Max Gladstone brings us a tale of vigilantism and revenge, grounded firmly in the daily struggles of an ordinary woman on an unforgiving planet. — ed, N.E. Lilly
by Max Gladstone ©2008
It was the video, seen in her childhood, that caused Tara to fall in love with octopuses:
A blue ocean, the sinister gray curve of a hunting shark, and then, from the sea bottom, the ballooning crimson amorphous shape, eight arms wrapping and clinging. The shark had thrashed, its jaws working futilely, tail swishing through the water. Eight arms tensed, folding the shark in half the wrong way. The octopus dragged off its meal.
Now, thirteen years and a few million miles later, she rolled onto her back and tasted the iron dust in the dry air. The scientists had been surprised that a snail’s cousin could kill and eat the oceans’ king predator.
There were no oceans here, of course, no fish outside of tanks—no people outside of tanks either. Nothing but dry red Martian rock and dust, out to the rim of the dome overhead, and then more beyond that. She took another breath, and counted that one more strike against her oxygen allotment for the week.
The shadows on her bedroom wall lengthened. The sun was going down, a bright spark against the horizon, smaller and cooler than it had been on Earth.
Time to get out of bed, and decide what face she was going to wear tonight.
The saloon would be close to empty this early in the evening, but Evelyn went there anyway, on a hunch. She had put on her calico dress and her makeup and looked a green-eyed angel, if perhaps a fallen one, but it didn’t seem like there was going to be anything tasty here tonight: the tables that were full, were crowded with down-luck grifters, drifters, and asteroid trash, refuse without a ticket or a job. Evelyn swished up to the bar, and her long red hair swished with her, playing about the small of her back. “Evening, Bud.”
The bartender looked up through his lanky, too-greased hair. “Evelyn. Pastor told me you might be coming by.”
She shrugged. “Don’t doubt the man of God, Bud. He knows what he’s talking about.”
Bud shrugged, and mixed her an Amaretto Sour. Expensive, but Evelyn could afford it. And it was part of the countersign. “What brings you here, then?”
“I’m looking for action. Seen anyone likely?”
“Couple card sharks in the back room. And Cambers is with ’em, the Directorate Rep himself, all the way from Central City.”
She raised an eyebrow, and smiled with painted lips. “All the way from Central City?”
“When you can fly, I guess it doesn’t feel all that far.”
Age twelve, and Tara’s parents took her, uprooted and headed out for the fishbowl colonies; fourteen, and the first mining accident took her mother; sixteen, and the second took her father. Her mother’s accident was followed by a form letter of condolence signed by Carrington Cambers, Directorate Representative; the same letter came again after her father’s death, but it was a month late in arriving, and his name was spelled wrong. There were too many of those letters, she told herself, for them to get it right all the time.
By then she had James at least to comfort her, riding in on his white metal rocket-powered horse from the asteroid mines with a cargo of ore and fuel and water, and a head full of gossip and news from the miners there. The job was good enough, and he brought in a living.
She killed the days running through tunnels, grabbing rocks and passing them down the line, wearing a rebreather and a damp handkerchief over her nose and mouth to keep out the dust. Even so, she still coughed up red every evening when she came home.
It wasn’t work, wasn’t job work, but for the down-and-out, the folks the Project didn’t need any more and who didn’t have the life’s savings for a trip home, it was something. Bits of metal gouged out of the rock could be sold for trade or scrap, or used to make houses, tools.
Another couple years passed.
James came home one week to find her doing handstand pushups against the wall of the container house. He snuck over and hugged her legs and they fell together into the dirt.
“Hey, mouse, watch it! I haven’t pulled good G in a while.”
“I’m not a mouse,” she said, worming around until she was sitting on top of him. “I’m big. I can be a wombat. They’re strong, and they dig.”
“You know, I never really knew what they were. I always thought they were like bats, and they flew through the air, going wom, wom, wom,” and he grabbed at her stomach, and tickled her, and they rolled around on the ground until both their clothes were filthy.
“You were gone a long time.”
“Yeah, well.” He stood up, dusting himself off. “It’s a long run, and it gets harder every time we make it. Dangerous, too. There are some folks out there, Webbers, stringing strong lines between the rocks to catch asteroid skimmers like us. Don’t know what they’d do with a skiff if they caught it, though.”
“Probably open your hull, creep inside and tear you into little bits.” She poked him in the stomach when she said it.
