Mars ain't no fall in love

Mars ain't no fall in love

A Story by Joel

Part III


Azrael pursued Phobos across Mars. He walked doggedly West along the Equatorial Road inclining ever higher toward the Tharsis mountain range. His boots had begun to wear and were now overshod by the hide of a wild pig. He was out of the gravel country and began to cross bare rock. Water was easier to find here. Az drank freely and smoked occasionally as he found springs to replenish his supplies. Food came easily to his snares as hares came to drink at the springs.


On the second morning since his last fresh meal, as the necessity of making progress outweighed his need for fresh meat and water that didn't taste like leather, he entered a sort of artificial canyon, as the builders of the black highway had cut a smooth ascent onto the plateau, stretching between high walls of red Martian rock.


The dreary monotony and the confined space meant nothing to Az. His people were stoic and pragmatic in the extreme. In the cold plains of southern Mars, a people became used to having only the necessities of life in the best of times, and practically nothing in the way of luxury. they found variety in the smallest variation, found fascination in the stars and the merest details of the world around them. The people of Lacona were survivors, and they loved life for the sake of the struggle to keep it.


Azrael passed a red viper, slithering the opposite direction down the incline, perhaps seeking better hunting ground than the bare rock above. Az stroked the Boar Ivory grips of his revolver, but more out of habit than concern. The red vipers of mars had been brought, some said, to eat the mice that were an unavoidable part of human migration, though some still knew the rodents who lived in the plains by their ancient name: Hamster. The people of Lacona said that the Vipers were brought to rid the colonists of idiots who stick their hands in holes without knowing their contents.

As the sun began to set on the long and eventless day, Terra rose Aries, larger than any star, but smaller than the moons, it hung in the sky; an opalescent pearl in a sea of tiny glittering gems. So it was that he fixed on the sky for a time and when he lowered his eyes, he saw the city when the view was full upon him.


The city did not stretch far, nesting in the shallow caldera of a long-dead volcano on the edge of the mighty plateau. Perhaps, though, this only added to the splendor of the place, pushing the mighty towers higher, crowding the splendor of its lights to a brilliant display through the stained glass windows that seemed the norm of the city.


Even though he was taken aback, the steps of the traveler did not quicken, but continued his ground-eating stride, belying the intensity of his excitement as the lights came up to meet him. Azrael was surprised to find that he was fully a block into the city before he was challenged.


"A fine evening, friend! Who are you and from whence do you come?"


A large man, overweight in all directions, bounded from a door. Though he might have weighed 400 pounds on earth, the lighter gravity allowed him to move with ease. Azrael was taken aback, not least by the man's size. Fat men were uncommon on Mars as a whole, but unheard of in Lacona.


"I am Azrael of Lacona, son of Egil, Scion of Voden Allseer; Thane of the black." Azrael finished his speech and noted an odd twitch from his voluminous host.


"We... are honored, to welcome a Knight of the Tower to our home, you may gain rest and refreshment, but we have no wars for you to fight." The fat man grinned painfully, rubbing his small, soft hands together nervously.


"I have not come to judge or fight, and I will ply no trade unless called upon." Azrael said simply.

Tension left the other man like air leaving a giant balloon.


"Well, then! Well, indeed! We have food and drink aplenty at our festival! You are welcomed; accept our hospitality in return for the honor of your presence." The man threw wide his arms in a gesture that mad Azrael fear he would attempt to hug him.


Instead, the man bustled off down the road, leaving Az to follow him at his leisure.


Azrael was, by his disposition, immune to flattery. He was not immune to free food. After so much time on the black road, he'd have welcomed any food that didn't taste like hamster, an all too frequent meal in the plains.


He was not disappointed as he followed the large man to the town square. Despite its name, the town square was a circle, a central hub surrounding some large official building which might be the city hall, or might be the house of the lord of this city. It was a verdant park with soft red grass and many benches, strewn on these, both benches and grass, were the collected citizenry of the town.


In the cobblestone lane which separated the circle into an inner and an outer ring were grouped tables, on which sat plates of food, as varied as were to be found on Mars. Drink of different extractions and vintages glistened in punch bowls. Upon one table sat a large bowl, the first to which Azrael made his way. In the bowl lay a king's ransom in moistened, aged smoking leaf. As he was filling his pipe and reloading his pouch, he was plied with a bowl, spoon and mug of strong brown ceramic.


