The Bowels of Hell

January 7, 2009

bowels-of-hell

Hell’s not so bad–it takes some getting used to, sure, but once you do, it’s not so bad. You’d think it’d be the worst place in the world, after all you hear, after all the stuff you read and see in movies–but really, it’s okay. That’s what I thought when we first got there, at any rate, camera slung around my shoulder and Fatboy Spiral notebook tucked firmly under my arm, prepared to take as many pictures and make as many notes as I could during the trip; I didn’t intend to be going to Hell again for quite awhile. Never again, if I had my way. But I figured I owed it to myself to go at least once, because it was a rare experience, and I was collecting experiences back then. It was like going to Europe or Disneyland or something, even if you really didn’t want to, but going anyway, just because it’s something you’d never done, and, once done, you could check it off the big list of all the things to do before you died–or so went my logic at the time. And besides, even if I didn’t want to go, I had to. Mr. Rollings was going to make us write our term paper on it.

We went in through the visitor’s entrance. It wasn’t a particularly busy day, so we didn’t have any trouble getting in, though the fact didn’t much improve my mood at the time. I had spent the entire ride sitting next to this idiot who was going to need a hell of a lot more than a term paper on Hell to pass English. His name was Rich or Rick or something; I could never remember. I always just thought of him as the asshole. And for the two hour bus ride to the gates of Hell, I got to sit right next to him. And he wouldn’t stop talking.

“Going to Hell!” he said, very loudly, right in my ear. “Going to Hell in a hand-basket! Hell-acious!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Right.”

“Fucking A man! Going straight to Hell!” The asshole threw his hands up in the air. “Man, technology and shit man–you just don’t know how fast it’s going, man–we can do fucking anything! Going straight to goddamned Hell!”

“Yeah,” I said, “Right.”

“Fucking hellacious,” he agreed, nodding. “Fucking hellacious.”

And as if he wasn’t enough–and he was probably more–I also ended up sitting in front of Veronica, who spent the whole trip crushing a King James Bible against her slight chest, eyes wide and white and terrified behind thick, round glasses. “Forgive me, Lord, forgive me, Lord,” she kept muttering the entire time–and I mean literally the whole way there–holding onto that Bible as if it were her last hold on life. “Forgive me, Lord. I really need this grade.”

Once off the bus and at the visitor’s entrance, things were a little better. At least, it wasn’t quite as close; college students don’t bathe quite as often as maybe they should. The other students quieted down and the entry process was swift. Well, the first part was, anyway.

“Okay, now remember,” Mr. Rollings said, standing beside the gate as the students walked slowly, one by one, through the turnstile and into Hell. “Keep in mind Dante and the concept of multiple Hells–or rather, the concept of multiple chambers in Hell, and the criticism you’ve read–from what I’ve heard, I think you’ll find some interesting correlations here. And just this last week–if you’ve been doing your assignments as outlined in the syllabus–you’ve completed Paradise Lost. Keep in mind Milton’s concept of Hell and the fall of Satan to his rule in the Underworld. And at different points during our venture down here, I’m going to be making a few references that will be unfamiliar to most of you at the moment, but make notes on them–we’ll be covering many of them later on.”

The gate around the entry was a large, arched iron construction, ornate and detailed in what looked to me to be medieval decoration. It was anchored deeply into the surrounding rock—the seam between iron and stone was almost non-existent—and perhaps three yards past the entrance, the cave-like passageway dropped off into blackness. It did look, I admit, a little forbidding, but it wasn’t that different from the entrances I’d seen to attractions at theme parks, and, hell, even some restaurants I’ve been to. Plus, the powder blue turnstile and the pleasant, blonde-haired woman inspecting IDs made the whole thing seem fairly innocuous.

“Thank you,” the woman said, as Peter Trent passed through the turnstile. She was perky as could be; she reminded me a little of a stewardess. “Enjoy your visit! Thank you for thinking of Hell.”

“Not quite what I’d heard about,” I said as I passed through the turnstile. “Sort of like going to the fair, huh?”

The greeter gave me a broad smile. And I think a little bit of a wink. She was very cute. “’Abandon every preconception, ye who enter here,’ we like to say. Thanks for coming, and enjoy your time in Hell.”

Veronica, predictably the last to come through, stepped hesitantly up to the turnstile, wringing her Bible in her hands. The greeter smiled at her, and Veronica shrunk back, twisting her torso away from the woman, as if she were trying to protect her Bible from the pleasant, blonde stewardess-looking woman.

“Oh, don’t worry, dear,” she said sweetly. “We’re not afraid of your little book here. You’re welcome to bring it.”

Veronica, murmuring something rapidly—I’d guess she was praying; she was always praying—hurried through the turnstile.

“There,” Mr. Rollings said, “is that everybody now? Okay, now remember, Hell is an awfully big place–let’s stick together and–come on, Veronica. We’ve only got seven hours, and as much as there is to see here, that’s not very much. Okay, good–now, lets get a move on.”

“Fucking A,” I heard beside me. “Going straight to goddamned Hell!”

It was like a business office–an old business office–for almost the first thirty minutes. Because we couldn’t go anywhere else; there was still a lot of stuff to do before they’d let us into Hell central. Mainly it was just getting papers stamped and validated a notarized and filling out forms and reviewing notices, the majority of which fell to Mr. Rollings, as he was the organizer of the trip. I could tell towards the end of dealing with all the red tape that he was getting pretty pissed.

“Like the novel-length proposal I had to write just to get our names submitted wasn’t enough,” he muttered. “Not to mention getting permission from the Bureau of Unearthly Affairs–reading all those forms was like trying to read Hebrew.” He glanced at the sheet he was filling out currently. “Not that this is any better.” He shook his head disapprovingly, looking down, and continued writing.

“I’m not signing anything,” Veronica interjected emphatically. “Nothing.”

“Don’t worry–you won’t have to. Just make sure you get your Visitor’s ID stamped at the Validation Desk.”

“I’m not signing anything,” she repeated.

“Mr. Rollings–should we be taking notes about this?” asked Peter Trent, looking around at all the old clerks—there must’ve been hundreds of them—with their clear, green-tinted visors bobbing up and down busily as they pushed a thousand different stamps down into ink pads and left their marks on a thousand different forms. I looked out over them—the old, shabby cubicles seemed to go on forever. As did the clerks. There looked to be thousands of them, and not one of them a day under seventy. Though I guessed they were probably a whole hell of a lot older than that. Every one of them was busy, too: they signed papers, typed busily at old Underwoods cleared IDs, and worked endlessly at their archaic adding machines. I didn’t take any notes, but I did take a picture. I just liked the juxtaposition: bureaucracy is Hell. Hell is eternity in a cubicle. Might be the starting point for my term paper, I thought.

“Is this going to be on the test? Should I be taking notes about this?” Peter Trent asked again, after Mr. Rollings—busy signing one form after another in a stack that must have been three hundred pages—had failed to answer him the first time.

“If you think it’s relevant,” Mr. Rollings answered impatiently, swiftly filling out yet another form—in addition to the stack of three hundred he was working on—that one of the old clerks had shoved under his nose. “If you think it might come in handy when it comes time to write your term paper, you’d better write it down.”

“Oh,” Peter said, nodding as if Mr. Rollings had just made a statement of great significance. “Right.” And he started writing vigorously.

“How much longer are we going to have to wait?” piped Suzi Richardson. “I’ve heard they’ve got some really killer shops down there and, like, I’m getting really bored.”

“Soon,” Mr. Rollings said patiently, signing the final form. “It’s not going to kill anybody to wait a little longer.”

“Mr. Rollings, do you think this would be most like purgatory?” Amanda Thomas asked. Aside from me, Amanda was probably the best student in the class. She looked down at her notebook. “In Dante’s inferno, purgatory was ‘a place where the dew of repentance washes off the stain of sin and girds the spirit with humility. Through contrition, confession, and satisfaction by works of righteousness, the sinner must make his way up the mountain.’ Is this sort of like making our way up the mountain—of paperwork?”

I have to admit, I chuckled at that. Mr. Rollings, signing another form, smirked. “That’s pretty good Amanda. If you ask me, I think this is more like limbo—Dante’s purgatory sounds a lot like daily life. For Dante, limbo—“

“Ah,” Amanda said brightly, looking in her notebook. “’A place of sorrow without torment.’”

“That’s the one,” Mr. Rollings agreed, returning a final sheaf of forms back to the man in the cubicle behind the counter. “Although I’m not sure this is entirely without torment.”

“Well, that’s it,” announced the old clerk at the final desk, smiling brightly, for all the world sounding and looking like everybody’s favorite grampa. “If everybody’s had their ID validated, you can go on through.”

“Finally,” Mr. Rollings muttered. “Okay,” he said more loudly. “Let’s go. Now, everybody, like I said, stick together and do not lose your ID tag. You’re going to need it to get back out.”

“Oh God,” Veronica whispered, suddenly standing between Mr. Rollings and myself. “Oh dear sweet Jesus. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

“Too late,” I whispered back, aggravated for reasons I couldn’t clearly define that she insisted on being like this. “You already have.”

“Oh God forgive me,” she whispered. “Oh God please forgive me.”

“Shut up,” I whispered back. “I can’t hear Mr. Rollings.” Mr. Rollings wasn’t speaking at the moment, but that wasn’t the point. I just wanted her to be quiet.

“Fucking A,” the asshole said from behind me, clapping both me and Veronica firmly on our backs as Mr. Rollings led us all down the last hall and to the door that led into Hell central. “Going straight to fucking Hell! Is this heavy shit or what?”

“Shut up,” I said.

◊◊◊

It was a department store. Hell central–and according the label on the otherwise nondescript door we went in through, that’s just what it was–was a department store. Not like Sears or Dillard’s precisely, but a department store all the same. Just bigger. And it looked fancier, too, like one of those really pompous stores for rich people that you can only get into by appointment. Huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling–a ceiling that seemed to be little more than a pitch black nothingness–and thick, plush carpet all over the floor. It was a pretty posh place.

And there was a lot of stuff there. The stuff seemed to go on forever and ever, all sorts of different things–clothes of every fashion, electronics and stereo equipment of every possible type and design, CDs and DVDs, a huge selection of books with an endless amount of titles, hardware and plumbing equipment, supplies for almost every field you can think of–one section was even devoted to groceries, more complete and with a better stock of food and drink than any Kroger’s you’re ever going to go to. It was an endless array of stuff. I took a few pictures, down the aisles and of the chandeliers, and of the girls working the registers—they were very cute—and the security guards. I took one note. Chamber one, I wrote. A glorified mall. But I got bored soon, and was anxious to move on.

“Bitchin’,” said Suzi Richardson exuberantly. “Oh god, would you just look and these clothes? My god, these minis are just, like, to die for!”

“They’re very nice,” Mr. Rollings agreed unenthusiastically. “But I wouldn’t buy any–if you do, your soul is forfeit, so it’s not a real good idea.”

“Like, who cares?” Suzi shot back, pulling a mini and a tank top off the racks. “I just know I’d look so damned bitchin’ in these, ‘specially this summer when I get my tan back. Hey, don’t they have tanning salon in here somewhere? Like, instant perfect tan or something?”

“You can’t buy these,” Mr. Rollings said firmly, grabbing Suzi’s arm and wresting the tank top and skirt away from her and putting them back carefully on the rack. “If you do, your soul if forfeit–and,” he added ominously, “you fail my class.”

“Oh,” Suzi said smally. “Well, hell.”

“Exactly,” Mr. Rollings agreed.

“Mr. Rollings,” asked Peter Trent. “Should I be taking notes on this?”

“Anything of significance, you take notes on,” Mr. Rollings repeated tiredly. “Especially as it relates to the material we’ve been covering in class, like I’ve already told everybody several times. You might, for example, look around here and observe the focus on material wealth, of things and the trappings of success and contrast that to traditional Judeo-Christian values of the spiritual life that biblically puts almost no value on earthly—that is, material–treasure. The Judeo-Christian concept of virtual asceticism in this life in order to build up a treasure in the eternal kingdom is not referring to this kind of treasure. If you want to take some notes, start there.”

“Oh,” Peter said, nodding, and started taking notes. “Right. Earthly materials.”

“Is this it?” Veronica asked, looking around nervously, sweat beading up and rolling slowly down the pale, almost sickly skin of her forehead, her eyes large and white and scared. “Is this all, Mr. Rollings, can we go now? Is this enough?”

“We’ve still got six hours,” Mr. Rollings told her patiently. “Quit worrying–it’s going to be all right. Everything’s been arranged.”

“Oh God,” Veronica murmured dismally. “Oh God oh God. Please forgive me, God. Please. I really really really need this grade.”

“Put a sock in it,” I said.

“Mr. Rollings,” said Eddie Hudson, gazing over at some of the stereo equipment in the electronics section. “Are you sure we can’t buy anything? Not anything? Not even one thing?”

“Eddie,” Mr. Rollings explained patiently, “if you do, you lose your soul. And besides, taking back items obtained in Hell is a felony–a Federal offense. Not only will you forfeit your soul, you’ll spend the next five to fifteen years of your life in jail.” Mr. Rollings sighed exasperatedly. “I shouldn’t have to explain this to you–it was all on the forms I handed out last Monday. We discussed it in class all last week. I clearly stated that this was to be a research trip and nothing else. We’re not here to do our Christmas shopping. We’re here to learn. You can shop until your hearts are content when we get back to the surface, so to speak. But while we are here, you should be taking notes and getting some ideas as to what the theme of your term paper is going to be. And that’s all. Quit thinking about what you’d like to buy and concentrate on what you’re going to be writing when we get back.”

“Yeah,” Eddie said. “Right. Sorry.”

“Just get to work–and let’s move on.”

“Fucking A,” I heard the asshole saying from somewhere. “Fucking all right–the mall is Hell.”

“If the old guys and th

e cubicles and all the forms was limbo, would this be the first chamber of Hell?” Amanda Thomas asked. “Or is limbo the first and then this would be second?”

“Well, please keep in mind there’s a lot more to draw from our time here than just comparison’s to Dante’s Inferno. Paradise Lost, for example, is referenced many times. For the more contemporary soul, even H.P. Lovecraft has a crossover or two—“

“But if limbo is the first circle then this would be the second circle,” Amanda said, flipping through her notes. “Circle two is the level of Hell for the lustful. ‘In the second circle are punished those who sinned by excess of sexual passion, those souls who in life made pleasure their hope, with reason and love of God second.’” She looked around. “So why is it the mall? Wouldn’t that be better for—“ she flipped through her notes. “The fourth circle? The hoarders and spendthrifts?”

“Contradictions as well as correlations can be good inspiration for a paper,” Mr. Rollings said. “The literal Hell is not necessary the literary Hell. Although there is, obviously, some connection—“

“The lustful, huh?” Eddie Hudson asked. “Maybe Jenny and Marcus ought to just go ahead and save themselves the trouble and stay here.”

Everybody turned to look and Jenny and Marcus, who had halfway receded behind a row of sports coats. They were, predictably, busy groping fleshy parts and swapping spit. “Hey, come on guys,” Mr. Rollings said. “Break it up. Save it until after the trip is over. Okay? Okay.” He sighed as Jenny and Marcus grudgingly released each other.

With the dogs in heat parted, we proceeded through the mall toward the next chamber, taking pictures and making notes.

◊◊◊

“All right–I think you’re beginning to get the idea of what I meant by the correlation between this, the literal Hell, and Dante’s literary conception of it,” he continued once we were outside. He nodded with a smile at Amanda Thomas. “This is what I guess we’d call the third ‘chamber’, if we regard the entrance level as limbo.”

“Oh, wow,” Amanda said, voice filled with awe. “It’s Disney Land!”

“Disney Hell,” I corrected, and proceeded to make a note of that. Chamber Two, I wrote in my notebook. Disney Hell.

Amanda was flipping through her notes. “The third level in Dante’s Inferno was for gluttons,” she announced. “’The gluttons are punished here, lying in the filthy mixture of shadows and of putrid water. Because they consumed in excess’—I guess that would be in the last level—“ She jerked her thumb back at Suzi Richardson. “—‘you meet your fate beneath the cold, dirty rain, amidst the other souls that there lay unhappily in the stinking mud.’”

“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Suzi demanded.

“I don’t see any stinking mud,” I said. “Or ‘eternal rain, maledict, cold and heavy’.” Except for Amanda, I was probably the only person in class who had paid enough attention to our reading of Inferno to actually quote it. “I just see Disney Hell.”

Mr. Rollings nodded. “But I think Amanda made a pretty good call. The idea is to look for correlations, as we discussed, and if you look just down there—to that ride, the one with the dogs—“

We looked where Mr. Rolling’s finger was pointing. About a hundred feet away was a huge, black-painted ride with carts rolling in and out, almost entirely young and beautiful riders hopping on and off, all laughing and carrying on. Above the entry way were three giant dog heads with blazing red eyes, obviously robotic in nature but still impressive in their size and movement. Each head snarled and snapped, occasional splashes of water—which I’m sure was supposed to be drool—spilling from their mouths. The entrance and exit ways went through giant hooded doors that were shaped like paws and rose in an arc. So that, no doubt, the giant three-headed canine could tear at the damned with its claws, if not its teeth.

“’The Cerebus’,” Amanda read, nodding. Mr. Rollings smiled approvingly at her. Amanda was all right, but she could be a show off.

“The who?” Peter Trent asked. “Is that important?”

“Biggest fucking amusement park I’ve ever seen in my life,” said the asshole. “Hellacious.”

“Can we ride?” asked Jenny, looking at the near endless variety of amusement centers, theatres, fun houses and rides that lined the midway. She was squeezing Marcus’s hand very hard; I don’t think it was just the attractions she was thinking about riding. “How much are tickets?”

“Nobody rides,” Mr. Rollings said firmly. “Nobody rides anything. Your soul is forfeit if you do.”

“Jesus,” Suzi said. “Hell’s no fun at all. Can’t you do anything here without, like, losing your soul and failing and stuff?”

“We’re just here to sight-see, remember?” Mr. Rollings reminded everyone gently. “The shops and the rides are all for the regular citizens of Hell. We’re just visiting.”

“Bummer,” Suzi said dismally. “That sucks. That sucks big time.”

“This is work, this isn’t play,” Mr. Rollings reminded them. “Take some notes.”

So we walked on down the midway, Mr. Rollings pointing things out at various junctures, and we all made notes. At least, most of us did. The asshole hadn’t even brought anything to write with, or write on, and Veronica just kept clutching at her Bible. For someone who “really needed” this grade, she wasn’t working very hard at it.

“Take notes,” Mr. Rollings repeated, in response to something Eddie Hudson had just asked. “There’s a lot of good stuff here. Take a look at the names of some the rides and the shops and the restaurants–I’ve seen at least ten literary references so far that you should be at least somewhat familiar with just in the titles of the places. Look at some the T-shirts these people are wearing–that woman over there, for instance.”

I looked in the general direction Mr. Rollings had gestured, where a young woman was standing, slowly nibbling at a large, luminescent tuft of orange cotton candy. She wore tight, cut-off jeans and a tight, white T-shirt that said, “The Devil Made Me Do It, and I’m Damned Glad He Did,” in glowing red letters. I chuckled briefly, and took a picture.

I saw a little girl with a T-shirt that read “Little Hellion” and took a picture of her. I saw a cut-off T-shirt tightly hugging this blond, deeply tanned girl, that said, “Well, at Least I had Good Intentions”. Though I doubted that there was much truth to that, I took a picture, and made a note. There was thin guy with a mullet, wearing an olive drab tank top with the faded image of skull and crossbones in the middle. Over the skull, it read: “Kill ‘em All, and Let God Sort ‘em Out”. Underneath the skull, in big black letters, it read: “Ooops.” Again, I took a picture. And the class moved on.

I forgot precisely where we were–I think we were near the “Hellblazer”, this glorified multi-tiered ten-story roller coaster that Mr. Rollings had to talk seven different students out of riding on–when I felt Veronica’s small, cold hand suddenly clutch desperately at my back.

“Satan is the father of lies,” she whispered to me ominously, gesturing expansively at the rides and games that surrounded us, a sudden intensity in her watery eyes that annoyed me. “You know, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I agreed, mainly in the hopes that she would shut up.

“This is all lies,” she said, hand squeezing my shoulder to the point of pain. “This isn’t Hell. The Bible says what Hell is. Hell has lava pits.”

“It doesn’t say anything about lava in the Bible,” I corrected, gently removing her hand from my shoulder. “That would be geology, not theology.”

I don’t think Veronica was listening to me. “Hell has molten pools where they throw the damned souls and they burn for eternity.” She gestured at all the people that surrounded us–millions, probably, with rides and shops and shows and games that went on out almost into infinity–that surrounded us. Most of the souls there, all official citizens of Hell, seemed to be having a good time on the rides and with the games. “This is lies. This isn’t Hell. Hell is burning for all eternity.”

“Okay, thank you for your input, that’s enough,” I said.

“This isn’t Hell,” she whispered at me urgently. “This isn’t right. We’ve got to get out of here.”

“We’ve still got plenty of time,” I said tiredly. “I need more notes for my term paper. And I’ve still got two rolls of film to shoot up.”

“This isn’t Hell!” She grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me around. “This isn’t what Hell is really like!”

“Oh would you please just stick a sock in it?” I asked, turning back around. “I don’t need this shit right now.”

“This isn’t all Hell is,” she said more quietly, her tone simple and distinct, like that of someone stating a profound, yet obvious, truth. Obvious to themselves, anyway. “There’s more.”

“Shut up,” I instructed, and took some pictures.

◊◊◊

“Fourth chamber,” Mr. Rollings announced. “I don’t suspect this is quite what Dante had in mind–or Milton, or John Donne, or even Anton LaVey for that matter. Nevertheless, there are some significant literary relations–and, by now, you should be giving those some serious thought. Not just about a few of the obvious analogies that can be drawn, but about the general relationship between Hell and man’s conception of it–specifically as it relates to his literary conception of it. By now, I’m sure you noticed Western thought has had a lot of influence on the shape of things in contemporary Hell. I’m not sure what that says about Western thought, precisely, but the fact is obvious–the mall-like department store set up in the second chamber, the amusement park environment of the third–the effects of Western thought and culture—and not just pop-culture, but European culture dating back to the middle ages and before—are present and observable. Secondly, other than the obvious and often bad puns that titled rides and covered T-shirts in the amusement park section–many of which, bad or not, I think you should’ve made note of–there were also a lot of scriptural and literary references of significance. I think by now you could safely say that man’s literary conception of Hell through the ages has had, in whatever bizarre ways, its effect. It may well be possible that man’s literary usage of Hell as a place, and as a concept, has had as much effect on the actuality of Hell itself as Hell has had on man’s literature.”

“What the fuck?” I heard the asshole asking nobody in particular. “A fucking nature trail?”

Again, Amanda piped up, looking through her notebook. “If this if the fourth chamber, it would be the one just before the river Styx. ‘Here, the prodigal and the avaricious suffer their punishment, as they roll weights back and forth against one another.’ I don’t see anybody rolling weights back and forth. This is just a nature trail.”

Mr. Rollings just nodded. I fumbled with my notebook and took a note. Chamber Three, I wrote. Pantheist Hell. I paused for a moment, thinking about the Romantics and about all their bad poetry, about Thoreau and his exuberant diatribes on his superior ability to sit under trees and look deciduous. Satan as Nature, I wrote. I thought it made sense. Nothing is one-sided, and nature is not all goodness and light. It was red in tooth and claw, after all. If God could be nature, Satan could be, too. I knew right away that this was the theme for my paper. It was one not a lot of people were likely to take a stab at. The corporate Hell theme I had thought of back and the beginning—Hell as infinite cubicles, Hell as bureaucracy—that was obvious. It wasn’t original. It had been done before and, worse, might be done by somebody else in the class. Maybe Amanda. But Hell as nature—now that seemed like an original theme to me. The fact that I had my title almost immediately decided it for me. My term paper would be titled: “The Nature of Hell”. I could smell the A+.

I had apparently found my muse; the thing seemed to practically write itself in my head. I made some more notes, took a few pictures, and, in a fit of inspiration, started to write the outline for my first draft.

“Let’s move on,” Mr. Rollings said. “Just four more hours, and there’s still a lot to see.”

“I hate nature trails, man,” said Raymond Fort, who had started hanging around with the asshole in the last chamber, which was good because it kept the asshole from bothering me. “I hate nature trails so much. Man, no wonder they call this Hell.”

“Like, are there bugs?” asked Suzi. “I just can’t handle bugs. Like, they’re like, so, you know–I could get a rash or something.”

“We’re not going to get bothered,” Mr. Rollings said. “Don’t worry. Let’s just get a move on, okay?”

“Like, what if a bird shits in my hair or something?”

“Make a note,” said Mr. Rollings. “Use it as the theme to your paper.”

“But Mr. Rollliings–” Suzi whined. I tuned her out and stumbled forward with the rest of the class, making notes on my outline.

The nature trail went on for a while. There was some hesitation by some of the students—most predictably, and most intractably, Veronica—when it came time to cross a rickety wooden suspension bridge that spanned the gap over the relatively placid, if very dark, waters of the river Styx. Which it was; there was a sign at the bridge that read: “The Original River Styx: Accept No Imitations”.

“I think we should be fine,” Mr. Rollings was saying as we crossed. “But make sure not to touch the water. Just in case.”

“God, forgive me, please, God protect me,” Veronica was murmuring. “’Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil—‘“

◊◊◊

“Fifth chamber,” Mr. Rollings said as we left the nature trail and entered the next area through an old outhouse. “If the map is right, this should be–ah, yes. The museum.”

This time, our entrance went without much comment. For once the asshole didn’t have anything to say, and Raymond, the guy that was hanging around with him now, said a little something, but kept it quiet. I thought I heard Veronica behind me, muttering a prayer. Suzi just said, “Boring,” and everybody filed in.

We we’re in a huge, marble hall, with more of those endless ceilings and branching wings that seemed to extend out into forever, all lined with sculpture and wax figures and paintings of every sort from every imaginable time period–abstract to photo-realism, graphic design to photo-surrealism, Greek sculpture and erotic photography, landscapes and still-lifes and rough bronze figures of bizarrely distorted dimensions–and that was only what I could see from the entrance. If what had gone before was any indication, there was undoubtedly much more left to see. I made a note. Chamber four, I scribbled quickly. Very big museum thing. I looked around for something else of interest, but not very hard–I had already found my thesis.

“Nice,” Mr. Rollings commented, looking around, and then checked his watch. “Okay, we’ve still got three hours, and I’d like to spend most of it here–there’s only one more chamber past this one that we can visit–according to the people up front, all the additional chambers are ‘on reserve’ now or some such nonsense–and for those of you still grasping for a good theme for your paper, I think you might find some ideas here. Art, particularly art of the Renaissance, has always had strong Judeo-Christian themes running through it. Indeed, a few Renaissance painters made a career out depicting their violent conceptions of Hell over and over again. And I’m not going to force you to confine your papers strictly to literature–the effects of Hell on art and, conversely, art on Hell, would be a valid theme, as well. As a topic for a paper, that’s obviously much too general–but you should be able to find a particular painter or a particular school of artistic thought to confine your paper to, and, as we are in Hell, how these themes are elaborated on down here would also be an excellent topic to discuss. After all, that’s why we’re visiting Hell. Many artistic movements also involved literature, poetry, and even music, and if you think you could work all that in to a relatively specific theme–”

Mr. Rollings went on, but I quit listening. I simply moved down the hall with them, making a few more notes on my swiftly expanding outline. Towards the end of the first hall I saw a sculpture of the god Pan, cloven hoofs somehow suspended well off of the floor, grotesquely ornate wooden pipes held to its marble lips, eyes malevolent slits, small, ebony horns sticking out of its skull. There were many other pieces we had passed just as striking–but this one I could work into my theme of Pantheism and the concept as Satan as Nature and vice-versa. I made a note, and then lifted my camera.

“Uh–hey, man, uh–how’s it going?” I heard someone asking beside me. “Uh, got ideas for your paper and stuff?”

It was the asshole. I frowned, looking at him briefly. “I think so–” I started, and then stopped. Something was wrong. I thought for a second, and realized I hadn’t heard anything out of him since about the middle of the nature trail. He hadn’t said anything when we had crossed the Styx. I hadn’t even heard any comments when we had passed some of the erotic photography a little while back, and the asshole not commenting on that was just downright abnormal. Almost as abnormal as his taking interest in somebody else’s academic pursuits. In fact, almost as abnormal as his taking any interest in anything academic whatsoever. I noticed, too, that even though it was cool in the museum chamber–just about sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, I thought–the asshole was sweating, his face flushed and teeth clenched tight together. Every couple of a seconds, there was a tiny twitch at his mouth.

“Go away,” I said.

“Man,” he said, and it was obvious he was scared of something. His voice was tight and thin; he sounded like he was about to faint or throw-up. “Man–look, I just wanted to ask you a question.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “That’s a new one. What?”

“Look at me,” he said. “Take a close look.”

I did as he asked. “You look like you really need to piss,” I said. “Now go away.”

“Man,” he said, grabbing my collar and pulling my face to his. He smelled really bad. When he spoke, his voice was a tight, papery whisper. “My ID,” man,” he whispered urgently. “Where’s my ID?”

I looked at him for a moment. “Rick,” I started. “Rich–Dick–what did–where’d you put your ID?”

“I don’t know, man–”

“This isn’t funny,” I said tiredly. “This isn’t anything to try and start a joke about and I haven’t got the time. Where’s your ID?”

“Where’s yours?” he whispered back urgently. “Where’s anybody’s?”

I looked down at my shirt pocket, where I had clipped my ID when we first entered. It was gone. I knocked the asshole’s hands away from my collar and glanced quickly around. At Amanda, Eddie, Suzi, Peter, Veronica, Raymond, Mr. Rollings–everybody. Nobody had on their IDs. They were all gone.

“Man, it was all a trap, man–it was all a trap,” the asshole was whispering frantically, his voice getting louder. “Just a fucking goddamned trap–just–”

“Shut up,” I said. “Want to start a panic?”

“–goddamned fucking trap–”

“Why are you telling me?” I asked. “What do you want me to do? Take some pictures for posterity?”

“Goddammit, man,” he said, grabbing my collar again, whispering mercilessly at my nose. “Don’t be such a fucking asshole–”

“Yeah?” I asked. I admit, I was worried. But the asshole grated on me, and I couldn’t help myself. “What happened to everything being so hell-acious?”

“Man–”

It was just about then, I guess, that Veronica screamed.

“My ID my ID my ID my ID–”

Consciousness of our situation was raised pretty quickly. Everybody started babbling frantically at each other. Veronica kept screaming.

“Calm down, calm down,” Mr. Rollings shouted. “I’m–I’m sure there’s some sort of reasonable, rational, explanation for this–”

“Yeah,” said Raymond Fort. “We been set up, that’s the reason–”

“Mr. Rollings,” Suzi was asking. “Mr. Rollings, we can still get out of here, can’t we? We’re still going to be able to get out of here all right?”

“Are we gonna die, Mr. Rollings?” Jenny Wilton asked, for the first time since we’d been down in Hell doing something other than groping and cooing and slobbering over Marcus Towery. “You have to be dead to live in Hell, don’t you?”

“Nobody’s going to be living in Hell–” Mr. Rollings started.

“Mr. Rollings,” Peter Trent asked, waving his hand for attention. “Should I still be taking notes?”

“Shut up, Peter,” Mr. Rollings instructed, turning around. “Look, we’ll all just go back up to the front desk and explain our situation–I’m sure they’ll understand–”

“Oh, yeah, right,” Eddie Hudson agreed. “Sure. Just as soon as Hell freezes over.” Eddie let out a sudden, nervous laugh.

“Man, that’s shit,” Raymond Fort said. “Want me to crack you one?”

“Everybody, calm down–!” Mr. Rollings began. “Fighting won’t do anybody any good–”

“No!” Veronica shouted, holding her Bible over her head. “No!” she screamed and, clutching the Bible back against her chest, suddenly took off running down the corridor, away from the direction we had come.

“Veronica!” Mr. Rollings yelled. He wiped his forehead off with the back of his hand. “Oh, great–hey, somebody stop her!”

“I ain’t going nowhere in here now,” the asshole said. “I’m not going no further–nowhere–”

“Damn straight,” concurred Raymond Fort.

“I’ll go,” I said, and took off after her. Why not? It was better than hanging around with all those babbling idiots. I raced down the long, marble hallway, away from them. Veronica, in her long, flower-print dress and clodhoppers, wasn’t difficult to catch up with. My hands grabbed at her thin waist, trying to slow her up, or stop her completely, without having to tackler her.

“Come on, Veronica,” I started, getting a firm grip, and she hit me with her Bible.

“No!” she screamed. “Gotta get out–gotta get out–”

She twisted, sliding out from between my hands. I clutched at the fringe of her dress, got it, and jerked on it. “Veronica–” I started.

She lost her footing as I pulled at her dress and toppled over with a short, high-pitched gasp of surprise and I tripped over her, impacting painfully against the marble floor as inertia carried us sliding down the hall. She tumbled over me, I slid against her, and we both stopped when we hit the treadmill.

I was the first to get my footing back, standing up quickly, lightly knocking my head against a punching bag.

“Here,” I said, offering my hand to Veronica as I looked around. There was a long line of treadmills directly in front of us, one of which had brought our slide to a stop. There were a number of punching bags hanging from the ceiling, several sets of weights and weight lifting machines anchored everywhere, and some exercise bikes. In the distance, I could just make out a track and a few Olympic sized swimming pools. Although I hadn’t been conscious of going through anything, we had apparently entered the sixth chamber.

“Here,” Veronica said as I helped her up off the floor, and she slammed her Bible into the side of my head.

It took me a second to reorient, and by that time, she was already running desperately towards the far wall, weaving around exercise machines as she went.

“Shit,” I said, and started running after her.

Veronica was almost to the wall when I caught up with her, and I was not going to let her get any further. The time for delicacy had passed. I jumped at her, grabbing her around the torso, jerking her down violently as her free hand reached out for the doorknob. I heard a sharp pop and she screamed, and I had her down.

The scream tapered off into a jerky sob. It was a moment before she found her voice. “My ankle,” she hissed through clenched teeth, sweat standing out on her forehead, black, stringy hair matted to her skull. “You broke my–uhn!– ankle.”

“It’s your own fault,” I said. “You shouldn’t’ve run off like that.”

“You broke my ankle,” she repeated.

“And I’ll break your jaw if you don’t shut up. Now come on–we’ve got to get back with the rest of the class–”

“No!” she shouted, eyes white, watery spheres behind her glasses. “Out–gotta get out–gotta get out–” She lifted her torso, reaching for the door. I grabbed her under the crook of each arm and dragged her back about ten feet.

“My ankle dear God–”

“Cut that out,” I said. “You’re being stupid. That isn’t the way out–we’ve got to go back the way we came. With the rest of the class. Now, come on–”

“–my ankle–”

“Here,” I said, lifting her. “Just rest your weight on the other leg and put your arm around my neck like this–that’s right–just like that–”

“–out–” she whispered. “Gotta get out–”

“Right,” I agreed. “That’s just what we’re doing.”

“Out.”

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s–”

And she slammed the Bible back into my face. Involuntarily, I let her go and she slid back onto the floor, and, bracing her back against it, she kicked me in the crotch.

I fell backwards, bright, shining pain making my eyes water. And Veronica was dragging herself back towards the door.

Shit, I thought. Sucker. God. And then I couldn’t think anymore. I couldn’t breath. I could hardly move at all.

But I was moving, dragging myself forward with my hands, using my legs just barely, feeling too nauseous to try standing up. She was almost to the door, and I was still several feet away. I wasn’t going to make it. Then she had her hand on the door knob, and I screamed at her to stop, to come back, but it came out like a whisper.

She turned the knob and I heard the click, and I thought about what Mr. Rollings had said, about how we wouldn’t be able to go past the sixth chamber, so I thought maybe it was locked, that it’d be closed–but the door opened easily. And Veronica screamed.

A wall of heat slammed against me–thick, burning, choking heat. Foul heat, the heat of death. I smelled the stink of sulfur and brimstone in the air immediately, the stench of boiling blood and burning flesh. And I could hear screams, endless, surging, tortured screams, overlapping a deep, toneless rumble. An unceasing, bone-shaking thunder. And Veronica–I could hear her scream, too.

And I was at the door. A door, but it wasn’t the door, anymore. It was wider and taller than the small, non-descript door it had been, maybe a dozen feet wide and twenty feet tall. But it could have been a twenty miles tall and a hundred miles wide for all the difference it made. Everything was a burning, roiling black. The last chamber receded back forever, shimmering in the indescribable heat, thousands upon thousand of figures—tortured, bald, burning and bleeding—writhing in the molten pits, nailed to the burning black rocks, vomiting up great gouts of blood-red flame.

I stood. Despite the nausea, the dizziness, and the heat, I stood, one hand holding onto the door—the small brass knob Veronica had turned to open the door was now a grotesque, iron monstrosity—one hand clutching at Veronica’s arm as her body leaned out over the pit. The pain was incredible–I felt like I should’ve been burning up. I felt like everything should’ve been burning up in the heat, that everything should’ve been choking on the foul stench in the air, but I was still alive. Somehow, I still stood. Eyes squinting against the heat, I could barely see. But I could smell the stench, I could hear the screams, I could feel the heat. Hell, I could feel the deep, pulsing rumble of moving earth and deep, burning flame—a sound so deep I could feel it in my bones. And I could see a little; I could see enough. I knew where to aim my camera. Pulling Veronica back and away, keeping the door braced with one foot, I shot up the rest of that roll.

