September 2819, Imperial Standard Reckoning
Tharsis City, MARS
Red rain was falling on Tharsis. It wasn’t much, not quite even a drizzle, this trickle from the sky, but it was rain to the Martians. A recent thing, only having started some thirty years ago, it still evoked wonder as the water beads gathered like jewels on wall and rover and traced clean paths down to the pressbrick streets of Tharsis City. The miracle drops were red, of course, or almost so, tainted with the fine dust that still lingered suspended in the young atmosphere. Nevertheless, it was rain, a soft rain for a hard people. Martians loved it. Many just stood out in the open with their faces turned up to the sky, relishing each faint touch of moisture.
Verity loved it, too. She was happy and excited. Scuttlebot practice had gone well, and she was sure she’d take first place in the All-Mars Junior Championships next month. She tilted her face up to feel the ghost-prickle of the rain, licked the moisture from her lips and thought how Mars only became a "real" planet when it managed this magic at last.
Others were out on this thin summer evening, looking up at the fragile clouds with smiles creasing their faces. The city was quiet at these times, and people almost forgot the pressures of the day. Even a pair of Imp Lice -- Imperial Police, Verity corrected herself -- stood outside their rover smiling. One of them had her helmet off, revealing cropped blond hair and an elfin face. A tattoo of flowers ran across her forehead. The Police were Terrans, of course, short and heavily muscled compared to the average duster. The girl saw Verity watching her, and the smile vanished, the helmet went back on. Verity looked away quickly, feeling like she’d spoiled the magic somehow.
The cops wore standard gear, light armor and helmet over a belt bristling with the ominous tools of their trade: stunstave, restraint tape, chemdialer, pistol, minicomp, hardcuffs. Each also carried an hypershot assault rifle slung over the shoulder. They stood out among the dustcloak-clad citizenry. Cop and duster both shared that ever-present film of dust, though, which you mostly forgot until you touched a shoulder and left a handprint behind. Execs and folks with indoor jobs had light, clean dustcloaks in a variety of colors, whereas miners wore the heavier styles that looked like they were caked in a hundred years’ worth of the red stuff. Verity had seen miners who moved in their own little haze, the only clean spots around their mouths where a miner’s dustmask clung during working hours.
Verity paused by a store window, caught by a glimpse of a bright sapphire dress. Martians loved bright colors, particularly the blues and greens. Party colors on dusty Mars, where they stirred dreams of life and water. Terrans laughed at a duster’s reaction to vivid blue, and they didn’t treat these colors with the respect of a people who yearned for green vistas. Some of the Terrans who’d been here a long time recognized the specialness of something like rain, but Verity hadn’t met any Dirtborn who really knew what the colors of life meant to a people raised among the gray and rust and scarred orange of this world.
Verity lingered a long while over that dress, dreaming. Then she realized how late it was and pulled her hand away from the glass, hurriedly wiping the smears of her touch with the edges of her sleeves. It didn’t do much good, but Mother had always been tidy, and Verity had inherited the same habits.
A shift change was happening now, and the streets filled as miner crews in their battered crummies entered the traffic with the other people in their rovers. Streets and sidewalks were roomy -- Martians built large -- so there was no real congestion. A miner stuck his grimy face out of a passing crummy and whooped appreciation at Verity. She smiled, blushed, and moved on. Verity was fifteen years standard today, and the attention she’d been getting lately both disturbed and excited her. She knew she was supposed to be pretty, but couldn’t quite believe it. Her reflection in the window showed long black hair, high cheekbones, and a maybe too serious expression. Someday there’d be a boy for her. Not today, but someday. She tried to put that yearning away as she walked, but the miner’s wide grin stayed with her all the way home.
Angular buildings rose around her, painted with the colors of the corporations that occupied them. Those logos and windows were the only bright spots. Everything else was either gray ceracrete or the dark rust of pressbrick fashioned from the Martian duracrust. The sky was darkening to the amber color that reminded Verity – unfortunately -- of whiskey. The rain had stopped. It was actually warm enough that Verity didn’t need her cloak, and she pushed it back off the shoulders to enjoy better freedom of movement. She got several more complements on the way home, one not so nice.
