Excerpt for The Mars of Malcontents by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




The Mars of Malcontents



Kate MacLeod



Ratatoskr Press



Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE Feverish Fleeing

CHAPTER TWO Fellow Travelers

CHAPTER THREE A Broken Night

CHAPTER FOUR Straying from the Path

CHAPTER FIVE Break in the Line

CHAPTER SIX Onward or Backward

CHAPTER SEVEN The Last Station

CHAPTER EIGHT Off the Ice Cap

CHAPTER NINE Breakdown

CHAPTER TEN Hazel

CHAPTER ELEVEN Flatbread and Family

CHAPTER TWELVE Onward by Balloon

CHAPTER THIRTEEN Flying South

CHAPTER FOURTEEN A Blinding Wind

CHAPTER FIFTEEN In the Abandoned Station

CHAPTER SIXTEEN In the Tunnel

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN A Sleepless Night

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Walking the Line

CHAPTER NINETEEN Grendel and the Warrior Poets

CHAPTER TWENTY Among the Revolutionaries

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Connections and Disconnections

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Violence and Partings

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Under Valles Marineris V

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR Recon

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE Feasting and Bragging

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX Into the City

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN Airlocks and Culverts

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT The Revolution Begins

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE Smoke and Blood

CHAPTER THIRTY Broken

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE At Long Last, Arturo

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO Face to Face with Father

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE Trains and Trade

Special Excerpt

About the Author

Also by Kate MacLeod




CHAPTER ONE

Feverish Fleeing


FOR THE FIRST time in her life, Valentina del Toro was completely alone. No cousins clamoring around her demanding food and attention, no brother wrapped around her leg impeding her movements as she went about her chores, no crowds of fellow shoppers jostling her elbows as she traded a pocketful of eggs for a small sack of lentils. All around her, all the way to the distant horizon in an immense circle around her, there was no one but her.

For the first time in her life, Valentina del Toro was outside the science station that had been her birthplace, outside the polar tunnels that had been her home since she was five, out in the dim Martian sunlight she had only rarely glimpsed through the station windows; the last glimpse was nearly a decade ago. The world around her dazzled, the dull glow from the ice under her feet broken up by glittering snaky patterns as the wind played with the loose drifts of snow that dusted the glacier tops. The orange sky above her was impossibly far away. The caverns in the mine under the ice cap were colossal, containing a small city whose lights never reached the rock above, but only now did Valentina realize how small they really were, how big her world really was. And she was still seeing only a small part of it.

The realization should have filled her with awe, wonder, some sort of happy feeling, but she had no happy feelings left. And if she didn’t keep her feet moving, the other feelings were going to catch up with her.

She bounded over the snowy wastes of the Martian ice cap, the sound of her own labored breathing reverberating inside her helmet, only occasionally glancing up at the southerly sun to keep track of the time. She knew she was near the magic moment, the point where if she went any further she would not be able to make it back home before darkness fell. She had been jogging for nearly four hours in the heavy space suit, two tanks of air and another smaller one of water weighing her down. She had thought a life filled with the labors of running a farm had left her prepared for any challenge. It was humbling how quickly she’d discovered she was wrong about that.

Only four hours down, as much again to go before she could stop. Tomorrow it would be ten hours. She wouldn’t have the late start that she’d had today; she could pace herself at a brisk walk. But still, ten hours on the march tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. She had no idea how many days it would take her just to get off the ice cap, let alone reach the equatorial cities. The ache in her joints, the weakness in her muscles that she kept pushing past by force of will, the off smell of her own sweat inside her suit all reminded her that until this morning she had been too sick to get out of bed. The last two weeks were nothing more than a few brief moments of wakefulness lost in a sea of fever dreams.

But there was no turning back. Valentina ducked her head, bounding harder. She left the magic moment behind without even slowing down. She had woken from her long illness to find her brother Arturo gone, whisked away to the equator in a corporate rocket. What choice did she have but to go after him, however she could? And the only way she could was on foot in a sort-of-stolen pressure suit.

The vernal equinox was still a few weeks off and the days were short. That had aggravated her when she’d first set out—all the hours she could be traveling lost to waiting out the night—but now she just hoped she could build up her stamina to match the days as they grew longer.

Sometime later, when the possibility of turning back was long gone, Valentina drew up briefly and took a short sip from the water tube near her mouth. Something in the suit was giving it a metallic tang, not unpleasant. Her feet were cold. Even with the running, her feet were cold. The suit’s diagnostics had all checked out OK, but clearly at least one of the systems was not quite up to spec. The indicator on her arm told her the internal temperature of her suit was 20 degrees Celsius but her toes achingly disagreed.

Valentina took another careful sip, tapping the screen with the gloved finger of her other hand. The indicator didn’t change. It calmly persisted in lying to her. She glanced at the others. The bar for water had gone down a bit. She had filled the bottle herself and reckoned what it said she’d consumed was pretty close to the mark. So that one was working properly. The air indicators were down as well, but she had no idea how to gauge their accuracy. She knew the tanks had been full when she’d locked them into the suit, but she’d never been outside before; she had no clue how much she should expect to have used up, especially jogging as she was.

She turned at the waist, to the left and then to the right. The locater went from full green to yellow, full green to yellow. She turned all the way around and it bounced down to orange, then to full green again. She was getting signals from the science station as well as the first checkpoint; that seemed to be working. So only the heating system was wonky, and even that was marginal—not a total failure.

Yet.

Valentina pushed that thought aside, resuming her rhythmic bounding over the glacier. If she was always running in the suit, her toes wouldn’t have a chance to freeze. She hadn’t planned on sleeping in the suit anyway.

