Chapter one of The Martian Princesse (working title!), Part 5 of Isle of Dogs, or put another way, Volume 3 of DRIFT. Part One of Isle of Dogs (parts 1-4 of IOD comprise Volume 2 of DRIFT) will be published soon by the amazing, indefatigable, Miette of Whiskey Tit, your literary wet nurse. There is a holler in nowhere Veremount that holds the shattered limbs and besotted livers of her pride of surreal snarling and purring authors, of which I am lucky to be one. It’s a long hike up to the outhouse on the mountain.
ISLE OF DOGS, PART 5: THE MARTIAN PRINCESSE
I miss my world, Phaedra thought in her white sleep sac, the hair floating in a mass off her head like seaweed. Periodically she tried to reach up to touch it but she couldn’t feel her arms or legs, just the elastic bands of the sac. She was one in a row of tethered sleepers in sacs whose hair was fanned above their heads. The image was mesmerizing, bodies rolled up, suspended off the floor as if they were dangling from wires, not anchored to the ground, hair rising into a pool of indistinct, amber light.
Phaedra lay in a dormitory with ten other women and their children. They had arrived sealed in launch pods, called caskets, on a shuttle, enclosed in deep narco. When the shuttle had finished docking with The Constellations End, a prison ship bound for the Moon and then Mars, they were revived. The lids of their caskets popped open and she awoke, eyes snapping to, alert, but not certain where she was until she drifted free of her berth and for the first time felt the pull of the tether. Medusa hair framed their pale, lifeless faces. Where was the boy? She took his hand out of the dim air and watched how others reached for handles and pulled themselves along the soft empty walls. She followed.
The first days she lay in a fever. The hot radiating pain in her gut made her delirious and oblivious to her surroundings, reaching out for the boy tethered next to her for reassurance that she was awake and alive and not adrift in an oceanic dream or alien Bardo. It was awful, she could feel the life dying in her womb but she could not speak for the intense nausea. She did not eat. Her moans came to her from afar, and she was aware that the other women were angry that she disturbed their rest.
Someone must have called for a medic because before reaching the moon she was transported to the Surgery, where the ship’s surgeon, Admiral Sybil Cane, a seven-foot tall Ruler sidebar with a brass-colored crewcut, and indigo eyes striated with shimmering bars of azure and violet, hovered above her like a skydiver, staring down at her face with violent contempt while a the aide, hanging in the air, tightened the straps holding Phaedra to the white-sheeted gurney and a nurse launched a pair of gloves in the Admiral’s direction. She gripped the rail and raised her eyebrows, pulling in to view Phaedra closely, her eyes swimming around like neon reef fish and legs kicking slowly behind her.
“What are you, number 57607?” There was no humanity in the mask. “Your chart says you’re a Deadbeat with a Deadbeat in your gut.” She whispered 57607 and looked at the readout with curiosity. She touched her lips. “Hmmm. A very rich Deadbeat it looks like. Nurse, wand.” The nurse handed her a nano-tethered wand. She ran it over Phaedra’s bared belly. “What a wreck. Looks like a botched abortion.”
The surgeon almost smiled. “You’re too valuable to let die, I’m afraid. I’ll have to save your ass, my dear, 57607.” Her fingers were long and beautiful. She felt Phaedra’s floating strands of hair. “So soft. And glowing like a Ruler. Like a Ruler.” She laughed and smelled Phaedra’s hair as if it were a flower. “Unwashed. Intoxicating! Alas, it’s not safe to have hair in space. Nurse. Scissors.” The nurse took the wand and handed the surgeon a hair shears. Phaedra winced. The surgeon snorted. “Do I look like I miss my hair? I’m doing you a favor.”
Phaedra felt herself about to cry. She fought the tears but for some reason her hair now contained everything that was left of her. It was as if she could feel the blade cold against her scalp, hair dropping in hunks. Tears welled out of her eyes but instead of falling they lifted off her eyelid and formed tiny silver spheres that bobbed away. She was so astonished she stopped crying and instead watched them till they disappeared. She could barely follow what the surgeon was saying. She wanted to vanish. The more the Admiral talked the more frightened she became. Rulers were predators but she could feel that Sybil Cane was an emotional vampire, that she sucked fear and youth for her own sustenance. Suddenly she appeared to her to be much older than she thought at first.
