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SONY READER (TBA)
A Novel by
Rebecca K. Rowe
I invoke great Juno.
Mother of Mars,
Wake power in me
Our day will come.
With your reborn son,
We claim the place of our birth
As did man on Earth.
— Imagofas mantra —
As the sun set, Sashimu waited for the power of Juno to illuminate the Martian sky. She imagined the mother of Mars prostrate across her dead son sparking life back into him, willing him reborn with the help of her people.
The first sign of Juno’s power came: a tiny glow, then flare after flare lit the plains, revealing the rolling veil of a dust storm in the distance. Arcs of lightning burst from the clouds and seared the heavens.
Sashimu pressed her eyes closed to bring the lightning inside her, and its afterimage lived on for a moment.
Juno’s voice called to her through the lightning, through the ice clouds and dust storms that howled over desert valleys and parched seas. Sashimu felt the weight of Juno’s calling and answered with prayer.
As an Imagofas, Sashimu belonged to Mars. She watched the storm sweep toward her, all too conscious that she and her fellow Imagofas must become the guardians of their planet. They would answer Juno’s call to bring her son back from the dead. It was their destiny to infuse their barren world with life.
The storm raged from Hellas Basin toward the biosphere, smothering everything beneath its vast veil of dust, even penetrating the filters to scent the evening breeze. The converters purred loudly, lapping up dust while trading carbon dioxide for oxygen-rich air.
Watching from the roof of the Hale Observatory, Sashimu felt the pulse of the biosphere as though it were an extension of herself. She drew in a ragged breath and exhaled slowly, willing her muscles to relax and her anxiety to slip away.
The Observatory Park stretched below her, its great trees, lawns and flowers all imported from Earth. From the building’s curved and ivy-covered walls, meandering paths forked out in several directions, winding past memorial statues of the first pioneers from Earth — to merge again at the main entrance.
Beyond the park, out where the biosphere divided to go south toward downtown and west toward Lowell Interplanetary Port, Sashimu could see the bleak stretch of salmon-pink utilitarian housing and research facilities. The squat buildings lacked the ornate architecture of the observatory’s carved stone arches and high, wide dome.
The colonies took special pride in both their park and their observatory — one an homage to their blue-green planet, the other a monument to the ancient architecture of home.
Sashimu saw in their precious trees, ivy, flowerbeds and stone arches only wasted energy and resources. When she visited the observatory it was to look beyond the biosphere, to feel closer to her gods. Here was the best place to experience the unharnessed power of dead Mars and his distraught mother. Here she could bear witness to the violence of their dust clouds and ice storms.
Sashimu valued these brief moments alone in the observatory. In two weeks, she and her friends would graduate from the Feynman Academy and would move to a new biosphere located hundreds of kilometers away at the foot of Olympus Mons. The Imagofas were the chosen ones; they would spearhead the next generation of colonists and terraform Mars under the guidance of Project Inventio. For months, they and their guardians had been planning the move. Sashimu’s guardian, Zazen, had regularly taken her to visit the new facility; she had already selected and decorated her favorite living space.
Many of her classmates had resisted the move to Olympus Mons, complaining that it was too remote and cut off from the colonies. The facility’s original design had caused a scandal: the living quarters were cramped, with scant space for entertainment, although the labs where they would work were enormous and lavishly equipped.
As chief scientist, Zazen tried hard to dispel fears that they would be consigned to a lifestyle even more provincial and monotonous than that offered by the colonies. On the other hand, he promised colonial support for any terraforming projects they might undertake, and even eventual self-rule. The promises won Sashimu over, and her excitement proved infectious. Now all the Imagofas looked forward to the move, especially since it meant they would be escaping the curfew recently imposed by the Order.
High security was a way of life in the colonies, but the rumor of an unplanned arrival of Interplanetary Council agents from Earth recently triggered a security crackdown on Mars. Everyone chafed under the restrictions. Sashimu accepted that the curfew was to keep her and the others safe, but its restrictions nevertheless aggravated her, no matter how many times Zazen preached its necessity.
Now she scrambled to her feet, to balance precariously on the observatory ledge. With arms outstretched and head thrown back, she whispered, “Juno, forgive me my fears and protect me. Please keep the Imagofas safe.”
Preoccupied with the storm, she ignored the sunset. The park lights snapped on, blocking out her view of the storm, their humming overriding her whispered prayers. She saw shadows moving beneath the trees near the observatory. Imagofas were supposed to be home before dark but she was breaking curfew to meet her best friend, Thesni. Sashimu nervously surveyed the ground several stories below.
