Ali Karil is
the unlikely disciple
of the Man from Mars.
Karil had never expected to go home again, but he supposed he was coming back exactly as his father had always expected him to--in handcuffs. The shuttle docked at the endcap of High Africa, and Solla dragged Karil down the elevator to the rim. A Plains Rover picked them up, Karil was manacled to the rollbar, and they drove across the savannah. The zebra and wildebeest turned and regarded them as they passed, the giraffe stared down at them, chewing thoughtfully. Finally, the car stopped at the palace gates and Karil was brought before his father.
The Sultan lay on his massage table, barely covered in a towel. Inger hardly glanced up at Karil as she kneaded her master’s shoulders. He waved her off and sat up.
"Your hearing will be soon, Solla," he said. "The Companies are not happy about this at all."
"I understand, Sir. I thought, in the interest of discretion, you would want me to bring your son to you quietly." Solla did not know whether the Sultan would forgive Karil his crimes because he was his son, or punish him even more harshly than anyone else, for the same reason. In either event, Solla was doing the politic thing.
The Sultan snapped his fingers and Inger brought him a cigar, then lit it. "Frankly, Solla," he said, "I’ve given up on the boy. I loved his mother, and I tried to love him, but it’s as if he was someone else’s son, not mine. He’s given me nothing but trouble and turned his back on the entire family. As far as I’m concerned, you can treat him like anyone else in his position."
"You mean, execute him."
"I believe he could still be useful, Sir..." Solla began.
"I’m not inclined to listen to your ideas anymore, Solla. You’ve lost Progeny--what?--three times now?"
Solla hesitated for another second, then pulled out his sidearm and put it to the boy’s head. Karil gasped in shock and closed his eyes but refused to beg.
"Not here, you idiot!" the Sultan shouted. "Take him to wherever it is you do it and do whatever it is you do. Shoot him, push him out an airlock, I don’t care."
Solla turned and thrust a much-relieved Karil toward the door.
"Master," Inger said quietly, "has anyone in your family ever killed another family member?"
"No, not that I know of. Why?"
"I wonder if it’s a good idea to set that precedent."
The Sultan sat in silence for a moment, apparently running down the list of relatives who hated him. "What do you suggest, then?"
"If he loves Mars so much, send him there. Put him to work in the mines. Maybe he’ll learn to appreciate the privileged life he lost."
"That’s an excellent idea," the Sultan laughed. "Solla, you did well to bring me this prisoner, and I may put in a word for you at your hearing." He leaned forward. "But watch this boy. If you lose him too, you won’t just be assigned to High Venus, you’ll be assigned to the surface. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Sir." Solla turned to go, and the Sultan flopped down on the table again. As Inger kneaded his shoulders, she glanced up and her eyes met Karil’s for a split-second before the boy was dragged away.
A major storm was rising in the desert. Already, Aaron and Vasquez could barely see the barren landscape through the hummer's windshield.
"I'm not sure why we're out here to see a mass grave," Aaron said. "There must be thousands of them in this part of the Empty Quarter, a lot of them even closer to Gateway."
"I don't know any more than you do," Vasquez told him. "The Sharif said to check it out when you got back from Cleveland. I think it's up here."
The hummer stopped on the side of the road and the two men, wrapping scarves about their faces against the sandblast, walked into the desert. Aaron could see something up ahead--a yawning hole in the ground beside a rapidly diminishing mound of earth.
"This must be it," he said, and walked to the edge. "But it's not a mass grave. It's a single grave, and I think it's been robbed. It's empty."
"Not for long," Vasquez said.
Aaron turned and saw his lieutenant's sidearm levelled in his direction. "I see," he said grimly. "Al-Iskandar wants me disappeared."
"It's nothing personal," Vasquez said. "Progeny has escaped, but he nearly didn't, and I know you blame yourself for his capture. But sooner or later you'll blame the Sharif. Already there are grumblings: why couldn't al-Iskandar's crack troops protect him?"
"Progeny asked me not to accompany him into Nueva York, and for good reasons," Aaron said. He was gauging the distance between Vasquez and himself, how quickly Vasquez could pull the trigger, how much of the gunman's vision was obscured by the storm--it didn't look good. His own sidearm was on his belt, but he had carefully fastened the protective cover over the mechanism.
