This one’s for Katie
Who asked for another story
Father turned around and faced the back seat, his jaw set sternly and the bushy threads of his eyebrows furling together. Casper and Jules fell silent.
“I’ll say it one more time,” Father said. “The two of you stop your bickering right now, or when we get off I’ll put us right back on the next flight to Earth. You understand me?”
The kids opened their mouths, ready to protest. Father’s eyebrows pulsed. Their mouths shut.
“Yes, Father,” Jules said.
“Yes, Papa,” Casper said.
Pacified, Father nodded sharply and turned back in his seat. When she was certain his attention was focused fully out the front of the Infinity Cruiser, Jules reached across the seat and socked her younger brother in the arm. Casper stuck out his tongue, making a face behind his glasses, but he knew better than to hit Jules back. Jules rolled her eyes, crossed her arms, and tucked her entire body away from her little brat of a sibling.
Why couldn’t they have just gone to the Moon like all the cool families for spring break? Why did she have to be stuck here with her stupid geeky brother and no satellite connection hour after hour? When Father and Mother had announced their spring break trip three weeks ago, Jules almost cried. Not tears of joy.
“Little Eden?” she said, a groan of despair rising in her throat. “You mean Mars?”
“We’re going to Mars!” Casper shouted. “Oh man! This is so cool. Did you know Little Eden is the only colony still run entirely on solar energy? The Spires are like over a thousand years old, but they still work.”
“Can you shut up for one second, Pedia?” Jules said, calling her brother by his pet name: Encyclopedia. “You can’t be serious, right?” she asked Father. “I mean, Mars? Nobody goes to Mars. Amy Puehler’s family went to Saturn for Christmas break, and she said even Saturn is like so twenty-first century. She said they couldn’t even get a decent sat signal. She said it was so boring.”
Mother shook her head. “I don’t know why we even try. Nothing is ever good enough for you kids. Your father works very hard, and the economy is not what it used to be. Has that ever occurred to you?”
“Hey! I want to go to Mars,” Casper said. “Jules is the one with the problem.”
“Shut up, you little twit.” Jules socked him on the arm.
“Don’t hit your brother,” Father said.
“He’s a nitwit.”
“Don’t call each other names,” Mother said.
“I didn’t call her anything,” Casper said.
“I can’t believe we’re going to stupid Mars!” Jules hit her brother again and stormed up to her room, already linking into SatLine and sending messages to her friends Katy and Brandi. Lamest trip ever, she told them.
She protested the trip for weeks, but Father and Mother refused to back down. Tickets had been purchased. An Infinity Cruiser rented. It was all set. There was no turning back.
And now here they were. Shuttling into Port on Mars. Ugh. Jules tried to imagine a story she could tell Katy and Brandi, something to make up for the fact that her parents were so lame and her father so poor and her life so uncool. Maybe she could tell them she met a boy. A Martian boy. Were there handsome Martian boys? Jules sighed. She didn’t know. The only Martian she’d ever seen back on Earth was in an airport, and he’d been an old man with tanned, leathery skin and thick black glasses. He wore a felt hat low on his forehead, the brim touching the glasses, and even then he kept a hand up by his eyes. She remembered there was something different about the light on each planet, some reason the Martians rarely visited Earth. Casper would know. Little twerp knew everything. Not that she was going to ask.
Unlike the Ports on Earth (and especially unlike the grand new Central Port Station on the Moon, which Jules had seen many times now on SatVid), Mariner Port at Little Eden was a drab, shabby affair. The outer dome no longer sparkled in the sun–had it ever?–but instead reflected a dull copper sheen like a rusted nickel. Red Martian sand whipped into the corners of the loading bays, piling along the edges of the bay doors. A quick scan of the skyscape revealed exactly what Jules had expected: one clunky Infinity Cruiser after another. She even spotted a couple of SpaceX Model Z flyers. Those were so old they weren’t even legal to fly on Earth anymore.
“Please just shoot me now,” Jules whispered, thunking her head against the window.
“Look! You can see the Spires,” Casper said.
Jules sighed and reluctantly tilted her head as Father spun the Cruiser around and gently brought it down into an open loading bay.
Along the horizon, she saw them: the Spires. The three spindling towers jutted from the distant landscape so high into the Martian airspace, Jules had to lean back and tilt her neck to see their peaks. She remembered that they were taller than any building in the solar system. Even Zeus Tower on Europa, which was only finished a few years ago, fell short by half a dozen stories or so. The shorter Spires, Bradbury and Carter, loomed impressively on either side, but the central pillar, Babyl Spire, stood another hundred or more feet above its brethren. The Spires powered everything in Little Eden. When they were built over a century ago, they were the engineering marvel of mankind, a new kind of solar energy technology more efficient and productive than any power source to come before. In fact, the Spires remained unique in the solar system. There were no such solar towers on Earth or the Moon. Some even said that, like the Great Pyramids of the ancient world, no one could remember how the Spires were constructed, their design too perfect to be replicated with modern technology.
And then Father touched the Cruiser down onto landing bay, and the sloping red edge of the Port’s dome cut the Spires from view.
“Don’t leave anything in the Cruiser,” Father said. “We’re not coming back here tonight.”
“And take your trash with you,” Mother instructed. “Let’s find a place to throw it away instead of leaving it for later.”
The loading bay doors lifted, and they waited as the landing pad automatically pulled their Cruiser inside. The doors closed behind them.
