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Lewis Shiner has published seven novels, including Black & White, Deserted Cities of the Heart, and the award-winning Glimpses, all available from Subterranean Press. He has also published four short story collections, including the career-spanning Collected Stories, as well as journalism and comics. Virtually all of his work is available for free download at www.fictionliberationfront.net.

Frontera by Lewis Shiner

Ten years ago the world's governments collapsed, and now the corporations are in control. Houston's Pulsystems has sent an expedition to the lost Martian colony of Frontera to search for survivors.

Reese, aging hero of the US space program, knows better. The colonists are not only alive, they have discovered a secret so devastating that the new rulers of Earth will stop at nothing to own it. Reese is equally desperate to use it for his own very personal agenda.

But none of them have reckoned with Kane, tortured veteran of the corporate wars, whose hallucinatory voices are urging him to complete an ancient cycle of heroism and alter the destiny of the human race.

CURATOR'S NOTE

I first became acquainted with Lewis Shiner through his insightful and elegant stories published in all the magazines. In Frontera, a cyberpunk classic, Lew takes us to a very Phil Dickian world of oppressive corporations and a ruined Martian colony with a terrible secret. I'm thrilled to present Shiner's excellent science fiction in the Philip K. Dick Award Bundle. – Lisa Mason

 

REVIEWS

  • "Lewis Shiner's Frontera is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel...his pacing is brisk, his scientific extrapolation well-informed and plausible, and his characterization nothing short of outstanding...This is 'realism' of a sort seldom found in either commercial or literary fiction; to find it in a first novel makes one eager for more."

    – Roland J. Green, Chicago Sun-Times
  • "Frontera is hard-edged and colorful and relentless, and altogether a compelling read. Shiner paints his picture of the day after tomorrow with a gritty realism that makes you believe every minute of it."

    – George RR Martin, author of A Game of Thrones
  • "Well written...inspired...a breezy, terrific read."

    – Heavy Metal
  • "Frontera is a heroic saga (literally) in which Promethius' inspiration is a kaleidoscopic mix of his own desires and the subliminal whisperings of a microchip implanted in his brain. The 'fire' is a teleportation device developed by an abandoned Mars colony. The gods are represented by a multinational corporation and the Soviets...But Frontera is much more than this standard SF plot. It's a well-written telling of the conflicts of intelligent humans."

    – Lili Dwight, Forced Exposure
  • "Strong plotting in the political thriller vein is the hallmark of Lewis Shiner's Frontera...Shiner wraps the story in a compelling package...its raw energy holds your interest and keeps you turning the pages."

    – Frank Catalano, Amazing
  • "One of the genre's more arresting books."

    – Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone
  • "A well-written first novel in the action-adventure vein, principally set in a lost colony on Mars. Frontera rises to literary art, first because several viewpoint characters are rendered with skill and sensitivity as complex people, and second because Kane, the central combat-capable figure, is a poor bastard who's had his head screwed with in various unpleasant ways, so that he is both hero and victim, doing his deeds of derring-do as best he can with a headful of broken glass."

    – Norman Spinrad, Science Fiction in the Real World
  • "Combine[s] classic hard-SF structure with a harrowing portrait of postindustrial society in the early twenty-first century."

    – Bruce Sterling, Mirrorshades
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

WITH LESS THAN five minutes left, Kane tugged nervously at his shoulder harness and tried to remember gravity. The feel of his arms dragging by his sides, the blood pooling in his legs, his head jerking forward in fatigue—it all seemed distant, clumsy, irrelevant.

"You've gone soft, Kane," Lena whispered, but her eyes were afraid of him. She locked her cleats into the gridded floor, peeled the plastic sheath from a hypo, and pushed 15 milligrams of Valium into his left arm. "You look like hell. You're about nine-tenths crazy and you haven't got any muscle tone at all. I don't think you're going to make it."

"Four minutes," Takahashi said.

"I'll make it," Kane said.

