They came to Mars from Gurstock as the latter planet disintegrated in waves of nuclear blasts. Gurstock had been an old, cold, dying planet, but the people had long ago learned to thwart their own deaths. Their home died, yet they lived on. A massive miscalculation in the sinking of nuclear reactors into the core of the planet hastened its end. The Gurstockians didn't seem to mind. They piled into their ships and headed to Mars.
Gurstockians milled about the restaurant at the station in Eris, standing in groups on the platforms, clogging up the paths for foot traffic. Their vehicles poured in, swarming around the station without regard for the Martian air traffic controllers. Martian authority meant nothing to the Gurstockians.
"They aren't going to make it here," Snake Theriot said. He watched the Gurstockians coldly.
"You said that about humans, too," Hope Iverson said.
He shrugged. "And I was right until you people fucked with the atmosphere." He tapped the glass of the sleek mask that covered his nose and mouth. "All this fucking oxygen makes me sick."
Hope drew in a deep breath and smiled. "At least the sky's blue."
"Fuck the sky."
"You need to smile more, Snake."
She couldn't tell if he tried to smile behind the smoked glass of his mask. Or sneer more like it. She wasn't sure he was capable of smiling. She liked him anyway. His grumpiness was charming.
Snake looked at his watch. "I have work to do," he said. He paid for the coffee he couldn't drink and slithered away through the thick crowd.
Hope watched him go. He was impossible to follow in a crowd, and she lost him in seconds. She swiped his money off the counter, rang up the sale and pocketed the change. Always a generous tipper, Snake. And such an odd, odd man. She sometimes thought he might be a spy. She sighed and looked at the crowd again.
The average height of a Gurstockian male was around seven feet. The average height of a female was closer to nine feet. The males wore platform boots, grew their hair long and teased it out as far as they could. A few of them managed to come close to the towering height of the women, but they all looked ridiculous doing so. They couldn't match the sleek, muscular magnificence of the women.
Hope wondered if it was their height that made them all such arrogant assholes. The average height of humans hadn't changed in thousands of years, women standing roughly 5'4", men about 5'9". The Martians were, on average, taller than humans, but the difference was hardly discernable. The near physical equality had made it easier for humans and Martians to learn to get along. The Gurstockians weren't interested in getting along. They were interested in domination. Humans might roll over for them, but the Martians wouldn't. They already resented having to share their world with humans who didn't respect them. They wouldn't stand for yet another race barging in like they owned the place.
After a while, staring at the Gurstockians made Hope's eyes ache. They all dressed the same, all in black and white or some combination, long vinyl coats with absurd high collars and wide lapels, body suits of some less shiny and more flexible material. They looked like rejects from a 1980s pop band.
Gurstockians didn't drink coffee either. Snake was likely to be Hope's last customer for the day. She checked her watch and decided to close her booth. No point wasting her time waiting for customers who wouldn't be able to get to her, but when she tried to make her way out of the station, she couldn't get through. The glut of Gurstockians was impossible to penetrate. She managed to get inside a restaurant, slid into a booth and sighed over eggs, toast and coffee. Something had to be done and soon.
* * *
"Six hours now," Tanith's voice said in Snake's ear.
"Six hours too long," he grumbled.
"No more incoming. That's good."
"What's the count?"
"Incomplete but early estimates are close to 60k."
"Fuck. Any new orders?"
"Not yet. Go home. Wait."
"I've got no patience, Tanith."
"Tough shit. No moves until orders are given. The situation needs to be carefully assessed. If we're to get them out successfully with minimal losses to ourselves and the humans, we can't go in guns blazing."
"That's a humanism, Tanith. You're becoming more like them every day."
"Go home. That's an order."
After a hiss of static and a hollow pop, the com went silent. Snake studied the readouts scrolling over his eyepiece. Tanith had actually turned him off. "Fucking bitch," he mumbled. Without access to data, there was nothing he could do.
He left the lighthouse and went back to his apartment, glad to be able to take off the mask and breathe normally. He slipped into the bedroom quietly, but not quietly enough not to disturb his sleeping partner.
Faolan sat up on his elbows, blinking sleepily in the white morning light. "You're home early," he said.
"No work today," Snake said. He sat down on the bed, his hands on Faolan's shoulders, and eased Faolan back down on the pillows. "Go back to sleep. Don't strain yourself."
"I feel better today."
"Good. But don't push it."
Faolan smirked. "That's a humanism, dear."