Still she couldn’t help remembering don Abuelo’s old friend Pedro the rover driver. She had called him tío, and he had always had presents for her and her cousins in his many pockets, some little trinket from one of the other stations on his route. She and all her younger cousins used to run down to Hanako Willis’s machine shop to see him when he climbed out of his rover. He was always the first one out, leaving his more taciturn partner in the cab while he leapt out to greet Valentina and the others.

Until the day his partner had come out first, turning to help Pedro stumble out after. She had gotten the story later, how Pedro had gone out for only a moment in his faulty suit to get his rover engine restarted. Frostbite had blackened his face and hands, the less affected parts gone whitish-gray. She hadn’t known what was wrong with him at the time, only that something terrible had happened to him and he seemed to be dead.

Then he’d opened his mouth to gasp and Valentina’s first thought hadn’t been “he’s alive” but “he’s a ghoul.” She’d pressed a fist to her mouth to hold back her scream, but her younger cousins had shrieked and ran. He’d lived, thanks to his partner getting him to a medico straightaway, but he’d lost several fingers, the tips of his ears, and part of his nose. When he recovered he went back on his route, but the cousins never again clamored to see him. The ghoulishness hadn’t gone away; it lurked still in his shambling walk and in the twisted scar tissue of his nose and ears.

Valentina took a deeper breath to clear her mind. The image of the frostbitten face left her, but the chattering hurry-hurry-hurry voice kept on. It was timing the syllables to her steps.

The sun seemed frozen, unmoving in the sky, and Valentina’s bounds grew shorter, her pace slower. Finally, the lancinating pain under her ribs made it too hard to breathe and she had to slow to a walk. She tried to rub the pain away, but from inside the suit, she barely felt the glove pressing from the outside. She pressed harder, trying to get her thumb to massage in just the right spot to ease the stabbing, but it was useless.

Valentina laughed, although that hurt too. Her first thought upon taking don Abuelo’s suit and sneaking out of the airlock had been that finally, after a lifetime in the caverns deep under the glacier, she was going outside—out into the world.

Then she had stepped out of the airlock and realized that the ice under her booted feet felt the same as the tunnel floors, and while she could catch snowflakes on her gloved palm, she couldn’t feel them there. She hadn’t gone outside at all, not really. She’d just shifted location to a very small station that traveled with her. Looking out her helmet was pretty much the same as looking out the science station windows when she was a young girl. Only in the science station she could scratch her nose.

But her laugh now was for the irony. She had lamented not being able to go outside, but now Mars was working its way inside. Her toes were very clear on this point. She didn’t mind their complaining. She was going to worry when it stopped.

The laughter faded, leaving her dizzy, reminding her once more that just that morning she had been in her sickbed. She knew she wasn’t exactly well now; her suit indicator told her that her body temperature was still elevated, and her joints ached in a way that had nothing to do with exercise fatigue. She was crazy to be doing this, and to be doing it now. But it couldn’t wait. So much time had already been lost. He was so far away. There was no other way for her to follow but on foot.

She kept up a shambling walk, occasionally speeding back up to a bound to get the blood flowing. The sun had unfrozen and was moving down to the horizon faster than her locator was gaining bars. The checkpoint was directly ahead of her, but she had no idea how far. A more sophisticated suit system would tell her, but don Abuelo’s suit had once been his own abuelo’s suit and bordered on the outdated.

The wind picked up as the sun turned orangey-red. She couldn’t feel it, but it spun the loose snow cover in hypnotic eddies over the hard-packed ice. The only way to avoid its soporific spell was to gaze straight ahead into the sun until she saw spots.

Then the sun went below the horizon. Valentina drew to another halt. She had about another half hour of workable light to get to her destination. Maybe less; the sky behind her was already a deep purple, Phobos running toward that darkness as if fleeing the fading sun. Valentina tapped the indicator. She was doing all right for air, her tanks still about a quarter full. She felt around the top of her helmet and found the switch for the head lamp, but when she flipped it, nothing happened. She rapped the light, but there was not even a flicker.

She looked down at her hands and arms, turning them over, but she had no second built-in light. That was the problem with impetuous decisions to grab a space suit and run: one had no time to pack properly.

A memory intruded—herself that morning, although it felt like a lifetime ago already. Forcing herself onto her feet, dressing in what was closest and slipping away before Hanako came back. She couldn’t take the compassionate look her mother’s oldest friend had given her, the way she squeezed Valentina’s hand and told her it was okay to cry. Hanako with her rough mechanic’s hands and burly arms to match, Hanako with her close-cut hair and almost mannish laugh; Hanako should never be saying such things.

If she started crying she would never, ever stop. She had to get away before she broke down. And now, kilometers away in her space suit, she really couldn’t risk breaking down into tears. Valentina took a deeper breath and refocused her thoughts on her current, very specific, rational and not emotional situation.

A flashlight was probably only the first of a long line of things she was going to wish she had brought with her. Not that she could imagine trying to carry a heavy pack on top of the weight of the suit. All the pockets were full to bulging; it would have to be enough.

Valentina started moving again, this time in a loping rhythm that was faster than her walk, if not as ground-eating as bounding over the ice would have been. Her eyes scanned the horizon, searching for signs of the checkpoint, but there was no place for it to be hiding on the flat plain of ice. Further south there were fissures in the ice and places where the rock jutted up over the glacier, but this close to the pole Mars was pretty featureless. She should be able to see the checkpoint—unless it was embedded in ice.

Valentina swallowed hard but didn’t slow her pace. That was a real danger. The way station was built on top of the ice and had mechanisms that kept it up there, hydraulic legs on wide feet that could be lifted up and stepped forward onto the new surface. But they weren’t automated, they needed people to come by often enough to run them before the station got icebound. Valentina knew more about travelers than most, having spent so much of her time in Hanako Willis’s machine shop, but she had met few people who had walked to the polar station. Sometimes the rover drivers used the checkpoints, but mostly they didn’t; they packed enough supplies in the rover cabs to get them the whole way off the ice cap.

