She was born on the Fourth of July, coincidentally high summer in the northern hemisphere of Mars, though the wild slopes of Olympus Mons were still white with seasonless snow. Outside, I knew, the grounds of Blue Heaven were garden green, crystal palaces in the shade of terragenic trees, oak and pine, poplar and quaking aspen promiscuously mingled, walkways winding among lakes, crossing streams, there for the guests, just as we who came to serve.
High summer in the year 3398, down in the dank sub-basements of Blue Heaven, somewhere on Mars, where she was born while I stood and watched.
I'd come to the birthing room, with its musty smells of mildew and damp concrete, to do my job, one of my many jobs, here ahead of the others, as usual, pulling the pile of body bags into a long row by the far wall, lining them up neatly, then idly looking at the tags.
All the usual. A twinkie here, a twee there, the occasional snatch or stud. Mostly ordinaries, though. Too many ordinaries. Ordinaries the worst, piling up in numbers as the secret courts grow meaner and more conservative, day by day.
Bastards were easier on me than they knew.
A little smirk.
Too late now.
You could hear them just before they came through the door; hard plastic boot heels echoing on the carpetless floor, voices arguing, arguing about somethinghers sharp, nasal, bitchy, his deep and gravelly, a froggy voice, something from a cheap, imitative kiddie drama.
The sort of crap my kids used to watch, back in the Venusberg days.
Pale, hazy yellow skies. Suburban neighborhoods. Home and hearth. Job and kids. Housewives. Housewives everywhere. Home alone. Waiting and waiting.
Kermanshah was the taller of the two: angular, lean, short, scruffy, dirt-brown hair, carrying the antique riding crop she liked to use for a "starter" tucked under one arm, towering over Jethro, with his big, thick arms and not-quite-shaven, bowling-ball head.
She said, "Ah, there you are, Merry. Let's get this show on the road."
I moved, arbitrarily, to one end of the body-bag row, leaning down to reach for a zipper.
"Not that one."
Kermanshah snapped, "Jethro
They stood facing one another, pissed off about something. He said, "If you think I'm going to miss out on this one, you've got a fucking screw loose."
Brown eyes bleak, she whipped the riding crop through the air between them, once, twice, then stood staring. "Dammit, then." A gesture, at the row of bags.
Jethro squatted and duckwalked along the row, looking at the tags, one after another. "Here she is." He straightened up. "Merry."
I kicked off my shoes and tossed them in a corner, away from where the mess would spread toward the drains, slipped off my coverall and hung it on a hook, damp air cool on my skin. Then I leaned down and tugged the body bag out of the row, pulling it toward the middle of the floor, stuck my middle finger through the zipper's D-ring and gave it a hard yank.
Blood-warm amniotic fluid gushed out, rushed over my feet, started gurgling in the drains, while Jethro and Kermanshah took dainty steps back, keeping their boots dry. Her eyes were sharp, angry, his bright with joy.
I wrapped the woman's sopping, pale blonde hair around my hand and pulled her out of the bag, rolling her face-down on the floor, face down in flowing slime, put my hand in the middle of her back and gave one long, hard push, flattening her. There was another gush, fluid from her lungs, then, when I let go, a long, ragged, gagging gasp.
I kneeled in the wet beside her, hand still on her back, stroking bare wet flesh, and whispered in her ear, "Easy. Easy now. It's all right. You'll be all right. Just lie still for a minute."
Maybe so. I remembered exactly what this moment was like, and I'd been just fine. Considering.
"Roll her over, Merry."
When I looked up, Jethro had kicked off his own boots, grinning, grinning, and was unzipping the front of his coverall. Kermanshah stood back by the door, arms folded, eyes hard, but not looking away, not for a minute, and she said, "Look at her. She looks just like some goddam little sparrow. Cat's gotcha now, bitch."
The woman, whoever she was, coughed hard when I rolled her on her back, and whispered, "Sparrow?" Voice raspy from having been under water for so long.
Utterly bewildered look on her face, eyes deeply puzzled, as if she had no idea where she was, or why she was here. Knowing why and where made it easy for me. That and knowing I deserved every bit of it.
Jethro padded over, bare feet splashing in the residual muck, marriage tackle up and ready.
Kermanshah muttered, "Hurry the fuck up. I've got a lunch date."
She wasn't a beautiful woman, though her innocent face and confused eyes might have made her pretty. Still, she was female, tits and bush right where they belonged, and that's enough for most men.
Jethro said, "Hold her still for me, Merry." He started to kneel, then, "No, wait. Lay on your back and pull her on top of you. That's it. Legs apart."
I put my arms under hers, pulling her straight, locking her knees with mine, holding her spread eagled, tiny bird of a girl hardly any weight at all on top of me, but Jethro was heavy enough when he lay down on top of us both, squeezing the breath out of her.
I could see her out of the corner of my eye, face wan and drawn, eyes flooding with fear. In just a moment, I'll see that agony, familiar agony, the agony of all those housewives, back in midnight Venusberg, housewives seen one by one by
I felt him make his first thrust, and her eyes brightened with
something, mouth dropping open, color rushing into her cheeks. She twisted slightly and looked at me, astonished.
Oh, kiddo. I didn't get a chance to look at your tag, but you've been snatched, haven't you? She looked away, face flooded with the realization of it, starting to shiver as that first quick, involuntary orgasm began to build.
