Kim Stanley Robinson
Mars was empty before we came. That's not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of that happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses—except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had.
Now everybody knows the history of Mars in the human mind: how for all the generations of prehistory it was one of the chief lights in the sky, because of its redness and fluctuating intensity, and the way it stalled in its wandering course through the stars, and sometimes even reversed direction. It seemed to be saying something with all that. So perhaps it is not surprising that all the oldest names for Mars have a peculiar weight on the tongue—Nirgal, Mangala, Auqakuh, Harmakhis— they sound as if they were even older than the ancient languages we find them in, as if they were fossil words from the Ice Age or before. Yes, for thou sands of years Mars was a sacred power in human affairs; and its color made it a dangerous power, representing blood, anger, war and the heart.
Then the first telescopes gave us a closer look, and we saw the little orange disk, with its white poles and dark patches spreading and shrinking as the long seasons passed. No improvement in the technology of the telescope ever gave us much more than that; but the best Earthbound images gave Lowell enough blurs to inspire a story, the story we all know, of a dying world and a heroic people, desperately building canals to hold off the final deadly encroachment of the desert.
It was a great story. But then Mariner and Viking sent back their photos, and everything changed. Our knowledge of Mars expanded by magnitudes, we literally knew millions of times more about this planet than we had before. And there before us flew a new world, a world unsuspected.
It seemed, however, to be a world without life. People searched for signs of past or present Martian life, anything from microbes to the doomed canal-builders, or even alien visitors. As you know, no evidence for any of these has ever been found. And so stories have naturally blossomed to fill the gap, just as in Lowell's time, or in Homer's, or in the caves or on the savannah—stories of microfossils wrecked by our bio-organisms, of ruins found in dust storms and then lost forever, of Big Man and all his adventures, of the elusive little red people, always glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. And all of these tales are told in an attempt to give Mars life, or to bring it to life. Because we are still those animals who survived the Ice Age, and looked up at the night sky in wonder, and told stories. And Mars has never ceased to be what it was to us from our very beginning—a great sign, a great symbol, a great power.
And so we came here. It had been a power; now it became a place.
“. . . And so we came here. But what they didn’t realize was that by the time we got to Mars, we would be so changed by the voyage out that nothing we had been told to do mattered anymore. It wasn’t like submarining or settling the Wild West—it was an entirely new experience, and as the flight of the Ares went on, the Earth finally became so distant that it was nothing but a blue star among all the others, its voices so delayed that they seemed to come from a previous century. We were on our own; and so we became fundamentally different beings.”
All lies, Frank Chalmers thought irritably. He was sitting in a row of dignitaries, watching his old friend John Boone give the usual Boone Inspirational Address. It made Chalmers weary. The truth was, the trip to Mars had been the functional equivalent of a long train ride. Not only had they not become fundamentally different beings, they had actually become more like themselves than ever, stripped of habits until they were left with nothing but the naked raw material of their selves. But John stood up there waving a forefinger at the crowd, saying “We came here to make something new, and when we arrived our earthly differences fell away, irrelevant in this new world!” Yes, he meant it all literally. His vision of Mars was a lens that distorted everything he saw, a kind of religion.
Chalmers stopped listening and let his gaze wander over the new city. They were going to call it Nicosia. It was the first town of any size to be built free-standing on the martian surface; all the buildings were set inside what was in effect an immense clear tent, supported by a nearly invisible frame, and placed on the rise of Tharsis, west of Noctis Labyrinthus. This location gave it a tremendous view, with a distant western horizon punctuated by the broad peak of Pavonis Mons. For the Mars veterans in the crowd it was giddy stuff: they were on the surface, they were out of the trenches and mesas and craters, they could see forever! Hurrah!
A laugh from the audience drew Frank’s attention back to his old friend. John Boone had a slightly hoarse voice, and a friendly Midwestern accent, and he was by turns (and somehow even all at once) relaxed, intense, sincere, self-mocking, modest, confident, serious, and funny. In short, the perfect public speaker. And the audience was rapt; this was the First Man On Mars speaking to them, and judging by the looks on their faces they might as well have been watching Jesus produce their evening meal out of the loaves and fishes. And in fact John almost deserved their adoration, for performing a similar miracle on another plane, transforming their tin can existence into an astounding spiritual voyage. "On Mars we will come to care for each other more than ever before,” John said, which really meant, Chalmers thought, an alarming incidence of the kind of behavior seen in rat overpopulation experiments; "Mars is a sublime, exotic and dangerous place,” said John—meaning a frozen ball of oxidized rock on which they were exposed to about fifteen rem a year; "And with our work," John continued, "we are carving out a new social order and the next step in the human story”—i.e. the latest variant in primate dominance dynamics.