Valentina glanced at the indicator. Still green. If she had overshot a buried way station, she would know; the indicator would be showing the green behind her.

She kept up her slow jog as the sky before her darkened from purple to starry black. The ice reflected the starlight somewhat, but the only time in her life she had been in deeper darkness was the day their power generator had failed. Her mother had been out helping one of her sisters bring four sick children to the medico, and it had taken Valentina an eternity to find the door out of their cavern, back into the light.

She remembered the feel of Arturo’s hand in hers as she’d groped along the walls. He had been five or six at the time. Her heart had been hammering in her chest as the door kept not being where she thought it should be. Arturo had been perfectly calm, occasionally squeezing her hand but never asking why she couldn’t find the way out. He had trusted her completely. And it had taken three times as long as it should have, but in the end she hadn’t let him down.

Something beeped in her helmet and Valentina slid to a stop, looking at the panel on her arm. The top green bar of her locater was flashing. Valentina looked around, then raised her arm and tried to use the light from the instrument panel to see. She turned slowly around, eyes straining against the dark. The sky was black and the ground was white, but there was no sharp contrast between; everything blurred together and refused to come into focus.

Then she saw it, behind her and to her left. She had nearly walked right past it. It was smaller than she expected, windowless and featureless in the dark. It wasn’t icebound; in fact, it had been jacked up on columns nearly half a meter higher than the ice. Valentina opened the door and climbed into the airlock, noticing a light fixture over the door. She tapped the exposed bulb, but it was as dead as her head lamp.

Valentina pushed the airlock shut behind her. There was no control panel, only an unmarked lever. She pulled down on the lever and the door in front of her slowly rose. No contained atmosphere? Valentina looked at her panel. She had air left, but not much. And the coldness in her toes had spread halfway up her calves. This was bad.

Valentina climbed under when the door was halfway up, then pushed it back down behind her before looking around. There was frost glistening on every surface: a bad sign on account of cold, but a good one because glistening meant light. Valentina turned and saw a dull greenish glow coming from a bar-shaped light over the airlock door. Then she found another source: a panel in the wall nearby. She stepped up to it, looking over all the indicators. This wasn’t even as advanced as don Abuelo’s suit; these were knobs and dials with lights to show what was on or off. Valentina sounded out the words as she moved from knob to knob. The heat was on but set to freezing—warmer than outside, but not remotely comfortable. Valentina cranked it to 18 degrees. The air recycler was on if not doing much, no one having been around lately to offset its balance by breathing. She found switches for more lights and turned them all on, bathing the room in a harsh yellowish glow.

There were bunks built into the walls, a bathroom with two showers, and a stove. Valentina cracked the seal on her helmet and lifted it off.

The air was cold and dry, sucking the moisture out of her lungs and making each breath an ache. She leaned closer to one of the vents and felt a warm rush of air on her face. The heat was definitely working, and once the frost melted off of everything the air wouldn’t be so dry. She waited until the temperature indicator said 10 degrees before peeling off the rest of the heavy suit, shaking out her layers of clothing: thin T-shirt currently clinging to her sweaty skin, heavy long-sleeved T-shirt, flannel shirt, fisherman’s sweater with roll collar, knit stockings, long underwear, and two skirts.

She had left her boots behind, as they wouldn’t fit inside the suit. She hoped she wouldn’t regret that later.

Valentina detached the air cells from the back of the suit and snapped them into the way station’s air system to refill them. Then she headed for the bathroom. The water she washed her hands with was temptingly warm, but she opted not to try out the shower. The air wasn’t warm enough yet to air-dry and she had no towels.

She refilled her water bottle but didn’t snap it back into the suit, just drank from the opening as she looked around the room. The frost had faded from the walls and now she could see that they were covered in writing.

A sudden growl from her stomach distracted her and she went back to her suit, opening the cargo pocket on the belly and taking out an energy bar. There were twenty in there, but she didn’t dare have more than one a day. Perhaps further down the line she would meet other travelers willing to share food, but in case she didn’t she had to be very careful with her rationing. She had been impetuous, but she wasn’t stupid. The things she’d learned hanging about Hanako’s machine shop listening were going to be crucial in the next few days.

Valentina chewed on the bar, too hungry to mind its likeness to wood pulp, and walked along the wall, reading what notes she could make out. There were dates and short messages. Some were personal exchanges, inside jokes she didn’t understand, but most were general comments about travel conditions, way stations in need of repairs, obstacles to avoid. She found the end of the stream of dates and read backward. The last message was dated six months ago, but that wasn’t surprising. Winter was no time for traveling on foot over the ice cap.

Valentina went back to her suit and scrounged through the cargo pocket. No pen, but she found the small envelope with the last three pills inside it. She had forgotten about those. Hanako’s son Kiyoshi had given them to her after she’d woken up but he hadn’t said anything to her about them. To the best of her memory that boy had never spoken a word to her. Still, if they were like the drugs she had bought for Ma—the ones that hadn’t saved her—then she was supposed to keep taking them until they were all gone. She put one in her mouth and washed it down with a drink from her water bottle, then put the rest back in the pocket. She hoped it would kick in soon. Now that she had stopped moving the ache in her joints was pushing close to unbearable and she knew she was getting feverish again.

If she got bad sick again, too sick to get up like she’d been for the last two weeks, too out of it to even realize her brother was gone . . . if she got that sick here, alone . . .