"The public won't care about that. Eventually, you'll quit your job and the assumption will be that you had a falling-out with the Sharif. But if you disappear in the badlands like so many thousands before you...”
"Al-Iskandar gets to wash his hands of the whole affair."
"Nothing personal. Just politics. And you get my job."
“He’s under pressure. He’s planning something I’ll quit over, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care.”
The conversation seemed to be about over. Aaron shifted his weight almost imperceptibly, but Vasquez noticed and raised his weapon. The bloody point of an arrow protruded from his chest. Vasquez looked down at it and crumpled to the ground.
Aaron heard the roar of an engine above the howl of the wind and a motorcycle took shape in the gloom. It stopped and the sound of the motor died. Aaron could barely see the rider dismount and walk toward him, but soon a strange figure stood looking down at Vasquez.
It appeared to be a young girl, swathed with rags against the storm. She slung a crossbow over her shoulder, bent down to yank the bolt from the man's body, wiped it on his clothing, and dropped it into her quiver. She came close to Aaron, whose hand was still hovering over his sidearm, and peered up at him. Beneath her hood, he could see snake tattoos on her face and throat.
"I'm Baby Snakes," she said. "I'm a friend of Progeny's."
"He's escaped from Nueva York," Aaron said, somewhat at a loss for words.
"Yes, but Karil is still in custody and on his way to Mars by now."
"How do you know that?"
"Please. Just because we're out here in the Empty Quarter doesn't mean we don't know what's going on." She turned and kicked Vasquez. "I guess this means you're out of a job right now."
"I believe I am."
She bent down and began to roll Vasquez into the grave. "This is convenient," she chuckled.
He bent to help her, though she didn't seem to need much help. They stood and watched the storm begin to fill in the grave.
"I want your hummer for this," she said. "Deal?"
"How will I get around?"
"We've arranged transportation for you."
"Okay by me. It's not my hummer anyway."
"Don't care. Will it run on alcohol?"
"With a little tinkering."
"Good. Follow me." She threw her leg over the chopper and kicked it into life. Aaron trudged toward the hummer, barely visible in the storm, and climbed in. The chopper stopped beside him, and he rolled down the window.
"At least," Baby Snakes shouted over the storm, "I didn't have to hunt you down in Gateway."
"What?" Aaron shouted, but the chopper had pulled away. The hummer roared after her. It was with great difficulty that Aaron kept her vehicle in sight, and he was travelling much too fast for the conditions, but he reasoned that Baby Snakes knew what she was doing and decided to trust her.
After what must have been hours of being totally lost and nearly blind, Aaron spied a shape looming out of the storm. It was a fortress of junk--timbers, sheet-metal, and car-parts--half buried in a hillside. Just outside the gate loomed another shape: a delta-winged spaceplane with the name Anais Nin emblazoned on the bow.
As the hummer pulled up in its lee, a figure dropped out of the lower hatch. The wind caught her hood and her long golden tresses swirled about her.
"Terry!" Aaron embraced her and climbed the ladder into the ship.
"Welcome aboard, Aaron," Anais crooned. "Progeny is in the rover."
The hold was taken up by the first two cars of the sand-rover, and as Aaron climbed inside Atalanta welcomed him.
"Aaron," she said. "I'm so glad you made it in time."
Progeny was in the crew-car, the trundle-bed surrounded with tubes and medical equipment. His face was sunken and hollow, but his eyes glistened when Aaron took his hand.
"My old friend," he whispered. "It's nice of Earth to send me off with a dust-storm, isn't it?"
"I'm glad to see you, you old bastard," Aaron choked. There were strangers standing or bustling about--two beautiful women, a tall, bearded man, a young student--that he would have to meet later. Shagrug was there as well, his jaw clenched. Aaron avoided his eyes, lest the poor man burst into tears.
"Listen," Progeny rasped. "I've been telling Terry that we ought to divide the sixteen-day week into two eight-day weeks--a Lennonite idea--with five workdays followed by a three-day weekend: one day for Muslims, one for Jews, and one for Christians. What do you think?"
"I think you never give up trying to make Martians happy."
