The town of Unity, Vyce Ducal Dome
Mars, 3346 AD
Ten minutes until the gondola left. Ten minutes until I was on my way across dangerous country, leaving the safety of this Earth-owned town and crossing miles and miles of Martian wilderness, all for one goal.
Making money. It was a good goal, right? But I couldn’t be late, or all my work would be for nothing. The gondolas across the atmospheric domes didn’t come often in this part of the world, and the tickets weren’t transferrable.
I checked once again that my precious red crate was still strapped to its hover-carrier, then ran for the kitchen. Even from a distance I could smell the delicious scent of just-heated fruit bread, AKA my breakfast. But when I moved through the doorway, my younger brother Nik stepped into my path. At fifteen he was two years my junior, but annoyingly also quite a bit taller…and I wasn’t short.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?”
“You know where I’m going! I’m taking a crate of sketches to Ruges, to sell them at the big opening festival. Now get out of my way, or I’ll miss my ride.” My words were harsh, but my tone was light. Nik made a hobby out of irritating me, and I did the same back. It was our job as siblings.
Naturally he didn’t move, so I shoved him aside then headed for the food-heater. But when I opened it, it was empty.
“Sowwy, were you wooking for vis?” Nik said around a mouthful of fruited bread. He swallowed, then grinned at me. “Thanks for breakfast, Sis’.”
“Argh – you!” I grabbed a frozen chunk of bread off the nearby counter, then threw it at his head.
He ducked, and it bounced off the wall behind him. “Too slow, as always. Are you going to throw food when Felix comes to visit, fizzy Iscee?” The ridiculous rhyming nickname was leftover from my childhood, but it wasn’t what caught my attention.
I paused halfway through throwing the third roll. “Who?”
Nik grinned annoyingly, revealing that he hadn’t swallowed all of his see-food. “You know. Felix, the amazing and handsome grandson of our neighbours Brant and Trudi. He’s coming to visit tonight, and Trudi thinks you would be a perfect match! When’s the wedding?”
This time the bread hit him right in the forehead, but unfortunately that was when my mother walked in. She was half a head shorter than me, and fair-haired where I was dark, but her unimpressed expression was still enough to make me take a step back. “Are you throwing food, Iscendra Cole?”
“Sorry Mum, but he started it,” I said humbly. “Um…gotta go! I’ll miss my gondola.”
“Are you sure you need to go?” she persisted, setting her hand on my arm. “Can’t you just post the crate? It’ll get there before the festival, and then you won’t be in danger…”
“I have to go,” I repeated patiently, just as I had the last three times she’d asked. “The chances of the crate making it all the way across the dome to Ruges without me is pretty low. At the very least, some of the sketches will be missing. They’re still worth a bit, even if they’re not real paper. Besides, I’ll be safe. I’ll stick to the main route, and won’t get off at all except for the gondola changeover in Vyce City.”
Mum’s lips tightened into a straight line, then she sighed. “And you’ll avoid Breakers, and you’ll keep your valuables hidden separately from your ID, right? I know you’re an Earth citizen and they have no legal right to bother you, but it doesn’t mean they’ll always respect that.”
“Right,” I agreed, even though I knew I couldn’t exactly avoid Breakers, if they didn’t want me to. The local police force AKA disaster squad went where they wanted, and bothered who they wanted; whether Earth-born or Martian. In fact, as an immigrant from Earth – or an ‘Older’ in Common slang – I felt like more of a target than any local girl just travelling across the vast domes that made this world liveable. I would try to keep my head down and hope they ignored me.
“And if you do run into any,” Mum continued, “don’t lose your temper!”
“Yeah,” Nik piped up from his safe spot behind her shoulder. “Otherwise you might end up breaking someone’s arm, just like you did to me.”
“I was eight, and it was an accident!” I rolled my eyes, then quickly leaned in and gave my mother a kiss on the cheek. “Gotta go. See you at dinner.”
“And don’t forget Felix,” Nik sang.
“Oh yes,” Mum called after me as I left the room. “You remember him from when you were ten, right?”
