The alert jangled in the silence of the empty Retreat House. Every Marsborn knows that tone: Code U. Urgent response required. The last step before full emergency. Dropping the sweeper, I hitched up skirts and scapular, scurried to the comms alcove. The blinking 'splay asked how I wanted to reply.
"Vox," I said, sliding into the seat, recalling Surface Protocols I'd learned when just another schoolgirl who'd barely heard of the Order. "Code U-caller, this is Gilman Retreat, what's your situation? Over." Saying 'over', I wanted to giggle, but suppressed it; resettled my coif, smoothed my scapular, calming myself.
The voice was faint, but clear enough. "Gilman, d'you say? This is Grennell Pearce. I'm EVA, Solo, lost SatPos, now I don't think I can nav back to my rover. Can you triangulate my locus? Over?"
"Sorry, Grennell, we've only one comms point. I've got a bearing on your signal, but not a distance. Over."
I heard him sigh. And it hit me, dart-sharp: him. I was speaking to a male for the first time in… how long? At least four years. Even knowing we were Vox-only, one hand strayed across my face as if substituting for a missing Visage. Rationally, I was sure the situation was covered by Exceptions. Still, I felt part-fear and—to be honest—part-thrill.
Silence. I supposed he was thinking things through. "Hello, Gilman, what's your location, please? Over."
"Eastern Rim of Horence Crater. Over."
"Gan you give me a back-bearing, please? Over."
"Two eight six. Over."
"Two eight six true. Please confirm. Over."
"Thanks… okay, I don't think you can be more than seven k from my locus. If I start walking towards you on a best-guess heading, we can triangulate as soon as the back-bearing starts to drift. Is that okay? Over."
"Of course. Over." I didn't hesitate. I'd just invited a man to the Retreat House of the Order, but what in Barsoom could I do? We're independent of men; that doesn't mean we wish them harm… Well, sometimes I might have, for some men… but that's another story.
"Thanks. I'm lining up on the storm now… Draff, it's coming fast… Walking now. Let me know if the bearing drifts. Over."
"I'm watching. Line Open."
Then I heard only the faint carrier-sizzle of an open line, occasional soft sounds—presumably his breathing. I thought about all the jobs still unfinished—a list that had originally been for two, till Cathlo's untimely injury left me with a whole House to open up and two dozen Sisters due tomorrow.
If the storm persisted, this… Grennell might be here for some time. But then, if it persisted, those Sisters wouldn't be arriving as planned. Either way, there should be no need for anyone else to deal with this unexpected guest.
The storm had already fritzed the satellite uplink. Comms were down to Line of Sight, just me and him. "Hello, Grennell, you've slipped to two-eight-five, and still dropping."
"Thanks, I'm obviously drifting too far South. I'll aim a fraction left."
I watched the readout. "Still need to adjust a bit more."
"Thanks, Gilman. I'm trying… By the way, call me Gren. And I don't know your name."
I blinked, then realised I was blushing. All alone in the empty House, talking to a disembodied voice from far out in the crater, and I was blushing. At least no-one could see… "You can call me Sister Karith."
"Did you say Sister Karith?"
"Sister of what, please?"
"Order of the Unsubmitted Sisters."
A soft sound, possibly surprise. "Then… aren't you supposed—I mean, not supposed—to speak to me?"
"That's our Rule… But there are Exceptions." Where a Sister has good reason to believe that there is immediate risk to any person or persons.
"Well," he said. "Thanks even more…"
"But I could do with breaking off for a few minutes… If you're okay?"
"I'm fine. I can see still a few of the Rimpeaks. Something to aim for, till the storm really hits."
"I'll check back soon. For now, Gilman Out."
I leaned back in the seat, slid hands up under my coif, kneaded the base of my neck. I'd been going solidly all day, trying to do the work of two; why shouldn't my shoulders feel tight?
And all day I'd been wishing for someone to ask me why I was wearing gown and cincture, scapular and coif—everything but Visage, in fact—in a deserted House. Wishing for an audience, so I could say, oh, it's just a habit.