I was almost done when I slipped. There was a boom—a huge, terrible thud, like someone had just closed a gigantic door—and the burning gale whipping through the doorway reversed, and the wind was at my back. A felt myself stumble forward, and Veronica’s clodhoppers slipped on the floor and her legs flew out from under her. My grip on her arm slipped quickly, from elbow to wrist to fingers. Her free arm flopped out and towards me, but she couldn’t reach it high enough to grab onto me. It was almost like something was pulling at her. As she screamed and, not helping me at all, kicked her feet, her body swung up horizontally, as if the gravity of the final chamber was not at the bottom but at the very end. Her feet kicking as the wind blew against us, one of her clodhoppers flew off and flew straight backwards, end over end, until it vanished in the black fire.

Stupid, stupid, I told myself. Shouldn’t have stopped to take the pictures. It’s just a damn term paper.

I swung my camera over my shoulder and reached out with my free hand to grab Veronica’s wrist. I got her wrist, and pulled her closer so that my other hand could close around her forearm. Her sweaty, oily skin was still slipping down through my fingers, but now she was close enough that she could grab my forearm with her free hand. With me pulling her up, and her other arm pulling against me, I started to back up. I could barely hear Veronica screaming now, over the deep, howling, burning noise of the pit, but I tried to talk to her, anyway. “Pull yourself forward!” I yelled. “Try to get as close to the door as you can!”

As I pulled her up, I felt my camera strap tighten around my neck. With a jerk, my camera swung around from being over my shoulder and behind my back to dangling out in front of me, the burning wind drawing it toward the pit. It loosened, and seemed to drop forward another notch, and I realized that I had not tightened my shoulder strap enough, and I was about to lose my camera.

“Watch out!” I shouted to Veronica. “My camera!”

Whether she heard me or she just misunderstood me, I don’t know, but as the strap unfastened and my camera flew from my neck, she let go of my arm and caught the strap. She lifted her arm, waving the strap at me—I guess for me to grab it, but there was no way that was going to happen, because she was already rapidly sliding through my fingers again. I knew that if I tried to keep a hold on her with just one hand at that point, she was gone.

“Let it go!” I yelled at her. “You’re slipping. Let it go!”

“But your camera!” she yelled back. And then screamed again.

“It’s just a fucking camera and it’s just a fucking paper and it’s just a fucking grade and I don’t care let the goddamned thing GO!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “I can’t hold on to you! I need your other hand!”

Veronica slipped forward again, and even though I had both hands on her, I was down to her fingers, and she was still slipping. There wasn’t much room left to go, and if she slid any further, I didn’t think she’d be able to get her other hand up to me. “Veronica! Drop it NOW!”

With a cry of pain and despair, Veronica let go of the strap and, just barely, got her arm back up and her hand around mine. I watched my camera fly backwards into the darkness, turning end over end and then burst into a bright yellow flame. And then it was gone.

With Veronica’s chewed fingernails digging into my hands, I pulled backwards. I grabbed one forearm and then the other, and then got my hands around her upper arms. One foot sliding against the floor, but the other against the edge of the huge, trembling wood-and-iron door, I pushed back with all my strength. I screamed, and so did Veronica, and she was across the threshold. We both tumbled backwards, and there was a terrible, dark, horrendous sound—metal scraping against metal a thousand miles wide, a hundred-thousand animals howling in pain, consumed in a roaring fire and terrible winds.

Then, in an instant, it was complete and total silence. The wind, the roaring, the deep, burning, throbbing noise I could hear in the very marrow of my bones—it was all gone. There was a light snapping sound, as the small white door the non-descript brass knob closed with a click.

I inhaled deeply. The terrible stench was gone. I was breathing something that smelled like air again.

“I’m sorry,” Veronica was saying. “So sorry. Your camera. I don’t know—I don’t know why—something made me do it. Something.”

“The devil,” I supplied.

“Oh, your camera,” she said. “I didn’t mean to—“

“Oh, your ankle,” I said. “Tit for tat. Now stop talking about it.”

I stood up and looked around. It was again quiet, cool, and deserted in the chamber. I looked at my hands and then touched my face, then my hair. It had felt as if I had been fire—as if my skin had been burning off of my bones. But I was fine. The only sign of damage were Veronica’s nail-marks in my palm and up my arm. Veronica lay panting of the floor, her face flushed and slick with sweat, long, stringy hair splayed out in a halo around her head. Except for the swelling around her ankle, and her missing clodhopper, she looked all right. I even saw her Bible, a few feet from the door, no worse for wear, except being permanently bent by her constant wringing of it. I went over, picked it up, and handed it to her.

“You dropped this,” I said as she grabbed it, once again clutching it tightly against her. “Now, like I said: back this way.”

“Hell,” she whispered, face flattened against the floor. “I just looked straight into the pit of Hell.”

“Good for you,” I congratulated her. “I lost my camera in it. Should be a great theme for your paper.”

“Straight into the Pit,” she said.

“Right,” I said, picking her up. “Just so you know, if you try to kick me again, I’m going to take you back there and throw you in it, okay?”

“Pit,” she said.

I sighed. “Put a sock in it,” I advised her. “And let’s go find the rest of the class before the leave without us.”

◊◊◊

“Good,” Mr. Rollings said when we met up with them again in the museum section. “You’re back.” He wiped his forehead on the back of his hand. “For a second there I thought we were going to have to send out a search party for you.”

“No,” I said. “I just stopped to take some pictures. I don’t think they’re going to come out, though.”

“Oh. Well, anyway, here’s your ID–and yours, Veronica.” I took them both, clipping one to Veronica’s dress and the other one back on my shirt pocket. “Security showed up just after you left–apparently they caught a gang of air demons trying to use them to get outside. The air demons have been returned to their rightful chamber and Hell security apologizes for any inconvenience.” Mr. Rollings smiled sheepishly. “You know how these things are.”

“Right,” I said. “So are we leaving now?”

“I think we’d better,” he said. “It’s almost that time, anyway.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “And Veronica broke her ankle. I think she needs a doctor.”

“I looked–” she started, and I clapped my hand over her mouth.

“She delirious, too,” I added.

“Mmm,” Mr. Rollings murmured. “Broke her ankle. Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” I said. “See the swelling? She needs to see a doctor. Or get some ice. Or something.

“God,” Mr. Rollings swore. “Somehow I don’t think the college is going to be letting us go on another field trip very soon.”

“That’s probably not such a bad thing,” I said. “Somebody want to help me with Veronica?”

“Oh, here, let me,” offered Amanda Thomas, coming up and slipping the arm still clutching desperately at that Bible around her neck as the class began trudging slowly back the way we came.

“Up, up,” I said to Amanda. “Keep her weight off her feet.”

“Oh–okay–”

“Almost stuck in Hell,” I heard the asshole saying. “Almost stranded in the pit–fucking hell-acious.”

“Yeah,” concurred Raymond Fort. “Man–I don’t know about this Hell stuff man. I mean—I don’t know if we ought to be coming here. Just because you can, you know—I don’t know that means we should. Shit. What do you think?”

“Fucking hell-acious,” the asshole answered back.

Peter Trent was holding a notebook in front of Mr. Rollings face. “Is this enough notes, Mr. Rollings? Or should I take more on the way back?”

Mr. Rollings sighed. “It’s your report, I’m not doing it for you, Peter.”

“Like, are we going to have to go back through that stupid nature trail thing? I mean, you know, I like actually had a bird shit in my hair once–and it was like just so disgusting–”

“I hate nature trails, man,” Raymond interjected.

We did have to go back through the nature trail, the theme park, and then the mall.

“Mr. Rollings,” queried Eddie Hudson. “Mr. Rollings–are you sure we can’t buy anything? I mean, if they’d return our IDs so easy like they did–well, don’t they have to be all right, then. I mean, they couldn’t be so bad, could they? It’s just Hell–”

“Nobody buys anything,” Mr. Rollings said again. “And get that notebook out of my face, Peter. I—“

“But Mr. Rollings,” Suzi Richardson. “These are Prada! Prada! For two dollars!

Suzi was already picking up a pair of black shoes, and looking toward one of the numerous check-out desks—and they were everywhere, all staffed; there were no lines to check out in Hell. A guy who looked like he could have been a Chippendale dancer under his white Oxford shirt and black slacks was waving Suzi over, mouthing the words I’m open at her.

Mr. Rollings jerked the shoes out of her hand and put them back down on the rack. “Two dollars and your eternal soul! And you fail class. Plus five to fifteen years in a Federal prison. Or did you forget our little discussion on the ‘Supernatural Customs Act of 2015’?”

“Oh,” Suzi said, her voice small but still looking back at a pair of shoes—and I didn’t know Suzi all that well, but I could tell you one thing: she wasn’t hurting for clothes. “I forgot.”

Mr. Rollings sighed, waving the rest of the class through to the next level. “Marcus, Jenny, come on–yes, yes, I’m happy we’re getting out of this alive myself–quit kissing and get moving. Hey, is everything all right back there with Veronica? Is she okay?”

“Under the circumstances, fine,” I answered. “Not too heavy, Amanda?”

“Fine–don’t worry about me–”

“Looked into the pit–” Veronica was saying. “Saw the very bowels of Hell itself–”

I winked secretly at Amanda. “I think she’ll be better once we get her to a doctor,” I said. Amanda nodded with wise understanding. Damn straight, she mouthed at me.

“Mr. Rollings–” someone else started, but I tuned it out. There was more chatter going back than there had been coming in, and none of it was any less boring. Carefully supporting Veronica, I returned to thoughts about my term paper. I had dropped my notebook somewhere and had lost my camera, but I still remembered the general form of my outline, which mentally I began to modify, and the general shape my paper was going to take. I was going to miss that old camera, but the pictures wouldn’t be necessary. I could describe what I saw, and I was pretty sure I’d be able to tie it all together thematically, too. The A+ was still mine. This was going to be a damned good paper.

“Straight–straight into the pit,” Veronica whispered.

I sighed. “For the love of Pete,” I said. “Shut up!”

Soon we were at the exit, and, after Mr. Rollings went through another half-hour of reviewing and signing papers, we all proceeded out the gate, single file, Amanda Thomas helping me to lift Veronica, still muttering to herself, over the turnstile.

“Thanks for coming,” the pleasant, blonde woman said as we walked through. “I look forward to seeing you again real soon.”

As I passed through, she touched my shoulder. Her hand was very warm. “I especially look forward to seeing you.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” I advised, as I stepped through the turnstile. “I’m not coming back here.”

She smiled broadly. Her teeth almost sparkled. “That’s what you think. Have a nice day.”

When we finally got to the bus, I sat in the back with Amanda Thomas so we could lay Veronica across the long rear seat. Amanda went through the first aid kit, but there wasn’t much to help a busted ankle. We’d have to wait until we got back up closer to the city, and maybe get her to a doctor or at least stop for some ice.

I let Veronica lay across my lap while Amanda kept her feet up. “Burning . . . lava . . . screaming,” Veronica was muttering. “Despair and woe . . . the endless black.”

Amanda looked at me, brow furrowed. “Why does she keep talking like that?”

I shrugged. “She’s a kook?” I asked. “I don’t know.” I didn’t think Amanda was up to doing a better job than me, even if she had seen everything I had, but I wasn’t going to let her in on the theme for my paper. “She needs to see a doctor.”

Amanda gave me a knowing look, nodding.

“Well, I hope everybody enjoyed their trip,” Mr. Rollings said from the front of the bus. “I can tell you, next semester’s trip to the Georgia State Correctional Facility is probably not going to be happening, now. What a mess. You know, after the constant discussion of what you were supposed to be doing, and not doing, on this trip—I was surprised at your behavior. All of you. You were told a dozen times that you couldn’t buy anything, or ride anything, or take any souvenirs—”

The asshole—blissfully distant from me on the trip back, sitting near the front of the bus—raised his hand. “Not even a rock?”

Mr. Rollings paused. “Richie, I hope you’re not saying what I think you’re saying. What rock?”

“I picked up a rock on the nature trail. I mean, it was just a rock. And how cool is that? A Hell-rock, man!”

Mr. Rollings face was turning red. “About five to fifteen years in prison! Maybe you’ll be seeing the Georgia State Correctional Facility after all—“

“Hey, wait, man, it’s just a rock—“

“Get it out! Turn the bus around. For God’s sake, Richie, what the Hell were you thinking?”

“That it was a cool rock. Look at it!”

I suppose it’s a good thing we hadn’t gone any further. We got back to the gates of Hell in about ten minutes, and Mr. Rollings had the asshole go out and hand the rock back over. I just watched through the window like everybody else, but I could get the gist of the conversation. The professionally attired representative of Hell was saying that it was fine—that he could have all the rocks he wanted. Everyone could have a souvenir. If they wanted.

I was trying my best to read lips—the exchange looked like it was getting kind of heated, at least from Mr. Rollings side—when there was a knock on the glass at the back window. Amanda gasped, and so did Veronica, who pushed herself back up against me, almost cringing. It was the pleasant-looking greeter lady from the gate, waving at me. She smiled.

“Told you you’d be back,” she said. “Didn’t I?”

“Okay, thanks,” I said. “Great to see everybody again. But we are leaving now.”

I glanced over to where Mr. Rollings was still standing with the asshole. Two old men in green visors had brought over a table and a pile of papers, and one of them was gesturing and the pile of papers with a pen.

The woman laughed pleasantly. Even though she was talking to me through the glass, I could hear her voice almost like her lips were pressed against my ear. “Maybe not quite yet.”

“Okay, well, bye,” I said.

“We found something of yours,” she said. She tapped against the glass, and pointed down towards her other hand, where she held my camera. “Your notebook, too. We thought you’d like them back.”

Veronica’s hand was suddenly around my wrist, squeezing it like a vise. “Don’t—it’s death—it’s a trap—

I jerked my hand free. “Shut up,” I said. “I’m not stupid.” I looked at the woman through the window, and waved at her. “No, thank you, buh-bye.”

The woman held my camera up and pretended to take a picture. “You’re sure?” she asked. “All the pictures would still be yours. Not too many people get to take pictures down in Hell. Could be worth a lot of money, you know.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll live without it.” Yes, it was my camera, and, sure, I wouldn’t be breaking any Federal laws. But I had dropped it, irretrievably, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get it back for free. There would be strings attached. Besides, did I really want something, no matter how well it had served me before, that had fallen into the very bowels of Hell?

“What about your notebook, then?” she asked. She waved it in front the glass. “You sure?”

Better not to take chances, I thought. “I’m sure. Thanks, though.”

“Okay,” she said, and shrugged indifferently. “Maybe next time. Does your friend want her shoe back?”

“No!” Veronica shouted, twisting her Bible so hard I thought she might tear it in two.

“She’ll pass,” I said.

Amanda was looking at me curiously. “What was that all about?” She looked down at Veronica and then back up at me. “What exactly happened with you two back there?”

I smiled. I wasn’t going to fall for that trick, either. “I’ll let you read a copy of my term paper after finals.”

About forty-five minutes later, Mr. Rollings practically carried the asshole back on to the bus and threw him onto his seat. “We are leaving now,” Mr. Rollings announced. “If there is anybody else who brought something back with them from Hell, enjoy your stay in Federal prison.”

◊◊◊

The trip back was uneventful, and, eventually, Mr. Rollings stopped glaring at everybody and sat down. All of us, the asshole included, were subdued. Jenny and Marcus even managed to keep their hands to themselves. When we got back to the city, Amanda Thomas and I took Veronica to the closest minor medical where they iced her ankle down, took x-rays, then wrapped it up—she had twisted it, and badly, but it wasn’t broken. We got her home, then went out for pizza together. We talked about our mutual trip through Hell for a little while, but it wasn’t too long before we found we had a lot of other things in common, too.

Veronica’s ankle was good as new in no time, and despite being either semi-catatonic or insane during the entire field trip, she got her grade, and passed Mr. Rollings class with a C-minus. I thought my paper rocked, especially with the twisty fire-and-brimstone ending, but Mr. Rollings didn’t agree. I got a B, and, what was worse, a note: Really, I expected better from you. The Burning Pit? Who do you think you’re kidding?

I got an A for the semester, so I’m not complaining. I’ve actually kind of become friends with Veronica who, when she’s not pitching histrionic fits, isn’t that bad. I’ve started dating Amanda Thomas, which is even better, and well worth the price of a B on a term paper and a lost camera.

It was a week ago, eating Vietnamese food and playing Scrabble with Amanda and her sister, that I decided to write this. We were watching TV, and an ad came on for, of all things, Hell. In the middle of the damn family hour. It was no longer limited to government and academic visits—you could get tourist visas and even annual passes. Everyone was invited to come and see all that Hell had to offer. The commercial was filled with happy, beautiful people shopping, riding on amusement park rides, eating at restaurants, browsing in fine museums and fishing on broad, beautiful lakes. There was a bit about the nightlife, featuring pornographically beautiful women and men dancing and cavorting at the very edge of FCC regulations, but at no point did I see any bodies, flayed of skin, nailed to scalding stones with great iron spikes in the middle of molten pits of magma. But I guess most corporations always try and put their best foot forward.

“Must be above age of informed consent,” the pleasant voice narrating the commercial ended.

So, it’s up to you. I can tell you, I’ve been, and I’m not going again. Neither is Amanda. And say what you will about the Veronicas of this world, but she already had more sense than to go in the first place.

You’ve got free will. You’ll have to make your own decision. Just keep in mind, no matter how they sugarcoat the thing, it’s still Hell.

If you do go, though, don’t sign anything. Don’t buy anything, including “services”—not even a massage or a shoeshine. Don’t bring anything back, not a rock or a blade of grass, and especially not anything anybody gives you. If anybody tries to return anything to you that you’ve lost, don’t accept it. Don’t ride on any rides, or participate in any other “entertainments”. Keep your ID with you at all times.

And watch out for that seventh chamber.

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Black Apple

January 7, 2009

black_apple

The early morning air over Dreamer’s Cliff shimmered briefly with the pattern of a simple, two-dimensional hex design, and Gretchen felt a slight wave of heat pass by her. She had just thrown a hex at the grass beneath her feet-a very controlled one-to help warm the ground for her and dry up the dew drops, as she intended to sit and ground moisture always made a mess of her clothes. Making sure her cloak was drawn in tightly around her, and touching the grass a bit just to make sure it was really dry, she seated herself comfortably. Hexes were such handy things. People very often–and quite unfairly, she thought–had negative associations with the idea of being hexed but, as with most everything, hexes weren’t innately bad. They couldn’t be. Goodness or badness laid in application and use–in action, not existence. She was as good as she could manage, and hoped that what hexes she threw reflected that fact. She supposed they did; most people in Thorn didn’t seem to think anything bad about her magic. Still, there were others . . .

She felt something flick at her knee and brushed at it distractedly, thinking. She was accustomed to bold crickets, especially early in the morning, and didn’t pay much attention to them. Besides, there were more important things to think about. Good and evil, for instance. She wanted to be good, because good was right, but sometimes she wondered if she really was. That was the problem with being right–it was so very hard to tell if you actually were. No magic, no accident of birth, made a person evil, Gretchen was sure. Just because she could throw hexes, that didn’t really make her a witch; she had the talent, for the love of the Gods, she didn’t have the religion-the apostasy. She had been born of the water; she had pledged her life to the Gods. But that didn’t really guarantee her goodness, did it? She knew that it did not-knew it better than perhaps she would’ve liked. Gretchen had thought about it a great deal, and the more thought she devoted to it the less she liked some of the things she was thinking. Because though she wished very hard to be good, and always tried as hard as she could to be so, sometimes the things she thought-sometimes the things she felt-weren’t very good at all. Sometimes, she thought, they were almost evil.

Gretchen felt another cricket, or perhaps the same one, flicking at her leg, only this time it was against her thigh. That managed to catch her full attention, distracting her from her thoughts. She had her robes and the end of her cloak gathered up into her lap so the many folds and flaps of her clothing would not stray from her dried circle of grass and get wet. That meant that if she could actually feel a cricket flicking at her, it had somehow managed to get up under her robes. Gretchen was accustomed to being harassed by rude crickets, but that was getting a little too intimate. She started to stand up, bringing the warmth hex she had used earlier back into her mind, as her memory of it was still fresh, and she could easily tailor it to be a little bit hotter. She needed something to dissuade the cricket, and thought that burning it to a crisp would probably do the trick. She was hardly one to kill any sort of life wantonly, but there were limits to her tolerance, and the cricket had gotten entirely too personal.

It wasn’t until she tried to stand up that it first sunk in that whatever it was flicking at her leg, it wasn’t a cricket. It was nothing of the sort. Because it was only when she first stood up that she really felt the weight–weight around her thigh, her knee, her calf, all around her entire leg, throwing off her center of gravity and almost making her fall back down. She had naturally assumed that whatever had been bothering her had been a cricket; morning crickets were quite abundant around the cliffs and in the grasses right outside of Parker’s Meadow. And it was quite possible, she supposed, that whatever she had felt earlier had been a cricket–but this wasn’t a cricket. It was too big, too heavy, large and unpleasantly smooth against her skin, slick like the scales of a snake, about as unlike a cricket as a thing could get. It had begun tightening around her leg as she struggled for balance, hurting her and cutting off the circulation, when she realized that it actually was a snake. It had to be. Nothing else she had ever heard of would feel like this.

Gretchen had the warmth hex ready and waiting in her mind; she used it instinctively. The disparity between snakes and crickets was an appreciable one, and she had only brought the hex up with the intention frying a pesky insect, but manipulating the essential design even as it drew itself in the air was not very hard for her. It had been hot; she made it hotter. The pattern assembled, lights and darks merging into a coherent hex form, expanding into three dimensions. Completed, it executed itself automatically, and heat billowed up under her robes, and the leg with the snake-thing wrapped around it suddenly felt like it was on fire. It hurt something awful–she had know it would–but she simply ground her teeth against the pain, intent on making the damned thing let go of her. She had not asked for this intrusion on her privacy and meant to put an end to it. She just prayed to the Gods that it did not bite her in reaction.

She kept the hex going for awhile, trying to ignore the enormous amount of heat she was subjecting herself to in the process, and did meet with some luck—at least the snake didn’t bite. But it didn’t let go of her either. It simply moved a little, slithering around her leg, as if trying to get comfortable. She felt it move, and that made her certain—she was getting a snake hug. She didn’t know how it could have possibly wrapped itself around her with her hardly having noticed, where it could have come from, or how it could possibly stand heat that felt like it was burning her up, and she didn’t particularly care. She just changed tactics. Heat wasn’t working; maybe she could try freezing it. Cold spells were as common as warmth spells, and she had had plenty experience at modifying both. Doing a little instant tailoring on a cold spell would be no problem, and with the way her leg felt, she thought a little cool air couldn’t hurt. So she concentrated, working her fingers to draw the basic pattern in the air even as she cancelled the first hex, and had it done in seconds.

This time she met with more success. The cold came immediately, clenching her burning leg like a large, icy hand, and she realized that, as hot as the first hex had made her, being frozen felt just about as bad as getting burned. But at least, this time, it had the desired effect. The thing let go of her without so much as a nibble, falling down around her feet, and Gretchen jumped backwards, just in case it decided to change its mind about biting her and go for an ankle. Apparently, though, it wasn’t too intent on doing anything. It simply lay there, coiled-up and shivering on the very spot where she had been sitting earlier.

It was indeed a snake, a snake as dark and shiny as a slab of polished ebony and very, very big. The sun was a bit higher now, and the cliffs very well-lit. She could make out the black, serpentine form quite easily, and could see just how large it was. Too large. It was easily five arms long, if not longer, the thickest point in its mid-section perhaps two-and-a-half hands in diameter–it was as big a snake as Gretchen had ever heard of, almost certainly a true constrictor. A bite, then, perhaps wouldn’t have mattered so much; that wasn’t usually the way a constrictor killed. But she had to wonder how in all of the seven Hells it had managed to coil itself around her leg without even drawing her attention–it was far, far too big to have done that. If, she amended, it was a normal snake.

Somehow, she didn’t think it was.

She wondered if she should kill it. She could channel more power through her hexes than she had, and now that it was apart from her she wouldn’t hesitate to use full force. And, if she left it alive, it could come into contact with someone else, and that someone might not survive the encounter. Then their blood would be on her hands. She would be at fault. But if she did kill it on little more than her own speculation, what then? What if she were wrong? Maybe, in its own strange, snake way, it had just been trying to be friendly. And if she killed it then, that would just be like shooting and arrow through the heart of a stranger who came into town with his hand out and smile on his face. So what should she do? Gods, it was so hard to know.

It was the snake itself that decided it for her.

It rose up, lifting the upper-portion of its long body into the air, its small head orienting immediately on Gretchen. Her fingers twitched nervously, ready to work up any hex she could at a moment’s notice, in case it decided to strike. But it only looked at her for a while, its tiny red eyes blinking up at her innocently. It quivered a little, as if still very cold, then cleared its throat. “Now,” it said, evidently trying to smile. “That wasn’t very nice, was it?”

For the first few moments all Gretchen could do was blink back at it. But that as only for a few moments. Bit by bit, piece by piece, she felt herself growing angry. “A sapient?” she whispered, more to herself than to the snake. “You’re a sapient?”

Her voice was soft, but the snake apparently heard her anyway. It nodded. “Of course,” it said, its voice deep and mellow, seeming far too large for its tiny little head. It shivered again. “Not a very polite way of greeting a fellow sentient, trying to freeze him to death. You didn’t need to do that.”

“A sentient–” she said, her voice growing in volume. “And you–you can vocalize. You talk.”

It nodded again. “Of course. I’m well-versed in all pertinent forms of communication on the planet. I don’t think trying to freeze a fellow to death is considered a polite greeting in any of them.”

Gretchen glared at it, her fingers flicking a little, just itching to work up a nice, powerful hex and send the damned thing barreling down into oblivion. The fact that it could talk wasn’t making her like it any better. But she kept herself in check. “Neither is trying to squeeze off a person’s leg–”

“A friendly hug,” it dismissed, trying to smile again.

“But you can talk!” she exclaimed angrily. “You’re a sentient! You could’ve at least tried to say hello! Trying to squeeze off people’s legs without asking is not a friendly hug. You didn’t even introduce yourself! You—“

“You get angry a lot, don’t you?” the snake asked pleasantly, and smiled. “I bet you don’t make many friends like that.”

“–didn’t–even–uh,” Gretchen faltered. “Uh–now wait a minute–”

“I know you can’t make too many friends if you try to freeze them all to death–”

“Now, just hold it one second, snake,” Gretchen said, coming up closer to it and crouching down, glaring right into it’s small, glowing eyes. “Look here–you started this. Friends don’t try to squeeze people’s legs off–”

The snake chuckled pleasantly. “You’re hung up on that, aren’t you? It was just a hug. Do you usually get so defensive when people try to introduce themselves?”

Gretchen frowned, her eyes narrowing icily. She wanted very badly to hex this thing. “I don’t like you, serpent,” she said slowly, keeping her voice low. “You can talk. In circles. Around and around–”

“You’re a very suspicious person, too, aren’t you?” The snake interrupted, and laughed a little. “Distrustful as well. If you ever do make any friends, I doubt that you keep them long, with that sort of attitude. Am I right?” The snake looked at her for a moment, examining her face. “Yes, I think I am. And, what’s more, I think that you know it. I think you agree.”

Gretchen took a slow, deep breath, just looking at the thing for a long while. “What are you here for, serpent?” she asked finally. “What do you want? And why have you come to me? I mean it. Cut the double-talk,” she said, bringing her face almost nose-to-nose with the snake’s. “Tell me what you want from me, or get the Hell away.”

“I just–heard your thoughts,” it explained. “I felt the things you were feeling. You seemed so unhappy. I thought maybe you could use a hug. I’m sorry. I guess I was wrong. It seems you can do just fine without anybody.”

“Mmm,” she hummed thoughtfully, standing fully up and moving away from the snake, frowning a little. “You make me feel guilty, snake. But I suppose you know that already, as you’re apparently an empath, as well as sentient and able to verbalize eloquently. Quite an array of talents, for a snake.” She put her hands on her hips, more intrigued by the snake now than angry–but far from at ease. “This makes me curious, serpent–just how is it that such a talented creature as yourself ends up on the cliffs, listening to people’s thoughts?”

“It was–an accident. I didn’t mean to. But I live among the cliffs. This is my home. I could hardly help but feel all your depression and indecision. And, as I did, I thought that maybe I should try and help you–and console you. Is that really so strange? I did not expect a friendly hug to be considered an invasion of privacy–I haven’t much experience at dealing with people, you see–and I think that has put you off somewhat. So I won’t do it again–you have my word. But I’d still like to help you, if I may.”

Gretchen sighed. “All right, serpent,” she said. “I will hear you out. How is it, precisely, that you intend to help me?”

“You still don’t trust me, do you?” it asked, and sighed back at her. “Well, I suppose that’s understandable. You’ve trusted people before, and have had that trust betrayed, haven’t you? You’ve been deceived, you’ve been misled. There have been those, I suspect, who’ve appealed to your better nature so they could lead you into a trap. So they could kill you. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Gretchen looked down at the serpent for a long time, frowning, eyes narrow and suspicious, doing nothing more than breathing. Breathing very slowly.

The snake smiled. “I think I’m right.”

Gretchen’s frown deepened, as she took in one long, deep breath. “Yes, you’re right–demon. You know you’re right.”

The glow in its eyes seemed to brighten and then dim markedly, as if in surprise, and its smile disappeared. “Oh,” it murmured slowly. “I had really hoped you wouldn’t catch on to that.”

“A sentient, talking snake who seems to know everything about me, seems to know just what to say to get to me–whose touch, when it so chooses, can be as light as smoke? What else could you be?”

“I–an empath,” it said. “I could’ve been an empath. There are a number of truly empathetic species all over the planet, not a small number of the living right around here. I thought that maybe that would fool you–”

“Gods,” Gretchen whispered quietly, staring up into the morning sky. “My Gods, I’m I truly so far gone? For what evil I have may thought, for what wrongs I may have done, have you abandoned me? Have I–?”

“Oh, would you please cut that out?” the serpent interrupted, its face suddenly popping up in front of hers, scowling. “I don’t mean you any harm–would you get that through your thick skull? Why do you automatically assume that the world is conspiring against you? That everybody you meet means you nothing but ill?”

Gretchen scowled back at it. “I think nothing of the sort, demon. But already you have lied to me, claiming to live in the cliffs, when you cannot possibly, claiming to be a mere snake when you know damned well you’re a servant of–”

“I advise you very strongly not to speak His name aloud,” the serpent cut in quickly. “He knows all who would give it voice.”

Gretchen just continued scowling at it. “Already you have lied to me, serpent, more than once, and more of what you say may be lies that I have yet to detect. You’re a demon–demons do not help mortals. Demons have never helped mortals. Why should I trust you? You have given me no reason to.”

“And if you continue to think as you do, no one ever will.” The snake, supporting itself on nothing but the last few coils of its tail, pushed itself up a little higher, bringing its face very close to hers. “You resent not only those who have condemned you but those who have tried to befriend you as well, you distrust those who would help you, you avoid strangers, you avoid people whose powers you fear, sometimes to the point that you might as well have gone and spat in their face.” It looked at her pointedly. “Going like that, I doubt you’ll ever have any opportunities to trust people.”

“You craft your words, demon,” she answered back immediately, staring it down. “You make what you say sound good, sound convincing–but lies very often do. Your words sound nice, but that doesn’t make them true. You are a demon. You serve one master and one master alone. And He’s not very nice.”

“Mmmm, mmm, mmm, dear, dear, dear,” the snake murmured, coiling back up and dropping back to the ground. “You’re really a wonder, you know that? I’m a demon–so I’m evil. Yet you’re a witch–and you’re good. That’s lovely logic, little one. I’m certainly glad you don’t hold any double-standards. Mmm, mmm, mm. Evil lies in action, not in existence, right? In application, not in potential. But then, that’s just for pretty little witches like yourself, isn’t it? Not for dirty old demon snakes. Mmm, mmm, mmm, dear, dear, dear.”

“I’m not a witch,” Gretchen said slowly. “You–that’s wrong. I’m not a witch.”

“Yet you throw hexes,” the serpent shot back immediately.

“That doesn’t make me a witch.”

“But I’m a demon, so that makes me evil.” It sighed. “Gretchen, have you ever stopped to think that maybe that there are other creatures out there that have been victims of bad press? That perhaps maybe I would like to help you for the simple reason that I know what it feels like to always get the dirty end of the stick? That I know what it feels like to be despised because of the way I was created? I had no control–I was made the way I was made. Yet not a single entity outside of those who dwell Beneath have shown me anything more than distrust and hate. I felt your pain, and I wanted to help. Maybe I went about it the wrong way, and if I did then it was my mistake, and I’m sorry. But don’t walk around all your life with blinders on–blind hate serves no one. No one but Him.”

Gretchen sat down–the sun, by now, had dried up all the dew–and she sighed. “All right,” she said. “All right. You’re too convincing for me to be at ease with you, snake, but I guess I’ve got to give you a chance. I’d be little better than the witch hunters if I didn’t. That’s what you were trying to point out to me, right?”

The snake nodded. “It was. Almost from the beginning. I suspected it would be difficult to convince you of the truth–I just didn’t realize quite how difficult.”

“Don’t talk as if you’ve done it, demon–you haven’t yet. Blind trust is just about as bad as blind hate, wouldn’t you say?”

“Touché, Gretchen. Very good. I suppose it is. But that wasn’t really wasn’t what I was asking for–”

“Quiet, Hellspawn. This help you offer–I’ve asked you twice now and you still haven’t told me what it is.”

The snake smiled. “Just answers, love. You have questions that still can’t be answered to your satisfaction. You’re as uncertain as ever about the state of your soul. You need to know. I can help you find out.”

“And still you haven’t told me how.”

“That’s a little more difficult to explain. I could, I suppose, but it would be faster, and simpler, just to show you.”

“Try telling me first.”

The snake sighed. “It’s a magic–I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a rare magic, and a potent one, and not but a minute’s walk into Parker’s Meadows from where you now sit. Seeing it, perhaps, would help you understand a little better.”

Gretchen leaned forward. “I don’t know about that, demon. What is it? An oracle of some sort? One of the springs? An enchanted rock? A lost book of spells? What?”

“No, no,” the serpent replied, shaking it’s head. “It’s–a repository. For magics. For ancient magics. If you want to know more, you’ll have to see it.”

Gretchen stood up. “All right, then. I’ll go see it. This is not a commitment to anything more. I’m still dubious of accepting help from a demon.”

“It’s all bad press, I’ve told you,” the snake said, and chuckled. “Come on, follow me.”

It uncoiled its long, large body and started slithering at a steady rate away from the cliffs and into the Meadows. Gretchen followed. Walking was a painful prospect, as the leg she had tried to force the demon off of earlier was still quite sore, but she followed.

“It’s relatively simple,” the snake was saying as it slithered through the grasses and around the trees. “Just rare. But you need answers–very important answers, I think–and this can provide them for you.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Gretchen murmured. “But everything you say sounds good, every argument you come up with seems irrefutable. I’m still not sure how much I believe in you good intentions. I’ve heard of–”

“I caution you girl,” the snake said quickly, coming to a stop and turning around to face her. “You dare not speak His name.”

“All right, then. I’ve heard of the Evil One’s tongue–His ability with the language, His talent of speech, how good His words are supposed to sound. But He’s the God of Dissent and the Father of Lies. Would his servants not possess a talent of a similar caliber?”

“They would,” the serpent said. “They do. It is your choice, woman. I’ve told you. Consider for yourself and choose as you will. I want to help you, and that is my intent, but the final choice as to whether or not you accept that help is yours and yours alone.”

Gretchen, for the first time that day, managed to smile a little. “That sounds good, too, Hellspawn. But I’m not sure how much of it I should believe. But you still hold my tentative trust–for the moment. Let’s pray that you don’t betray it.”

“Be my guest,” the snake said and chuckled. “Pray to your Gods. I mean you no ill.”

“So you’ve said,” Gretchen murmured, then sighed. “Well?” she asked. “I need to be back at the village by noon. I don’t have all day. Lead me to this mysterious and helpful magic of yours.”

“Oh. I thought I had said. We’re here.”

“Here?” Gretchen asked dubiously, preparing herself immediately to work up a hex on a moment’s notice, if she needed to. This didn’t seem right. “I don’t see anything,” she said, looking around her. “No rocks, no mysterious glows, nothing–just grass and trees.” She bent down, her head hovering just above the snake’s, who craned his neck to look up at her. It smiled.

“What is this, demon?” Gretchen demanded. “Is this some sort of trick?”

“Powerful magics are not always acutely obvious, love. Look at the trees.”

“Mmm-hmm,” she hummed, looking around her. “They’re trees. So what?”

“The one in front of you.”

“It’s a tree–a sweetfruit tree.” And Gretchen suddenly realized she was hungry. She hadn’t meant to stay out so long–the snake had put a slight crimp in her plans–and supper last night had been pretty sparse. It was hardly the answer to all her problems, but a little sweetfruit would probably hit the spot just then–

Not that one,” the demon instructed her. “To the right.”

“Oh. Sorry. It’s–I’m not sure. It’s not in bloom yet. An apple tree, I think.”

The snake chuckled. “Right–but you said it wasn’t in bloom yet. That’s not entirely true. There is some fruit on it, fruit already ripe and ready to be picked. Take a closer look. It’s in the shade, a bit hard to see, but it’s there.”

Gretchen did as the demon suggested, approaching the tree and inspecting the branches carefully, still ready to throw any one of several prepared hexes at a moments notice–and she saw. Deep within the tree’s lower foliage, very near the trunk, there was one single, solitary fruit, in the shape a fully-ripened apple.

“Do you see it?” the snake asked casually. “You see it. Beautiful thing, isn’t it?”

“I–uh–it’s black,” Gretchen said. “It looks like an apple–but it’s pitch black. And–wait a second. Wait one minute. Is the incredible magic you wanted to show me, Hellspawn?”

“Look, Gretchen, I really wish you’d quite calling me that–”

“Is this the magic?”