57607. That was her name now. Fragments of the brief orientation they had received upon arrival on The Constellation’s End came back to her, a blue robot cube on wheels, eyeless and roving, antennae nervously sensing the air, delivering a speech in eloquent tones. You have no name in space. Space. What the fuck was space? Her only categories were mythological.
“I love the feel, I must say, of long locks of glowing yellow hair, especially sweet young hair before it dies.” Admiral Sybil Cane half closed her eyes and kissed Phaedra’s lower lip. Her repellent mouth was dry and cold, the skin chapped, and on her upper lip two blisters had erupted with perfect beads of fluid like dew. There was a faint odor of whiskey. Phaedra’s core collapsed like a raisin. She wanted to pass out. Instead she dwelt in her radiating hate, the sharp pain when she shifted and the constant stomach-pitching nausea. “A little tongue 57607?” The Admiral withdrew and chuckled, snapping the scissors open and shut. “Regulations, 57607. Look but do not touch. Or, just a little touching. Nothing dramatic, I think you’ll agree?” She handed the scissors back to the nurse and said, “You may keep your dangerous hair. They’ll shave it soon anyway.” Sprawled above her, she pressed her abdomen and Phaedra cried out. The surgeon placed a clammy hand on her forehead. “We’re gonna save that little Deadbeat, and you too, my dear.” She turned to the nurse. “Suction.” The nurse drifted by with a suction wand attached to a corrugated hose. The admiral rubbed her nose back and forth, stretched her fingers into the suspended pair of gloves and took the suction wand. Watching a screen she placed the device in the opening of her vagina and it threaded her cervix and entered the uterus, which the surgeon carefully vacuumed out with a gentle and expert touch. The nurse handed her a long needled syringe and she injected a ghastly blue blob of protective RenewGel into Phaedra’s womb. “Back to the sac, 57607.” Sybil Cane watched Phaedra pull herself along the walls and out the door, her hair like a Van Gogh sunflower. “Damn,” she said to the nurse. “That one’s hot.”
Back in her office Sybil spoke to her assistant Yrmela, a prisoner sentenced to life in space for the crime of poisoning her Ruler employer Euric Arles, the junior Senator from Missourri. The court had shown mercy when Yrmela demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the Ruler had tortured her for sexual pleasure, ordering her to be brutally mutilated while he and his boyfriend, a waiter from St. Louis named Jack Frost, fucked. She bore the scars on her face, breasts and hands. The scars were disfiguring and still raw. The court refused therapy but when she came to the Constellation the Admiral, upon an initial examination, felt a tug of attraction. Something in the stitched face and human sadness aroused her and she found herself feeding on the pain that coursed through the young woman’s body and aged her. No one would have guessed that Yrmela was twenty three. She looked like a tired out forty-year-old. Upon inquiry she discovered that Yrmela had been tutor to the Ruler Euric Arles’ Scion, and before that kept the household accounts. She was in fact a highly articulate, well-read, scientifically literate human being and she needed such a person to keep her records. Her presence in the office was gratifying enough and she resisted the call to sex. Sex was what landed the Admiral in space, and she could not afford another demerit for fraternization. Fucking prisoners was simply not permitted, it ruined their value. It was a form of stealing. Sex and lust unleashed dangerous forces in space. Rulers and other employees of the Kuiper Belt Space Industries were expected to use prostitutes, thoughtfully provided by the company in numerous places, space stations, artificial moons, and large space craft such as The Constellations End were equipped with prostitution services. But who wants to screw a fly that has serviced thousands? On the street on Earth or Mars it was easy not to think about that. In space the fact was fundamental. And few space prostitutes even pretended to care. They performed their services with bloodless efficiency and the line between masturbation and getting schwanked by a space whore was minimal. But she tired of her fingers and longed for the chase and sometimes, as with Yrmela, the right one came along and in the privacy of her quarters she could negotiate sex or at least a flirtation. The fact that Sybil Cane viewed others as food did not mean that she didn’t sometimes love her beasts. Like naming an animal you are going to eat, it complicated things, and in the end she knew she would have to put Yrmela to death. But not yet. She saw through Yrmela of course. The girl was grateful but carried the freight of her torture and humiliation. Cane worked that very finely and the key to the relationship was the most basic possible, a skeleton key. She would heal her of her scars in return for service. Early on that was sexual but Yrmela’s pain and sadness was unbearable. Straight up pain, hatred, fear, they were fine but there was nothing less arousing than sadness and tears.