“Mmm, happy endings for everybody.” They went inside the container, jumping up the stairs to their little fourth-floor room, and when he found the fresh bottled water and the garden-grown maize she’d been saving for him, he kissed her hard on the mouth.
After they ate, she coughed up a little more red dust, and they lay together on her mother’s old white bedspread, that had (like the two of them, and the two ghosts in the room) come all the way from Earth.
It wasn’t a nice game—high stakes, in a hot room, with stuffed-shirt gentlemen not inclined to be forgiving or welcoming. If Evelyn had been interested in playing cards, she wouldn’t have liked it.
“Five card draw, aces wild,” said the dealer with the regulation-smooth face.
The gentlemen were interesting enough. Their clothes were nice synthetics, their zippers were shiny, their hair was cut proper, and they certainly thought their hands were clean.
“Sure, there’s some unrest among the first-wave workers,” said the thick-jowelled man with the dead Yankee accent, “The project hasn’t needed them on the ground for years now, and it’s too expensive to ship them back to the Old World. They just have yet to come to terms with the fact that they’ll either die or settle themselves into subsistence.”
“I’m not talking about unrest, sir,” said the fresh-faced kid, who had already thrown away more than half of his first paycheck. “I’m talking about actual, armed resistance.”
Play fell to the gray-haired scarecrow with the supervisor’s stripes on the shoulder of the uniform. “Prattle. There have been some cases, some assaults and some deaths, but nothing to support allegations of conspiracy. The former workers are too busy trying to beg or scrape together enough to pay the oxygen tax to assemble an organized movement.” He took three, with a frown.
Carrington Cambers was next, and he was the killer customer of them all, a slender whip of a man, too compact for Mars and too steady for a ship or station-hand, with slick black hair, a gray suit, and a fine jawline. His vat-grown blue eyes flicked about the table, watching. He smiled, like a beautiful shark, and passed.
The magistrate next to him hemmed over his choice. “I know I’ve seen more cases of seditious violence and sabotage in the last year and half than in the five years up to that. And three weeks back, Holkins from Dome Five was strangled in bed—looked like a robbery, but it didn’t feel like one to me.”
A murmur of assent rose from the rest of the players. The Old Worlder, whose name was Carrington, said nothing.
The magistrate turned to Carrington. “And perhaps our guest could tell us what the Directors’ views of the issue are? A full rebellion might harm the project.”
Carrington shrugged. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know the Directors’ minds, magistrate. I am only their representative.”
“Mistress Evelyn, then? You’re closer to the people than any of us here—what’s your impression of the situation?”
Evelyn smiled. “I don’t care much to think on such weighty matters. My main concern-” she nodded to her cards—“is for the game at hand.”
Carrington raised a glass, and then (when betting came to him) raised the stakes.
Tara, nineteen, dreamt of Tara, eleven, sitting by the lake on the Evans property, under a shade pine, watching the ripples in the water and listening obstinately to her mother.
“It’ll be better there. Without your father’s job, we’re barely making ends meet on Earth. There, we’ll be making a better world.”
“I like this one, though,” she said.
“It’s a chance, Tara. It’s better than nothing,” and when Tara-eleven turned and looked, her mother’s skin was broken and oozing from decompression. Her arms ended just below the elbows, where the falling screw drill had chewed them off, and her eyes were frozen open, blindly staring. This was how Tara had last seen her.
Tara turned away, and kicked a pebble into the lake to watch the ripples. It sunk amid the tendrils of light that rose like octopus arms out of the deep shadows in the water.
“I like this one. I don’t want to go.”
That was what April told her she said when they tried to rouse her at three o’clock in the morning, to tell her James’ skiff had been taken by Webbers. There had been no word of ransom, and the Agency didn’t sound eager to chase a bunch of dangerous fugitives through the asteroid belts.
After all, it was only a skiff’s worth of cargo.
They held the funeral without a body, only a small black box with a fistful of Martian soil in it, as was proper. Between the mining accidents and the asteroid losses, it hadn’t taken long for people to come up with a proper ceremony for a funeral without a corpse.
As only one player was not deep in debt to Carrington by 11 o’clock, the game ended early. Evelyn was the one. While the others drifted out, muttering social good-byes, she picked up her drink and reached for the crimson shawl folded over the back of her chair.
A hand reached it first. Silk-white and manicured—Carrington’s. “Please, Evelyn, allow me.” He draped the shawl lightly over her shoulders. His fingers brushed the back of her neck. It could have been an accident, but it wasn’t.