Not just gravity, he thought, but eight Gs, wrenching, crushing, suffocating him while the ship threw off 10,000 feet per second of velocity by diving into the thin atmosphere of Mars. The ship's computer would sail them through a narrow, invisible corridor, balancing air drag against the strength of their reinforced carbon-carbon aeroshell, slowing them just enough to put them into a high, elliptical orbit around the planet and not send them crashing into the frozen Martian wastes.

All because the corporation didn't have the booster stages to slow them down any other way.

He knew Lena had put him off, not caring if she had time to give him the shot, not caring if his muscles had the elasticity to ride out the re-entry. Reese had been first, of course: the senior astronaut, the father figure. Then she'd taken care of Takahashi and after that herself, floating where Kane could see her, easing the needle into the soft flesh of her thigh.

In the first weeks of the mission, she and Kane had struggled through a brief, sweaty affair; it ended when Lena, fingers stiffening in orgasm, drew blood from Kane's chest and triggered his defensive reflexes. Kane's erection had vanished, and his hands had closed around her wrist and neck in a killing grip.

Within a second he was in control again, but Lena had panicked. Nerves, he'd explained, but she was already dressing, afraid to take her eyes off him. The next day they'd both started taking sex suppressants.

Kane had gone off them two days ago, hoping to clarify his muddled thoughts and desires. Now he found himself remembering her thin, angular body, the bones like negative shadows under the darkness of her skin, her breath moving against the underside of his jaw.

"Three minutes!" Takahashi said. "Kane, you'd better punch in."

Kane's CRT swam with concentric circles, the ship's path projected onto the vortex of Mars' gravity well. He reached for the bank of knobs and switches in front of him, as familiar now as the M37 he'd carried in North Africa, and hit Control-C on the keyboard. At least once a week for the last nine months he'd been strapped to this couch or one of the others, working through endless computer simulations of the landing.

He remembered the morning he'd drifted in to find Reese buckled into one of the slings, jacked out of his skull on psilocybin, banging his massive fists into the control panel and screaming, "We're crashing, oh Jesus, we're crashing!" They had been six months out of Earth at the time, weightless, drifting, lights rheostatted down to save the fuel cells. Plague-carrying buboes on Reese's neck would have been no more terrifying than his hysteria. Kane had fled from it, back to the wedge-shaped coffin of his quarters, and spent two days in a tranquilized fog.

And now, he thought. Were they really braking for orbit? Or was this just another simulation? lf he turned this switch, would it fire a braking rocket or would it just force a branch in the computer's program?

He remembered childhood nightmares of sitting in the back seat of a moving, driverless car.

"One minute," Takahashi said.

The Valium washed over him like a lullaby. The blinking time display slowed as he watched, and the muscles in his shoulders and neck began to loosen.

An attitude jet, fired by the computer, went off with a noise like a machine-gun burst. Kane's heart stammered for a second, then recovered as his brain identified the sound.

And then he was falling.

The air of Mars whimpered and then screamed as the aeroshell started to burn. Kane's Valium calm vaporized, and he was sure he was going to die. He'd looked at death before, sometimes gone out of his way to see it, but he'd never had so little control over the outcome. He felt as if he'd been thrown out of a helicopter with a mountain tied to his back. His vision narrowed to a gray, viscous tube, and he prayed he wouldn't have to take manual control of the ship because he couldn't lift his arms back up to the keyboard.

One minute, he thought. I only have to take this for sixty seconds. He tried to see the time readout on his CRT, but his eyes refused to focus.

The screaming turned into a metal icepick, driving into Kane's ears. He fought for air, imagining his windpipe collapsing like a soda straw. His lungs burned and he tasted blood.

He kept waiting for it to be over, and the pressure kept getting worse. He felt thumbs gouging his eyes, blood pumping into his feet like water into balloons. And then something stabbed him in the chest.

A rib. I just lost a rib.