“All right, all right. Yes, it is. I know it doesn’t look like much–”

“Uh-uh, Hellspawn. It looks like plenty. Gods, demon, do you think I’ve never read the Scriptures? Do you think I have never heard of the day that the Woman of the Garden sacrificed Paradise for knowledge? Do you think I’ve never read of how she set free pestilence and poverty and oppression with a single bite into this forbidden fruit? Do you think–?”

“Gretchen–quiet. You talk of human stories as if they were the very words of the Gods. The fruit you refer to was in the minds and on the tongues of ancient peoples, used only as way to explain what the Gods had yet to see fit to explain to them–but that was all it was, then. Make-believe. There were things about creation and the conception of man that the Gods, in Their wisdom, decided that mortals shouldn’t know. Not then. So, presented with nothing else, people made things up–such as the fruit you refer to. The Father found the parallel fitting when crafting much the New Magic at the break of the covenant, and used it. It is simply one of the many gifts of magic the Gods have left their people. I am just guiding you to it. Now, it is your choice–but basing your choice on ancient superstition is not very wise. It is not evil, merely knowledge–the precise knowledge you seek.”

“That sounds very good, demon.”

It sighed. “Gretchen, why must that always be an insult with you?”

“It isn’t. Not always. But you always know just what to say to convince me of whatever you please–in fact, you’re trying to convince me. Yet you keep saying it’s my choice. Besides which, you’re trying to tell me that the Scriptures are lies. That’s blasphemy, demon.”

The snake frowned, and–it seemed–pursed its lips. “Well,” it said finally. “Whatever you say. I’m not going to argue it anymore. Eat if you like. Don’t eat if you don’t like. It’s your choice.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Well, it is. If you want your life to remain the same forever, if you want people always spitting in your face, if you want to get your fingers broken and your body bound to a stake–”

“That’s only happened once, demon. It’s a healthy distrust of anything and everything that’s kept it from ever happening again.”

“Touché. A second time. You say I sound good–you should listen to yourself. You are as good at your arguments as you say I am at mine. Perhaps there’s a little demon in you as well, hmm?”

Gretchen cocked an eyebrow. “Mmmm. Clever, Hellspawn. You’ve made your point. But I reiterate, S–”

“I caution you, girl–” the serpent began.

“–the God of Dissent,” she continued, “is the Father of Lies. If you know an untruth is an untruth right from square one, then it really isn’t a lie, is it? A lie can sound good, and it can sound true, but it would still be a lie, wouldn’t it?”

“You know it would, Gretchen. And now I know I cannot convince you to trust me. I thought–I thought that I could. I had hoped I could do–some good. Some sort of good to help atone for the evil I have been made to do by the Infernal One. But I can see that even in this I have failed.” It sighed slightly. “It is near noon,” it commented finally, after a fairly long pause. “You said you needed to return to your village shortly, and I must return the Underworld before my time is up. I’m sorry we could not have gotten a long better–and I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. Goodbye, Gretchen. We shall not meet again.” Dejectedly, it lowered its head down to the ground, and began slowly weaving itself through the grasses. “Goodbye,” it called again. “I wish you well.”

Gretchen said nothing for a moment. She just looked at the slowly disappearing serpent, back to the single fruit of the apple tree, and then back to the snake, thinking quickly. She hadn’t expected it to give up so soon. Certainly a real demon wouldn’t’ve done so, and she truly doubted that the serpent was anything but. Still–

It took her a few moments to prepare herself and find her voice, and by then the serpent almost disappeared entirely. “Demon!” she called. “Demon, get back here!”

“What?” it called, turning around and moving a few feet towards her. “What did you say?”

“Come back here,” Gretchen said slowly. “I will eat your fruit.”

“It isn’t my fruit, girl, I told you, the . . . what? You said–you said, you accept my help?”

“I think I have to,” she answered as the snake quickly made it’s way back to her. “If I don’t accept, then it’s because I’ve condemned you for what you are, isn’t it? That’s what you’ve kept saying–and I guess it’s true. Maybe I’d like it to be a lie, but it’s true. If I don’t accept the help you offer because I don’t like what you are–then I’ve done the same thing so many people have done to me. Again, because it’s not the first time. I don’t want to mistrust everybody–I just do. And if I keep doing it, then it is my choice. If I never trust anybody, even with what I know, even with what I’ve seen–then it really is my choice. My choice alone. And then–and then I can’t be good. I damn myself.”

The snake looked at her, and then to the tree with its solitary offering of fruit. “Still, it is your choice,” the serpent said. “If you feel I have pressured you, then do not do it. That was not my intent. Yet I feel that, unintentionally, I have. That was not my purpose. I know, too, what if feels like to be forced to do something against one’s own will. If I did so, it was a mistake, and I am sorry–”

“Quiet, serpent. I know it’s my choice. I am damned if I don’t. Damned by myself, damned my very own feelings, by my very own hypocrisy–I know that. But perhaps I won’t be damned if I do. I don’t think that’s much of a choice. But I accept your help. I’ll eat the apple.”

“I–am glad,” the snake said quietly, solemnly. “Never before has a mortal accepted the help of this demon. You have–you–” It sighed slowly. “I am glad.”

“Gods,” Gretchen whispered quietly, and reached in between the branches of the apple tree. “Gods, here I go.”

She brought out the fruit, her hand wrapped tightly around it. Without a moment’s hesitation, allowing herself no time for any thoughts, much less second thoughts, she clenched her eyes tightly shut and brought the fruit to her mouth, taking the largest, noisiest bite she could. She tasted the sweet, tangy flavor on her tongue, she felt it crunching between her teeth. The juices dribbled down her chin, and she felt nothing. For a moment, she didn’t know if she had been wrong or not.

But then the demon began to laugh, and she knew. Because it kept laughing–laughing long, low, and hard. “You’ve just damned yourself, slut,” it said between laughs, its voice deeper and considerably less mellow than it had been. “You’ve just damned your soul to Hell.”

Which was just what she had expected. She had been right all along. “But–I–I don’t understand–” Gretchen stammered. “I–What are trying to pull, demon?”

“You’ve damned yourself beyond redemption, whore,” the snake continued, still chortling merrily. “You’ve given in to temptation. The temptation of a Hellspawn. The Gods won’t touch you after a thing like that. You’ve consorted with one of Satan’s servants, you’ve taken the road of evil by your own free will. You’ve forsaken the Gods, and they will forsake you.”

“I–you mean, I am damned?” Gretchen asked, chin beginning to tremble. “You mean, I am lost beyond all hope of salvation?”

“That’s just what I mean, slut. You were hard–but I broke you. You gave in. And damned yourself to the third level of Hell.”

“Well, thank you, demon,” Gretchen said, taking another bite of the fruit, suddenly grinning at the demon as the juices ran down her chin. “That’s all I really wanted to know.”

The demon stopped laughing almost immediately. “You dare mock me, whore?” it demanded, after a pause. “You dare mock a servant of Satan when you yourself have been damned to Hell?”

“Jeeze,” Gretchen said through a mouthful of fruitstuff, still smiling. “I don’t believe this. You sure are one cocky son of a bitch, aren’t you? You really thought I’d fall for all that junk? Gods, what a dope.” She took another bite. “Did you really think I was that stupid?”

“You ate the fruit, woman,” the demon insisted. “You can claim what you want. But you’re still damned.”

“Read me, demon. You say your empathetic, so read me. I didn’t eat your cursed fruit.”

“You–you deceived me?” it asked almost unbelievingly, studying her, its red eyes wide and glowing. “You deceived me?”

“See for yourself, serpent,” Gretchen replied, throwing down what was left of the dark, cinnamon-colored sweetfruit she held in her hand down in front of the demon. “I’m not entirely brain-dead, you know.”

“I–but you couldn’t’ve–”

“I could’ve,” Gretchen said, smile widening. “I did. I am a ‘witch’, after all. You shouldn’t’ve looked away when you pulled your fake exit. I know parlor tricks, serpent. I palmed a sweetfruit. I never even touched your damned apple.”

“You didn’t,” it said, its red eyes wide and unbelieving. “And I didn’t even check.”

“Of course you didn’t. You got cocky. Through the entire thing, you got cocky. That snake hug was pointlessly risky–for your story, it was. But you got cocky and did it anyway. You lied several times that I managed to catch you at, and that was sloppy, and at best your explanations were half-baked. They sounded real nice, but they just didn’t wash. But you were cocky–you thought you had me under your thumb. Gods, you’re entire ruse was ludicrous. Using something as familiar, and with as many negative connotations, as the forbidden fruit of Paradise–that was so stupid. But you got cocky, and did it anyway.”

Gretchen raised her hands, and began working on another hex. One she had never done before, though she knew how. One meant especially for demons.

She she shook her head ruefully. “The simple idea that it could possibly solve all my problems–that was stupid, too. Knowledge of good, and how to be good and how to do right, is something you work for, something you strive for. It’s something you learn. Not something you eat. The Scriptures say it a thousand times–and it’s something I’ve found out through experience. There’s no easy road. Yet that was what you were offering me–and you’re a demon. Tell me, Hellspawn, would you trust an offer like that?”

“Of course not, woman, but I’m not a greedy, foolish mortal.”

“Neither am I. I knew you were up to something. With the way I was feeling when I went to cliffs this morning–I was too prime a target for just the sort of argument you used on me, demon, and I knew it. I’ve been wondering about the state of my soul for a long, long time–and then, just when I’m feeling about as low as I ever do, a demon comes up and tells me he can fix it all. No sane mortal would trust that. Besides, I’ve spent all my life trying to prove that I’m not a witch, Hellspawn–would I forsake all that on nothing more than the word of a demon? You’ve studied up on my life, that’s obvious–in fact, you made it too obvious; you knew too much about my life, making allusions to things I wasn’t even thinking of–but you did study up on it, so you should know. I haven’t got a lot of friends, and maybe I’m not sure of my own goodness–but you should’ve realized I would not forfeit what friends I have, and what goodness I have achieved, for a Hellspawn with a lot of fancy rhetoric.”

“Beaten,” the serpent whispered slowly, eyes wide and fiery. “Beaten by a mortal.”

“On all counts,” Gretchen said, nodding, as she picked another sweetfruit off of the tree and took a bite. “Don’t even bother to think I didn’t know how you framed me, demon. I knew I’d be damned if I gave into your temptation–I’m not a fool. But you’re a good talker, and you set me up. You painted a cute enough picture–if I didn’t accept your help, then it would’ve been because I was prejudiced by your demonic origins. Then I would’ve been a hypocrite, condemning you for little more reason than others have condemned me. Damned by my own experience. Because I suspected you–as others, with less reason, have suspected me–of evil. But I didn’t really know. It would’ve been very narrow of me to condemn you on nothing but suspicions, and that scores points for Satan–by the way, always warning my not to say His name was cute, but it didn’t wash either. Anyhow, I knew if I refused to accept your help because you were a demon, I’d be damned. But to accept your help, I would have had to have eaten the apple, and given in to temptation. Damned again. But now you’ve admitted your intentions, and now I know.”

“Defeated,” the snake murmured, now lying flat on ground. “Defeated by a puny human.”

Gretchen smiled, chewing her sweetfruit, and nodded. “That’s right,” she agreed, flicking her fingers and watching the fresh hex design finish assembling in the air. “You got beaten. Because you were stupid–but then, evil usually is. Goodbye, demon. Don’t bother me again.” The hex completed itself–the hex of abolishment, to send the demon straight back to Hell. And it did. The demon disappeared in an explosion of fiery black and red smoke, the scent of sulfur suddenly assaulting her nose, and the serpent was gone. She should’ve used the hex much earlier, she knew. Perhaps as soon as she had found out she was dealing with a demon, and realized that hex of abolishment would work on it. But she had been hesitant–because she had, against her better judgment, extended it some trust. And she supposed that, even though the demon had betrayed what little trust she had given it, she would do it all over again, if necessary. Because maybe, she thought, everybody at least deserved a chance. Even demons.

If only everybody believed that, she thought, picking another sweetfruit and starting on her way back towards Thorn, whistling tunelessly. Perhaps her goodness was still in question, and perhaps how she had handled her run-in with the demon had not been the best way possible–she wasn’t very sure she had done much there to prove her own goodness to herself. But, either way, she felt a little better. Because she had just beaten a demon, and in a way that was a lot like beating the Devil Himself. So maybe she wasn’t all goodness and purity–she had never really thought that she was. But she hadn’t given in to evil–she had been set up, either way she went, to do just that, but she still hadn’t given into it. So maybe she wasn’t pure goodness–but she still had hope. And, for the moment, that was enough.

Cautiously, eating up her sweetfruit and taking big bites, Gretchen made her way back to Thorn.


Rain on Mars

January 7, 2009

mars

I love Mars, I truly do. The austere and rationed life appeals to the ascetic in me. It keeps my hands busy and it keeps my mind occupied. It keeps me on my knees, and my mind and heart on God. I had tried for ten years to give my heart without reservation to God on Earth, but it was Mars that finally did it for me. It was Mars that gave me nothing but God and work to occupy my mind. Mars has purified my soul. Unless called to by God, I will never leave. I will never return to Earth. Because I have found God on this big red rock, and there is not a bead or bauble on the face of Earth that can match the glory of God.

The only thing I can compare living on Mars to is prison—or perhaps a convent, although I will say I’ve been in the former but not the latter. Our quarters are small and spare and the shared areas aren’t much larger. There is a small black market in various goods and services, but there are no stores. The food is exclusively soy, vitamin paste, and hydroponic vegetables and fruits; we don’t keep livestock and we don’t culture meat. There is very little alcohol or drugs on Mars, and what there is costs dearly. There are limited supplies of tobacco and marijuana—both of which some enterprising workers are growing along with squash and tomatoes in one of the hydroponic cells—and we get cigarettes and cigars now and again.

But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Life on Mars is the life of the farm. We get up early, we work all day, and we go to bed tired. If we can’t produce it ourselves, we aren’t going to have it. Circle K is not just around the corner. There are no grocery stores, no hardware stores, no computer stores. For me, Mars is life distilled down to its very essence: you work, you worship, you sleep.

There are 1257 of us in the Life on Mars, Inc. colony right now. Less than sixty of us are Christians. There is a sparse chapel where any group can schedule worship (or whatever it is they call what they do) but only one actual official Reverend among us, and he’s a Unitarian. So taking service on Sunday and Wednesday is not quite what I would have hoped. But, like all things on Mars, you take what you can get. I lead a Bible study group of twenty-two now—not all the of them Christians, but anyone interested in the Word of God is welcome to study with us. It’s a good and thoughtful group, and many of the most devout share my love of Mars. They, too, appreciate the hard but uncluttered life that frees them from material temptations. From the distraction of Earthly pleasures. I have been there; I grew up surrounded by material wealth and constant distraction. Yet I have never been as happy or content in my life as I am now, with a small room and a cot, four company issue jumpsuits, my journal, and the Word of God.

There is entertainment here, though I mostly avoid it. There are no direct connections to Earth’s network— the technology exists, but the company would never allow it. We have our own isolated miniature version, though. Mostly, our ‘Net consists of sites run by company personnel and databases of technical information relating to the Mars project, and there are also large databases of movies and television shows. There is also some news, though all of it old, and you have to know where to go to get it. The company frowns on employee access to news. They don’t want us to know what they are saying about us on Earth. Or about Life on Mars, Inc.

They don’t want us talking too much to Earth, either. Most of us don’t have much in the way of roots, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. But some do correspond with a few friends or family back home. They were warned when they signed their contracts that all correspondence would be read and, if necessary, redacted without indication by the company. I’ve gotten one or two emails from past acquaintances that start and end: “I hear you’re on Mars, now.” And that’s it. The company has extremely rigorous information management policies.

I’m sure part of it is that there is much new about what we are doing and much proprietary about the technologies we’re using. I also suspect, from talking to the most recent arrivals, that the company is painting a picture of progress to the media, stockholders and new recruits that’s just not true. We’re five years from starting the process of terra-forming Mars, if we’re a day. Which is about five years behind the published timeline I saw before I came to Mars. There is international debate about the American Mars colony, some of it quite vitriolic from what has been relayed to me, and the company doesn’t want such issues distracting us from our work.

In the long run, I think it’s going to backfire on them. Such policies usually do.

I can see some of their policies backfiring already. Though part of our contract is mandatory sterilization and forbidding of marriage—they don’t want employees distracted by family issues—there have been employees who have declared themselves married “by the common law of Mars” and have managed to get their sterilization reversed, and start families. While a lot of workers frown on that—everyone did read and sign the contracts, after all—most of us are sympathetic, and do what we can to help out. Since there is no daycare and no schools, no store-bought formula or disposable diapers, the new parents need all the help they can get. I help out as many as I can—I run the warehouses, I coordinate all of receiving, and I am in the best position to know what comes in that’s not on the company docket. I’m also in an awfully good position to suggest things for next time. It strikes me as funny: I’ve traveled in space, I’m living on another planet, and we are all engaged in the most ambitious project humankind has ever undertaken—the complete environmental transformation of a planet, the creation of an original ecosystem. And there I am at the back of a warehouse negotiating for diaper pins and baby bottles.

I am popular with the parents on Mars, and they are patient with my price: they let me witness to them. While, so far, none have accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, I think the Robersons are close. Most of the others are nowhere near to it, but they are more interested in getting toddler clothes or a bassinet than arguing theology.

We get what we need. We have plenty of promissory credits to draw on, and shippers who are patient can make out like bandits. While all of us here are, for all practical purposes, indentured to Life on Mars, Inc. for the term of our contracts, there is one way in which we are very different from the indentured servants of old: our pay packages are huge. Most of those who leave Mars will do so multimillionaires. Though I wouldn’t trust the company any further than I could throw it, the final paycheck is not in doubt; the funds are set up in fixed-interest bearing tax-deferred trusts, which we are free to draw upon at will upon the maturation of our contract. While that gives us no live credits until our ten, fifteen, or twenty year terms are up, we trade in promissory notes, each dated, signed, and legally binding, so that when our contracts expire those that we’ve traded with can redeem their notes. The company wanted to prevent the distractions of profligate spending and the purchasing of contraband while indentured to the corporation, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. For many, the promise of future cash, and a lot of it, is sufficient, rendering the current inaccessibility of our credits irrelevant.

Others shippers are not so patient, and sex is one of the few immediate things we can offer in trade. I’m not comfortable with that, but I knew there were women signing on as prostitutes when I signed up. While I don’t condone it, I know it goes on and I’m not going to stop it. There are things we need here that the company will not supply directly. So we all do what we can to get it.

It’s another company policy in the process of backfiring. The prostitutes were meant to discourage (and, let’s be honest, even sabotage) the forming of romantic relationships between male and female employees. That’s why they’re here. The practical results have been a little different. Men and women are still linking up, drawn to each other by more than the promise of sexual gratification.  Two of the prostitutes have fallen in love with some of their first clients, and declared themselves married under the common law of Mars, and the others have stepped in to cover up their non-participation in the sex services division. Which, like so many of the corporate policies, ends up obligating the employees to band together and conspire against the will of the company. We all end up covering for the marrieds and helping out the parents, and there’s nothing the company can do. If they terminated the contracts of every employee participating in the protection of fellow employees from discovery of company policy violations, ninety percent of us would be gone. And the Mars terraform project would be over, and Life on Mars, Inc. would go bankrupt.

The prostitutes perform service for trade when shippers come in, in exchange for exactly the kind of contraband Life on Mars, Inc. was trying to keep out of our colony. Just one more way their corporate strategy of defeating human nature for the ultimate achievement of their own goals is in the process of backfiring.

But this is nothing. Nothing so far. Nothing compared to how it will backfire. Life on Mars, Inc. is going to lose everything. They are going to lose every last dollar they’ve spent on Mars. Not this year, not next year, but it will happen. The planet is never going to be terraformed. It won’t be necessary. We are already near self-sufficiency; and the process of terraforming will offer no immediate advantage to the colonists. There will come a time when the interests of the company—and the interests of Earth—will have no bearing on what we do here.

It’s happening already.

◊◊◊

“I have something for you,” Vlachko said in his thick, Slavic-coated English. “A present.”

Vlachko Chernigov is one of my favorite shippers. He brings supplies to the Russian colonists at Little Moscow—all seven of them–and us. Russia officially objects to the terraforming project and continues, along with France and Germany and most of the Middle East, to author resolutions in the UN condemning the unilateral American terraforming of Mars. The Russian colonists are really just a handful of state researchers establishing a prestige presence on Mars, as far as I’ve heard. We have very little contact with them, or the Japanese colony. Fraternizing with “competing” colonists is against company policy, though both colonies are sponsored entirely by their respective governments and aren’t attempting anything like terraforming. Normally, I wouldn’t let such an ass-backwards company policy stop us, but our long-range radio equipment is dead and, despite having entered the requisition for it a year ago, the company has still not replaced it. What little news I get about the other colonies, or what’s happening on Earth, comes from Vlachko. For the most part, he is my only real contact with the world outside our little colony.

So, I am always happy to see Vlachko. Though enthusiasm for the Little Moscow project waned as the Russian economy crumbled–at least this is what I understand from Vlachko–his shipping company, Russospac, still has a number of contracts with Life on Mars, Inc. Much of the raw material needed comes from Russia and the Ukraine, and it makes much more financial sense to ship directly from there than to freight it over the oceans just to pay twice as much to ship it from North America. It’s funny, really: while the Russians continue to object vociferously to the American Mars terraforming project, we’re still getting over half our supplies from Russia and the Ukraine.

I raised my eyebrows. I admit, I was a little dubious. “A present, you say?”

He pulled an old, leather bound Bible out of his rucksack. It looked well-worn, and was embossed with Greek characters. “It’s Septuagint. In the original Greek. I thought a back-to-basics man like you would appreciate the value of such an item.”

“I appreciate the thought, but I don’t know the first thing about the Greek language,” I said.

He clapped me on the back. “Well, then, it’s time you learned!”

◊◊◊

 Jori smiled at me. “Jack,” she said brightly, “How’s it going?” I liked Jori. She was nice. And young. And flirting. Although the company provided regular employees with drab, gender-neutral clothing, those that wanted to found a way around it. Jori was wearing the gray pants, but the thick, curve-obscuring jacket that went with them was tied around her waist. The corporation had cleverly requisitioned uniforms that zipped up on the side (to avoid cleavage-revealing unzipped fronts), but you just don’t stop human nature. People who wanted to advertise their lack of gender neutrality simply didn’t wear them. Jori was wearing a thin white tank top that was meant to be underwear, and she had cut it so her midriff was exposed. It was cold in the cafeteria, and her nipples were hard and dark under the thin, white fabric. Her skin was all gooseflesh, and in the midst of the smile her teeth chattered.

“I’m not too bad,” I said. I threw her a bone. “You are extraordinarily beautiful. Did you know?”

She blushed, and looked down, but was smiling, obviously pleased by the attention. “I am not,” she said. “You don’t think that.”

“Yes, I do,” I said. And she was. Why she was after me, I had no idea. She knew I was taking libido suppressants–that was one thing the company made sure the dispensary had plenty of–so that it was unlikely her youthful sexuality would draw me into any sort of dalliance. Jori is a good woman, and she is beautiful, but I take the apostle Paul’s admonition that it is best not to be married, but to devote your life to God, most seriously. Women complicate and cloud the relationship of a man to God. It happened to me before, long ago, and I would not let it happen again.

Yet, even on the maximum dosage of libido suppressant, there wasn’t much I could do about genuinely liking Jori. Of enjoying the time I spent with her. At times like this one, alone with Jori–who was good as naked from the waist up in her thin white tank top, her tan skin covered with goosebumps–that I took great comfort in the knowledge that we had over a thousand cases of libido suppressants in the warehouse.

“It’s movie night,” she said after a long pause. “Are you going to come? They’re showing Mars Needs Women. It’s a funny movie.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I usually don’t go to the movies. They’re just a distraction. And I’ve spent enough of my life being distracted.”

She smiled at me. She has a beautiful smile. “Sometimes being distracted is a good thing.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ll see. Look. I–Jori, you know I’ve devoted my life to God. You know I’ve taken libido suppressants since before I came to Mars–”

“But you like me,” she said. “Even so.”

“I do,” I said. “But God has to come first in my life–”

“And maybe He’s brought me to you. Have you ever thought of that?” She was leaning closer to me. She normally just smelled sweaty and dirty, like everybody else on the colony. Right then, she smelled like the cinnamon biscuits my mother used to bake on Saturday mornings, so long ago. I shook my head the minute the idea went through my mind: had I really just thought that? What was wrong with me?

“I thought you were a Wiccan,” I said.

“I am,” she said. “But I’m open-minded. Maybe I just need someone to show me. You know. The love. Of God.”

I decided to be as plain as I could. “I’m never going to be in another romantic relationship, Jori. It’s not happening. As wonderful as you are, and–”

She laughed, and shook her head, her sandy brown hair cascading across her bare shoulders. She was also in violation of the company’s gender neutral hair policy. “I’m not asking you to marry me, Jack. I just wanted to go to the movie with you. Maybe we can share some popcorn.”

I looked at her suspiciously. “You’ve got popcorn?” The hydroponic corn crops weren’t mature yet, and (as I understand it, anyway) wouldn’t make very good popping corn.

She raised her eyebrows up and down, and leaned up against me. “Three bags,” she whispered conspiratorially. “We’ll just sit in the back. Maybe nobody will notice.”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but it’s been a long day, and I really need to spend my night in the Word of God–”

“You could read to me out of your Bible,” Jori said. “After the movie. You could save my soul.” She touched my shoulder. “Aren’t you supposed to do that?”

I winced. Shit. I couldn’t pass that up. My first obligation as Christian, after the praise and worship of God, was to lead others to Christ. Goddamnit. She had me.

“All right, it’s a date,” I said. “A platonic date,” I added quickly.

“There, that wasn’t so hard,” she said. She finished her carrots and wheatgrass salad, drank the rest of her water ration, and then headed for the door. On the way out, she looked back over her shoulder at me, and slapped her hands against her bottom. The voluptuous curve of her hip was evident, even under the loose, drab company pants. “Dr. Rogers says I’ve got hips made for making babies. What do you think?”

I had to grin. “I think you’re a bad girl. It’s against company policy to want babies. Get back to work.”

“See ya,” she said, and disappeared through the door.

I nibbled on my broccoli-and-cucumber salad. I have to confess, she’s my kind of woman. If I was in the market for that sort of thing. Which I’m not.

And if I was in the market for that kind of thing, it would take a whole hell of a lot to convince me that Mars is any kind of place for having babies. Or raising a family.

It wasn’t. It isn’t. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

◊◊◊ 

mars_2

Margaret does all the accounting I don’t do, which, these days, is most of it. She reviews manifests and keeps track of what we’ve received and what’s in the warehouse, which is not a small job. The warehouse goes on for a square mile, and is eight stories high. There’s enough in the warehouse to build most of a small city, though critical things are missing. Most everything we’ll need for each stage of the terraforming that I don’t believe is ever going to happen is carefully boxed and coded and put away. Then we send the processing manifests back down to corporate in Florida.

Sometimes we’ve needed things for trade, and sometimes we’ve used things for purposes not officially sanctioned by the company. So we’d just pull them. The occasionally missing inventory item is an inevitable occurrence in any warehouse. When it was just one or two things, I didn’t worry, but when it got to be a lot of things, and we were also storing non-sanctioned shipments—cases of diapers and baby formula and toddler clothes, may God bless Vlachko–in the warehouse, I began to be concerned. The day I finally broached the issue of keeping a separate set of books to send the corporate boys–this was several months ago—Margaret surprised me.

“I’ve been keeping a separate set of books for a year, Jack,” she said. “We need to know where a gross of diapers are, if we get ‘em. They don’t.”

Margaret also handled most of the day-to-day correspondence between colony and company. She was the one who, many days and much more significant book-cooking later, informed me that Geoffrey Lincoln was coming. Margaret was unperturbed when word came down that corporate was sending up a new VP to get our schedule back on track.

“I’ve worked with those guys,” Margaret said. “They made me do a year in the Florida office before they’d send me out to the colony. They’re idiots, Jack. If they hadn’t gotten the government grants and the hundred billion from the Gates Foundation, this wouldn’t be happening. There’d be seven lonely Russians on one side and a dozen Japanese on the other and we wouldn’t be here at all.”

“I’m a little concerned,” I said. “We haven’t had a full time corporate guy here since the colony started. Since the first shipment, we’ve only had inspections. Corporate has always kept their distance.”

She laughed.  “Jack, you can tape up big red arrows pointing to every violation of company policy and Geoff Lincoln is going to tell you the signs are the wrong shade of red and we need different arrows and, anyway, he has some great ideas about how to organize the freezer in the cafeteria.”

“I’m more concerned about the books. The warehouse space—the parts we’re using that aren’t in the books going back to the company. That concerns me. The families—“

She nodded. “They know there are families up here. They haven’t done anything yet.”

“But they’ve got somebody coming to get us back on schedule—“

“Yuh-huh. You know, I was reading Roberto’s website last night, and he had the white paper for the terraformers—the one written by the engineers who developed the process Life on Mars is using.”

I nodded. “I know. I’ve read it.”

“They had a time frame of fifty-five years. At best. Not fifteen. I don’t see how the company can promise–”

I laughed. “Fifty-five years was the time after the terraforming process was initiated. We haven’t actually started it, yet.”

“Insanity,” she said, then sipped her coffee. There’s no shortage of freeze dried coffee here, either. “Don’t you worry about the books. You watch out for the parents.”

I sighed. “Tell Roberto to take that stuff off his site. Everybody has to clean up their sites before Geoff Lincoln shows up. Anything negative about the terraforming—including actual information on the process—needs to come down, for now. And everybody has to watch what they say when he’s here. I don’t know what to do about new shipments—he’s going to want to look at stuff when it arrives. He’s going to make bartering a whole hell of a lot harder.”

“You worry too much,” Margaret said. “If you can’t take care of him, leave it to me and the girls in Section 5. We know how to keep busy-bodies occupied. He’ll be swamped with paper, tied up with red tape, and hammered with constant phone calls. Questions, memos, reports, and pleas for wisdom from management.”

I chuckled.

“Frank Martin has a thing for me, too,” she said, turning around and facing her terminal screen. Frank Martin handled most of plumbing and water system maintenance for the colony. “I can make sure Mr. Lincoln’s head keeps backing up. He’ll be too busy trying not to take a shit to bother us.”

I nodded. “I’ll leave the toilet sabotage in your capable hands.” I clapped her gently on the back, and turned to leave.

“No worries,” she said. “We Martians have to stick together.”

 ◊◊◊

 “Maybe I should convert,” Jori said. “What do I have to do? Do I get baptized?”

I had just finished reading from John’s gospel, going through the beatitudes, and Jori still showed no signs of relenting. “I don’t think there’s a baptismal on Mars. And I don’t think Reverend Ned is going to perform a baptism. He’s really not that kind of Reverend.”

“Then you baptize me.”

“I’m not–that should be a consecrated minister or a pastor. But you aren’t serious, Jori. Not really. Giving your life to Christ is a lot more than saying, ‘baptize me’. It’s a daily devotion to the will of God, in everything you say and do. In everything you think and feel.”

“I can do that,” she said. “How did it happen to you? Were you always a Christian?”

I shook my head. “No. I–it’s a long story. It took a long time. Even now, I struggle. It’s better here than it has ever been; I know God led me to this place. So that I could be closer to Him. But it’s still a struggle. It can be a hard life, if you’re serious.” I looked at her pointedly. “It’s not a life that’s about what you want. It’s not a life about this life at all. It’s about living for Christ. And that can mean poverty. Pain. Celibacy. Isolation.”

“I’m not afraid of a hard life,” Jori said, sticking her chin out at me. “Look where I live. I moved here. This was my choice.”

I nodded. She had a point. Life on Mars wasn’t easy for anybody.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I can work with you and nurture your faith, but I don’t think I can baptize you.”

“That’s okay. Keep reading.”

I nodded, and returned to reading the Gospels. When I got to Matthew 19:10, Jori interrupted.

“Ah-hah!” she said. “So the disciples thought getting married was a drag. That’s why you don’t like women.”

She was goading me, but I continued: “’Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’”

She smiled broadly. She has freckles on her cheeks and nose, and I couldn’t help but notice them then. She gets these wonderful little dimples at the corners of her mouth, when she smiles like that. “What if someone can’t accept it?” she asked.

“Then they aren’t spending enough time earnestly seeking the will of God.”

I knew, at the bottom of it, Jori was looking for a relationship. I think, even more, she was looking for a mate. Why she had settled on me, I don’t know. There were many younger men who were much more obviously available. If it was my unavailability she found alluring, Yu Po is an orthodox Buddhist monk, and even more unavailable than I. I have to admit, I was mystified, and not a little concerned. But I was and am called by Christ to bear witness to His grace, and Jori was begging me to do it. Even if I knew what her fundamental motivation was, what else could I do?

She sat quietly and listened as I read the entire book of Matthew.

◊◊◊

“I’m sick of it,” Park Randall said. He was a receiver at the warehouse, and a good man. And I agreed with him. A small group of us were together in the mess hall, discussing the latest food shipment from Florida. And nobody was happy about it.

“The ship was half empty,” Park continued.  “Nothing but rice and soy and fucking vitamin paste. That’s bullshit. No more medicine, no meat, no canned foods, no fucking sugar–”

“Language,” I said. “There are ladies present.”

“Ladies?” Laila asked, and slapped Jori and Margaret on the back. “I don’t see no fuckin’ ladies here. Do you see any fuckin’ ladies here?”

Jori giggled. “Not fucking ladies, no.”

“This is payback. They’re trying to make us pay. They won’t terminate our contracts, they won’t do anything that might slow down productivity. Won’t do anything that those bureaucrats think would slow down productivity—“

“They could’ve put something on there,” Laila said. “We need more pillows and blankets. We’re running very low on tampons. You boys may not care about that but if we run out completely, I guarantee you, you will. I am down to two pairs of socks. My official company underwear has got holes in it. They know we need this stuff.”

“They could have put some cows or some pigs on there,” Margaret said. “It’d be easier to enclose an acre and turn it into pasture than wait for them to ship us some milk. Or some butter. Hell, give me some hens and chicken wire and one extra heater and I’ll get a chicken coop going in the warehouse.” 

“Good luck,” Park said. “They don’t want us being self-sufficient. They don’t want us able to survive without their shipments. They want to keep us under their thumbs. They don’t even want us doing the hydroponics yet—that’s supposed to be for when the ‘real colonists’ show up. Not us dumb bastards terraforming the planet, but the tourists. Those will be the ‘real colonists’. ‘Memo: do not be spending time on the hydroponic cells yet. Not critical.’ ‘Memo:  There is no need to be bringing hydroponic cells online at this time. Please explain.‘” He grunted loudly. “Explain! Please explain why we want to eat some—“ He glanced over at Jori, Margaret and Laila. “—some effing food. Jeeze!”

“We’d be starving without the hydroponics,” Laila said. “Let them try to live on nothing but tofu and vitamin paste. I’m all for seeing if the Ruskis can get us some hens up here.”

“You need to be quiet,” I said. “You need to break that habit. If we’ve got baby food and diaper pins, you don’t know where they came from. It’s manna from Heaven. Unless you want the Russia shipments to start looking like the Florida shipments.”

“Okay, okay,” Laila said. “I’ll keep my mouth shut. But we used to keep chickens, when I was a little girl. Had them in the garage. We had more eggs than we could eat. I’m all for getting some hens in—“

I sighed. “Look, people. It’s going to take more than hens to be self-sufficient. We need food. Pharmaceuticals. Backup recyclers. We have to have oxygen. We have to have fresh water. And it doesn’t rain on Mars.”

Park glowered at the table, not looking at anyone. “It’s supposed to be raining, now. The video at the Life on Mars recruitment center—it showed it raining. Snow. Swimming pools. They had pictures of nice apartments and people jumping into swimming pools. “ He looked around dramatically. “Where are the nice apartments? Where are the swimming pools? Where’s the rain?”

I shook my head. “It’s never going to rain on Mars.” 

◊◊◊

mars-3 

 “How can you be so sure?” Jori asked. We were sitting at the bar at Club Boreum—a pun, based on the name of the northern polar icecap the terraform was starting with, the Planum Boreum, and the fact that the “club” was a rec room with a bar, some high bar chairs, an antique karaoke jukebox and a portable refrigerator that we might sometimes keep Kool-Aid or soda pop in, if we got any. Right then, it was all water. About as boring as you could get, I guess. If you were the kind of person used to recreation on Earth.

“About what?”

“About the terraforming. You’re positive it’s not going to happen. Aren’t you?”

I sighed. “Not any time soon. Even if all the power plants come online and we start melting the ice caps and we get all the extractors and oxygen plants running full tilt, that’s not going to be enough to even start to terraform the planet. The ice caps will give us a slight increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and water vapor, but it won’t make any difference to the temperature of the planet. We might get a hundred gallons of water a day out of the extractors, in addition to the water ice of Planum Boreum—but that’s not enough to create any kind of serious weather. It sure as hell isn’t going to be an ocean. Even if we were going to deploy 10,000 oxygen farms instead of a 1000, we could maybe get a breathable atmosphere—but that’s not going to terraform the planet. That’s not going to start weather. If we could kick start a planetary weather system by melting the ice caps and extracting moisture from the permafrost, there’d already be a weather system here. That’s not going to make it possible to grow vegetation outside—“

Jori perked up. “They’ve got genetically modified pine trees that will survive in temperatures below –30° Fahrenheit. With fertilization and irrigation—“

“When they get them where they can survive –90°, then you have something. It barely stays that warm during the winter at the equator. Even then, irrigation, fertilization, speed of growth—it’s going to be hard to keep the momentum up, when, after a century of colonization there still isn’t a breathable atmosphere, no oceans, no forests—when there still is no weather.“ I looked out the window, into the black Martian night. It was stark and inhospitable—the black of the sky blacker than any I had ever seen on Earth—but it was also very beautiful. It was clear. It was cloudless. The way it was going to stay for a long, long time. “Jori, when and if the process gets going and the ice caps melt and the moisture extractors start, when, after all that, all that ends up happening is a large vapor emission and a negligible increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide—when all that results is Lake Michigan, not the Pacific Ocean, and all the water is still frozen—I think that will be the end of terraforming Mars. If it gets to that point. But I don’t think that it will.”