If possible, the interior of Mariner Port was even shabbier than the exterior. Little of the outer daylight passed through the weathered dome, leaving the interior lighting to flickering blue panels along the outer rim and incandescent floating orbs lined in rows along direct paths. The center of the Port looked as if it were full of lit children’s balloons, but fully half of the drifting lights were dark. Storefronts lined the outer rim and the dozens of corridors that led to other stations of the Port, but many of the shops were shuttered and closed, their interiors dim and empty. Benches were spaced evenly throughout the Port. On more than one Jules saw homeless men and women slumbering noisily, waiting perhaps for the next free flight off this backwater planet. Hadn’t she read somewhere that Martians were all drunks and pickpockets? And her parents had willingly brought them here. For vacation.
As they unloaded the Infinity Cruiser, a man in a long flowing robe approached them, his hands behind his back. Jules saw him from the corner of her eye. At first she thought he might be another homeless drunk, venturing close to beg for money. But when she looked up she realized he was not a beggar. In fact, he wasn’t human at all.
“Good evening,” the man said, his voice deep and sonorous. “My name is Louis. I will be your Beacon. Welcome to Little Eden.”
“Oh man, so they’re still here,” Casper said, ducking out from the Cruiser and staring wide-eyed at Louis. “Eddie said they’d been scrapping all of them since Christmas. That friggin liar.”
“Watch your mouth, honey,” Mother said. She turned and nodded at Louis. “Hello, Louis.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Addams.”
“How does he know our name?” Jules said.
“You are registered guests,” Louis said. “Your registration includes your Cruiser number, docking station ID, and a brief description: Addams family: Father, Charles Addams; Mother, Cynthia Addams; oldest child, daughter Jules, and youngest child, son Casper. I can give you your approximate height, weight, hair and eye color, as well as your known food allergies.”
“Just a little help with the bags will be enough,” Father said.
“Radical,” Casper said, his eyes still wide.
Jules remembered little about Mars from her Interplanetary Studies class, which was mostly a snooze fest, but dimly she recalled that the Beacons were cybernetic robots designed to look and act like human beings. When Little Eden was first constructed, the Beacons were considered a major leap in technology: fully functioning independent artificial intelligence. Or at least as close as they could get in those days. AI and robotics technology had advanced so far that back on Earth you couldn’t tell the difference anymore between real living people and cybertrons. Jules’ favorite singer, in fact, was a cybertron: Jaxzon Gee.
Louis, on the other hand, looked barely passable by comparison. Instead of easy fluid movements, his arms and legs hitched and jerked, the way an arthritic old man might move in cold weather. When he spoke, though his voice sounded natural enough his diction and pronunciation were slightly off, as if he’d learned English by reading a phonetic dictionary. And when he looked at you, he stared longer and with greater intensity than a real person would, a tendency Jules found unnerving (she’d daydreamed about Jaxzon Gee staring at her endlessly, but not like that).
The luggage unloaded, Father locked the Infinity Cruiser. “Everyone got everything?”
The children nodded, hoisting their bags.
“I will lead the way,” Louis said, taking a Mother’s luggage, a bag in each hand.
“While you stay with us in Little Eden,” Louis went on, guiding them through the central plaza of Mariner Port, “you have no need to worry or fear. There is no crime in Little Eden. No sickness or disease. No hunger.”
They passed a Martian man slumped on a bench. Looks pretty hungry to me, Jules thought. She wrinkled her nose, catching a whiff as they strode by.
“The Designers built Little Eden to be a paradise and a marvel for all mankind,” Louis droned on, delivering the sales pitch with little enthusiasm. “The most advanced technological achievement of our species.”
Jules rolled her eyes. Louis was about half a century or so behind the times. Hadn’t he gotten the interplanetary memo? He was a freakin can-opener compared to the cybertrons back home.
“A fully integrated city where technology and man exist as one,” Louis continued.
Jules tuned out most of the Beacon’s spiel. She couldn’t imagine how she was going to survive the next week on Planet Snooze. She wondered briefly if she faked being sick if her parents would allow her to return to Earth on her own. We’re so sorry you don’t feel well, honey. You just rest up and take it easy back home. We’ll see you in a week. Uh huh. Right. Not likely.
Louis led them down a blue-lit corridor where most of the shops were still open. The corridor widened as they went, opening into another plaza, smaller than the last but with a distinct difference: an exit.
“Your rooms are already prepared,” Louis said. “In fact, the Hotel Daedalus is only a few blocks from here.”
The exit doors pulled open automatically, and they stepped out onto the Martian street.
“Welcome to the Sunlight Isle!” Louis intoned grandly.
Jules took one look in either direction and shook her head slowly. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe steadily. She wasn’t certain she would ever forgive her parents for this. Maybe, someday, when she was old and wrinkly and had children of her own. But then she would never bring her children here, to a place like this. She made a solemn promise that when she had kids, she’d only take them to cool places, places they could tell their friends about back at school and not be immediately deemed a total freakin loser.
Little Eden may once have been exactly what Louis declared: a technological marvel. But those days had passed long ago. Instead of the sleek and modern look of New Manhattan on Earth or Clarke City on the Moon, Little Eden appeared arrested in time, a hodgepodge of architecture and designs that went out of style decades before Jules or Casper had been born. There were no cars in Little Eden. Instead, the central road was a series of automated pathways that carried you to your destination, a system that had been all the rage when Father and Mother were children, but that had been replaced on Earth with HoverLifts. High above the street level, a central monorail sluiced between the buildings. Jules remembered vaguely that this had once been the fastest and most elaborate monorail system in the solar system. But who needed a train when you had Light Cabs?
“Look!” Casper said. “There’s the Little Eden Museum.”
“This whole place is a museum,” Jules said.
They crossed the sidewalk and stepped onto the proper platform, setting down their luggage as the automated pathway jerked along, carrying them towards their destination. Along the corners of the streets, young Martian boys bobbed about, darting towards tourists as they flowed past. You knew they were Martian because of their hair, light and wispy and shiny blond, which they wore past their shoulders, and because of the deep red tone of their skin. One of the boys spotted Jules. He kept pace with the auto-path, and as they rounded the corner he hopped forward and stuck a silver card into Jules’ hand.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the boy said. “It’s not safe for you here. Not any of you.”