I knew I shouldn't laugh, but I did, just a little, sullying the silence. Release of tension. Was I doing the right thing? There hasn't been a man here since the place was completed.
Right thing? Surely it was the only thing.
It was barely ten minutes before she came back online, but it seemed longer. "Gilman Retreat to Grennell Pearce, how're you doing?"
"Hi, Sister Karith. Plodding along."
"Is the storm on you yet?"
"No, but must be close. It's glooming, bigtime… Has your system comped a distance to me yet?"
She hmmed. "Just a sec… here we go. Five point eight k, estimated."
Worse than I hoped, better than I feared. "I'll make better progress now I'm clear of that ejecta field. I'm going to push while I can still see those peaks; won't be able to talk much. But… it'd be good to hear a voice now and then."
I thought about that. He knew I shouldn't be talking to him at all, outwith strict necessity, but hoped I would anyway. Doubtless, many Sisters would argue otherwise: that the Rule of Discretion took precedence. No Sister shall at any time speak to any man, save a male relative of the first degree.
But… His peril wasn't immediate, but it was real. I imagined being out there alone, the dust-storm bearing down like a vast bruise spreading across the sky, and shivered. And… If I've Transgressed, I've Transgressed already.
Of course, Rule and Vow remained absolute. But their implications, their expression in action, are always open to interpretation. Rule and Guidelines are conditional, not absolute. Ultimately, a Sister relies on conscience, guided by Rule.
Then again… action must be considered, not impulsive. Impulse loves to act alone, consideration prefers company. I yearned for a Circle of Reflection. How I would have welcomed the thoughts—the simple presence—of other Sisters.
Now, though, I had nothing but my own conscience; and my conscience told me that the Rule could be—must be—tempered with compassion and common sense.
"Gren," I said, "If you've enough breath for a few questions… how about that? Short questions with long answers would work best, I guess."
"Okay," I said. "Is Karith your real name?"
She hesitated momentarily. "It's the name I'm known by. It's the name I call myself. Seems real to me."
"I guess I meant, is it the name you were born with?"
"No, it isn't, but what does that mean? No neonate knows its name, any more than it knows its supposed 'race' or religion."
"I never quite figured if your Order's religious…?"
"That's complex… The Order is agnostic, but it welcomes Sisters of any faith, or none. Of course there's always discussion during Postulancy and Novitiate, because there are incompatible doctrines…" I thought I heard her sipping a drink, reminding me to suck on my own drink-tube. "But it's all in how you read things. Almost nothing in the Gospels explicitly states women are inferior, but St Paul…"
A soft sound, perhaps a chuckle, across the kilometres. "1 Corinthians 14: 'Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.' And that's just one example." That sound again: definitely a chuckle. "Am I boring you? I could talk about this for hours."
"No fret, Sister. It's good just hearing your voice. It's getting mighty dim out here."
"Can you still see the Rimpeaks?"
"Barely. I'm gonna need you to monitor my bearing closely soon, please."
"I'm grateful. Specially knowing you're not supposed to talk to men." Back to my original question. "Your name. Did you change it when you joined the Order?"
"Yes, we all do."
"Can I ask why?
"Several reasons. It signifies a new beginning, it puts all Sisters on an equal footing, it detaches us from patrilineal identities."
"And Karith's your only name?"
"Sister Karith of the Martian Cloister."
"Did you choose it for yourself?"
"Yes, from an approved list."
To be honest, I didn't take in everything she said. Streamers of dust were whipping past me now and I was trying to keep the Rimpeaks in sight a few minutes longer. My contributions were limited to occasional murmurs, the odd question.
Then the dust arrived.
You don't feel a wind on Mars like you do on Earth. It might be blowing a hundred kilometres an hour, but you'd struggle to fly a kite. It was shifting the dust, though, whipping it past me, creating a qualmish kind of perspective. All I could see was a few metres of surface, blurred by shifting fines; beyond that, swirling chaos.