So which punishment's worse, girlie, yours or mine? I could feel her coccyx punching rhythmically into my abdomen, just above where my genitals used to be, once upon a long-gone time ago.
· · · · ·
When I got her down to the barracks, Janet, my favorite ordinary, followed us into the bathroom, nosy about who the new girl might be, watching as I sat her up on the counter by the sink, got out towels, a facecloth, and soap.
She started to reach out a hand, suddenly recoiled, nose wrinkling. Not disgust. Recognition.
"Jesus! This one's going to bother the hell out of the poor studs!"
I leaned in, taking a deep breath. Nodded. Right. They'd have trouble sleeping when she was around, and this was the only refuge they had.
Janet said, "It bothers the hell out of me, come to think of it." She leaned in, sniffing delicately, grimacing. "You?"
I wet the washcloth and soaped it up. "They left my vomeronasal organ intact for a reason." No pain, no gain.
Janet looked away. "Well."
The woman on the countertop said, "Why are you people smelling me? It's not my fault that man
" She suddenly blushed and squirmed, nipples popping erect, as if in a pornographic cartoon.
Janet said, "Gawd!"
I nodded, gently taking her by the wrist, starting her spongebath as far out as possible. "Yeah. She's about as snatched as anyone I've ever seen." Put a man this far into stud and he'd have a permanent hard-on, then soon gangrene.
She was staring at us, mouth open, almost panting, obviously getting more and more aroused as I washed her. When Janet, eyes bleak now, reached out to brush the hair from her eyes, the woman seemed to lean into the hand, as if trying to rub her face against it.
"Lord. What'd you do to get yourself sent here?"
That puzzled look again. "I don't
What're you talking about?"
Janet looked at me.
I said, "What's your name, kiddo? You look familiar."
"I do?" She was distracted from the washrag now, which was a good thing, since I'd had to move on to her legs. She said, "I, um
Didn't that woman call me Sparrow? The one with the stick."
Then she said, "Ah! Do that some more!"
Janet whispered, "God have mercy." My friend Janet was here because, one fine spring morning, just after breakfast, back on Earth in the merry month of May, she poisoned her husband and then drowned her children in a bid to keep her lover from leaving her for a less inconvenient woman.
I said, "Where were you before they put you in the rebirthing bag, Sparrow?"
Puzzled look. "What do you mean? I wasn't anywhere before you took me out. Just in the bag." Forever and ever.
Behind me, Janet made something like a hiss.
Then Sparrow said, "Could you put your hand right there, please? For just a minute."
Long pause. Then, eyes growing desperate, she said, "Please?"
"Mindwiped," I said. "Mindwiped and then snatched to within an inch of her life." Sparrow had me by the wrist and was trying to force me to do what she wanted.
Janet said, "Why the hell would they do that? I mean, what good does it do to send her here if she don't know why she's being punished?"
Sparrow leaned back against the mirror, and said, "Um. Yeah. Thanks."
Janet stood up, turning her back. "Oh, man!"
You get used to a lot here. You have to. Especially if you're an ordinary like Janet, just here to suffer. But still. I said, "It's kind of like stepping."
Janet said, "But it ain't stepping. Not like that. Not that far."
No, not that far. Stepping was a light mindwipe and very mild snatching, something a rich and powerful man will get done to an unsatisfactory wife. Afterward, she's very sweet and sexy. Though not as sweet as a rich woman's stepped-on husband, who will forever afterward be so very
Turning to face us again, but looking at herself in the mirror, Janet said, "That was quick."
"She's going to be very popular with the guests."
Sparrow, aware of the world outside her body again for a little while, said, "Where am I? What
Drying her with the towel, I said, "This is Blue Heaven on Mars. Where they send all the bad little boys and girls to pay for their sins. Where all the very rich little boys and girls come for a little harmless sport."
"Sins?" That bewildered look again. "I
" Sparrow looked right at me with suddenly penetrating blue eyes, exactly like you'd imagine the eyes of a telepath would be, and asked, "So, why are you here, Merry?"
Guileless as a child. Straight question. Straight answer.
Beside us, Janet was suddenly looking away, face in shadow.
So I said, "I'm the Venusberg Strangler."
Her brows knit together, deepening the little furrow between them, and you could see it didn't mean a thing.
· · · · ·
An eye for an eye.
Let the punishment fit the crime.
Fine. I get that part.
But these other little bits
Sometimes, it's like I'm here as a decoration. Or maybe an object lesson, I don't know. Sometimes they'll dress me up in a fringed loincloth, turban round my head, scimitar strapped across my back, and make me stand by one of the cafe entrances like some kind of guard.
Guests get curious, ask around, finally someone tells them who I am, and the women's eyes get big and round. That's when they make me drop the loincloth, and the men's eyes get big and round.
Every now and again, you'll see a shadow of disappointment in some woman's eyes, one of her sick little fantasies spoiled.
The Venusberg Strangler.
I try to stand up straight and bland.
Mornings on Mars, especially these summer mornings, you get a fine view from the Rimshot Cafe, eastward from the lip of the caldera, fine white slopes of the old shield volcano tumbling gradually away, superimposed against the gray-green plains below, Jovis Tholis an isolated red pimple in the midst of all that, then the purple majesty of Ascraeus Mons, trailing wings of backlit cloud, peeking over the horizon.