Then the boy leaped away.
“What was that?” Father asked.
Jules glanced down. In her hand was a card with a shimmering screen upon which a naked Martian woman danced provocatively. As she shimmied and twirled, a phone number flashed beneath her. A logo across the top read: You’ve Been to Little Eden, Now Come to Heaven. Beneath this card was a second card.
“I can’t believe they hand those out to children,” Father said, holding out his hand. Jules gave him the top card, which he shoved it furiously into his pocket and peered darkly at the Martian boy who was already disappearing around the street corner.
The second card, she saw, was different. It depicted a dark Martian night sky, the bright blue of Phobos trailing across the sky. Below was the city of Little Eden. As Jules stared at the card, the city’s lights dimmed, went black, and then became a dull, pulsing blue, the same color as Phobos. She flipped the card over. On the back, it read: LEAVE NOW. THE PHOBOS SOCIETY.
“More of the same rubbish?” Father asked.
Jules pocketed the card. “Just more advertising, Daddy.”
Ten minutes later, they stood inside the lobby of the Hotel Daedalus. Louis droned on about the long and memorable history of the hotel, all the bigwigs who had stayed there centuries ago, names Jules didn’t recognize and couldn’t possibly care any less about. The lobby stretched in twenty yards in either direction, a wide open space littered with rickety furniture covered in a thin film of dust. Dull bulbs flickered from a chandelier dangling from the high ceiling. A Martian girl stood behind a sweeping front desk that spanned nearly the entire length of the room, its rim curving like a massive boomerang.
“Here you are,” the girl said. “This is one of our finest suites.” She handed Father a packet with their key cards. He held them up with a wan smile, showing them to Jules and Casper.
“Key cards,” he said.
Jules looked away. Who had key cards anymore? What century were they in? The 21st?
“May there forever be sunlight in your soul,” the Martian girl said.
The room was exactly what Jules expected. The only upside was that Louis had finally left them alone, reminding them once again before departing that Little Eden was the safest city in the solar system and that he sincerely hoped they enjoyed every waking moment of their stay on Mars.
“Not likely,” Jules said under her breath, shutting the door on the Beacon.
Father and Mother immediately decamped in the bathroom. “We have a dinner reservation,” Father said. “At The Sagan. One of the finest restaurants in the city, I’m told. Unfortunately, it’s only for two.”
More good news.
“You two can order room service,” Mother said. “Or you can find something nearby, if you like. It’s perfectly safe to walk around town.”
Typical, Jules thought. Drag me a million miles out to Mars and then ditch me with Dweebinator Two-Thousand over here. She glanced at her brother, who had his face tucked into a weighty tome he’d brought with him from Earth: The History of the Martian People. An actual physical book. Jules wanted to cry.
“It says here that the Beacons draw their energy directly from the ground,” Casper said. “All the streets and buildings are lined with power cells that are powered by the Spires. That way nothing ever runs out of power.”
“Brilliant,” Jules said with a lack of enthusiasm.
“Why are you such a downer?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“No. I like it here. You just don’t ever want to have a good time.”
“I’d be having a good time if we were someplace cool. Not on Mars.”
“You mean you’d be having a good time if you were at the mall. Or if you were with Jazon.” Casper batted his eyes and pitched his voice in a high falsetto. “Ooh Jazon, you’re so big and handsome. Ooh, Jazon, won’t you let me feel your muscles again.”
“Shut your mouth!”
Jazon Green was a senior boy, and one of the most popular athletes in school. Last month, he’d asked Jules out for dinner and a movie. They’d seen each other only twice since then. Her parents didn’t believe in dating in high school, a stance Jules argued only a fascist could support.
Father opened the bathroom door and peeked his head out. “Settle down, the both of you. Figure out where you want to go to dinner.”
There was no guestlog in the room to inform them about local restaurants, so Jules and Casper decided to simply head on out and see what they could find. Mother was still putting on her makeup when they left.
They passed two fancier restaurants serving Italian-style food, three bars and two shut-down eateries before finding an American pizza joint called Digornos. A red neon sign said: SLICES. Inside, the floors were black and white checkers, and the tables were hoversquares that floated above red-cushioned stools. In the far back Jules saw a row of pinball machines and arcade games, antiques that would have brought a small fortune back home.
Casper ordered two huge slices of Meat Lovers. Jules ordered a single slice of Cheese. They were looking for a table when Jules heard a voice:
“Your parents ditch you, too?”
Jules looked over her shoulder. An older girl, maybe eighteen, sat on a stool beside a boy a few years younger than that. They were clearly brother and sister. And Martians.
“I thought it was just a Martian thing,” the girl said. She jerked her head. Come on over. Jules looked at Casper, who shrugged his shoulders apprehensively. Jules headed for the Martians. “I’m Pandora, this is my brother, Zero.”
Jules introduced herself and Casper.
“Like the ghost?” Zero said. “Wicked.”
“He’s a ghost and you’re nothing at all,” Pandora said.
“Oh shut up, Panda Bear.”
Pandora shot her brother an icy glare. He put up his hands: don’t shoot.
“I know you,” Jules said to Zero. “You’re the boy who gave me this.” She pulled the Phobos Society card out of her pocket. “Earlier today on the auto-path.”
“I knew you looked familiar,” Zero said.
“You guys look like you just got off the rocket,” Pandora said. “First day?”
Jules nodded. “Our parents have a dinner reservation. Just the two of them.”
“And they let you loose on our mean streets, eh?” Zero said. He dipped his pizza into a container of ranch sauce. “Brave of them.”