Snake growled. Faolan laughed and put his fingers in Snake's hair. He drew Snake's face closer to his, and they kissed.
"Hope says I should smile more," Snake said, a while later.
"She's right," Faolan said.
"She doesn't know anything."
"You see her every day. She isn't stupid. She knows you need to smile more."
"She thinks I'm a spy."
Faolan laughed. "Humans have such vivid imaginations."
"She doesn't know how sick you are."
"You ought to tell her."
"I can't. She thinks the blue sky is beautiful. She's happy when she sees it. How can I tell her it's made you so sick?"
"Are you afraid to break her heart?"
"No. I'm afraid to take away what little happiness she's got. Things will get dark soon."
"The Gurstockians, you mean."
"They don't belong here, and they aren't welcome."
* * *
The crowd of Gurstockians began to thin as night fell but some lingered, ignoring the humans and Martians. Still, they didn't leave enough room for Hope to easily get out of the station. She nibbled a bland Earth-style salad and waited.
She thought about Snake. She wondered how hard it was for him to watch this second invasion. He never spoke as if he resented the terraforming, but Hope figured that he must. Five years ago, humans had saturated the Martian atmosphere with oxygen so they could breathe, and the Martians suffocated. Only in their own homes could they breathe freely, and Hope didn't think that was fair. She had been living on Mars for fifteen years. Mars was her home; it always would be, but she was well aware of the fact that she didn't belong there. Not the way the Martians did. Whatever Snake felt about humans living on his planet, forcing his planet to be more like theirs for their convenience, he was thoughtful enough not to hold it against Hope. He had always been kind to her. She wasn't sure why.
The Gurstockians, however, were going to be another matter. They breathed like humans. They ate like humans. Mars, already invaded and tamed, was the perfect place for them. They would, however, insist on making more changes to suit them. Buildings would need to be refurbished to accommodate their height. More likely, they'd have existing structures razed and expect the Martians and humans to rebuild to their specifications. The Martian Congress and city representatives wouldn't stand for it, but that didn't matter to the Gurstockians. They would do as they pleased.
Hope wondered what the Martian Congress would do. They weren't inclined to fight, and although humans possessed the technology to soundly defeat the invaders, the Martians weren't likely to allow war. The cost would be too great.
The creaking and spinning of nearly rusted gears brought Hope out of her dismal reverie. She looked up. A small robot was waddling towards her, its large red glass eyes focused on her. Though it walked up right like a humanoid, it was clearly based on some creature Hope had never seen, something like an ape but with the long pointed ears of a rabbit, the large eyes of a lemur and the tail of a kangaroo. It stopped at the edge of her table and cocked itself backwards on its tail to look up at her. Hope looked down, watching diaphragms dilate inside the eyes.
"Human," it said. The voice, less speech and more a musical tone, came from the robot's belly. The mouth didn't move.
Hope wasn't sure if it was asking her if she was human or simply addressing her by her species. "Yes?" she asked.
"I am PAM, model 78.2. I am from the city Archidome on the planet Gurstock. I was to be destroyed when my makers left the city. I escaped on a civilian freighter. I require assistance."
* * *
The com in the kitchen began to chirp halfway through dinner. Snake and Faolan looked at each other. They never got calls that time of night. Faolan's doctor always called in the morning before Snake left for work. She was the only one they'd gotten calls from in years.
"Ignore it," Snake said.
"It might be important," Faolan said.
"I doubt it."
"My test results ..."
"She'll call in the morning. She's never called at night. Why would she now?"
"If I'm getting worse."
Snake said nothing. His skin prickled. The com chirped.
Faolan started to get up.
"Oh, fine," Snake said. "I'll get it. Sit down." He got up and stalked into the kitchen. He hit the voice link switch. The call had an incoming vid link as well, but he ignored that. "Theriot residence," he said.
"Snake? Is that you, Snake?"
"Who is this?"
"Snake, I need help."
Snake hit the vid link switch. Hope's face shimmered onto the screen. She looked frightened and momentarily shocked at seeing his face without the breathing mask. "What's going on, Hope?"
"I don't know. Something bad. I ... I found something. It -- "
Somewhere off screen, a metallic voice said, "I am PAM, model 78.2." Hope flinched.
Snake narrowed his eyes. Fuck, he thought.
"Please, Snake," Hope said. "I don't know what to do."
"Do nothing. I'll be there as soon as I can."