“Thank you. I’m glad to see there still are a few gentlemen out here.”
“And I’m surprised to encounter a lady as refined as yourself. It’s a shame we haven’t met earlier—I’ve missed social company out here.”
She took the last sip of her second Sour of the evening. “The feeling’s mutual. Everyone on Mars is so intent, either on work, or on scrounging for it. There’s only so much a body can find in the way of good recreation.” She put down the glass, and placed her hand on her hip, grimacing. “And ex-wives of workaholic cheats don’t have much place in society here, regardless.”
Carrington raised an eyebrow. “How do you pay for your oxygen, then?”
“Cards.” She smiled. “At which I normally do better than I did this evening. And, of course, I can always fall back on the kindness of strangers.”
He laughed at that, and pushed her chair in for her. “Cheats, did you say?”
Carrington raised an eyebrow, and regarded her body. She let him. “I find it hard to believe a man married to a woman like you would look for other companions.”
She sighed, shrugged her shoulders in a way she knew flattered them, and let the silence take care of itself.
Twenty minutes later, they coasted over the rocks of the Ares Vallis in Carrington’s flier, as the starscape watched above and dust devils danced below.
No letter came for James, but after the funeral, April had come over to Tara, head bowed, and handed her a disk of flat red copper—the badge of Mars. Tara had seen children wear it, their faces coated with dust, and she had seen old men wear it, its dull sheen mirroring the dull light of anger in their eyes—anger worn and polished with much use. It was the sign of the movement.
“Tara, you’re angry right now. Angry at the Agency, at this world. We—many of us understand. And we’re trying to do something. To fight. If you want-”
Tara had walked away.
The next day, she almost died. She had been working close to the surface, a couple hundred yards past the lip of the dome, when she was knocked off her feet and the ground above opened to sky.
Gray light streamed in, and the sub-zero cold stung her face. Her eyes burned, and she could not blink fast enough to keep the dust out of them. Through the clouds of falling red earth and rock, she saw the great steel arc of a ship rise above her, too huge ever to have lifted off from Earth. Its engines roared even through the vanishing atmosphere as it flared away, back towards the blue-and-green Old World, bearing the higher forms of life, the ones with legs to stand on, to their home.
She saw James in the gray sky, and her mother, and her father, and the tiny disk of a sun.
She opened her mouth, but made no sound that carried through her respirator mask.
Tara turned and sprinted up the tunnel. When the rush of escaping air grew too strong, she used her arms and legs together, pulling herself along handholds in the furrowed rock.
She made it behind the barriers just before they closed, and sunk to the ground and sobbed sweet relief.
Papers tried to report the cave-in, but there was no clean cause—some said the explosives had gone wrong, some thought the launch had set off a tremor, some blamed phantom methane pockets in the soil or seismic movement or other idiocy. Carrington Cambers, the Directors’ lead representative, claimed the rocket launch could not possibly have affected the mine. A catastrophe, he said, but these things need to be pushed through as we build a better world. Maybe he was even right.
Tara couldn’t have cared either way.
She went back to the grave later, looked at the stone, looked at the copper badge. That night she lay on her bed with her eyes closed and the room empty save for the ghosts around her, and thought about the shining people in that shining rocket back to Earth, and thought about death. She felt small, an earth-crawling thing beneath anyone’s notice.
She got up, and ran ten miles, and did handstand pushups until her shoulders felt like hot glue, and called April, who called the Pastor and a half-dozen others.
A few weeks later, she began to work.
Central City was a luxury company town, gleaming chrome and glass and plastic everywhere. Carrington lived in the penthouse of one of the high towers in the Representatives’ section, and when he brought her up to the roof, his smile gleamed happily in the starlight.
“I love it up here. All alone, just me and Mars. And you, now,” he amended, glancing back over his shoulder.
She stared out at the horizon with him. “Do you think they were right at the game? About revolution?”
Carringon shook his head. “Revolution is a hard business, and they’d gain nothing by it except the freedom to be responsible for their own problems. People have died, and suffered, and they’ll keep dying and suffering no matter who rules on Mars. Even if there was a revolution, and the revolutionaries won, they would have to keep mining to live – the planet is far from self-sufficient. And who would buy the ore they mine here? Who would ship it home?”
Evelyn said nothing, just watched the sharp edges of his face, the flare of his nostrils as he breathed.
