City of Mists

by Sawyer Grey
 

Chapter 7
RETURN TO MARS

 
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Prologue
Chapter 1 - A Night in Hong Kong
Chapter 2 - A Secret Mission
Chapter 3 - The Airship Zambesi
Chapter 4 - Attacked by Sky Pirates
Chapter 5 - Singapore
Chapter 6 - A Voyage by Aethership
Chapter 7 - Return to Mars
Chapter 8 - Secret Mission Revealed
 

LANDING ON MARS WAS MUCH like taking off from Earth, only with the steps reversed and much more comfortable accommodations. Our pilot splashed our little craft gently into the fringe of the Acidalian Sea, and a tug from Stanleyville had us under tow within minutes of our landing. At the dock I left instructions to deposit my belongings at the Jordanis Hotel, and took the tram to the north end of Stanleyville where I was told I would find the offices of the Cydonia Company and Colonial Office.

The lesser gravity of Mars had me a bit giddy as I set out. Because of its smaller size and mass, you only weigh about a third as much on Mars as you do on Earth or Venus. It takes some getting used to, when you first arrive. It is very easy to bounce without meaning to, and you tend to knock your head against doorjambs and even ceilings until you adjust your reflexes. Walking is a skill that has to be learned all over again; starting and stopping is more difficult because less gravity means less friction against your feet, and since walking is essentially nothing more than falling forward and catching yourself, the mechanics change when you are only falling forward a third as fast as you are used to.

The euphoria caused by the lighter gravity is generally offset by the thin, dry air of Mars. In the old sea bottoms where most of the Earth settlements are located, it is roughly like being over two miles above sea level on Earth, which tires you out quickly and can lead to dehydration and severe headaches. For this reason coca leaves are a primary Martian import, and you can get coca tea almost anywhere to alleviate the worst of the symptoms. Fortunately, despite my long absence, it did not take me long to acclimatize to my chosen home once more.

Slim linden trees lined the cobbled roads leading to Government House. The building itself was not hard to miss; it was the tallest in Stanleyville by two stories and had obviously been built as a monument to some Cydonia Company Governor General’s overwhelming sense of self-importance. With a nod to the two soldiers standing guard outside, I pushed open the door and strode purposefully up to the desk of the secretary in the foyer.

“Captain Jack Branham, here to see His Excellency.” I did my best to exude pompousness.

The weak-eyed little functionary shuffled through his papers. “I don’t see… Oh, here you are, sir. I’m terribly sorry, but the Governor General is in an emergency meeting with the Board. Something about a Martian attack on one of our trading outposts. There is a note here that says you are to go to the Club, and someone will be along to fetch you presently.”

“Thanks, old chap.” I considered asking where I would find the Club, and immediately thought the better of it.

I let the door close before I turned to the bored-looking guards outside. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. I’m just in from Canopus. Is there somewhere around here a man can go and get an honest drink?”

One of the men studied me through slitted eyes, then glanced over at his partner, who shrugged almost imperceptibly. “Well, sir, there’s the Stanleyville Cricket Club. You’ll need someone to vouch for you if you’re new in town, but for a gentleman such as yourself that shouldn’t be any problem. Or if you happen to be an officer, there’s the Army Officers’ Club one block down across from the Barracks.”

“Anything a little more low-key?”

He gave me a shrewd look. “If you’re an honest bloke just looking for an honest drink, sir, then you’ll be wanting to visit El Nivel. Back up this street two blocks; turn left at that big red building. You can’t miss the sign.”

“Thank you. If I’m still there when you gentlemen get off duty, I’d like to stand you a drink.”

“Much obliged, sir.”

Knowing the habits of British soldiers on duty in the colonies, I expected El Nivel to be a slum dive. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the exterior was perfectly neat and well kept up, without the place giving itself airs. As I neared the door I heard a number of voices singing loudly and quite off-key.

“Where did you get that hat?
Where did you get that tile?
And isn’t it a nobby one,
And what a proper style.”

In the main room a beefy, red-faced man pounded on the yellowed keys of an old piano, his coat and hat draped on the frayed seat beside him. A dozen fellows stood close around him, braying at the top of their lungs.

“I should like to have one
Just the same as that,
Where’er I go they shout, Hullo!
Where did you get that hat?”

Floors of polished Martian flame tree wood glowed like warm honey. The heavy tables and chairs were darker, rough workmanship but solid and welcoming. Martian hangings covered the walls, originals mixed with cheap replicas woven by transportees in the Tharsis workhouses, and copious gaslights mounted on the walls and in chandeliers kept the room bright and cheerful. A bar ran the length of one wall, its shelves crammed with bottles of imported liquors as well as locally produced spirits.

I slid into an empty table against the wall near the bar, where a friendly waiter was quick to bring me a rich local whiskey, one of my favorites of old and practically impossible to obtain on Earth. I leaned back and soaked it all in. I was home. Home at long last, and back to stay no matter what deviltry the East India or Tharsis companies had in mind for me. That was when I saw her.

Time seemed to stop, and my vision tunneled in on her until everything else in El Nivel fell away into darkness. The music died off and the hum of conversation faded away. There was nothing left in the world but her. She was all dusky skin and crimson lips and waves of glossy ebony hair so dark it looked black. Dancing brown eyes laughed at you from a million miles away, and her lips curved in a half-smile as if she was sharing some private joke with the universe at everyone else’s expense and could barely contain her amusement. She was a tiny thing, perhaps a hair over five feet, but she had curves like a Circassian slave girl and moved with the grace of a courtesan from the Ottoman Sultan’s seraglio. I think I forgot to breathe. That is not the smartest thing to do when you are already suffering oxygen deprivation.

All of reality crashed back on me at once as the bar sorted itself out and the ballad of the hat resumed its assault on my ears. I still could not take my eyes off of her, though. She stepped behind the bar and chatted familiarly with the bartender. Who was she? I had to know. I could not let the day pass without finding out who she was. I had just about screwed myself up to go to the bar and speak to her when someone sat down beside me.

“Hello, Jackie.”