Valentina pressed fisted hands to her temples and forced her thoughts back to more useful places. Playing the what-if game was not going to help her now. Assess the situation, figure out what you have to work with, solve the problems one at a time. That was what her mother had always taught her. Running a large household with no funds had made them both very good at those steps.

She examined the inside of the suit, halfheartedly hoping the problem with the heating system was obvious and easy to fix, but she couldn’t see anything amiss. The wiring nestled between the two layers was all intact, nothing broken or frayed.

Not having anything else to do, Valentina curled up on one of the bunks, tucking her stockinged feet into her skirts, and sleepily regarded the wall. She wished she had something to write with. She wanted to leave a message for the next northbound traveler to bring to Hanako Willis. She owed her an apology for taking the suit. It had once been don Abuelo’s, but her mother had sold it to Hanako years ago and it wasn’t Valentina’s to take. She wasn’t sure if she would ever be back to return it. And then there were the protein bars, in no way hers and not something she could ever return even if she did go back.

She reached into her skirt pocket and found the note she had stuffed there. She didn’t read it, just held it crumpled in her hands as the weariness of the day washed over her. She already knew the shape of every carefully rendered letter by heart. It was a brief note, the most her little brother could manage. It had been left on the little table next to her medicine, next to the other, thicker letter with a corporate logo on the seal she had never broken.

Tina, it will be OK—Arturo.

“Yes, it will,” Valentina said. “It will be OK because I’m coming to get you. I have to walk the whole distance you flew over, but I’m coming. I’m coming, Arturo.”


CHAPTER TWO

Fellow Travelers


HER HEART WAS pounding and she could not draw a breath, giving the pounding a desperate, dying quality. She went from hidey-hole to secret space, searching for any coin she might have overlooked before, no matter how worthless, but there was none. The tea tin was empty; the millet sack had very little millet left in it, let alone the little pouch of coins Ma had once secreted there. Still she searched the same places again and again fruitlessly, and her heart pounded, hard but empty.

She turned to tell Arturo that there was nothing left, no way to buy the medicine that Ma needed to live, but Arturo wasn’t there.

Valentina jerked awake with a gasp. Her heart really was beating hard and she gasped again, fearful that the station had run out of air, that she was dying, starving for oxygen, but the long breaths filled her lungs and her heart calmed down. Just a dream. Well, a memory twisted into dream, but she wasn’t dying. Not at the moment.

A flash of memory filled her mind: her mother thin and pale, barely able to sit up with Valentina’s arm around her to take a small sip of the tea that never really made her any better. She was nearly weightless in Valentina’s arms. Valentina had picked up toddlers with more heft.

She blinked back tears before they started to spill. Arturo was gone. And it was morning, time to move on.

Valentina suited up and went outside, the sun still some time away from rising, just a pink glow low on the horizon. She headed south as the first rays spread over the icy expanse to her right. She kept to more of a loping rhythm, hoping to maintain it for more than half the day. Exhaustion from the day before made her limbs feel heavy, but urgency still drove her.

She stopped briefly at lunchtime to eat the half an energy bar she’d put into the helmet’s snack holder that morning and take some longer sips of water. The logy feeling in her arms and legs was making her feel sleepy, almost to the point of napping there in her suit, her back to a drift of ice and snow. The dazzling brightness making it hard to keep her eyes open didn’t help. She didn’t dare rest long for fear she really would fall asleep and lose the day and the oxygen napping when she needed to be moving.

The afternoon seemed twice as long as the morning, her feet alternating between numbing cold and blistery soreness depending on how fast she tried moving. Her water bottle was nearly gone despite her careful rationing of sips, and her stomach was an angry fist of hunger. The smell of her own sweat inside the suit still had too much of a sick fever-sweat quality to it, not a healthy exercise sweat. It made it hard to ignore the ever-present ache in her joints and behind her eyes.

This time she reached the checkpoint while the sun was still a red glow low on the horizon. It helped that the light over the door was on, glowing starlike over the snowy expanse. She climbed inside the airlock and shut the door behind her, but when she pushed down on the lever to raise the inner door, it refused to move.

She looked around but could see no locking mechanism, no obstruction. The light had been on outside; did that mean there was someone inside, locking her out? But why would the station have locks? They were supposed to be open to all travelers. There were enough bunks to handle a dozen people at a time, more if they were friendly.

Valentina glanced at her diminishing air levels, then pushed on the lever again. Nothing. Not knowing what else to try, she rapped on the door. Through her helmet she had no idea how loud it was. She was about to try knocking again, harder, when the door started to rise. Valentina waited for the door to stop moving before stepping inside.

There were two men inside the station. The one standing at the instrument panel, turning the knob to shut the door behind her, was a few years older than she was, tall and skinny in long underwear and a jumpsuit left off above the waist, rolled down and tied by the sleeves like a belt. His hair was shaved on the back and sides, maybe half an inch of Afro left on top. A small gold hoop glinted from one ear as he turned to smile a greeting at her.

His companion only gave her half a glance and a scowl, occupied as he was with something on the stove. He was older. Valentina wouldn’t want to guess how much older; he had the look of someone going through life the hard way, accumulating scars and skin damage at a rate that made his actual age a mystery. Valentina recognized the cauliflower patterns of frostbite damage to his ears and nose, and he was missing some fingers at the first or second knuckle. Wisps of oily gray hair were plastered over his pale, blotchy scalp.

She wished she could turn around and keep walking, but that wasn’t an option. Instead she unsealed her helmet and set it on the shelf next to their two suits. She resisted the urge to scratch at her sweat-streaked hair.

“Hello,” she said carefully in English, the lingua franca in Hanako’s shop if not common to most of the north pole. “Heading north?”

“Yah,” the younger man said, putting out a hand for her to shake. She quickly slipped her arms out of her suit to take his hand.

