Nanoannie Centime snapped awake with a galaxy-class headache. The hard surface under her was moving. Was she on a rover?
No, too smooth. Her many hours in the sky made that tilting, dipping motion familiar: she was on a Marsplane.
But the deck underneath vibrated harder than the Origami Firefly. To put the chromium plating on her headache, she was seeing everything double. And her hand! Her poor hand throbbed as if she had stuck it in the plane’s engine. For a minute she couldn’t remember why, but then her vision cleared and she saw the duct tape. Kapera’s rover: there’d been an accident.
She raised her good hand to her head and found she was wearing her helmet, her own helmet. She spoke the suit com on.
“Excuse me? Guys? Where are you taking me?”
No reply. That was bad news. She had to do something. But what?
This was real trouble. Last mear when that guy wanted her to be a hostess on a Marsnet nightsite, she could have wriggled out of that easy, even without her parents butting in.
Let’s face it, being a nightsite hostess topped what her parents planned for her: a life of servitude under Utopia Limited Corp. No friends. And for sure no boyfriend. She had to do something.
“The little hell-cat woke up,” said a voice. Synthetic, like through a translator. A guy or a babe?
“Just what we needed,” said another voice, also synthetic, but quicker, sharper.
They didn’t want her awake. Scary; should she pretend to be unconscious? Gather her strength to fight them?
Vibrations. One of them was stepping back toward her. “She’s awake,” the first voice confirmed.
The back of Nanoannie’s head hurt. Ouch, ouch, ouch! Had she fallen? She tried to reach around and find out if she had a bruise. If they had hit her while she was unconscious, she’d figure out how to get even. No, first get away. But her hand shrieked in agony as she tried to get up.
The two of them were in Mars camo, which was called red, though orange-tan was more accurate. Red camo suits. High fashion for serial killers.
One of the suits pushed her back down. “Anoxia. Stay still. I adjusted your suit to compensate.”
“Where are you taking me?” Nanoannie thought she was shrieking, but the sound came out a gravely rasp. Hm. Her throat felt as if she had swallowed a shovelful of gritty fines, mixed generously with other mineral specimens.
The other voice droned, “I found her parents’ little spread on Marsnet. Tell her she’s going home now.”
Nanoannie’s vertigo turned to outrage. Little spread? Centime Pharm was bigger than Kapera Smythe’s Pharm, plus her parents had a huge installation in Hellas Planitia. Now she was mad!
“Where is—?” Wait. Better not mention Kapera.
“Where is what?” The first synthesized voice sounded preoccupied. “Sit up, cutie-pie. Raise your arms. Lean forward.” The redsuit looped straps over Nanoannie’s head. Buckled blue bundles to the back of her suit, to the top of her helmet, and to her backside. “This goes between those long pretty legs. Tight.”
Who were they? The synthetic voices might be translators, because they spoke some weird language—or to hide their identity. They sure weren’t from Utopia Limited, her parents’ corp. Intercorp Police? Nah. Those cuy-brains only intervened in olympic dustups: wars between pharms, or squatter invasions.
Kapera. If she asked, they would know Kapera was back there at Smythe Pharm. She had to find out their intentions. Think positive. Maybe they were good guys; they’d rescue Kapera and take her somewhere.
Somewhere. Poor Kapera no longer had a home.
Nanoannie looked down.
Way, way down, at a landscape of ice and fines, through a yawning hole in the fuselage.
* * *
Kapera. Kapera Smythe, that prepubescent, precocious runt. Two mears younger than Nanoannie, but in the same online math class. But where was Kapera now? Maybe Nanoannie shouldn’t have jumped in to help her when she came rolling up to Centime Pharm in the rover she had “borrowed” from her parents, Dr. and Dr. Smythe.
If only Nanoannie lived in a big settlement like Equatorial or Sagan City, she would have a choice of careers and lots of friends. Nanoannie had never visited either city, but a kid from Sagan City in her online school said the habs were like Earth apartments.
Kapera Smythe had a ticket to Earth—well, Earth Orbitals, but it was a lot nuker than, say, Deimos or Phobos. She’d see all that nuke Earth stuff. She’d get to go to clubs and meet guys. Except Kapera was too young to appreciate guys.
Kapera’s parents, Dr. and Dr. Smythe, had sold their Pharm and were packing to catch the Down Escalator, to Earth. Martian schools didn’t teach much about the Down Escalator, because Martians hardly ever could afford to take it, especially if they were planning to come back to Mars on the Up Escalator. The Up Escalator she knew more about, because her parents yammered on endlessly about how they had come to Mars on it. It was an asteroid, actually, with tunnels inside. It had been steered into an orbit so it took people to from Earth down to Mars. Then it circled around in orbit beyond Mars—she had seen the calculations—and rendezvoused with Earth orbit to pick up the next batch of passengers.
The Escalators were named by Earth people, so they had it all upside down. When you come down to Mars, you come on the Up Escalator. When you go back up to Earth, you go on the Down Escalator.