Mistrusting the many unfamiliar delicacies, Az ate the spicy brown stew which seemed to have beef roast and pork loin in equal numbers, as well as the universal Martian staple, the potato.


He ate quietly for a while, an island of calm amidst the cavorting and revelry. Presently he felt he was being watched. Being watched was always a "good news, bad news" situation. If you realize you're being watched, it's disconcerting, but if they are watching, they aren't attacking yet, and have lost the element of surprise.


Despite his tactical misgivings, the situation wasn't critical. His observer did so openly, and from a nearby bench. It was hardly a clandestine operation.


After a few more minutes of watching, with her gaze calmly returned by the target of her attention. The watcher finally walked over to him. Azrael wondered for a moment what was different about her, what separated this girl from the other women at the festival.


It came to him suddenly that he had answered his own question. She was young! Her features, though noble, were youthful. Her form was slender, lacking the mature curves of the voluptuous ladies at the festival. Her eyes flashed emotion and intelligence where the eyes of the women at the party twinkled merrily, but were not focused on any one thing, experiencing all and considering nothing. The skin of the older women had darkened slightly, taking on what was known as a "Martian Tan" though the skin was ruddy, not brown. The girl's skin was pale, like cream against the black of her hair.


He was also quite suddenly aware of her beauty as well, Her serious looks and proud demeanor contrasted against the lavish elegance of her peers in a way that reminded him forcefully of his native Lacona.


She wore the same dress as the other female revelers, but where theirs were decorated with sashes in beautiful and exotic colors, hers was not. She was naked from foot to mid thigh, the toes of her bare feet mingling with the red Martian grass. Her torso was covered with a white dress, resembling more a toga than anything, except that it was supported by both shoulders. The neckline was modest, more so than her peers, but understandably with less to cover. Azrael thought perhaps she was just come of age and only now allowed to participate in a festival that was clearly for adults, with children safely tucked in their bed.


"Where are you from?" She asked, without preamble.


"I am from Lacona." He said, smiling. A smile had been foreign from his lips for some time, it nearly hurt. His heart leaped forward as she smiled in return.


"I am Calliandra, I am of this place. We are well met, knight of the tower." She smiled demurely and sat next to him on the bench.


"We are, Calliandra, I am Azrael. I am on my first journey from home. We all must circle the face of the planet once, to be tested." Azrael relaxed as he rarely did in the company of strangers.


The two spoke for a time about his people, about the wonders of Mars, about the trials of the black road. Little did she speak of her town and her people, but only of herself and her hopes and dreams. He found that her reserved demeanor on meeting him had been one of caution, rather than aloofness, and it masked a soul full of humor and affection. When the night grew cold, as night chill was quick to come on Mars and slow in leaving, furs were brought for them and they lied down on the soft grass in each other's arms, and spoke a while longer before drifting to sleep.


If you are quick to judge Azrael for his blindness, for not doubting this alien paradise or examining it more carefully, Look not to his hunger, nor the toll of exhaustion taken on his body from the road, nor his lack of human company. It was only that despite his strength and training, the battles he'd fought, the many times he'd killed, the discipline of his mind, he was, as Earth would count the time, sixteen years old, no more tested in romance than the girl in his arms; who herself was newly come into womanhood.


Azrael woke with a start, his senses telling him that something was amiss. Callie woke more slowly, with the drowsy entry into awareness as those who live in houses.


The source of his unease was apparent without investigation. It was twilight again! It was the same time, to the minute that he had walked into the town, with Terra high overhead but positioned differently, as it passed Mars on its speedy route around the sun. The partygoers were awakening too, sleepily lounging, rousing themselves with simple games, and beginning again the activities of the previous evening.


This time, though, to his eyes something was wrong, the movements of the people seemed off. Their expressions seemed unnatural. Their laughter seemed strained.