The apartment was empty when she finally arrived at home, and her high spirits plummeted. She put her daypack neatly by the door and pulled off her boots and cloak. They went in the closet, and Verity ran a hand through her hair and looked around. Empty beer bottles lined one wall neatly, changing at the corner to a shorter row of equally empty whiskey bottles. A half-full whiskey bottle sat with an empty glass on the sturdy metaplas table in the dining alcove.
Verity looked miserably at the bottles, knowing Dad was pulling a Rio tonight, since he wasn’t here like he’d promised. He’d stagger in later, maybe very late, smelling of whiskey or gin and or most likely that cheap Bulge Horse stuff. If he made it back. Verity throttled that traitor thought immediately. When he got back. It should always be when.
Moving listlessly through the room, Verity made her way to the kitchen and transferred the lone glass to the sink. She had homework to do, but emotions collided and chopped at each other; she was too restless to settle down with problems in tectonic engineering matrices just now. The apartment seemed confining. It was a standard slot, tight and blocky, with a sunpipe in the living room to bring in the daylight, radiator arrays in the walls to provide heat. There was enough room for a small couch, a couple of chairs, and a tidy holocenter. Most of Verity’s books were in her room. Dad had his own room, but mostly slept on the couch. Verity couldn’t remember whether he’d ever slept in a bed since Mom died.
Mom. A holostat of Verity’s mother glowed on a small wooden table in the corner opposite the bottles. The holo and table would be safer in Verity’s room, but she stubbornly refused to relinquish Mom’s presence in the common room. They made a little shrine for Verity, a source of strength. Wood was expensive on Mars, and this table was the costliest possession they owned. Verity’d had to hide it a few times over the years, but lately Dad seemed to accept that it was the one thing they wouldn’t sell. She walked over to it, knelt, and ran her fingertips over the wood. She usually marveled at the grain and the rich color, amazed that it actually came from a living organism, all the way from Mother Earth. But tonight, the table’s magic didn’t work. She felt dully angry at Dad, at smiling miners, at everything. For a moment, she even wished Mom’s image would vanish. She looked at the holo, at the strong, smiling woman in it, and tears began to flow.
She sent a silent apology to Mom and to the Madonna. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Mom anymore; it was just that Dad didn’t love anything but, even eight standard years after Mom’s death.
He didn’t even love himself. Verity felt her guilt shift inside, coalesce into a coil of anger.
Why today? Of all days? Even as the questions blazed up in her mind, she knew they were stupid. Pointless. After all, this was how it was almost every day. She’d have been surprised if Dad had come home, if he had fixed a birthday dinner like he’d promised. She’d have been doubly surprised if he’d been sober.
But why, she thought as she got up, why couldn’t today be different?
She plopped onto the couch. "It isn’t fair! Nobody cares!"
Well, that wasn’t quite true. Roused by the noise, DT came out of her hideyhole, stretched and yawned, then crawled purring into Verity’s lap. Few people on Mars had large pets. Dogs were costly, and the desert conditions were harsh outside the major cities. Since The Fire, Martians had taken to cats, ferrets, and fish.
Dejah Thoris was certainly one of the more spoiled specimens of felinity on Mars, at least by Verity. When Dad was home, DT usually stayed out of sight. Verity let the cat’s warmth and softness comfort her. She’d just gotten to a peaceful state of mind with the phone chimed.
"Audio," she murmured, not moving from the couch. Dad maintained audio was enough, that video was only for friends or family. A circular mote of light – a holo-icon – flashed into the air near her head.
"Miz Vargas?" an unfamiliar male voice asked.
"Sergeant Balentine, Imperial Police." A pause. "OK, your voice print is jake. Miz Vargas, I’m calling about your father."
"What about Dad?" Verity asked in a small voice.
"Well, kid," the officer sounded like he was trying to be sympathetic but didn’t care enough to try too hard. "We picked him up on an Intox-B, enhanced by Public Disruption."
"What does that mean?"