“Yrmela,” the admiral said, “search the records for 57607.”
“Aye aye, Sire,” Yrmela said, her inch long light brown hair standing straight off her head. She sipped from a floating squeeze tube of orange juice and raced through the records. “There isn’t much. She was arrested in New York in December and transported from the Bronx Transport Station.”
“What’s her genome?”
“Standard Deadbeat. Licensed material present but not analyzed. I could try to hack the records for more detail.”
“No. The records aren’t worth shit.” The Admiral rolled her eyes. “With that idiot Everest in charge they sweep everything up and blast it out into space like so much garbage. Good for us I suppose but it gets me no closer to Earth. Run her genome and report back.”
57607 wasn’t any different than any other pregnant girl and yet Sybil felt the rush of erotic obsession, a yearning that burned in her veins and settled in her gut.
The Martian Quarantine was an underground world unto itself, a labyrinth tunneled out of ice, and at its heart was the Monozone Labs and Genetic Seed Bank, built deep beneath the south pole by Kuiper Belt Industries, the creation of Dr. Emmanuel Vesuvius and George Cooper the Third.
The 98 Rebel Martian Rulers built their palace around the labs and above the seed bank, connected by a web of tunnels and boreholes heated and illuminated by the fusion power plant located in the heavily fortified impact crater, cavi angusti, the only surface structure allowed them after the Quarantine. As the walls of the tunnels melted dust particles suspended in the ice turned them the same dull red as the surface and sky, fire and smoke without warmth. The odor of sulfur hung in the air as bacteria and other small creatures imprisoned in the -155F ice for billions of years decayed. Its volcanoes may have been long dormant but Mars still smelled like an inferno, to the same degree as an ashtray in the morning after a party smells like a room full of smokers.
Located in a distant tunnel was the Intelligence Division of Quarantine Security, where Bernard of Mars sat, cup of coffee in hand, bored to the point of catatonia, exhausted even of negative self-reflection, of old nagging resentments that refuse to heal, emptied, an unenlightened Buddha. This had been his periodic state for some years now, and it had been even more years since he had believed he would ever find anything more interesting than the baseball season and some History Channel documentaries about the Vikings, with reenactments.
At first, he dismissed the notice as routine. There was a query coming from a prison ship called The Constellations End. It would be a productive day if he found a few Deadbeats with interesting genomes. They could, through agents, acquire them, to be smuggled into the Quarantine, a task much easier than smuggling someone out. But Bernard of Mars’ hands shook, spilling coffee over his fingers, when he realized what he was seeing. It was obscure, a discreet series of letters and numbers he knew very well but had never seen in the wild. Yet here in a cesspool of information appeared first generation proprietary code for the matrix and the lattice, followed by extensive sequences of licensed 400-trait genes in a natural human genome. He stopped the feed and retrieved the record. It was a 400 bastard and it was carrying a fetus 3/4s 400. He would have to call Vesuvius. The Constellations End was chugging their way. It would arrive at Mars in six months.
Bernard of Mars wiped his fingers off on his pants and regarded his coffee with rueful distaste. Water in remote tunnels had a high mineral content that clogged the coffee lines so that it spurted into the cup and was luke warm by the time it was full, and had a distinct Martian funk. Humans had been many generations on and below the planet, centuries, but only in the Quarantine Palace had they managed to preserve a supply of sweet Martian water, and its coffee was renowned, proverbial even on the surface, synthesized from Earth beans brought by Vesuvius, the formula, like all the others, kept locked up in his head. The distant aquifers were toxic with heavy concentrations of perchlorate, and even after heavy filtration retained the ferrous taste and odor of the dust. He took an acrid sip and winced, scrutinizing the numbers. Incredible. He rang Dr. Vesuvius despite the early hour. It was often said that Vesuvius never slept and never ate. He knew for a fact that he ate; he had eaten many meals with him. The man, if you could call him that, actually had down-to-earth tastes. He liked a hot dog with mayonnaise and sauerkraut and even at times washed it down with a beer, not a quart of blood as those who had never met him claimed. As for sleep, it seemed not. But he once came upon him sitting in a chair with an abstracted look, the eyes focused on air about three feet distant. It was a few heartbeats before Vesuvius noticed him. His eyes fluttered and he said, I startle easily. Then he chuckled. He had made a joke. Vesuvius as far as Bernard was concerned was a good man, not an insane warlock.