"Karith," I said, voice suddenly husky.
"You okay, Gren?"
"Fine, but I've lost the view. Vis twenty metres, max. I'm gonna walk straight downwind for a bit; can you let me know how the bearing changes?"
"Sure. You're on two-eight-one right now. Shall I keep talking between whiles?"
"If you don't mind…"
Almost immediately, she reported, "Two-eighty now and still going down."
"Yep, as I thought, I'm not straight downwind from you… I'm just gonna have to keep aiming off."
"I'll keep you posted… How are your consumables?"
"About four hundred mils of water, nutri's ample, O2's ninety minutes."
"Yeah, but it's cool. I've been pushing, like I said, burning it faster."
"I'm sure you have way more Surface experience than me, Gren, but don't you need to economise?"
"Yeah…" I thought about that. About Surface experience… and the fact that she was dead right. "You got an update on distance?"
"Four point seven."
"Four point seven k in ninety minutes? And more than ninety mins O2, at a sensible pace. Easy pickings."
"I hope you're right." She didn't sound convinced.
On a clear day in good terrain, four point seven k in ninety minutes would be 'easy pickings'; an hour might be doable. And the terrain he was in now—given his location was still a best-guess—was reasonable, the secondary crater's ejecta-halo now falling behind. It would only get really tangled again in the last kilometre, approaching the primary's rimwall.
But four point seven k assumed a straight course, and he was walking all but blind.
I excused myself briefly, needing to pee. On my way back, I took a look out of the window. An hour ago I'd seen clear across the crater. Now there was nothing but queasy purple-brown murk. Already the dust was doing its static-cling thing, forming little threads and fractal streamers. Martian fines will cling to almost any surface, and it's practically impossible to keep windows clear in a storm. And who wants to look out at nothing anyway?
Man, woman, whatever… thinking of Grennell alone out there made my blood run cold.
I fetched coffee and a flapjack, returned to the alcove. I'd stay now till he was safe.
Then I sat and talked to him. What I said, I hardly know: I'm not sure I always knew at the time. I'd quoted the Bible earlier, quoted the Koran now, verses fresh from Colloquy with two passionate young Postulants.
I talked about my own Postulancy, beginning in my second year at UniMars. My Novitiate, coinciding with my Master's. Guidelines say we shouldn't make personal disclosures in exchanges with men (and these should be text-only…). But how personal is 'personal'? Another good Circle question. I did steer well clear of the events of my first year, the experience that had impelled me to the Order.
What else should I have been talking about? It was just me and a pickup and vague breath-sounds, occasional acknowledging grunts, even more occasional words; all scratchy now as lightning crackled through the storm. Keep talking, Karith; a life may depend on it.
Compassion and common sense…
Punctuating my own babble, I checked every few minutes, making sure he was still responsive, updating him on his bearing, which stubbornly kept drifting to the South, closer to the wind. It was half-dark out there now; I could picture it, scarcely anything solid in view, only the constant drift of the dust. I never allowed him to deviate too far, but every slight divergence took him off the straight course, the shortest path.
And that, I told the critics in my head, that's why I keep talking to him.
Even with my aid, he was barely making five kph over ground, never mind in relation to the ideal track. It was getting ever clearer that ninety minutes' O2 was—at best—going to be barely enough.
And then through the hiss and crackle of static I heard him—unmistakably—cursing.
"Gren? What's up?" Anxiety clear even through the triboelectric seethe.
"I'm okay." The words snagged in my throat. I was scrimping my water and I'd got kind of breathless.
"Sure. Just crossing a bit of a rille and the dust's pretty deep. Cart's kinda bogged down."
"Cart?" Her voice spiked shrill. "What cart?"
"My sample cart."
The link was dropping bits like crazy, but I heard her take a deep breath. "Are you telling me you've been hauling a fragging cart?"
"Any useful supplies in there? Anything with survival value?"