"Flat staggering drunk down the middle of Thoboss Street, Miz Vargas. He almost walked into a crummy. Nearly caused an accident."
Verity hugged DT tightly. "Is he OK?"
"Oh, yeah. Reasonably. Listen, his records show this is his fourth time, right? You know we can’t let it go."
"What are you going to do?"
"Can you come down to the station?"
Verity shivered. The Police weren’t known for their patience. Besides, it was no secret that Dad was sympathetic to miners who suffered under the Imperial Proclamation. If he’d been spouting another one of his pro-labor, anti-Empire tirades, the Police would show even less mercy. Still, what would they do? According to NewsNet, the detention centers were full of dissidents and labor criminals already. Dad hadn’t done anything but talk, and the Empire wasn’t spending money on building new prisons. What could they do to a public drunk? He’d probably spend a few days in detox, and Verity would take off school to cover for him so he kept his job. Then he’d come home early because the Imperials didn’t have room to keep him very long.
"Kid? You there? Can you come down to the station?"
"Oh! Uh, yeah, sure. I’ll be right down, if that’s jake."
"Make it quick, huh, girl?" She heard what sounded like some kind of disturbance in the background before the cop cut the call off. Silence swallowed the apartment.
* * *
The police station was a heavy, stand-alone building. The winged star of the Imperial Police branded the ceracrete exterior and broadcast anxiety out into the boulevard. Citizens avoided looking at it. Many crossed the street so as not to walk directly past the building. A few Police rovers were parked out front, swivel-mounted chainguns perched on top like ominous black metal birds. Some Police sentries stood by the entrance, stunstaves out and at full extension. It was dark now, and streetlamps were on. The low hum of their dustfilters added a faint but distinctive voice to the night. Verity got out of the rovercab and asked the driver to wait, since she was sure Dad was in no condition to walk home.
It took a few minutes to get through the checkpoints. First one of the sentries ran a scanner over her. She was a head taller than he was, but felt a spasm of fear when he had her open her dustcloak so he could pat her down after the scan. His hands lingered a little where they shouldn’t, but she gritted her teeth and said nothing.
"You’re jake, bunny. Follow the flashing green line," he told her with a leer.
She entered a long, bunker-like hallway, passed through another scanner, this one set into the wall around her, and then followed the line to a room where a vacuum tentacled out and sucked the dust off her. Finally, the flashing line guided her to a waiting room that reeked of disinfectant and quiet despair. There was a metal bench against one wall, across from a huge pic of some forest on Earth, all blue water and enormous green trees. Probably some Dirtborn’s idea of a joke to enthrall the Martians waiting here. Verity ignored it and went to the mirrored window beside what looked like a reinforced door. It was designed so the Police could observe the waiting room, but not vice versa. Verity held her ID card to the ident plate and said her name. A tinny voice responded, telling her to be patient, that someone would be there soon. She smiled a little at the slight hiss and distortion in the speaker. It meant the dust had sifted its ghostly fingers into the Police electronics despite the Imperial precautions. All the scans and sucking tentacles seemed silly to her, all of a sudden, and she felt a bit better, in a way almost vindicated.
Verity didn’t end up waiting long before a stocky man with a scratch of beard and watery eyes came through the door. His uniform showed a sergeant’s slashes on the shoulder.
"Vargas? Balentine." He wasn’t surprised at all when she stood up and was considerably taller than he was. Instead, he smiled a little and ushered her into the back. It was a hard smile, though. Not friendly at all.
It was warm, and there was a lot of conversation. He took her past neat rows of desks sheltered by plexiplas barriers. Scattered police and bureaucrats shared coffee and laughed. Almost everyone was Terran, and she felt a little gawky among these muscled frames. They all had to work out heavily to avoid losing too much muscle tone in Mars’s lower gravity, and it showed in the sleek snap of their motions, the taut muscle under their uniforms. Verity followed Balentine down a short rack of stairs into the detention area. And that’s where she spotted Dad slouched on a bench in a plexiplas holding cell with a dozen or so other dusters, most of them miners.
"Can I see him?" she asked Balentine.