“The Company. We have no competition save the Webbers out in the asteroid belt, and they’re nothing, fleas not worth the time to chase down. An independent Mars would still belong to us. To me.” He looked down on the city and the people below, without seeing them. “I have something to show you, Evelyn.”
He pressed a button on a control panel set into the railing, and she heard the wheeze of hydraulics and the grinding of gears behind her. When she turned, the mechanism had completed its work, and something wet and blue and glistening had been uncovered in the center of a wide square of blood-red tiles. “Is that real water?”
Carrington laughed, and turned away from the view. “It’s my secret. Two thousand cubic feet of pure, slightly chlorinated, daily-filtered water.” He walked over to it, hands on the sash of his black silk bathrobe and stuck his toe in. Ripples crossed the surface, and returned. “As decadent luxuries go, there’s nothing like it. Put on a breath mask, and all of a sudden you have a full-resistance gym. It’s as good as you can get without lifting off and working out in high-spin. Plus, it’s really-”
He stopped. She had reached around his back and was running her hands down his bare chest, pushing the robe away from his shoulders. He felt her naked against him, and turned into her. Their mouths met. He wrapped his arms around her, one of his hands rising to her shoulders, the other falling to the small of her back. Hers moved likewise as she leaned forward, and further forward still, and they fell together.
The water burst open before them and closed as they passed, clutching at one another blindly, each afraid to open their eyes. Skin touched, body met body, and they floated in the midst of nothing, far from any wall.
They were one beast with eight arms and legs, and a single body, ballooning up bright crimson from the sea bottom. And then she began to squeeze.
Carrington thought she was just getting more into the moment – thought she must crave contact desperately, widow woman and all – and he tried to squeeze her back. But she slid out of his embrace and behind him, wrapped her arms and legs through his, gripped them tight, and he realized he could not move.
He started to struggle, first playfully, then, when he realized she would not release him, for real. He swore at her under the water, curses rising in bubbles of wasted breath, and she gripped harder. He was stronger than her pound for pound, Earth-raised all the way through. That was less useful in water, though, and anyway her back and arms and legs and shoulders and stomach were hard and strong and flexible as well-forged blades.
He drank gouts of water, thrashing blind, and his strength faded. He twisted and tried to bite her towards the end, but she pulled back and his jaws snapped futilely at where her face had been a moment ago. Then her arms and legs tensed, once, and folded him almost in half the wrong way.
The one creature split into two—autotomy, self-amputation, division—and Tara rose, boneless, to the surface, and gasped in a deep lungful of dry Mars air. Above her, through the dome, her stars glistened.
Carrington’s body bobbed up behind her. Tara dragged herself out onto the roof, and lay there gasping for a precious moment in the night. She would leave on the wig of Evelyn’s brilliant red hair, leave in the bright green contact lenses that camouflaged her eyes. Security might notice if one woman entered Carrington’s apartment and another left. To transform, she needed to find some nice out-of-the-way motel, a safe place where she could scrub off the cloying slick of the spray-on tan and find a ride off to some other dome where April and the Pastor had friends and where she hadn’t bedded down for a while.
The Directors would send a new representative to replace their old, dead one, of course, but transit would take weeks. Many things could be accomplished in that time. The movement could grow.
The bastard had looked like James for a moment there, as he stood by the edge of the building with the stars and the city lights in his eyes.
She picked up her robe and descended into his apartment, hung it in the closet, grabbed cash from his dresser and silver from his kitchen, and left. Carrington floated in the pool, bent at odd angles, until morning.
Octopuses, nine year old Tara told anyone who would listen, could change colors to look like whatever they wanted. Some could even disguise themselves as other fish. They were also smart, she would say, eyes wide and face beaming. Sometimes, in aquariums, octopuses figured out how to open their tanks, crawl across the hall, open a fish tank, eat all the fish, crawl out of the fish tank, close it behind them, and creep back into their own tank and close it, with no one the wiser. Just like stealing cookies.
And of course, they could ambush and kill sharks.
Her parents had been worried about her obsession, thought it was a sign of imbalance. What kind of child loved octopuses? Her teachers never thought too much about it, though—kids drew fish all the time, and who cared if there was an octopus more or less in the class ocean diorama?
Tara cared, and Tara remembered. And when she turned twenty, two weeks after speaking with April and the Pastor, she went to the nearest artist who wouldn’t give her an infection, and had a little crimson octopus tattooed on the back of her right ankle.