When the call came Dr. Vesuvius was not surprised. He had had a premonition that something significant would happen while eating his breakfast. He recalled distinctly seeing the face of a baby in the floating bits of cereal in his bowl. He promised himself that he would use the crystal ball later to get to the bottom of it. Then, while running tests on a new cheese culture he had made from wild yeasts gathered from a lava tube recently discovered during Level 9 excavations, he had seen an eidolon of a weightless girl tethered in prison. Vesuvius was in his lab, a small, if not cramped space crammed with chemistry equipment and animal cages, bubbling fermentation tanks, singing quantum synthesizers held together with tape and wire. A crusted tube hung from its side dripping rust colored slime into a bucket. There was a strong smell of frankincense. He was listening to Handel’s keyboard sonatas recorded in Carnegie Hall, a performance he knew he had attended but no longer remembered directly. Nevertheless he felt drawn to shimmering memories beyond grasp. It was a little like the signal fires lit for Agamemnon’s return, one memory kindling another, associations going back in time until that first memory almost seemed real. There had been a man he was sure. There was always a man to remind him of the truth. It was too easy at his age and with his intellect to forget that he was flesh, subject to the laws of existence, and the full muscular body of a brainless, sweet man was just the thing. The actual emission of semen was not in itself any more enjoyable than taking a piss, it relieved pressure to be sure, but the kissing, the caressing, the smell of hair in his nostrils took him briefly away from abstract cares and sublimation. The only way to light up the present was to touch the light of another human being, even a sad, doomed, blue-eyed boy. He sipped the apricot brandy and relished an ivory wafer of soft pungent fat before answering the call. “Dr. Vesuvius here.” He had little time for chit chat and wanted to get back to the Handel, certain he was on the verge of a real memory, but he felt the stab of finality in the ring. The call was going to be life changing not just for him but the Quarantine.
“Bernard here. There’s news.”
“Really?” he put down the brandy and sat upright, tugging down the red sleeves of his robe. The folds of the hood rested against his neck. He pulled it tighter feeling a chill. It was true, he thought. They found something.
“Yes. Shall I tell you in person?”
“No need. A Ruler genome?”
“Indeed. Better than that. I really ought to tell you.”
“This is most excellent news. How soon can you get here?”
“I’ll get the next lateral. Twenty minutes if I skate between belts.”
Dr. Vesuvius rubbed his hands together and hummed along with the Handel, unable to find the key, lamenting that geneticists did not as a rule have music genes. It never occurred to his earlier avatars to make the change and he had to respect their decision even if he did not understand it. Otherwise mere anarchy would be loosed upon the world.
Bernard stood at the door panting. He had a pale narrow face with large glasses and was dressed in a white lab coat. “Boss, you won’t believe this.”
Vesuvius didn’t exactly smile, it wasn’t in his makeup, though he was able to laugh. But he did look pleased, his narrow black eyes shining like obsidian and tight ancient lips parted to reveal a row of small but perfect teeth. Faint wrinkles spread around his eyes and mouth and a long white beard covered his chin. He had a high forehead and the copper skin showed through the thinning white hair on his enormous spherical skull. His hands emerged from the wide sleeves of the red robe like a hermit crab, the only sign of his 350 years. “I would indeed believe it, Bernard,” he said in his low, calm, slightly decrepit voice. “I have been waiting for this news for quite awhile now. We must contrive to have them sent to Mars and keep them off the Pluto flights. That is the first order of business or she’s lost to us. We want the baby, and the mother too.”
“If she’s a damn fool she’ll burn.”
“Before I bring this to Our Sire I want some time with that genome. I’m sure we can figure out whose she is.”