John finished with this flourish, and there was, of course, a huge roar of applause. Maya Toitovna then went to the podium to introduce Chalmers. Frank gave her a private look which meant he was in no mood for any of her jokes; she saw it and said, “Our next speaker has been the fuel in our little rocket ship,” which somehow got a laugh. “His vision and energy are what got us to Mars in the first place, so save any complaints you may have for our next speaker, my old friend Frank Chalmers.”
At the podium he found himself surprised by how big the town appeared. It covered a long triangle, and they were gathered at its highest point, a park occupying the western apex. Seven paths rayed down through the park to become wide, tree-lined, grassy boulevards. Between the boulevards stood low trapezoidal buildings, each faced with polished stone of a different color. The size and architecture of the buildings gave things a faintly Parisian look, Paris as seen by a drunk Fauvist in spring, sidewalk cafés and all. Four or five kilometers downslope the end of the city was marked by three slender skyscrapers, beyond which lay the low greenery of the farm. The skyscrapers were part of the tent framework, which overhead was an arched network of sky-colored lines. The tent fabric itself was invisible, and so taken all in all, it appeared that they stood in the open air. That was gold. Nicosia was going to be a popular city.
Chalmers said as much to the audience, and enthusiastically they agreed. Apparently he had the crowd, fickle souls that they were, about as securely as John. Chalmers was bulky and dark, and he knew he presented quite a contrast to John’s blond good looks; but he knew as well that he had his own rough charisma, and as he warmed up he drew on it, falling into a selection of his own stock phrases.
Then a shaft of sunlight lanced down between the clouds, striking the upturned faces of the crowd, and he felt an odd tightening in his stomach. So many people there, so many strangers! People in the mass were a frightening thing—all those wet ceramic eyes encased in pink blobs, looking at him. . . it was nearly too much. Five thousand people in a single Martian town. After all the years in Underhill it was hard to grasp.
Foolishly he tried to tell the audience something of this. “Looking,” he said. “Looking around… the strangeness of our presence here is…… accentuated.”
He was losing the crowd. How to say it? How to say that they alone in all that rocky world were alive, their faces glowing like paper lanterns in the light? How to say that even if living creatures were no more than carriers for ruthless genes, this was still, somehow, better than the blank mineral nothingness of everything else?
Of course he could never say it. Not at any time, perhaps, and certainly not in a speech. So he collected himself. “In the martian desolation," he said, "the human presence is, well, a remarkable thing” (they would care for each other more than ever before, a voice in his mind repeated sardonically). “The planet, taken in itself, is a dead frozen nightmare” (therefore exotic and sublime), “and so thrown on our own, we of necessity are in the process of… reorganizing a bit” (or forming a new social order)—so that yes, yes, yes, he found himself proclaiming exactly the same lies they had just heard from John!
Thus at the end of his speech he too got a big roar of applause. Irritated, he announced it was time to eat, depriving Maya of her chance for a final remark. Although probably she had known he would do that and so hadn't bothered to think of any. Frank Chalmers liked to have the last word.
# # #
People crowded onto the temporary platform to mingle with the celebrities. It was rare to get this many of the first hundred in one spot anymore, and people crowded around John and Maya, Samantha Hoyle, Sax Russell and Chalmers.
Frank looked over the crowd at John and Maya. He didn’t recognize the group of Terrans surrounding them, which made him curious. He made his way across the platform, and as he approached he saw Maya and John give each other a look. “There’s no reason this place shouldn’t function under normal law,” one of the Terrans was saying.
Maya said to him, “Did Olympus Mons really remind you of Mauna Loa?”
“Sure,” the man said. “Shield volcanoes all look alike.”
Frank stared over this idiot’s head at Maya. She didn’t acknowledge the look. John was pretending not to have noticed Frank’s arrival. Samantha Hoyle was speaking to another man in an undertone, explaining something; he nodded, then glanced involuntarily at Frank. Samantha kept her back turned to him. But it was John who mattered, John and Maya. And both were pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary; but the topic of conversation, whatever it had been, had gone away.
# # #
Chalmers left the platform. People were still trooping down through the park, toward tables that had been set in the upper ends of the seven boulevards. Chalmers followed them, walking under young transplanted sycamores; their khaki leaves colored the afternoon light, making the park look like the bottom of an aquarium.
At the banquet tables construction workers were knocking back vodka, getting rowdy, obscurely aware that with the construction finished, the heroic age of Nicosia was ended. Perhaps that was true for all of Mars.
The air filled with overlapping conversations. Frank sank beneath the turbulence, wandered out to the northern perimeter. He stopped at a waist-high concrete coping: the city wall. Out of the metal stripping on its top rose four layers of clear plastic. A Swiss man was explaining things to a group of visitors, pointing happily.