“Most of the techs say we’re not more than two years from going online. I don’t see why—“

“Because if the colony declares itself as an independent and sovereign body, if we sever ourselves from Life on Mars, Inc., we won’t be worried about terraforming. We’ll be worried about surviving.” And there. I had said it. Not that some didn’t talk openly of the idea already. Not that anyone would be surprised to hear the words. Not that just this sort of thing hadn’t been speculated about for years before man had even set foot on Mars. But I had never really said it, not out loud to anybody—Margaret and I had danced around the issue often enough, but I hadn’t ever said it directly like that, even to her. But I had just made the point explicitly to Jori.

“Oh,” Jori said. “That.”

“Yes, that. I think the company sending up Geoffrey Lincoln is going to speed up the process rather than prevent it. Although I don’t think they have any idea that there’s anything to prevent.”

Jori exhaled slowly. “How soon, do you think?”

I shrugged. “If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have said it would be years. Now, I think it may be months. Too many families. Too many babies. Too many bad company policies that end up making the corporation into the enemy. Shorting the shipments—Park’s right, they’re doing it to send a message. And that message is that we eat and breathe at their leisure. They’re making themselves into an enemy a lot faster than I thought they would. And when it comes down to it, we’re too far from Earth. We’re not a part of Earth. We’re our own world. And there’s not too many people here that don’t feel that way.”

Jori nodded. “That’s me,” she said. “I never felt like I fit right anywhere. Before Mars.”

“After God, my loyalty is to you and Margaret and Park and Yu Po and Laila and all the other men and women in this colony. The company can go fuck itself, as far as I’m concerned.” There. Now I had said that, too. It felt good.

Jori giggled. “What are you going to about your libido suppressants?”

“There’s enough here to last me thirty years. When the new recruits arrive, they should show up with a dozen cases of ‘em. The company discourages fraternization.”

“And so do you,” she said. “You big dumb butt.”

“Just for me, personally,” I corrected. “It’s human nature to want to find somebody. To start a family. The corporate drone that came up with the idea that they were going to stop men and women from falling in love by providing libido suppressants and prostitutes was an idiot. But there are lots of idiots in the corporate world.”

“We’ve got one coming tomorrow,” Jori said. “I’ve heard rumors. I’ve heard he’s a smoker. That he’s coming with ten gross of Marlboros.”

I shook my head. Typical. “That’s a good start. Come up immediately flouting the company ban on cigarettes. Holds himself above the worker bees.”

“Heard he’s married. Has a wife and kids at home.”

I nodded. “I’ve heard that, too. But that doesn’t mean anything to how he’s going to deal with us.”

She was quiet for a while, and I could tell there was something else she wanted to ask. “What is it?” I said finally. “You want to ask me something.”

“You said you were married,” she said. “What was the problem? Was she a total bitch? Was she, like, the devil? That’s why you hate women?”

I chuckled a little. Then, I thought, maybe I should just tell her. Go ahead and spell it out, and just nip this nonsense in the bud. “I don’t hate women. No, my wife wasn’t a ‘total bitch’. It was just—I got involved in a legal dispute with some old friends of ours, and she took their side on the issue and—and there was some history of that sort of thing. And so I got angry. And I put her in the hospital. Broken nose, fractured jaw, broken arm, concussion, internal bleeding. I also broke two of her fingers. And she was—after that night, she suffered from partial deafness. Eventually corrected, but—but it was an indicator of how hard I hit her. How violent I was. It wasn’t the first time I had hit her, but it was the first time I had ever done anything like that.”

“Damn,” Jori said. “That’s harsh. Not very Christian of you.”

“No, it wasn’t. But I wasn’t a Christian then.”

“So she kicked you out and you found Jesus?”

I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. “She divorced me, yes, but only after she pressed charges and put me in prison. Which was exactly what she should have done. My sentence was for five years, with time off for good behavior. I—it was difficult. I had the shit kicked out of me a lot. And all I could think about was getting out and finding my ex-wife and killing her. They had her fixed up in a week like nothing had ever happened, but I was going to jail for five years. I hated her. I thought she was responsible for everything wrong in my life, and when I got out, I was going to kill her.”

Jori nodded. “I can see that. But you didn’t do it, did you?”

“I wouldn’t be here if I had, would I? No, I decided the best way to get out early was to claim conversion. To volunteer to assist the chaplain and put in all the appearances of being a good Christian and ask for his help so I could stay out of the way of the people who kept kicking the shit out of me, and getting me in trouble, and also so I could ask him for a recommendation when it came time for my parole hearing.”

“And then you really converted.”

“I found God. Or God found me. Prison stripped me to the bone. When I started attending service and working with the chaplain, we’d read a passage together and it would just speak to me. The chaplain would give me books, and they would seem to be written about my situation exactly—God just kept talking to me. God had always been talking to me, it was just that before I hadn’t listened. In prison, it was hard, but there wasn’t so much to get it in the way. So God kept working on me, and I finally asked Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior. It was a difficult process for me. It broke me. It humbled me. It chastened me—“

“Chastened!” Jori exclaimed. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard somebody actually say that word.”

“But it did. I tried to make amends with my ex, when I got out—not to go back to her, I didn’t expect that, but to apologize. To do something in service to her. But she didn’t trust my new found religion, and there was a restraining order against me, so I was—I was limited in what I could. I decided to leave Australia—“

“Australia? You lived in Australia?”

“I was born in Australia. I went back and forth all my life, from Australia to America. We moved three times when I was a kid, and I ended up doing the same thing after I left home. Where job opportunities took me.”

“Did you beat up any more women?” she asked.

I looked at her seriously. “Not yet.”

“You don’t scare me,” she said. “You know anything fancy? Karate? “

“No, but I’m a big guy. I can do some damage.”

She stood up and stuck out her hand. “I’m a black belt in Aikido and Shotokan. “

“Jori, everybody’s file has gone across my desk, I know you’ve got a lot of martial arts experience—“

“Enough to kick your ass.”

“That’s not the point,” I said, and she grabbed my arm, pulling me forward while kicking me in the shin, and my legs seemed to almost magically fly out from under me. And I was down on the floor and she had the heel of her boot on my throat. “Did you know the term ‘Martial Arts’ comes from Mars?” she asked. “‘Martial’ is ‘of Mars’—as in ‘the art of Mars’, Mars being the Roman god of War. Pretty cool, huh?”

I coughed. “Yeah. Pretty cool.” I said.

“And that’s nothing. You left the family jewels wide open for, like, ten seconds there. I could’ve turned you into a soprano.”

“Okay, okay, I get the point. You’re no lilting flower.”

“Damn straight.”

I sat up. “The point is, I still have a lot of work to do. A lot of time to spend with my heart and my mind on God. That’s why I’m on Mars. To have a worldly life as free of distraction from my spiritual life as possible. I mean, it’s not about you, Jori. You are wonderful. I just can’t let anything come between me and God. And I can’t—I can’t—I mean, it’s hard to understand, if you haven’t been there, but I’m here—I’m here to deny myself.” I looked down, and then looked up again uncomfortably. I knew that I was saying too much, that this was not the way I should make this point, but I couldn’t seem to stop it. I wanted her to know that she was my kind of woman, if I had been in the market for that kind of thing. Even though I wasn’t, I did want her to know. “To deny myself the things that I want. That I would want for myself. I’m on Mars so that I can live my life free of—of any kind of worldly pleasure. So that life is just me and God. Because my relationship with God is—it’s the most important thing in my life. And it’s His grace—and His merciful forgiveness—that gives my life any value at all. Even though—even though you are everything any man with a brain would ever want, in a woman.  I—you know, I just can’t. God has called me. And I have to answer.”

Jori sat down on the floor beside me. She shrugged. “Okay,” she said. “But, you know, maybe God is calling me, too.” She looked at me seriously. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I didn’t think she was joking.  “God is calling me, and you’re the telephone.”

I opened my mouth to respond—I don’t know what I was going to say—and she held up her finger to quiet me. “And I have to answer, too.”

I didn’t have a response to this. I couldn’t easily explain Jori’s pursuit of me at this point in my life, except by divine intervention. Maybe she had something.

“Then come on,” I said, after we had sat together in silence for a while. “Let’s go back to my room. We can finish reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians together.”

 ◊◊◊

 “Hi, I’m Geoffrey Lincoln,” Geoff Lincoln told me, leaning forward as he stepped off the transport. “I’d like everybody to call me Geoff. I don’t like Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was my father. I want everybody here to call me Geoff. You must be—John Chapman, right?”

I smiled politely. “Jack Chapman. I’m not a John.”

He nodded. “But your name is Jonathan. Jack is short for, or a common nickname of, Jonathan.”

“Usually,” I said. “But my parents named me Jack. So that’s my name.”

Geoff shook his head. “No, they probably named you Jonathan, but always called you Jack.”

“No, Mr. Lincoln,” I said pointedly. “They named me Jack. I’ve seen my birth certificate. Several times.”

“No ‘Mr. Lincoln,’” Geoff said, wagging his finger at me as if I were three years old. Or a bad dog. “I want everyone to call me Geoff. I’m another employee of the company, just like you.”

“I’ve got you. Geoff.”

“So, anyway—can you get somebody to help me get my stuff off the ship? I’ve got a lot of stuff with me.” He took out his PDA, and started flipping through a calendar screen. “Tell you what. Give me an hour-and-a-half to get settled, and then I want to meet with you, and I want to schedule meetings with all the other management staff here at our Mars Base—hmm, shouldn’t there be some signs here? Something that says ‘Life on Mars: Mars Base 1’ or something like that?”

It was an effort not to roll my eyes. “They haven’t sent up any signs from Florida. If they do, we’ll be happy to hang them.”

He nodded thoughtfully, tapping in his PDA. “Mmmhmmm. Tell me, do you always wait until you get the word from Florida before you take initiative on something?”

“No, but I do wait for word from Florida before I do something stupid that would be a pointless waste of time. We don’t have any sugar. We are short on paper and pens. We’ve got five printers. We’ve got 1257 people here and we’ve got ten conference rooms and four whiteboards.”

“You’ve only got four digital whiteboards?”

I laughed. “Why do you say ‘digital’? I mean whiteboards. With dry erase markers. We don’t have any ‘digital whiteboards’ at all.”

“Huh,” Geoff said, nodding with concern while tapping his stylus on his PDA. “Now, you said putting signs up would be a waste of time—shouldn’t people know where they are, when they get here? Shouldn’t they be able to expect a standardized system of navigation, by which they could expect to get around, right out of the box?”

“Uh—well, there’s only one American Mars base here, and everybody here knows where they are. Why would we put a sign up? There’s a million other things to do. You have to know we’re a year behind the company schedule on the terraforming—“

He nodded in a way that seemed intended to convey that indeed he knew, and was deeply concerned. “That’s what I’m here to fix,” He said after a moment.

I couldn’t help myself. We had been on Mars too long without direct corporate supervision. “And you’re going to fix it by suggesting we should be spending time on signage to tell everybody where they are despite the fact everybody already knows—“

“Well, now,” he said. “I’m not saying anybody should be wasting time, of course, but the effort spent familiarizing people with the new environment—that consumes time.”

I sighed. “The halls are marked, the rec rooms and conference rooms are marked, we’ve got directional signs where they actually make some sense.”

“Okay. Well, you say that. But then, I get off the ship, and, first thing, I’m confused. Hey, where am I?” He looked around, affecting an air of confusion, putting his hands out, palms up.  Like people could end up at the only American Mars colony by accident. “Am I at the right place? Is this the warehouse? Is this the nuclear plant? Am I at the sleeping quarters? Where do I go from here? I just don’t know.“

“Well, there’s a pretty big sign right over there—“

“Well,” he said, not looking up and not following my finger, which was pointed at the large and easy to read multi-lingual directional signs mounted beside each hallway entrance. “We’ll address this issue later. In the meantime, we’ve got a few programs we’re going to start, and I want to introduce myself to the front line workers—the warehouse personnel and the construction workers and the maintenance people. There’s going to be some big changes going on here, and soon.”

I nodded. “No doubt about that.”

If there was any irony in my tone, he didn’t notice it. “Of course, not that we’re going to get anybody in trouble, or that anybody is going to get their contract terminated—nothing like that. But, we are going to make some changes so we can get this project on schedule. And we’re going to start today.”

So I took Geoff Lincoln to his room. He was clearly underwhelmed, but didn’t complain. He was most worried about how long before his dozen cases of cigarettes arrived. Pacing impatiently as Giorgio made his way from the platform back to Mr. Lincoln’s apartment, he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket. “So, where do we smoke?” he asked.

“’We’ don’t smoke anywhere. If you smoke anywhere, you’ll be in violation of company policy. “

“Huh,” he said. “I thought there were smoking areas. Club areas—that sort of thing.”

“There are,” I nodded. “Company policy forbids smoking. Of anything. Anywhere. Rec rooms and clubs included. We’re in a closed environment and there are more than a few flammable things around.”

“But the air recyclers would process the smoke—“

“It’s the company policy. What can I tell you? If you violate it, and I catch you, I have to write you up and send it back to corporate, just like I would anyone else.” This wasn’t entirely true—I wasn’t in the habit of writing up violations of company policy, even though they occurred frequently. I guess he knew that, but I wasn’t going to get led into suggesting that he do anything inappropriate. He could come to that decision by himself. “But if you do it, I sure suggest you don’t let anybody else see you doing it. Not good for morale.”

“Hmm. Now, I thought for sure there were smoking areas at the Mars Base—“

“There are people here who thought we had luxury apartments and swimming pools and gymnasiums, before they got here. The Mars in the brochure and the real, live Mars you’re stuck with aren’t the same thing.”

“Well. Maybe we can do something about that policy.”

I smiled. The peons are behind, and the big corporate guy shows up to make everything better. First order of business: when and where can he smoke?

“Well, okay,” he said, tapping on his pack of Marlboros. “So, give me a little time to get settled, and then we’ll do the tour of the facility and then maybe you can set up a meeting at the end of the day for all the main warehouse and construction staff. Put a feed in so everyone can catch my presentation—and maybe send out the word that everybody here needs to be watching me, because I’ve got some important news. Can you do that?”

“I can do that,” I said.

“Great. Okay, well, I’ll see you then. Great to meet you, John.”

“Jack,” I said.

“John, Jack,” he said dismissively. “Good to meet you, that’s the point. Okay, later, then.”

“All right then,” I said, backing out of the door, and before I finished sliding the door shut I saw him pulling a cigarette out of the pack.

I shook my head. He wasn’t going to last long. If he did, he wasn’t going to have a good time of it. 

◊◊◊

 We had most of our key construction workers and warehouse supervisors and all the plant engineers up front in the warehouse, because it was the only place where there was room. About two-hundred people were there, total. There were plans for an auditorium, and I remember when all the seats and the curtains for the stage came in, but those were all packed away in the warehouse. As was the next item of contention.

Geoff looked behind him at the back of the warehouse, shaking his head. “Where is the stadium display?” he asked. “So everybody can see me—didn’t we send one up here?”

“It’s in the warehouse,” I said. “The stadium is a third tier project, scheduled after all the plants are online and all the seven and eight block apartments are built—“

“We’re in the warehouse,” he said. “Why didn’t you set this up so we’d be where the screen is?”

“Because the screen is in three pieces in three different boxes half-a-mile down and six stories up, in the same section as all the other construction materials for the stadium, which we had direct orders not to start the installation of—“

Geoff shook his head. “That’s just unacceptable. I can’t believe you haven’t been communicating with your frontline staff all this time. I—well, you and I are going to need to have a talk later.” He sighed dramatically. “Anyway—“

“Excuse me, but I have been in communication with everybody here. I don’t need a Jumbotron to talk to my people—“

He shook his head decisively. “It’s an effective method of communication that you should be utilizing. From now on, we will be. Have somebody start setting it up immediately after this meeting.” He took out his PDA and then pulled a data cartridge out of it. “Damn. I have an entire PowerPoint set up for this—how am I going to show it? Never mind, never mind. Where’s the microphone?”

“In your throat,” I said. “Speak loudly, and everyone will hear you.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Give me that phone.” He walked over to the closest one and grabbed it. “How do I dial up the warehouse intercom?”

I showed him how to call the warehouse intercom. For the next thirty minutes, with constant audio feedback squeals, Geoff introduced his new programs. More-Better-Faster was his first initiative, which was going to improve everything and make it all happen better and faster but seemed to consist mostly of some signs he was going to be posting and a fabulous new suggestion box for the cafeteria. Then, he presented the unfortunately titled You’d Better Wait, It’s Getting Late, which was a program designed to discourage people from falling in love, getting married, or wanting to start a family. It included a series of videoposters—thin film disposable nanodisplays with running videos—warning against what a harsh environment Mars was for employees to raise a family, and how that slowed down things for everybody. It also included similar videoposters promoting our well-stocked supplies of libido suppressants and information on the company prostitutes. “And, you’ll be glad to know, we’ll be getting in fifteen new prostitutes when the next wave comes,” he told everybody excitedly. “Six of them male, and that’s including a bisexual and two homosexual prostitutes—I know the company has underserved our homosexual community up here, and we’re trying to make things right. Of course, as always, most of the girls will do guys or girls—just ask, if you’re interested, ladies! Wow! Is this a great company to work for or what?”

At the end, he marched around at the front of the warehouse, singing a song about waiting to have kids and working harder and faster for no perceivable additional benefit to the tune of some old pop song from thirty years ago. By the time it was all over, I had lost count of the eyes rolled and looks exchanged. During the debut of his video posters, Margaret came up to me and mentioned—loud enough so that I think everybody around us heard it—that all our terminal displays were twenty-year old gas plasma behemoths. “They can invest the money in goddamned videoposters but they can’t buy us any nanodisplays for the actual work? I’m too old for this bullshit. I’m leaving.”

“Stay,” I said. “I know. Just let it go, for right now.”

“Hmmph,” she said. But she stayed.

◊◊◊

 “Wow,” Geoff said, rubbing his hands together enthusiastically. We were meeting in my office. “I think that went great! I really got the feeling that everybody was on board with this. Things will be changing around here.” He inhaled deeply. “Now, about your lack of communication with the front line—“

“I don’t lack communication with the front line,” I said. “Ask the front line, if you want to see what they think.”

“No, I’m talking to you,” he said sternly. Like he was reprimanding a child. I was beginning to look forward to maybe locking him in one of the freezers when the shit hit the fan. Viva la revolucion!

“Okay, then I’m telling you,” I said. “We communicate. You may do it different, and that’s fine, but just because I haven’t unpacked company equipment designated for another project so everybody can see my head two stories tall, that doesn’t mean I’m not communicating with my people.”

He nodded, tapping his PDA studiously. “I think I’m beginning to see why things are so behind here.”

“Okay. Why?”

“You’re hostile to change. I don’t mean you personally, but I think it’s part of the culture here. You–all of you–are afraid of change. Look, John—“

“Jack,” I said. Before locking him the freezer, maybe Jori could kick his ass, too.

“There’s better ways to be doing things, but you’re not doing them. Because you’re afraid of change.”

I sighed. Mr. Lincoln was getting old quick. “With all due respect, sir, that doesn’t make any sense. I moved to another planet. I’m not afraid of change. Everybody here has left their lives on Earth and have moved to Mars. Some for five years, most for at least ten. Some for fifteen. I’m here for twenty. Some may never end up leaving—”

“Which is fear of change,” Geoff said. “Look, we’ll talk about this some more later.” He tapped on his PDA. “How about 14:30 tomorrow?”

“All right. Tomorrow.” I stood up to open the door for him.

“And take care of that screen today. You need to start communicating with your people effectively.

“Yes, sir,” I said, nodding. We both left my office. I wasn’t going to do anything about the screen right now, I just wanted to get the hell away from him. He started heading towards his quarters, almost sprinting. Ah, I thought. It had been awhile since his last cigarette.

I headed the other way. Because it wasn’t the way that he was going.

◊◊◊

 “You wanna come see the movie with me tonight?” Jori asked. We were sitting next to each other in the cafeteria, eating breakfast: rice pudding and blackberries and strawberries from the hydroponic block. They also had soymeal, but I can’t stomach the stuff. Jori was drinking wheatgrass juice, but that was a little much for me in the morning, so I was drinking water.

“It’s Red Planet,” she said.It’s kind of stupid. But it’s kind of funny, too.” She smiled. Her lips are tan, like her skin, and make the most perfect longbow shape when she smiles. Her cheeks dimple. Her eyes are gray. Maybe a little blue. Her hair is a sandy brown, the color of raw honey. She usually smells sweaty—water is rationed, since we only run two recyclers and replenishment takes forever, so none of us get to bathe as much as we would like—but it’s a good kind of sweaty. A definitely female musk. And hers is better than most.

She was fully suited up in company-drab pants, jacket and boots—she wasn’t trying to show anything off, because I think she had finally figured out that the libido suppressants work. But something about her was working on me, too. I felt better, just hearing her voice. She has a high, perky voice, with just the slightest hint of a southern drawl—she was originally from Virginia—and when she laughs, it’s like magic. Even when she’s not around, I find myself thinking about her voice and her eyes and how I can see her small little ears when she puts her hair up in a bob. I know I’m becoming attached, probably more attached than I should be, but what do I do? I have no urge for any kind of sexual dalliance—the libido suppressors do their job—but I can’t seem to get rid of the desire to talk to her. To spend time with her. I think it was when she flipped me down and had a boot on my neck in two seconds flat, then regaled me with the etymology of “martial arts” that really got to me. I can’t get the idea of her out of my head. And I don’t know what to do about it.

I had never planned to date again. I had certainly never planned to marry. But, sometimes, in those dim moments before I fell asleep at I night, I could see us declaring ourselves married by the common law of Mars. Jack and Jori. But I couldn’t tell—was it a call from God? Or a temptation that I should resist?

“Yoo-hoo,” she said. “Mars to Jack, come in Jack. Movie tonight. Got popcorn. Then we can go back to your place and you can get all Biblical on me. S’alright?”

“Yeah, that’s—that’ll be great. It’s a date.” Then, without meaning to, without thinking about it, I leaned forward and kissed her cheek.

She looked up at me, and—to my amazement—she blushed. She put her hand over her cheek and looked away. At that moment, she looked as if she would have been more at home two centuries ago than now. “Wow,” she said. “You kissed me.” She grinned up at me, then, showing all her teeth. “Does this mean we’re going steady?”

I smiled back at her. “It means I’d like to hold your hand at the movie.”

She punched me in the shoulder. “Holding my hand,” she said, her tone jocular and clearly pleased. “You sly dog, you.”

“Bah,” Laila said, sitting down beside us. “He’s old enough to be your father.”

Jori shrugged. “You’re old enough to be my mother. You can hold my hand too, if you want.”

Laila dumped her berries into her soymeal and started stirring, but didn’t look up. “You know what I mean. And Jack—you ought to know better.”

I nodded. “Yes, I should. And so should she. But she just won’t let me be.”

“I’m twenty-two years old,” Jori said. “I’m old enough to make my own decisions, thank you, Mama Laila. Besides, Jack is the perfect gentleman.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. They all are. Until . . .”

I was a little uncomfortable with the discussion of age. I am forty-one years old, nineteen years older than Jori. That’s a big gap. I couldn’t imagine that this was the kind of relationship God would truly call me to at this point in time. Given how long, and how profoundly, I had sinned in my life, I found it difficult to accept that God would reward a man like me with a companion like Jori, ever. Test, perhaps, my fidelity and devotion to Him—but to join us together as one flesh? I didn’t see how it could be right. But the sense of being drawn to her would not go away.

“You are right, Laila,” I said. “Maybe you can talk some sense into her. I was trying, but she’s winning me over.”

Jori winked at me. “Told ya,” she said.

◊◊◊

 I found Yu Po out in the warehouse. He was up near the top of the eight-story scaffolding, pointing at boxes. After a moment I realized he was getting down the components for the stadium screen that Geoff Lincoln had felt was so important to internal communications. I had just released the order—several days late, but I did finally get to it—and Yu Po was already on the job. He was quick.

I took a lift up to the eighth story, and waited for Yu to get done instructing the man and woman he was talking to. Once he was finished, they straddled the minilifts and started moving pieces out of the way, looking for the stadium screen. Yu walked over to me. “Mr. Chapman,” he said, and bowed slightly. “You are looking for me?”

“Yes, yes, I was,” I said, watching as the two others moved the pieces out and then over to the edge of the shelf location so the hydraulic lift could take them down from there. “How do the—you—I mean, the women here—I’ve seen you down at the dispensary.  You take the libido suppressants too, don’t you?”

Yu smiled politely and shook his head. “That would interfere with my discipline,” he said. “I have brought requisitioned items to the dispensary. I do not take any drugs.”

My eyes widened. Yu was probably thirty five, and in good shape. I would think it would be almost impossible for a thirty-five year old male to resist the call of free flesh and/or potential relationships, especially given the paucity of other distractions on Mars. But if he said he didn’t take them, then he didn’t. “Well, I was going to ask you how they worked for you, but I guess not.”

“If suppressors work for you, then that is fine,” he said, smiling. “We each have our own path. For me, I must release, not suppress. It would do me no good to put my desires under a sheet and hope that they stay hidden. No matter how opaque the sheet may be, my passions would dwell there still. For me to purify myself, I must let go of desire—I must transcend it. Only through meditation, discipline, and a devotion to my duties, can I transcend my desires and purify my spirit. There is no pill that can do that for me.”

“Huh,” I said. “Hum. Well, I’ve got to say, I respect that. I don’t think I could do it—that I could resist the temptation, some days. Without the pills.”

Yu nodded slightly at me, his expression inscrutable. “Then perhaps that is not truly your path, Mr. Chapman.”

◊◊◊

mars_panorama 

Towards the end of the day, I found myself outside with Geoff Lincoln. He didn’t understand why the moisture extraction process wasn’t producing. Geoff “didn’t understand” quite a bit, I was finding.

“I think the problem here is user error,” he said. We were outside, wearing our thinsulate excursion suits—one of those few areas where the company had actually provided us with adequate equipment—looking down at #2 of our two moisture extractors. Invisible to the human eye, thousands of carbon nanotubes spread out into the ground, going down only centimeters but covering a three meter area, conducting fuel-cell generated heat down into the ground to thaw the frozen moisture and then drawing it back up to inject the vapor into the air. At set intervals—currently three days—the unit extracted itself and rolled forward five meters, then resumed the process. Fuel cells had to be replaced every two weeks. We had been running the test units—and babying them, and calibrating them—for over nine months now. And Geoff was suggesting that “user error” was the reason we weren’t producing water from ground where there was just no water to be found.

“It has to be. All of our spectrographic maps show plentiful frozen water just centimeters below the crust,” he said.

“No,” I corrected. “They show plentiful hydrogen atoms. The company embraced analysis that assumed that it had to mean water. But I think it clearly isn’t—“

“Well, then, it’s—well, it can’t just be ‘free hydrogen’—it would have to be water—“

“It could be other hydrides, like ammonia or methane, which has been present in soil samples as often as water. I could be deposits of platinum or palladium, which can absorb hydrogen—“

“Across the entire planet?” he asked incredulously. I admit, it was a far-fetched explanation, but his tone irritated me.

“Well, do you see water? Do you see how much we’re getting? You could put one of these things down in the middle of Death Valley and do nothing but turn it on, and you’d get more moisture.”

He looked at me seriously, the front of his visor misting up each time he breathed. All I could see was his left eye twitching—I had been with him inspecting the outside for a while now, and knew it had been hours since his last cigarette. I started thinking about what else he really “needed” to see, before we could go back.

“What sort of training seminars did you run for the employees deploying these units?”

I sighed. “They read the manuals. You set them down and turn them on. Then you adjust and you adjust and you adjust, and we’ve had techs trained on moisture extractors working on them, and we haven’t got results any better when we first set them down and turned them on—“

“But you didn’t have any training seminars?” he asked again.

“No. No training seminars.”

“Did you at least write some documentation for them?”

“No, I didn’t write any documentation. The equipment came with complete documentation. Why would I write anything?”

“Because you are responsible for how the equipment is to be deployed,” he said, shaking his head. “I think I can see why we’re so far behind on moisture extraction.”

“So can I,” I said. “Because there’s no water.”

He shook his head sadly. “Let me take a look at this,” he said, and started randomly pressing buttons on the extractor’s control panel, at first shutting it off and then ejecting its fuel cells.

“That’s good,” I said. He picked up the fuel cells and started trying to cram them back in. “Ahem. The—uh—the ‘documentation’ says that you aren’t supposed to remove the fuel cells until spent, because you—ah—you can’t put them back in. Without ruining the extractor.” While he stood there, looking stupidly and the wasted fuel cell, less than a week old, I turned the status switch on our rover to the cold storage setting, so it wouldn’t start when we got back in. It was not a Christian thought, and I shouldn’t have done it, but I was going to keep him out there until we were almost out of air.

“I don’t understand, it was working fine when we came out here,” Geoff said, almost whining, when he finally insisted we get back in the rover and head back to base. “Do you maintain the equipment properly? Do you do anything constructive around here?”

I smiled pleasantly. “I think there may have been a EMP disruption when you ejected the fuel cells from the extractor.” I was just talking out of my ass, but I was pretty sure Geoff Lincoln, if he listened, wouldn’t have any idea as to whether I was right or wrong. “Give it a few minutes and I’ll probably be able to get the rover back on line.”

“I’m going to want to do a maintenance review when we get back,” Geoff said. “I can see why we’re so far behind.”

I got out of the rover and pretended to check the connections to the battery pack. “We’re so far behind because we’re short on equipment, supplies, construction materials, personnel, and our time-table is not based in reality.”

Geoff was tapping his foot nervously, looking back the hundred or so yards to the base, and then back to the oxygen gauge on his suit. “The engineers who designed the project came up with the timetable and it was certified by NASA—“

“The engineers who designed this project would take one look at the timetable you came up with and say you were smoking crack,” I said. In fact, one of them had said exactly that, on Fox News Sunday, according to several of the newer recruits who had been on Earth at the time to see it. “And show me where a timetable of five years for set-up and fifteen years for terraforming the entire planet of Mars was ‘certified by NASA’. I’d like to see that. Not that it would matter, even if they had. Being certified by NASA is not going to put water in the soil out here. Being certified by NASA isn’t going to make up for a thousand miles of coax we didn’t get, for a hundred tons of aluminum we’re missing, for the suits and rovers and extractors that are ‘on requisition but haven’t shown up’, for—“

“We’ll talk about this later,” Geoff interrupted, which generally meant he had no intention of ever talking about it again. Unless it was to start the conversation from scratch, pretending everything that had been said before never happened. “We need to conserve our oxygen. We may have to walk back.”

I smiled. It was not a Christian thought, and I confess it was a sin, but I couldn’t help myself. “We may,” I said. “Why don’t you start back and I’ll keep working on the rover. If I can get it working before my oxygen levels go critical, I’ll pick you up on the way. It’s not that long a walk.” This last part was technically not a lie, because it wouldn’t have been a long walk, if we had been on Earth.

“Can’t we radio back to the base?” he asked.

I tapped on the radio panel in the rover, but nothing came on. Nothing on the rover worked when it was in cold storage mode. “Sorry, doesn’t work. Look, you start walking—it’s not that far, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get back.” I exhaled slowly, then inhaled slowly, like a man take a long, satisfying drag of a cigarette. “Yeah, okay. Yeah.” He jumped out of the rover and started back towards the base, moving too fast and breathing too hard, and then the sound of his rapid breathing and muttering to himself fuzzed and faded in the short-range headset in the suit. Which, if ejecting a battery pack from the extractor could have truly created an EMP disruption, wouldn’t have been working, either. After a few minutes, I flipped the status switch and powered the rover back up. Then I headed back towards base at a leisurely clip.

When I got in range of Geoff’s headset, I could hear his labored, rapid breathing. He was getting scared. Not just desperate for a cigarette, but frightened. I had to chuckle. We had hours of oxygen left, but I don’t believe Mr. Lincoln actually knew how to read the gauge.

“Got it working,” I said cheerfully. “Get on in.”

When we finally did get back, he practically sprinted back to his office.

“The power of addiction,” I murmured, and went directly back to work in the warehouse.

◊◊◊

The next night, Jori was with me in my quarters. I had already read to her from the book of Acts, and we were now both reading in silence together. I had managed to negotiate a study Bible out of Reverend Ned’s stockpile, and had given it to Jori, so she could read along with me or on her own. I still couldn’t tell if she was serious, or just humoring me, but she did seem to come at it with an open mind.

I kept coming back to the same passage in Matthew 19, where Jesus gave his clear, unambiguous, and historically unpopular command regarding divorce:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

While you have to be married to get divorced, I felt a hand on me that I had not felt since the day I knew I would be going to Mars. I felt that God had brought Jori into my life and I into hers, and we were going to be joined. That against all hope or even desire, that I was going to get a second chance at having a family.

In what was going to be a very hard and lonely frontier.

“What’s this?” she asked after a while. I had been lost in thought, and I was a little startled to look up and see her thumbing through the dusty old Septuagint Bible that Vlachko had given me a few weeks back.

“It’s call a Septuagint Bible. Though that’s in Greek—I can’t read a word of it. Vlachko Chernigov brought it up to me with his last shipment. I think he was ribbing me, in his way—I might have sermonized him a little too heavily about life on Mars a year or so back.”

“Huh,” Jori murmured, flipping pages. “What’s a Sepjewishtint?”

“A Septuagint. It’s a direct Greek translation of the original Hebrew scriptures, plus variant material. It’s supposed to be the Bible as it was in the early Christian Church. I think it’s still canon, in the Eastern Orthodox church. It’s mainly interesting for its proximity to the original Hebrew, supposed to be a purer translation than the later sixth century translation of the Hebrew that was the basis for latter-day Bibles, such as the Guttenberg and then the King James. And for the variant material.”

“Variant material like this?” she asked. She pulled several loose pages out of the Septuagint and handed them to me. They were the same size and format as the other the pages, printed on the same sort of thin rice paper, although they did look newer. And they clearly had not been bound. “This isn’t Greek. This is Russian.”

“That’s interesting.” I looked at the pages. At first glance, they could have easily been mistaken for any other part of the Septuagint. But, sure enough, she was right: these were Cyrillic characters, not Greek. Beyond that, I couldn’t say what it was—I could read enough Russian to find the right bathroom, and that was it.

“Huh. I need find Yakovlev. Maybe he can tell us—“

“’This would be the question,’” Jori read. “’Where are the kings and soldiers now? And the answer would be: Under the white lilies on their graves. This would be the question: How tall are the trees in forest deep? And the answer would be: To the heavens and higher, over mountains and seas.’”

I think I must have been staring at her, mouth agape. I remembered reviewing her personnel file before I had any idea who she was, but I didn’t remember her being bilingual. I blinked at her. Then blinked again. She was just a treasure chest of wonders.

She looked up and me and shrugged. “I had two years of Russian in high school. I’m not bad with Japanese, either.”

“I don’t remember that being in your personnel file,” I said.

“I didn’t put it on my application,” she replied. “I hated all the Foreign language credits I had to take for an International Business major. They’ve got software to do that kind of crap. I wasn’t coming to Mars to be a translator. But I can tell you this doesn’t read like Bible passages—these are queries and pass phrases.”

I nodded. “That’s what I thought.  Vlachko, Vlachko, Vlachko. What did you bring me?”

Jori laid back on my bed and looked up at the ceiling. “Think they have something to do with Little Moscow? “

I nodded again. What other relevance could they have, except to the Russian base? I exhaled slowly. What, exactly, did Vlachko have in mind? Was he trying to make sure he was on our side, when the “revolution” came? Or encourage it? The Russians had supplies, I knew that, and their base was nearly deserted now. But how much they had of what, there was no way of knowing. They had to have building materials—before their abrupt pull out, there had been ships coming in almost daily bringing construction materials , and the “Russian Capital of Mars” had been highly touted as the first true city on Mars. They would have oxygen and equipment. Also, it occurred to me that they weren’t run by the company, and might well have something we could sorely use—a direct connection to Earth’s network. Vlachko had implied to me in the past that he didn’t think the Russians would have any trouble with us just showing up and taking things—and, if there was no more than seven Russians left in Little Moscow, they really couldn’t stop us, I supposed. And they had been stocking up to build a functioning city. If they had been serious, they probably had a lot of equipment to assist them in being self-sufficient that would greatly improve our chances of survival. When the day came.

I laid down next to Jori, and she took my hand. “What are you thinking?” she asked.

“About how we’re going to get over to the Russian colony without Geoff Lincoln finding out.”

 ◊◊◊

 “Why did you pull three of the construction details off the power plants?” Geoff Lincoln asked me. We were meeting in his office, one his frequent impromptu meetings where, no matter what I was doing, he’d tap me on the shoulder and tilt his head in the general direction of his office. “We’re already behind on getting the plants online, and then you pull them off? That’s going to put us another month behind, even we put them all back on to the plants today—“

“I had to have some of them working on Block Seven and Eight. We’ve got 280 more recruits coming up next week. We have eighteen open apartments. We’re going to set up cots in the warehouse for them until we can get the Seven and Eight Blocks done—“

Geoff cocked his head, giving me a look that managed to be at once like a confused dog hearing a sound he didn’t recognize, and an arrogant, condescending prick. Sorry about that last bit, but it’s the most accurate description I could think of.

“You’re supposed to have fifteen residential blocks done by now. You’ve had two years.”

