Nanoud led Anitra out through the airlock and into her personal interceptor. Dolpou stayed behind in the log cabin – she was planning to go back to her flat and catch up on the backlog of business which was sure to be awaiting her while she had been away.
For six months the arch-groubian had been a constant companion, and Anitra wondered if she was going to miss her unremitting presence. It felt like leaving behind an old overcoat when you went outside, because winter had passed and the summer had come.
But being on Mars was nothing like summer on Earth – or even winter. The sunlight was a pale ghost of what she remembered back home, even in the gloomy climate of Durham, with the sun shrunken to a quarter of its area in the sky. But day it was, and they were flying west, with the rising sun behind them. As their interceptor rose towards the sky, a hundred identical vehicles had simultaneously risen and, once aloft, had formed themselves into the echelon from which the force drew its name.
Anita had imagined that they would be assigned their place at the tip of the arrowhead. But she was coming to learn that the Groubian Echelon always deployed as if expecting an attack at any time, and from any quarter. Nanoud seemed to have adopted a random position in the formation. She was not for making a gift to the unseen enemy of the identity of the one precious craft in the sacrificial force.
Looking down at the rugged landscape, Anitra could see the shadow of the echelon formation proceeding them, as it flitted over cliffs and craters. But most of the time it fell down into the seemingly bottomless canyon complex, the course of which they were following.
Anitra was reminded of a holiday they once spent in Las Vegas, Nevada. Peter and Gaby often took them abroad on holiday. She supposed it was to compensate for the isolation of their home life in County Durham. It struck for the first time that it was always to places which were not just foreign, but extremely foreign. Places full of a varied population, among which they would not stand out. And it was also to arid, rugged places: places like Mars, as she suddenly realised.
If that was so, then apart from the shrunken sun, Mars was going to be like the school holidays. It occurred to her that Peter and Gaby may have planned it that way.
Her thoughts went back to Nevada, and Las Vegas in particular. One day they had taken a helicopter trip to the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t that far from the city, and once there the helicopter had descended into the canyon and landed by the stony stream at the bottom. There they had got out and had a picnic. It was a stunning spot, surrounded by cliffs a mile high.
How deep was Valles Marineris at its deepest? 10 miles, she’d been told. Ten times as deep as the Grand Canyon. No sun reached the bottom, and it wouldn’t have been much fun descending into it for a picnic.
Nanoud had been disinclined to talk throughout the trip. But it wasn’t because she was depressed: quite the opposite. A glance at her companion’s skin told Anitra she was in a high state of arousal. She was treating it as the military operation it was – an invasion, almost. Her mind was concentrating on the details of that operation, watching out for anything that could go wrong, or for danger from an unexpected quarter. Anitra did not want to distract her.
But there were questions burning in her mind.
“Where exactly is Fort Rainbow?”
“On the outskirts of Nix City. Near enough to the Areopagus to be in time for the court hearing without having to get up too early. But entirely Groubian property, army property indeed, to which the Vratch has no right of entry. There you’ll be surrounded by friends. Nobody will be able to get close enough to you to do you harm.
“Why didn’t we go straight there last night?”
“Dolpou thought that an army barracks was no place for an innocent child with a sheltered upbringing. Even an all-female barracks. I had to insist. Both Dolpou and I agreed that we weren’t going to allow the Vratch anywhere near you. Which would have had to happen if you’d entered Mars by the normal route.”
“The Vratch is charged with giving all immigrants a medical examination, which almost certainly you’d not have passed. We couldn’t allow that to happen. That’s why you were plucked from Oberon and taken straight to an Olvoi safe house in Valles, well outside the jurisdiction of the Strana of Olympia – and the Vratch. Now I’m smuggling you into Nix City into a groubian fortress – over which the Vratch, a civilian organisation, has no jurisdiction.”
“What is the Vratch, exactly?”
A ripple of groubian laughter passed over Nanoud’s skin. “Bit late in the day to be asking that question, isn’t it?”
“It’s high time I knew, then.”
“It is one of the two police forces we have in Nix City. The other is Zasta, the Enforcement Agency. That’s responsible for maintaining the integrity of the Intensor. In practice they do whatever a police force does on Gaia. But they have no jurisdiction over medical matters. Everything medical is the responsibility of the Vratch.”
“So it’s like the NHS?
“The British National Health Service is a good analogy. An integrated medical organisation which is practically a law unto itself. Throw in the ambulance service and you get an idea of what the Vratch does. But it goes far beyond that.”
“How far beyond?”
Nanoud seemed temporarily at a loss for how to answer that simple question. Presently she said, “Ask yourself this. Is it a crime in England to fall ill? Or to risk falling ill?”
“No,” said Anitra. “Your health is your own responsibility. You do what you like with it.”
