing family disputes.”

“Then we should learn.”

She described my duties. Most important, I would visit the syndics of the largest BMs on an informal basis and sound out their positions, build a base for a better designed and more widely acceptable constitution.

Erzul had nothing to lose by sponsoring a constitutional assembly — with all BMs invited, even those strongly connected to Earth. Earth, she was sure, would bide its time while we worked, exerting its pressures where it thought necessary to make the constitution acceptable…

“But we’ll deal with those fingers when they poke,” she said. She smiled broadly. “Two strong women, a stubborn and willful planet, and much impossible work between here and teatime. Are you with me?”

How could I not be? “We’re crazy as sizzle,” I said.

“Fickle as flop,” she returned.

We laughed and shook hands firmly.

We would have been stupid to believe Erzul would be the only player in the game of arranging a constitutional assembly. Others had been working for some time. And, as always in human politics, some of these players were caught up in old theories, old ideals, old and pernicious doctrines. What political clothing Earth had outgrown was now being taken up by Martians and tried on for size.

The year we worked toward a constitutional assembly was a dangerous time. Elitists — some rehashing the politics of the Statists, others wrapping themselves in even more deeply stained robes of theory — believed fervently that the privileges of this faction or that, arrived at by historic and organic process — without plan — should be fixed in stone tablets, these tablets to be carried down from the mountain and announced to the people. Populists believed the people should dictate their needs to any individual who rose above the herd, and bring them low again — except of course for the leaders of whatever populist government took power, who, as political messiahs, would earn specific privileges themselves.

Religion raised its head, as Christians and Moslems and Hindu factions — long a polite undercurrent in Martian life, even within Majumdar BM — saw historic opportunity, and made a rush to the political high ground.

What we were working toward, of course, was the end of the business families as landholders and exploiters of natural wealth by squatter’s rights. The imposition of the district governors and the weak Council had begun the process, decades before, but finishing it was horribly difficult. Institutions, like any organism, hate to die.

For six long and grueling months, Ti Sandra and I and half a dozen like-minded colleagues from a loose alliance of Erzul, Majumdar, and Yamaguchi, traveled across Mars, attending BM syndic meetings, trying to persuade, to deflect outrageous demands, to assuage wounded political and family pride, to assure that all would suffer equally and benefit hugely.

Some BMs, notably Cailetet, did more than just decline.

Cailetet had long been a peculiar rogue among Martian BMs. Originally a Lunar BM, it had extended a branch to Mars at the beginning of the twenty-second century, and that branch had kept strong ties with Moon and Earth. Cailetet grew faster than many Binding Multiples in those days, infused with cash from the Moon and Earth. Eventually, as the Moon was folded in Earth’s arms, Cailetet became a speaker for Earth’s concerns. For a time, a lot of money flowed from the Triple into Cailetet’s reserves — money with a suspiciously Earthly smell.

Cailetet had absorbed and supported the Olympians, and had touted itself as a research BM, offering the finest facilities on Mars… But that had come to a sharp halt.

Now, it appeared that Earth wanted little more to do with Cailetet Mars. Money coming to the BM from Earth or Moon had slowed to a trickle; investment and development plans were canceled. Cailetet had served some purpose, and was cast aside. Understandably, the syndic and advocates of Cailetet Mars were bitter. They needed to re-establish their prominence, and Mars was the only economic and political territory where expansion was possible.

The syndic of Cailetet Mars died in 2180, just as Ti Sandra and I began our work, and was replaced by a man I knew only slightly, but loathed. He had returned from exile on Earth, had quickly established ties with Cailetet’s most Earth-oriented advocates, and was nominated by them for the syndic’s office a month after his predecessor’s death. The voting had been close, but Cailetet’s members responded to his overtures for the return of power and influence…

His name was Achmed Crown Niger . I had last seen him at the University of Mars Sinai , years before, dangling from the coattails of Governor Freechild Dauble. Dauble had put him in charge of the university during the uprising, actually superior to Chancellor Connor. With the collapse of the Statist movement, he had followed Connor and Dauble to Earth, redeemed himself with service to GEWA and GSHA, and returned to Mars married to a Lunar daughter of Cailetet. Crown Niger had finally, in a very short time, reached this pinnacle.

He was far more brilliant than any of the Statists, and unlike them, he had not a shred of idealism, not a molecule of sentiment.

I had dreaded the meeting for days, but it was unavoidable. Cailetet could be very useful in arranging a constitutional assembly.

When I visited his office at Kipini Station, in the badlands of southern Acidalia Planitia, he did not remember me, and there was no reason he should. I had been just one face among dozens of students arrested and detained at UMS.

Face pale, black hair cut in a bristle around his high forehead, Crown Niger met me at the door to his office, shook my hand, and smiled knowingly. I thought for a moment he recognized me, but as he offered me a seat and a cup of tea, his manner proved he did not.

“Erzul has become quite the center, hasn’t it?” he asked. His voice, smooth and slightly nasal, had acquired more of an Earth accent since I had last seen him. He appeared calm, with a cold sophistication and a relaxed, confident bearing. Nothing would disturb him or surprise him; he had seen it all. “Cailetet is interested in your progress. Tell me more.”

I swallowed, smiled falsely, seated myself. I gave him as much of my direct gaze as was absolutely necessary, no more, and examined his office while I spoke. Well-ordered and spare, a bare steel desk, gray metabolic carpet and walls patterned with a close geometric print, the office said nothing about him, except that decoration and luxury meant little to Achmed Crown Niger .

I concluded my presentation with, “We have agreement from four of the five major Binding Multiples, and twelve smaller BMs, and we’d like to set a date now. Only Cailetet has declined.”

“Cailetet is keeping its options open,” Crown Niger said, tapping his index finger on the top of the desk. He offered more tea, and I accepted. “Frankly, the plan proposed by Persoff BM seems more attractive. A limited number of BMs participate, to eliminate organizational clutter… A central financial authority, allocating district resources, working directly with Earth and the Triple. Very attractive. Not very different from Majumdar’s position before your visit to Earth.”

He seemed curious as to how I might react to that. I smiled wryly and said, “That approach is thin on the rights of individuals once the BMs are dissolved. Some districts would have little say.”

“There are drawbacks,” Crown Niger said. “But then, there are drawbacks in your proposal.”

“We’re organizing a process, not yet making a specific proposal.”

Crown Niger shook his head almost pityingly. “Come and go, Miss Majumdar, the bias toward a constitution modeled along the lines of old Terrestrial democracies… That’s a kind of proposal.”

“We hope to avoid the abuses of government without accountability.”

“Very Federalist. I frankly trust the more powerful institutions on Mars,” Crown Niger said. “They have no reason to lace up hobnailed boots and grind faces all day.”

“We prefer direct accountability.”

“You advocate radical changes. I wonder why so many BMs have agreed to their own deballing.”