"I could never pay them back for what they've given me," Progeny said, his voice almost inaudible. "I was a sad and twisted man and they made me whole again. And when you see Karil, thank him for me as well. I’d appreciate it if you’d be the friend to him that you were to me."
Progeny closed his eyes. They waited for him to speak again, but he never did.
The voyage to Mars in Grim-Visaged Aries seemed interminable. Karil was not even allowed out of his cell for exercise, and so he was in bad condition on arrival. There was the briefest glance out a port as he was dragged down a corridor, and the sight of Mars was so breathtaking that he almost forgot his pain and exhaustion.
Then there was an equally impressive shuttle ride to the surface: the ship dropped out of the Aries and plunged into the thin atmosphere as the desert-scape rose to meet them. The Pavonis spaceport appeared, gleaming like a jewel, atop the equatorial volcano, but the shuttle dropped down over the edge of the mountain’s rim and turned south toward the Noachis Wastes--the southern badlands where dust-storms were born. Karil looked out across the Tharsis plains; somewhere over there was Terry’s commune, and the Noctis Labyrinthus, where Progeny fought so many battles with the Quasi.
Finally, the ship settled to the surface at Quasi Headquarters for the Southern Hemisphere, not far from the Argyre Mining Works. Solla himself dragged Karil out of the shuttle and down the elevator to the prison level. Karil could barely stand in one-third gee. He was thrown into a tiny room and the door bolted behind him.
For a while, he lay on the floor, too exhausted to rise, and then he managed to climb into the bunk. He put his arm over his eyes in the bright light and lay perfectly still for a time, but then he turned over to face the wall.
Something was written there. In fact, there were words and phrases all over the wall. And circles--many circles. The same was true of the other walls, and the door, and even the ceiling.
"Oh my God," he said. "It’s Progeny’s old cell."
He spent the rest of the day reading and chuckling to himself, trying to figure out if Solla had put him in this particular cell on purpose, and if so, what he had up his sleeve. Then his mood saddened as he noticed the gradual deterioration in the handwriting and logic. "Jesus, Proj, you must have been a raving lunatic by the time you escaped. No wonder you took off alone across the desert. Maybe I’ll be just as loony by the time I get out of here."
Karil was left in solitary confinement for a while, the guards checking on him now and then through a peephole and shoving his food-tray through a slot, but never speaking to him. By the end of what he guessed was a week, he had memorized all of Progeny's words and was sure he could write them out verbatim. He was beginning to think he would be left to rot in this cell when the door opened and a pair of guards marched him at gunpoint down the corridor to the elevator, then up to the rover-park. Solla was waiting for him beside a Martian Security rover.
"Your father said to put you in the mines, and that’s what I’m doing. I don’t know how long you’ll last. Perhaps, in a year or two, if you’re still alive, I’ll make you an interesting offer."
Karil began to laugh, in spite of his exhaustion. "You never give up, do you?"
"Progeny’s dead, you know," Solla told him. "The rumours are all over Mars. I believe them; I knew he was dying."
"So did I," Karil said. Terry had told him that night, in his tent at Kelley’s dig. "I need to tell someone,” she had said. He had held her tight, then, but now he could not bear to think of her at all.
Karil was hustled aboard a rover and chained between two other prisoners. They were rough-looking characters, unshaven and unkempt, gazing down at their feet in abject depression--probably runaways from the mines. Solla and his driver cycled through the lock into the first car, the rover jerked into motion and set off across the plains. For a while, Karil looked out the window at the bleak landscape, with the bright green jewel that was High Mars scintillating overhead, and then he glanced up at one of the prisoners beside him--long sandy hair that was matted with dirt and blood, unshaven face around his drooping moustache. The man winked at him.
"You didn’t think we forgot about you, did you, Stillborn?"
Karil looked at the other prisoner--dark, brooding, curly haired and bearded. The man grinned, showing white teeth and sparkling black eyes.
"Here," said Aaron. He slipped a thin blade out of his sleeve, jimmied the lock on Karil’s manacles for a moment, and they fell from his wrists.
"How did you know I was here?" Karil asked, dumbfounded.
"Apparently, there’s a Galilean agent planted in your father’s palace. Very close to him, according to Loris."
Karil recalled the look in Inger’s eyes and laughed.
