ALLEN M. STEELE
Allen Steele made his first sale to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine in 1988, soon following it up with a long string of other sales to Asimov’s, as well as to markets such as Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Age. In 1990, he published his critically acclaimed first novel, Orbital Decay, which subsequently won the Locus Poll as Best First Novel of the year, and soon Steele was being compared to Golden Age Heinlein by no less an authority than Gregory Benford. His other books include the novels Clarke County, Space; Lunar Descent; Labyrinth of Night; The Weight; The Tranquility Alternative; A King of Infinite Space; OceanSpace; ChronoSpace; Coyote; Coyote Rising; Spindrift; Galaxy Blues, Coyote Horizon; and Coyote Destiny. His short work has been gathered in three collections, Rude Astronauts, Sex and Violence in Zero-G, and The Last Science Fiction Writer. His most recent books are a new novel in the Coyote sequence, Hex, and a YA novel, Apollo’s Outcasts. He has won three Hugo Awards, in 1996 for his novella “The Death of Captain Future,” in 1998 for his novella “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” and, most recently, in 2011 for his novelette “The Emperor of Mars.” Born in Nashville, Tennessee, he has worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines, covering science and business assignments, and is now a full-time writer living in Whately, Massachusetts, with his wife, Linda.
Here he takes us to a Mars very different from the Mars of his Hugo-winning novelette, the Old Mars of ancient dreams, and deep into the Martian Badlands, on a mission that could plunge two races, and two worlds, into all-out war.
ALLEN M. STEELE
The most dangerous man on Mars was Omar al-Baz, and the first time I saw him, he was throwing up at the Rio Zephyria spaceport.
This happens more frequently than you might think. People coming here for the first time often don’t realize just how thin the air really is. The cold surprises them, too, but I’m told the atmospheric pressure is about the same as you’d find in the Himalayas. So they come trooping down the ramp of the shuttle that transported them from Deimos Station, and if the ride down didn’t make them puke, then the shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea that comes with altitude sickness will.
I didn’t know for sure that the middle-aged gent who’d doubled over and vomited was Dr. al-Baz, but I suspected that he was; I hadn’t seen any other Middle Eastern men on his flight. There was nothing I could do for him, though, so I waited patiently on the other side of the chain-link security fence while one of the flight attendants came down the ramp to help him. Dr. al-Baz waved her away; he didn’t need any assistance, thank you. He straightened up, pulled a handkerchief from his overcoat pocket, and wiped his mouth, then picked up the handle of the rolling bag he’d dropped when his stomach revolted. Nice to know that he wasn’t entirely helpless.
He was one of the last passengers to step through the gate. He paused on the other side of the fence, looked around, and spotted the cardboard sign I was holding. A brief smile of relief, then he walked over to me.
“I’m Omar al-Baz,” he said, holding out his hand. “You must be Mr. Ramsey.”
“Yes, I’m your guide. Call me Jim.” Not wanting to shake a hand that just wiped a mouth, which had just spilled yuck all over nice clean concrete, I reached forward to relieve him of his bag.
“I can carry this myself, thank you,” he said, not letting me take his bag from him. “But if you could help me with the rest of my luggage, I’d appreciate it.”
“Sure. No problem.” He hadn’t hired me to be his porter, and if he’d been the jerk variety of tourist some of my former clients had been, I would’ve made him carry his own stuff. But I was already beginning to like the guy: early fifties, skinny but with the beginnings of a potbelly, coarse black hair going grey at the temples. He wore round spectacles and had a bushy mustache beneath a hooked, aquiline nose, and looked a little like an Arab Groucho Marx. Omar al-Baz couldn’t have been anything but what he was, an Egyptian-American professor from the University of Arizona.
I led him toward the terminal, stepping around the tourists and business travelers who had also disembarked from the 3 p.m. shuttle. “Are you by yourself, or did someone come with you?”