“An outer membrane of piezoelectric plastic generates electricity from wind. Then two sheets hold a layer of airgel insulation. Then the inner layer is a radiation-capturing membrane, which turns purple and must be replaced. More clear than a window, isn't it?”
The visitors agreed. Frank reached out and pushed at the inner membrane. It stretched until his fingers were buried to the knuckles. Slightly cool. There was faint white lettering printed on the plastic: Isidis Planitia Polymers. Through the sycamores over his shoulder he could still see the platform at the apex. John and Maya and their cluster of terran admirers were still there, talking animatedly. Conducting the business of the planet. Deciding the fate of Mars.
He stopped breathing. He felt the pressure of his molars squeezing together. He poked the tent wall so hard that he pushed out the outermost membrane, which meant that some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity in the town's grid. It was a special polymer in that respect; carbon atoms were linked to hydrogen and fluorine atoms in such a way that the resulting substance was even more piezoelectric than quartz. Change one element of the three, however, and everything shifted; substitute chlorine for fluorine, for instance, and you had saran wrap.
Frank stared at his wrapped hand, then up again at the other two elements, still bonded to each other. But without him they were nothing!
Angrily he walked into the narrow streets of the city.
# # #
Clustered in a plaza like mussels on a rock were a group of Arabs, drinking coffee. Arabs had arrived on Mars only ten years before, but already they were a force to be reckoned with. They had a lot of money, and they had teamed up with the Swiss to build a number of towns, including this one. And they liked it on Mars. “It's like a cold day in the Empty Quarter,” as the Saudis said. The similarity was such that Arabic words were slipping quickly into English, because Arabic had a larger vocabulary for this landscape: akaba for the steep final slopes around volcanoes, badia for the great world dunes, nefuds for deep sand, seyl for the billion year-old dry river beds. . . people were saying they might as well switch over to Arabic and have done with it.
Frank had spent a fair bit of time with Arabs, and the men in the plaza were pleased to see him. “Salaam aleyk!” they said to him, and he replied, “Marhabba!” White teeth flashed under black moustaches. Only men present, as usual. Some youths led him to a central table where the older men sat, including his friend Zeyk. Zeyk said, “We are going to call this square Hajr el-kra Meshab, ‘the red granite open place in town.' " He gestured at the rust-colored flagstones. Frank nodded and asked what kind of stone it was. He spoke Arabic for as long as he could, pushing the edges of his ability and getting some good laughs in response. Then he sat at the central table and relaxed, feeling like he could have been on a street in Damascus or Cairo, comfortable in the wash of Arabic and expensive cologne.
He studied the men’s faces as they talked. An alien culture, no doubt about it. They weren’t going to change just because they were on Mars, they put the lie to John’s vision. Their thinking clashed radically with Western thought; for instance the separation of church and state was wrong to them, making it impossible for them to agree with Westerners on the very basis of government. And they were so patriarchal that some of their women were said to be illiterate—illiterates, on Mars! That was a sign. And indeed these men had the dangerous look that Frank associated with machismo, the look of men who oppressed their women so cruelly that naturally the women struck back where they could, terrorizing sons who then terrorized wives who terrorized sons and so on and so on, in an endless death spiral of twisted love and sex hatred. So that in that sense they were all madmen.
Which was one reason Frank liked them. And certainly they would come in useful to him, acting as a new locus of power. Defend a weak new neighbor to weaken the old powerful ones, as Machiavelli had said. So he drank coffee, and gradually, politely, they shifted to English.
“How did you like the speeches?” he asked, looking into the black mud at the bottom of his demitasse.
“John Boone is the same as ever,” old Zeyk replied. The others laughed angrily. “When he says we will make an indigenous Martian culture, he only means some of the Terran cultures here will be promoted, and others attacked. Those perceived as regressive will be singled out for destruction. It is a form of Ataturkism.”
“He thinks everyone on Mars should become American,” said a man named Nejm.
“Why not?” Zeyk said, smiling. “It's already happened on Earth.”
“No," Frank said. "You shouldn’t misunderstand Boone. People say he’s self-absorbed, but—”
“He is self-absorbed!” Nejm cried. “He lives in a hall of mirrors! He thinks that we have come to Mars to establish a good old American superculture, and that everyone will agree to it because it is the John Boone plan.”
Zeyk said, “He doesn’t understand that other people have other opinions.”
“It’s not that,” Frank said. “It’s just that he knows they don’t make as much sense as his.”
They laughed at that, but the younger men’s hoots had a bitter edge. They all believed that before their arrival Boone had argued in secret against UN approval for Arab setlements. Frank encouraged this belief, which was almost true—John disliked any ideology that might get in his way. He wanted the slate as blank as possible in everybody who came up.