“Valentina del Toro,” she said.

“I’m Pete. That’s Stu.”

“Hey,” said Stu, looking her over again as she stepped out of her suit and shook out her skirts. “You new to this, kid?”

“This?” Valentina repeated.

“You don’t look like a merchant.”

“They usually travel in groups,” Pete added.

“I’m not a merchant. I’m just going south.”

“Looking for work? Because there isn’t any,” Stu said.

“That’s why we’re heading north,” Pete said.

“No, I’m going to see my brother.”

“All alone?” Stu asked.

“Yeah,” Valentina said. “It just worked out that way.”

Stu made a humph sound and turned back to the stove.

“What are you cooking?” Valentina asked. There were two pots and both were boiling like mad.

“We’re not sharing,” Stu said, poking the contents of one with a spoon.

“Now, Stu,” Pete said.

“I’m not looking for a handout. It’s just, it smells like beans, but if you keep cooking them like that they’re going to be hard as rocks.”

“That’s beans à la Stu,” Pete said. “Comes with a side of crunchy rice.”

“I don’t doubt,” Valentina said, watching the steam billowing from the other pot.

“I know what I’m doing,” Stu said.

“I don’t think you do,” Pete said. “Maybe you did once, but you worked at the mining company for how many years?”

Stu mumbled an answer Valentina didn’t catch. “Replaced by a damn kid,” he added.

“I think you got used to eating at the canteen. I’m not criticizing, I never learned to cook in the first place. I’m just saying. Let her take a look at what you’re doing. If she cooks it up better, maybe we share a little.”

“A little,” Stu conceded. “Not a third. She don’t earn no third just for stirring what I paid for with blood, sweat, and tears.”

“You never shed no tears,” Pete said, giving Valentina a wink.

Valentina stepped up to the stove, taking the spoon Stu held out for her. She immediately turned the heat down to a lower setting. Then she poked at both pots with the spoon. The water was nearly gone but nothing was sticking yet; he had indeed been a diligent stirrer. It looked like he’d just started; he hadn’t had time to ruin anything yet.

“I need some water,” Valentina said. “And lids if you have them.”

“What good’s a lid? Aside from not seeing what you’re cooking,” Stu said as Pete handed her a water bottle.

“You need to contain the steam when you’re cooking beans and rice both, but especially the rice,” Valentina said. “Unless you like it crunchy.”

Stu looked like he wanted to say that he did, but instead just grumbled, “No lids.”

“OK, how about a plate that fits over the top?” Valentina asked. In the last few months, when she and Arturo had to start selling things, she had gotten quite skilled at improvising for absent equipment. Pete dug into a backpack and held out two stainless steel plates. Valentina added water to both pots, then inverted the plates over them.

“You should have started the beans first, they take longer to cook,” Valentina said.

“Canned beans are quicker,” Pete said with a pointed look to Stu. Clearly he was bringing up an old argument.

“Dry beans are lighter,” Stu said. “As much bitching as you’ve been doing about the weight of the sled I’d think you’d be on my side on that by now.” They must have pulled the sled around the back of the station; Valentina hadn’t seen it. Of course, she’d been pretty focused on the light over the door.

“You’ve been walking far?” Valentina asked.

“We come from Alba Patera, although we had a ride across Vastitas Borealis; we’ve only been walking since we got on the ice cap,” Pete said. “Haven’t found any work yet.”

“You’re almost at the end of the line,” Valentina said. “Nothing north of here but the polar station.”

“Any work there?” Pete asked.

“Maybe, I don’t really know,” she admitted. She thought about mentioning the troubles, the latest flare-up of street wars between the various gangs. But such things were usually short-lived. It had probably run its course while she was too sick to get out of bed and a new gang was in charge now. The fighting was getting more frequent now that don Abuelo wasn’t there to smooth things over, but she mostly kept out of it. Or she had, until the day her brother had been too near one of the fights and had been taken prisoner by a group of Nortes who mistook him for a Poltec.

She remembered standing in the middle of the brewery that was the Norte’s base of operations, standing in front of their don and demanding her brother’s return. He had looked to be past thirty, his bare arms a crisscross of knife scars. A particularly brutal one marred his neck from the clavicle to the missing lobe of his ear. But the scars were all old, faded to a grayish white against his brown skin. He hadn’t been a part of the fighting himself in quite some time. The man and woman on either side of him had been younger, midtwenties maybe. They were not as impressively scarred as their don, but judging by the reddish welts the man had been sporting and the bandage the woman had wrapped around her midriff under her Norte sash, they were working on it.

The don was probably dead now. Perhaps the man or woman she had seen was in charge now. Perhaps the Nortes were no more. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

Pete and Stu were watching her face closely and she cast her mind about for something to say. “You both have experience mining. That gives you a better chance than most, I can say that for sure.”

“I was only working for the mine a few months,” Pete said. “Stu is the one with the skills.”

“How is the way south of here?” Valentina asked, adjusting the heat under the rice to the lowest setting, just enough to keep it warm until the beans caught up.

“You’re the first person we’ve met since we got on the ice cap,” Pete said.

“It’s early in the season for anything but rovers,” Valentina explained. “And rovers don’t use the way stations.”

“There are a few behind us that weren’t operational,” Pete said. “One was half buried in the ice and we couldn’t get in the door. Another looked fine but the generator wouldn’t run. No power, no air.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Valentina said.

“People mark the walls on the stations on either side, so you know when they’re coming. Stow extra supplies in your suit and prepare to march double time.”

“Start before dawn, stop after dark,” Stu added. “You got a locater?”

“In my suit,” Valentina said.

“Otherwise you might as well turn back now,” Stu said.