His hand searched his pocket absently, as if reason might be contained with the odds and ends of his day to day travels. His fingers seized upon the shard. He had taken the largest piece of the orb he'd broken in the lair of the vampire with him, to be certain it would never be repaired. Still some vestige of the magic or technology remained. the veil between his senses and his brain was lifted, and only the strength of his ancestors and the discipline of his training prevented him from screaming.


The people in the square were replaced by animated skeletons, walking in the place of a festival that has seemed full of life. His eyes swung back and forth across the gathering, terror tried to grip him from some far off place. All moved in the same manner as before, carrying on the motions in their living death, but now it seemed a monstrous parody, a mockery of humanity that was a horror to behold. Of the bowls filled with food, only a few contained real sustenance, but the skeletons dined on ash, gleaned from the volcanism of the plateau.


For all of the madness before him, for all of the grotesque imagery, nothing prepared him for the blow that was delivered to his heart just then. A voice came from behind him.


"Azrael, what's wrong?"


Azrael's training and strength failed him as utterly as the flame of a match in a high wind. Tears came to his eyes and for a time, he could not turn to face her. The young man who left his mother's house, and all vestiges of love and affection behind at the age of ten, to train as a warrior and take to the great road at fifteen, had felt a deep emotional bond form, in only a brief span of time. To look now upon that person as a monster, upon that beauty as a fraud would break his heart and for a moment he could not bear to look.


"Azrael, what's happened? Look at me!" The voice was unchanged, but now took a plaintive tone, even frightened.


Az took hold of himself and obeyed, turning slowly he cast his eyes toward the girl who just minutes ago had slept peacefully beside him, using his chest as a pillow. His heart, on the point of shattering, melted in relief. Though tears had begun to roll down her cheeks, she was no different, miraculously alive in this city of death!


He ran to her and held her, for a moment in his arms. She returned his embrace, letting her tears soak into his shirt. As they drew back from each other, the crystal shard brushed her skin and she gasped, seeing the scene around them.


"You didn't know?" Azrael asked, looking around, half expecting the cavorting skeletons to attack at any moment.


"I did! I knew the city was a ghost city, it appears twice a year, and disappears again. I was trapped here, but I wouldn't join them, but I don't know how to leave. I thought they were ghosts, though, not these...things!" She blurted out in a rush. "I was trapped here but  wouldn't join them, and I couldn't become one of them. When I saw you I wanted to keep them from making you one of their kind, once I was sure that you were another traveler."


"I think we can escape," he said. "Follow me to the black road. The road is always unbroken, perhaps even by these terrible machinations."


Together they ran, cutting from one street to the next. Behind them their exit was detected and they heard the unearthly screams of their pursuers.


Skeletons swarmed from windows and sewers, from doorways and alleys. Like an ant bed in hell they boiled out, chasing their prey. Though the city they ran, following the route that Az had taken from the black road. Bony hands clutched at their arms and ankles, but each time one was snared the other helped to free them.


Finally they made it, gasping for breath on the road they stopped, their pursuers pausing, as if terrified of the road itself. The ground began to shake as the sky overhead dimmed slightly, and the monstrous things renewed their assault, the hapless humans driven before them as before a flood.

Azrael could run for miles without slowing, but despite his concern for the girl she kept gamely up beside him, running with the purpose and smoothness of an athlete. Eventually the sounds of pursuit dimmed and seemed to fade to nothing behind them, all they could hear was the rumbling of the earth and the sound of their own footsteps and breathing. After a time they slowed, and then stopped to gasp in wonder as the cit sank into its caldera, replaced by the empty floor of the volcanic bowl.


Centuries ago a city had grown strong and in its luxury had devoted itself to pleasure, to feasting and the arts. One day a calamity came upon them. Whether it was disease or invasion no one knows, but they called on the magic and science of their ancestors to save them, creating a bubble in time, and making themselves immortal, after a fashion. Perhaps to this day they appear, twice each year, to feast on ashes under the light of old earth. It is a dreary testament, but decadence leads to decay and Mars is not indulgent of its children.


This all mattered not to the two young people, resting a few miles down the black road, once again in each other's arms. For what they had found was a happier thing than an eternity of feasting, and more of a wonder than a cursed city of ghosts. For it's a rare thing indeed to find love...on Mars.

© 2008 Joel

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Added on February 6, 2008
Last Updated on April 9, 2008



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