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Starbound

Joe Haldeman - Author

Paperback: Mass Market | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780441019793 | 320 pages | 28 Dec 2010 | Ace | 6.49 x 4.29in | 18 - AND UP
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Carmen Dula and her husband spent six years travelling to the distant home of the powerful race known as "The Others," in the hopes of forging a truce. But by the time Carmen returns to Earth, fifty years have passed-and the Earthlings have built a flotilla of warships to defend Earth against The Others.

But The Others have more power than anyone could imagine-and they will brook no insolence from the upstart human race.

2

HISTORY LESSON

Carmen Dula never set out to become the first human ambassador to an alien race. Nor did she aspire to become one of the most hated people on Earth—or off Earth, technically—but which of us has control over our destiny?

Most of us do have more control. It was Carmen's impulsiveness that brought her both distinctions.

Her parents dragged her off to Mars when she was eighteen, along with her younger brother Card. The small outpost there, which some called a colony, had decided to invite a shipload of families.

A shitload of trouble, some people said. None of the kids were under ten, though, and most of the seventy-five people living there, in inflated bubbles under the Martian surface, enjoyed the infusion of new blood, of young blood.

On the way over from Earth, about halfway through the eight-month voyage, Carmen had a brief affair with the pilot, Paul Collins. It was brief because the powers-that-be on Mars found out about it immediately, and suggested that at thirty-two, Paul shouldn't be dallying with an impressionable teenaged girl. Carmen was insulted, feeling that at nineteen she was not a "girl" and was the only one in charge of her body.

The first day they were on Mars, before they even settled into their cramped quarters, Carmen found out that the "powers"-that-be were one single dour power, administrator Dargo Solingen. She obviously resented Carmen on various levels and proceeded to make the Earth girl her little project.

It came to a head when Dargo discovered Carmen swimming, skinny-dipping, after midnight in a new water tank. She was the oldest of the six naked swimmers, and so took the brunt of the punishment. Among other things, she was forbidden to visit the surface, which was their main recreation and escape, for two months.

She rankled under this, and rebelled in an obvious way: when everyone was asleep, she suited up and went outside alone, which broke the First Commandment of life on Mars, at the time: Never go outside without a buddy.

She'd planned to go straight out a few kilometers, and straight back, and slip back into her bunk before anyone knew she was gone. It was not to be.

She fell through a thin shell of crust, which had never happened before, plummeted a couple of dozen meters, and broke an ankle and a rib. She was doomed. Out of radio contact, running out of air, and about to freeze solid.

But she was rescued by a Martian.

3

GERM THEORY

Humans call me Fly-in-Amber, and I am the "Martian" best qualified to tell the story of how we made contact with humans.

I will put Martian in quotation marks only once. We know we are not from Mars, though we live here. Some of the humans who live here also call themselves Martians, which is confusing and ludicrous.

We had observed human robot probes landing on Mars, or orbiting it, for decades before they started to build their outpost, uncomfortably close to where we live, attracted by the same subterranean (or subarean) source of water as those who placed us here, the Others.

With more than a century to prepare for the inevitable meeting, we had time to plan various responses. Violence was discussed and discarded. We had no experience with it other than in observation of human activities on radio, television, and cube. You would kick our asses, if we had them, but we are four-legged and excrete mainly through hundreds of pores in our feet.

The only actual plan was to feign ignorance. Not admit (at first) that we understood many human languages. You would eventually find out we were listening to you, of course, but you would understand our need for caution.

We are not good at planning, since our lives used to be safe and predictable, but in any case we could not have planned on Carmen Dula. She walked over the top of a lava bubble that had been worn thin, and fell through.

She was obviously injured and in grave danger. Our choices were to contact the colony and tell them what had happened or rescue her ourselves. The former course had too many variables—explaining who we were and what we knew and all; she would probably run out of air long before they could find her. So our leader flew out to retrieve her.

(We have one absolute leader at a time; when he/she/it dies, another is born. More intelligent, larger, stronger, and faster than the rest of us, and usually long-lived. Unless humans interfere, it turns out.)

The leader, whom Carmen christened Red, took a floater out and picked up Carmen and her idiot robot companion, called a dog, and brought them back to us. Our medicine cured her broken bones and frostbite.

We are not sure why it worked on her, but we don't know how it works on us, either. It always has.

We agreed not to speak to her, for the time being. We only spoke our native languages, which the human vocal apparatus can't reproduce. Humans can't even hear the high-pitched part.

So Red took her back to the colony the next night, taking advantage of a sandstorm to remain hidden. Left her at the air-lock door, with no explanation.

It was very amusing to monitor what happened afterward—we do listen to all communications traffic between Earth and Mars. Nobody wanted to believe her fantastic story, since Martians do not and could not exist, but no one could explain how she had survived so long. They even found evidence of the broken bones we healed but assumed they were old injuries she had forgotten about, or was lying about.

We could have had years of entertainment, following their tortuous logic, but illness forced our hand.

All of us Martians go through a phase, roughly corresponding to the transition between infancy and childhood, when for a short period our bodies clean themselves out and start over. It isn't pleasant, but neither is it frightening, since it happens to everybody at the same time of life.

Somehow, Carmen "caught" it from us, which is medically impossible. Our biologies aren't remotely related; we don't even have DNA. Nevertheless, she did have the transition "sickness," and we brought her back to our home and treated her the way we would a Martian child, having her breathe an unpleasant mixture of smoldering herbs. She expelled everything, especially the two large cysts that had grown in her lungs. She was fine the next day, though, and went home—which was when the real trouble started.

She had apparently infected all the other youngsters in the colony—everyone under the age of twenty or so.

It was all sorted out eventually. Our leader Red and a healer Martian went over to the human colony and treated all the children the way they had Carmen, not pleasant but not dangerous. Unfortunately, no one could explain how the "disease" could have been transmitted from us to Carmen and from Carmen to the children. Human scientists were mystified, and, of course, we don't have scientists as such.

The children seemed to be all right. But people were afraid that something worse might happen, and so the humans on Earth put all of Mars under quarantine, where they remain to this day, although there have been no other incidents. People who come to Mars do so in the knowledge that they may never see Earth again.

There is still no shortage of volunteers, which makes me think that Earth must be a very unpleasant place.




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