* * *
Hope jumped when she heard the knock on the door. She still wasn't sure if she had done the right thing, but she hadn't known what else to do. PAM kept repeating its message, a light blinking somewhere behind its eyes as if it were waiting for a response or some other kind of input. She had looked for switches or buttons. She had found several, but she hadn't known what to do with them. So she had called Snake. She should have expected him to knock, but the sound startled her all the same.
She slipped off the sofa and rushed to the door. She paused before unlocking it. "Who is it?" she asked. She failed to sound calm, and she wondered how stupid he thought she was.
"It's me, Snake," his muffled voice said.
Hope slid back the chain, twisted the bolt and pulled the door open. Snake slipped inside and immediately turned to secure the door. His movements frightened Hope. He had always seemed to flow gracefully along whatever path he took. Now every dart of his eyes and twitch of his fingers was sharp and decisive. She watched him studying the room, the window, the com on the desk in the dining room.
"Did anyone see you bring the machine here?" he asked.
"I don't know," Hope said. "Does it matter? What's going on?"
"How well do you know your neighbors?"
"What? I ... I know their names, we say hello. Why? I don't --"
He silenced her with a flick of his hand and moved off to examine the rest of her tiny apartment. Hope didn't move. This was weirder than she was prepared to deal with at the moment, so she just waited for Snake to tell her what was supposed to happen next.
He came back a moment later, seeming a bit calmer but not any more relaxed. PAM creaked out after Snake. "I require assistance," it said. He looked over his shoulder and glared at it. It rocked back on its tail to return his glare, the diaphragms behind its red glass eyes twisting and whirring.
"It followed me home," Hope said. "Can I keep it?" She giggled, but she was too nervous to sound simply silly. She sounded insane.
Snake looked at her and arched an eyebrow.
She shook her head.
"I am PAM, model 78.2. I am from the city of Archi -- "
"Quiet," Snake said.
"What the fuck is that thing?" Hope asked.
"I am PAM, model --"
"What did I tell you?" Snake asked.
"Then fucking do it."
PAM's eyes dulled, and its creaking gears fell silent.
"Snake?" Hope asked.
"Prompt Assimilation Module. It's esoteric Gurstockian tech. They used to use these things by the boatload to make colonizing other planets easier. Most Gurstockians didn't even know the damn things existed."
"Then how do you know about it?"
"It's my job."
"I thought you worked in the ice mines."
"You are a spy. I knew it."
"No. I'm ... never mind. It doesn't matter. Point is, this thing isn't supposed to be here."
"How did it work, exactly? Did it just feed them information on the planets and the native people?"
"No, it worked the other way. It would tell the natives about their new rulers. It would tell the planet what the Gurstockians needed. If the atmosphere needed more oxygen, it would 'tell' the atmosphere to change its composition."
"That's Gurstockians for you."
They both looked at the silent machine.
"It's not here for that," Hope said. "Is it?"
Snake shook his head. "I don't think so."
"There would be more of them."
"And it wouldn't be asking for assistance."
Hope pulled the corner of her bottom lip between her teeth and watched Snake as he stared at PAM. I'm in the middle of something I have no business being anywhere near, she thought. She couldn't suppress the worried moan that escaped her lips.
Snake put his hands on her shoulders, guided her to the sofa and sat her down. He sat down beside her. "It'll be okay," he said.
"What will?" she asked. "I don't even know what the fuck is going on."
"I don't either."
"But you're a ... a --"
"Not a spy."
"Whatever. You're more equipped to deal with things like this. I sell coffee."
Snake looked away from Hope and glanced at the inert PAM. He wondered what was really going on. Why was PAM there? Why had it gone to Hope? It could have picked anyone. "PAM," he said.
PAM's eyes lit up. The diaphragms clicked. "I am --" it began.
"We've been through that. Why are you here?"
"I require assistance."
"Be more specific."
"The planet Mars is currently being invaded by Gurstockians."
"Is that so? I hadn't noticed."
PAM was silent. Gears clicked.
"I don't think it gets sarcasm," Hope said.
"Apparently not," Snake said. "PAM, please continue."
"The Gurstockian invasion will occur in three phases. The first phase is now complete. Under the pretext of having accidently destroyed Gurstock, they will come to Mars. Within weeks, they will destroy the existing infrastructure and insist on rebuilding to their standards. They will completely disregard the existence of humans and Martians. Once the infrastructure is to their liking, they will begin the slow destruction of Mars just as they did to Gurstock. When Mars is dead, they will go to another planet, calling themselves Martians, just as they come to Mars calling themselves Gurstockians, just as they went to Gurstock calling themselves Antigonians, just as they went to Antigone --"
"Okay, that's enough. Thank you. I think we get the idea."