Earth people called it the Down Escalator because the sun is the center of the solar system’s gravity, so toward the sun is down.
Earthlings will say anything to makes themselves sound more important.
* * *
Nanoannie had seen the rover coming from a long way away, kicking up a rooster-tail of dust from its rearmost axle. She first thought to run and tell her parents, Krona and Escudo Centime. But they were fussing over her sister Zloty’s upcoming first birthsol. Nanoannie was sick of how her parents doted on Zloty. Krona had gotten pregnant again with great difficulty after Nanoannie’s birth, or so they said. Nanoannie figured it was because they didn’t like having sex anymore, being too old. Krona had miscarried four times. Blamed it on Father Mars. What crap.
So she didn’t tell them about the approaching visitor. Instead, she got binoculars to enhance the logo on the side of the rover.
Hm. Smythe Pharms.
She hated to admit how overjoyed she was at the prospect of talking to an in-the-flesh person besides her parents and Zloty.
She would show Kapera her makeup and the gowns she had designed and would create just as soon as Krona bought her a desktop manufacturing unit. Then they would discuss visiting a club in Borealopolis, or maybe even Sagan City.
Kapera would rub it in that she had been to Sagan City. But Kapera was too young to appreciate the city.
True, Nanoannie was also too young, but she could pass for ten mears, the legal age for regulated intoxicants.
She kind of hoped the Smythes had brought Kapera.
* * *
The rover stopped and spread out its solar cells to catch the low afternoon sun, but only one figure got out, a small person. No sign of Dr. and Dr. Smythe.
The small figure trudged up to the outer airlock. Nanoannie rushed to open it before Kapera even punched in her code. She fidgeted while the pressure built, then grabbed her own helmet (she had suited up already, she was so excited to have company) and trotted into the low-pressure room.
“I’m in trouble,” said Kapera, soon as she got her helmet off.
Nanoannie peered at her. She’d noticed online how Kapera was losing her hair and getting skinny. It must be one of the experimental diets the Smythes went on. They ought to import a little canned ham from Earth. “What’s up? You stole your folks’ rover? Does it have enough charge to get us to Borealopolis?”
Kapera went through the membrane to the middle pressure anteroom, undid her gloves, then wiped her nose on the back of her hands.
Kapera’s eyes seemed really big. Then Nanoannie realized why. Kapera must have shaved her head. Or had gene therapy to eradicate her hair. Eyebrows, too! Her eyes looked strange and wet with no lashes or brows.
Kapera said, “Link to my suit com. I have to show you something.”
Nanoannie didn’t like to wear her contacts (the fines got in everything) and she didn’t have her helmet on, so she had to use a wall screen to look at what Kapera showed her.
Kapera’s parents’ spread was built on the same plan as Centime Pharm, but the Smythes had, over the mears, built several middle pressure greenhouses on the surface.
The wall screen displayed a greenhouse-style lab, except a lot of plants were torn up and strewn all over. A vine—or was that wiring—dangled from the ceiling swinging back and forth, as if just cut. Kapera fiddled with the perspective and focused on an airlock gaping open.
Kapera bit her lip. “See?”
Nanoannie bent the perspective around. Kapera took over, impatient, and zoomed in on a leg, visible behind a bench, as if somebody were lying on the floor. The leg was enclosed in an environment suit, but the body of the suit was under a bench.
Kapera said, “Does that look like a Sears environment suit?”
Weird question. “Who knows? Environment suits always come in that loud shade of blue in case you get lost outside. So they can find your body.”
“That’s not funny!”
Something might be kind of wrong at Smythe Pharm. “Those are your parents?”
Kapera leaned into the picture and flipped on her two-way. “Daddy! Mother! Please, wake up! You’re scaring me!”
“They might be taking a nap. Maybe they can’t hear you.”
Kapera gnawed her lip. “Mother called me just after I left. I pretended the link was futzed up. But then Daddy called, super upset. And he’s always the laid-back one.”
“Well, of course.” It would have been perfectly nuke if Nanoannie, an almost adult, had run off with the family rover. But Kapera was a mere child. “I mean, you shouldn’t just run off when your family is selling their pharm to go to Earth orbitals.”
“Sure, sure, Nanoannie. But why don’t they answer now?”
“Why not peek in your parents’ puter?”
Even through the suit, she could see Kapera stiffen. “I don’t spy on them, and they don’t spy on me.”
“Come on, hab-rat! That isn’t spying. I have a back door to my parents’ puter. Surely you must have a way in.”
Kapera’s voice went slightly hard. “My mother spied on me. That’s why I keep my journal on my wrist puter. She got snoopy about it, too. But it’s too old to link to the house net.”
“So? Turnabout is fair play.”
Kapera took a deep breath. “I have privileges in housekeeping and Daddy’s science areas. Let’s look there.” She finger-tipped into the puter, with Nanoannie as a tag-along. Letters, chore lists, recipes, corp business memos, and even family pix.