“I don’t like walking in the dark,” Pete said. “It’s too big outside. I swear there are things out there, walking with us.”

“There’s nothing out there,” Stu snorted.

“I never saw anything, but I felt it all the same. Someone or something walking with us, like it was part of our little group. Never anything there when I’d look around, though. It stayed out of the light.”

“Crazy talk,” Stu said, and Pete just shrugged.

They lapsed into a friendly silence as Valentina cooked the beans. Stu took some piece of equipment out of his pack and sat down with it on one of the bunks, taking off the back panel to poke at its innards with the air of someone taking up a familiar, nearly endless task. Like Valentina’s mother with her knitting.

At last the beans were soft enough and Valentina turned the makeshift pot lids back into plates. She divided the food up between the two plates and handed one each to the men. Stu made a grunt that didn’t sound much like a thanks, but Pete smiled at her.

“You got a fork?” he asked, and Valentina shook her head. “Then here, take my spoon. I’ll share mine with you.”

“Thanks,” Valentina said, too hungry to do the polite refusal thing. “I haven’t had black beans in ages.”

“You don’t get beans on the north pole?”

“Sure, but the last shipment we got from Earth was nothing but red beans and these little Japanese beans called adzuki. They’re tasty enough, especially if you have some ginger on hand, but I love black beans myself.”

“These are pretty bland,” Pete said. “Someone forgot to pack salt.”

“I heard that,” Stu said around a mouthful of food.

“Salt is good, but I like them with fresh salsa made with really hot chilies.”

“How do you get fresh salsa?”

“I have a garden. Or had,” she corrected. “Grow lights and heaters in a cave under the ice, but you’d be surprised how much plants can grow.”

“I bet you make a tidy profit, selling fresh food,” Pete said.

“A bit, but it costs a lot to keep it all going. One thing breaks and it’s all over.”

“Sounds like us,” Pete said. “We were living pretty good until out of nowhere a bunch of us were fired. No job, no place to live, no place to go. Everything changes in an instant.” He held the plate closer to Valentina, encouraging her to take more. Stu was nearly done with his share, shoveling forkful after forkful into his mouth at a methodical rate.

“Hopefully your luck changes at the north pole,” Valentina said.

“It’s a shame you won’t be there,” Pete said. “It would be nice to already have a friend. Or maybe I can convince you to come back with us?” he said with a wink that did funny things to her stomach that had nothing to do with finally having more than two mouthfuls of protein bar to fill it.

“I really can’t,” she said, taking another forkful of beans and rice when he once more gestured to her with his plate. “I have to find my brother.”

“Oh, I thought it was just a visit,” Pete said, moving his fork over the plate, collecting a little mound of sticky rice and plunging it into the sauciest pool of beans.

“No, he’s been kidnapped.”

“Sounds serious,” Pete said. “Does the pole have no sense of community? No one would help you get him back?”

“He was taken by my father,” Valentina admitted. “But they don’t even know each other. My father left before Arturo was born. It’s like being taken by a stranger; Arturo must be so alone and scared now in a strange place with no one looking out for him. But no one else sees it that way. Like sharing blood means something that sharing a home doesn’t. But I know he needs me. I have to get to him.”

Pete offered her the plate again but she waved it away. After days of so little food she wasn’t sure her stomach could handle so much at once. She took a sip of water from the open mouth of her suit bottle.

The last time she had seen Arturo before the confused half memory/half dream of her time in her sickbed had been after she had gone to the don to beg for his release. The don had laughed at her demands, mocked her for calling on the name of her grandfather don Abuelo to enlist his cooperation. Once that name had meant everything all over the north pole, was respected by even the smallest and most fringe of the street gangs. Now, just a few years after his death, his lifetime of work was a joke to those he had worked hardest for. Valentina had been shoved back out on the street empty-handed, showered with threats of what would happen if she dared to return, then left to cry hot tears among the heaps of garbage behind the brewery until Arturo himself found her. Arturo, who had talked his own way out of his captivity and had gone in search of her.

He had to help her home. The heat of the tears had not been from her frustrated anger but from the beginnings of the illness that would prevent her from protecting her own brother when he needed her most. She still wasn’t exactly sure how long she had lain too ill to move or even wake up for more than a few slow blinks of dry, hot eyes that wouldn’t focus on the world around her. She had fallen to her knees the moment she had entered the nearly empty cavern that was their home and Arturo had guided her crawling steps to her own bedroll. He had tucked the blankets around her as her eyes started to close and murmured a few words of comfort.

Then he had wailed, long and loud, and she had heard him but had been unable to respond, had slipped away into warm, dark unconsciousness despite fighting with every bit of her will to stay awake, to open her eyes, to sit up and put her own arms around her brother as he called for their mother again and again and again.

Valentina supposed that had been the moment, right there, when her mother had gone. Just before she herself had fallen ill. They had both abandoned Arturo at once. And he was still alone, alone among strangers.

She had to hurry. He needed her. She had to get to him, bring him home. The two of them together could figure out what that meant: home without mother.

Valentina bit her lip until the flash of pain drove the visions from her head, then got to her feet with a forced smile to help with the after-meal cleanup.



CHAPTER THREE

A Broken Night


PETE HAD TAKEN the dishes into the bathroom to wash them in one of the sinks. Valentina followed with the pots and set them in the sink next to his. She let the water run as hot as it would go, scraping the burnt remains of Stu’s attempt at cooking from the bottom with the edge of a spoon.

“You know, I’m bringing my brother back to the north pole once I find him,” she said. “Perhaps we’ll see each other then, if you’re still there.”

The corner of his mouth pulled up a bit as he looked over at her. The top of her head was just even with his shoulder, and the way he looked down, warm brown eyes through thick lashes that were almost too pretty, made her stomach jump again. “I look forward to it.”