"Sure." I had to sip before I could continue. "An e-pod and beacon. But if I pop the pod, no-one can get to me through this anyway. Twenty-four hours and I'd be worse off than I am now."
"Then what the… fudge have you been dragging it for? And it's got samples in?"
"Sure, everything I collected earlier."
"You're seriously saying you've been hauling rocks? How many kilos, Gren?"
"Forty, fifty, maybe. It's nothing in Martian g."
"Draff! Fifty kilos isn't nothing, even in Martian g. How…" A pause, like she was lost for words. The carrier-signal fizzed. "How could you be so fragging stupid?"
"I can't just abandon—"
"Gren. That's exactly what you're going to do. You just said you're in a rille. I've got your back-bearing, approx distance. It'll be easy to find when the storm clears."
"No buts. What d'you think, Warhoons are going to steal your lumps of rock? Bring the pod if you like but leave the rest. No argument. I'm not losing you now, Gren, not because of some macho stupidity."
She said 'macho' like the worst cuss-word she knew. Maybe it is, I thought. In spite of everything, I croaked out a laugh.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, Sister. Just detaching the pod."
It was an awkward climb out of the rille, up a forty-degree slope invisible under streaming dust. I had to admit it would have been a helluva haul with the cart, would have used a lot of O2.
Finally on level ground, I reported, "Clear of the rille, Sister."
"And free of the cart?"
I was almost beyond words. I'd stretched my Vow to the limit, if not beyond, for him—and all the while he'd been hauling fifty kilos of useless rocks!
Macho stupid macho stupid… Tautology?
Still, however irate I might be, he was still out there and still in peril—and I didn't like the trend of the numbers. The system kept updating his extrapolated ETA. I also had a countdown running, based on his original ninety-minute O2 estimate. They were diverging.
Crucially, he wasn't walking a straight line. Try as I might, it was hard to keep him on bearing. I knew how hard it must be; every Marsborn has that experience, if only on a tether. Once, when I was about thirteen, they'd scrubbed lessons and taken us out in a storm just like this. Because we needed to know.
Sometimes you can't see your own boots. A tether-mate three metres away can flicker in and out of view like some kind of ghost. Being out there alone… I wouldn't have wished it on my worst enemy. And he wasn't that.
So I kept talking. Babbling. Lubing my throat occasionally with coffee that was steadily cooling even in an insulated mug, but otherwise talking as near non-stop as I could manage.
Sample: "You okay, Gren? Let's hear you. That's good, come left a bit… where was I? Coifs? I'm wearing one right now. Well, you've seen Sisters… Bear left a little. You hearing me? Forty minutes ETA… As a Postulant I wasn't bound by full Rule, just advised to dress modestly. Taking the coif at that stage, that was my choice… Left, Gren, come to your left. ETA forty, copy…?
"That was at Uni, think I told you already? Studying Planetics, did I tell you that? Mostly Human after first year, but some Physical too. And now I'm teaching it. Did I mention we have our own school, attached to the Cloister? Say something, Gren… Okay, good. Left a bit."
It was exhausting… I know, he was trudging across the crater-floor in the maelstrom: I was just sitting there talking. Sounds easy… until you try it.
Beyond the storm, the sun had set. Under clear skies, the long Martian twilight would have seen him through, but I figured it had to be properly dark down there by now. "How's your vis, Gren? Lights on yet? You need to see; the nearer you get to the wall, the more boulders there are. Gren? Lights? Plenty of battery power?"
A grunt, vaguely affirmative. Between the degraded signal and his cumulating fatigue, I wasn't getting much feedback. Still, his bearing tended to stabilise when I told him to aim left, though never for very long.