The sun was a dim blue disk on the edge of the world, rising out of a stripe of greenish sky, just a little bit of green under a dome of pink, shading quickly up to black.
I remember when I was a kid learning about the technology that made all this. Old technology, primitive compared to what made my home on Venus. Just a brief flash of that. Yellow sky. Pale brown clouds. The cityscape of Venusberg, skyscrapers seen from a distance, suburban vista of little houses, little multicolored houses, embedded in a dark green forest.
Today they had me stark naked, holding a spear, motionless by the door, female guests tittering as they saw what I was, elbowing the men they were with, "Hey, better mind your p's and q's, Johnnycakes!"
Rich men smirking. As if. As fucking if.
They had the ordinaries waiting table, breakfasting the guests who cared for it, and only a little later, parties began splitting up, heading out into the park, taking what they wanted, doing what they wanted.
It was around that time I saw Sparrow, done up in a short, gauzy black cocktail dress, barefoot, being led along by a serious-looking little man who held her by the hand and whispered in her ear, as if in earnest, some fine fellow trying to talk a reluctant girlfriend into something a little out of the ordinary.
Come on. You'll like it. I promise. Be a sport. Just this once.
She looked at me over one shoulder, so utterly bewildered, like some little girl being led away by a child molester.
Except for that high flush of arousal, of course.
I wanted to go with her then, help out any way I could, make it as easy as possible for her, but I got picked up by a group setting up for a little rough sport. Not with me, no. You hardly ever meet somebody that's got a thing for twinkies or twees, but they do need someone big and strong to hold the ordinaries down.
The ordinaries know they're not supposed to struggle and scream, or maybe just not struggle, anyway, but sometimes they can't help it.
· · · · ·
I woke up some time in the middle of the night from another dream I didn't want to have. Not a repetitive dream. My subconscious has too much raw material to work with for that, but still.
Some kind of dream about my kids, hovering over me as I struggled awake, heart pounding, Jenny and Davy, when they were around seven and three, I think. Tow-headed blond kids, with their mother's enormous, damp-looking blue eyes, looking at me, always looking at me, so serious. As if puzzled by what they saw.
The dream had somehow mixed them up with a dark Venusberg alley. Not a city alley, but one of those suburban back streets where the robots came at night to do what had to be done. Almost as if they'd been there, and watched.
I remembered the woman's eyes, huge, full of terror. And puzzled. So terribly puzzled.
There was a picture of a man on the nightstand by the bed, warm and soft in the glow of the lamp, a smiling man whose motionless eyes watched us out of the picture. There, there, he seemed to be saying. Everything will be all right. It'll be over soon.
He had nice clothes hanging in the closet.
And he was away for the whole week, gone to Luna on business.
Sitting up on the edge of my bunk, damp with warm, dirty-feeling sweat, I heard rustling in the dormitory, a cough here, a sigh there. Once, briefly, a head came up over in the corner where the studs bunked together, outlined against the wall-reflected glow of a baseboard nightlight.
Someone was sniffling softly in the middle of the room, the part usually filled with ordinaries. A man, I think. Not quite crying.
Self-pity? Or maybe sorry, now that it was too damned late.
I sat up straight and stretched.
I used to think I'd be sorry if I ever got caught.
I was wrong about that.
On the cot next to mine, a few feet away, Sparrow was sleeping, but restless, moving a little, going still, then moving a little more. Bad dreams? Or just sore? When she'd come back, late into the evening, after a long first day as a working girl, she'd had a yellow bruise on one cheekbone and a bit of a scrape high up on the inside of one thigh. Not much damage. More like a whisker burn.
I stood up then and stood over her, looking down, dark-adapted eyes just about able to make out her features in the nightlight. Peaceful in repose, as if all this wasn't happening, baffled astonishment and involuntary arousal washed away by sleep.
It made her face even more familiar.
Hard to say. People's faces are made what they are by the animation of their soul, more than anything else. It's why posed and candid photographs look so different. Beneath that animation, there's a tribal similarity that can make one man or woman look eerily like another.
· · · · ·
Sleep came and went, followed by yet another Martian sol, blue sun yellowing to a sharp white spark as it passed overhead, Phobos and Deimos quartering the sky to the south, washed away to all but nothing. I'd been here for months before I started to notice them. Day came and went, bleeding the sky blood red with dusk, and I was with a party of bejeweled matrons, serving them at table, and God knows what they wanted that for.
Ours not to reason why.
Yes, ma'am. Shall I pour the tea now, ma'am?
They all got little smiles, dimples in their fat cheeks when I did that.
There were four men sitting at the next table. Three Earthmen, doughy with fat, handsome in a saggy-faced sort of way, looking rather a lot like my four women, men rich enough to smoke cigars under a transparent hood once they'd finished their meals and the brandy had been brought.
The fourth man I recognized right offMr. Gortex, presiding officer of the Venusian Senate, tall, muscular enough to make his colorless dark suit look odd, face smooth, hair a burnished brown helmet, young lookingthough I knew he had to be as old as the others.
The hood muffled their voices, but the man opposite Gortexthe one with the neat white hairlifted his glass, beckoning to his two old sideboys, who lifted their glasses also. To you, Mr. Gortex. He seemed to stare back at them, face displaying its famously impassive scowl, then lifted his glass as well. The smile, when it came, was a brief rictus.
More tea ma'am? Yes, ma'am, I'll send to the kitchen for the dessert tray now. Thank you, ma'am.