He felt the second one break. At first it was just the pressure, focused, inexorable, bearing down over his heart. Then he felt the muscles ripping and the sudden jerk as the bone snapped and bent inward. The pain knifed through his chest and for a long moment his own scream melted inaudibly into the shriek of the burning shield.

The G forces pushed the broken bones deeper into his flesh. He wanted to pass out, but the pain was too intense. He could visualize the points of the ribs, the claws of some giant roc from mythology, digging deep into his heart. Killing him.

And for nothing, he thought. For a rescue mission that's ten years too late and too screwed up to do any good anyway. A broken-down ship full of losers, raving across 40 million miles to add their dead, burned bodies to the corpses of the Martian colonists.

He was convinced that something had gone wrong. The computers had lost control and the ship was obviously dropping straight out of the sky like a meteor. The deceleration had gone on an impossibly long time, could only end in blazing ruin.

And then the pressure fell away and the gray tunnel closed down into darkness.

When he opened his eyes again, the CRT showed that two minutes had elapsed since orbital insertion. They were weightless, and the air was stale and flatulent. Above the time hack an irregular blue egg, dotted with four or five major craters, filled the screen.

Deimos, Kane thought. They were alive, then. In orbit around Mars.

He sucked a careful breath through the hot bands of pain around his chest. He could hear the ship creak softly as it cooled, the rattle of an off-balance fan in the vent over his head.

"Kane?" Lena's voice. He managed a grunt in reply.

"Keep still," she told him.

He knew that. They weren't even supposed to try to move for two hours. "Broke something," he managed. "Ribs."

"Oh Christ. Any blood? From the lungs, I mean?"

He wasn't sure. He had blood in his throat, but it could have been from his nose, which was still blowing a fine red mist when he exhaled.

He couldn't seem to sustain any serious interest in the source of the bleeding. It was nothing compared to the shrapnel fragment that had opened the back of his skull near Dongola and left him nearly helpless between bouts of surgery. Now he was tired of complications, of moods, of dealing with Lena. He felt like a coiled spring that had been carrying a maximum load for nine months, the strain building beyond all tolerance levels, the coils starting to fray and shift out of line.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "I can manage."

"I'll get to you when I can," Lena said. "Anybody else?"

"I'm all right," Takahashi said. "Reese is still out." Of course Takahashi had come through, Kane thought. Three to five hours every day at the treadmill and the bicycle and the rowing machine had kept him precision-tuned, lean and rippling with health. Kane thought him deranged, obsessive, a robot programmed for masochism. Takahashi had been spit out of the factories of the New Japan, gleaming and flawless, blaming his ancestors' suffering on their excessive spirituality.

"Like Reese," Takahashi had said once, three months out of Earth, bent over the rowing machine, his muscles flowing like sine waves down his arms. It was the only image Kane had of him from the entire outward flight: there in the wardroom, the air alive with pinpoint dots of his sweat. "All that Ch'an crap of his," he had said. "Zen. Looking for illumination or cosmic purpose in this. It's a job. It's work. That's all there is to it."

And now his hands were moving over the keyboard in swift, precise gestures while Kane lay hostile and broken. "Is somebody going to call Houston?" Takahashi asked.

"Go ahead," Lena told him. "You're in command."

"You want to tell him about Kane?"

Him, Kane noticed. It wasn't Houston they were talking about anymore, it was Morgan. Morgan: Chairman of the Board of Pulsystems, economic king of Houston, the man who had bought all this slightly used hardware from the foundering US government.

"No," Kane said. "I'll be okay. Just leave me out of it." It wasn't that he was worried about Morgan delaying the mission. It was all the history between the two of them, between him and Morgan. Morgan had raised him since Kane's father died, ostensibly the benevolent uncle, in fact a ruthless business rival, more concerned with the block of stock that Kane had inherited than with the boy himself.

Kane worked for Morgan, had fought for him in North Africa, but their private struggle had never let up.