"To save your planet, you must make them leave, and you must do it now."
Snake and Hope remained silent as PAM finished its speech. Hope wanted to ask it more questions but didn't dare. Snake wanted to blow something up.
"To save your planet, you must make them leave," PAM said again. "You must do it now."
* * *
PAM's eyes blinked faint rosy light at Snake and Hope. They sat on the sofa and blinked back.
"I don't get this," Hope said after a long silence. She kept her voice close to a whisper, not wanting to catch PAM's attention and make it launch into its warning again.
Snake said nothing. He got it. Most of it, anyway. He still wasn't sure why the robot had singled out Hope. There had been plenty of Martians at the restaurant. Chances were good that at least one of them was in the secret service. Not to mention the Martian city representatives and their human counterparts who were at the station to observe the Gurstockian influx. But no, it went to the coffee bar lady.
"What should we do?" Hope asked.
And why had she called him? She hadn't been wrong to do so, but what made her think of him? Why hadn't she taken PAM to the police?
"What should we do?"
He sighed. "Do you have a mask?"
Hope frowned. "Why?"
"An old one. Probably doesn't work any more."
"Get a new one. Go to my apartment and don't leave unless you're with me or someone I tell you to go with. Don't answer the com. Don't open the door. Tell Faolan the same thing. And don't mention PAM to him. He won't ask, but don't offer an explanation."
"What about you?"
"I'll take care of PAM."
"I don't think I can afford a mask right now."
Snake took a thin silver business card case from an inside pocket of his jacket. He opened it and extracted a card. On the back of the card was a block of blank fingerprint film. Snake pressed his thumb to that and handed the card to Hope, pinched between his index and middle fingers.
Hope took the card gingerly and stared at it in disbelief. On the front of it, printed in black block letter, it read "Captain Snake Theriot, Martian Secret Service." Below that was a series of numbers that meant nothing to Hope.
"That should cover your expenses," Snake said.
"Oh my god you are a spy."
"I am not a spy. That's not what the SS is."
She looked from the card to Snake and back to the card.
"And be discreet with that. Please."
Hope nodded and stood up to leave. She hesitated at the door. She looked back over her shoulder at Snake. He was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, fingers laced together under his chin, studying PAM. She thought about how he had looked on the com vid link without his mask on. What a handsome man, she thought, apropos of nothing. "Snake?" she asked.
He looked at her.
"You should be. But nothing is going to happen to you. I promise."
She believed him.
* * *
Hope almost expected not to be able to purchase the mask she chose. She tried to act normal, but it was hard. She worried that the clerk would ask her why she was buying a mask and that she would blurt out something that would get her, or worse Snake, in trouble. Trembling a bit, she slid Snake's card across the counter, hidden under an empty credit chip.
The clerk glanced at both sides of the card and proceeded to process the purchase as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about it. He handed her back the empty credit chip and a receipt. He wished her a good evening with a pleasant smile.
She felt a little more at ease. She smiled back and returned the sentiment. She still hurried on her way to Snake's apartment. The ease of the transaction didn't guarantee her safety.
It wasn't until she stepped into the airlock outside the building and put the mask on that she began to wonder how Faolan would take her just showing up like this. It seemed rude, especially since Snake wasn't with her.
At the apartment door, she pressed the buzzer with a quivering finger and clammy palms. "Is that you, Hope?" Faolan's voice asked from the speaker.
"Come on in. It's unlocked, but do lock the door behind you."
"I will, thanks."
She found Faolan in bed, propped up on pillows and leafing through a book -- in English, to her surprise. He smiled at her. She didn't smile back. His skin was covered with discolored blotches of cancer.
"Oh my god, he never told me you were sick," she said. "Damn him. I'm so sorry about this. I shouldn't be here. I'm sorry. I'm --"
"It's okay, Hope. I'm fine. Snake called me to tell me you were coming over."
"Well, don't just stand there. Pull up a chair and let's chat."
"I don't want to keep you up."
"I could use the company. Besides, he talks about you all the time. I'm glad to finally get to meet you."
Hope did smile at that. Snake talked to her about Faolan often as well. Except he had never mentioned Faolan's cancer. No wonder Snake hated the blue sky so much.