“What’s the Phobos Society?” Jules asked. “Are you guys in it? Is it some sort of teen center or something?”
A look passed between Pandora and Zero. Jules could tell they were trying to decide something, the wordless kind of communication that only existed between siblings and the closest friends.
“No,” Pandora said at last, turning back to Jules and Casper. “It’s not a teen center. And we’re not exactly in it, if what you mean is that there’s regular meetings or a president and a secretary or anything like that. It’s not that official, if you know what I mean.”
“Then what is it?” Jules asked.
“Unofficial,” Zero said.
“Thanks for that more detailed explanation,” Jules said.
“Let’s just say that the Phobos Society is dedicated to telling the truth,” Pandora said. “About what’s wrong here on Mars.”
“Little Eden doesn’t have any crime,” Casper said, sounding like a news bulletin offering the latest weather statistics. “Louis said so.”
“A Beacon?” Pandora asked. “Don’t believe everything the Beacons tell you, kiddo.”
Jules set down her slice of Cheese. She really wasn’t very hungry anyway, and Martian pizza had a slightly off-putting texture, like Silly Putty. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say they run on some pretty old programming,” Zero said.
“So there is crime?” Jules said. “Is it dangerous here?” She glanced around the pizza shop, her eyes scanning the streets beyond the windows, watching the stream of people gliding by on the auto-path.
“Not so much crime, really,” Pandora said. “Not like muggings or shootings or anything like that. That’s not really what you’ve got to worry about.” She took a final bite of her slice of pizza and left the crust on her plate.
“You know how they tell you everything is supposed to run perfectly in Little Eden?” Zero said. He scooted forward, leaning on the edge of his stool, and dropped his voice to a low whisper. “I mean, they call it Little Eden, right? Cause it’s supposed to be perfect. No flaws in the system.”
“Which is crap,” Pandora said. She pushed her plate away and looked slowly from Casper to Jules. “Maybe everything was hunky-dory like a billion years ago when they first built this place. I’m not saying the whole thing is a total lie.”
“Well we weren’t exactly here, now were we, Zero?” Pandora fixed her brother with another death stare. He tried to hold it, but then looked away. “So who knows? Maybe Little Eden was exactly like they say, back at the beginning. But things have changed.”
“The outages,” Zero said. “It started with the outages.”
“It started before then,” Pandora said. “You just weren’t old enough to remember.”
“I’m old enough.”
“What are the outages?” Jules asked. She noticed that the other customers from the diner had finished their pizza and left. It was only the four of them now, and the Martian girl behind the counter. With one hand she was running a rag over every surface for the third or fourth time now, and with the other she was furiously working a HandCom. She’d lost interest in her remaining customers entirely.
“Everything in Little Eden is solar powered, right?” Pandora said.
Jules and Casper nodded. “The Golden Spires,” Casper said. “They transmit the power from the sun and transfer it throughout the city. The Spires are the greatest technological advancement in the–”
“Can it, retard,” Jules said. “They live here, remember? They don’t need to hear the propaganda speech again.” She smacked Casper softly along the back of the head. Then she sighed and looked back to Pandora. “Sorry. What were you saying?”
Pandora shrugged. “I’ve got one too. I know how you feel.”
Zero looked offended.
“The Spires are supposed to be flawless,” Pandora said. “They never turn off. They never break. They never screw up. Or so we’re told.”
“The Spires are failing,” Zero said. “Every couple weeks or so, everything just shuts off. Sometimes the outages last for a few minutes. Sometimes hours. But that’s not even the worst part.”
“That’s impossible,” Casper said. Jules remembered the first time she ever told her brother that Santa Claus wasn’t real. He was five, and she told him purely out of spite. She never claimed to be a very good sister. She loved the little dweeb, but she hated him too. It was her darker side that came out that day, a purely black attempt at spoiling his naïve innocence and childish belief. The look on his face then was much like the look on his face now: complete and utter disbelief. Back then, this had been followed by an intense, almost hysterical sobbing fit. She hoped this time would be different.
Zero tossed up his hands. “You just wait, little man. You stay here in Little Eden long enough, it’ll happen. I guaran-freaking-tee it.”
“You guarantee what, precisely?”
The four of them jerked as one. Standing behind them, having entered the pizzeria as silently as fog drifting along a river bank, was Louis. His hands, as ever, were clasped behind his back, and a quizzical look adorned his rigid features. Jules thought there was something else there, too. Recognition? Disgust? He wasn’t looking at her, though. His eyes fixed squarely upon Pandora and Zero.
Pandora’s own hands wrapped together nervously. Zero swallowed, clearly searching for an appropriate answer, but when he opened his mouth to speak, his voice stammered.
“Yes,” the Beacon said. “Go on.”
“He guaranteed that we’d have a wonderful time,” Jules said.
Louis shifted his gaze from the Martians to Jules. The angry line of his eyebrows smoothed, and a broad smile replaced his displeasure. Jules thought of an actor in an ancient theater play, replacing one stilted mask with another.
“But of course you will,” Louis said. “How could it be otherwise? Here in the Sunlight Isle, happiness is forever out your door.”
“Sig heil,” Zero said under his breath.
Louis returned his attention to the Martians. “I believe I have spoken to you two before, have I not? I seem to recall a particular conversation we have had previously upon the subject of conversing with visitors to our slender slice of paradise.”
“Must have slipped my mind,” Pandora said. In spite of her obvious nervousness, she did not cower like her brother. She stared directly at the Beacon and spoke clearly and strongly.
“Perhaps we will need to have it again,” Louis said. A long pause drew out, and then he eyed Jules and Casper once more. “May I assist you in finding your way back to the Hotel Daedalus? It would be my pleasure to guide you.”