The Arabs, however, believed that John disliked them in particular. Young Selim el-Hayil opened his mouth to speak, and Frank gave him a swift warning glance. Selim froze, then pursed his mouth angrily. Frank said, “Well, he’s not as bad as all that. Although to tell the truth I’ve heard him say it would have been better if the Americans and Russians had been able to claim the planet when they arrived, like explorers in the old days.”
Their laughter was brief and grim. Selim's shoulders hunched as if struck. Frank shrugged and smiled, spread his hands wide. “But it’s pointless! I mean, what can he do?”
Old Zeyk lifted his eyebrows. “Opinions vary.”
# # #
Chalmers got up to move on, meeting for one instant Selim’s insistent gaze. Then he strode down a side street, one of the narrow lanes that connected the city’s seven main boulevards. Most were paved with cobblestones or streetgrass, but this one was rough blond concrete. He slowed by a recessed doorway, looked in the window of a closed boot manufactury. His faint reflection appeared in a pair of bulky walker boots.
Opinions vary. Yes, a lot of people had underestimated John Boone—Chalmers had done it himself many times. An image came to him of John in the White House, pink with conviction, his disobedient blond hair flying wildly, the sun streaming in the Oval Office windows and illuminating him as he waved his hands and paced the room, talking away while the President nodded and his aides watched, pondering how best to co-opt that electrifying charisma. Oh, they had been hot in those days, Chalmers and Boone; Frank with the ideas and John the front man, with a momentum that was practically unstoppable. It would be more a matter of derailment, really.
Selim el-Hayil's reflection appeared among the boots.
“Is it true?” he demanded.
“Is what true?” said Frank crossly.
“Is Boone anti-Arab?”
“What do you think?”
“Was he the one who blocked permission to build the mosque on Phobos?”
“He’s a powerful man.”
The young Saudi’s face twisted. “The most powerful man on Mars, and he only wants more! He wants to be king!” Selim made a fist and struck his other hand. He was slimmer than the other Arabs, weak-chinned, his moustache covering a small mouth.
“The treaty comes up for renewal soon,” Frank said. “And Boone’s coalition is bypassing me.” He ground his teeth. “I don't know what their plans are, but I'm going to find out tonight. You can imagine what they’ll be, anyway. Western biases, certainly. He may withhold his approval of a new treaty unless it contains guarantees that all settlements will be made only by the original treaty signatories.” Selim shivered, and Frank pressed; “It’s what he wants, and it’s very possible he could get it, because his new coalition makes him more powerful than ever. It could mean an end to settlement by non-signatories. You'll become guest scientists. Or get sent back.”
In the window the reflection of Selim's face appeared a kind of mask, signifying rage. “Battal, battal,” he was muttering. Very bad, very bad. His hands twisted as if out of his control, and he muttered about the Koran or Camus, Persepolis or the Peacock Throne, references scattered nervously among non-sequiturs. Babbling.
“Talk means nothing,” Chalmers said harshly. “When it comes down to it, nothing matters but action.”
That gave the young Arab pause. “I can’t be sure,” he said at last.
Frank poked him in the arm, watched a shock run through the man. “It’s your people we’re talking about. It’s this planet we’re talking about.”
Selim’s mouth disappeared under his moustache. After a time he said, “It’s true.”
Frank said nothing. They looked in the window together, as if judging boots.
Finally Frank raised a hand. “I’ll talk to Boone again,” he said quietly. “Tonight. He leaves tomorrow. I’ll try to talk to him, to reason with him. I doubt it will matter. It never has before. But I’ll try. Afterwards… we should meet.”
“In the park, then, the southernmost path. Around eleven.”
Chalmers transfixed him with a stare. “Talk means nothing,” he said brusquely, and walked away.
# # #
The next boulevard Chalmers came to was crowded with people clumped outside open-front bars, or kiosks selling cous-cous and bratwurst. Arab and Swiss. It seemed an odd combination, but they meshed well.
Tonight some of the Swiss were distributing face masks from the door of an apartment. Apparently they were celebrating this stadtfest as a kind of Mardi Gras, Fassnacht as they called it, with masks and music and every manner of social inversion, just as it was back home on those wild February nights in Basel and Zürich and Luzern. . . . On an impulse Frank joined the line. “Around every profound spirit a mask is always growing,” he said to two young women in front of him. They nodded politely and then resumed conversation in guttural Schwyzerdüütsch, a dialect never written down, a private code, incomprehensible even to Germans. It was another impenetrable culture, the Swiss, in some ways even more so than the Arabs. That was it, Frank thought; they worked well together because they were both so insular that they never made any real contact. He laughed out loud as he took a mask, a black face with studded with red paste gems. He put it on.