Takahashi's fingers kept rattling on his console as he dictated a mechanical report: "Orbital insertion at 1823 Zulu..."

Kane let his eyes drift back to the bright husk of Deimos on his CRT, cold, malformed, impassive. Mars was Ares to the Greeks, the god of war and mindless brutality, running red with blood. They hated him, and they hated his bastard sons, Deimos and Phobos, Fear and Terror. Mars had sired them on Aphrodite and they followed him like vultures over the battlefields to burn and mutilate the dead and dying.

He'd come to know the Greeks better than he'd wanted to, five impossibly long years ago, studying mythology at Rice University. They'd read meaning into everything they saw, humanized an inanimate universe with bloodthirsty zeal. What did they know, Kane wondered, that we don't?

As Takahashi droned on, Kane drifted in and out of a hazy, painful sleep. When the beeping of an incoming transmission woke him, he saw that he'd lost another half hour.

The cratered oval of Deimos faded into Morgan's face, the two images nightmarishly superimposed for an instant. Morgan's hair, dyed unnaturally black, stood straight out from the back of his head where his fingers had repeatedly pushed it. His face was webbed with deep lines and his mouth couldn't seem to hold a smile. It was early afternoon in Houston, but he had obviously been up the entire night before.

"Our telemetry says you have a successful Mars insertion," he said. The 18-minute time delay each way gave him the awkwardness of someone speaking into a telephone recorder. "Congratulations, uh, a little late." Behind him Kane could see five or six white-shirted techs at their consoles in the trench in Mission Control. The picture flickered and Morgan seemed to shift his attention back from something just beyond the camera. "Nothing really to say except we're all proud of you here, and we're hoping for good luck ahead, an operable lander, and a safe touchdown."

The screen flickered again and Kane felt a chill. Subliminals. The son-of-a-bitch was putting subliminals in the broadcast. He jerked his eyes away from the screen and looked around, but no one else seemed to have noticed it. What was Morgan up to? What the hell was going on?

"I, uh, guess that's it for now. We'll be back in touch after we hear from you." Kane heard him clear his throat, then saw the screen darken at the edge of his vision.

Morgan had, Kane thought, a lot to be worried about. The lander, for one thing. There hadn't been a complete Mars Excursion Module left anywhere on Earth or in orbit, and even if there had been, there weren't enough propellant stages to get it to Mars. Morgan had been willing to gamble that at least one of the abandoned landers on Deimos could be refitted. If not, it meant a nine-month trip back to Earth, empty-handed, and Kane didn't think they'd make it without at least one murder or suicide.

Whatever their individual strengths, they didn't seem to be able to function as a unit. Takahashi was distant and patronizing; he seemed always to be taking mental notes of the crew's behavior, comparing them against some hypothetical limits of social and biological disrhythm. Kane felt he'd been singled out for the worst of it. He suspected paranoia on his own part, but couldn't convince himself.

Lena considered the trip out just another nine wasted months to be added to the five years she'd spent looking for a chance to practice medicine again. She'd been the first to lose interest in the NASA regime of exercise and simulations; her moods shifted unpredictably within a narrow range of emotions. The one constant, since that early incident, seemed to be her fear and distrust of Kane.

If anyone could have pulled them together it should have been Reese. Even Takahashi had been a little awed by him at first. They all carried in their memories the image of Reese planting the American flag on Mars, back when there had still been an America, back when Mars had seemed like something important to everybody, if only because the Russians had gotten there first.

For Kane the memories had been even more potent, of adolescent weekends at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Morgan's privilege as a major government contractor buying Kane a ride in the shuttle trainer, a front-row seat inside Mission Control, lunch at the Central Cafeteria with the astronauts. Reese had seemed more than human then, a transcendent being who had actually touched an alien world.