Jules couldn’t see any way to say no. Even though she knew Louis was, in essence, a mechanical servant, with no authority over her or Casper at all, disobeying him felt too close to disobeying a teacher or her father. Or a police officer.
“I’m done eating anyway,” Jules said, standing.
As they exited the diner, Louis held open the door. “This really is the happiest place in the solar system,” he said, without a trace of a smile.
The next three days passed without incident. Mother and Father took them to the Little Eden Museum, Space Mountain (with the solar system’s longest roller coaster ride, right over the gaping chasm of Valles Marineris), and the Eden Observatory, where they could gaze through telescopes not only at the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, but also back at Earth.
“Phobos orbits Mars faster than the planet rotates,” Casper announced with gravity. “That’s why it rises and sets twice in a single day.”
“Know it all,” Jules said.
They dined at a variety of Martian restaurants, enjoying different Martian cuisine, such as spaghetti made with a bright blue sauce.
“Tomatoes on Mars are blue,” Casper informed them all, reading from The History of the Martian People. “This distinct color comes from a combination of particular minerals found in the Martian soil, and a unique growing pattern in which Martian plants absorb the majority of their light at night.”
Jules snatched the book away. “Can’t you be a human being for just a little while, instead of a walking encyclopedia?”
“Maybe I like having a brain.”
They tried to take the InSpire Train Tour, a light-rail locomotive tour that took visitors far outside the city to the Golden Spires themselves. But the station was dark, and the gates were closed, and a sign read: No Admittance Until Further Notice.
“Must be having some mechanical issues,” Father said.
“Even here in paradise,” Mother said.
All in all, even Jules had to admit the trip wasn’t entirely bad. She found herself having more fun than she’d expected, especially at Space Mountain. As long as Casper kept his Dweeb Factor to a low roar. Mars definitely wasn’t the Moon. It wasn’t even Disney Universe. But it was alright. Kind of.
The last night of their trip, Father and Mother arranged another dinner for two.
“You two think you can handle one more evening on your own?”
“Of course we can,” Jules said. “What do you think we are? Little children?”
Father’s eyebrows drew up in a way that suggested he believed precisely that.
“If you go out for dinner,” Mother said, “don’t be out too late.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Jules said.
Instead of going out, Jules and Casper ordered room service. The food arrived on a tray in an automatic lift beside the refrigerator. They ate and watched reruns of shows that had aired on Earth six months before. As the night ticked away, Jules spent an hour in the Daedalus’ version of a Jacuzzi, which filled with a slightly blue carbonated water and fizzed loudly as it filled (an experience that Jules found rather less impressive than she’d imagined), another hour playing chess with Casper (a game only a dweeb would love), and finally yet another hour flipping aimlessly through television stations.
“Why is there never anything on?” Jules demanded.
Casper, who lay on the floor with his history book sprawled open, glanced up but said nothing.
That’s when everything went dark.
“What the hell, Cas?”
“Turn the lights back on!”
“I didn’t do it. You did it. What’d you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. You must have pressed something!”
“I didn’t press anything, you idiot. The power’s gone out.”
“But it can’t. The Spires don’t go out.”
“Well, they did. It’s an outage like Pandora said.”
Jules’ eyes were slowly adjusting to the dark. She could see the outline of her brother, who was now standing beside the bed. She had not noticed any particular noise in the hotel before, but now with the power out she was conspicuously aware of the absence of noise. A vast quiet had settled in with the darkness. No humming fans. No buzzing of electric lights. Only silence.
“But how can the outages be real?” Casper asked. Jules detected already the crumbling artifice of his former belief.
Hard to pretend when you’re stuck in the dark, she thought.
“There must be something wrong with the Spires,” Jules said.
Casper moved to the window overlooking the city below. Jules couldn’t see anything at first, but as she shifted from the bed she saw a flickering glow down on the streets. From this height, the glow was weak, casting no shadow. But there was more than one. In fact, there were dozens. Dozens and dozens of little lights.
“What are those?” Casper asked.
“I don’t know.” Jules pressed her head against the glass and squinted, but the tiny lights did not become any more visible. “They’re moving. We should go down and look.”
“In the dark?” Casper was afraid of the dark. Almost as much as he was afraid of deep water and heights.
“Well, unless the lights come back on, yeah. In the dark.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Then stay here.” Casper was also afraid of being alone.
“You can’t leave me here,” Casper said. “I’ll tell Mother and Father.”
“Then tell them. I don’t care.”
Jules crossed the room to the door. Her eyes had fully adjusted to the dark. She could see well enough to maneuver through the room without running into anything. Just had to take it slow.
“You’ll be in trouble,” Casper said from the window.
“Then I’ll be in trouble,” Jules said, as if this were hardly a matter worth concerning herself with. Trouble-shmubble.
She opened the door.
Casper hurled himself after her, crashing over his book and some of Father’s discarded shoes. For a moment, Jules considered slamming the door behind her. The little runt would run headlong into it. But she wasn’t that mean. Not quite.
“I’ll go,” Casper said, sounding like Napoleon conceding at Waterloo. “But only if you hold my hand. I can’t see in the dark.”
“Fine. Here. Take it.”
The hallway was darker than the room. There were no windows here to let in even the tiniest slivers of ambient light. Jules kept one hand on the wall, her fingers tracing over door and wall, door and wall, then nothing but air as they stepped into the hallway intersection.
“This way,” Jules said. “We have to take the stairs.”
Casper clutched at her hand. His palm was somehow both cold and sweaty. If you’d asked her, Jules would have said that he was only holding her back and slowing her down, but secretly Jules was glad the Dweebinator had come. Worrying about guiding him through the pitch blackness kept her from worrying about what might be in the darkness. As long as she focused on her brother, she didn’t have to focus on her own growing nervousness.