I could see some of the other diners were looking at them as well, covertly watching. Three men with big, successful grins, the fourth dour, but nodding. Right. I'm not sure who the leering fat guy is, or the blackhaired devil with all the wrinkles, but the jolly man making the toast, that would be the Speaker of the Solar Parliament, the famously erudite Mr. Newton Summerbird.
Well. Wonder what the voters would say?
Punishment is punishment, and fun is fun.
Me, I never heard of Blue Heaven 'til they caught my ass one dark night in Venusberg a few hours after number thirty-seven.
What if I'd gotten away?
I remember Mr. Gortex was running for office then and had given a nice speech a few weeks earlier, lambasting the police for being unable to catch me.
A couple of twees, sweet little sexless sad-faced boy-girls, led Sparrow in, stark naked, chained up like a slave, collar round her neck, manacled at wrists and ankles, all of it yoked together with silver chains 'til she could hardly stumble across the floor. Led her right up to the hooded table where Mr. Gortex and Mr. Summerbird sat in a haze of cigar smoke, smirking and scowling and drinking their toasts.
The hood slid up, smoke puffing out, quickly dispersing in the air-conditioned room, and the boys slid back their chairs, all turning to look at her. Gortex and Summerbird looked at her face, the one expressionless, the other with a cute little smile. The other two seemed interested mainly in her bush.
"Well," said Mr. Summerbird, breathing out the last of his smoke, high voice so soft it was hardly even a whisper. "Well, now."
Mr. Gortex was staring at her face, staring so hard she turned and looked at him. Their eyes met for just a second, then he turned away. Nothing, not even a flicker of feeling.
Summerbird said, "Boys
Gortex stood suddenly, dabbing a napkin at his lips, and said, "I have some business to conduct. If you gentlemen will excuse me?"
Summerbird leered. "You're a sissy, Daneel."
Gortex stared down at him, "I dare say, Newt." Then he turned and walked away, not looking back. Sparrow watched him go, watching his back, face puzzled as usual, but
as if trying to remember
She glanced at me, and I felt a hard stab of recognition in my chest.
Summerbird stood up, rattling the chain, smiling at her, and said, "Time to go, my dear."
Belatedly, I remembered the other two men, not quite so well known as Summerbird, but known nonetheless. One was Majority Leader Salzburger, the other Mr. Jekyll, the Solar ethics committee chair. They followed their master from the room, unable to be quite at his heels because Sparrow was in the way, more or less licking their lips as they went.
And I thought, So these are the men who count?
The fat lady beside me sniffed, "Men!"
Yes, ma'am. Boys will be boys.
She craned over the dessert tray and said, "You know, I believe I'll have the tiramisu next."
· · · · ·
Returning alone, sans chains but still naked and too late for dinner, Sparrow came over to our corner and sat on her cot. There was a blood blister at the corner of her mouth, not quite lined up with her lower lip, and a spotty crust of dark scab around the rim of her left nostril, bits she hadn't been able to scrape off with a fingernail.
She looked at me and whispered, "Merry?"
There were little blue bruises everywhere, like fingerprints, her hair standing up this way and that, in tufts, as if it'd been pulled and pulled, until it stood up on its own.
By then I was kneeling beside her, trying to see what damage might need real attention.
Not too bad. Considering.
There was a hard shine in her eyes. The shine of a child who's just been whipped for nothing.
No matter what happens to me, no matter what they do, I've got those hard, warm memories. And the dreams. Always the dreams.
Janet came over, stood looking down at her, shaking her head. "Jesus. Here, lie on your back. Knees up, okay? Lemme check to make sure
Even then, you could see her start to respond.
Sparrow looked up at me and said, "Merry, those men seemed to hate me so much. What do you suppose I could possibly have done to them?"
I shrugged, wondering if I knew anything worth repeating. I said, "Let's see if we can get the autodoc to give you a sedative. You'll be all right, Sparrow."
Sun come up tomorrow?
Janet helped her to stand, shaky but still whole.
After we got her bedded down, eyes shut, breathing softly, maybe asleep, maybe not, Janet and I went into the break room and poured ourselves coffee, sat down at one of the little cafe tables and sipped. Not bad as prison coffee goes, I guess. Over in the corner, one of the studs was asleep, head down on a tabletop, cradled on his crossed arms, breathing in whispers. It was the one everybody called Jock. I forget why he's here. Not everyone will say. Not everyone is famous for what he did, like me and Janet. He'd only been here a little while, anyway.
She said, "I wonder if they did this to her by mistake. Maybe she was somebody's pet wife and the docs accidentally stepped on her too hard?"
"So why's she here, instead of in the hospital?"
A quick shrug. "CYA?"
Everything's a lie until proven the truth. Humanity in a nutshell. I said, "Janet, do you remember Mrs. Valentine?"
Empty look. "Who?"
" Confused look at the change of subject. "Oh, right. That Senator from Titan who was in the news a while back. Um
" Searching her memory. "I forget. Something to do with an ethics investigation. Why?"
She nodded. We all do that, whether we want to or not. Sometimes, when we had a little extra time off, Janet liked to sit and talk about kids, mine mostly, sometimes hers. You miss 'em, Merry?
Not really, but you miss yours, don't you, kiddo?