“Not on Mars. Because the ecosystem is so fragile, it’s a serious crime to permit yourself to fall ill. The Vratch is every bit an enforcement agency as Zasta. It has the power to inspect, to enforce compliance, and to arrest. And if you are a chimorg – a robot made of meat – they can summarily seize you and destroy you if you are in breach of the law.”
“So all chimorgs go around in fear of their lives?”
“Well, no. The Vratch don’t go simply killing every chimorg they encounter. Chimorgs petition the Goubernator for a grant of human rights, Limited ones, which is the most they can expect. ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, the US Constitution says if I recall? Well, on Mars, if you are a chimorg you can forget the last two. Chimorgs are someone’s property, so they get whatever liberty their owners permit them. And as for happiness, they have to take their chance on that.”
“So it’s pretty rough being a chimorg?”
Nanoud shrugged. “No, I don’t think so. Not if your paperwork’s in order. You do have the right to life, provided the Goubernator grants it.”
“That sounds like what we on Earth call animal rights.”
“That only says you can’t be killed by someone unregistered, and that it must be done humanely. The right to life under Olympian law means nobody can kill you, not even the Vratch. Unless of course you become Class Four: an outlaw. And you have to so something pretty bad for that to happen – and there have to be witnesses. Basically you have to kill a policeman – or a vratchnik.”
Anitra’s mind went back to some of the things she’d overheard Peter and Gaby saying to each other over the years. Dark things: not intended for children’s ears.
“Is that why uncle Peter is so terrified of them?”
As the daylight grew stronger, four enormous volcanoes appeared on the horizon, a little to the right of their flightpath. The largest of these was Olympus Mons – “Mount Olympus” in Latin: the fabled home of the gods. It was 15 miles high and had a caldera 70 miles across. Anitra knew the details because she’d read up about it. Somewhere in that caldera lay Nix City, the capital of the Strana of Olympia. The latter was one of the seven independent strani, or countries, that partitioned the surface of Mars, but it was by far and away the most important.
They had been flying over the canyon complex of Valles Marineris for defensive reasons: it was harder to attack them from the ground. But now they had to veer away from the canyon to set course for Olympus Mons, Nix City – and Fort Rainbow.
Anitra had lapsed into silence, no longer pestering Nanoud with questions but thinking hard to herself. Chimorgs – chimaeric organisms – are creatures of the laboratory, so she’d been told. Nowadays it was illegal to create them. But anyone who hadn’t been naturally conceived between two human parents was considered a chimorg. Both Anitra’s parents had been legally human, but one had been gaian and the other groubian. Permitted to mate, but not to have children… as if anyone knew how to accomplish that feat! Certainly not the gaians, who loathed the very idea. Nor even the groubians, who’d been trying on-and-off for fifty thousand years.
So… from a Martian point-of-view, someone claiming to be the fruit of such a union had simply got to be lying.
The shadow of the echelon crept over the crumbled edges of the shield volcano, which now stretched out before them like an overturned soup bowl. Or was it an Eccles cake, pierced in the middle with a giant navel to let the steam out while it cooked? But though a residual haze of the last dust storm hung in the thin air, not a wisp of steam arose from the caldera. It had cooled down long ago, long enough for firstly the groubians to colonise it, and then the gaian refugees they’d transported to Mars. Between the two of them they’d built a rambling city of a billion inhabitants beneath the terraced plains of its vast floor. Rearing over those hazy plains, mile-high cliffs shocked the eye with their blackness in the long shadows of sunrise.
Anitra strained forward in her seat to catch a glimpse of the city which had forever lain at the borders of her childhood imagination. But the dusty plains of Nix Olympica looked empty and featureless, even though the volcano now covered the surface of the planet from horizon to horizon.
Turning to Nanoud she asked “Where’s the City?”
“Mostly underground. Dust covers everything except the dome of the Areopagus. I can vaguely see it through the haze, but I know where to look and you don’t. Otherwise there’s little to see at this altitude, at least during the daytime.”
“During the daytime? How can it be any better at night?”
“After dark the Areopagus glows green with the trees and the grass growing underneath the dome. You can easily see it from the caldera rim. And the whole floor of the Nix is criss-crossed with a patchwork of streetlights, looking like the spiders’ webs in the dewy grass that I recall seeing on Gaia. It’s fantastically beautiful.”
Anitra felt the pressure alter on the seat of her pants as they began to descend. “Final approach,” said Nanoud. “Nearly there.”
…And that, Ladies and Gentleman, is where the novel has stuck for the past two-and-a-half years. Not because I don’t know how it goes on, but because I’ve simply not had time to finish it.
My crummy excuse? Well… that’s under wraps for now. Let’s just say I’ve been busy.