He finished up and carried the dishes back out to air-dry before getting repacked with the rest of their supplies. The pots took longer to clean, and when she was done she cleaned herself up as much as she could, unbraiding and finger-combing her long hair, then braiding it back again. Perhaps at the next station she could shower.

She went to her suit and refilled the air and water bottles, taking a moment before reattaching the water to take another of the pills. Then she curled up on one of the bunks. Her body ached and longed for rest but her mind was anxious and fought sleep.

She wasn’t sure how long she was lying there, drifting between wakefulness and sleep, or how long the murmur of whispers was humming just under the sound of the air cyclers, but a frustrated noise from Pete brought her fully awake.

“We don’t have to do that,” he hissed.

“We have no reason not to,” Stu hissed back. “She look to you like someone who has people?”

“She said she has a brother.”

“What brother would let her wander around alone?”

“With no food,” Pete added. They were whispering more quietly now, and Valentina strained to make out the words. “She has nothing to take.”

“Everything is worth something,” Stu said. “That suit of hers—”

“Is ancient.”

“Did you see her stockings? She’s not so destitute as she’d have you believe.”

Valentina fought the urge to tuck her feet under her skirts. She had forgotten about the stockings. She had woken from her long illness wearing them and had never gotten around to switching them for a pair of her own hand-knit stockings. Her father had no doubt left them for her. The delicate even yarn of shimmering gray, the fancy cable pattern running up the sides screamed factory-made, and that meant life inside a corporate dome.

“Look at the rest of her clothes, though. She probably stole those stockings,” Pete said. “Or she was rich once but her luck changed, like ours.”

“Either way, they’re still worth something. And I want to know what she has in her pockets.”

“But we don’t have to kill her,” Pete said, and his tone said this was the crux of the argument that had wakened her.

“It would be easier if we did,” Stu grumbled. “And we have no reason not to.”

“Look, I’ll go sit on her and you go through her pockets.”

“And then what?”

“We let her go,” Pete said. “What’s she going to do?”

“If she makes trouble I will kill her,” Stu said.

“She won’t.”

Valentina didn’t know what to do. There was nowhere to run; they were between her and her suit, and even if they weren’t, it would take her several minutes to dress and get out of the station. She was trapped.

She watched Pete’s shadow coming toward her. She remembered how kind he had been, sharing his food with her. She remembered the warmth in his brown eyes as he’d talked with her. She supposed he thought he was being kind now as well, sitting on her to keep Stu from killing her, but Valentina set the bar for kindness a little higher than that.

Pete stopped his tiptoe advance when she sat up.

“Don’t fight,” Pete said. “He’s serious.”

“Why?” Valentina asked.

“We’ve run out of nearly everything, no more money and no sign of jobs. We’ve been walking pretty much in circles for months now.”

“I’m sure you’ll find jobs at the polar station. You’re miners.”

“I wish I could make Stu feel that sure,” Pete said.

“You grab her or I’m going to bash her brains in,” Stu growled and Pete yanked her off the bunk, wrapping his arms around her.

“Sorry,” he said, his lips brushing her ear as he whispered. “I have to do this. I’m just trying to keep you safe.”

“I don’t have anything worth anything,” Valentina insisted. She squirmed, but the arms around her were the arms of a youth who had spent his days hauling ore around, who currently spent his days pulling a sled across the ice. She had only been out of bed after contracting Martian fever for two days, and she had spent them pushing herself to the limits of her stamina. She had nothing left to fight him with.

“What’s this?” Stu asked, looking at the last pill in its paper envelope.

“Antibiotic,” Valentina said. “I’ve been sick.”

“Energy bars,” Stu said, digging through the rest of her pocket. “Nasty stuff; I don’t think we’re that desperate.”

“I told you she didn’t have anything,” Pete said.

“Nothing in the pockets of the suit, maybe,” Stu said, throwing the suit to the ground in disgust. “But there are the stockings. Maybe more she’s hiding on her person.”

“I don’t have anything,” Valentina said, struggling against Pete’s grip. “My mother just died of Martian fever. She was sick for a long time; I had to sell everything we owned to pay for the medicine that didn’t even save her. I don’t have anything.”

“You have nice machine-made stockings, and proper antibiotics.”

“My father”—she choked out the word; it felt strange saying it out loud—“left me those.”

“Is that all he left you?”

“Yes, I swear.”

Stu seemed to think this over and a flutter of hope wakened in Valentina’s heart, but then he shook his head and stepped toward her, his eyes going hard. “You’re wearing lots of layers. Lots of pockets in those layers.”

Pete’s arms tightened around her while Stu pawed through her clothing. He peeled the stockings off her legs, turning them inside out as if she might have hidden something within. Then he shoved his hands under her sweater to feel all over her shirt.

“If I had anything I would have given it to you already,” Valentina said, fighting tears.

“He’s nearly done,” Pete said, his arms squeezing in what she was sure he meant to be a comforting hug but only made her feel more trapped.

“A-ha,” Stu said, his hands emerging from her underskirt with the crinkle of squashed paper.

“That’s nothing,” Valentina said. “Just a note from my brother. It’s not worth anything except to me.”

Stu glanced at it and let it drop to the floor, but he still had something in his hand.

The other letter, the one written on thicker, smoother cream-colored paper, sealed with a corporate logo. Stu gave it a shake, frowned, then sliced open the seal with one dirty fingernail.

Valentina looked away. She knew it was irrational, this urge to have nothing to do with the words on that paper. And yet she had stuffed it in her pocket with her brother’s note. She hadn’t questioned it in the moment, had forgotten since that it was even there. But she had never tossed it aside.