I blethered on. Watched the distance tick down. Cheered when it ticked under a kilometre, not mentioning that his ETA reading was now twenty-seven minutes while the O2 estimate read twenty-two. I told myself that was still skewed by earlier consumption rates, when he'd been pushing for speed and towing fifty kilos of rocks. (Stupid macho…) There should be extra in hand. Had to be…
"Seven hundred metres, Gren. If it wasn't for the storm I'd be waving at you through the window. Okay, if it wasn't for the storm we wouldn't be doing this at all, but you know… Six-eighty; there'll be a bit of a gradient now. Means you're on the home stretch. And you can come straight. Straight up the fall-line… Gren? Say something. Grunt. Anything… Gren?"
Nothing. Only the wavering sibilation of the carrier signal.
"Gren!" Suddenly I roared into the pickup. "Gren! Answer me!" Still nothing.
Thuvia, what now? Think, Karith, think.
Like every Marsborn, I'd had basic emergency training, how to look after yourself, how to call for aid, help rescuers find you, but what I knew about rescuing someone else was mostly extrapolation, morsels gleaned from stories, overheard fragments.
But he was, at most, six hundred metres away. So close… And we had tethers down at the Ingress/Egress. "Gren, I'm offlinking a minute, heading down to the 'Gress." I had to believe he was still hearing me. "Hang in there, buddy."
I'm not going to lose you now.
Half a second's thought: long skirts would slow me down. I shed outer layers, sprinted for the lift in shoes, shorts, vest.
Down again. Draffit!
Yes, I've got lights on. I'm not stupid. But ground-hugging streamers of dust can mask boot-high rocks.
Lucky it's Mars, I think, trying to laugh. Falling hurts a lot more on Earth. Two point seven times more. Ha ha. Wonder if Karith can hear me. Don't think I've heard her voice in a while. "Karith? You there?"
Hardly know what she's been saying most of the time. But it was good hearing her voice. Nice voice: Marsborn, I think. Should have asked (maybe I did?).
Something I should be doing, Karith? Get up. That's it.
Including suit and backpack, I'm about half my naked weight on Earth. Getting up should be easy. The suit's not stiff like a Lunar suit, but still resists. Anger lends me strength and I surge upright, stand breathing hard while the dust billows around me.
Which way? Up. She said up. But I can't see the slope, just dust in the beam of my lights, darkness beyond.
Christ on a bike…
It's the silence that gets you. On Earth a hundred-k wind would howl. Here, barely a whisper.
"Anyone there? Karith?"
Suiting up's like many tasks: rushing breeds mistakes. I was tempted not to bother fighting into an undersuit. But that would break all the rules. Nearly as bad as breaking The Rule, I thought, smiling grimly. Do it right, Karith.
Undersuit. Oversuit. Backpack. Connection check. Helmet. Locked. System check. Green lights filling my HUD. Gloves. Right hand first; easy. Left; harder to close the seals with my gloved right hand. Pressure check. Steady, Karith. No mistakes.
Finally, the tether. A 500-metre reel fitted in my palm. I stepped into the lock, fretted while it evacuated, punched the button. I thought I was braced for the sudden inrush of dust, but still took a half-step back as if the wind had the strength to shove me around. It would on Earth, I thought. Wonder what that would be like… Stop: no distractions. Anchor the tether, clip the reel to my waist. Check it runs freely; line scarcely thicker than sewing thread.
I opened comms. "Gren? You hearing me?" I could pick out nothing but faint carrier hiss.
"Suit," I said. "Bearing on this comlink."
The figure appeared in the HUD: 237. He'd veered well off course, I saw with dismay. But then again, I told myself, a few degrees over five hundred metres wasn't so far.
I started walking, glancing frequently at the bearing, but mostly looking out for trip-hazards amid the surging dust. The wind was roughly on my right shoulder, giving me some kind of orientation to complement the illuminated bearing. Instantly dust started adhering to the right side of my faceplate. Curb the reflex-impulse to wipe: bad idea. "Suit. Faceplate self-cleaning. Thirty-second interval." For a half-second my vision shimmered—disorientation on top of disorientation—as the outer faceplate vibrated at high frequency, shifting all but a few stubborn threads.