“Unfortunately, I come alone. The university provided grant money sufficient for only one fare, even though I requested that I bring a grad student as an assistant.” He frowned. “This may hinder my work, but I hope that what I intend to do will be simple enough that I may accomplish it on my own.”
I had only the vaguest idea of why he’d hired me to be his guide, but the noise and bustle of the terminal were too much for a conversation. Passenger bags were beginning to come down the conveyor belt, but Dr. al-Baz didn’t join the crowd waiting to pick up suitcases and duffel bags. Instead, he went straight to the PanMars cargo window, where he presented a handful of receipts to the clerk. I began to regret my offer to help carry his bags when a cart was pushed through a side door. Stacked upon it were a half dozen aluminum cases; even in Martian gravity, none small enough to be carried two at a time.
“You gotta be kidding,” I murmured.
“My apologies, but for the work I need to do, I had to bring specialized equipment.” He signed a form, then turned to me again. “Now . . . do you have a means of taking all this to my hotel, or will I have to get a cab?”
I looked over the stack of cases and decided that there weren’t so many that I couldn’t fit them all in the back of my jeep. So we pushed the cart out to where I’d parked beside the front entrance and managed to get everything tied down with elastic cords I carried with me. Dr. al-Baz climbed into the passenger seat and put his suitcase on the floor between his feet.
“Hotel first?” I asked as I took my place behind the wheel.
“Yes, please . . . and then I wouldn’t mind getting a drink.” He caught the questioning look in my eye and gave me a knowing smile. “No, I am not a devout follower of the Prophet.”
“Glad to hear it.” I was liking him better all the time; I don’t trust people who won’t have a beer with me. I started up the jeep and pulled away from the curb. “So . . . you said in your e-mail you’d like to visit an aboriginal settlement. Is that still what you want to do?”
“Yes, I do.” He hesitated. “But now that we’ve met, I think it’s only fair to tell you that this is not all that I mean to do. The trip here involves more than just meeting the natives.”
“How so? What else do you want?”
He peered at me over the top of his glasses. “The blood of a Martian.”
When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was The War of the Worlds—the 1953 version, made about twelve years before the first probes went to Mars. Even back then, people knew that Mars had an Earth-like environment; spectroscopes had revealed the presence of an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, and strong telescopes made visible the seas and canals. But no one knew for sure whether the planet was inhabited until Ares I landed there in 1977, so George Pal had a lot of latitude when he and his film crew tried to imagine what a Martian would look like.
Anyway, there’s a scene in the movie where Gene Barry and Ann Robinson have made their way to L.A. after escaping the collapsed farmhouse where they’d been pinned down by the alien invaders. Barry meets with his fellow scientists at the Pacific Tech and presents them with a ruined camera-eye he managed to grab while fighting off the attackers. The camera-eye is wrapped in Ann Robinson’s scarf, which was splattered with gore when Gene clobbered a little green monster with a broken pipe.
“And this”—he says melodramatically, showing the scarf to the other scientists—“blood of a Martian!”
I’ve always loved that part. So when Dr. al-Baz said much the same thing, I wondered if he was being clever, copping a line from a classic movie that he figured most colonists might have seen. But there was no wink, no ironic smile. So far as I could tell, he was as serious as he could be.
I decided to let it wait until we had that drink together, so I held my tongue as I drove him into Rio Zephyria. The professor’s reservation was at the John Carter Casino Resort, located on the strip near the Mare Cimmerium beach. No surprise there: It’s the most famous hotel in Rio, so most tourists try to book rooms there. Edgar Rice Burroughs was having a literary renaissance around the time it was built, so someone decided that A Princess of Mars and its sequels would be a great theme for a casino. Since then it’s become the place most people think of when they daydream about taking a vacation trip to Mars.
Good for them, but I want to throw a rock through its gold-tinted windows every time I drive by. It’s a ten-story monument to every stupid thing humans have done since coming here. And if I feel that way, as someone who was born and raised on Mars, then you can well imagine what the shatan think of it . . . when they come close enough to see it, that is.