Where was Thesni? She was late. Sashimu was beginning to think she would not come if it meant violating the rules. Tomorrow she would offer some lame excuse. Or maybe she has come after all, she thought. Sashimu glimpsed movement near the base of the main stairs that wound up and around the face of the observatory. She called out, “Thesni?”
Whoever was on the stairs began taking them in twos and soon disappeared from Sashimu’s view around the side of the building. From the way the figure moved, she knew it was not Thesni. She worried that it might be an Order regular intent on enforcing curfew. If Sashimu was caught, she would be in trouble.
She leapt from the observatory ledge onto a narrow maintenance ladder hidden by ivy, scaled down the side of the observatory to where the ladder ended abruptly meters above the ground. She jumped, diving into some bushes and turned to look up. Silhouetted against the lights of the observatory, standing precisely where she had stood, a tall thin man leaned out over the ledge and peered down.
Silently cursing, Sashimu froze. The man had probably spotted her from as far away as the park entrance. With the light behind him, she could not make out his face or his uniform, but he was definitely following her.
Now he was coming down the stairs. Sashimu sprinted out of the bushes and ran through the trees. Ahead, she heard a man’s voice and skidded to a stop behind a large elm. She peeked out and saw a heavyset man speaking into his Companion.
“…but if she’s coming my way, where is she? Wait. I’ve locked in on her.”
Sashimu turned and dashed toward the park entrance just as the man rounded the tree. He came after her and she could hear his heavy breathing as he put on a burst of speed to close the distance, then dropped back unable to keep up.
Beside the turnstile at the park gates, two women stood in conversation, their heads bent towards each other. Relief washed over Sashimu as she saw that they were not Order regulars. She recognized their gray uniforms; they were animal handlers from one of the ships that carried supplies between Earth and Mars.
As Sashimu ducked underneath the turnstile the women looked at her in alarm.
“Watch out, there are two weirdoes in the park,” the Imagofas said, then turned to run for home.
“Wait!” The larger of the two animal handlers ran after Sashimu and awkwardly seized her arm. The woman’s hands felt cold and clammy against Sashimu’s skin.
“Hey, let go of me!” Sashimu said. She tried to yank her arm from the handler’s grasp.
The shorter woman came up behind them and stopped. She was trying to pull something from her belt.
“Would you hurry up?” the big one shouted. Her hands felt like a death grip on Sashimu’s arm.
“You’re hurting me! Look, I’ve got to get home,” Sashimu said, struggling to break free.
“Yes!” The short handler said in relief, dislodging a Biosecur baton and pointing it at Sashimu.
The two men from the park leaped the turnstiles. Sashimu saw that they too wore gray uniforms.
“You’ve got her,” the fat one said, badly winded.
Their arrival distracted the handlers and the big woman’s grip momentarily loosened. Sashimu twisted free and ran, but her captor snagged her sleeve, yanking her back. Sashimu stumbled and the sleeve tore. Regaining her balance, she spun around and slammed her fist into the handler’s nose. With a howl of pain, the woman fell back. Before Sashimu could escape, the smaller one got a grip on the back of the Imagofas’ uniform and slammed her Biosecur baton across Sashimu’s back.
“Help!” Sashimu cried, but it was hopeless. Curfew meant there was no one around except the bunch of handlers intent on attacking her.
The shorter woman hit her again, then aimed the baton and sprayed her with Biosecur.
Desperate, Sashimu drove her foot down into the woman’s knee. The handler fell backwards. Again Sashimu tried to run, but the Biosecur was beginning to take effect. The liquid spread over her face, down her back, turning into a stretchy transparent shell that clung to her skin. It stung. The more she struggled, the more it tightened around her, immobilizing her arms and legs. Sashimu toppled to the ground, unable to move.
“How dare you touch me?” the big handler said. Blood streamed from her nose over her mouth and chin and smeared the back of her hand and sleeve where she’d wiped it on her uniform. Now the smaller one hobbled forward, favoring the leg Sashimu had kicked, and in one swift motion smashed the baton across the Imagofas’ face. “Filthy nanogen.”
Sashimu’s cries were muted by the Biosecur. She gasped for air.
“That was sloppy,” the heavyset man said. “I don’t want her beaten to death before we get her onboard.”
“Give us some slack, captain. We’ve never dealt with nanogens before,” the big handler said.
“She busted my knee.” Bending over, the short handler spat on Sashimu. The handler’s leg was bent at a strange angle.
Sashimu struggled to breathe. Her mouth was full of blood and her face felt swollen and bruised.
I invoke great Juno, Mother of Mars, Sashimu prayed silently. Don’t let me pass out.
Eternal seconds passed before the fat man standing over her dug a device from his pocket and inserted it through the Biosecur’s film into her mouth.