* * *
"What do you want, Snake?" Tanith asked sleepily. "I thought I told you to --"
"I've been pinging you for fifteen minutes, Tanith," Snake said.
"I was asleep."
"This early in the evening?"
"As if it's any of your business. What the fuck do you want?"
"I have a problem."
"You've got many problems, my friend. I can't help you with most of them."
"Are you familiar with the PAM, model 78.2?"
Tanith was silent. Snake could hear the clicks of her keyboard as she accessed information. "Prompt Assimilation Module?" she asked after a minute.
"78.2 ... let's see ... oh."
"Why are you asking about this?"
"No, you tell me what your oh is about first."
"Don't pull rank on me, Captain. That's rude."
"Okay, okay. The 78 series was the last to be manufactured. Three units were produced before a fatal flaw was discovered in power cores. 78.1 and 78.3 were destroyed, but 78.2 was apparently stolen."
"Wonderful. What kind of flaw?"
"They ran on biokenetics."
"Yup. They developed personalities."
"So why the call, Snake?"
"PAM 78.2 has a message for us. PAM, please repeat your warning."
PAM's eyes lit up. The diaphragms twisted. It repeated its warning, and for several moments after it finished, Snake and Tanith were silent.
Tanith whistled softly. "Okay. I'll relay the info," she said.
Snake listened to the keyboard clicks and stared at PAM. The thing didn't act like it had a personality. It only repeated the message of its origin and its ominous warning. "Hey, Tanith, can you shoot me the specs for PAM?" he asked.
"Sure. Just a second."
Two clicks and the specs were scrolling up the eyepiece. Not all of it made sense to Snake, but he knew enough to be able to tease out the bits he wanted. "Thanks," he said.
"No problem. Oh, whoa, that was fast."
"Response from ... shit, it's already gone over General Seeley's head. Congress Leader Aofie Owsley."
"You really stepped in it this time, pal."
"What's Owsley's order?"
"Full report, in person, her office, 0800."
"Awesome. I'm so looking forward to that."
"A bit of advice? Tone down the sarcasm with Owsley."
"Yeah, thanks. I'll try to keep that in mind."
"Anyone else know about this yet?"
Tanith was silent for several seconds. "Twitch in the muscle around your left eye. Don't lie to me, Snake."
"Don't ask questions about things that don't concern you."
"She linked into you, didn't she?"
"Sorry. You should have figured that."
"I invoke my oath to protect the innocent."
Snake flinched at the vehement hiss of static that followed his invocation. Tanith's keyboards clattered as she tried to turn down the volume on her end. Owsley's voice was distant and gravelly, but her words were abundantly clear.
"Full formal report, Captain Theriot," she said. "Every detail down to the second. If anything is left out, you will be reprimanded to the full extent of congressional authority."
Owsley cut her link without waiting for a response.
"What was that you said about me stepping in it?" Snake asked.
"Hip deep, my friend. Sorry to cut this pleasant conversation short, but I'm getting orders to switch all resources to surveillance. Thanks for the extra work."
Snake sighed as the link died into static. He stared at the wall for a minute then looked at PAM. Its eyes glowed expectantly. "Do you do anything more than repeat yourself?" he asked.
"I am PAM, model --"
"I know that." He turned to face PAM fully. "You've got a living brain." He tapped its forehead. The light in its eyes flickered, as if it were blinking. "You've apparently got a personality. You've got free will. Why did you go to Hope?"
PAM didn't answer. Snake heard mechanisms humming inside it. Is it thinking? he wondered. On his eyepiece, he scrolled to a schematic that mapped out the living nerves that ran from the brain to the various moving parts of the module. A brain and a network of nerves, organic or otherwise, didn't automatically grant an entity a personality or free will. Snake wondered where the brain came from.
PAM's eyes grew bright all of the sudden. Snake leaned back from the glare. "The human female from Earth, Hope Iverson, was the only being at the station when I arrived who could put me in timely contact with you."
"You were looking for me specifically?"
PAM's eyes dulled for a second; the diaphragms opened. Snake thought he heard a click, like an old-fashioned camera. "I studied the service records and personality profiles of all potential contacts. Based on analysis of that data, along with a number of other factors, you were deemed to be the best choice for the job at hand. You are, in short, my perfect hero."
"You won't think I'm so perfect when this is completely in the hands of Congress. They won't let me stay on this, I promise you that."
"Don't make promises you can't keep."
To be continued ...