A line of masked celebrants snaked down the boulevard, drunk, loose, at the edge of control. At an intersection the boulevard opened up into a small plaza, where a fountain shot sun-colored water into the air. Around the fountain a steel drum band hammered out a calypso tune. People gathered around, dancing or hopping in time to the low bong of the bass drum. A hundred meters overhead a vent in the tent frame poured frigid air down onto the plaza, air so cold that little flakes of snow floated in it, glinting in the light like chips of mica. Then fireworks banged just under the tenting, and colored sparks fell down through the snowflakes.
# # #
Sunset, more than any other time of day, made it clear that they stood on an alien planet; something in the slant and redness of the light was fundamentally wrong, upsetting expectations wired into the savannah brain over millions of years. This evening was providing a particularly garish and unsettling example of the phenomenon. Frank wandered in its light, making his way back to the city wall. The plain south of the city was littered with rocks, each one dogged by a long black shadow. Under the concrete arch of the city's south gate he stopped. No one there. The gates were locked during festivals like these, to keep drunks from going out and getting hurt. But Frank had gotten the day's emergency code out of the fire department AI that morning, and when he was sure no one was watching he tapped out the code and hurried into the lock. He put on a walker, boots, and helmet, and went through the middle and outer doors.
Outside it was intensely cold as always, and the diamond pattern of the walker's heating element burned through his clothes. He crunched over concrete and then duricrust. Loose sand flowed east, pushed by the wind.
Grimly he looked around. Rocks everywhere. A planet sledgehammered billions of times. And meteors still falling. Someday one of the towns would take a hit. He turned and looked back. It looked like an aquarium glowing in the dusk. There would be no warning, but everything would suddenly fly apart, walls, vehicles, trees, bodies. The Aztecs had believed the world would end in one of four ways: earthquake, fire, flood, or jaguars falling from the sky. Here there would be no fire. Nor earthquake nor flood, now that he thought of it. Leaving only the jaguars.
The twilight sky was a dark pink over Pavonis Mons. To the east stretched Nicosia’s farm, a long low greenhouse running downslope from the city. From this angle one could see that the farm was larger than the town proper, and jammed with green crops. Frank clumped to one of its outer locks, and entered.
Inside the farm it was hot, a full sixty degrees warmer than outside, and fifteen degrees warmer than in the city. He had to keep his helmet on, as the farm air was tailored to the plants, heavy on CO2 and short on oxygen. He stopped at a work station and fingered through drawers of small tools and pesticide patches, gloves and bags. He selected three tiny patches and put them in a plastic bag, then slipped the bag gently into the walker's pocket. The patches were clever pesticides, biosaboteurs designed to provide plants with systemic defenses; he had been reading about them, and knew of a combination that in animals would be deadly to the organism. . . .
He put a pair of shears in the walker's other pocket. Narrow gravel paths led him up between long beds of barley and wheat, back toward the city proper. He went in the lock leading into town, unclipped his helmet, stripped off the walker and boots, transferred the contents of the walker pockets to his coat. Then he went back into the lower end of town.
Here the Arabs had built a medina, insisting that such a neighborhood was crucial to a city’s health; the boulevards narrowed, and between them lay warrens of twisted alleyways taken from the maps of Tunis or Algiers, or generated randomly. Nowhere could you see from one boulevard to the next, and the sky overhead was visible only in plum strips, between buildings that leaned together.
Most of the alleys were empty now, as the party was uptown. A pair of cats skulked between buildings, investigating their new home. Frank took the shears from his pocket and scratched into a few plastic windows, in Arabic lettering, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew. He walked on, whistling through his teeth. Corner cafés were little caves of light. Bottles clinked like prospectors’ hammers. An Arab sat on a squat black speaker, playing an electric guitar.
He found the central boulevard, walked up it. Boys in the branches of the lindens and sycamores shouted songs to each other in Schwyzerdüütsch. One ditty was in English: "John Boone, Went to the moon, No fast cars, He went to Mars!" Small disorganized music bands barged through the thickening crowd. Some moustached men dressed as American cheerleaders flounced expertly through a complicated can-can routine. Kids banged little plastic drums. It was loud; the tenting absorbed sound, so there weren’t the echoes one heard under crater domes, but it was loud nevertheless.
Up there, where the boulevard opened into the sycamore park—that was John himself, surrounded by a small crowd. He saw Chalmers approaching and waved, recognizing him despite the mask. That was how the first hundred knew each other…
“Hey, Frank,” he said. “You look like you’re having a good time.”
“I am,” Frank said through his mask. “I love cities like this, don’t you? A mixed-species flock. It shows you what a diverse collection of cultures Mars is.”