The sergeant nodded a little impatiently. "We’re bringing him out in a minute, kid. I need you to sign for him first." He handed her a clipboard made of scratched white metaplas with the Police star embossed over the screen. Verity looked over the display.
"It’s a release," Balentine said. "Shows you took custody of him."
"He gets to go home now?"
Balentine grunted assent. "For what that’s worth."
Verity didn’t know what to make of that, but she kept her mouth shut and signed on the blinking field, then returned the clipboard and attached stylus back to Balentine.
They brought Dad out. He was stumbling, and Verity smelled the liquor on him before he said anything.
"Verity," he said, wincing. "Sorry, hon." His eyes were bloodshot, and he looked hungover. There were a couple of watchful Terran cops on either side of him, their dark green uniforms crisp next to Dad’s battered outfit. They directed him into a red circle set into the floor. A holo-icon in the shape of the Imperial Angel winked into the air on one side with some numbers under it. Balentine stepped in front of Dad and Verity started to get a a really bad feeling about this.
Balentine checked his clipboard. "Ernesto Soledad Vargas, this proceeding is being recorded according to Imperial law. This is the sentencing hearing following a summary trial in case ZCV400-14. You were arrested and charged with Public Intoxication. We provided a rapid detox via standard acuzyme catalysis and then found you guilty of the matter as charged. The maximum penalty is one year detention and a fine up to 30,000 crowns. You have the right to speak on your own behalf before I impose sentence. Do you understand the nature of these proceedings?"
Verity tugged at Balentine’s sleeve. "What’s going on?"
"Quiet, ma’am. This is a summary hearing, and I am the magistrate-"
"By what authority?" Dad interrupted, clearly experiencing some pain.
"Do you understand th-"
"By what dusting authority?" Dad shouted. "Under what law do you have the right to this -- this insanity?" He swayed now, very pale.
Balentine sounded bored as he rattled off his answer. "Imperial Edict 2810 Chapter Four, section thirty-two, citizen. ‘All Imperial Peace Officers in colonial jurisdictions shall have the power to conduct trial of suspects following arrest. Such Officers are considered Imperial Magistrates during the course of said trial and are empowered to sentence convicted criminals as though the trial and sentencing occurred in a court of law.’"
"Doesn’t he get an attorney?" Verity asked, definitely frightened now.
"No, ma’am. No right to legal counsel under 2810."
"Goddamn Imp Lice!" Dad lunged forward, but the two police officers grabbed him with Terran strength and then Dad wasn’t going anywhere. He continued to shout until one of the officers slapped a strip of tapecuff over his mouth. The police had to keep holding him, though, and Verity could tell they were getting mad.
"Dad, stop!" Verity was sick with fear for Dad. "What’s going on?" She turned to Balentine and began to cry. "He’s just a drunk, that’s all! A useless, dusting drunk! Can’t he just be sent home?" That quieted Dad down fast, and Verity felt like crawling into a dark hole.
Balentine looked at her with those watery eyes. She couldn’t see any sympathy in them. "That’s not the law, ma’am. Now, please have a seat so we can proceed." She could hear the warning in his tone.
Verity backed up and lowered herself carefully into a chair. It was designed for a Terran, so it was short for her. Balentine nodded at her before continuing.
"Mr. Vargas, you are hereby also accused of contempt of court and of resisting Imperial custody just now. I find you guilty on both charges. You’re damn lucky I don’t find a treason charge to add to ’em." Balentine tapped his clipboard. "I’ve referenced the new convictions under the same case number. You have anything to say for yourself?"
Dad slumped in the arms of the police, but glared at Balentine. The tape still covered his mouth. Verity opened her mouth to protest, but something in Dad’s expression stopped her.
"For the record, the defendant has nothing to say." Balentine put the clipboard on a desk and plucked a compact silver pistol from his belt.
"Don’t shoot him!" Verity jumped up and moved in between Dad and Balentine.
Balentine looked surprised for a second, then his eyes narrowed. "It’s not a gun, girl. It’s a chemdialer. Now I know you’re upset, but don’t interfere any more, or I’ll charge you with obstructing justice. You jake with that?"