Because of that Kane had expected some kind of spiritual leadership from him, a moral center that failed to materialize. Instead Reese had spent most of the nine months in his triangular sleeping area, floating in a lotus position, his circled thumb-and-forefingers just touching his knees. He never talked about his own reasons for going back to Mars, or why, at age 60, he was willing to risk aerobraking and NASA's antique hardware for a man like Morgan, whom he clearly disliked.

Kane's own motives were nearly as difficult for him to put into words. At one time being part of the Mars expedition seemed an obvious career move, a theatrical gesture to regain some of the momentum he'd lost after the war. The timing was right; he was unmarried and uninvolved, the doctors had cleared him, and his position in Labor Relations at Pulsystems was far from crucial.

Now it seemed a mistake, a costly retreat from the front line of the business, something near to professional suicide—or even a literal one.

North Africa had been the beginning, his head wound the sharp dividing line that separated him from the obvious and natural course his life had been following. He was lucky to be alive at all, they told him, said the headaches and the dizziness and the occasional failure of a motor nerve were minor side effects of a brain lesion that should have been fatal. He'd been unconscious for a month and had been kept in a private ward at the Pulsystems clinic for over a year.

What he couldn't understand was the atrophy of his ambition, his sudden inability to reach a threshold of drive and desire that would bring him into the highest echelon of the company. His intelligence was unimpaired; his memory was perfect, frighteningly so at times. Yet in the three years that he'd been back at work, he'd hesitated over the smallest decisions, unable to focus his thoughts, intimidated by the endless chain of consequences that each one provoked.

And in those years Morgan had seemed to lose interest in him, had become cool, preoccupied, indifferent. Before the war, before the wound, there had been a moment, an instant, when Kane had seen fear in Morgan's eyes, fear of what Kane was becoming, of his growing power in the company, of the physical strength and competence he'd developed in basic training.

But not since. Even when Morgan had first suggested the Mars mission, it was offhand, as if he didn't care whether Kane went or not. Kane himself had brought it up the second time, and pursued it.

And so, he thought, this was where it had brought him. Lying on a canvas sling, a sack of raw nerve endings and sublimated combat training, knowing that if they couldn't come up with a working lander, if they had to turn around for another endless, horizonless, destinationless trip, he would be the first to crack.

He closed his eyes again.

Sometime during the two hours it took them to catch up to Deimos, Reese recovered. He said he was unhurt, but to Kane his voice sounded old and strained.

Kane himself had developed a savage headache that burned the backs of his eyes and seemed to deform his skull. He'd had others like it over the past three years, but this was the worst yet. When he managed to find a few minutes of sleep, he was assailed by vivid dreams of a blue ocean and a hot wooden deck beneath his feet, the smells of salt and sunlight, a high murmuring of voices.

The gentle tug of braking rockets finally brought him back. The gravity of the tiny moon was negligible, less than a thousandth that of Earth, and Takahashi had to guide them in with dozens of tiny course adjustments, more of a docking maneuver than a landing.

Deimos occupied barely six cubic miles, and as they drifted toward the surface, Kane was reminded of the garbage dumps on the outskirts of Houston. With the exception of a melted patch near the domes and tunnels of the base, the entire visible surface was littered with cast-off technology. Propellant tanks, some empty, some fully charged, lay around like oversized soup cans. Abandoned shelter halves were scattered randomly among plastic bags, tripods, and scraps of crumpled foil. The conical outline of one complete lander and the ruins of a second were visible from the ship, the exposed metal sparkling cleanly in the faint sunlight.

The ship bumped to a stop. For the first time in nine months, he was actually at rest compared to another object in the universe, but to Kane the change was imperceptible. It could have been no more than another trick of perspective, another elaborate simulation.

Lena moved him gingerly to Health Maintenance while Reese and Takahashi started closing down the ship. The sickbay was not designed for even the minimal gravity of Deimos, and Kane had to lean against a suddenly vertical wall while Lena took X-rays and taped his ribs.

"It's not serious," she said. "Comparatively. You're going to be in a lot of pain, but it should heal up cleanly enough. I'd give you something for it if you didn't still have all that Valium in your system."