At the end of the hall, she nearly crashed into the wall. Her hand felt the corner just as her foot kicked an end table which stood beside the door to the stairwell. She halted at the last moment, almost stumbling over Casper.
“Watch out,” her brother whined.
“We’re at the end of the hall.”
“No duh, genius.”
“The door for the stairs should be right here.”
She reached out blindly, grappling with the table and then the wall and then finally the door itself. She pushed.
“Open sesame,” she said.
The stairs were the worst part. On the one hand, they each had a rail to cling to, which gave them a sure guide. On the other, descending stairs slowly in the dark is a good way to tumble and break something vital.
“Close your eyes,” Jules said. “It’s easier that way.”
Seven stories to the bottom. Jules was certain that by the time they made it to the street, all the lights would be back on. And all the little flickering lights would be gone.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, there were no more stairs.
“We made it,” Casper said.
“Yee of little faith,” Jules said.
At the bottom of the stairwell were two doors: one leading into the Hotel Daedalus, and one leading out to the street.
“Out we go,” Jules said, giving the exit door a shove.
Starlight glinted in the night sky above and reflected off the windows of the surrounding buildings, but it was the shimmering lights on the street below that immediately caught Jules’ attention. People passed before them, tiny flickering lights in their hands.
“Wait a minute,” Casper said, finally letting go of Jules’ hand. “I know what those are. They’re called candles. People used to have them to light their homes. Like a thousand years ago.”
Casper strode into the street into a stream of people wandering in either direction. Not everyone had candles, only every fourth or fifth person. When a candle-holder drifted past Casper, Jules could see the light glow on her brother’s face and dance in his eyes. The auto-path remained still, useless now that it was cut off from its source of power. For the first time, a new thought occurred to Jules.
“What about them?” Casper said.
“Can the Beacons run with the power out like this? Do they have an internal power source?”
“I don’t know,” Casper admitted. “I don’t think they were designed with any batteries. The Spires are never supposed to go out.”
“So who’s in charge?” Jules said. “Who runs everything until the power comes back on?”
“If it comes back on.”
Jules recognized that voice. Coming down the frozen auto-path were Pandora and her brother Zero. They each held a candle.
“And to answer your question,” Pandora said. “We are. We’re in charge. All of us.”
“You were right,” Casper said. “About the outages.”
“Of course we were,” Zero said. “You doubted us?”
“What happened to the Spires?” Jules asked. “And where’d you get the candles? That’s what they’re called, right?”
“I told her that,” Casper said.
Pandora glanced from Casper to Jules. “We don’t know what’s wrong with the Spires. No one does. Not even the Beacons.”
“Not that they’ll tell you that,” Zero said. “Pompous bunch of nuts and bolts.”
“How can no one know?” Jules asked. “How can they fix it if no one even knows what’s wrong?”
Pandora shrugged. “Who said anything about fixing it?”
Zero bounced from foot to foot, the candle in his hand jerking with the movement. He seemed nervous, unsteady. “Almost time, Panda. Getting close.”
Pandora held up her hand. “Calm down. We’re gonna get there. I gotta talk with our Earth friends here first.”
“Where are you going?” Casper asked.
“Don’t worry about it, squirt,” Zero said.
Even in the wan candlelight, Jules could see the hurt look on Casper’s face. The boy looked away into the darkness.
After a long pause, Pandora said: “You really want to know what’s wrong? At least as much as we can tell you? Because it’s not going to make you feel any better, if that’s what you’re hoping for.”
“Panda, let’s go.”
“I want to know,” Jules said.
“Come with us then,” Pandora said. “It’s not far. You have to see it to believe it.” She waved her candle in a long arc, indicating the surrounding city. “This, the outages, aren’t what you have to worry about. But we shouldn’t be here, in the street. It’s not safe for much longer.”
“Why not?” Casper asked. The fear that was in his voice earlier had returned. Jules felt the boy’s hand searching for her own.
“Come on, Panda,” Zero insisted. “There’s no time.”
“If you want to know, follow us.”
The Martians moved away into the darkness. For a moment, Jules was torn. Mother and Father would be back soon. If they found the hotel room empty, they would freak out, no doubt about it. There would be repercussions.
“Jules,” Casper said, clearly wanting her to make up her mind.
“Let’s go,” Jules said.
The sign on the gate surrounding the Inspire Train Tour platform read: CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. Zero paid it no heed. In a smooth, practiced motion he hiked one foot onto the bar midway up the gate, grasped one of the long silver gateposts, and catapulted himself up and over to the other side.
“What’re we doing here? It’s closed.” Casper stared at the top of the gate, clearly wishing he was taller and stronger. “There’s something wrong with the trains.”
“Wrong,” Zero said. “There’s nothing wrong with the trains.”
“Then why is it closed?” Jules asked.
Pandora followed her brother, though slower and more carefully. When she landed on the other side, she turned and gazed up and down the street.
“If you’re coming, let’s go. Sooner or later, a Beacon is going to come by here and then we’ll all be in it deep.”
Jules grabbed a silver post. “Doesn’t look so hard.” She looked at Casper. “You need any help?”
He snorted. “Not from you.”
Casper slipped his first try over, but Jules reached up and gave him a hard shove on the ass the second time, and over he went. Jules joined the group a moment later. None too soon, as Pandora hustled them away from the gate.
“Here,” Pandora commanded. “Get down here.”
They ducked into the lee of a lightrail car. Pandora huffed out their candles, then raised a finger to her lips. They waited, and sure enough Louis appeared by the front gate a few minutes later. Jules could barely make out his outline in the dark and wouldn’t have recognized him at all if not for his long flowing robes. The Beacon paused, staring into the train yard, paying special attention to the deeper shadows. Hadn’t Jules heard somewhere that the Beacons’ vision was based upon heat sensors and bio-readouts? If that were true, then Louis could certainly see them. Four warm breathing bodies crouched in the dark. The lightrail car couldn’t hide them. But after a moment, Louis moved on. Jules listened to his soft footsteps shuffling along the sidewalk, drifting away.