I trudged out into the storm. Down a slope that I couldn't see, though it averaged seven or eight percent. A flicker of vertigo every thirty seconds as my faceplate self-cleaned. Every time, I called Gren; every time, got no reply, nothing audible over the carrier-sizzle.
How long does it take to walk five hundred metres? In good conditions, maybe five minutes. In this, feeling my way, slow and steady, knowing I'd be no use to either of us if I fell, it was nearer fifteen before the tether began tugging at my waist.
Draff, I thought, should have brought a second tether. But I hadn't seen another in the locker, and I'd convinced myself he'd have made it this far.
I cogitated, then turned left, back to the storm, and walked twenty paces. I'm Marsborn; my stride's well over a metre. Maybe a tad less in these conditions, but the suit would do the calculation. It was a baseline, anyway. "Suit. Triangulate distance to comlink source."
The display changed: 32m ± 3.
Thirty-five metres, max. But I have to detach from the tether… So how do I find my way back to it?
I supposed I could walk a back-bearing all the way home, but I wanted the security of the tether if humanly possible. A storm like this—lots of static, sporadic lightning—could null remaining comms at any time.
First question: would the tether stay put? That empty reel was uber-light; even a Martian wind might shift it. I knelt, unclipped the line. The wind didn't seem to stir it, but I wasn't taking any chances. Keeping one hand on the line, I grabbed the biggest rock within reach, placed it over the reel. No Martian breeze was going to budge that. Maybe an Earth wind would, though I could hardly believe it.
It gave me another idea. Still on hands and knees, I shuffled around till I was directly facing Gren's signal. I gathered every rock and pebble I could see through the constant shivering drift of dust, laid them into a line pointing towards him. Straddling this, I shuffled forward half a metre, repeated the process.
I wasn't watching timers; wasn't watching anything but the bearing, and looking for rocks I could use. But every thirty seconds my faceplate jittered; I was barely progressing one half-metre 'step' each interval. The arithmetic was easy: a metre per minute and thirty-five metres to go. I wasn't sure if Gren had that much O2 left, but I knew I couldn't—mustn't—rush. I had to build a trail I could follow back to the tether.
"This is fun, Gren. Like building sandcastles, I guess. Did you do that on Earth? I'm guessing you're Earthborn, right? That's not a Marsie accent, is it? I'd like to hear it again, just to be sure. Anything to say, Gren?"
Agonisingly slowly, I crawled towards him, babbling. "I figure this counts as immediate risk to any person or persons now. You think so, Gren? Definitely covered by Exceptions now, don't you think?"
Time does funny things sometimes. Every single 'step' of my crawl, the gathering of stones, seemed to take an age, yet when I finally glimpsed a faint spark through a brief thinning of the dustveil, it seemed like hardly any time had passed. It vanished again almost instantly, but I reckoned it couldn't be more than five metres away.
Still, I knew I mustn't rush. Keep building the trail, keep crawling, until finally—finally—a vague form began to materialise ahead of me. He was lying on his side.
"There you are, Gren. There you are."
There was no response, but I saw something that… if it wasn't good news, at least it wasn't outright bad. His shoulder lights were blinking amber, not red. If I remembered right, this meant he was still breathing. Possibly getting O2 at a reduced rate, possibly had been for a while, but presumably the CO2 scrubbers were still operational. Please…
"Right, Gren," I said. "A few more moments. Got to keep building the trail. Oh, there's a nice big rock. Did you trip over that? Never mind, payback time; it's helping us now."
Finally I was right beside him. "This might be the scariest bit. Got to link our backpacks. Give you some nice fresh air. Better concentrate. 'Scuse me not talking…"
I shuffled round until I could reach his backpack, locate the relief port, low down on the left. There was some dust around it; I could only hope the sphincter would be clean inside. I freed my own emergency hose, aligned its end carefully on the port before twisting off the sealcap, inserting it. I couldn't hear, but through my glove I felt a click that seemed healthy.