Sashimu filled her lungs with air; the dizziness subsided.
A heliovan touched down, its turboshafts sending up a small plume of dust at the park entrance. The muted hum of its noise-suppressed rotors was too quiet to attract attention. The four bundled Sashimu into the vehicle, which was unmarked by either the Order’s or the Interplanetary Council’s official insignia. Sashimu’s mind raced while they locked her into a compartment and closed the hatch: perhaps Zazen would get worried and contact the Order when she didn’t show for dinner.
Inside the dark confines of the heliovan, her eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. There was someone with her. She noticed the unmistakable Feynman Academy uniform. Then she made out the face.
Severely swollen eyes stared back at her, familiar eyes. Thesni sat, strapped in, across from her. Blood matted her friend’s thick blonde hair and streaked her cheeks. Smaller than Sashimu, she looked tiny and frail under the compression of the Biosecur. In the darkness of the heliovan Sashimu knew she must be offering an equally terrifying sight, with her face swollen and bruised and her mouth oozing blood around the breathing device.
At first she could not tell what direction they were being taken, then the normal biosphere noises faded and over the hum of the heliovan Sashimu heard the sounds she associated with Lowell Interplanetary Port. A knot of fear formed in Sashimu’s stomach as she realized that they might be forced offworld.
The heliovan had to stop several times at security checkpoints. With each lurching stop, Sashimu prayed she and Thesni would be discovered and the four kidnappers taken into Order custody. Each time, she was disappointed.
Once again the vehicle landed, and this time the handlers opened the door. Sashimu could see they were beneath the large beams that supported a launch pedestal. No port officials were in sight and the handlers joked with each other as they hauled Thesni out. A fifth person, another woman in handler garb, joined their captors and they all bustled around the launch area chattering to each other and, using their Companions, with LIP’s Space Traffic Control, making calibrations and receiving last minute instructions.
From the heliovan’s open door, Sashimu could see a portion of the launch pedestal and the ship. Across the vessel’s belly was painted the name Home Sweet Home. The ship was old and had seen hard service. The Imagofas could plainly see that the hull was covered by a web of surface fractures, punctuated by cracks and gouges near the well used docking equipment.
The handlers made no attempt to conceal her as they pulled her from the heliovan. Holding her between them, they boarded a cargo carrier which took them up through a pressurized tunnel and into a habitat module. They dragged Sashimu past a number of cells, a laboratory, and an area marked “Health Maintenance.” Finally they stopped at a cell labeled “Playroom,” dumped her inside, sprayed her with an evil-smelling solvent that would counteract the Biosecur, and, locking the door behind them, left her alone in the dimly lit room.
The transparent shell gradually dissolved, the process making her skin crawl and itch but restoring her ability to move. As soon as her hands were free, Sashimu wrenched the breathing device from her mouth and smashed it repeatedly against the cell wall until it broke into bits. After scratching her arms and back furiously, she rubbed the dried blood from her face and stretched. Her bruises had already healed.
The “Playroom” was larger than the tiny cells they’d passed. It was equipped with a waste remover module, exercise wall, food dispenser and sleeprest module newly mounted on the bulkhead. The place reeked of disinfectant, but underneath it her Imagofas senses detected an underlying odor of animal. No amount of cleaning could erase a decade of urine and waste that had been smeared across the floor and walls to lodge in the cell’s metal seams. A human might never smell it, but the stench made Sashimu gag.
“Just try treating me like one of your lab animals,” she told the empty room through clenched teeth, then was startled to receive an answer.
“Prepare for liftoff. Secure yourself in your sleeprest until we clear Mars and A-G takes over,” a woman’s voice said from the wall panel.
Agitated, Sashimu frantically looked around the room for something to destroy. She began yanking on the exercise equipment in the hopes that one of her captors would show up. She did not have long to wait. She heard the door slide open.
The big handler filled the doorway. She flashed a disturbing smile then her broad face took on an even more disturbing blankness. Sashimu studied her. She knew the woman had spent her life ferrying supplies between Earth and Mars, including animals for medical experiments and even darker purposes. What cruel instincts might motivate such a person?
The handler’s stungun looked to be deactivated, but she had a Biosecur baton on her belt and one hand was hidden behind her back. While the cold blue eyes examined her, Sashimu moved into a defensive stance.
“What do you plan to do with Thesni and me?” she said.
In one fluid motion, the handler was beside her, bringing her hand from behind her back to press something hard against Sashimu’s neck. Sashimu felt a stabbing pain as she fell into darkness, framed by the handler’s wide, unexpressive face floating above her.
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