John’s smile was easy. His eyes shifted as he surveyed the boulevard below.
Sharply Frank said, “A place like this is a crimp in your plan, isn’t it?”
Boone’s gaze returned to him. The surrounding crowd slipped away, sensing the agonistic nature of the exchange. Boone said to Frank, “I don’t have a plan.”
"Oh come on! What about your speech?”
Boone shrugged. “Maya wrote it.”
A double lie: that Maya wrote it, that John didn’t believe it. Even after all these years it was almost like talking to a stranger. To a politician at work. “Come on, John," Frank snapped. "You believe all that and you know it. But what are you going to do with all these different nationalities? All the ethnic hatreds, the religious manias? Your coalition can’t possibly keep a thumb on all this. You can’t keep Mars for yourselves, John, it’s not a scientific station anymore, and you’re not going to get a treaty that makes it one.”
“We’re not trying to.”
“Then why are you trying to cut me out of the talks!”
“I'm not!” John looked injured. “Relax, Frank. We’ll hammer it out together just like we always have. Relax.”
Frank stared at his old friend, nonplussed. What to believe? He had never known how to think of John—the way he had used Frank as a springboard, the way he was so friendly. . . hadn't they begun as allies, as friends?
It occurred to him that John was looking for Maya. “So where is she?”
“Around somewhere,” Boone said shortly.
It had been years since they had been able to talk about Maya. Now Boone gave him a sharp look, as if to say it was none of his business. As if everything of importance to Boone had become, over the years, none of Frank's business.
Frank left him without a word.
# # #
The sky was now a deep violet, streaked by yellow cirrus clouds. Frank passed two figures wearing white ceramic dominoes, the old Comedy and Tragedy personas, handcuffed together. The city's streets had gone dark and windows blazed, silhouettes partying in them. Big eyes darted in every blurry mask, looking to find the source of the tension in the air. Under the tidal sloshing of the crowd there was a low tearing sound.
He shouldn’t have been surprised, he shouldn't. He knew John as well as one could know another person; but it had never been any of his business. Into the trees of the park, under the hand-sized leaves of the sycamores. When had it been any different! All that time together, those years of friendship; and none of it had mattered. Diplomacy by other means.
# # #
He looked at his watch. Nearly eleven. He had an appointment with Selim. Another appointment. A lifetime of days divided into quarter hours had made him used to running from one appointment to the next, changing masks, dealing with crisis after crisis, managing, manipulating, doing business in a hectic rush that never ended; and here it was a celebration, Mardi Gras, Fassnacht! and he was still doing it. He couldn't remember any other way.
He came on a construction site, skeletal magnesium framing surrounded by piles of bricks and sand and paving stones. Careless of them to leave such things around. He stuffed his coat pockets with fragments of brick just big enough to hold. Straightening up, he noticed someone watching him from the other side of the site—a little man with a thin face under spiky black dreadlocks, watching him intently. Something in the look was disconcerting, it was as if the stranger saw through all his masks and was observing him so closely because he was aware of his thoughts, his plans.
Spooked, Chalmers beat a quick retreat into the bottom fringe of the park. When he was sure he had lost the man, and that no one else was watching, he began throwing stones and bricks down into the lower town, hurling them as hard as he could. And one for that stranger too, right in the face! Overhead the tent framework was visible only as a faint pattern of occluded stars; it seemed they stood free, in a chill night wind. Air circulation was high tonight, of course. Broken glass, shouts. A scream. It really was loud, people were going crazy. One last paving stone, heaved at a big lit picture window across the grass. It missed. He slipped further into the trees.
Near the southern wall he saw someone under a sycamore—Selim, circling nervously. “Selim,” Frank called quietly, sweating. He reached into his jumper pocket, carefully felt in the bag and palmed the trio of stem patches. Synergy could be so powerful, for good or ill. He walked forward and roughly embraced the young Arab. The patches hit and penetrated Selim's light cotton shirt. Frank pulled back.
Now Selim had about six hours. “Did you speak with Boone?” he asked.
“I tried," Chalmers said. "He didn’t listen. He lied to me.” It was so easy to feign distress: “Twenty-five years of friendship, and he lied to me!” He struck a tree trunk with his palm, and the patches flew away in the dark. He controlled himself. "His coalition is going to recommend that all Martian settlements originate in the countries that signed the first treaty.” It was possible; and it was certainly plausible.
“He hates us!” Selim cried.
“He hates everything that gets in his way. And he can see that Islam is still a real force in people’s lives. It shapes the way people think, and he can’t stand that.”
Selim shuddered. In the gloom the whites of his eyes were bright. “He has to be stopped.”
Frank turned aside, leaned against a tree. “I… don't know.”