"Suit. Double O2 flow, split to relief hose." A blue HUDlight blinked on.
For agonising moments, nothing happened, or nothing detectable. My display revealed that O2 consumption had shot up, but I had to assume that the lack of any other info, or any alarms, meant that the extra was pumping into his suit, not venting externally.
His shoulder-alerts stopped blinking. My heart stopped too.
Then they turned yellow.
Yellow, not red. Has to be good. "You getting that, Gren? You feeling that?"
My vision blurred. For a moment I thought tears? I almost gave myself a stern talking-to, but realised it was just the faceplate self-cleaning.
Then he stirred, moved an arm.
"Take it easy, Gren. Let yourself come round. You're on a hose-link. Don't make any silly moves and pull it out."
"What?" he mumbled. "Who?"
"It's me. Karith."
Karith. I know that name. "How… get here?"
"Last half-hour, I've been crawling."
"Crawling?" Nothing quite made sense.
"Don't fret it. You'll see in a minute. How are you feeling?"
"Like… like I just woke up…"
"I'm sure… You got any water left, any nutri? I can't share those with you, only the O2."
"No water… There's a bit of nutri but… not sure I can swallow."
All I could see was a dusty faceplate bracketed by headlights. Karith was still just a voice. "See if you can. Gel'll moisten your mouth a bit. Now, listen, here's what we do. We're going to crawl back to the end of the tether. Thirty metres. Nice and slow and easy. Then we'll see how you feel about walking. Five hundred metres back to the 'Gress. Okay?"
"Ready? Onto hands and knees first, towards me." I felt a hand at my waist, steadying. "Gren, we're linked by this hose so we've got to stay close, okay? You think I'm going too fast or too slow, just say. Feel free to admire my breadcrumb trail, by the way."
At first I couldn't fathom what she meant, but as we began to crawl I saw the line of rocks—thumb-size, fist-size, occasionally head-size. There were drifts of dust in the lee, smears on windward faces too, but the line stayed clear in our headlights. Order in chaos, I thought.
"What's that?" she asked. I must have said it aloud. I repeated, "Order in chaos."
"I guess so…
"That was a lot quicker than the first time," she said cheerfully a few minutes later. I looked around, saw her extracting a tether-reel from under a head-size rock. She clipped it to her waist, whoofed out a huge sigh of relief. For a moment she was still, silent, before angling her helmet towards me. "You ready to try standing up?
Of course, she was Marsborn, twenty centis taller. Backpacks make it hard to get arms around each other anyway. She settled for gripping my upper arm in both hands.
We embarked on the final stretch, following the barely visible tether through darkness and dust.
As the lights around the 'Gress appeared through the murk, I realised one slight problem. I'd shed my habit eight levels above, arrived at the 'Gress in nothing but underwear. I had an undersuit on, of course, but it was hardly Rule-compliant concealment.
There'd been a lot of talking, and a lot of touching (albeit through manifold layers of suits and gloves); but he hadn't seen me. The Rule of Concealment, at least, was still intact. I intended to keep it that way; the question was how.
We vacced dust off each other, staggered through the inner lock. Finally, I disconnected the umbilical that had linked us the last half-hour. He sank onto the suiting-bench and I helped him off with his helmet. He leaned back, closed his eyes, inhaled deeply. Just for now he looked as though he was happy to stay like that, and I saw my chance. I threw off helmet and gloves, didn't touch the rest until the lift doors closed behind me.
I suppose I must have dozed. I was sure I'd only sat down on the bench, but now I was lying along it, left arm hanging to the floor.
There was a figure leaning over me, a figure with a hole where the face should have been. I jerked away, adrenaline spiking, scrabbled to sit up.
A voice. "Take it easy, Gren." Not fuzzy with comms-noise, not reverbing in a helmet… but somehow not quite natural either. I looked around; my head swam. Shadows edged my vision; intimations of syncope. I grabbed the bench with both hands, steadied myself.