“You said there’s nothing wrong with the trains,” Jules said. “Then why are they closed down?”
“Because they don’t want people going out there,” Zero said.
“Where do you think? To the Spires,” Pandora said. She lit each of the candles again, passing one this time to Jules. “We told you before: there’s something wrong with the Spires.”
“I don’t believe you,” Casper said.
“Don’t be a little whiner,” Zero told him.
“I’m not a whiner. I’ve read all about the Spires. They’ve run perfectly for thousands of years. The designers made them to last forever.”
“That’s the problem, kiddo,” Pandora said. “That’s precisely the problem.”
In the yellow pall of light, Casper’s eyebrows furled.
“Look, you’re right that the Spires were like, wonderful and everything,” Pandora said. She raised her candle and they stood. “And yes, they were made out of some kind of Martian steel or alloy or whatnot. I didn’t pay much attention in geology, but whatever they made them out of is only found here on Mars. And the technology that they used, combined with this Martian metal or whatever it is, you’re correct: it was supposed to more or less last forever. Without any humans.”
“So I’m right,” Casper said.
“Not exactly. Because there is a problem. Something the original designers must not have foreseen.”
Zero pointed up at the night sky. “The Spires have started running on the wrong kind of light.”
At the edge of the horizon, Phobos was now in view, crossing the Martian sky in a speedy arc. It was much smaller than the Moon back home on Earth, but it was easily the largest object in the sky. Diemos, Mars’ only other moon, was only a glimmering speck, hardly distinguishable among the stars. Phobos, however, glowed with a pale blue aura, illuminating the landscape in indigo.
“But moonlight is only reflected sunlight,” Casper said. “That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“Sense or no sense, it’s the truth,” Zero said.
Pandora led them down the row of lightrail cars until they came to the one furthest along the tracks. She bent down and unlatched the locks along the brakes. Zero put a hand along the back of the car and pushed. The car moved easily.
“Lightrail cars aren’t powered by the Spires,” Zero said. “They’re designed to be self-perpetuating. Some kind of static-electric deal between the molecules of the tracks and the wheels. All you gotta do is give them a shove.”
“What is powered by the Spires are the controls,” Pandora said. “Speed up, slow down, turn back. The track only runs one way, and the cars have a low max speed, so it’s not actually dangerous or anything. But when you want out…”
“You gotta jump,” Zero finished.
“Hop in!” Pandora said merrily.
The four of them clambered into the lightrail car, jostling in the narrow seats, trying to get comfortable. The cars were only designed to hold two. It was a tight fit, and Casper ended up half in Jules’ lap. Zero gave the car a final push, then leaped in. He sat on the sidewall, his feet in a seat.
The moonlight had grown bright enough that the candles were no longer necessary. Pandora blew them out and set them beside Zero’s feet. The car slowly picked up speed, and then they were out beyond the Inspire Station itself and rolling into the Blast Lands, the long empty stretch between Little Eden and the Golden Spires. The landscape was desolate. Nothing grew here, and the red earth itself appeared scorched. Jules tried to remember what had happened here, but Martian history was Casper’s department, not hers.
“You get a better view out here,” Pandora said. “In town, it’s hard to tell. But out here you can really see the difference.”
“You said there was something wrong with the fact that the Spires were built to last forever,” Jules said. “What did you mean?”
“They’ve been around too long,” Pandora said.
“Look, nothing’s perfect, right?” Zero said. The lightrail car continued to pick up speed, and Zero’s hair flitted gently in the breeze. “But you can make some things almost perfect. And they last and last and last, until one day there’s no one around anymore who remembers how it was made in the first place.”
“And there’s no one around who ever had to fix one, because it was so perfect for so long it never needed fixing,” Pandora said.
“It’s just been forgotten,” Zero said. “That’s our point. The Spires are breaking, and no one has any idea how to fix them. No one knows how they were built to begin with. Everything you read in the textbooks, the stuff you see on the tours, those are best guesses. It’s like the Great Pyramids back on Earth. We think we know how they’re built, right? But we don’t actually know. No one wrote it down. Or maybe they did, and what they wrote down got lost because it was so long ago.”
“But the Beacons,” Casper said. “The Beacons were built at the same time. Wouldn’t they know? Wouldn’t they be able to fix things?”
“You’ve been here all week. Tell me how good a job you think the Beacons are doing keeping everything in tip-top shape,” Zero asked.
Casper frowned and remained silent. While there was plenty to see in Little Eden, you couldn’t miss all the rundown and abandoned parts of the city, the shuttered-up storefronts, the closed attractions labeled with dusty signs that said: No Admittance Until Further Notice. And then there were the outages, something that the textbooks claimed were simply impossible.
For the next few miles, they rode in silence. Jules wondered precisely what Pandora and Zero wanted them to see out here in the vast desert of the Blast Lands, but she didn’t ask. There’d been so many questions already that night, and so many unsettling answers. She wasn’t sure she had even fully processed what she’d already been told. As they sped further and further away from Little Eden, the Golden Spires grew closer. They truly towered over the landscape, far taller than any building back on Earth, and unlike Earth buildings, they were not square but round, constructed as enormous spindles that started wide at the base and tapered off as they stretched towards the upper atmosphere. Babel Tower in the center seemed to extend beyond the sky itself, as if Phobos might actually run smack into its tip and get thrown off course.
It was as Jules stared that the Spires went out.
“Holy shit,” Zero said.
“What just happened?” Jules said.