“You said it yourself. Talk means nothing.”
Frank circled the tree, feeling dizzy. You fool, he thought, talk means everything. We are nothing but information exchange, talk is all we have!
He came on Selim again and said, “How?”
“The planet. It is our way.”
“The city gates are locked tonight.”
That stopped him. His hands started to twist.
Frank said, “But the gate to the farm is still open.”
“But the farm's outer gates will be locked.”
Frank shrugged, let him figure it out.
And quickly enough Selim blinked, and said "Ah." Then he was gone.
# # #
Frank sat between trees, on the ground. It was a sandy damp brown dirt, product of a great deal of engineering. Nothing in the city was natural, nothing.
After a time he got to his feet. He walked through the park, looking at people. If I find one good city I will spare the man. But in an open area masked figures darted together to grapple and fight, surrounded by watchers who smelled blood. Frank went back to the construction site to get more bricks. He threw them and some people saw him, and he had to run. Into the trees again, into the little tented wilderness, escaping predators while high on adrenalin, the greatest drug of all. He laughed wildly.
Suddenly he caught sight of Maya, standing alone by the temporary platform up at the apex. She wore a white domino, but it was certainly her: the proportions of the figure, the hair, the stance itself, all unmistakably Maya Toitovna. The first hundred, the little band; they were the only ones truly alive to him any more, the rest were ghosts. Frank hurried toward her, tripping over uneven ground. He squeezed a rock buried deep in one coat pocket, thinking Come on, you bitch. Say something to save him. Say something that will make me run the length of the city to save him!
She heard his approach and turned. She wore a phosphorescent white domino, with metallic blue sequins. It was hard to see her eyes.
“Hello, Frank,” she said, as if he wore no mask. He almost turned and ran. Mere recognition was almost enough to do it . . . .
But he stayed. He said, “Hello, Maya. Nice sunset, wasn't it?”
“Spectacular. Nature has no taste. It's just a city inauguration, but it looked like Judgement Day.”
They were under a streetlight, standing on their shadows. She said, “Have you enjoyed yourself?”
“Very much. And you?”
“It’s getting a little wild.”
“It’s understandable, don’t you think? We’re out of our holes, Maya, we’re on the surface at last! And what a surface! You only get these kind of long views on Tharsis.”
“It's a good location,” she agreed.
“It will be a great city,” Frank predicted. “But where do you live these days, Maya?”
“In Underhill, Frank, just as always. You know that.”
“But you’re never there, are you? I haven’t seen you in a year or more.”
“Has it been that long? Well, I’ve been in Hellas. Surely you heard?”
“Who would tell me?”
She shook her head and blue sequins glittered. “Frank.” She turned aside, as if to walk away from the question's implications.
Angrily Frank circled her, stood in her path. “That time on the Ares,” he said. His voice was tight, and he twisted his neck to loosen his throat, to make speech easier. “What happened, Maya? What happened?”
She shrugged and did not meet his gaze. For a long time she did not speak. Then she looked at him. “The spur of the moment,” she said.
# # #
And then it was ringing midnight, and they were in the martian time slip, the thirty-nine and a half minute gap between 12:00:00 and 12:00:01, when all the clocks went blank or stopped moving. This was how the first hundred had decided to reconcile Mars’s slightly longer day with the twenty-four hour clock, and the solution had proved oddly satisfactory. Every night to step for a while out of the flicking numbers, out of the remorseless sweep of the second hand…
And tonight as the bells rang midnight, the whole city went mad. Forty minutes outside of time; it was bound to be the peak of the celebration, everyone knew that instinctively. Fireworks were going off, people were cheering; sirens tore through the sound, and the cheering redoubled. Frank and Maya watched the fireworks, listened to the noise.
Then there was a noise that was somehow different: desperate cries, serious screams. “What’s that?” Maya said.
“A fight,” Frank replied, cocking an ear. “Something done on the spur of the moment, perhaps.” She stared at him, and quickly he added, “Maybe we should go have a look.”
The cries intensified. Trouble somewhere. They started down through the park, their steps getting longer, until they were in the martian lope. The park seemed bigger to Frank, and for a moment he was scared.
The central boulevard was covered with trash. People darted through the dark in predatory schools. A nerve-grating siren went off, the alarm that signaled a break in the tent. Windows were shattering up and down the boulevard. There on the streetgrass was a man flat on his back, the surrounding grass smeared with black streaks. Chalmers seized the arm of a woman crouched over him. “What happened?” he shouted.
She was weeping. “They fought! They are fighting!”
“Who? Swiss, Arab?”
“Strangers,” she said. “Ausländer.” She looked blindly at Frank. “Get help!”