“And they added four nuclear plants to the construction schedule after ‘Black Ice’ didn’t work.” “Black Ice” was the solar collecting nanoblanket that, after two years of delays, had finally been spread over the Planum Boreum ice cap. The idea had been to thaw it, naturally, but as the engineers on the project had warned the company fifteen years earlier, it didn’t work. Despite the flood of optimistic memos. It did raise the mean temperature of the polar ice by 17° Fahrenheit, but that left us far short of where we needed to be for significant thawing. Even if it had worked, and when the power plants were all on and we finally forced the issue, all it was going to do was increase atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. And release some water vapor. All of which would refreeze. The hope was that with moisture extractors and “oxygen farms”—a thousand tiny greenhouses with oxygen respiring bacteria converting carbon dioxide into oxygen—we would begin to approach a breathable atmosphere while increasing planetary temperatures and creating an active weather system. We had two moisture extractors running now, near the residential block, just to see how well the process would work, and our extraction rates were below even the most pessimistic projections. We were extracting under a gallon of water a day, at an energy cost that would make shipping fresh water from Earth more cost effective. It wasn’t going to make a lake, much less an ocean. It wasn’t going to make it rain.

“And they’re not going to get done on schedule, if you’re taking construction teams off them.”

“No, but it wasn’t my idea to bring up another 280 people we don’t need up here right now. Just like I said six years ago that ‘Black Ice’ wasn’t going to do it, and we should start planning for forcing the issue, and that we needed more power for the terraforming and the residential blocks—“

“Well, we need to get those plants online, on time. Why don’t you talk with your people, and have them split the time between the nuclear plants and the residential construction, so both get done as soon as possible?”

“No, because we have to have the residential space unless you’re going to tell the company they have to delay the new recruits.”

“You said you were setting up cots in the warehouse,” Geoff said. “Management is very concerned about the plants coming online in a timely manner.”

“Then they shouldn’t been sending up 280 people we don’t have housing for right now. While the warehouse is very big, there is a logistical problem with having 280 people using it as living quarters. That will slow down the warehouse, which would slow down construction—“

“Look, you know what you have to do. Get the new residential blocks done like they were supposed to have been done a year ago, and get the nuclear plants online, on time.”

What do you say to people divorced from reality? “Okay, will do,” I said.

“Also, I couldn’t take a shower this morning. It said I had used up my ration for the next three days. Is that supposed to mean that I can’t take another shower for three days?”

I nodded. “That’s what it means.”

“I don’t understand. Is there something wrong with my apartment monitoring system or something? Why would the water be rationed that severely? We recycle it, so there should be plenty, right?”

“We have two recyclers,” I said. “That’s enough to adequately service a community of about two hundred. We have 1258 people here, now that you’ve come. We’ve got two-hundred and eighty more people coming. But no additional reservoirs and no extra recyclers.”

He shook his head, tapped on his PDA, and then fixed his best corporate tough-loving manager gaze on me. “You know, Jack, I can’t believe I’m hearing this. The management here—it’s just non-existent. It’s incredibly irresponsible for you to have let the colony go on this long without requisitioning more recyclers and water storage—it would take us months to get anything now—“

I hit his desk with my fist, very hard. Everything on it jumped.

“Shit!” he said. “What the hell was that about?”

“I submitted the first request for additional water recyclers three years ago,” I told him. “And reservoirs. I have re-submitted the request and asked for updates on the processing about seventy times over the last three years. Check with corporate to see my requisition line. I’ve got requisitions in for terminal monitors, for additional storage space—we’re running out of memory for the warehouse databases. I’ve asked for water recyclers, and backup air recyclers, because we don’t have any and what happens when one goes out? There’s no shortage of libido suppressants but there are a lot of pharmaceuticals we don’t have, and I’ve put in a request for a pharmacist and a pharmasynth system, but the request has been ignored. So we get people who are sick who could be working but aren’t because we can’t get the drugs. We need simple things—we need more printers, we need sheets and pillows, we need chairs. We need more fresh water. We’ve got almost six hundred women up here and our supply of tampons is down to a few thousand, and the first requisition for more was a year ago.”

Geoff was shaking his head emphatically. “The women should all be sterilized—they shouldn’t be having their period.”

I barked a laugh, which made him flinch, and his eyes darted around. Sometimes he reminded me of a bug. “Thank you, Dr. Lincoln. It doesn’t work that way. Not only does sterilization not stop monthly cycles for every woman, it makes a lot of them bleed more or have more frequent periods. Some of the women can’t do the surgical procedure and are on Nonovulin, which makes periods quarterly for most women but still doesn’t stop menstruation—“

Again, he shook his head. “Well, I don’t think you’re right about that, and I’ve heard—well, let’s just say I’ve heard things about sterilizations being reversed, which is against company policy—“

“Feel free the check the women yourself. Even the initial requisition from corporate in Florida recognized that you can’t just turn off menstrual cycles with a memo from management.”

“Well, I—look, anyway, you’re just muddying the issues here. If there are important things you’re missing, you need to be in management’s face every day until you get them. That’s your responsibility.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’m in your face. We need water recyclers. We need more air recyclers. We need a real pharmacist and a pharmasynth. We could also use some tampons for the ladies. Now, I’m going to go follow up on the residential block construction. Okay?”

“Look, I’ll give you whatever help I can. But it’s your job to be getting in Florida’s face and telling them—“

“Florida is a hundred-fucking-million miles away!” I shouted. “I’m as in their face as I can be from a hundred-million miles away!” The distance of Earth to Mars varies from between a minimum of about 35 million miles, when most of our shipments come, and a maximum of about 163 million miles, but a hundred million seemed like a good round number. “Life on Mars is always going to ‘see what they can do’, which is always nothing. I can’t hop on a ship and go back to Earth and grab some recyclers for myself.” We could have spent our own credits, in the form of promissory notes, and gone through our own channels to get some of these things—and soon, I thought, we might, for water recyclers and backup air recyclers. Ditto for tampons. But for digital whiteboards and chairs and pillows and tools? Hell, no. I had discussed getting a pharmsynth with Vlachko, and he was dubious about the possibilities. But if and when I managed to get additional recyclers or a pharmsynth, those things, like the baby formula and diapers, would be strictly off the books.

“Well, if you’re actually keeping them informed about your needs, I don’t understand why they haven’t sent anything up,” Geoff said. “Are you sure they know?  There’s hundred-of-millions of dollars worth of supplies and equipment coming up in every materials shipment—“

“Yes, there is—the stuff that they want up here or they decide we need. Rarely, if ever, are the things we ask for on those shipments. We’ve got million dollar pieces of equipment earmarked for projects that won’t be starting for fifteen years or maybe fifty years that we’re keeping in storage, and I can’t get them to send us a fifty-thousand dollar water recycler or, hell, a few thousand dollars worth of bed linens.“

“Well, I will talk to upper-management. I’m sure some wires must be crossed somewhere.”

I shrugged. No wires were crossed. They wanted to keep us on the edge of survival, they wanted keep habitation inhospitable, they wanted to keep us as far from self-sufficiency as they could—just functional enough so we could do the work, and no more. “Maybe so. If you can get them uncrossed, that would be great.”

“I’ll put in a call,” he promised. “On the way out, could you tell Margaret I’d like to talk with her? I have some questions about the books.”

“I will,” I said, expressionless. I didn’t like the idea of Geoff going over the books, but it was an emotional reaction. My intellect told me that Geoff would be no match for Margaret.

On the way back to my room, I stopped by Geoff’s apartment. I let myself in with my passkey and grabbed twelve cartons of Marlboros. I don’t smoke, but I suspected I might be meeting some people who did. For them, Geoff had conveniently brought me something worth more than gold.

◊◊◊

We took the long-range suborbital to Little Moscow. Located at the edge of the Korolev Crater, the Russian base was a little under 2500 miles from the Life on Mars colony. The long-range was the only way to get there. We had three short-ranges, but they were underpowered, and a dozen Martian rovers that were almost indistinguishable from the Moon rovers of a hundred-and-fifty years ago—just with better tires. But those weren’t sufficient to make it to the power plant construction sites without backup power, and had a top speed of forty miles an hour. If we were going to get to Little Moscow, it was the long-range or nothing.

 Although using the long-range suborbital was supposed to require a sign-off from Florida before it was taken out, everyone cooperated. There wasn’t a single peep of protest, even though they all knew there was no official authorization to release it. But that’s how it is on Mars; how it has been, almost since day one. We watch out for each other. We’re a family.

I tapped Yu Po to pilot the suborbital—explaining that we would be doing this without company approval, but that he had logged the most flight hours, and I wanted the best man taking us out. “It is of no concern to me,” Yu had said. “If it is your wish, I have all the approval I need.”

Jori came with us—at first I was resistant, but she was insistent, and I cannot seem to win an argument with her. I also brought Park. Margaret, wonderful woman that she is, had already started Geoff’s day before we left with a backup of sewage—and not just his—into his apartment. She then released a torrent of “late” company transmissions—missives she had actually been holding for this occasion—ordering him to go in a dozen different directions at once. Then she had posted a bogus “potential gas leak alert”—which everybody who had logged any time on the colony knew was bullshit, but they all treated with the utmost gravity. Geoff was ordered not to smoke until the issue was resolved. All I can say is: God bless women, in all their dark wonder. I would not want to be on Margaret’s bad side.

Jori, like most of the people at the colony, had never been on the suborbital, or traveled any distance on Mars. Employees in the Life on Mars colony went between the base, apartment construction, and the power plants. Several of the engineers had run expeditions out far onto the Planum Boreum ice cap, and the Planum Australe team had been all the way across the planet, to the South Pole, working on project “Black Ice” up there. But most did not travel much. Even for me, this was only my third trip on the long-range.

“Jesus,” she said. “Whoops. Sorry. But it’s so big. It goes on forever.”

“It is a little more than half the size of Earth,” Yu Po said. “But the landscape is much more consistent. It gives one a sense of vastness.”

She shook her head. “What the hell are we doing here?” she asked. “How are we going to terraform this thing? We can’t even get soap that doesn’t smell like spoiled fruit.”

“We will not,” Yu Po said, very matter-of-fact. “We are premature. I expect future technology would make such a thing possible, but it will be a century before such an effort could reasonably be expected to meet with success. This is my estimation, at any rate.”

“Then what did we come here for?” She threw her hands out in front of her, pointing in the general direction of the Martian landscape as it flew by. “Why’d we give up ten years of our life to—to do nothing?”

“I am not doing ‘nothing’,” Yu Po replied. “I am piloting this suborbital across the surface of another planet. I am not prideful, but it is not without some meaning to me that I am the first and only orthodox Buddhist monk to do such things. That among humans to do such things, I am of a elite group of only a few thousand.”

“Is that why you came to Mars?” Jori asked. “To be the first guy to go joy riding across a big red desert?”

“Not at all,” Yu replied. “I came here to live on Mars. This is what I am doing, so I am quite pleased with the results.”

I put my hand on Jori’s back. “It’s why I came here, too,” I said. “To live on Mars. I didn’t realize how unlikely it was that the project would succeed, at the time. But in the end, it doesn’t worry me that much. I’m here because this is where I want to be. Because this was where I am supposed to be.”

Jori just shook her head.

“With you,” I added.

At this, she turned around to face me, eyebrows raised. “With me?” she said. “You’re on Mars because you’re supposed to be with me?”

I nodded. “I’m beginning to think so.”

Yu smiled and nodded. “You can throw a sheet over your desires, but they are there, all the same.”

“Nobody asked you,” I said. And I sat with Jori the rest of the way, her head on my shoulder and my hand on her knee, until we had to buckle in for landing.

◊◊◊

Little Moscow was larger than I had thought, and aesthetically pleasing, even outside, with rounded corners, soft slopes, archways, cantilevered platforms and towers. I was amazed to see that they had an outside “park” area and two courtyards bordering the main structure—rock gardens with carboncrete walks and cast mosaics, circlets with what looked like fountains in the middle—though, of course, there was nothing in them—and outside sculpture. By comparison, the Life on Mars colony looked like a few dozen oversized rust-colored boxes stuck in the sand. The Russian’s goal had been to construct a livable, self-sustaining city on Mars, as much for prestige as anything, not to terraform the entire planet, and the emphasis on the prestige-factor showed. Life on Mars, Inc., was not into prestige.

Already suited up, we put on our helmets and exited the suborbital. Jori had the passcodes and was preparing to key them into the keypad at the main entrance—the door was engraved with Russian motif decoration, and Russian flags were mounted on poles on either side—when the door opened. I was a little worried, but hoped that the few Russians left were acutely aware of their abandonment and would welcome visitors, and fellow Martians. I wished we had been able to contact them beforehand, but our malfunctioning long-range radio equipment had yet to be replaced, though the requisition was entered over a year ago. We had gotten what I believed to be the Russian’s carrier signal on the suboribital’s short-range, but had not gotten an answer when we hailed them.

After proceeding through the air lock, we entered the main hall—which was wide and clean and decorated with artwork and antique furniture. The floor was carpeted. Carpeted! I felt unaccountably self-conscious, in my drab company fatigues, as if I had just walked into the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria without shoes or shirt.

The man who greeted us was similarly dressed, however, in navy blue fatigues. He was carrying an Kalashnikov AK-370 rifle looped over his shoulder, casually pointed at us—I assume loaded with soft-tips, which are bullets that can do pretty good damage to people but aren’t likely to break through the metal walls or the thick acrylic “glass” used in typical Martian construction. He said something in Russian, and Jori promptly made a stilted attempt at a reply.

The man laughed, and lowered the gun. “I am honored that you have come to ‘lick my goat’,” he said, his accent much thicker than Vlachko’s. “Unfortunately, I have no goats at this place.”

He shook his head, and walked up to us. “The lady, she is very funny, thank you,” he said. “I am sorry for guns and questions, but that is the protocol, so. I must say I am pleased to see the Americans come—there has been none from your base in eight years, my friends. I know there is great distance, but eight years? I was working on the buildings of our houses then, and saw no one. Why did you not radio that you would come? But never mind. I am so glad to meet you. My name is Vasilii Ivanovich. Although I may think I do know, tell me what brings you here now? I hope it is not some terrible thing. But I keep talking and should let you speak. I’m sorry, we do not meet the new people here often, and I must say I was pleased to watch your approach. Yes, and, I apologize for this also, but I need to search you and examine your bags, please.”

“Not to worry,” I said. “A gift for you.” I handed him the courier case I was carrying. He opened it without concern—I think he intuitively understood that we were all Martians, and we meant him no ill will. “I am Jack Chapman. These are my associates, Yu Po, Park Randall, and Jori Eades.

He gasped. “Is this—these are—you cannot be serious. You have brought for us these? I—you cannot have.” He took out two cartons, holding one in each hand, and pressed them against his cheeks. “I can smell the delicious tobacco that is inside. Sweet American cigarettes. You have brought us the nectar of the Gods. We smoked our last package of the Belamorkanals almost two years ago, and have not had another shipment—I am in your debt. We all will be. Whatever can I do for you?”

“Since you ask, you have a direct connection to Earth’s network, correct?”

He laughed. “Of course, as direct as you may get, as do you, I am sure.”

I shook my head. “No, actually. We do not. The company doesn’t allow it.”

He raised his thick eyebrows in surprise. “Unbelievable,” he said, cursorily patting me down. I do have one gun—a contract-terminating offense—but I left it at the base. I had felt that cigarettes would do us better than bullets, although I admit if I had known the comparative opulence the Russian’s enjoyed, I would not have guessed they were short on anything. “I would have thought that your ambitious projects were in all ways superior to our own.”

He briefly searched Park and Yu Po, and then Jori, taking easily twice as long, handling both her chest and buttocks in a manner that he hadn’t any of the three men. But Jori took it in stride, and it did give me another thought as to how to build a stronger relationship with the Russians.

He sighed heavily as he released Jori, and she walked back over to me and took my hand pointedly. “I cannot tell you how lonely it is out here,” he said. “When we had the evacuation, all the women went. All of them.”

I nodded. “There are only seven of you now, right?”

“Seven?” he asked back. “There are only four. There have only been four of us since January.  But, please, come, we can go to my office right down here, and use my terminal.”

“Look at this place,” Jori murmured. “It’s like a hotel. A nice hotel.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Mr. Ivanovich, your colony is amazing. The construction, the furnishings—we live in boxes with card tables, by comparison. We are short on almost everything—“

He waved a carton of cigarettes at us. “Not these!” he said. “I would say your priorities are in order.”

“A fluke. Normally, we don’t have them, either. All resources are devoted to the terraforming projects.”

Vasilii nodded as he waved his passkey in front of a door and it slid open. I shook my head. Our office and residential doors all slide open, as well, but are not motorized. Ours are human-powered. “Yes, the terraforming. How does that go?”

“I doubt it will,” I said. “I’m afraid the optimism of management and the reality of Mars have come into conflict.”

“That is too bad to hear. But we too have experienced this. We would not dare try such a thing, ourselves, but we believed you could meet with every success. The first year of construction for Little Moscow was foundational—we built on variable hydraulic supports that are submerged thirty meters into the ground. We even have pumps and drainage for the Korolev Crater—for when the rain began to fall.”

“Precautions that will probably prove to be unnecessary,” I said. I decided not to tell him that our own construction was not nearly so considered, and that significant liquid precipitation would have caused erosion that would have washed our camp away. “In the near term, at any rate. It may rain on Mars one day. But it won’t be because of anything we’re doing now.”

“Sit down, sit down,” he said, guiding to me to his desk. The desk was polished aluminum and cast resin made to look like white marble. A curving thin film nanoscreen wrapped around the desktop, from left to right, encompassing a full 180°.

“Damn,” I said.

“It will do?” Vasilii he asked. He was taking a pack of Marlboros out of the carton and unwrapping the cellophane.

“Yes, it’s great, perfect,” I said. Everything on the screen was Russian, but I typed in the URL for my preferred news search engine in the URL field, and it came up, all in English.

“Do you mind if I smoke? And I need to notify my compatriots of my status, if all is well with you for the moment?”

“Go ahead, we’re fine,” I said. He was holding a cigarette out to me. “No, no, none of us smoke, but thank you.”

Vasilii rolled his eyes and then rummaged through his desk drawer, finally pulling out a small welding torch, and then lit the cigarette with that. Then he took the phone from its deskpad and pressed a few numbers.

I did a search for Life on Mars, Inc., and it was interesting to see the contrast between what was happening on Earth and the stories the company was telling us. They were under investigation by the justice department. They were being sued by several different people and environmental groups. The UN had drafted another resolution—the twentieth one—censuring Life on Mars, Inc., and was insisting the US Government shut them down.

“Wow,” Park said, reading over my shoulder. “They’re falling apart.”

“I think that’s a understatement,” I replied.

“And their solution is to send up a corporate guy to discourage baby-making, put up signs telling us to work faster, and making us put the goddamned stadium screen up in the warehouse. So his head can be real big when he talks to us.”

“In the business world, it’s what you call ‘death throes’,” I said. “That’s what I call it, at least. They just keep doing more and more stupid things. Like someone struggling in quicksand, they keep kicking and fighting and just get sucked under faster.”

“Can we print these out?” Jori asked. We could—printers and paper were plentiful—and Vasilii, puffing away on his cigarette, told us to print a trillion pages if we liked.

“Wow,” Park said, shaking his head. “Where were these stories before I signed up? How are they getting 280 new morons to come up now? ‘Experts Predict Mars Terraforming Project is Doomed’,” he read. “’Mismanagement and Junk Science Earns Life on Mars a Federal Probe’. Wow.”

We kept on. Life on Mars was accused of wasting huge sums of money, some of the top management was being accused of tax fraud and diverting funds. And the Gates Foundation had just recently cut them off, due to poor results and recent revelations about “exaggerated science”, so the final twenty billion from the Gates Foundation wasn’t ever going to come. In addition, the Foundation was considering legal action against Life on Mars, Inc.

Finally, I found one of the things I had been most hoping to find. We had had about a dozen contract terminations since I had started, and I wanted to know for sure what ended up happening to the money, especially if there were promissory notes drafted against the trust funds. Man Challenges Life on Mars, Inc. Trust Fund Refund Language in Termination Suit, the article read. The end result was that the man was liable to repay funds from the trust, prorated for time spent on Mars, but that the fund itself was first the property of those who had promissory notes drafted against it. So Life on Mars, Inc. could attempt to collect from the ex-employee, but they couldn’t put their hands directly on the money in the fund.

The three other Russians showed up, and talked with Park, Yu, and Jori while I continued conducting searches. It wasn’t long before the office was enveloped in a gray haze of cigarette smoke. Park Randall start coughing and asked to go out into the hall, but the rest of us weathered it pretty well. I’ve certainly dealt with much worse.

“Did you get what you wanted?” Vasilii asked after I was done.

“More than I hoped for,” I said. “I certainly understand why the company has kept us cut off from the Earth network.”

“Mmm,” he replied, noncommittal. “Is there anything else we may do for you? Would you like to stay for a while? We have many open apartments. Even many executive suites are available still. They have Jacuzzi bathtubs in them. ”

“Jacuzzis,” Jori repeated. “We get tepid, three-minute showers every three days and they have Jacuzzis.”

I touched her hand lightly. “I’m afraid we can’t, but—I don’t suppose you have a network antenna and broadcast array? Something that we could set up? It would be very useful to have a direct Earth connection.”

“Alas, no. We have our own—we have a back up connection, but it is installed, as well, and cannot be moved. You have nothing with which to communicate to Earth?”

I shook my head. “One satellite feed that goes directly to and from the home office, but that’s it. We’ve been able to get around it for a few things, but it’s nothing like having a direct connection.”

“Hmm,” He said. “Well, this I will tell you. We do have a number of extra laser relays. You must plant each in a line of site with the next, which may take some time, but once you do you should be able to connect to our router and—how do you say it?—ride the back of a pig upon our network. Also, I believe we have extra radio transponders, should you wish to talk with us directly in the future. “

“That would be wonderful,” I said. “The other thing is, we are sorely in need of a pharmsynth and some water recyclers, and some air recyclers—“

“Well, we certainly have water recyclers and air recyclers to spare, but we only have two pharmsynths, and they are most costly—I would expect if we ship anything else back down to Earth, it would be the pharmsynths. And some of the—“

“You know,” Jori piped up. “We have a large number of prostitutes in our colony.”

The Russians all stopped talking. Then, an animated discussion entirely in Russian ensued.

“You are welcome to take one of our pharmsynths back with you, as a gesture of our good will to our American friends,” Vasilii said at last. “We include a generous supply of raw ingredients and binding agent.”

A brief discussion took place between Park, myself, and Jori. Finally, I gave them a return offer. “And at the soonest opportunity, we will send a—a delegation of—of goodwill ambassadors to—to express our goodwill towards our Russian allies.”

“To stay for a week or two,” Jori said. “We can’ take the suborbital out every day—“

“We insist on two weeks! My colleagues and I have a great deal of goodwill which we wish to share with your ambassadors.”

I clapped Jori on the back. While unable to support such a trade on a moral basis, the sexual immorality of a few irreligious prostitutes was of a lesser concern than easy access to medicine for the men, women and children of our colony.  She had made the right move. The Russians, who had much we needed but lacked much they wanted would be our fast friends from this point forward.

Jori had pocketed the list of passcodes when the airlock had opened, and we had not mentioned them to the Russians. They might still be of future use to us.

Vasilii and his colleagues gave us a complete tour of their facility, which was in almost every way superior to ours. Everything looked new and supplies were plentiful. Equipment was state-of-the-art, and everything from the offices to the residence quarters were larger and better furnished. They had digital whiteboards. They also had several gross of feminine napkins, tampons, and douche, which they gave to us freely. “There are no women here now, what good will they do us?” Vasilii asked when Jori, God bless her, remembered our shortage and asked about them.

 Although I treasure the Spartan life of our colony, I lavished praise on Vasilii and his comrades for the quality of everything around us, and freely confessed my belief that they had done everything the right way, from the planning to implementation—plans for a practical, livable colony instead of pie-in-the-sky dreams about planetary terraforming. “You are too kind,” he told me. “But you have cigarettes and whores, and we do not, so I still bow to the order of your colony’s priorities.”

We loaded up the suborbital and then bid goodbye to our hosts.

“I wish you had done this before,” Vasilii said. “We have long wanted to meet some of the others, especially after so many left—but we were without long range transport, and could not hail you by the radio.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It is strictly against company policy. They forbid fraternization with the other colonies. And they refused to replace our long-range radio equipment.”

“I see,” he said. “I am pleased that you came to visit with us, in any case, and look forward to seeing you again.”

 We did a loop around Korolev Crater on our way out, and it looked to me as if the interior of the crater was lined with warehouses and storage tanks—probably their oxygen and water, maybe natural gas or ammonia. Russian PR about Little Moscow had always painted in broad strokes, and had rarely addressed the particulars of what they were doing in great detail.

“We didn’t need the passcodes after all,” Jori said. “I wish that we had been able to work with them before. Or come meet them. They seem like good people.”

“We couldn’t,” Park said. “Because the company didn’t want us to. Because they don’t want the colony to know what a mess they’re in.”

“Or the relative sophistication of the operations of others,” suggested Yu Po. “I would guess that even the Japanese have adequate water recycling and medical supplies.”

We hadn’t needed the passcodes; all we had needed were Marlboros. And the promise of prostitutes. But I don’t know that we would have gone at all, if Vlachko hadn’t given them to me. And if Jori hadn’t found them. Which she never would have, if she hadn’t, without discernible reason, developed inexplicable romantic interest in a 41 year old ex-convict doing life on Mars. Odd, how things work, sometimes.

“We haven’t needed them yet, but we may,” I said. “We’ll keep them in a safe place.“

◊◊◊

When we got back, I had Yu coordinate the unloading of the suborb and getting all of our new supplies, including the pharmasynth, into brown boxes and packed away in the warehouse. I put Jori on the task of interviewing prostitutes for “goodwill” detail at the Russian colony, trusting her to inform them of the dangers, and pick women suited to the task. I returned to the job of reviewing the construction of the new residences, which was ahead for the week.

And a good thing it was, too. The new recruits were arrived a week ahead of schedule, and the boat from Florida was in dock and unloading before we had even pulled the cots out of inventory so they’d have somewhere to sleep for the next month. As I knew from long experience, many of the folks shown the videos and given the brochures full of smiling folks hanging out in spacious apartments and jumping into Olympic-sized swimming pools were going to be in for a rude awakening. It was going to be even worse than normal, given these folks were probably going to spend a month trying to sleep in a warehouse that operated 24-7.

I let the orientation folks handle getting the new recruits off the ship and into processing. I didn’t want to deal with it, and I suspected—and was correct—that Geoff would also studiously avoid debarkation, for much the same reasons. I did expect that he would probably show up for unloading the cargo, to share his wisdom on every process and provide his critique of every last little thing we did wrong. But he wasn’t there, either, and at first I was grateful. And then I got irritated. 280 new people, but nothing for them in the cargo. No new bed linens. No soap. No reservoirs or water recyclers or oxygen scrubbers. The shipment included nothing that I had told them we needed, point blank, through official channels and even by notarized letter—Margaret is also a notary public—I had sent back to earth six shipments ago. I had told them we had to have these things, or there was no point in sending up the new recruits. Yet the recruits were here but there were no water recyclers or air processors, no bed linens and—this was brilliant—not even any jumpsuits. The recruits essentially had the travel suit they wore up, and no other clothes. There also weren’t any more thinsulate excursion suits, so most of the folks coming up to work construction detail weren’t going to be able to get started until another shipment showed up. Assuming that shipment had some of the things I had requisitioned.

I walked around the cargo hold with Margaret and Park for a little while, all of us shaking our heads, until I looked at my watch. It was past three, Eastern Time—that is, Florida-time, which was the schedule the Mars colony ran on—and there was no sign of Geoff Lincoln, who normally had to have his nose into everything. And I was getting pissed off.

“Where the Hell is Lincoln?” I asked.

“I saw him down in the cafeteria this morning,” Park said. “He was inspecting the microwaves and the hydrators. And asking where the posters were.”

“He said he had some important report work to do,” Margaret informed me. “And that he was not to be disturbed.”

“Margaret,” I said. “Go get my hardcopies of my requisitions. And that hardcopy folder of my emails to headquarters on our supply problems. It’s the blue folder on the top of my desk.”

She nodded. “I know the one, boss.”

“Park, you go call Len Peyton. Tell him to get a few men, locate Geoff Lincoln, and get him down here pronto. Reviewing this shipment is the most important thing he has to do today. And I want him here now.”

Park grinned. “My pleasure, sir.”

I had my requisition form for this shipment with me, and went through and checked off everything that hadn’t shown up—and except for a case of 25 area heaters, some acrylic repair patch, and three cases of tube socks—at least the new recruits would have fresh socks, if not underwear or jumpsuits—and two sonicwash clothes processors, not a single critical thing I had asked for was there.

Margaret got back first, with my papers, and I glanced at them briefly, and then Park returned, announcing with barely-concealed glee that Geoff Lincoln had been located chatting up one of the company prostitutes in one of the unfinished conference rooms. I’m pretty sure he had been trying to avoid the whole issue of the incoming recruits and the cargo shortage, but security tracked him down by checking where the last place was that he had used his pass key.

Len Peyton showed up Geoff a few minutes later, and our boy was clearly not happy. “What’s the meaning of this? I’m in the middle of process review, I, frankly, I don’t have time for any more of your time-wasting shenanigans, John—“

  “My name is Jack,” I said. “Jack, Jack, Jack. If you can’t remember that, then you call me Mr. Chapman.”

Geoff pursed his lips. “Mmm. Very well. Jack, then. Jack, I am very busy—“

“You weren’t too busy to tell us how we were doing everything wrong. You weren’t too busy to complain about the water rationing. You weren’t too busy to complain about the speed at which we’re getting the residences up. You weren’t too busy to tell me the reason we’re not getting the things we requisition from the home office is our fault, so you’re not too busy for this. Take a look, Geoff. Look around. What’s missing.”

Geoff looked to the left and right, not really looking at anything. “There’s not much here,” he sniffed. “You’ve obviously already unloaded most of the cargo—“

“We haven’t unloaded anything,” I snapped. I admit it, I was getting in his face, but I had run out of patience with Mr. Lincoln’s management style. “And to save you time, I’ll tell you what’s missing. Jumpsuits and underclothes for the 280 recruits you just sent up here. Soymeal—Geoff, that would be food—for the 280 recruits you just sent up here. Any medicine, at all. No bandages. No asprin. No water recyclers, no reservoirs—and they were on my requisition, Geoff.” I shook my sheaf of papers and email printouts at him. “They’ve been on the last eighteen requisitions, at the top, high-priority, we’re-going-to-miss-the-deadline-if-we-don’t-get-these, underlined in red! With 280 new people, showers have to be rationed back another day. So the people wearing plastic suits doing heavy construction all day will get to shower once every four days instead of every three. Because otherwise, we’ll run out of water to drink! And if the sewage reservoirs fill up before we they can be recycled, we’ll have to start dumping the sewage on the outside—meaning we’ll be losing water. Shit, Geoff, we really ought to send these people back to earth. It’s not just that there aren’t any swimming pools or tennis courts, we won’t even be able to give these folks—or mine, now—a full ration of food or water a day. But I’ve got almost a million metric tons of laminated drywall. Heck, twenty-gross of sheet metal screws came up with these folks and I’ve already got ten-thousand gross of sheet metal screws. I’ve got over a hundred thousand miles of cat10 network cable and another hundred thousand miles of carbon conductors that takes up eight stories and dozens of bin locations for projects that won’t be starting for years, if ever, but I can’t give my folks food, water or underwear.”

Geoff was looking sideways, not meeting my gaze. There was a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead. “I don’t—there’s no need to raise your voice. I don’t see what this has to do with me, this—this is a warehouse management problem. Your requisitions—“

“Were fine,” I said, but slowly, and my tone had changed. I think you could say it was “appraising”. Because, as ashamed as I am to admit it, this was the first time that it had occurred to me that our inventory problems weren’t just corporate mismanagement, micromanagement, or attempts to flex their muscles and beat us down. It had just dawned on me that Geoff, in fact, might know more about all the requisitions that weren’t getting fulfilled than I had originally thought.

Turns out, Geoff Lincoln knew a lot more about what had, and had not, been showing up in our shipments from Florida and the Ukraine than he had originally led us to believe. And it wouldn’t be long until we found out just how much.

◊◊◊

It took Geoff three days to learn about our trip out in the long-range suborbital. I’ll be honest: he seemed so dim—or, perhaps, so distracted—at times, that I half-believed he’d never figure it out.

He was livid about the transgression, and, while I did not tell him everything that had transpired, I was candid in my replies. He got me out of bed, flanked by three of the colony’s security personnel. They all looked at me sheepishly and shrugged as they entered my quarters.

“This is a direct violation of company policy—it’s an offense they can terminate your contract for. A huge waste of valuable fuel. To go have tea with a half-dozen Russians?” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, dramatically, so that I could see how difficult I was making things for him. “This is not acceptable. I can see why progress is so far behind, with someone who is supposed to be in charge indulging in such grievous transgressions of company policy.”

“Perhaps it would calm you down, to have a cigarette,” I suggested.

Geoff, if he got the implication, ignored it. “What were you doing over there?” he sneered. “Bartering? Trading company materials for—“ he couldn’t think of anything right away, and waved his hands around aimlessly. “—vodka?” he finished triumphantly. “Russian vodka?”

Actually, I hadn’t thought about that, and was sorry I hadn’t. I didn’t know if they had any, probably not, but it would have been a good thing to ask about.

“They have a direct connection to Earth’s network,” I said. “I was looking for some information on Life on Mars. I was curious about how the stock was doing.”

Geoff blanched at that, but recovered gracefully. “Well, first, you could have asked me. Second, I’m sure you saw that it’s in the toilet.”

“I did see that,” I said. “I also saw that there’s a Federal inquiry into whether or not Life on Mars has been diverting funds—“

“It’s bullshit,” Geoff said. “Completely groundless. That sort of nonsense is exactly why you guys don’t need a direct connection. And how has this helped keep you on schedule? Not at all. Your contract doesn’t say anything about joyriding or wasting a day flying 2500 miles to look up innuendo and rumor that has no bearing on reality—“

“Maybe, but there is a growing sentiment on the front line that the company is not being honest with us, or responding to our feedback, or moving forward coherently—“

“And I think you know that there were twelve cartons of cigarettes missing from my apartment on the day you went on your little errand.”

“I do know,” I said. “I took them. I traded them to the Russians for network access.”

He shook his head. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. Stealing, violating company policy a dozen times, and not the slightest bit of shame. No remorse.” His face was red. He was angry. He would have been even more pissed off, I suspect, if he had known that Park, Yu Po, and three of our “entertainment service workers” were in the suborb at that moment, on a goodwill mission to Little Moscow.

“I’m—I’m afraid that’s it,” he said, finally. “I’m relieving you of duty. Permanently. I’m going to have your contract terminated. You are confined to your quarters until the next ship comes—and I’m sending you down on that one.”

I smiled at him. “I’m sure the big bosses will love that you send the person in the best position to testify as to how the colony is actually run straight down into US Federal jurisdiction.”

He looked at me, squinting his eyes. It looked like he had cramps, though I think he was actually just trying to appear menacing. “You’ll find I’m not someone to trifle with, Mr. Chapman. Your threats don’t scare me. You’re going to regret your poor behavior.”

He stuck out his chest and looked to the security detail. “Men, Mr. Chapman is confined to his quarters. You will guard it at all times. Do not let him out under any circumstances. No one—and I repeat, no one—is to visit him. All right, then. Go ahead. Confine him.”

All three looked at me for an indication of what I wanted them to do. I nodded slightly, and they shrugged, and walked over to me. “Yes, sir,” they each said.

“I’ll check on his status later today,” Geoff said. “That is all.” He turned on his heel and left, and the first guard—Len Peyton–pulled the door shut. They all started snickering.  Then Len said, “I think he needs to have his head confined to his ass,” which wasn’t that funny but everybody started laughing loudly.

“You guys can go,” I told them. “But you might want to be ready to confine Mr. Lincoln. I think the time is coming soon.” They all nodded assent, and filed out. I took my shower, my second in as many days but Margaret had gotten Frank Martin to “accidentally” allocate Geoff Lincoln’s water ration to me. Then I went up to my office.

“And I thought you were confined to your quarters and relieved of duty,” Margaret said. “That man is just begging for a serious ass kicking.”

“Nobody is going to kick anybody’s ass. It’s just about time for him to go home, is all.”

“I just got word that a transport is coming in today,” Margaret said.

“Already? We just got 280 people we can’t deal with—“

“It’s empty. Or pretty much. I think it’s the one he’s planning on sending you down on.”

I shook my head. “I don’t care what Geoff Lincoln thinks or what he’s told the boys in Florida, but they aren’t blowing two million dollars just to come pick me up. I know that.”

“I don’t think they are,” Margaret said. “I’ve intercepted some stuff.”

I raised my eyebrows expectantly. “Yes? And?”

“There was a list that came up from Florida to Geoff. A list of all but two of the parents, and all but three of the couples that have decided they are married by common law. Even Kayla and Ralph, and they’re just, like, dating—“

“List to evacuate?”

She nodded. “List to evacuate.”

“Okay, then, “ I said and sighed.  “I guess this is it, isn’t it?” I put my hand on her shoulder. “Are you ready for this?”

She smiled up at me. “Darlin’,” she said with a mock drawl. “Ah was born ready.”

◊◊◊

When the transport came, it wasn’t empty. There were eight armed escorts on board to serve the families notices of their contract termination, and to escort them back down to Earth. They came armed with guns and power prods, which was just stupid. Not that we would have relented under any circumstances, but the way the company chose to go about it was just idiotic. The kind of people who can make life work on Mars don’t take kindly to being pushed around, and we don’t respond well to threats.