“What’d you do to the Spires?” Casper demanded.
“What did we do? We’re right here with you, you dolt,” Pandora said.
“Then what made them go out?”
“I don’t know,” Zero said. “That has never happened before. It’s something new.”
The lightrail car rolled on as the four of them stared at the dark black spires empty of their golden light for the first time in a thousand years. And then, starting from the peaks of the Spires and radiating downward, a pale blue glow washed over the ancient Martian towers.
“It’s Phobos,” Pandora said. “It’s the moonlight.”
But this wasn’t reflected moonlight, Jules noticed. The blue light emanated from within the Spires themselves, as if they were full of moonlight. The same way they had been full of sunlight. They were right, Jules thought. The Spires really are running on the wrong kind of light. Surely it can’t matter, though. Light is light. The Spires are just gigantic batteries, right? A battery doesn’t care what you plug it into.
The lightrail car’s brakes engaged, and the four of them jolted in their seats. Zero toppled forward, nearly spinning out of the car itself but luckily landing on Casper instead.
“Get off of me! You’re freakin crushing me!”
The brakes squealed and brought the car to a halt.
“Who the hell hit the brakes?” Jules said. “I thought you said there weren’t any controls.”
“There’s not,” Zero said, lifting himself off of Casper and returning gingerly to his former position on the lip of the car. “With the power out, the controls don’t work.”
“So why’d we stop?”
“The power’s back on,” Pandora said. “Look.”
She pointed back toward Little Eden.
The city was once again lit up: streetlights and office windows glowed; storefront signs blinked; reader boards and holograms flashed and danced. Except that now, instead of bright glittering golden light, Little Eden emanated a dull cerulean radiance.
The lightrail car started with a jerk, but not onward toward the Spires.
“It’s taking us back,” Pandora said. “It’s probably an automatic system. It recognizes the car is away from the station and sends it back.”
“We can jump,” Zero said. “It’s not moving very fast.”
“I want to go back to the city,” Jules said. “Everything is back on now. We’ve got to find Mother and Father.”
Whatever sense of excitement and adventure Jules had felt at the beginning of this night had worn off. She suddenly found herself more exhausted than anything else. She’d come out here to see the Spires up close, and she felt that she’d come close enough. Pandora and Zero were clearly right: the Golden Spires, not so golden at the moment, were running on the wrong light. But really, who cared? As long as things worked, did it matter if they ran on sunlight or moonlight? She wondered if Father and Mother were already back at the Daedalus. They almost certainly had made their way back after the outage, but she held out a slim hope that they’d stayed put wherever they were at, and that they–Casper and herself–just might beat them back. It might just be possible that Father and Mother would never know they’d left the hotel at all.
They had traveled further into the Blast Lands than Jules had imagined, many miles as it turned out, and the return trip took nearly half an hour before finally reaching the station. The lightrail car slowed as it approached its home, then eased to a stop next to its brethren.
“Look, we really appreciate what you showed us,” Jules said, stepping out of the car and offering a hand to Casper. He took it and hopped down. “You were right. About the Spires. The moonlight.”
“Yee of little faith,” Zero said.
“What does it mean, though?” Jules asked.
Pandora stepped down beside them. She shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing good, I’ll tell you. Tonight’s outage, that was the longest one yet. When they started, they only lasted a few minutes or so. But now…”
“And the Spires have never done that before,” Zero said.
“But everything’s back on. Everything’s working,” Casper pointed out.
Pandora only shrugged her shoulders once again. “How long are you guys on Mars?”
“Another day. We leave on Saturday.”
“Maybe we’ll see you around.”
The four parted outside the Inspire Station gates, Pandora and Zero heading one way, Jules and Casper another. The streets of Little Eden whirred with light, but the city was quiet and empty. The auto-path flowed, but Jules and Casper were the only people riding it. At first, Jules put this down to the fact that it was late at night, surely past midnight by now. But that was silly. Little Eden was like New Vegas back on Earth. It was renowned for its night life.
It’s the outage, she told herself. The outage sent everyone indoors. People went back to their rooms and their homes and went to bed.
The hoverlights which floated at the street corners emitted a dull blue light now instead of their previous golden luminescence. The track lights on the auto-path were blue too, and so were the lights in Eve’s Fountain in the roundabout outside the Daedalus Hotel. The whole city was awash in moonlight.
They went straight through the front doors, and Jules expected to find someone at the desk, or perhaps even a Beacon lounging in the foyer, someone who could explain what had happened. But the front desk was as empty as the streets outside.
The bulbs in the foyer glowed blue.
“Sure is quiet,” Casper said as they stepped into the elevator.
“I hope Mother and Father aren’t back yet,” Jules said, pushing the button for their floor. “Maybe they’ll still be out at dinner. Maybe they got held up there instead of coming straight back to the room.”
They got off on their floor. “It’s like being underwater,” Casper said as they strode down the hallway flooded in an aqua sheen.
Jules found their room card in her pocket. She took a deep breath, saying a little prayer that the room would be empty, Mother and Father still not back. Then she slid the card in the slot. The light blinked blue.
She pushed the door open.
The room inside was dark, save for two blue dots burning in the corner. At first Jules thought they were buttons on the wall, but she didn’t recall there being any switches on that side of the room.
Jules recognized that voice.
A light flicked on, and Jules saw that the twin blue lights were not switches at all. They were Louis’s eyes. He’d been sitting in a chair beside the wall, but now he stood.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” the Beacon said.
Jules felt the door close behind them. She saw then Mother and Father, who had indeed returned. They lay in a tangled heap on the bed, the sheets twisted with red.
Louis strode forward. In the Beacon’s hand was a long steel blade, recently used.
The Beacon’s eyes glowed. “Time for a little sunshine in your souls.”