The figure had retreated, stood against the wall. Still no face, but what I'd seen as a hole was a black reflective ovoid, curvature creating a fisheye image of the room, myself a shrunken homunculus at the centre.
Things began to make vague sense. "Sorry," I said feebly. "Startled, that's all."
"That's okay. How are you feeling now?"
That was it: the voice I was hearing wasn't emanating from the shrouded figure but from a tablo on the bench beside me. I looked at the device, looked across the room at… My head went swimmy again, but cleared more quickly this time. It had to be Karith. Hadn't she said she was alone in the—what had she called it? The Retreat House?
"Kar… Sister Karith?"
Still groggy, I hardly knew whether to address the tablo or the grey shape by the wall. “This is how it is now, is it?”
She sighed; a real, gusty, sigh. The tablo didn’t relay it, just blinked an ellipsis: … Then, after a moment, words. “This is how it has to be.”
“Jeez…” I could hear it myself, tone teetering between anger and petulance. I knew I should stop, but I couldn’t. “Karith. I thought… You saved my life out there.’
“I guess I did.” Flat voice from the tablo. “You’d have done the same for me. Anyone would. It's the Martian way.”
I dragged a hand through my hair. I’d been in the field too many months; my hair was too long, and now tangled and gummy from too many hours in the helmet. I dreaded to think what I looked like. But at least I looked like… “You said human… Can’t I even thank you, human to human? There’s no one else here, is there? You said that. No one else would ever know.”
“I’d know,” the tablo said. The grey form that was and wasn’t Karith remained immobile. “I’d know, and that’s what matters.”
I shook my head; barely a hint of swim, now. "So you can put your life on the line for me, but you can't let me see your face? Can't even let me hear your own voice?"
Then she moved, a stuttering hand gesture half-seen and unfathomable in my peripheral vision. She stepped closer; then, carefully hitching up the long skirt of her robe, she sank to the bench, a metre beyond my right hand.
“You still don’t get it, do you?” Her own voice at last, a voice I’d never heard in clear before, yet familiar as if I’d known it for years. “All that time, listening to my voice, yet how much did you actually hear?" Finely-gloved fingers smoothed her skirt. “I said plenty about my Vow, what it means. If you heard even half of it you’ll know I was pushing the limits even doing that. I doubt one Sister in a hundred would think I should be talking to you now. If we need to communicate, I should be using text only. You need to know how far I’ve already pushed this…
'But really, Gren, the only reason I’m still here, in the same space with you, is because I needed to see you’re okay.”
“Fine. I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me one minute longer.”
“Don’t…” Her hands moved restlessly, came together, fell still. “Gren, please try to understand. I don’t know if you’ve ever made a total commitment to anyone or anything, but I have. That’s what my Vow is. That doesn’t mean… that doesn’t always mean it’s easy. Sometimes it costs.
“And yes, sometimes I’ll stretch it, bend it out of shape a little, further than most of my Sisters would. But I won’t… breaking my Vow would be like breaking myself.”
I said nothing. I didn’t know what I could say. I began to think that maybe nothing was the best thing I possibly could say.
“I’m going to run another medscan now,” she said, "And if that’s green, I’m going to leave you.”
It wasn’t until some minutes after she’d gone, leaving in a swirl of draped cloth and a whisper of soft soles, that I realised she’d left the tablo on the bench beside me. I reached for it and it self-activated. Words flickered into being.
<Take the ele to level 3. Turn left. There’s a kitchen, plenty of supplies, a sitting-room.>
<Tap or speak when you’ve read this.>
I tapped. The words vanished and for a moment there was nothing but the hazy neutrality of the empty expo.
Then: <Keep this tablo with you.>
I wasn't ready to move just yet. Half of it was fatigue, half of it my need to assimilate this new situation. You saved my life, Karith, I thought. Guess I owe you whatever you ask.
I'd never see her face. And maybe I'd never hear her voice again, but it would stay in my head forever.
I reached for the tablo, began to tap out a message.