Someday, in twenty years or forty, whenever they decide she's had enough, Janet will get out of here, but her kids will still be gone. Somewhere, mine are still alive, hating my memory, but it doesn't matter. I'm here for good.
She got up, thinking back now, just because I'd said the word, dark shadows forming around her eyes. "Good night, Merry."
I sat for a long time, looking at nothing, sipping coffee that slowly grew cold. When I stood at last, Jock the stud's muffled voice said, "Mrs. Valentine is dead, Merry."
When I turned and looked, he lifted his head from his arms and stared at me out of red-rimmed eyes. "There was a transport accident here on Mars a few weeks back. Hundreds of people killed. I guess she was on her way to chair those hearings. It was in all the news."
I just looked at him.
All the news. Right.
He smiled, "I guess you've been here a while, huh, Merry?"
"One thousand, six-hundred and eighty-two days."
That made him flinch. "Sorry."
I walked out into the dark dorm, heading for my bunk. How long, my dear Mr. Jock? Twinkies, they say, can live a long, long time. I lay down then, hands behind my head, staring up at the shadows on the ceiling. After a while, I heard Jock come out of the break room, go over to his own corner and lie down among all the other studs, as far from the snatches as they could get.
Nice, ain't it, Jock? Here you are, living every boy's dream, with a hard-on that's there whenever it's called on, having it called on all day, all night when necessary, and
Sarah MacKay Valentine? Just a politician. Nobody important in the scheme of things.
I remember number thirty-five quite clearly, a pretty blonde girl, hardly out of her teens, a working girl of sorts, living small. I had her pinned to the bed in her own dark bedroom, in her own little apartment, strip of heavy tape over her mouth, working on the raping part that usually came before the strangling part. Enjoying myself, savoring every sweet little moment.
The vid was on in the corner, three-dee images dancing in air, tracking one of the public information nets, and, as I worked on her, I became aware the blonde girl had her head cocked to one side, eyes rolled hard over, trying to watch whatever was on.
Some politician, giving an interview.
When it was over, I sat on the edge of the bed beside the dead girl and watched Sarah MacKay Valentine make fools of her opponents, make the interviewer look like some kind of an idiot. When they brought on Newton Summerbird to argue the counter-case, he argued so very forcefully, citing chapter and verse, right down to the footnotes, and only managed to make himself look like some cheap, fat little bully, the sort of boy who picks on girls because he knows they'll never fuck him.
All Mrs. Valentine had to do was smile.
Everything she had was right there in her face. She'd look into the vid pickup, look out of the magic air and right into your eyes, and you'd just know she was telling the truth.
I waited 'til she finished, then turned off the dead girl's vidset and went on home to my wife and kids.
Beside me in the darkness, Sparrow started to whisper, things like words, but garbled, nothing I could make out. When I sat up to listen, I realized she was trying to cry.
I got up, silent as a ghost, went and stood over her, looking down, watching her, seeing a shine of tears in the wan glow of the nearest nightlight. The skin on the palms of my hands started to crawl. That familiar shortness of breath, just before
Suddenly, her eyes opened, looking right into mine, that blaze of awareness, those all-knowing eyes. For just a second.
," she whispered. "Those men
That Mr. Summerbird said they'd be back from time to time, just to see how I was enjoying life." Her eyes seemed huge in the darkness, glistening and infinitely deep. "He said all my old friends would be glad to see me. Maybe come to visit." Another long look, though her bewilderment was mercifully hidden in darkness. "What did he mean?"
I got onto the cot with her, wrapped her in my arms, and waited until she was asleep. Morning will come, but the dreams will continue. As I dozed, I remembered seeing Mrs. Valentine's husband, a colorless, smiling little fat man in a gray flannel suit, standing behind her and off to one side, smiling while she gave some speech or another, seen on vid at home, ignored by my wife, ignored by the kiddies.
I remember thinking it must not be much of a life for a man.
Now I remembered the strength in her face, remembered from the night I sat and watched her from a dead girl's bed.
· · · · ·
The next day was sunny and warm, as bright a day as you can have on Mars with that patch of black sky always directly overhead, horizon bright green, like a granny smith apple, pastel pink everywhere else. Sparrow looked better, cleaned up in the shower, and seemed all right, nothing left over from yesterday, smiling at the rest of us over the barracks' usual continental breakfast.
Don't want us to be too full for the morning to come. It's a rare client likes puke as a part of his fun.
Time for work.
Sparrow was picked up from the green room by a compact, oily little man with a square black mustache under his nose, whose name seemed to be Klu Barr. He made her get out of her silky work pajamas, lips twitching in something that was half smile and half sneer as he looked her up and down.
Knew who she was, all right. Knew me, too, though I didn't know him from Adam.
"What's the matter, girlie? Don't you know your old friend, Klu?"
Sparrow looked at his face, not wanting to be slapped, but kept her features still. Learning the ropes fast.
"Ah, well. You'll know me again soon enough." Dots of color suddenly appeared on her cheeks. He leered then, and said, "That's more like it, girlie. Hey, what they call you here?"
A small frown, as if thinking about it, some inner doubt immediately put aside. "Put your clothes back on. Let's get our gear and be on our way." He looked at me. "You too, Strangler. This'll be fun."
Sparrow said, "They call him Merry."
Barr said, "Yeah? Who gives a fuck?"