As the word spread through the colony about what was happening, warehouse personnel returned to the residences and third shift construction detail came back from outside, and soon the escorts were left with a choice of giving it up, or shooting. One, unfortunately, chose to shoot, and five of our construction guys moved in and had him down, breaking both his arms and cracking a few ribs in the process, and probably would have killed him if somebody hadn’t yelled that it was all right, he was firing rubber bullets. Death throes or just pure corporate irresponsibility, it was just stupid, stupid, stupid.

In more ways than one. Martians are smart folk. We tend to be industrious and practical. Some of the younger men and women understood that the bigger and stronger folks—and those with combat training—were in the best position to subdue the escorts. So they busied themselves taking video of Life on Mars, Inc.’s private security people jabbing a power prod in a pregnant woman’s back, power prodding a man with his six week old baby in his arms, opening fire on a crowd of unarmed employees, and knocking a woman and two toddlers down to the floor, among other things. When I got down to the residences, most of the escorts had already been subdued, relieved of their weapons and power prods and hands bound behind their backs with the plasticuffs they had brought to use on us. Except for one, they all looked they had just started shaving. I just shook my head. The sooner we were done with Life on Mars, Inc., the better.

“Well, shit,” I said.

“They didn’t leave us much choice, Jack,” Park Randall said. “One guy opened fire. Rubber bullets, but still. They wanted to evacuate all the parents.”

“I know what they were here for. Get them back to the transport,” I said. “They’re going home.”

“What about Geoff?” Park asked. “He’s not going to like it.”

“No, he’s not,” I said. “Because he’s going with them.”

◊◊◊

“You’re doing what?” Geoff asked, incredulous. “Are you insane?

“I’m not the one signing off on having college kids come up here and spray a hall full of men, women and children with rubber bullets and burning a pregnant woman with power prods—“

“Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it?” Geoff asked. He was sweating, and his left eye was twitching. He kept looking to one side and the other, but wasn’t looking directly at me. “There aren’t supposed to be any children up here, there aren’t supposed to be any pregnant women up here, and if you have been doing your job and policing the corporate population—“

“We will police ourselves, the way we see fit. Company policy is no longer an issue here.” I point to the printout I had placed in front of him. “We declare our severance from the company. This is our city. This is our planet. You’re not welcome. So you’re going to leave.”

“You know,” he said, and he started pacing back and forth. “I told them it was a mistake to wait this long to send somebody responsible up here. I told them a year ago that there should have been more direct and constant corporate supervision from the outset—and my reward for being clearly right is that they assign me to this godawful planet—“

I’m sure my smile didn’t look very amused. “Well, then I guess this is your lucky day. Because you’re leaving.”

His sweating had increased, and the loop he was making with his frenetic pacing was getting longer. I’ve spent enough time with corporate flaks and convicts to know when a man is moving for a weapon. I didn’t know what he had, but it was obviously back in his closet with his precious cigarettes. Park, Jori, and Giorgio were right outside the door, ready to back me up, but I hadn’t really thought about the possibility that Geoff might have brought a gun with him.

“But, no,” he continued. “They don’t think Mars is an appropriate environment for management, for anybody from the company, so they think the job should go to some freak who actually wants to live on this goddamned frozen desert—“

“Okay, I think that’s enough,” I said. “Your flight is departing shortly.”

“—so they bring in some psychotic wife-beater who should be in a mental institution and put him in charge, and no wonder everything is such a mess—“

“It’s not working,” I said. “Stop pacing. Stay away from the closet door—“

Geoff Lincoln lunged clumsily for his closet, toppling over cases of cigarette cartons and empty luggage. I moved in, but Geoff hopped up quickly, shaking his dirty laundry off his head and shoulders, holding a hefty Sig Sauer RG-620 pointed in my general direction. The buttressed barrel and handle, plus the fat fuel cell casing, made the thing almost comical—like an oversized joke pistol. Except that, as I heard the whine of the pulse capacitor charging, I knew it wasn’t a joke. This dumb bastard had a loaded railgun.

I could guess why—Geoff had a penchant for too-expensive, overdone pens, watches, PDAs and so on, so why should have his weapon of choice been any more practical? And the Sig Sauer handhelds were about as much power as you could pack into a small space, and the “buckshot” could be nothing more than quarter-inch steel ball bearings, making it both easier to get ammunition and the presence of ammunition—boxes of ball bearings—more innocuous.

He held out the gun in front of him, his hand shaking, obviously struggling to keep the weight of the railgun in the air. He either hadn’t trained on it, or had forgotten, because you can’t aim and you don’t fire a railgun like that. But there was also another issue that I’m not sure he considered: there are no rubber bullets for railguns. There are no hull-safe bullets for railguns. The Sig Sauer RG-620 would fire a molten ball of steel at twice the speed of traditional bullet through wall and stone and glass and steel. If he shot me, or anybody, the shot would go right through me, then through the wall, then through the next wall, and probably through the hull, and we’d start to depressurize.

“I told you that I was not to be trifled with,” he said. He was smiling and squinting, the veins in his temples standing out clearly, his face shiny-slick with sweat. The corners of his mouth were twitching. I knew it was a matter of time before he pulled the trigger, and wanted to get close enough to him so that, when he did, it fired in the only safe direction I could think of—toward the ground. Even that wasn’t great—there were rooms below and pipes in the foundation—but it was better than a hull breach.

“Geoff,” I said, as calmly as I could manage. “Geoff, you don’t want to fire that thing. It’s not going to solve anything, and the ball will go right through the wall and the next wall and out through the hull, and there will be a breach—“

“You’re not sending me back down there,” Geoff said, and fired—and, stupid me, now I knew that there was more to Geoff than just a self-involved, obtuse, incompetent middle-aged corporate executive. That the reason he was on Mars might have more to do with what he had been doing on Earth—and the ongoing investigations into Life on Mars, Inc.—than any real change he was supposed to, or had been planning, to effect up here.

It felt a little pressure, though no pain. I heard the pulse capacitor release and the light click of the trigger, but there was no other sight or sound to it. But there was blood, and a near perfect hole, roughly a half-inch in diameter, about a half-inch under my left collar bone, right in the middle. I couldn’t see it, but I knew there was an almost identical hole in my back. And in the wall behind me.

I dropped like a sack of potatoes, and Geoff fired again, and though I was fading fast I do know the shot wasn’t but a foot from my head, and it, too, went through the wall, through the thigh of Park Randall who had been waiting outside, then the next wall, then the next. Then the door opened, and Geoff fired again, and again, but could not control his weapon.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is only through the grace of God that, even though I was bleeding both inside and out and felt like I was drowning, that I could see my dear, sweet Jori breaking Geoff’s arm with a power prod. He got off one more shot—I wasn’t sure where he had hit her, then, but it turned out to be her knee—but the gun dropped and the woman didn’t miss a beat. She fell and grabbed his legs and pulled him down, rolled over on him, and started driving her elbow into his nose. Then his neck. The alarm started sounding then, and I heard the warning system announcing the hull breach. After that, I blacked out, but as I did I thanked God, because I knew He had sent this woman into my life. Because the way I felt about her—the way I loved her—defied any other explanation. And because He had sent her, I knew I would live. That we all would.

◊◊◊

Geoffrey Lincoln had not been entirely candid with us. He had lobbied vigorously for the Mars position—he hadn’t been drafted, forced to come up and fix things because of our ineptitude. He hadn’t come up with the intent of getting us online faster, either—at least, not for the benefit of the Life on Mars project. He had been sent up—as far as corporate was concerned—to quietly shut us down, start evacuating, and either leave a skeleton crew—ala Little Moscow—or abandon the site, and the hundred of billions of dollars in investment it represented, entirely. Only Geoff had never intended to come back down. Given a choice between prison on Earth and prison on Mars, he had picked Mars.

The evacuations had been to start with the families—I’m not sure why, maybe he thought that would be easiest, or the families would be the most cooperative, or that they’d represent the least difficulty to the company initially from a legal standpoint, given the clear violation of company policy. Or maybe he thought they’d represent the greatest danger to him, when he decided to take things over. But he hadn’t meant to stop there. Going through his papers afterwards, it had been clear that he had meant to get everybody out. Including the 280 new recruits, who had only ended up on Mars because the management of Life on Mars, Inc. didn’t think they could stop it without attracting unwanted attention. From everything I’ve seen, it appears that the company had still been planning to keep the project moving forward until less than a week before Geoff Lincoln showed up. The day we got the message he was coming was the day that Life on Mars, Inc. had decided to close up shop. Everything from the new programs to the Jumbotron in the warehouse to the inspections and reviews was busy work and bullshit to keep us busy and distracted. From Life on Mars, Inc’s real agenda, but also from Geoff Lincoln’s real agenda.

Not that he hadn’t really been worried about the power plants and the moisture extractors and the water recyclers. I think he had probably wanted to make sure that he had a livable environment, and water, and power, when the axe came down and he become the Mars colony skeleton crew. He knew the US government would not pursue him to Mars.

Once the probes had started, he had apparently seen the writing on the wall, and had “volunteered” to oversee the shutdown. What his long term plans were, I don’t know. What, if anything, he had planned for the wife and kids he had left on Earth, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. When he returned to Earth, he was indicted for embezzling over a hundred million dollars from Life on Mars, Inc., tax evasion, and a dozen or so counts of fraud. As the story came out—and all of us on the colony followed it with great interest, thanks to our laser-relay connection to the Earth network through Little Moscow—it became clear that Geoff was one of three top executives who had been looting the company, funding their own opulent lifestyles with the grants and funding from both the Gates Foundation and the US Government.

It was all about the money, of course. It turned out that our requisitions hadn’t been ignored. Every requisition from pharmsynths and water recyclers to blankets and toilet paper had been received and budgeted for, sometimes lavishly—it was just that the items never got here, acquired by the company and then sold on the black market or on eBay. Other requisitions were authorized and converted into cash allocations, and we never got any crates of money, so I can guess where that went.

Although, to be fair, it wasn’t all Geoffrey Lincoln. Going through Geoff’s PDA and laptop, it became clear that he hadn’t known at the time—even when deciding to make a break for Mars—that he had had so much company in his embezzlement. His own desperate speculation as to what had happened to the water recyclers and oxygen scrubbers and soymeal and other critical supplies he had signed off on while on earth, yet somehow still hadn’t made it up to the colony, was proof enough of that. He had been looting the shipments, yes, but so had at least one other executive and, taking their cue from management, a dozen of the frontline warehouse and procurement people.

Life on Mars, Inc, had been rotten to the core.

Data on their grant applications had been forged, and a number of reports had been altered. Research scientists with copies of their original reports to Life on Mars, Inc., had their work subpoenaed, and it became clear that the company had altered the data and redacted criticisms of the program when filing the same reports with the government and the Gates Foundation. All the top people got indicted, and Life on Mars declared bankruptcy. Geoff along with three other top executives, are serving 5 year prison sentences that will probably be commuted. I pray for Geoff. Prison life is hard, I know. But it is often only when a person is broken and humbled that they are truly ready to receive the grace of God in their life. It was true for me, at any rate.

I’ve only been shot one time in my life, and that was by Geoff with his railgun. You’d think the superheated molten steel would cauterize the wound but, unfortunately—at least at close range—the bullet goes through so fast that there just isn’t time. There was a lot of internal and external bleeding, just from that one hole. They finally stopped the blood loss, but I went into a coma, and if they hadn’t gotten me on the suborbital and over to Little Moscow, I would have died. If Jori hadn’t had the presence of mind, even with a quarter-sized hole blown through her knee, to make sure they brought Dr. Rogers with us, I might have died as well, as none of the four Russians were physicians.

The hull breaches were minor, and were repaired. Jori, Park and I were treated for our wounds, and recovered completely. It was decided—and I certainly concurred, though after the fact—that Geoff could wait until he got back to Earth to receive his medical attention.

The “Declaration of Severance”—our little Martian Declaration of Independence—was met with a yawn. Most of the people on Earth didn’t care. Even though we had been careful to word it so that it was extremely friendly to the US and the rest of Earth, the Federal government did not acknowledge our independence or even our existence—one politician characterized our declaration of severance as akin to the workers on an oil platform declaring themselves a sovereign island nation. The opportunity was seized on by Russia and Japan, however, who both chose to recognize our tiny colony as an “Independent Martian Nation” within twenty-four hours of each other. Germany and France soon followed suit, and when the UN voted to recognize the Martian colony as a sovereign nation, only the US, Australia and the UK abstained.

Not everyone wanted to stay, of course. Many of the new recruits and some of the old-timers had no interest in taking up permanent residence on the Martian frontier. More than half the new recruits went back down in the ship they came on, with Geoff Lincoln in tow. The rest of the new and old that decided a permanent life on Mars was not for them were evacuated on the last ship the company ever sent up—once the one-hundred and fifty armed guards aboard failed to subdue us. There was some bloodshed and five deaths—two on our side, three on theirs—but we managed to get the situation under control. After that, NASA stopped authorizing flights from Life on Mars, Inc., and its affiliates and subsidiaries, grounding them permanently. The videos we shot of their Gestapo tactics and sent back to the news media on Earth helped in that decision, I think. After it was all said and done, the colony population came in at 987—with five more already cookin’ in the oven, as they say.

Our relations with the Russian colony are excellent. We are in discussions with the Russian government to trade the time and effort of our constructions crews for needed supplies. The cost of shipping materials back to Earth isn’t worth it for them, and there is a growing interest from Russia in seeing New Moscow completed–if for no other reason than to put America to shame. Our construction crews are here—permanently—and up to the task, and I expect that work will start within the next few months. Great goodwill continues between our two colonies, and we have recently managed regular contact with the Japanese colony. Soon, I hope to meet them in person.

◊◊◊

“Vlachko!” I said. “How are you, you old dog?”

There was a time lag as the phone signal bounced through the satellite connection. I didn’t mind. It was nice just to be able to talk to people not in the colony, any time I wanted.

“I am well,” he said. “I applaud your nationhood. With very little blood shed, except, perhaps, for yours. Most admirable.”

“Yes. I’ve been meaning to thank you for your gift. The Bible. It was very thoughtful.”

“I was not sure if you could use it or not. But I am glad that it could be of service to you. You should keep it close at hand—for the future. You never know.”

“No, you never do,” I said. “I will miss our talks. And your shipments. I never did get my power cable—“

“You will, you will,” he assured me. “The Nation of Japan has kindly signed a new contract with Russospac. We will be making our first shipment next month. I believe there will be sufficient fuel to stop by your base, as well—indeed, it was insisted upon. I think you will be surprised by the donations and gifts pouring in on your behalf. There are many people who greatly desire your success.”

“That’s good news. It will be good to see you again.”

“And I, you. Speaking of good news, is what I have heard true? You are getting married?”

“Next week,” I said. “I don’t believe it, either.”

“Robbing the cradle, too,” he said respectfully. “You are a man after my own heart. But I thought women distracted you from God. The buttocks and the bosoms and the long slender limbs. Their full, wet lips like succulent fruit—“

“I get the point,” I said. “Yes, women are distracting. I don’t deny it.”

“So what happened?”

“God sent me a woman,” I said. “Or sent me to her. Either way, what am I going to do?”

“If you do not know what to do with a woman by now, there is nothing I can tell you that will help,” he said, and laughed.

I laughed, too. “Don’t worry. I think I can manage this by myself.”

◊◊◊

“By the power vested in me by the New American Commonwealth of Mars,” said Reverend Ned, “I pronounce you man and wife. You may now kiss the bride.”

I did. Jori was radiant, in her makeshift wedding dress that some of the girls from section 5 had sewed for her, using bolts of fabric graciously supplied by our Russian friends. I was wearing a suit that was decades out of date, and didn’t fit well besides, which had also come from Little Moscow. But I looked like a groom, and Jori was a radiant bride, and that was what was important.

I had kissed her before—stealing kisses, really—but it had never been this sweet. Because now we were joined by God, in the eyes of God, and what God had joined no man would separate. This was for life.

Jori had already had her sterility reversed, and so had I. I had also stopped taking the libido suppressants two weeks before, and it felt like they had finally worn off completely. We were going to honeymoon in Little Moscow, in a room with king-sized bed and clean satin sheets and a Jacuzzi tub. It had been nearly eight years since I had been with a woman, but I wasn’t too worried. I felt God had sanctified this relationship in a way he had sanctified nothing else in my life. There would be trials and tribulations, struggles and hardship, I knew. But our love, forged in the furnace of life by the flame of God’s power, would outlast them all.

Reverend Ned, per our request, invoked both God and Jesus in the ceremony, and did it without wincing. He approved heartily of our selection of 1 Corinthians 13 to close the ceremony, and read it with a resonance and conviction he rarely seemed to manage during his church services.

“’If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,’” he read. “’And if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

“’Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’

“God bless you both, and Amen.”

“Always Perseveres” became the official motto of the colony. We’re down to 41 Christians now, including Jori and myself, but the entire room erupted with applause at the end, and a few weeks later when I suggested the motto, it got unanimous approval. Some things just transcend theological boundaries.

After the ceremony, we celebrated in the warehouse, because it was the only place that had enough room to accommodate everyone who had wanted to come.  The stadium screen hanging across the back wall was re-running the video of the wedding ceremony, and Jori and I danced to music that we couldn’t hear over the white noise of the crowd.

“Gotcha,” Jori said. “Told you I would.”

I just had to nod my head in agreement. “Yes. Yes, you did.”

After I while, Yu Po cut in to dance with Jori, and Laila swooped in to fill in the gap with me. “Cradle robber,” she said. “She could be your daughter.”

I shrugged. “She’s not.”

“You are hopeless,” she said with a smile. “Hopeless and worthless.” She stopped moving to the music and then stepped on my foot. “Hurt her in any way, and you’ll be eating your meals through a tube in your throat for the rest of your life. Understood?”

I inhaled sharply. She was bearing down hard. “Normally, you’re just supposed to wish the newlyweds congratulations.”

“Congratulations on still getting to eat solid food. So far,” she said, and, with a wink, walked off.

Jori and I were getting ready to head down to the hangar to depart for our honeymoon in Little Moscow, when the call came. The crowd had been dissipating for some time, and Margaret had already gone back up to the main office. So she was the first to get the news.

“We’ve got a call,” Margaret said. “I think I’m seeing it, but I don’t believe it.”

“What? Is something wrong?”

“Not as such. Switch the video feed over to the phone—I think you need to see this.”

I motioned to Giorgio, who was manning playback of the wedding videos on the Jumbotron, to switch the feed over to the phone. With a blip, Margaret’s head, two stories tall, abruptly filled the screen.

“Yikes,” I said, laughing. “You’ve got a big head.”

“There you are,” she said, and leaned forward. “Take a look at this.”

The screen went black, and then there was static. Then a picture came in. At first, there was too much snow and fuzz to see it clearly, but after a moment I could make out three people jumping around excitedly. I could hear a heavy, staccato clacking and popping, like firecrackers going off. And I heard excited conversation and exclamations that I couldn’t understand, but I thought it was in Japanese.

“It’s the Japanese colony,” Jori said. “What’s wrong? Is there a problem?”

Yu Po walked over slowly, eyes fixed on the screen, his head cocked. “No, there is no problem,” he said. “They are quite pleased with themselves.”

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s the noise? That’s not static.”

“No,” Yu said. “They are saying—let me see—‘We did it, we did it, it is done. It is raining, it is rain, we make the rain’. Or, ‘we have made rain’, I should say.”

On the screen, one of the figures—I think it was Susumi Kuwabara– approached, his head ballooning into a blurry, excited mass on the Jumbotron. “Hello, Americans!” he said. “It is raining on Mars! We have done it! Done it!”

“What the hell are you guys talking about?” I shouted. “What ‘rain’?”

He grabbed the phone camera and pointed it towards one of their windows, where white blots and gray dots danced crazily, some sticking, some disappearing immediately. There were even some trails that looked like rain water dripping down the glass. The cracking noise grew louder.

“We have been very busy,” Susumi said. “Modify our extractors—we drill down—you see the frozen rain and hail—injecting heated moisture into air as vapor, it condenses, falls back down on us—that is the noise you hear. It freezes quickly, but it works—it works! Much water this way. Can do much, much more!” He laughed, turning the phone camera back to its original position, and went back to the group. He then proceeded to pour what looked to be a bottle of plain water on their heads.

“Holy shit,” Jori said. “Oops. Sorry. But still. Damn.”

“I didn’t even think they were working on that,” Park said. “I thought that was just a lab. Industrial stuff. Why do they care about terraforming?”

I shrugged. Who knew? What I did know was that the day I got married, the one thing I had been absolutely sure I would never do again, the thing I had been sure would never happen was—albeit on a very small scale—actually happening. It was raining on Mars. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? He can sure as Hell prove a man wrong.

“So what now, boss?” Margaret asked, her voice drowning out the exultations of the Japanese colony. “What are we going to do?”

I looked at Jori, and she gave me a big, toothy grin. “What are we going to do, boss?” she asked, cocking her head. “Now that there’s rain on Mars?”

I kissed her forehead. “It ain’t raining where we’re going.”

Jori waved at the Jumbotron. “There ya go! I hear a king-sized bed and a Jacuzzi calling me. See you suckers in a week.”

“Send them our congratulations,” I said as we headed for the door. “Offer them any help they need. And say, ‘Goodbye, Jack, I really loved your wedding, and I hope you enjoy your honeymoon that your leaving for right now.’”

The feed from the Japanese colony disappeared, and Margaret’s giant head returned. “Goodbye, Jack,” she said sheepishly. “I really did like the ceremony. It was really good. Have a great honeymoon. I love both you guys.”

And with that, my new wife and I left for Little Moscow.

 mars_21


Crying Angel

January 7, 2009

hammarby_angel_statue

Bobby Forrestor stood in the frozen air, his breath cold, white steam. He was standing there, a few feet from his truck, back arched slightly, his head tilted-up and cocked to the side, like he was trying to smell something. He had been standing like that, just sniffing the air or whatever it was he was doing, for almost fifteen minutes now. There was no question anymore, Joel thought. Bobby was getting weird.

“Mmmmmmh,” he hummed, a long, low, pained sound–even the littlest things about him were now seeming very weird to Joel. For the first time in what seemed way too long to Joel, Bobby changed positions, letting his body relax a little as he shook a cigarette out of its pack. “It’s coming,” he said suddenly, his voice dreamy and far away, the way it had been all night. “I feel it.”

Joel sucked at a bottle of Southern Comfort he had lifted from his dad’s liquor cabinet that afternoon. He hated the stuff but enough of it got him drunk and that was what was important. Joel shook his head at the bottle, rubbing his forehead. He was sweating. It was twenty degrees outside now, and getting colder–but he was sweating. I’m getting sick, he thought. I’m gonna die. And Bobby’s getting weird.

“Bobby,” Joel said after the silence had grown too long to stand much longer. His voice sounded cracked and strained in the cold, so he started over again, trying to make his voice a little more steady. “Bobby,” he said. “I’ve had enough of this shit. Come on.”

“Hmmm?” Bobby hummed back at him–he had done that almost every time Joel had asked him something during the past two hours, and it was driving Joel nuts. Bobby never hummed when anybody asked him anything. “What the fuck you want?” That was Bobby. “You fucking talking to me?” That was Bobby, that was the way he talked to everybody, even his mom. “Hmmm?” Yhat wasn’t Bobby. That weird, dreamy voice wasn’t Bobby. Sitting out in the freezing cold for two hours for no goddamned reason wasn’t Bobby, either. It was just bullshit, and Joel was getting sick of it.

“We’ve been here two fucking hours,” Joel said. “That’s enough. Let’s get out of here.”

“No,” Bobby said, leaning back against the side of his pick-up. He pulled an old, stainless steel cigarette lighter out of his front pocket, flipping it open. “Not yet. I haven’t seen her move.”

“And you’re not gonna,” Joel said. His tone was a lot sharper than he meant it to be, but he couldn’t help it–he was getting pissed. “It’s a fucking piece of rock. Rock don’t move. It just sits there–like that goddamned piece of rock has been sittin’ there for the last two hours and will keep sitting no matter how long we look at it. Come on, man. I’m freezing my ass off. Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.”

“She cries,” Bobby said, looking seriously up at Joel. He was lighting his cigarette. “I’ve heard her.”

Joel put the bottle of Southern Comfort to his lips and took a few swallows, wiping his forehead with his hand. He didn’t know what to say. Bobby was getting weird. Deeply weird.

“She’ll move,” he said, drawing deeply on his cigarette. “For us–for me, she’ll move. You understand?”

Joel drank some more. “Let’s just go, okay?”

Bobby didn’t answer that time. Joel thought he could see everything he said going in one ear and right out the other–nothing was hitting home with Bobby now. Not the cold, not how much time they had wasted and were still wasting, not how late they had been up, not how stupid–and how weird–what Bobby was doing was in the first place–none of it was getting through. He just turned away, looking back to the angel.

“Come on, man,” Joel persisted. Lack of sleep, too much alcohol, and having wasted the best part of the weekend sitting and staring at a fucking statue–it was all really pissing him off. “Grave yards weird me out, man. I mean, it’s fun if you want to come, get drunk, spray paint some shit, lift a headstone or two, maybe bust up some junk–but sitting for two hours looking at some stupid decoration is fucking ridiculous–”

“Shut up,” Bobby said. “You don’t understand. I didn’t think you would.”

“Shit,” Joel said. “I’ll tell you what I understand. I understand that we’re in a fucking graveyard at two in the morning when we could’ve been out–out doing something. I understand that if one of our friendly state troopers happens by and sees us with a fucking truck in the middle of a private cemetery we’re gonna be spendin’ the rest of the weekend looking at the world from behind bars–”

“Joel,” Bobby said.

“–and I understand that you’re being fucking weird. A cemetery, man? Staring at a statue? What the hell’s wrong with you, man?”

“She cries,” Bobby said.

“Uh huh,” Joel said, gulping down the rest of his Southern Comfort and then climbing out of the truck bed. “Watch your fucking angel. I’m going home and getting some sleep.” Joel turned around, starting for the gate.

“Joel,” Bobby said.

“What?” Joel asked back, heading away.

“She’s moving,” he said.

“Goddammit,” Joel swore, stopping and turning around with a jerk. “Goddammit, Bobby, it’s a fucking statue!” He heard a quiver in his voice that he didn’t like–it was almost a squeak. He had been drinking too much. “Statues don’t move! I don’t know where in hell you’re getting this shit–”

“From her,” he said, looking up at the angel. “I told you.”

“Yeah,” he said, blinking back. “Shit. Statue. Piece of rock.”

“She’s crying,” Bobby said, no longer smoking his cigarette, just squeezing it between his fingers and letting it smolder away. “She always cries. She’s so sad.”

Joel continued standing where he was, almost swaying on his feet, a sudden feeling of nausea wrapping itself around his stomach and squeezing tight. He had sucked down that Southern Comfort too fast and had started moving too much too soon–he was getting sick. “Bobby,” he said. “Come on. I’m getting sick. I’m really getting sick now. And it’s so fucking cold. Let’s go. You’ve watched your goddamned statue long enough.”

“No,” Bobby said. He stabbed out his cigarette against the heel of his boot. “It’s not time.”

“Time?” Joel asked. “Shit. You want me to puke all over your fucking angel? Time? It’s past fucking time. Let’s go. I’m getting sick, man. I’ve got to get home–”

Joel was shaking his head, looking down for a moment, as if studying his boots. “She’s sad,” he said. “She’s so sad.”

“And I’m sick!” Joel began to advance on the truck, suddenly screaming that fact with a drunken, nausea-born righteousness. “I’m sick! I’m sick! I need to fucking puke! I’ve spent the whole goddamned night sitting in the back of your stupid fucking truck looking at a piece of rock for some goddamned brain game and then you start weirding out on me like some fucking psycho out of some cheap-ass movie–”

“She moved,” Joel said. “For me.” He shook his head. “I can’t leave now.”

Joel involuntarily let his gaze move to the statue and then immediately pulled it back. Rock was rock, and rock didn’t move. But Bobby did, and Joel wasn’t so sure now that Bobby wasn’t getting dangerous. “Shit,” he said, shambling forward. “What do I keep telling you? Man, this is so much fucking–”

“You don’t understand,” Joel started saying again. What was this bullshit? “You don’t understand.” What was that? What had happened to “Fuck off, dickless”? Where was “I don’t have to listen to this fucking shit, man”? What the hell was going on?

“Man,” Joel started, still ambling clumsily back towards the truck. “Would you fucking listen to yourself, man? Would you listen to what you’re saying? Do you have any idea how weird you’re being–” Joel tripped over his shoelaces, thudding hard against the packed earth. “Ow, shit,” Joel said from the ground. “I’m sick, man. My stomach’s broken. Let’s get out.”

“Not yet,” Bobby repeated. He made no move to help Joel. It seemed to Joel that Bobby hadn’t even noticed that he had fallen. “It’s not time,” he said. “But soon. But soon.”

“Aw, shit, man,” Joel said, but he couldn’t make himself say anymore. The vacuum in his gut suddenly got too strong. The burgeoning nausea returned with a vengeance, and Joel seriously thought he was about to puke all over himself. Shit, he thought. Puking up Southern Comfort in a fucking graveyard, when there’s all those cute blondes down at Ed’s Bar. He sighed, just barely, his gut aching emptily with the effort. Life’s so much fucking bullshit.

2017204934_ab4c36a7e1

“She hurts,” Bobby said after a while. “She hurts so bad. That’s why she cries. Because she hurts.”

Joel felt hard, cold ground against his back, and wondered if he was going to pass out. “Enough,” he said, but it was a whisper, and he knew Bobby hadn’t heard. Just lately, Bobby didn’t seem to be hearing even when he screamed.

“She’s so alone,” Bobby went on, apparently oblivious to the fact that Joel was lying on the ground and freezing his ass off. “She’s so, so alone. And it’s funny, because there are so many people around her. Everywhere you look, there are people. Mostly old people–but there are younger people here, too. Even babies. But still, she’s so lonely. Even with so many people all around her, she’s lonely. You know why she’s lonely, Joel, even with all these people? It’s because they’re dead. All the people are dead.” Bobby sighed, and it sounded crazy–a stage sigh, over-done, dramatic. “And so she’s lonely,” he continued solemnly after a moment. “She hurts. She cries. She’s so sad.”

“Enough,” Joel repeated, and this time it was louder. He pulled himself up. He didn’t feel any pain. He felt cold, though–he was freezing and sweat was dripping down his forehead. “Enough,” he said again, louder still. The air was coming back, and the vacuum in his gut started filling up with rage. He was really, really pissed. “I’m sick of this bullshit,” he said, and then he was standing. “I’m sick of all this.” He felt nausea tickling the back of his throat. “I’m just sick, period.”

“Joel–”

“I’m sick, I’m tired, I’m drunk, I’m freezing, and I’m really, really pissed,” Joel paused a second, looking seriously at Bobby. “We’re leaving, Bobby. Right now.”

“It’s not time.”

“‘It’s not time, it’s not time,'” Joel mimicked. “‘You don’t understand.'” He was at the truck now, holding onto the side for support. “Fuck you, man. Fuck you and your fucking ‘It’s not time, I don’t fucking understand,’ man–I’m sick of it.” He moved over to the rear of the truck, walking up to Bobby. “Keys, man,” he said, holding out his hand. “Now.”

“It’s not time,” Bobby started again. “Soon–very soon–but not–”

“Give me the fucking keys!” Joel shouted, grabbing Bobby by the collar of his jacket and swinging him against the truck. The move was clumsy and weak, but had its effect all the same. Bobby was paying attention to him now–a lot more than he had any other time over the past few hours. “I’ve explained about rocks and why they don’t move,” Joel said. He was breathing fast now and he could feel the oxygen hitting his brain. It felt good. “Now let me tell you something else–if you don’t get your fucking act together real quick and give me the goddamned keys I’m gonna break your fucking skull.”

“Joel–”

“Give me the goddamned keys!”

“Joel,” Bobby repeated forcefully, suddenly slapping Joel hard across the face with the backside of his hand. “We can’t go. It’s not time–”

Joel shook his head, feeling the sting on his cheek even through the veil of numbness the Southern Comfort had bought him. “You hit me,” Joel said, staring wide-eyed at Bobby. “You hit me.”

“It’s for your own good,” Bobby said slowly. Like a patient parent, carefully correcting an errant child. “You don’t understand–”

“You hit me,” Joel repeated, and swung his elbow up into Bobby’s face. He heard the sound it made, like a two-by-four splitting in half. The sleeve of his coat came back red. “Shit. You think I’m joking?” he asked, and then did it again, harder. “Think I’m kidding with you? I’m fucking sick of this, man.” He looked at Bobby’s suddenly scarlet-smeared face. His nose was already swelling with an ugly, discolored bruise and blood spilled down across his lips. But there was no look of pain on his face, no expression of shock. His eyes were as hard and bright as ever–clear and cold and calm, like his voice when he spoke.

“That wasn’t necessary,” Bobby said. “That really wasn’t. I’m just trying to–show you something. That’s all I’m trying to do. To help.”

Joel hefted his elbow back up into Bobby’s face again. The blow was hard and fast, and Joel had to wince–he felt it that time. But Bobby didn’t do anything–he just stood there, his back against the truck, staring at Joel. “Come on, man,” Joel said, looking back into his friend’s bloody face. “Come on–you started this. You started all of this. If you wanna have it out, then let’s have it out–if you don’t, then just give me the goddamned keys.”

Joel drew back his elbow again, more as a threat than anything else–the idea that he might actually be doing Bobby some serious–maybe permanent–damage was beginning to slowly work it’s way through the anger and the alcohol. There was a whole lot of blood now, and Bobby didn’t look so hot. Still, his voice carried over to Joel, lucid and dreamy in the darkness of the graveyard. “There’s nothing to be so upset about,” Bobby said through a mouthful of blood. It dribbled down his chin. “It’ll be okay. It’s almost time.”

“Just give me the keys,” Joel ordered again. He jammed his hand down into Bobby’s jacket pocket, and came out with an empty matchbook, some quarters, and a three-pack of generic condoms. He threw it all on the ground. “Keys,” he repeated.

“She’s moving,” Bobby said, and smiled. “I told you.”

“It’s a fucking piece of rock,” Joel said, shoving his hand down into the other jacket pocket. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, some gum, and a broken pencil, all of which he immediately tossed aside. He looked seriously into Bobby’s face. “Keys,” he said again. “Or I’m gonna walk over there and turn your fucking angel into gravel.”

“You can’t,” Bobby said, still smiling his bloody smile. “It’s time. It’s now.”

“Shit,” Joel said, his anger suddenly peaking again. He grabbed Bobby’s head and slammed it down against the side of the truck, watching as his body went limp, sliding down the rest of the way, his face leaving a bloody smear down the side of the truck. Joel bent over him, and started going through his pants pockets. A comb–that stupid butterfly knife he had always been cutting his thumb on–some loose change and spent disposable lighter–Joel had a lot of stuff on him, but there were no keys.

“Shit,” Joel said, his gaze briefly, involuntarily, raising up to the statue. It was still as it had been for the last two-and-a-half hours. The way it would always be. Still. It was just a piece of rock, and no matter how weird Bobby wanted to get, he wasn’t going to change that. It was what it was, and that was all. Joel went through Bobby’s pockets two more times before it occurred to him to look in the truck’s ignition.

The keys were there.

Joel shoveled Bobby roughly into the back of the truck. He was feeling sore and cold and nauseous and didn’t want to worry about it–Bobby could ride in the back. He wouldn’t mind the cold.

The truck took some coaxing, but it started, crankily coming to life. Joel looked back briefly to where Bobby lay, still unconscious, and then threw the truck into reverse. He groped aimlessly beside the steering column for a moment until he found the headlights, and then turned them on. The gray marble of the angel and the ornate pedestal she was perched on suddenly turned white in the light of the truck’s highbeams. And the angel looked up.

Joel felt something cold thud in the pit of his stomach–something cold and terrible. He shook his head, looking away and then back, his mouth suddenly going dry.

The angel was holding her arm across her eyes, shielding them from the light. Joel shook his head again, blinking. The nausea was coming up again, so powerfully that he could smell it, that he could feel it filling up his nose and tickling the back of his mouth. He blinked, shaking his head, as the angel lowered her arm, looking at him. He could see the icy tears sliding down her hard, white cheeks, her sad, pupiless eyes leaking frozen drops. Her wings stretched, extending to their full span, as her arms reached out to him.

“Shit,” Joel said, slamming his foot down on the accelerator. The truck shot backwards, knocking over two headstones and sideswiping the gate. “Shit,” he repeated as he pulled out with the gas-pedal down to the floor. “No fucking way am I going nuts over a fucking piece of rock. No fucking way.”

Not even thinking about looking back, Joel turned, put the truck in forward, and pulled out onto the highway, leaving the angel alone and crying.

angel_statue


Progress

January 7, 2009

Rat wasn’t dead.

He wasn’t dead, but he might as well have been.

Rat knew he wasn’t dead, because he could feel his heart thud, he could feel blood pulse at his temples and behind his eyes, because he could feel all those hectic, meaningless thoughts flying around in between his ears, hot and electric and beating at his skull in wordless fury. He knew he wasn’t dead because he could feel the gash up the side of his leg burning with white fire, deep and bloody and crawling with pain. He could feel the blood and mucus crusted under his no se, he could feel the soreness, the dull aches that consumed his muscles and pulsed with endless, vague pain, like old friends suddenly turned bitter and moody, who now refused to do anything more than sit there and brood. Rat knew he wasn’t dead because he could feel the night wind pushing softly against him, cool and sweet and empty, like the touch of a corpse.

Rat wasn’t dead, and he really didn’t care.

He just kept walking.

The man who called himself Rat–or had been named Rat; he could no longer remember which was the case–walked on, ignoring the pain, like he always did. The best that he could, that was. He kept walking, down the ditch, heading the way the sun set, with only the vaguest feeling that there was a reason he was doing it. Maybe there wasn’t a reason–wouldn’t’ve been important, if there wasn’t. Wouldn’t’ve been important if there was. He was just doing it, and that was all there was to it, now. Down there, in the ditch–that huge, endless canyon of concrete and steel–that was all there was to anything. Just walking. Just staying alive. Or dying. Either way, it didn’t matter.