Nanoannie found a picture of a frisky little boy flirting with the camera, beside an even smaller girl. “Is that your brother Sekou and you?”
“Yep. Me and Sekou. Could you please not look at that?”
Huh? “Why not? I let you see pix of my sister.” This was not strictly true. Nanoannie had never shown Kapera pictures of Zloty. But she would have. If she thought of it.
“Never mind. Just leave that picture be.”
“How old is Sekou now, hm?”
“Born about two mears before me. Stop asking about him, cause he’s none of your business. Please.”
“You have recent pix of him? Is he cute?”
“No! And no!”
Would Sekou be open to a rendezvous in Borealopolis? Some Kiafricans were prejudiced against white-skinned Martians, but the Smythes seemed open-minded.
Maybe that didn’t extend to romance-type stuff.
Kapera scrolled files. While she was occupied, Nanoannie scanned the picture of Sekou and Kapera and stored a copy on her com’s memory.
“No clues,” said Kapera.
“Let’s go look in person.”
Cabin fever. Some Martian-born girls got so used to their home habs that they never wanted to leave. Scared to leave. Happy corp slaves. Not Nanoannie.
She liked the open sky.
* * *
Krona and Escudo were in their bedroom whispering and making stupid giggly noises. Ignoring her, or trying to plan her boring future? Nanoannie considered stealing their Marsplane, the Origami Firefly, but they’d get really mad. So she sealed her suit and made to follow Kapera.
Kapera frowned. “Shouldn’t you tell your folks you’re leaving?”
“Why? You took your parents’ rover without telling them, didn’t you?”
“I wanted to bring you my models and cuttings to keep until I come back.”
“You’re coming back?”
“Darn right. Mars is my home. Earth Orbitals are just a place we’re stopping awhile. A short while.”
“So we’re going for a joy ride?”
“No joy, just a ride. Why not tell your folks? They could get Intercorp Police to help us.”
“Nah. We won’t go inside if anything looks funny. We can call Intercorp ourselves.”
Kapera was being a hysterical little kid. Why call the cops? So Smythe Pharm was messy. So the Smythes dropped an environment suit on the floor. There couldn’t be anybody inside it.
Anyway, if Nanoannie told her parents, they wouldn’t let her go. And she needed some excitement. She and Kapera would just cruise by Smythe Pharm. By that time, Kapera’s parents would be awake. They’d invite her in to look at Kapera’s games and models, or get online to the sites her own parents had blocked.
* * *
“So. What exactly are you scared of?” Now that they were on their way, Nanoannie was scared too, and she wanted something concrete to be scared of. The rover bumped along toward Smythe Pharm.
Kapera drew a big breath. “I don’t know. When I call in, nobody answers.”
“The power is down?”
“Not sure. Thought I saw a light shining from the skylight in my room. And I heard some noises through the com connection. Hissing noises.”
“Hissing?” Nanoannie suddenly remembered that sand vampires hiss.
Sand vampires, however, were the invention of Nausicaa Azrael, the only person on Mars who actually made a living writing fiction.
Wait. Didn’t early explorers have legends of people who disappeared on the polar ice cap leaving only empty environment suits?
They crested a hill and saw Smythe Pharm in the distance.
Lights shone pallidly in the spring afternoon sunshine. Something didn’t look right.
Kapera keyed into the house com and listened.
Nanoannie said, “What do you think that hissing is?”
“Don’t know. Air escaping?”
Nanoannie suddenly regretted leaving home. “Let’s call Intercorp.”
“I did call them. Think they’ll come, being as my folks are Freemen?”
“Sure.” But Nanoannie wasn’t sure. Intercorp Police did investigate serious crimes. Murder, for example. But not always. Consider the dust-up over that apartment in Sagan City, two brothers both claiming possession. When the younger turned up dead, nothing was done, except for a newsnet editorial.
“I have to go in,” said Kapera. “Stay here and I’ll call you if anything is wrong.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Nanoannie didn’t want to go inside that empty Pharm, but she couldn’t let Kapera go in alone. That would be cowardly, and she was a woman of courage. A brave Martian Martialle. “I’ll come with you.”
* * *
At the main airlock, Kapera paused. “I don’t hear pumps or ventilators. That hissing stopped.”
Nanoannie shivered. “Let’s check everything out before we unseal our suits.”
Kapera glanced at the Pharm entrance. “Even outside something sounds wrong.”
“You can’t hear anything in Mars ambient.” But that wasn’t true. Kapera had supersensitive hearing.
Creepy, real creepy.
“I’m scared, Nanoannie.”
Nanoannie had been scared for some time, but she said, “Look, hab-rat, your parents are just asleep. They turned off their suit coms.”
Kapera keyed the airlock. As it cycled, she gazed straight ahead.
“Your dad probably yelled at you because he was mad,” said Nanoannie. “They’re giving you the silent treatment.”
Kapera’s eyes got huge. “You don’t understand, Nanoannie. He was yelling not to come back.”