I muttered something purposely incomprehensible, then ran for it, grabbing the handle of my hovering crate as I did so. Sure, I remembered some dark-haired kid, but that was as far as it went. And while my family loved me, I’d rather not be set up with a stranger just ‘because we’d make a cute couple’. I passed my youngest brother Alek where he sat quietly at his desk, his fair head bent over a game of bright orange toy soldiers. “Bye, Alek.”
He didn’t respond, but I hadn’t expected him to. Alek might look twelve, but sometimes he acted like he was much, much younger, or like he was in another world. Most of the time, he just acted like Alek.
I ran out the front door, hearing its distinctive swish-click as it closed behind me, then jumped onto the descending platform that would take me down the cliff towards the nearby town centre of Unity. I passed rows and rows of climbing garva vines, the dozens of round fruit currently a sickly pale green. In a month it would start to turn pink, indicating ripeness, but now it was good for nothing but a sore stomach. The occasional white, spidery shape moved amongst the vines – not actual spiders, but tiny robots designed to keep bugs off the plants. And in the distance I could see a small figure, looking shadowy within the massive greenhouses lining the edge of our plantation. It was Dad, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to see me from here.
The moving platform finally reached the bottom of the cliff, and I didn’t wait for it to stop before leaping off and running towards the Unity gondola station, dragging the hover-carrier behind me. The large, white gondola cabin marked with its destination ‘RUGES’ still had its door open, but the flashing light indicated it was a matter of seconds before it would leave. Uh oh.
Luckily I had long legs, and determination gave me energy. Picking up my pace, I made it onto a seat right before the doors closed. Phew. I was the only person on board, so there was no one to notice me squeak in alarm as the gondola cabin suddenly lurched up into the air. I dug my fingernails into the seat cushion, closing my eyes as it rocked back and forth in the air, hanging from that single strong cable.
“Suds,” I murmured to myself, trying to settle my pounding heart. “That was too close.” And to make it worse, I’d missed breakfast. Thanks a lot, Nik.
“You are now leaving Unity,” a polite automated voice informed me as the gondola rose higher into the air, now moving with a smooth hum. “In three minutes you will leave Earth territory and enter the Ducal Dome of Vyce. Please scan your ID.”
I obediently raised my wrist to the scanning block set into the wall, waiting until its distinctive ‘beep’ showed it had read the chip embedded under my skin.
“Earth citizen Iscendra Cole. One return ticket to Ruges,” the automated voice informed me. “Changeover at Central Station, Vyce City. Be aware that there have been hijackings on this journey. We recommend that you do not carry any valuables on you while using public transport.”
Gee, thanks! Now that was a new and very unwelcome addition to the auto-spiel. But then we were well up in the air, flying at high speed across the Martian landscape. Since I didn’t come this way often, I leaned back in my seat and watched the scenery skim by beneath me.
Seeing the green and blue forest interspersed with the occasional outpost, it was hard to believe humans had once called this ‘the Red Planet’. But that was back before we’d built the hundreds of colossal domes that made the air breathable; that made this world warm and damp and so very liveable. Now it was all so lush and green, the jungles between our little town and the main cities growing absolutely wild and uncontrolled. That was why the gondolas were always at such great heights, skimming along cables strung between enormously tall pillars, sticking out well above even the tallest trees, but still well below the sheer domes. Those were high enough for swirling clouds to form at most times of year, and too high to be reached by anything except air shuttles or ships.
“Good thing I’m not afraid of heights,” I said to no one in particular. Perhaps I was only trying to convince myself. But from up here I could see everything. The Vyce Dome was one of the largest in Southern Mars, yet I could see the nearest edge of the dome shimmering faintly in the distance, just beyond where my town would be. Past the dome was desert, but all I could make out was a faint orangish haze.
In the other direction was Vyce City, home to almost ten million people, and looking rather like a wasp’s nest. Even from here I could see the faint shapes of what must be thousands of air vehicles, so tiny they looked like dust motes in sunlight. Most of them wouldn’t have the clearance to leave city limits. With the domes keeping everyone alive, we couldn’t risk anyone getting drunk then ramming a hole in their protective layers – or even worse, doing it on purpose as had happened up north five years ago. They’d fixed the breach before any real damage was done, but I remembered how it had been all over the news vids, and how my parents had spoken about it in low, frightened tones when they’d thought we weren’t listening. The solution in Vyce had been to automatically shut off power to any air vehicles lacking the correct clearance. They’d get too close, and then suddenly they’d be falling.