Stu didn’t read it either, just unfolded the top, bottom, and sides to reveal the shining coins within.

Valentina froze, the glint of metal in the station lights hypnotizing her. Stu let them drop from the edge of the paper into his other palm, one soft plop against his flesh and then nine more clinks of coin on coin. She didn’t know what it was worth in a corporate domed city, but here at the north pole it was a fortune. She could have paid Hanako for the suit rather than stealing it. For that matter, she could have bought a better one. She could have stocked up on supplies rather than subsisting on fractions of energy bars.

She could have paid for a ride on an outgoing rover.

“Little liar,” Stu said, closing his fingers over the money. “You said you had nothing.”

“I didn’t know,” Valentina said, pressing back against Pete as Stu took half a step closer.

“She didn’t, Stu,” Pete said. “Look at her face. She had no idea.”

“She knows now,” Stu said, still stepping closer. “It’s too much to just walk away from, isn’t it, little girl?”

“What can I do about it?” Valentina said. “Just let me go. I just want to go. I don’t even want that money.” But her voice cracked at that half-truth.

“Come on, Stu,” Pete said. “Let’s not be monsters here. I’m hungry just like you are. But we can eat like kings now. Set up a business of our own. That’s seed money there, we both know it. We’ll just keep it and let her go. Keep a clean conscience.”

Valentina bit back a nervous laugh. Apparently, thievery wouldn’t bother Pete’s conscience. She supposed she should just be grateful that murder would. Stu dropped the coins from his left palm into his right one by one, then shoved them into the pocket of his jumpsuit. Valentina’s lips had just parted to take a deep breath of relief when his now empty hand whipped out at her.

Then she was spinning away as Pete shoved her away from him and she stumbled back onto the bunk, banging a shoulder on the metal frame. She pushed herself back up and turned to find Pete wrestling Stu into the bathroom. Pete was young and tall, but Stu was all muscle and knew how to use his lack of height to advantage. Valentina jumped off the bed, coming around to Pete’s other side to help push Stu into the bathroom. Pete slammed the door, then turned and braced his back against it.

“It doesn’t lock from here,” he said. “I can only hold him for a minute. Run, now.”

Valentina picked up her brother’s note from the bunk and stuffed it into her pocket. She didn’t see her stockings; Stu must still have them. She hurried into her jumpsuit as Stu’s pounding and cursing grew louder from behind the trembling door.

“He’ll want to chase you,” Pete said. “If you hurry and get out of sight, it will be easier to convince him not to bother. Get far enough away that he can’t see you from the door. You’re heading south anyway, out of our way.”

Stu bellowed and threw himself against the door hard enough to nearly open it. Pete grunted and pushed it shut again. Valentina could see he was tiring.

“I’m sorry. I tried to talk him out of this, but he’s feeling a lot more desperate than I am. Maybe because he’s used to being settled, not this nomad life. I didn’t have a steady gig long enough to get used to it. You know, I really do like you,” he added, but this time the crinkling of his eyes did nothing to her stomach.

“Does he . . . do this a lot?” Valentina asked. She couldn’t bring herself to ask if he killed people for their money.

“Times are hard,” Pete said after a long moment of wrestling with the words. “He has a temper.”

“Maybe you should find a different companion,” Valentina said, then fastened up her suit, pulling the helmet down over her head and sealing it. Pete risked a brief raise of a hand in farewell but Valentina didn’t return the gesture.

Her heart was pounding even before she started running, bounding over the ice. It was dark, and she had no light. The ice was smooth, mostly, but occasionally there were deep fissures, blown over with snow, all but invisible until you were right on top of them. They had startled her in the daylight; the thought of them terrified her in the dark. That and Pete’s story about the thing watching from the dark. But mostly she was afraid of Stu. If he caught up with her and killed her and pushed her body in a crevasse, no one would ever know what had become of her. Arturo would never know. He would think she had abandoned him to his fate.

Valentina ran as fast as she dared, head down to stare at the blackness beneath her. Phobos overhead was her only company, and he wouldn’t even light her way.

The station had disappeared over the horizon behind her before she remembered the letter, left discarded on the station floor after Stu had all the coins in his hand. She would never know now what it said or what the money had been for.



CHAPTER FOUR

Straying from the Path


IT TOOK TWO days of hard running to burn off the nervous paranoia, two days spent constantly looking back to be sure she wasn’t followed. She didn’t meet any other travelers, but she couldn’t quite get comfortable in the way stations at night and slept little and badly.

The third night she was too tired to be scared anymore and slept until nearly midmorning. She still ran that day, but this time she was looking ahead to the coming way station and the setting sun and not behind.

The way station was as uninhabited as all the others had been, but in the bathroom she found a pile of rubbish left behind, perhaps by Stu and Pete or perhaps by someone else entirely. There were bean cans, quite empty, and wrappers for hard rye bread squares. There was also a map.

Valentina sat on a bunk, chewing her evening’s half of an energy bar and studying the map. It showed the length of the way station line, from the north pole station all the way to the end of the ice cap. The route followed the arcing contour of Chasma Boreale, although it was several kilometers away from the canyon itself. It wasn’t a very detailed map and she doubted it was even to scale, but it would let her count how far along the line she was, and that was something.

She sounded out the words carefully, but they were mostly unknown to her. They sounded like proper names, names from all sort of cultures back on Earth, and she guessed the way stations had each been named for some early Martian explorer. She read them all twice, but del Toro wasn’t mentioned—a serious oversight in her view. Yes, he had been a scientist and not technically an explorer, but the road to the north pole had been blazed by him and his companions. His ability to solve problems with little resources and less time had saved his team on more than one occasion. The way stations stood where he had once placed supply caches for his team’s return journey at the end of the season.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-31 show above.)