"What’s so funny?"
"Nothing. Forget it."
Solla turned and glanced through the porthole in the lock behind him. He saw what was happening and reached for his sidearm.
"You really should have taken us up on our offer," Atalanta crooned, and flooded the driver’s cab with sleeping gas.
They uncoupled the last car and left Solla and the driver chained inside, still asleep, on the surface. In an hour or so, the rest of the rover trundled into MLF headquarters, tucked into a cave in the rim of Hellas Crater. As Karil climbed out through the hatch, Terry threw herself into his arms. He crushed her in his embrace, then found Loris and Johanna embracing both of them.
"Jesus, Stillborn," Shagrug snorted as he walked by. "Every goddamn woman in the place. Hey, watch it with that torch! Atty’s very sensitive right there."
Atalanta’s fuselage was being re-assembled and repaired in the hangar, Martian workers crawling over her like ants. Shagrug stomped over to make life difficult for them, and Karil looked into Terry’s eyes.
"It’s too dangerous for you here," he said. "Solla wants you as much as he wants me."
"I know what he wants. If he can’t have Proj to work on, he’ll take the two of us."
"Is it true? Is Progeny gone?"
"He’s dead, Karil, but he’ll never be gone. He had just enough strength to escape from the Citadel, and by the time we got to the wilds, he was fading. He asked about you, in particular, Karil. He made us all promise to come and get you, and he made me promise to take care of you in the future. He said it was very important. And he said to thank you."
"Thank me? What for?"
"I don't know. He seemed to think you did him a special service."
Karil shrugged. "How are you holding up, Terry?"
"I'm okay." She smiled sadly. "There’s a dust-storm brewing to the East. The plan is to drop his ashes into it on the way into orbit, so they’ll be spread all over Mars."
"We’re taking Terry to Titan for safe-keeping," Jay said, behind him. Karil turned and embraced his old friend. The Professor was there as well.
"They’re both going to be my students,” Kelley said. “She’ll be out of the reach of the High Companies there. I’ll take good care of both of them.”
"You and I are going to have to stick around here for a while," Shagrug said, returning. "At least until Atty’s put to rights. We’re going to have to work for the Rebellion for a while to pay for the refitting."
"What will you do then?" Terry asked.
"I guess Karil and I can try working the Belt," he told her. "There's lots of work for a good ship and crew. I can hide him out there for a long time. I have contacts."
"I'll bet you do," Terry said, "and thank you."
Shagrug almost smiled. He hesitated for a moment, apparently deciding that something should be said. He cleared his throat, as if saying something nice was painful. "So, Loris and Jo will be back on Ganymede pretty soon, and you’ll be with Jay and the Professor at Titan, and Karil and me--we'll be in the Belt most likely. I guess that means Progeny will have friends on every damn rock in the system. But I hope it'll be safe for you to come back to Mars someday. Cause that's where you belong."
"I hope so. But I'll be all right with the Professor for now. I hope to see you on Mars someday, when this is all over."
"Oh, you will. Karil will insist on it, and Atty will find a reason to give him what he wants. She’s bow over thrusters in love with him, that’s what she is."
"So am I. All of you will have an instant family, waiting for you." She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. The poor man was on the verge of tears. "Christ, I don’t know how I get myself in these situations. I was minding my own damn business, you know, trying to make a living doing a little smuggling..." He turned on his heel and trotted off toward his ship.
"Sorry, Kids," Loris said, "but you’ve got to say good-by. We want to be over that storm, not in it."
"Thank you, Loris, Jo," Terry said. "And thank Anais for me." She turned and embraced Karil for a moment, while he tried to burn the smell of her tresses into his memory, and then she followed Loris and Johanna to the ship’s ramp. Terry climbed up on top of a crate of machinery and turned to face the crowd, as cutting torches were extinguished and people gathered about her, and the hangar fell silent.
"I don't know," she said, "whether Mars will remember Progeny more for the evils he spared us, or the gifts he gave us. He wanted to spare us war and tyranny and the other evils that nationalism is heir to, and what he gave us was a particularly Martian patriotism, in which we love the land without seeking to possess it. He wanted to save us from ignorance and bigotry and the other evils that masquerade as religion, and what he gave us was a particular Martian ethic, in which we strive to love each other without a mythological mandate. He wanted to spare us the pain and hatred that the human reproductive struggle is heir to, and what he gave us was a Martian family, in which the young are loved and taught without regard to their genetic inheritance.