You could see why I preferred the gondolas, even though it meant I had to go through the city. I reached up a hand to my aching jaw, then realised I’d been scowling at the thought. So I intentionally turned away from that view, leaning against the clear windows of the gondola and studying the vegetation below instead. These gondolas were purposely strung high above the landscape, not just because of the afore-mentioned air vehicles, but also because humans weren’t the only ones to thrive on this colonised planet.
Centuries ago, back when the domes were first built and the first forests thick enough to hold animal life, some idio- I mean, colonists brought along multiple species from Earth. My old school teacher said that at the time, people had been terrified of the apocalypse – of the Earth overheating or overcrowding, and every species being lost. So naturally they’d released them into the newly created Martian wilds. While clearly Earth survived – just ended up overly busy and expensive, in my opinion, hence my family moving here – a few of those imported species had also survived the slightly lower gravity and cooler temperatures. Then a few scientists had really got inventive. They’d created weird and wonderful creatures specially to survive in the worst the Martian domes had to offer. Why? I didn’t know, but I squinted at the scenery below, trying to spot something more interesting than trees.
Just then a fluttering white shape came into view, holding pace alongside the gondola. It was a four-winged wild farlac; its horselike head wearing an expression of blind panic. But then farlacs always looked worried. Perhaps they were scared that they’d be captured and ridden by a crazy Breaker, because no other normal human would consider doing that. I watched it curiously for a while, admiring how it matched the gondola’s incredible speed, occasionally ducking lower and vanishing into the jungle canopy before rising up again to meet the gondola.
But then up ahead I saw an expanse of black water with white cliffs marking one edge. The water was still, but even from here I could see something pale moving under the surface…
I closed my eyes just as something colossal burst from the water. I felt the impact of its movement rock the cabin, and I sucked in a breath and dug my fingers into the padded seats. But then when I opened my eyes again the wild farlac was gone, and the black water was frothing white and bubbling from whatever had just grabbed its breakfast.
Suds. And that was why the gondolas really needed to be higher here, I thought again with a shudder. If a predatory swamp-mare could make the jump to catch a farlac, then who was to say it couldn’t catch a gondola cabin? And to think someone had made those things on purpose and let them loose on Mars centuries before. Nice one, unknown scientist.
Just then a soft purple light flashed on my wrist; my plain communicator bangle quietly signalling an inbound call. I smiled to myself. I knew who was calling, because I’d programmed a different coloured light for each of my favourite people.
I tapped the screen twice, and a holographic image of a girl shot up to fill the air in front of me. She looked an awful lot like me, except that she was a bit curvier, and instead of messy dark hair in a ponytail, hers was…
“Purple, Aria?” I scrunched up my nose, half-smiling. My choice of a purple alert had been more appropriate than I’d anticipated. “What happened to the green?”
“My parents didn’t like it,” my cousin said casually, running her fingers through the violet strands. While the hologram’s mouth was moving, the sound of her voice went straight into my ears via two tiny implants. “I figured this was better.”
“And everyone thinks you’re the nice cousin,” I muttered. “Ha! You’re the scary one. Do you see me giving myself rainbow hair?”
“You should,” Aria retorted, her holographic form setting its hands on its hips. “You’re looking a bit dull. Come to Optus! I’ll give you a makeover, and your own mother won’t recognise you.”
Considering that our own mothers were twins, and that Aria and I had been mistaken for the same… “You know that sounds like a threat, right?”
Aria smiled cheekily, then blew lightly on her nails. Even with the transparent image I could see they glowed yellow. “So are you coming?”
“The whole family’s coming in July after the garvafruit harvest, and then you can do what you want.” I paused, considering my statement. “No, wait. I take that back-”
“Too late! You can’t take it back! Iscee, I see you with…orange hair. Orange and pink spikes, oh yes…”
“Again, who is the scary cousin?” I rolled my eyes. “Not going to happen, Aria.”
“You’re the scary one,” she pointed out. “Because I don’t go punching holes in walls when I get angry.”
“That happened once, and I was twelve!”
She shrugged. “Still counts.”