Verity got it, yeah. Balentine wasn’t kidding. She moved aside feeling totally helpless, tears streaking her cheeks. "This is unfair," she managed in a blurbly voice.
"This is justice, baby," one of the other cops muttered. "Get on with it, Sarge."
The other cop took a moment and ran his eyes up and down Verity. Then he licked his lips. "Yeah, but she’s a sweet catch anyway." Dad tensed again, but the Terrans barely noticed.
"Cut it, dustbrains!" Balentine barked. "We’re still recording!" The cops straightened up, looking a little embarrassed, and took tighter hold of Dad.
Balentine moved up and pressed the muzzle of the chemdialer against Dad’s neck. Then he went back to where he’d been and continued in that dead-bored voice. "Let the record show that the sentence was administered at, uh, 1925 hours Martian. Defendant received a ten milligram dose of Debilven-Beta. Said dosage is intended to cause 66% percent paralysis for six standard days, onset to be within sixty minutes from time of administration. Cease record." The holo-icon vanished.
Dad slumped in disbelief. Verity wasn’t sure exactly what Balentine meant.
"You mean he’s going to be paralyzed?"
"Yes, ma’am. Mostly. He will have some gross motor capacity, although not enough to get his hand to his mouth." He chuckled. "That’s kind of the point."
"How’s he going to work?"
Balentine shrugged, put the chemdialer away. "Not my problem."
"But how’s he going to eat?"
"Miz Vargas, he can eat like a dog. Just put his food and water on the floor. I promise you he will be able to navigate by crawling."
He cut her off. "No. That’s all. Make sure you have him sleep on his side. Thank you for coming down. The boys here will escort your father out. You’d better get him home before Debbie kicks in."
Debbie? She must have looked completely blank, because Balentine added, "The drug, kid."
As Verity followed the cops and Dad back the way she’d come in, she heard Balentine add, "Have a nice evening, ma’am." She bit her tongue hard so she wouldn’t blister his ears with her answer. Imp Lice. They were all Lice, the Terrans! Dad was right…even if he was a drunk. Verity felt terrible about having said it like that right in front of him, but it had been sort of a relief to say it, too.
The cab wasn’t waiting anymore. The driver must have figured she wasn’t coming out or something. Verity and Dad had to slog home on foot. They didn’t talk much, each lost in thought, neither knowing quite what to say, neither knowing how to heal the hurt between them. By the time they got back to their apartment, the Lice’s drug was starting to take effect, and Dad was stumbling. Verity helped him inside and onto the couch. DT meowed and rubbed up against her leg.
"Verity," Dad said thickly. Talking was becoming difficult for him. "Sorry about …all…this. You…know?"
Verity nodded and knelt to take Dad’s boots off. She felt his hand pat her head clumsily.
"I…mean…it. Y-you… deserve… better."
She hunched over his boot, the snapstraps limp in her hand. A tear splashed onto the dust of the synthleather. She couldn’t catch breath to answer back.
"I’ll…make…you…p-proud…some…day." Each word was clearly an effort for him now.
I love you, Dad! she wanted to say. I love you so much! I just want you to get better! If she was just good enough, maybe he wouldn’t miss Mom so much…! She choked on a sob she couldn’t quite swallow. Dad tried to stroke her head, but his arm relaxed and went limp instead. She felt his hand slide off and thump onto the cushion.
"Sor’, Ve’ty." The drug was working fast now.
I’m sorry, too, Dad, she thought. She looked up and saw his features going slack. His eyes were alert, though, and filled with misery. His mouth worked and he said something she didn’t understand.
"What, Dad? I didn’t get that."
"Aaa’eey oooo’aay," Dad produced after a struggle. He repeated it and began coughing. Verity moved him over onto his side, let the drool run out of his mouth onto the couch arm. He looked at her desperately, tears in his eyes, too, and suddenly she understood. Control slid away and she collapsed onto him, hugging him hard as she cried.
Happy Birthday, he’d said. Happy Birthday.