They used me for a beast of burden, three pairs of cross-country skis and big backpack with a blanket and the makings for a picnic. From the end of the lift, where the Alpine and Nordic trail systems separated, we skied west along the caldera rim, above a long slope heading down toward the gray-green plains below.
The scarp, I knew, was hundreds of kilometers from where we were now. Klu Barr could ski well, obviously something he did for its own sake, though Sparrow didn't do so well. I wound up rigging a towline and pulling her along. She had reflexes for that, interestingly enough. Maybe Mrs. Valentine had liked to water ski? There's water on Titan nowadays.
That seemed to interest the man as we skied along, following a trail that gradually descended toward a saddle in the crater wall, one that eventually went out onto a long glacier rounding the old volcanic slope. "Where'd you learn that, Strangler?"
Long, level look. "I hadn't heard that about you." Then he said, "Me, too."
I said, "I was in from '59 to '73. Mercury Insurrection. 61 Cygni Police Action. California Riot Control."
He said, "I graduated from the Academy in '75."
We skied on a ways. Then I said, "I was enlisted."
A fine little sneer. "Figures." More silence, in which you could hear him breathing more heavily than I was, though I carried the backpack and was towing Sparrow. Then he said, "Why'd you get out? Enlisted Guard's a pretty good life for some men."
I shrugged. "My enlistment was up. Seemed like it was time to move on."
"Why'd you settle on Venus? Most ex-Guardsmen head out for the star colonies." Every Guardsman who fulfills at least one six-year tour of duty and gets an honorable discharge is entitled to the property of his choice outside the solar system. Mainly they pick sites with high mineral wealth and go into trade.
I said, "Seemed like there was plenty of pussy there, at the time."
That made him laugh, mean glint in his eye. "Hope you got enough, Strangler!"
Around local noon, he picked a spot out on some far tongue of the glacier, up on an ice cliff rimmed with snowbanks, looking out over a long, smooth slope. To our west, a few kilometers off, I could see a dark, shadowy crevasse, probably sitting over one of those long, intermittent cracks, rilles I think they're called, associated with old lava tubes.
Sparrow helped him eat his lunch, though there was nothing for me. Just as well. I can't imagine what would make a man want to eat pickled pigs feet. He made Sparrow take a little bit of just about everything, from the tongue sandwiches to hard-boiled eggs that'd been overcooked to the point the whites had a greenish cast.
Made me wonder what he had in mind.
He'd eaten enough, I thought he'd need a nap after lunch, but he didn't. He stood, smiling, eyes shining with joy, and said, "Sparrow, my sweet love, it's time we had a little fun."
Conflict in her face, fear and snatch tumbling over one another to take control. Klu Barr palpated the front of her pajama bottoms, face flattening out, sneer making his lips broad under the little mustache. "Ah, nice and anxious, I see."
She looked at me, just once, hopeless, knowing there was nothing either of us could do.
He got her out of her clothes and led her barefoot across the snow and ice to a little hillock, one he seemed to judge just right, made her sit down in a little hollow, something just the right size for her, then undid the front of his trousers. "You'll pardon me if I leave the rest on, Sparrow, dear? It's a little cool for my taste!"
I could see the skin of her legs and backside was already bright pink.
When he tried to climb on, though, the warmth of her bottom had melted a little of the ice, and she slid down, hitting her head with a small, hollow bonk.
He tried bracing her with his knees under her thighs, and that worked long enough for one half-thrust. Then his feet went out from under him, and they both went down in a cold, wet heap.
You have to wonder exactly what he may have had in mind.
"Dammit, Merry, help me hold her in position." He put her back in the saddle.
I got behind him, reaching around to hang onto her thighs, bracing them up. When he tried to settle onto her, he continued to slip, sliding down her belly, so I let go of one side and put my hand in the middle of his back, helping him get into position. "That's it. Almost
I let go the other hand and brought it up to the back of his neck, thumb under one ear, fingers under the other. Sparrow, released, started to slide out from under him again.
He said, "Hey!"
I squeezed hard, feeling a pulse of orgasmic energy knife right through me. There was a wet, muffled pop as his spine pulled free of the formamen magnum. He seemed to stiffen and clench, then relaxed on top of her.
There was a quiet moment in which I felt my heart beating stiffly in my chest, then Sparrow, still under him, whispered, "Oh, Merry. What did you do?"
I lifted him off her and laid him on his back in the snow. You could see he was still alive, eyes livid with terror, lips twitching, but
Right. Nothing else. You'll lay there, paralyzed from the face down. Not even feel the building sense of suffocation. The world will turn blue, then gray, then gone.
It took less than a minute for his eyes to grow empty and still, fixed on my face 'til the very end.
I turned to Sparrow and said, "We've got eight, maybe ten hours, before they start to look for us." Down the bottom of the great cliffs, the desert floor was still three hundred kilometers away. "It'll be dark by the time they find him."
She knelt, looking into his empty eyes, and said, "What will they do when they find us?"
I shrugged, "Nothing worse than they've already done."
No death penalty in the Solar Alliance, dear Sparrow. Not for over a thousand years. Cruel and unusual punishment, you see. I said, "Maybe they'll send me to the Procyon mines for a change of scenery. You? Just back here for more of Mr. Summerbird and his friends. If they catch us."
I started digging into a snowbank with my hands, knowing if I hid Mr. Barr far enough down in the snow, that'd confuse the sensors for a little while longer. "Start packing up the picnic, Sparrow. Let's see how far we can get before they do."