We chatted for a while as the gondola made its way into the city fringes. Aria was my age, but unlike me, she was an only child. We’d grown up together on Earth in a busy, smelly, expensive Pacifican city. Tiny homes, dangerous streets, not so much fresh air. Then the new treaties were made with some of the Martian domes. Earth would stop taxing so many Martian imports, and Mars would allow Earth to keep small territories within the domes – completely under Earth rule, subject to Earth laws, safe from the Martian version of chaos.
To my parents it had sounded like an incredible opportunity. They’d packed up Nik and I, since Alek hadn’t yet been born, and had begun a new life in what had seemed like a simply colossal home, set in a simply colossal plantation, in the luxurious town of Unity – one of the Earth-run territories. It was tiny compared to the surrounding Martian-ruled Vyce Dome, but safe and clean and all those good things. And it was good, I told myself. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
“What’s got you looking so serious?” Aria teased.
“I was just thinking about how we moved here. Do you ever regret that your parents moved to Optus instead?” When we’d left for Mars, Aria’s parents had taken a different opportunity to buy a resort on the tiny, glamorous satellite of Optus. It orbited Mars along with its two natural moons, and wow, was it beautiful. But perhaps a little lonely too…
She shrugged. “It’s quiet here, and people only come for a holiday, then leave again. But it’s safe, Iscee. How long do you think Earth will keep its territories down in those domes?”
My eyebrows shot up. “Negative, much?”
“I’m just being realistic. You’re the one who tells me about the issues between the locals and the immigrants, never mind that you’ve lived there longer than you ever lived on Earth. The problem is your Earth ID. Maybe you need to just take the plunge and get a local citizenship instead.”
I just stared at her, waiting for the punchline to the joke, because I’d always been proud of my Earth heritage, and the feeling of safety it brought. But after several seconds went by when she didn’t so much as smile, I shook my head. “You know that Unity is fenced off. Nothing gets in there that’s not chipped for entry, not even animals.”
“And are you in Unity now, Iscee?”
My eyes narrowed. “You think I would be better to be at the mercy of the local rulers? Have you heard about the Vyce High Duke, Aria? He doesn’t exactly treat his people well.”
Her lips tightened, but then she laughed. I knew her well enough to know it was forced. “Or maybe move to Optus with us, or else one of the other colonies. There are always options.”
I rolled my eyes. “How about when there’s a real problem, then I’ll consider it. But for now, life is good. We’ve finished school, and our futures are free and open. So why don’t you wish me luck instead?”
Aria sighed. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be so anxious. It’s just that I see the Mars news vids, and they never have anything good to show.”
“The news vids produced by Earth, you mean?” Everyone knew that Earth was resentful over losing control of their former colony like they had. The ancestors of the current High Dukes and Duchesses had actually been put in power by the same people who’d built the atmospheric domes, and Earth never missed an opportunity to insult their former countrymen. Barbaric, undisciplined, criminal…
“Then it’s a good thing I don’t watch those news vids,” I said cheerfully, “because everything seems just like always. But we’re coming into the city now, so I’ll talk to you later, OK?”
We said our goodbyes and I shut the communicator off, then carefully stowed it under my clothing. I hadn’t forgotten that early warning about hijackings on these gondolas, and I knew that some people considered such communicators signs of wealth. I didn’t want to attract the wrong sort of attention.
Down below me the forest had long turned to scattered houses, then apartments, and the gondola began to slow as we were surrounded by tall buildings. The city grew denser and busier, full of bright colours and air vehicles moving in their lanes. Gondola lines ran in every direction, marked with flashing holographic lights for better visibility. On a distant hill loomed the massive shape of the Ducal Residence with its high fortified walls. It was squat, unmissable and ugly, probably a lot like its owner. High Duke Shandlin was young and reckless, but also notoriously secretive. I didn’t think I’d seen a recent picture of him, but I figured he must resemble a leprous toad, if his looks matched his behaviour.
“Two minutes to Vyce Central Station,” the automated voice informed me pleasantly. “Prepare to disembark and transfer to any connecting gondolas, and don’t forget to guard your valuables.”
“Thank you,” I retorted a little sarcastically, but I pulled my precious crate closer to me anyway.