Rat stopped, sure he hadn’t walked far at all but stopping just the same, looking down at his leg, granting a cursory glance at the wound that burned him, making walking harder and harder. He wasn’t sure where he had gotten it–he couldn’t remember, but the wound was fresh, so he couldn’t’ve gotten it that long ago —

The dog, he remembered suddenly, feeling a faint flicker of emotion that died faster than it had come, snuffed out before Rat could even begin to recognize it. He had killed a dog. He looked back, just able to make out the broken black mass now yards and yards behind, its body smashed against the cracked and worn concrete, its blood drawing a dark line down to the thin stream of water that was all the ditch ever held, glossy and clean in the frozen moonlight.

The dog.

Rat suddenly thought that he should go back. The dog was meat–the dog was food. And he was out canned ravioli, out of Roller Coasters and Spaghetti-Os. He had been for months. Since the last city, since the last store with anything left. Since the last urban exit out of the godforsaken ditch. He had eaten jerky, mostly dried ham and pork rind he had bought off an old woman in Newport, since then. A little rabbit, some squirrel, but mainly dried and cured pork that went down like salty shoe leather. There was a little cured beef in the bundle–at least, that was what the old woman had told him–but to Rat’s tongue, things all tasted the same. He just wanted to get rid of the gnawing in his gut, and the jerky never helped much. And he was almost out of that, too. But his knife was gone, and so was his flint–and he hadn’t seen sulfur tipped matches for a year. He had lost all of his salt. He had no pack and no sling, nothing to carry the dog in, nothing to skin it or carve it up with, nothing to cook it, and no way to preserve it. And it didn’t really matter, anyway.

So Rat kept on walking. Walking in the ditch.

The ditch was big. The ditch was long. Rat didn’t know how long he had been walking in it now, but except for the towns, the cities with exits, the few places where he had gotten out and foraged, all he had done for the last two seasons was walk in the ditch, between the walls of the concrete canyon. For the last several months–and therefore, in a way, forever–Rat had lived in the ditch, barely eating, barely sleeping, mostly walking. And fighting. Animals, mainly. Not many people. Not many people anywhere. Rat had few opinions about anything, but he could almost feel something stir at that thought, something deep inside, something that was almost an emotion, something that was almost strong. The thought that there was hardly anybody left–the thought that almost everybody was dead–the thought that the stinking, fetid cesspool that had called itself a civilization was now little more than a myth, if it had ever been at all–that thought was a strong one. It was one of the few really coherent thoughts in Rat’s brain.

What had been before, he knew of only vaguely. Of its death he knew even less. He only knew that it had been a long one. An enormously long one. What had done it, he didn’t know. Its murderer had left precious little evidence. No matter where he went, it was the same. No wounds, no cuts, no bruises on the earth’s dead flesh. Just decay. Just rot. Just the sweet, cold smell of a dead, dead world.

So Rat walked. So Rat lived. In the ditch.

The ditch. All he really knew about it was what the man had told him, the old man, sitting on a milk crate, cooking squirrels on a spit, his voice metallic and emotionless as he tried, with only marginal success, to teach Rat everything he knew. The old man–that small, ugly box where his jaw should have been, the muck-encrusted tube that he had had to eat and drink with dangling limply from his throat, a flaccid, rotting snake. The old man had told him much, but in the hot, buzzing gray matter in between Rat’s ears, very little had taken. Still, at least for now, he remembered that modulated, metal voice talking about the great river and the pollution that had clogged it, the dams that had choked it, the burning sun that had baked it dry. And about the men–the men that had come with their huge machines, the sort that Rat had occasionally seen, junked and useless and overgrown with dryweed, rusted the color of dried blood, lonely, brooding monuments to the dead men who had built them.

But back then, the old man had said, the machines had worked, and the men had built, laying concrete and steel along the valley the river had carved, and making new valleys of their own, stretching it, expanding it, building up to the old headwaters–by then, little more than arid, bone-white desert–and then taking it further. All for some plan, the old man had said. Back then, they had always had plans. Big plans. Plans to make everything better. Plans to improve the world, to make it all nice and clean and tidy and convenient for everybody–and, somehow, in the process, save it as well.

They had had plans, plans, and then more plans. And Rat could remember the old man spreading his arms, seeming to encompass the entire desolation that had surrounded them in that simple motion, as if he were embracing the entire landscape, and, at the same time, trying to throttle it. And he would tell Rat to look, to look all around, to look at what all those grand plans had wrought. He would tell Rat, in his flat, tin-can voice, to look at the wonderful world those big planners had made for them–to look at what they had inherited from their forefathers. It hadn’t taken war, it hadn’t taken bombs, it hadn’t taken missiles or clever little supergerms cooked up in the government labs, the man had told him, chest shaking and nostrils flaring, the ugly gray box in the cavern under his nose spit ting static–that was the way the old man had laughed. In fact, the old man would say, it hadn’t taken anything at all. They had done it without even trying.

The memory faded as Rat kept walking, leaving little imprint in his mind. Rat felt nothing for the old man. He might’ve, at one time, but he didn’t now. There was no need. The old man had died, just like Rat would, just like everything did. Even planets. Everything died, and it was mostly bullshit–that was probably the closest Rat had ever come to developing a philosophy. The old man had seemed to think it unbelievably funny, the way everything had gone. But Rat didn’t. It was just more bullshit. Like everything else. Like the gnawing in his gut and the still-bleeding gash across his leg. Like the dogs. Like the ditch. Like the walking. Like everything.

So Rat walked. Like the men who had built the sun-bleached, water-stained canyon he walked in, Rat had a plan. The plan was to walk. He would sleep soon. An hour, perhaps two, always lightly and always without dreams. Here, there was nothing left to dream about. And then, after he woke, he would walk some more.

After a mile, maybe two, Rat lay back against the ditch-canyon wall and slept.

◊◊◊

The morning was quiet and still, the way morning always was, the sky a violet and pink frame around a cold, orange sun, the air cool and scentless and moist with dew. Rat had been walking for a few hours–he had started well before sunrise, so it had been five hours at least. And now, in the distance, he could see a bridge spanning the long distance between the walls of the ditch. A big bridge. And that meant a city. This time, perhaps, a big city–a city with supplies, maybe. A city with a lot of supplies. There were still some, he knew–cities with food and clothing left over from before things had begun to fall apart, and even some, though decidedly few, with small, loosely-knit cultures that had created a limited industry of their own. Rat had little but baubles to use in the way of commerce, but, he decided, it didn’t matter much. If he couldn’t trade, he could work. And if he couldn’t work–well, whatever. What happened, happened. That was just the way it went.

And Rat walked on. The bridge couldn’t’ve been more than ten miles away, a distance he could cover easily in an two hours or so, and there was likely to be some sort of avenue into the city well before that–there almost always was. And that was good. He felt very light-headed, now. He had lost a lot of blood the day before, and had eaten next to nothing over the past few weeks. He needed food and rest and medicine, and the city would almost surely offer him that, one way or another. Perhaps there’d even be clean water, without the grit and mud he had become accustomed to in the ditch. Perhaps, somehow, there’d even be a reason to stop walking–to climb out of the man-made gorge and never come back. To leave it. To quit. Maybe there’d be a reason.

But Rat didn’t think there would be. He had decided to see this thing through to the end–that had been his plan for quite a while now–and nothing got in the way of progress. The old man had taught him that.

Rat thought about the man as the bridge grew larger and the city came closer, about the things he had said, about everything. Rat thought about the old man a lot–here, in the ditch, there was little else to do. And almost everything he knew–everything important, anyway–he had gotten from the old man. Where he had come from–from between the legs of a slut, the man had told him–and where he was going. Straight to Hell, the old man would say, and he had been right. He usually had been. The man had told Rat a lot. About everything. About how to kill, about how to die, about plans and progress–the man had told him about it all. He had been the only one there to tell Rat anything–he had been the only other human being that Rat had ever really known. There had been others–traders and panhandlers, tricksters and highwaymen, and others still that he had run across in his travels, but nobody else he had really known. For Rat, the old man was it.

Rat wasn’t dead, but the old man was really the only reason he had ever been alive at all. He had found Rat, or so he had said, in a garbage can–where the sluts would put their babies, if they lived through squeezing them out, the old man had told him. He had probably been in it for weeks before the old man had come by, but, where most babies got eaten by rats, that time the rats had gotten eaten by baby. And that was his name, Rat suddenly remembered. The old man had named him. Because of the story, the old man had said. Rat wasn’t sure if the story was true or not–rats were persistent bastards, and he had had to deal with a few over the past few months with less than favorable results. He doubted he would’ve fared better as a baby. And besides, they tasted bad–like spoiled meat, like rancid pork, even when they were fresh. So, no, it probably wasn’t true, he decided, but it really didn’t matter that much–

The dog came out of nowhere. Hardly ten yards behind him, it came at him, killing off the distance in seconds. It could’ve had him. Rat, caught up in thoughts about the old man, about the city ahead of him, would scarcely have noticed it. He was too light-headed, too tired, too thirsty, to pay much attention to any thing but the chaotic frenzy of thoughts inside his brain. But the dog–over-eager, the way the wild dogs often were–barked, losing the advantage of surprise. The second Rat heard it, he turned, mind shifting gears with smooth suddenness as the dog hurtled towards him. He lifted his hands up just as it jumped, grabbing the dog around the neck as it fell on him, jamming his fingers down hard on its wind-pipe. Paws thumped against his chest and stomach, claws raking at his shirt as the force of the thing’s weight sent him falling hard against the concrete. His thumbs slipped way from its wind-pipe as the back of Rat’s head met stone with a sickening whip-snap, filling his skull with hot, white pain. But he kept his hands around the dog’s throat, keeping his grip tight as he could, but not tight enough to do much damage. The black, snarling face came closer as Rat struggled to get his thumbs back where they could have some effect, so close Rat could make out the tiny cracks on its yellowed, worn-down teeth as it worked its jaw furiously, the fine grains of black dirt matted in its fur, the thick, white cataract covering one of its eyes. Rat could feel its claws tearing at his shirt, he could smell its hot, stinking breath crawling over his face, he could hear the loud, guttural, cracked sounds of its barking tearing at his ears. He could feel the fear, thick and cold and metallic, slithering around in his belly and freezing his skin–it was all there, so he knew he wasn’t dead, not yet. He was still in the fight.

After that, killing the dog was easy. It had him pinned, and, having had very little food over the past few weeks and all, Rat was weak. But he was still stronger than the dog. The dog worked its jaws and shook its neck violently, trying to get out from between Rat’s rough, scarred hands and sink its teeth into his flesh. Its head got closer, pushing insistently against Rat as he slid them up its throat, trying to get a grip on its jaw. Rat could feel dull, cracked teeth sinking into his fingers as he gripped its jaw, sliding out and then sinking back in as the dog chewed ravenously at his flesh. He felt a bone splinter as it bit down on his fingers again, then another, but the pain was dull and dreamy, hardly pain at all. Not enough to stop Rat. He took his free hand away from its throat, but the dog, too intent on gnawing at Rat’s fingers, didn’t seem to notice as the bloody hand it was chewing on tightened its grip around its lower jaw and his other and closed around its entire muzzle. Rat shifted, spreading out his legs and lifting them up, and then the dog must’ve known something was going to happen, because it quit biting and started to try and shake free, but Rat’s legs flew up and scissored its torso, holding it firm and giving him some leverage so he could break the thing’s neck. And once he had it, it was just a matter of a turn and a loud, wet crack, and it was over.

Rat lowered his legs, pushing the limp, lifeless body of the dog off of him, twisting its head around full circle as he did so, just to make sure. He shook his jacket off, knowing better than to waste any time now, and removed his shirt, tying it tight around his bloody, broken hand. Then he wrapped the jacket around his leg–the gash from the day before had come open when he was struggling with dog, and now it was bleeding worse than it had before. He didn’t like the idea of going for any length of time bare-backed in this sun, but his clothes were all he had to stop the blood and, besides, the city wasn’t far now. There’d be more clothes there, for sure. So, making sure the shirt was tight, he stood.

Rat wasn’t dead.

Not yet.

Rat knew he wasn’t dead because he could feel the sun, already hard and hot against his back, because he could feel the dull pain in his hand steadily turning into something much worse, because he could smell the sickly sweet, coppery scent of his own blood hanging in the air. So he wasn’t dead–he might as well have been, and he guessed it really didn’t make much difference if he was dead or not, but he wasn’t, so that was that. It was time to start moving.

Rat bent down to the dog, its head now turned backwards on its neck, lifting it up and setting it on his shoulders–it would protect his neck and shoulders and most of his back from the swiftly approaching noon-day sun, and if there was any opportunity to trade in the city, maybe he could use the dog. He wished he had a pack or a sling, but the city wasn’t far–he was pretty sure he could make it before he got too tired to carry the dog any further.

So, with the dog on his shoulders, the pain very present but really nothing more than distracting, Rat walked, and Rat made progress. 


Mud

January 7, 2009

tire-swing
It was a summer like the summer before: hot and long. Benjamin Jennet sat on the front porch with a slowly sweating bottle of Coke in one hand, a cigarette burning and forgotten in the other. Cripple lay at the foot of Benjamin’s chair, his wet, red tongue lolling in and out of his mouth as he panted futilely against the summer heat. Every three or four minutes, Cripple’s tail would weakly thump a few times against the old wood of the porch, and he would lift his head and look anxiously to Ben, as if somehow petting or perhaps even food might shortly be in the future. And then, when neither made itself apparent, Cripple would settle down for a few minutes more.

It was a ritual Mud knew by heart, and it didn’t hold his interest. There was very little else for Mud to do, though, but watch them, or the birds. In the thick heat of a mid-summer Saturday afternoon, movement wasn’t wise, and he did little of it. And even if movement had been possible, Mud knew there was no where he could go, and nothing he could do. There never really had been, not that he remembered. So, mostly, he just watched. But not the lame dog or its master. No, he watched the other one. He watched Lila.

Across from the house, about thirty yards out, stood an old shade tree, a towering, ancient thing that was slowly dying from nothing but age. The worn rubber tire and the rope that suspended it from one of the thick lower branches were both now more than a decade old, but bad rot had yet to settle into either of them, and they held. It was this tire that Lila occupied now, legs slipped through the center, thin white hands holding tightly to the rope as she rocked herself slowly in the shade. She hummed to herself as she rocked, a soft, eerie melody that made Mud feel sleepy, and she glanced at him, occasionally, with a small, knowing smile on her face—or perhaps just in her eyes. Long black hair hanging down her back, soft white skin cool and blue in the shade of the old tree, thin hands clutching at the old rope as she hummed her soft, sleepy tune—it made Mud want to get up, to go over, to touch her. To take her. To make her his.

But Mud couldn’t do that. Mud couldn’t leave the pit.

◊◊◊

It was evening, and Benjamin Jennet sat out on his porch; Cripple was asleep and snoring by his chair. Lila sat on the steps, her white terrycloth dress gathered up around her knees. She was playing jacks. She was too old to be playing jacks, as she was too old to be swinging from trees in tires—she was well into her sixteenth year, Mud knew, and that was too old for jacks.

How he knew that, he couldn’t say. Mud knew a great deal about a great many things, but they were just facts, pieces of knowledge without history or context—trees without roots. He knew, but he didn’t know how he knew—and he was never very sure what the things he knew meant. But he knew Lila was too old to be playing jacks. Still, the fact that she was, and the way the warm evening winds moved her hair and rustled her white summer dress, the movement of arm and torso, of head and neck, as she grabbed up another jack and threw down the ball again, fascinated Mud in a way he couldn’t explain. She sang to herself as she played. Mud strained, but he could not hear the words.

The sun rose, and then evening came again. Mud saw Benjamin with his clipped, white beard, his white summer shirt and pants, his fat evening cigar jutting from his mouth at an angle as he drew forth and let loose great billows of smoke, colored orange by the burning ember at the cigar’s tip. His Coke exchanged for brandy, he smoked and he drank as he watched the sunset and kept an eye out for the occasional visitor or salesman, or simple passerby. No one came this evening. It was rare that anyone came. Still, Benjamin sat and watched. But he never looked at Mud—he never even looked in Mud’s direction. Something had gone wrong in Benjamin Jennet’s mind, and Mud knew he was the one who had done it to him. But what precisely he had done, or how he had done it, he could not say. Trees without roots.

◊◊◊

It was Monday, and the sun was high. The old truck was gone from the gravel drive—Benjamin had gone to the city. Lila was inside the house, playing the old piano. The instrument wasn’t very good in the first place and was out of tune besides, but Lila had a gift for it, a gift that even Mud could sense. She played it with a grace and softness that made the sour chords and off-notes of the piano eerie and strangely haunting. He couldn’t see her, but he could hear the music, and he could imagine her thin, white fingers caressing the keys. Though Mud had, in fact, never actually seen a piano, he could imagine it, and the thought, and the sounds he heard, filled him with a burning sense of desire, and futility. To Mud, they were twins—desire and futility. There was never one without the other.

Mud wanted her to play something for him.

◊◊◊

It was evening and Benjamin was back. Mud didn’t sleep, but sometimes time went by very fast. Sometimes he would just sit and think and not know what he was thinking, and the hours, sometimes days—and, on occasion, even weeks—would disappear within a blink of an eye. Mud didn’t mind so much. He had plenty of time. He had nothing but time. Mud watched as the old truck moved haltingly past the gate and down the gravel drive. One headlight was out—had been for over five years—and the remaining one burned yellow in the night. The house was dark and Lila sat out on the porch with a lantern, humming to herself as she hugged her knees against the slight chill creeping into the evening air.

“Hello, Pa,” she said as Benjamin climbed up the steps and kissed his daughter. “How was sellin’?”

“All right,” Benjamin replied. “We’re gonna make it through the month.” He wiped his brow with a shirt sleeve. “Get me my cigarettes and brandy for me, will you? That’s a sweet thing.”

“Yes, Pa,” Lila said, and stood to go into the house.

“And my evening cigar. I think I might smoke it a little later.”

“Yes, Pa,” Lila said again, and she turned easily on her heel, and disappeared through the dark doorway.

Mud lay back in the pit, thinking about Lila’s hands tight around the neck of Benjamin’s bottle of brandy. He thought about her pouring a glass for him. He thought about kissing her, the brandy lingering on her breath, the taste clinging to her lips.

He thought of her humming, of her playing the piano.

◊◊◊

lila


“Hello there, Mudboy.”

It was noon. He looked up at Lila as she leaned against the fence post. The angle of her hips as she settled her weight on one foot, the thin white ankles beneath the flutter of white cotton, the strands of glossy black that stretched themselves across her face in the hot summer wind—Mud looked at her, and she smiled, almost sadly, her thin lips dark and wonderful. Her narrow chin, high cheekbones—the soft shadow at the hollow of her neck. Mud felt the burning, the futility. The twins, again.

“Do you come to court me, Mudboy?”

Mud felt a response was appropriate, so he tried to nod. He had never done so before—and, in fact, had never really seen it done. Still, he knew what it meant and tried to do it. But all he did was slosh around a little. At night, articulation was difficult—in the noon day sun, impossible. The mud became too hot, and it made him tired.

“Do you bring me flowers? Do you bring me candy? What do you bring me?”

Mud just watched her, not even making the attempt at a reply. What could he bring her? Why did she ask him the things that she did? He knew many things, but these—these things he did not know.

“Mudboy,” she said, and shook her head sadly. “Mudboy, didn’t you bring me anything at all? Don’t you know the first thing about courting a girl proper? Haven’t you ever been in love?”

Mud just looked at Lila silently, because Mud did not know. The question was not a new one, but the answer still wouldn’t come. Mud did not know if he had ever been in love. Mud didn’t even know what love was—or what, at any rate, it was supposed to be. In fact, the only thing Mud knew of love was the one thing Lila had taught him: that it was made from flowers and candy.

“A bouquet of roses—fifty red roses, smelling like a rich woman’s soap, and with all the thorns cut off—that’s what a boy gives a girl when he loves her.”

Mud tried to nod again, for as many times as she had told him this, he knew it must be true—but again, he just mainly sloshed around. His part in these conversations was never very large, and, on Lila’s part, the content was usually the same. But he followed the conversation with the same rapt attention that he always did. Her voice was soft and hypnotic, and the words always seemed so perfect. And she knew so much, so much that Mud did not. And her—the curve of her back as she leaned against the fence post, the way her body changed when she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. How far away was she? She was close enough that he could smell her. She smelled like sweat and dirt and cheap perfume. Mud knew the smell and knew what all these things were, but again there was no context. They were trees without roots, and Mud simply knew that he liked her smell. Did she smell like roses?

Mud wondered.

“He sends her flowers every day—if he loves her. Flowers and notes and cards, and sometimes money even. If he truly loves her, he does. And big boxes of chocolates—all sorts of chocolates, chocolates from Paris and New York and maybe even Denmark. I’ve heard they make wonderfully big boxes of chocolate in Denmark.”

Mud stared quietly at Lila as she leaned across the fence. He had never heard of Denmark.

“Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates—chocolates with brandy in them, and fancy liquors—from Europe and Denmark. And sometimes they share chocolates. She takes one, and holds it in her mouth, and then he takes a bite from it, and their lips meet. And then they kiss. They kiss for a wonderfully long time—one of those kisses that is so long you start hearing music somewhere. You really do. And he whispers in her ear—whispers things that don’t sound right any way but whispered. And then, that way, they sound beautiful. And then they make love—make love in a bed of rose petals.” She looked down seriously at Mud. “A bed of rose petals, Mudboy, every one smelling like a rich woman’s perfumed bath.”

Mud sloshed.

◊◊◊

It was evening, and Cripple was making a crooked run across the yard, his old, lopsided body making a pitiful attempt at chasing a bird. Benjamin Jennet surveyed his world, looking in every direction but the one where Mud lay. Cripple made an unbalanced leap at a fat sparrow and landed off to the side, on his face. He immediately got up again and loped merrily about the lawn in crooked circles, searching for more birds. Lila was back inside, fixing her father’s brandy and getting his cigarettes and evening cigar. Mud was moving, just a little. In the night, it was cooler, and he could always move a little more.

A little more. But it was never enough.

It was coming up on midnight, and Mud could hear the soft breathing coming from Lila’s room. Benjamin had long since retired and the moon was high. Her room was dark and the night was still, and Mud could hear her begin humming softly to herself with the creaking springs of her bed. It was at these times, more than at any other, that Mud wanted to go to her. To climb out of the pit, and go to her, to touch her—to satisfy some strange and inexorable need, though if the need was hers or his, he wasn’t sure. But he couldn’t go to her. Even if he had had the strength to climb out of his pit, he’d dry, he’d crack, he’d fall apart—he could barely last five minutes before he crumbled in the dust that he had come from.

Mud could never leave the pit.

◊◊◊

“Cakes and candies and pies,” Lila was telling him. “Dinner with wine and candles. I’d be in a beautiful black dress with sequins and a string of real pearls around my neck, and diamonds. Three diamond rings—one gold, one silver, and one circled with emeralds. Emeralds are such beautiful stones, don’t you think?”

It was a little after ten in the morning, and Mud had no answers. He didn’t know what emeralds were.

“Dinner with wine and candles,” she said dreamily, twisting around and stretching, hands clasped and held out to the sky, and Mud felt something ache inside. “Filet mignon and a man with a violin beside the table, playing his music slow and soft. Baked potatoes with sour cream and butter, a diamond choker around my neck. And that night, alone on the porch, we could share chocolates. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?”

Mud stared intently at Lila. Her skin—the soft sheen of sweat that glistened across her collar bone, the soft lilt of her voice that seemed to make her dreams into songs. She brushed long black hair out of her eyes, and smiled at him.

“Do you want to court me, Mudboy? Will you be my lover?”

◊◊◊

tire-swing-2

It was evening. Lila swung from the tire she was much too old for, humming to herself a soft, sleepy tune she would sometimes play on the old piano. Benjamin Jennet patted Cripple on the head and sucked on a Coke—it was late for a Coke, but Benjamin had been late getting back from town. Mud watched Lila swing, and wondered again what it would be like to be touched by her thin hands. He wondered, too, what it would be like to swing from that tire, what it might be like to play jacks. He wondered what it would be like to pet Cripple, or to drink a Coke, or to smoke a cigar, or to play the piano. He knew many things, somehow. But there were, he knew, many more things—too many things—he knew not at all.

The taste of chocolates. He wondered about this too.

◊◊◊

It was morning—early. Lila was showering in the stall behind the house. Benjamin Jennet walked his fields as Cripple hobbled along behind him. For a moment, at the top of the stall, Mud saw Lila’s glistening hands raise into the air and then lower again. He wondered, as he often had, how it would be to bathe, or to walk along the fields as Benjamin Jennet now did—but mostly, he wondered of Lila. Where could he get her roses and chocolates? How could he get them to her? Why did he want to so badly?

Questions, but no answers—feelings, but no reasons. Trees without roots. And there was nothing Mud could do. About anything.

That was, until it started to rain.

◊◊◊

Things changed with the rain. The summer rains were sparse, but they came, and they were sometimes heavy ones. But not like this. They had never been like this, not that Mud remembered. For a week it rained, drizzling at the very least and often coming down like a waterfall from the sky. The ground softened and soon was little more than a sponge filled to overflowing. Lila never came to talk with him. The sky had become so constant that Mud no longer had a way to tell when the gaps came, and so he had no way to judge time—but he knew it had been a long time since she had come out, and he missed her. He could never hear her over the rain—not her, not the piano, not anything. And though he often saw Benjamin Jennet and his lame dog out on the porch, Lila no longer accompanied them.

Ben smoked his cigar again, drank his brandy, and disappeared back into the house, leaving Cripple outside to whine at the door. Twice Mud caught a glimpse of Lila—but just a glimpse, and then she was gone again. He thought of her telling him about roses and rainy nights. About wind and candlelight and secret words said to the sound of summer rain.

And with these thoughts, Mud came upon the most important thought of all—he could move.

The ground was soaked, the air was soaked, and rain kept coming down. The sun was hidden and the world was wet. The pit had suddenly expanded its dimensions. The rain had turned Benjamin Jennet’s land into something wet and soft and muddy, and the downpour wasn’t stopping. It didn’t look like it was ever going to stop. It was a world made for Mud.

He could leave his pit now and not crack and not dry. He had the strength to pull himself out, and he would stay wet and moist outside his constant home. His prison. The sun was gone and everything was cool and wet, and each movement he made now seemed easy and fluid. And so Mud made the one move that made all the difference.

Mud pulled himself free of the pit.

He turned as he slid over the fence that Lila had leaned against so many times, looking to the old, white house and the dark window he knew he would go to. He looked—and then moved for it. Mud was careful as he slowly ambled towards the house. Quiet. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew that he should be. His movement became more articulate once he was free of the pit and in the rain, sloshing across the ground. The water washed the excess free, leaving his compact core moist but still very solidly together, and his movements grew more articulate still—he had a freedom of movement unlike any he could remember.

Mud could walk.

The house was barely ten feet away by the time Cripple awoke. The dog stumbled clumsily down the stairs of the porch and came at Mud doing his lopsided lope, his barking the most savage the old beast could muster. Though pathetic, he was loud, and Mud knew suddenly and intuitively—the way Mud knew almost everything—that he could not have the occupants of the house aware of his freedom. Not yet. Mud had often seen Benjamin Jennet swat the dog when he barked too loudly, and tell him to hush up. So, when the dog leapt at him—falling clumsily off to the side as he did so—Mud swatted the dog and gurgled at it.

Cripple never even yelped—there wasn’t time. In a split second, Mud had driven him three feet into the watery earth, and had left what had once been an old, lame dog looking not very much like a dog at all. Mud looked at the thing at his side—his arm, as far as he could call it that—with the closest thing to dumb amazement that he could feel. He looked at the smashed remains of Cripple driven into the ground. He had done that. He was strong. Stronger than he could have imagined. But then, moving through the air was so much easier than moving through mud—perhaps it made sense. Then again, perhaps it didn’t. How could he know?

Putting the question out of his mind, Mud went on.

Scaling the wall was easy, even in the dark and the wetness of the rain. He found her window, pushed it open, and entered the room.

She sat bolt upright in her bed as the wind pushed the window shut with a slam behind him and one muddy foot-thing landed on the hardwood floor.

“Mudboy,” she said, her voice so tight it made the word a whisper. She pulled at her covers, drawing them up around her, up to her chin. “Mudboy,” she said.

Mud gurgled, advancing a step.

“Mudboy, Mudboy,” she said, her words rushed and breathless. “You must go away. Pleaseyou must! Mudboy, why’d you leave your mud?”

Mud shrugged and gurgled, advancing another step. Her pale, frightened face shining blue in the brief, occasional strike of lightning, the shape of her shivering body beneath the covers. It was like magic.

“Mudboy, now just you go away, you hear?” she said. “This isn’t at all proper. What if my poppa were to find out? No, no—this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be at all. Mudboy, Mudboy, just go away.”

He reached forward. She was so close—he could touch her, he could actually touch her. Mud felt dizzy.

She shrieked as his hand brushed her cheek, leaving a long, muddy streak down the side of her face. “Mudboy!” she cried, thrusting herself off the bed and against the furthest wall. “Don’t you dare touch me like that again—this—it’s not supposed to be like this, it just isn’t, I know—its—”

Mud gurgled, and moved forward.

“Mudboy!” she yelled. “You’re gonna dry up! You’re doing it already!”

Mud looked down and saw it was true—already, exterior pieces were balling up and falling onto the floor, drying and crumbling.

“Mudboy, Mudboy, please, you’ve got to get out of here—never was supposed to be like this—not supposed to be anything like this—”

Mud gurgled, shrugging, and picked up the desk across from her bed with one hand. He threw it at the window, and it exploded outwards in a spray of wood and glass. Wind and rain whipped through her room immediately, as if it were naturally part of the same motion, and the fresh spray of water covered Mud. Lila moved towards the door as paper and leaves blew through the room and a thin finger of lightning lit the night, but Mud was there in a movement, blocking her.

Her white night gown had grown wet in the storm of cold rain coming through her shattered window, and it clung to her body, outlining it, defining each rise, each dip, each swell, each hollow. He dark hair was shiny and matted to her skull. He could smell her wet skin; he could hear the rapidness of her breathing. Mud reached for her again.

“No no no no no—”

He embraced her, bringing her body against him in the wetness, in the wind.

“Mudboy—no—” she whispered. “Mud—”

He felt her body against his, cold and soft in the rain, he felt his arms around her back, pulling her closer and closer—the curve of her spine, her knee touching his—her lips, he thought. Her lips. He could feel her breasts pressed against him, he could feel the rapid hammering beat of her heart in her chest, he could hear her breath and feel it against his neck—rapid and cold. And he held her tighter—her lips. He had to kiss her—to hold her tighter. The desire, that burning feeling of need, was growing. He felt it, and it drove him. His hand behind her neck, he moved her face up to his, and drew her tighter still. Lila slipped against him with a sound like a whimper, her thigh sliding along the outside of his, her belly coming up against his hip as he leaned over and kissed bloody lips.

Mud slackened his grip, and Lila, her white gown and pale skin soiled with wet earth, fell limply to the floor. A fresh stream of scarlet flowed from her mouth and pooled with the mud and water on the hardwood floor. She coughed, spitting up more, and then stilled, breath stopping, eyes glazing over.

Mud shook his head, and walked out of the room, out into the hall. He hadn’t brought chocolates.

◊◊◊

Benjamin Jennet was out on the porch.

“Damn good dog, even if he was a bit lame,” Ben was saying. “Too bad. Too damned bad.” He took a drag off a cigarette and drank some from his brandy. “Killed her, I s’pose.” He looked at Mud and nodded. “Yep. I s’pected you would.”

Mud gurgled.

“Well?” he asked. “What are you waiting for? I ain’t gonna beg. And I ain’t got nothing to tell you. About anything.” He drank the rest of his brandy in a few, hard swallows. “I don’t even know what in the Hell you are.”

Mud just looked at Ben, swaying back a little on earthen legs that again felt wooden and unfamiliar.

“Nope, nope,” Ben kept on, pouring himself another generous glass of brandy as he drew on his cigar. “You just showed up and I couldn’t get rid of you. I don’t know. I don’t know.” He put down the brandy bottle, the red-orange ember of his evening cigar reflecting from the facets on its cut crystal surface. “Maybe you were here all along.”

Mud nodded, and gurgled. The dull light from Ben’s cigar, the steady wash of rain, the sky that was a blanket of gray and the rich black soil of the earth—these things made him sleepy now, and he wasn’t at all sure what he was waiting for himself.

“Killed her, yep,” Ben went on. “Knew you would. I always knew, somehow. After you got Julie—after you got her—I knew you’d get her daughter, too. And you did it.” Ben shook his head. “You did it. Just like I knew.”

Mud nodded—the movement was again growing difficult as his thoughts blurred and his body grew cold and heavy—and turned around and headed down the steps.

“Guess I’ll be next,” Ben said. “Always knew I’d be last. But I knew my day’d come. Knew it true.”

Mud simply kept heading towards the pit. He had had enough of this. No roses, no boxes of chocolates—no rose-covered beds, no brandy, no piano—and no answers.

For some reason no longer able to do anything more than think about how much he wanted to hear Lila playing the old piano again, about how badly he wanted to hear her humming softly to herself in the night, Mud went down to wallow in the pit.

◊◊◊

ball-and-jacks


Reduction

January 7, 2009

I woke up early that morning, before the alarm. It was warm in the apartment, and my stomach was bothering me. Both were unusual, but I chalked them up to stress at work. I had to: the temperature was 68° Fahrenheit, my ideal room temperature, and I only ate superprocessed foods—my health was too important to me to trust the random mish-mash of molecules people romantically called “organic foods”. So it had to be stress.

And there was plenty of stress to go around at the Oberon Group, the technology and policy consultancy I had spent the last seven years of my life working for. My team had a dozen consulting contracts for the government that were closing, another half-a-dozen for private companies that had interim reports overdue, and nearly twenty active projects where the deadline for the interim reports was swiftly approaching. We had recently lost Randy Todd, who had been, without a doubt, one of the best vice-presidents—next to myself—at Oberon. When Randy left for Blackball—one of Oberon’s largest business partners, rather than a competitor—his project leaders, and his projects, all got assigned to me. And it was something less than an ideal fit.

There were also some renewed rumblings of a financial audit, perhaps going back as far as a decade. The idea of that was extremely worrisome, for a lot of reasons.

So, there was plenty of stress in my life, which had to explain it. The chances of me being physically ill were vanishingly small—as an urban American who was actively employed, insured, and regularly screened, the chances of me having any sort of illness or infection were approximately 147,000 to 1. My last screen had been on Friday—it was Oberon company policy that employees did not enter or exit without a simple screening—and I had been free from either known infection or indications of a new virus. And the chances of me being infected with a new virus were smaller still—almost 800,000 to 1–because even though I worked on any number of consultancy contracts to advise corporations and government agencies on managing infection, sabotage, shrink and direct attack, I stayed out of the field. And I constantly screened. As I said, my health was too important to me.

“I’m getting up,” I said loudly, and the lights came on.

“Good morning, Scott,” came Tana’s voice. I called it Tana, after the name of the apartment building: Tanzania Terrace. “Your 6:00 AM Alarm is deactivated. It is 5:07 AM, Monday, October the 3rd, 2067. The outside temperature is 59° Fahrenheit. It will be partly cloudy today. The high today will be 68°. You are alone this morning. In the news—“

“Thanks, that’s enough,” I said. It would go on for half-an-hour, if I let it. It knew I was alone this morning and which one of us was there, that was what was important. Sometimes it would get confused, which wasn’t supposed to happen, and would run the start-up sequence for both me and my wife, when only one of us was home, or run her sequence for me, or mine for her, if either of us were in the apartment alone. I had put in several requests for maintenance to look at it, but the tech department at the Tanzania Terrace insisted nothing was wrong. I could probably have gotten to the bottom of it myself, if I had been truly motivated. But I worked all day and often into the night, and by the time I got home I just wanted to rest.

Alaka was gone—she had left early Saturday morning to scout locations in Toronto for a series of commercials she was working on, leaving me alone again. There was a little stress there, as well. Over the past year or two, Alaka had grown more distant, and had started working more and later hours. She had only been home on three days that week, and had been too busy even then for us to manage dinner together, much less go out to a movie or go shopping. We were both so busy, there was no time any more for us to do things as a couple. I had to admit, that bothered me as much as anything.

She had been unusually frisky—and obliging— the previous Friday evening, which had surprised me, but I was grateful. The sex had been kinky and, at points, almost acrobatic. I could only guess she had felt guilty, that we were spending so little time together, and had been trying to make up for it. Even so, the next morning she had been gone, earlier than she had said and had not bothered to wake me up to say goodbye. She had just left me an audiomemo not to forget to call about our reservations in Tuscany next month. “I love you, Scott,” the note had ended. “Kiss-kiss-kiss!” Why didn’t she talk to me like that in person, I wondered?

But Alaka was very beautiful, and—on those rare occasions when amorous—an incredible lover. I had a good job and lived in a nice apartment and we both had busy, interesting lives—I really didn’t need to be ungrateful, I told myself. It could be a lot worse.

Only after I went to the bathroom and ran the medscreen, did I begin to suspect that it already was. “Error,” Tana said. “Please stand on platform with both feet together. Do not bend or slouch.”