This was the first man I'd ever done with my bare hands. I found that I liked it equally well.
· · · · ·
We skied down the long, gentle slope, following a sinuous hollow a few kilometers north of the rille, for all the rest of that long, cold day, while the blue sun of Mars arced away from zenith, slowly down through the bright pink sky, falling through the horizon's band of green, then gone. For a while longer, we skied on in darkness, tied together by the towrope so I wouldn't lose Sparrow down some hole, skied on until I saw the running lights of helicopters rise from Blue Heaven and begin skimming along the rim, looking for the lost picnickers.
Line of sight. Might see us by accident.
We got inside the rille and followed it along to the beginnings of a lava tube segment, crawled across the rubble and went inside, forging on in absolute darkness, stumbling, falling, rising, going on until we were too tired to continue. Slept until we awoke, in darkness still.
Finding me awake, Sparrow whispered, "How long
I laughed, raising echoes in the tube. "Until the food is gone, kiddo." I got up and led her on downslope, knowing we'd either come out into the next rille segment someday or run into a rubble wall.
It took us six days to get down the long slope of Olympus Mons, yet another to climb down the face of the scarp, living on snow and meltwater, once the picnic was gone, until we walked free in the warm wind of the gray-green grassland humanity'd made of the old red planitia.
There were things to eat there, prickly fruit on scrubby bushes, tubers similar to stuff I'd been taught were edible during those thirty-years-gone Solar Guard basic training days. Some bugs and small animals we didn't touch. Remembering the stories my children had loved, I wished, however briefly, for Ghek and Tara and all the rest.
I grew thin and Sparrow thinner as we walked south, away from the wet northern lowlands, into the high rock desert of the deep south, toward what little was left of Old Mars.
There was never any sign of pursuit.
If it'd just been me, I guess there might've been a media uproar. The Venusberg Strangler Escapes! Women bolting their doors all over the solar system. But what would they say about the recently deceased Sarah MacKay Valentine? If I could recognize her, so would others.
But all over Mars, I knew, agents would be watching for me in secret. Don't want to raise a panic, you know. We'll get him, and the little snatch, too.
To her credit, it was three days before Sparrow began to beg.
· · · · ·
On toward evening, a hundred days later, we were standing on a bluff in the weathered foothills of the Nereid Montes, looking out over the ochre dunefields of Argyre Planitia, when I spotted a Torii camp, nestled in the shadows below, just where the erg spilled out into the jumbled rock remains of Crater Galle.
Sparrow had toughened, grown thinner, ever more silent on the long walk, even now no more than halfway to our destination, but she clutched my arm when she saw where I was looking, eyes narrow, half alarm, half hope.
We'd followed an old, old roadbed, one laid down in the early days, back when technically sophisticated people tried to live in the badly terraformed southern hemisphere of Mars, passing through towns given up to the rock and wind and sand a half millennium and more ago, their people returning to the modern cities of the north, clustered round the shores of the Boreal Sea, the lakes of Coprates, the riverbeds and canal systems that made Mars what it was to be.
Not many people here now, to my relief, to Sparrow's increasingly secret sorrow.
I'd done my best to be what I was not, and we'd stumbled over the occasional startled hermit, but
Eyes beseeching me now.
That agony of need, though she must surely have guessed what I'd done to each of the hermits, even the women, after I sent her outside in the morning. I'll be out in a minute, Sparrow. I want to thank him for his hospitality.
We walked into the Torii camp just as the sun went down, emerald light staining half the sky, reaching far up toward black zenith, patch of darkness merging now with darkness rising out of the east, nameless stars already freckling the heavens.
They watched us walk in, unbending from their tasks, standing silent, dressed all alike, men, women, children, in dark blue robes, a color close to indigo, robes proof, I think, against the light and heat of day, the stark, icy night, mimicking the desert nomads of all those stories I remember my children had loved.
Not bedouin, no. Tuaregs, perhaps.
It was a woman who came to stand squarely in front of me, blocking my path, making me stop. Her eyes were pale blue, staring hard out of weathered brown skin. Then she opened her veil, and the rest of her face was pale, almost white, as though the skin there never saw the light of day.
She said, "Are you lost?"
I shook my head, "Just walking."
She stole a quick look at Sparrow, eyes narrowing, lines around them deepening. "Where to?"
I don't know what made me tell her the truth, "Australia Cosmodrome."
"Coming from where? You've got a long way to go."
I stood silent. Other Torii were gathering now, standing to watch. Some of them were young men, their attention starting to fix on Sparrow now.
The woman said, "You're both rather badly sunburned. You'll need medical attention when you get there."
"You're welcome to stay for dinner then. My name is Cyndi."
Cyndi, I thought, like some child of wealth and comfort. Not the Ayesha of children's fables. I held out my hand to her. "My name is Merry. This is Sparrow."
· · · · ·
I don't know what made me wake up in the middle of the night, sleeping in the little tent I'd found among the effects of some dead hermit. I remember he was sprawled on the floor when I found it, eyes still open, full of astonishment. That unexpected, wonderful night, maybe making him regret his decision to live out here all alone with the sand and old red rocks. Wonderful night, full of Sparrow's joy. Then the monster comes.
I awoke from a dream of jumbled memories and could sense I was alone, no heat in the tent but my own.
I remembered dinner in a large Torii tent, Cyndi's home.