"Long ago, he saw that the most powerful tool of the tyrant is evil done in the name of good, and the justification it gives to man's instinctive passions. He saw that familial love, freed from the power of the selfish gene, could not be used to make good family men enslave and exterminate the children of others. He saw that the love of goodness, freed from the bigotry of myth, could not be used to make moral men torture and immolate believers in other truths. He saw that the love of land and neighbour, freed from the paranoia of the state, could not be used to turn decent men into gang rapists and mass murderers. He saw that, without these double-edged tools, the mighty could not turn our passions against our reason and make us perform the evil that is in their interest instead of the good that is in ours.
"His body will be part of the dust of Mars, as his heart and soul are part of every Martian." She caught her breath for a moment and the assembly waited in silence until she had composed herself again. "To forget his teachings, we would have to forget who we are. To dishonour his memory, we would have to abandon everything we know to be true. And if any one of us should, for a moment, forget what he meant to us, we need only reach down with our gloved hands and pick up a handful of Martian dust, and we will remember."
She turned and climbed the ramp into the ship. The assembled crowd watched it rise on a cushion of air, turn away, and drift into the great outer lock of the hangar, then they turned and went back to work. Anais cycled through and sped across the surface, then climbed into the pink sky. The wall of the storm rushed toward them out of the wasteland and the ship rose above it, then released Progeny’s ashes. The storm reached up and took them.
Far below, Solla was sitting in the rover-car as the storm raged about him, the vehicle rocking in the gale. His driver muttered to himself in fear and Solla turned on him.
"Will you shut up? They’ll find us eventually. There’s a tracer in both our uniforms, and we’ve been left in a well-travelled route. The Martians don’t want me dead; they want me humiliated."
He turned and peered out into the roiling dust. The storm howled like the tortured souls of the dead, and the static electricity made his flesh crawl and his hair stand on end. Solla could not shake himself of the impression that there was a third person in the car.
The storm was a bad one, covering nearly the entire surface of the planet, and they were not rescued for days. The first thing Solla's replacement did was to apply a fresh coat of paint over all the unsightly graffiti in the isolation cells.
The shuttle sat in the docking bay, as the prisoners were taken aboard. The great prison colony hung over them and the poisonous clouds of Venus swirled below, hiding the maximum-security installation on the surface. Finally, all of the prisoners were strapped in their seats and the shuttle waited for the launching codes.
"I tell you, he's an Avatar," one of the prisoners whispered. "Or whatever you call it. You know. A Messiah."
"You're full of shit."
"A friend of mine saw it. An army of the dead rose from the earth to defend him. The streets of Nueva York were full of walking corpses. The doors of the Citadel sprang open and Progeny walked out as if they meant nothing. In the West, they say he challenged Satan himself to a duel and made him turn tail and run. What's more, his disciples have his power too. Some of them were imprisoned in the Virginias. The shackles fell from their wrists, and they walked out unharmed. Then a pillar of fire came down from heaven and wiped out the whole place. The biggest Nueva York blood-lord challenged them, too, and no-one has seen him since. He vanished from the face of the Earth."
"That's a load of crap. People believe what they want to believe. In Ohio they put up statues in the town square, like he’s some kind of saint. In the Virginias they say he's the Antichrist. In Nueva York, they still have fights in the streets every night. One side heard him say one thing, the other side heard him say something different. Probably they're both wrong. If you want to know the truth, ask a Martian."
"Will you two shut the hell up?" Lieutenant Solla turned in his seat on the bridge of the shuttle, and beneath his withering glare the prisoners lapsed into silence. "Cast off, Pilot."
The shuttle separated from the station and plummeted into the sulphuric acid clouds below, as Solla stared out through the window. Progeny had now gone through all the stages of the messianic hero--con-man, criminal, revolutionary, preacher, prophet, madman, and saint. This was either in spite of Solla’s best efforts, or because of them--he did not know which. The shuttle vanished into the atmosphere of Venus, and the lights of heaven were snuffed out by the poisonous gloom.