Frank rejoined Maya, who was talking to a group next to another fallen figure. “What the hell’s going on?” he said to her as they took off toward the city’s hospital.
“It’s a riot,” she said. “I don’t know why.” Her mouth was a straight slash, in skin as white as the domino still covering her eyes.
Frank pulled off his mask and threw it away. There was broken glass all over the street. A man rushed at them. “Frank! Maya!”
It was Sax Russell; Frank had never seen the little man so agitated. “It’s John—he’s been attacked!”
“What?” they exclaimed together.
“He tried to stop a fight, and three or four men jumped him. They knocked him down and dragged him away!”
“You didn’t stop them?” Maya cried.
“We tried—a whole bunch of us chased them. But they lost us in the medina.”
Maya looked at Frank.
“What's going on!” he cried. “Where would anyone take him?”
“The gates,” she said.
“But they're locked tonight, aren’t they?”
“Maybe not to everyone.”
They followed her to the medina. Streetlights were broken, there was glass underfoot. They found a fire marshall and went to the Turkish Gate; he unlocked it and several of them hurried through, throwing on walkers at emergency speed. Then out into the night to look around, illuminated by the bathysphere glow of the city. Frank's ankles hurt with the night cold, and he could feel the precise configuration of his lungs, as if two globes of ice had been inserted in his chest, to cool the rapid beat of his heart.
Nothing out there. Back inside. Over to the northern wall and the Syrian Gate, and out again under the stars. Nothing.
It took them a long time to think of the farm. By then there were about thirty of them in walkers, and they ran down and through the lock and flooded down the farm's aisles, spreading out, running between crops.
They found him among the radishes. His jacket was pulled over his face, in the standard emergency air pocket; he must have done it unconsciously, because when they rolled him carefully onto one side, they saw a lump behind one ear.
“Get him inside,” Maya said, her voice a bitter croak— “Hurry, get him inside.”
Four of them lifted him. Chalmers cradled John’s head, and his fingers were intertwined with Maya’s. They trotted back up the shallow steps. Through the farm gate they stumbled, back into the heat of the city. One of the Swiss led them to the nearest medical center, already crowded with desperate people. They got John onto an empty bench. His unconscious expression was pinched, determined. Frank tore off his helmet and went to work pulling rank, bulling into the emergency rooms and shouting at the doctors and nurses. They ignored him until one doctor said, “Shut up. I’m coming.” She went into the hallway and with a nurse’s help clipped John into a monitor, then checked him out with the abstracted, absent look doctors have while working: hands at neck and face and head and chest, stethoscope. . . .
Maya explained what they knew. The doctor took down an oxygen unit from the wall, looking at the monitor. Her mouth was bunched into a displeased little knot. Maya sat at the end of the bench, face suddenly distraught. Her domino had long since disappeared.
Frank crouched beside her.
“We can keep working on him,” the doctor said, “but I’m afraid he’s gone. Too long without oxygen, you know.”
“Keep working on him,” Maya said.
They did, of course. Eventually other medical people arrived, and they carted him off to an emergency room. Frank, Maya, Sax, Samantha, and a number of locals sat outside in the hall. Doctors came and went; their faces had the blank look they took on in the presence of death. Protective masks. One came out and shook his head. “He’s dead. Too long out there.”
Frank leaned his head back against the wall.
When Reinhold Messner returned from the first solo climb of Everest, he was severely dehydrated, and utterly exhausted; he fell down most of the last part of the descent, and collapsed on the Rongbuk glacier, and he was crawling over it on hands and knees when the woman who was his entire support team reached him; and he looked up at her out of a delirium, and said “Where are all my friends?”
It was quiet. No sound but the low hum and whoosh that one never escaped on Mars.
Maya put a hand on Frank's shoulder, and he almost flinched; his throat clamped down to nothing, it really hurt. “I’m sorry,” he managed to say.
She shrugged the remark aside, frowned. She had somewhat the air of the medical people. “Well,” she said, “you never liked him much anyway.”
“True,” he said, thinking it would be politic to seem honest with her at that moment. But then he shuddered and said bitterly, “What do you know about what I like or don’t like.”
He shrugged her hand aside, struggled to his feet. She didn’t know; none of them knew. He started to go into the emergency room, changed his mind. Time enough for that at the funeral. He felt hollow; and suddenly it seemed to him that everything good had gone away.
He left the medical center. Impossible not to feel sentimental at such moments. He walked through the strangely hushed darkness of the city, into the land of Nod. The streets glinted as if stars had fallen to the pavement. People stood in clumps, silent, stunned by the news. Frank Chalmers made his way through them, feeling their stares, moving without thought toward the platform at the top of town; and as he walked he said to himself, Now we’ll see what I can do with this planet.