“I am,” I said. “I’m standing correctly—“

An alarm sounded. “Medical alert, medical alert—“ Tana started. “Contacting Dr. Ponnuru. Notifying FVC—“

“Cancel,” I said quickly. I was fortunate that my line of work allowed such a delay. Most citizens would have no choice but to have a blanket notification of any errors in screening go out to their general physician and the local bureau of the FVC. I reached out and pressed the side of the mirror screen—my privacy switch was invisible, but I knew where it was. One of my early projects at Oberon had been to lobby against allowing privacy switches on home or corporate medscreen equipment. Eventually, the arguments of the ACLU and Citizens for Humane Biology, among others, won out. They had argued that it could violate the privacy of those undergoing the hormone swings of transgendering, those taking suppressive drugs for a variety of addictions, those taking antidepressants and antipsychotics, and those engaging in home anti-aging or cosmetic therapies, among others. In practice, the most common use was probably what I was using it for; there was a potentially real, legitimate issue that my physician and the FVC should have been notified about, and I didn’t want them to know. At least, not yet.

I wasn’t transgendering and I wasn’t engaged in home cosmetic therapies or taking isotetetraloids to improve physical performance or taking mnemonphins to boost my mental prowess. I hadn’t been overseas in two months, and I hadn’t been rural for more than a month. I had had two dozen screens since then, and four full workups. The only real possibility that I could imagine, the only thing that could set off my medscreen, was a virus. Somehow, I had gotten infected.

“Identify nature of medical alert,” I said, as my reflection dissolved from the mirror, replaced by my latest biometric scan.

“Improbable inconsistency in core metrics,” Tana replied. “Your height as of Friday was 179.832 centimeters. Your height as of this morning is 171.45 centimeters. This is in excess of allowable variation. Your weight on Friday was 84.36 kilograms. Your weight as of this morning is 82.34 kilograms. Your body temperature is 100.04 degrees Fahrenheit, indicating an irregularity in your body metabolism. Your standing heartbeat is 89 beats per minute. Your normal heart rate is 57 beats per minute. Federal law requires that you notify the FVC and seek the counsel of your physician.”

“Scan for infection,” I said. There was a pause as the small platform I was standing on hummed, and the biometric display in front of me indicated the scan’s progress. The external scan probably couldn’t tell me anything, I knew, but the medscreen would be activating my internal nanomeds and polling them for information about general irregularities or recognizable viral signatures. If I was infected, I knew, the infection scan would tell me with what. Then I would have no choice—I would have to let it contact Dr. Ponnuru and notify the FVC. I just wanted to know what I was dealing with first, I told myself.

“Irregularities detected,” Tana said finally. “No recognizable signatures. You have a 73% chance of having been infected.”

“Mineral scan?”

“Levels of trace elements are all within expected ratios,” Tana replied.

I was thankful for small favors. If I was infected, it was a protein-based virus. These were the most common, were mostly the product of hackers and disgruntled college students giving inadequate consideration to the jail time that faced them when they were caught, and tended not to be fatal. Although the likelihood of my being infected with a protein virus not in my medscreen’s database seemed exceedingly small. How would I have gotten it? Viruses that wove themselves out of iron and zinc or carbon could lay dormant for years or travel rapidly across great distances or even target individual people or locations. Protein based viruses were not nearly so rugged, and generally wouldn’t survive long out of a living host.

I wasn’t sure how long it had been since I had updated my medscreen’s internal database, but decided not to download the most current dictionary of virus definitions, as that would also send a notification out to the FVC. They would know, soon, I just wanted to make sure.

I sighed. I was also going to have to take a personal day from work. It wouldn’t be difficult—I had nearly a hundred Federally-mandated mental health days available to me. But, given that Oberon had, in one form or another, lobbied against mandated mental health days for employees, taking any was frowned upon. But it would allow me to take the necessary time to visit my doctor, without indicating that I might be sick. When an employee called in sick, Oberon automatically notified the FVC of the absence, even though we weren’t required to by law. It was just considered a “good community health” policy, according to the Oberon Group policy manual—and, of course, it discouraged employees from taking any sick days as time off.

“Tana,” I said. “Please make an appointment for me with Dr. Ponnuru.”

“Yes, sir. What reason do you wish to list for the appointment?”

“Um. To discuss potential vitamin therapies.” Alaka had been taking them for several months, and had been trying to encourage me to try them, as well. I had no intention of paying good money for such snake-oil placebos, but it seemed like a good excuse for making an appointment—as a physician, Dr. Ponnuru would have to notify the FVC, if I had made an appointment for a potential illness or injury.

“Yes, sir. I have scheduled an appointment for 10:45 AM with Dr. Ponnuru’s scheduling service. You will be called if there is any change.”

“Thank you, Tana,” and stepped off the platform. In addition to feeling warm, and not inconsiderable stomach discomfort, I felt unusually tired. I went in the living room and sat down, and then had Tana call Oberon, to tell them I was taking a mental health day. I turned on the news, but didn’t watch it. Mostly, I watched the clock, biding the time until I could leave for my appointment.

I had a feeling I was not going to like hearing what Dr. Ponnuru would have to say.

◊◊◊

Dr. Ponnuru bounced on his heels as I entered. “Scott! So, you finally come to try the vitamin injections. They make a difference. I can tell you, I am a doctor, and I know you are quite the cynic, but—”

“Raja,” I said. “I didn’t—it’s not about the vitamins. I think I’ve got something. A virus. I didn’t want to register the appointment as a sickness—”

Dr. Ponnuru nodded wisely. “I understand. Let me get my assistant.”

He paused and returned with a black bag, and then took out his diagnostic MDA, and the scanning wand. “This is for myself,” he said. “Just preliminary. It is not—let us say, it doesn’t actively share the data on the network.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Raja. I just—before I report anything, I just want to know. I want to know what I have.”

“What is your suspicion?” he asked. “Your heart beat is up. Your blood pressure is up—“

“I don’t know. I think it’s protein based. My medscan didn’t find any increase of mineral traces. I’ve lost three pounds and eight centimeters since the scan on Friday—“

“Mmm,” he nodded. “It sounds to me as you may have contracted the Mbig-11 virus. While I have read about it—it is almost epidemic in Old Mexico now—I have heard of no cases this far north.”

“Mbig?” I asked. “But people were—that’s supposed to add to mass and density—“

“And Mbig does,” he said. “Mbig-11 is a recent variant—the same basic protein structure, with minor variations, but the same protein hooks and transports used to extract substance from the environment and then insert it inside the patient’s bone and muscle tissue is reversed, so that it extracts from the patient and then excretes.”

I blinked. Mbig-11? Nearly epidemic in Old Mexico? How had I missed that? If there was an epidemic of a synthesized protein virus anywhere, surely Oberon would be getting together a proposal or already floating a contract for consultancy with the Mexican government.

“I’m surprised such a thing would have gotten through the corporate Firewall at Oberon,” he was saying. “Unless you weren’t being screened—“

“We’re screened in and out. Though, if the signature wasn’t in the medscreen dictionary, it could miss it.”

He shook his head thoughtfully. “But certainly, it wouldn’t have missed your change in mass and proportion.”

“No,” I said slowly. He was right. I was trying to think of an alternative, but I couldn’t come up with one. There was almost no way I had been infected before I left work Friday. Between leaving work Friday evening, and getting up this Monday morning, I had contracted the Mbig-11 virus.

“Here,” Dr. Ponnuru said, holding the screen of his MDA in front of my face. The wand was placed against my shin, where I knew millions of nanomeds were painlessly sliding between skin cells and muscle cells and into my bloodstream. They would collect information from the entire area, both new and from my own permanent nanomeds, which could provide Dr. Ponnuru’s MDA with limited, but still valuable, personal health information from the previous weeks and months. Then the MDA would filter the torrent of information down to just what he wanted to see, or to show me, at that moment.

He bounced once on his heels. “This is your shinbone,” Dr. Ponnuru said. “Magnified approximately 1000 times. As you see, it is shrinking, right before our very eyes. Though the individual nanomechs are still too tiny to discern in this image, no doubt you see the thin threads coming away at these points, as a I move to the edge of the bone—there, and there. And that one. I cannot say for sure, but if it is consistent with the Mbig virus, those would be protein ‘conveyor belts’—moving the matter that is being extracted from your bones, marrow, and elsewhere, to transporters.” I must admit, I was a little irritated as he nodded approvingly. “Impressive work, for college boys with nothing but decade-old protein assemblers to work with. You would think with such talent, they could find something productive to do with their time!”

“That would be nice,” I said.

“Of course, you might not have quite so lucrative a career, if your consultation on such issues wasn’t so frequently needed. How has your stomach been feeling?”

I was caught off-guard by the sudden change of topic, though I suppose I should not have been; Dr. Ponnuru did such things frequently. “Well, I’ve been—well, I’ve had cramps. And indigestion, I think. I’m really not sure, it’s been so long—”

“Have you had diarrhea?” he asked. “That is a condition where the stool is very loose, almost liquid.”

I found myself blushing unaccountably. “Yes. It’s extremely uncomfortable. I haven’t had it since I was a child, but, yes, a few times today.“

“Has there been any discoloration to your stool or urine?”

“Some,” I said. “My urine has been darker. Cloudy.”

He nodded. “The virus is using your digestive system to expel the waste from the disassembly process. The original Mbig would collect matter from both undigested waste, but also clothing and surfaces that came into extended contact with the host. This variant may also expel via your skin—respiration through sweat glands, or direct transport of detritus outside of the body, via transporters that physically exit—”

“I don’t know if I like my bones being referred to as detritus,” I said. I felt sick. I was, literally, nauseous, but I just felt emotionally sick besides. What a mess. What was I going to do? A vice-president sloppy enough to get infected with a nanovirus wasn’t going to stay a vice-president for long; I knew that.

And who would benefit most, if I weren’t a vice-president any longer? I wondered about that. One of my team-leaders, without a doubt. There would be no knowing who they would promote to the position until it happened, but one of them might have the inside track. It was hard to conceive of, though; all my people were solid gold. I just couldn’t imagine them setting me up. Well, there was the group of project heads that were put under me when Randy left for Blackball; I found it entirely believable that any of them would want to nail my ass to the wall. This would be a highly illegal and unethical way to do it, and the end to any kind of career, even when they got out of jail, if caught—but there were at least two women and three men I wouldn’t have put it past.

I hoped it was just an accident, that the infection was incidental, a freak occurrence, but I had a difficult time convincing myself that was the case. If it wasn’t the case, and it was an intentional attack against me, I could only assume it wouldn’t be the last.

“All right—the expulsion of biomatter, then, let us call it. But it isn’t just your bones, Scott—everything is being reduced, from muscle tissue to skin and hair. It is really quite remarkable, especially for a pure protein virus—look how it removes bone material, layer by layer—these thin structures are like scaffolding—“ he said, pointing to what looked like an amorphous smudge on the bioscan. ”—that allow for the removal of material, before the scaffolding collapses, and then ‘stitches’ the remaining bone back together, then reinitiates the process again a few nanometers down. At the same time, you see there is a reduction in circumference, so you will be ‘shrinking’, as it were, across each axis.” He exhaled gravely. “It may have a built in shut-off, at which point it will stop the reductive process, but there is no guarantee. As the process progresses, even though there is no trauma or scarring, all natural biological processes will begin to suffer—“

“Or stop,” I murmured. No matter how sophisticated the nanovirus, eventually the unnatural reduction in the size of already small glands, capillaries, nerve endings and so on would keep them from functioning, no matter how effectively they were stitched back together. If the virus was smart enough to leave already small but critical systems unreduced in order to prevent malfunction as it continued to reduce the larger tissues and organs around them, other problems would result as the size differentials grew.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to see if we can requisition a response vaccine. I will have to give you a full exam and have it submitted to the FVC before I can make the request. But every moment delayed brings you a moment closer to potentially fatal complications—”

I felt like crying. What a mess. But, I had no choice.

“Go ahead,” I said.

He nodded. “Please come over to the medscreen table, and recline, with your head and feet matching the positions indicated—“

I did as he said. It was not shaping up to be a good day.

◊◊◊

Back at my apartment, I waited for word from Dr. Ponnuru that my vaccine had been approved. I also awaited an inquiry from the FVC and probably from internal security at Oberon, as well. I wanted to call Alaka, but I knew she was busy, and the commercials she was working on were important to her.

 Besides, she would find out soon enough. As Dr. Ponnuru had pointed out before I left his office, with no indication of the virus before having left on Friday, and recent sexual relations with my wife, she could have been the source of the infection—and could well be a Mary. Most protein nanoviruses relied on Maries—named after Typhoid Mary—to spread. The virus would never activate within the Mary, but would instead use that person to infect dozens or hundreds or thousands of people, before automatically disabling and exiting harmlessly. How many people the Mary would infect would depend on how difficult the nanovirus engineer wanted to make it to isolate and eradicate the virus for companies like Oberon.

By the time the vaccine was released, Alaka would get a call and a medical service team would be dispatched in Toronto. If she was the carrier, she would be understanding, I expect. If not, I was likely to be in the doghouse. But there was nothing else I could do; if I had not put in for the vaccine, I could easily find myself dead in a few days or less. I was already feeling sicker. My temperature was up, my heart was beating faster, and my breathing was shorter. No matter how deeply I breathed, no matter how fast I breathed, I still felt out of breath. My joints and muscles were sore, and there was nothing I could do about it. The over-the-counter pain blockers weren’t working.

I watched television for a while, and then found myself curious, and called up a search for news in Old Mexico, where there was indeed an epidemic—of hyperpox. There was nothing about the Mbig or Mbig-11 in Old Mexico, except isolated quarantined cases of Mbig. There had been some serious problems with Mbig in Old Mexico almost a year ago, but not an epidemic. Nothing at all about an Mbig-11. In fact, nothing about any Mbig variant other than the old MbigZ, anywhere that I could find. How could that be? Dr. Ponnuru knew his stuff; that’s why I went to him. He couldn’t have been that confused, could he?

Something was wrong. Something felt wrong. I felt sick again, and not just physically. Suddenly I wanted very desperately to talk to Alaka.

I dialed up her hotel in Toronto, and asked for her room number, but she wasn’t there. I dialed her direct number, but, again, she didn’t answer. That was almost unheard of. What was going on?

I didn’t really think I had much to worry about in regards to my private holdings, but I decided to check my accounts. I got my old laptop from the study and plugged it into the network port—the old IP network, though still supported as a sub-protocol, was not watched nearly as rigorously as the supernet, and there were still plenty of anonymous proxy servers in the third world to log in to and pass data in relative anonymity. This was how I always checked my accounts.

Nothing had changed. I had earned another $102 in interest for the day, but as long as the money was going up, and not down, I wasn’t concerned. No one knew about the accounts, other than me. Not even Alaka. Better safe than sorry, I had always thought. If my job at Oberon was about to collapse around me, I might have to make use of them sooner than I had planned, so it was comforting to see that everything was in order.

There was a great deal of money in the accounts—in excess of six million dollars, which was a lot of filthy lucre, even for a man of my position. The great majority of it came into my private holdings through early projects I had worked on at Oberon, closing loopholes and weaknesses in the financial transfer systems. Unfortunately, it was not in the form of the pay scale such excellent work deserved, but by exploiting the holes in the system before closing them. In the first year I worked at Oberon, I enjoyed a decent salary of $250,000, bonuses of $20,000, and over two million dollars of self-awarded cash. The next year, the same salary and nearly another two million, and then I had to repair the holes and fix the leaks, unless I wanted to risk an audit and rapid discovery. From that point forward, I felt I was set, and would play the game straight, and had enjoyed a solid career with a string of hefty raises and big bonuses. There had been occasional rumbling of an audit, but they were time consuming and slowed the business down, so the rumored audits had, so far, never happened. I moved up, from programming and accounting to consultancy and then management. But I always kept a careful eye on my money.

I disconnected the laptop and put it away. Everything was in order; the only thing that seemed to be in order, now, with my life. I returned to watching the television, and another hour passed. It was getting into the afternoon, and I began to wonder when I might hear about the vaccine. I put in a call to Dr. Ponnuru’s office, but could not get past the automated attendant answering the phones. I left an audiomemo to have him contact me, as soon as possible. I felt a little like I might actually vomit—something I had last done, to my recollection, in grade school. I was hot and sweating and was beginning to feel a little dizzy. The Mbig-11 was taking its toll.

I went to the bathroom and stepped up to the medscreen. I turned the privacy switch off, and instructed Tana to download the most recent dictionary of virus definitions from the FVC. Since Dr. Ponnuru had already put in the request for the vaccine and the FVC would have to have been notified—as was often the case with government bureaucracy, they were just being slow to get to me—I saw no harm in confirming what the medscreen at Dr. Ponnuru’s office had told me, as well as seeing how my weight and height were holding up. I stepped on the platform, and immediately the alarm went off.

“Medical alert, medical alert,“ Tana said. “Contacting Dr. Ponnuru. Notifying FVC—“

“That’s all already happened,” I told Tana. “Dr. Ponnuru—“

“New case filed with the FVC,” Tana said. “Response: Subject will be contacted shortly. Thank you for registering your medical alert with the FVC.”

“No, no,” I said. “There doesn’t need to be a new case filed for me, Dr. Ponnuru already filed one. I was in the office—“

I knew better than to expect a useful response from Tana to something like that, but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. “Response: Subject will be contacted shortly. Thank you for registering your medical alert the FVC,” Tana repeated.

“Okay, whatever,” I said. I’d clearly have to cross that bridge when I came to it. “Please tell me the nature of the medical alert.“

“Improbable inconsistency in core metrics,” Tana replied. “Your height as of this morning was 171.45 centimeters. Your height as of this afternoon is 162.10 centimeters. This is in excess of allowable variation. Your weight as of this morning was 82.34 kilograms. Your weight as of this afternoon is 81.02 kilograms. Your body temperature is 100.09 degrees Fahrenheit, indicating an irregularity in your body metabolism.  Your standing heartbeat is 92 beats per minute. Your normal heart rate is 57 beats per minute. Federal law requires that you notify the FVC and seek the counsel of your physician.”

“Thank you,” I said. My head was swimming. I had lost another 9 centimeters since this morning. At this rate, I’d be dead in no time. “Scan for infection.”

The scan lasted for a minute, after which Tana gave me the same report as this morning. “Irregularities detected. No recognizable signatures. You have a 87% chance of having been infected.”

“No recognizable signatures? Is the Mbig-11 in your virus definitions?”

“There is no Mbig-11 in the virus definitions. Definitions matching Mbig: Mbig, MbigZ.”

And that was it. MbigZ was a pornographic variant of the original Mbig that only enlarged certain parts of the body, and had been around almost as long as the Mbig.

“Place another call to Dr. Ponnuru—“

I was interrupted by high-pitched beeping. “There is a call for you coming in from the FVC. Federal law requires that you accept the call.”

“Of course I accept,” I said, walking out of the bathroom and sitting down in front of the television. The pleasant, lineless face of a young woman in a gray suit materialized.

 “Mr. Scott Whitesmith,” she said. “Your medscreen has filed a report with the FVC, reporting multiple bioscan anomalies—“

“I’m getting shorter,” I said. “It’s the Mbig-11 virus. It should be in the report—” I was about to say from Dr. Ponnuru. “Did you say my medscreen filed the report?”

“Yes, sir. Five minutes ago.”

“Did you get a report from Dr. Raja Ponnuru? For me?”

“We have no other reports for you. Please do not leave your location. A medical alert team will be dispatched to your apartment immediately. Your physician will be notified of the circumstances—”

“My physician already knows! He should have filed a report. He was going to request the—” I was going to say vaccine. But what vaccine was there going to be for the Mbig-11, if the Mbig-11 wasn’t even in the public virus definitions dictionary?

“You apartment is under lock down,” the woman said pleasantly. “Do not attempt to leave. A medical alert team is on their way.”

“Thank you,” I said, and doubled over, throwing up.

◊◊◊

I tried to place calls both to my wife and Dr. Ponnuru, without luck. I rummaged through the back of my closet and found what had previously been my tightest, smallest set of clothes, and put them on. The medical alert team arrive and, in shimmering black biohazard suits and masks, made me put on my own suit, at a distance, and then roughly led me to their transport. The suit was for a standard adult male, yet hung off me as if I were a child playing dress-up. It was hot and difficult to breathe, and many times I thought I would faint. Eventually they got me to a clean room at the FVC bureau office, and I was allowed to remove the suit.

Doctors and technicians poked and prodded at me, sexless in their glimmering black skins and mirrored visors. Even when they spoke, it was hard to tell.

“Does this hurt?”

“Where did you get this scar?”

“Are you going to regurgitate?”

After a while, they left, and then I was put in a small room with white walls, a very large mirror, and a single table. I had never been brought to the FVC for infection, but I had seen the process in operation many times, and this was not part of the process. Unless, during their investigation of the virus, they had become suspicious of something else. I was running a very hot fever, and was sweating bullets, but I suddenly felt a chill. And I thought: my accounts. They’ve been doing a background check and they’ve found out something. Somehow they’ve found out.

After what seemed too long, a man in light brown pants and a pull-over sweater entered the room and put a paper file down on the table. He appeared congenial enough, but he towered over me. Though he looked at me pleasantly, his tone was clear: “Mr. Whitesmith, did you really think we wouldn’t find out?”

I blanched. My thought was the same: the accounts. They’ve found them. I’m going to jail.

I tried my best to affect a look of innocent confusion. “Find out what? I don’t understand?”

“That you infected yourself the Mbig-11. That you wrote the Mbig-11.”

My jaw dropped. That was insane. The only thing that kept me from demanding a polygraph scan right then was the question: what if they changed tactics, and asked about the accounts?

“You must be—that’s insane. Why would I infect myself with this? Why would I write a virus like this, and infect myself—”

“To explain the infections of your coworkers?” the man asked. “There are three other people at Oberon infected with Mbig-11—Tomi Engdahl, Kamui Shiro and Djaga Kahonde. There are some people that you work with that you have a lot of difficulty with, isn’t that right?”

“I—” I hesitated. What the hell was this? “I want to see a lawyer.”

The man smiled benevolently. “This isn’t a legal proceeding. We’re just trying to protect the public health. Why did you have a privacy switch installed on your medscreen at home? You aren’t transgendered, are you?”

“I—no, of course not, it just in the line of work I’m in, it makes sense, to be able to control—”

“And how would you acquire a virus variant that, up until now, hasn’t been seen? It’s not even the FVC signature dictionary? And you have some experience in working with protein assemblers and coding nanoviruses—“

“Nanomechs,” I corrected. “For basic, non-biological applications—I don’t know anything about coding for nanomeds or nanoviruses—”

“Then, I must admit, I’m curious why, over the past year, you’ve downloaded so much viral construction and assembly information. Why specifically you downloaded a terabyte worth of analysis and structural information on the Mbig virus—“

I was shaking. I wasn’t sure if it was something to do with the virus inside me, or a reaction to the insanity this man was accusing me of. Either way, it didn’t look good, and I knew I had to have been set up. The others who were infected, most likely—Tomi Engdahl or Kamui Shiro, I thought. Or someone else at Oberon had gone after all of us.

“Also, I’m interested to learn why you spent so much of your time at home looking at the personal and profile websites of Tomi Engdahl, Kamui Shiro and Djaga Kahonde—the same three people who ended up also infected with the Mbig-11.”

“I’ve never been to their home pages. I could care less about that sort of crap. What the Hell is this?“

Although I don’t think he meant to, the man gave me my answer with his next question. Suddenly, I thought I knew exactly what this was.

“Why would you ask your physician to lie on your behalf?”

“I—I didn’t. I would never do that.” But why would they have asked that question, I thought immediately, unless Dr. Ponnuru had said something to them?

“Dr. Raja Ponnuru just testified that you requested he file your case as having been contracted from time out in the rural areas last week, even thought you had not been—”

“Dr. Ponnuru?” I asked blankly. “I just—I never did that—”

“Did you schedule an appointment, ostensibly to talk about vitamin therapy, only to reveal to Dr. Ponnuru that you were infected with a virus and that you wanted him to use his MDA off the clinic network, so as not to notify the FVC—”

“I—I do this for a living. I just wanted to make sure—”

The man smiled benevolently. “How would you feel if Oberon decided to do a full audit on all of your work, starting from your date of hire?”

I know I must have turned white as a sheet. I thought I was going to throw up. I did belch, loudly.

“You have five separate offshore accounts, balances totaling over two-million dollars—”

I tried not to react. First, to the terrible news that, legal proceeding at this moment or not, they knew about my private accounts. Then, to the odd assertion that there was only two-million dollars in them, when I knew I had well over six-million.

“Were you afraid your colleagues at work had found out? Is that it? And then you infected them—using yourself as the carrier, thinking that you could avoid suspicion for having authored the virus, if you infected yourself with it, also.”

He was now just making statements. I looked nervously to the mirror and then back to the man in the sweater. “I didn’t write the virus. I want a polygraph scan.”

“And you’re entitled to one, Mr. Whitesmith. Though, for that, you may want to wait for a lawyer.”

◊◊◊

I spent the next several hours in a small white cell, one that was growing increasingly larger to me. The polygraph scan was deemed inconclusive. Even though it cleared me of any wrong doing, including in regards to my private accounts, the techs agreed that I had gone through some form of modification therapy—of which there are several, mostly untraceable—in order to throw the polygraph off. I would have come to the same conclusion, had I been on the outside, but I knew I had never done a modification therapy to get around polygraph scanners. If it had been done, somebody had done it to me. And I thought I knew who.

It was Dr. Ponnuru. He had already made statements against me, statements he knew to be false, and it was entirely possibly he could have administered the polygraph modification therapy to me at any time, perhaps as recently as my last office visit to him. It certainly served its purpose—a conclusive polygraph could have damned me on my private accounts, but also served to finger Dr. Ponnuru, when my conflicting assertions with his account of our meeting tested true.

 But there was still so much I didn’t understand, and I was running out of time. I didn’t believe he could have infected me directly with the Mbig-11—it had been six months since I had been to his office, before that morning. But Alaka had been getting weekly vitamin insertions at his office; he could have easily made her the unwitting agent of my infection.

But why? If it had something to do with the sudden reduction of money in my private accounts, then I understood the why a little better. Then the big question became: how? How could he have known? How could he have gotten access to my accounts?

After a while, I was brought a small plate of food. I couldn’t eat; it didn’t taste right. My head was pounding, and I was having trouble focusing on anything—my eyes were not adjusting well to my shrinking head. Everything smelled bad. I kept belching, was suffering from repeated flatulence—which was both painful and embarrassing—and I was sweating like a pig. My clothes no longer fit me, so I just held them around my middle until an FVC officer brought me a generic gray jumpsuit for an adolescent boy. This fit snugly at first, but in half an hour was already loose. As my overall mass was reduced, there was less mass to dissipate, and the process was going progressively faster.

A pleasant female officer, probably Malaysian, I thought, brought me the notification of my indictment for twelve felony counts, including embezzlement and reckless endangerment and production of biohazardous materials. She also brought me the notice of my termination from Oberon. And then another notice, this in a black envelope from Harris & Feldstein, Attorneys at law. I opened it, and pulled out Alaka’s petition for divorce.

I collapsed backwards, then fell on the floor: Alaka.

Her signature was notarized—half-an-hour ago, at the downtown offices of Harris & Feldstein. When she was supposed to have been in Toronto until next Thursday. She hadn’t been in Toronto at all, I suddenly knew—she had been awaiting word from Dr. Ponnuru. If I tried to contest the divorce, she would simply have to invoke the Severance Clause from the Patriot II Act of 2038, that allowed spouses to divorce convicted or suspected felons, terrorists, detainees, etc without contest, in under twenty-four hours. She would only be guaranteed 50% of my assets and holdings if she did. But somehow I didn’t think she was going to be worrying about money.

I stood up and started banging on the door. “Check my eyes! I want somebody to check my eyes!”

◊◊◊

Dr. Kiesha nodded. “You have several nanocamera arrays in your left eye—only one in your right. Audio recorders and nanotransmitters in both ears.”

“Other than my cellular account?” I asked.

“This is not cellular equipment. Some if it is clearly surveillance. But, if you’re going to assert that your physician was spying on you, I’m afraid you’ll have a long road ahead of you. There’s nothing to identify the installer and I’m going to guess, based on previous experience, that the transmission targets are blindboxed, so you’ll never find out who they went to. And you could just as easily have done it to yourself—”

I sighed. I was exhausted, exasperated, nauseous, and everything hurt. “Why would I want to spy on myself?”

“To throw suspicion off, naturally,” she replied.

I collapsed on the floor and vomited.

◊◊◊

I spent the night in my cell, unable to sleep. I was sick and feverish and tossing and turning with the pain.

I could see my beautiful wife, my beautiful Alaka. So distant, so cold, yet on Friday night she had been on fire. I felt her mouth on mine, her body moving against me, and I could see it, the Mbig-11, passing from her lips to mine, slipping in between my skin cells, in through my hair follicles, as my hands caressed her dark skin.

I saw her with Dr. Ponnuru. He held the wand to her arm—the vitamin insertion. Only they weren’t just vitamins. I imagined I could hear him telling her, “It must be tonight. The infection must be well in progress before Monday.” And then they kiss, and she looks at him—she looks at Dr. Ponnuru—with warmth. With respect.

“Alaka,” I say to the empty cell. Where did it start? When did it start? How could she do this to me?

“He has more money, I know he does,” I could hear her say. “Sometimes, late at night—he gets out this antique computer of his. And he always does it just a little while before we buy something big, before we go on vacation—he’s hiding something from me. I know he is.”

“How terrible,” Dr. Ponnuru said. “I would never hide something from a beautiful woman like you.” He touched her shoulder softly. “I can help you find out. If you like.”

Over his shoulders, my eyes wandered as Dr. Ponnuru bowed his head, and Alaka raised hers. Their lips met. Above the medscreen table, among the dozen certificates and citations, I could see a degree in Advance Protein Mechanics from North Carolina University.

I saw Alaka, leaving our bed in the middle of the night, taking her eBook with her, reading frothy romances while running search after search on nanoviruses, protein engineering, and the Mbig virus. Did she give it over to Dr. Ponnuru? Or did he already know all that he needed to, and she was just doing her part to cement the story? So when they checked my search records—made legally permissible as another function of the Patriot Act II—they saw a consistent pattern of interest on my part?

“Don’t forget to call about our reservations in Tuscany next month,” the audiomemo she had left me that morning said in my mind. “I love you, Scott. Kiss-kiss-kiss!” Another plant, for the investigators to find—to help establish her innocence or irrelevance, and thus my guilt. Why would she have been asking me to check on next month’s trip to Tuscany, if she had been planning to run away? If she had been conspiring against me? The sudden divorce proceedings could be explained as her natural reaction to my terrible crimes. And the risks I exposed her too. Shit, shit, shit.

There was something else I saw, too. I saw Alaka visiting and then revisiting the home pages of Tomi Engdahl, Kamui Shiro and Djaga Kahonde, so that when they were infected it would appear, from my search records, that I had been scoping them out. But how did they get infected? I wondered. But it was too terrible. I already knew.

Alaka was in Los Angeles casting an infomercial for a new line of herbal insertion therapies. Only, it was over on Monday and she didn’t show back up at the apartment until Thursday. She was staying with Dr. Ponnuru—no, I thought. Too obvious. They only met on their appointments. She stayed with a friend, or at a hotel—there were hotels she could stay at where she would be sufficiently anonymous. And then she was at a club, or a bar, and she found Tomi Engdahl, and they were dancing, and Tomi was inebriated. He’s grabbing her, pawing at her, kissing her—hungrily taking the Mbig-11 into his mouth. Or maybe she took him back to her friend’s apartment. She had been pornographically obliging to me, her husband, to make sure I was infected—would she have done anything less with Tomi, Kamui, or Djaga? In my feverish head, I saw them all in bed together at the same time and I started crying.

◊◊◊

“They are still working on the vaccine,” Dr. Kiesha said. “It would help if you would cooperate.”

I shook my head slightly. Any movement was painful. They had administered coolants and narcotic pain blockers to me, which were helping. “I didn’t write the damned virus,” I told her. Again. My voice had begun to sound high pitched and squeaky, like I was breathing helium. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“Ah,” she says brightly. “Well, good news for you, at any rate—you seem to have stabilized at 91.38 inches.”

“Good news,” I said. I was less than three feet tall. The reduction had not been entirely proportional, so that although my head was smaller than normal, it was at least thirty percent larger, compared to my torso, than it had been. My legs were shorter, I think, but my arms were clearly longer in relationship to my body, and my hands, though small, were huge compared to the rest of me. I wasn’t getting any smaller, but now I had constant double vision, pounding headaches, terrible joint pain, and constant muscle spasms. I had to be fed intravenously, through protein, sugar and vitamin insertions. This kept me alive and conscious, but did nothing for the sickening combination of nausea and hunger that was now my constant companion.

“If the virus terminates itself, a vaccine may be unnecessary.”

“And then what?” I was asking how I could go about getting myself restored. But, Dr. Kiesha worked for the FVC, and saw my question through the prism of her job.

“You have your trial, then go to jail and serve your sentence,” she said.

◊◊◊

I suppose I should be grateful to both Alaka and Raja Ponnuru. If they had wanted to stay around and further discredit me and, indeed, damn me, they probably could have. I believe they would have gotten away with it. As it was, Dr. Ponnuru was the star witness for the prosecution at my trial, and he did not show up. Court was adjourned, and it was eventually determined that both my ex-wife and Raja Ponnuru had left the country. The subsequent investigation turned up plentiful evidence that Ponnuru had authored the Mbig-11, and that he had worked in concert with my wife to infect me and my co-workers. Their motive was clear: to steal from me the money that I had stolen.

So there was still another trial, and I went to jail. For two years, with time off for good behavior, rather than the potential fifteen to thirty years I would have been facing, as the author of a nanovirus.

Prison was not bad. I was able to earn 40 credit hours towards my law degree. I also underwent nanotherapy to restore my original height and weight, a process which required some expertise and expense. While it probably would not have been covered by my insurance on the outside, since I was in Federal prison the therapy, like my law education, was paid for by the American taxpayer. Bless you, my friend.

 As far as I knew, Raja Ponnuru and Alaka Whitesmith—I supposed, by then, Alaka Whitesmith-Ponnuru—were enjoying wedded bliss in a beautiful mountain chalet, in France or Spain or Brazil or India. Or any other country soft on crime and uncooperative with American extradition. They made a clean exit and, as far as I knew, it was never clear where they had ended up going. The two million dollars I had remaining in my private accounts was repaid to Oberon. I had a little under $500,000 in my regular accounts—cash, stocks, bonds, and other holdings—and, thanks to Alaka’s disappearance, didn’t have to split them with her. Which was a good thing, as the fine leveled for my embezzlement was $350,000.

After I finished law school, I joined a small firm in upstate New York that mostly handled labor law, but soon found myself running a division of the practice that specialized in suing both corporations and the government over just the sorts of policy issues I had worked on at Oberon. I didn’t have six million dollars in the bank—and I didn’t have any private accounts at all, any more—but I made a good living, and I liked what I did.

One of the paralegals who helped me out on all the tough cases was a young lady named Ayumi Kyoko. I told her all about my past, but I thought she was still a little sweet on me. I was moving slow on this one, though; Alaka and Dr. Ponnuru were always in the back of my mind.

◊◊◊

A few nights ago, Ayumi and I ordered take out from the new El Salvadorian restaurant down the street and took well-deserved evening off. While my health is still very important to me, Ayumi has helped me to lighten up a lot, and I don’t always insist on superprocessed foods at every meal. Ayumi doesn’t make any distinctions; she eats what she likes. I have thought and thought about it, but I don’t believe I had ever heard a woman belch or fart before. At least, not like Ayumi.

 Stuffing our faces and watching television, I made her stop on one of the random gossip, look-how-much-crap-this-celebtrity-has type of shows. I’m sure it wasn’t them, but something about the way the woman, Kukana Okelani, walked up the stairs to the house and lounged at the pool—the flick of her hand and how she scratched behind her ear–made me think of Alaka. The way the man—Indian investment guru, Darpak Shailendra—bounced once on his heels before he spoke made me think of Raja Ponnuru. The fact that they had come almost out of nowhere four years ago, and had built up a fortune totaling nearly ten billion dollars, also made me pause. They did not look like Raja and Alaka, exactly, but cosmetic therapies are not that expensive, and are widely available. And there was something familiar about both of them.

I sighed. It certainly seemed possible. While I had reduced, they had expanded. They had grown huge. And somehow, I doubted they had done it all by playing by the book. But, I thought, glancing over to Ayumi, I’d take my reduced life any day of the week.

They didn’t have anything to do with me any more, anyway. One day they’d meet their own Alaka Whitesmith and Dr. Ponnuru. If they hadn’t already.

The thought made me smile a little, and I touched Ayumi’s hand. I was beginning to think maybe it was time to reduce Dr. Ponnuru and Alaka, and what they had done to me, out of my memory entirely. It was time to remove and excrete that chunk of my life out altogether.

Ayumi smiled back at me. “What are you thinking?”

“That I’m going to buy you a ring. A cheesy, cheap ring with a fat counterfeit diamond—“

She laughed. “You? Buy me a ring? Why would you do that, Mr. Man?”

“I don’t know. I might ask you to marry me or something.”

 I smiled as Ayumi blushed furiously. “You would not! You said you never wanted to get married again, as long as you lived.”

I chuckled. “But life is always getting shorter. And that part of my life is getting smaller and smaller.”

She was still red as a beet. “Ha, ha. Very funny.”

On the television, Indian investment guru, Darpak Shailendra, was sharing some of his investment strategies with the wide-eyed interviewer. Then he abruptly changed the direction of the conversation, and started talking about his swimming pool. He was always doing that.

“You’ll see,” I said, and she would. I decided I would go ring-shopping—and not necessarily for cheap and cheesy—at the first opportunity. I squeezed her hand, then let it go. “I don’t think I want to let you get away.”

She laughed. “Scott, what’s wrong with you tonight? You never talk like this.”

I just smiled. “Pass me the mondongo,” I said. “And you can go ahead and change the channel.”