It was hard to gauge Dr. al-Baz’s reaction when we pulled up in front of the hotel lobby. I was beginning to learn that his normal expression was stoical. But as a bellhop was unloading his stuff and putting it on a cart, the professor spotted the casino entrance. The doorman was dark-skinned and a little more than two meters in height; he wore the burnoose robes of an aborigine, with a saber in the scabbard on his belt.
Dr. al-Baz stared at him. “That’s not a Martian, is he?”
“Not unless he used to play center for the Blue Devils.” Dr. al-Baz raised an eyebrow, and I smiled. “That’s Tito Jones, star of the Duke basketball team . . . or at least until he came here.” I shook my head. “Poor guy. He didn’t know why the casino hired him to be their celebrity greeter until they put him in that outfit.”
Dr. al-Baz had already lost interest. “I was hoping he might be a Martian,” he said softly. “It would have made things easier.”
“They wouldn’t be caught dead here . . . or anywhere near the colonies, for that matter.” I turned to follow the bellhop through the revolving door. “And by the way . . . we don’t call them ‘Martians.’ ‘Aborigines’ is the preferred term.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. And what do the Mar . . . the aborigines call themselves?”
“They call themselves shatan . . . which means ‘people’ in their language.” Before he could ask the obvious next question, I added, “Their word for us is nashatan, or ‘not-people,’ but that’s only when they’re being polite. They call us a lot of things, most of them pretty nasty.”
The professor nodded and was quiet for a little while.
The University of Arizona might not have sprung for a grad student’s marsliner ticket, but they made up for it by reserving a two-room suite. After the bellhop unloaded his cart and left, Dr. al-Baz explained that he’d need the main room—a large parlor complete with a bar—for the temporary lab he intended to set up. He didn’t unpack right away, though; he was ready for that drink I’d promised him. So we left everything in the room and caught the elevator back downstairs.
The hotel bar is located in the casino, but I didn’t want to drink in a place where the bartender is decked out like a Barsoomian warlord and the waitresses are dolled up as princesses of Helium. The John Carter is the only place on Mars where anyone looks like that; no one in their right mind would wear so few clothes outside, not even in the middle of summer. So we returned to the jeep and I got away from the strip, heading into the old part of town that the tourists seldom visit.
There’s a good watering hole about three blocks from my apartment. It was still late afternoon, so the place wasn’t crowded yet. The bar was quiet and dark, perfect for conversation. The owner knew me; he brought over a pitcher of ale as soon as the professor and I sat down at a table in the back.
“Take it easy with this,” I told Dr. al-Baz as I poured beer into a tallneck and pushed it across the table to him. “Until you get acclimated, it might hit you pretty hard.”
“I’ll take your advice.” The professor took a tentative sip and smiled. “Good. Better than I was expecting, in fact. Local?”
“Hellas City Amber. You think we’d have beer shipped all the way from Earth?” There were more important things we needed to discuss, so I changed the subject. “What’s this about wanting blood? When you got in touch with me, all you said was that you wanted me to take you to an aboriginal settlement.”
Dr. al-Baz didn’t say anything for a moment or so. He toyed with the stem of his glass, rolling it back and forth between his fingers. “If I’d told you the entire truth,” he finally admitted, “I was afraid you might not agree to take me. And you come very highly recommended. As I understand, you’re not only native-born, but your parents were among the first settlers.”
“I’m surprised you know that. You must have talked to a former client.”
“Do you remember Ian Horner? Anthropologist from Cambridge University?” I did indeed, although not kindly; Dr. Horner had hired me to be his guide, but if you’d believed everything he said, he knew more about Mars than I did. I nodded, keeping my opinion to myself. “He’s a friend of mine,” Dr. al-Baz continued, “or at least someone with whom I’ve been in contact on a professional basis.”
“So you’re another anthropologist.”
Excerpted from Old Mars by Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Copyright © 2013 by George R.R. Martin. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.