Remembered the magic carpets making a floor for the tent, covering up red hammadi stone. Remembered the silver and brass tea service, the pewter plates and bowls, the wooden spoons, so lovingly carved from scraps they'd carried along from wherever they'd been. No wood around here. Hardly anything for the goats to eat, down here around Argyre land.
Remembered the way they spoke with funny accents, though still in the common language of Mars, curious about who we were and where we'd been, though respectful of our silences, our little secrets.
Remembered the women's hospitality wearing thin as the men, young and old, right down to boys so young you'd think they wouldn't know, paid more and more attention to Sparrow, who flushed and squirmed and smiled.
Funny thing that there'd be such a people as the Torii wandering about the southern deserts of Mars, herding things that might once have been goats, harvesting tubers from genengineered plants that'd once been instrumental in bringing Mars back to life.
Eight hundred years humanity had been here.
A thousand since the first permanent engineering bases had been set up, since the decision had been made to create a New Earth. Time enough, I suppose, for these people to come into being.
I crawled out of my blankets and zipped open the tent's flap, looking out at the star-spangled night. Dull gray landscape, lit up, after a fashion, by the shifting light of those famously romantic Martian moons, Fear and Terror. All around us, the blank, lightless humps of the Torii tents. Beyond them, the swollen black shadow of the mountains. Softly, the murmur of the goats, the tinkling of little bells.
Sparrow was nearby, standing on a little rise in the sand, between two dark tents, dressed only in something like a little white slip, bare from the tops of her thighs down, lit up by the light of the silvery moons.
One long stretch, arms over her head, face turned up to the sky, made up entirely of light and shadow, impossibly serene, moonlight shining on damp skin, thin cloth clinging to her form.
I thought about all those men and boys gathered round her at dinner, and thought about the anger that would fill the Torii camp come morning. Anger at us? Or just the Torii women, angry with their men?
Maybe we should go now.
Outside, Sparrow continued looking at the sky.
I wonder what she thinks about?
What dreams does she have, mindwiped and snatched? Any trace of memory? Shadows from the past, inexplicably haunting? Or does she just dream of her need, of the things they made her want?
I tried so hard to know her, to see through those magic eyes to the woman who once had been. Nothing there but that familiar bemusement. This is the world, and I am in it, you could see her say. Familiar habits, familiar ways. No past. Nothing but the fact of her being and that frantic sexual core.
She walked over to the tent, face fully in shadow, stood looking down at me.
Soft whisper, "I'm sorry, Merry. I had to."
I nodded. "Come in and sleep now, Sparrow. We'll walk on in the morning."
At some moment, I must have felt a spark of anger begin to grow.
· · · · ·
I sat down in the cargo hold of the Solar Queen and watched Sparrow pay for our passage, leaning against a cargo container, feeling the soft vibration of the ship's inertial drive against my back, transmitted from hull to floor to cargo box, like a soft, soft massage. The captain was on her now, once again, grunting and thrusting, burnished with sweat under the dim glow of red engineering lights.
I could see Sparrow's face, red light brightening the high, joyous color of her cheeks, eyes in shadow, merest glints of light, looking at me.
Smiling, always smiling.
In mid-journey, with so little to do in the void between the worlds, it seemed as though one or the other of them was on her, filling up the time. Sparrow whispering, whispering to them as they went on and on. Now, now, she'd say.
And her face would twist as the latest paroxysm took her.
Finally. Finally, she had as much as they'd made her want.
Beside me, a most expensive humaniform robot, a rich man's private toolkit, sitting in a posture that perfectly mimicked mine, said, "What an unnatural creature."
The robot, who'd refused to give a name or even a model number, shook its head. "The captain. And his fellows."
I looked at it, trying to penetrate those impossible glass eyes. It was a thing of silver and gold, burnished steel and plastic, made to look like a man, but not so much of a man you'd mistake it for a living thing. "What would you know about it?"
Its face made something like a smile, conveying some exact emotion. "As much as they made me to know, of course."
"Just like her."
"Well, no. I never had anything more."
The captain, finished, kneeled up between her legs, gasping for breath, then leaned down and rubbed his face back and forth on her pubic hair, as if wiping away sweat. "Oh, God." I heard him say, not quite in a moan.
I remember I used to do that, sometimes before I killed them, sometimes after.
The captain got up, still naked, gathering up his uniform, and fled into the darkness. Sparrow lay back on her pallet, shining with commingled sweat, stretching, content. Soon there'd be another one, and another one after that. Eventually the captain's turn would come again.
The robot said, "Tell me again how it feels to kill a human being."
I said, "Do you think you'd like it yourself?"
It smiled again. "There's no way for me to know."
I thought, for just a moment, about the nature of heuristic machines. About the way the code could grow and grow, 'til it filled all the space allotted for it, then begin perfecting itself, new displacing old, accreting round a deep core of hard-coded rules, ab initio.
Another crewman appeared, the astrogator this time. Standing here, shirt buttons already undone, looking down on her.
Sparrow, reaching for a towel, said, "Wait a second. I'll dry myself off for you."
The astrogator said, "Don't. I like it that way."
The robot said, "Why Venus?"
I said, "It's a world full of people. A place where I know what to do."
"Maybe so. If there were a world full of robots, just like me, I'd go there."
I looked at it, astonished, and listened to the astrogator groan, softly to himself, as he mounted the magic woman.