"Right," Kane said. His voice had turned scratchy and his face glowed with a light fever. He had become excruciatingly aware of the structure of his chest, of the muscular contractions that raised his ribs as he inhaled, the flattening of his diaphragm, the abrupt collapse as his breath spurted out again.

Lena pulled herself back up to the Command Center and a moment later Reese and Takahashi came down the same ladder, carrying their suits. Reese's face was the color of dirty concrete and he lagged behind as Takahashi disappeared below the level of the deck.

"You all night?" Reese asked.

Kane nodded. "You?"

"Sure."

"You look like hell, Reese. Angina?"

"Maybe a little."

"Get Lena to—"

"No. I'm fine, dammit. I'm fine."

"At least rest a minute."

"There's no time. I have to know if that lander is going to work. It's important."

"To Morgan, yeah."

"It's important to me," Reese said. "Just leave it at that for now, okay?"

"Sure," Kane said.

Reese dropped through the hatch. Kane worked his fingers nervously, feeling the tension again. The wails of the ship constricted him, seemed to be pressing in on his ribs. His head was all right now and the chest pain was nothing he couldn't handle. If he didn't get out of the ship he might explode.

To hell with it, he thought. If Reese can keep going, so can I.

He poked his head into the Command Center and said, "I'm going out." He had to raise his voice to get it to carry in the low pressure of the ship.

"You're crazy," Lena said. She seemed to push him away with the intensity of her stare.

"That's right," Kane said. He let himself fall through the center of the ship, braking himself against the gentle pull of the moon with open hands on the sides of the ladder. There was a way to breathe, he was sure, that wouldn't hurt so badly. He just had to find it, that was all.

Takahashi was already in the airlock by the time Kane got to the quarters level. Reese was tightening the straps of his Portable Life Support System and reaching for his helmet. The atmosphere of the ship was pure oxygen, so they could use standard shuttle suits at 4 psi and not worry about nitrogen bubbles and the bends.

Kane pulled the lower torso of a suit over his trousers and then squatted and stood up inside the upper half, which was still racked to the wall. Raising his arms brought a new onslaught of pain, but Lena had said it wasn't that serious, and he chose to believe her.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" Reese asked, still holding his helmet.

"Yeah," Kane said. He put on his black rubber gloves and locked the metal wrist-rings.

"Do something for me?"

"Like what?"

"See if you can get into the base. Takahashi and I can check out the lander by ourselves."

"And if I can?"

"Just wait there for me. All right?"

"Sure."

Reese's head disappeared under the helmet as the airlock light went green. Kane closed the hatch after him and got into his own PLSS and helmet and waited while Reese cycled through.

Finally he was sealed into the narrow cylinder of the lock. The controls were clustered on a small box, painted off-white like every other inch of the room. Each switch was protected by an aluminum cap on a chain, and Kane screwed them back in place as he finished.

The hatch opened, and he fell gently to the surface of Deimos, his legs flexing slightly to take up his momentum, then straightening to send him halfway back into the lock.

He lowered himself more carefully and looked around.

Outside the burned, khaki-colored slab where they'd landed, the entire surface of the moon was pocked with craters, some of them smaller than Kane's thumbnail, some fresher than the oldest footprints, whose familiar wide bars overlapped each other in a heavy crosshatching. His visor cut down the glare of the sun on the metal and the white powder of the surface, but made the black of the shadows impenetrable.

Lena's voice cut into the silence. "Kane, uh, we're showing the hatch still open..."

Kane slammed the hatch and moved away from the ship. The drastically foreshortened horizon gave him the feeling that he was standing in a low spot in some terrestrial desert; at the same time the ground seemed to slope away from him, confusing his spatial perceptions.

He took a few cautious steps toward the airlock of the base, then had trouble controlling his forward momentum. With a good run, he thought, he could probably jump into orbit.

Puffs of dust hung around his feet with every step. Even in the negligible gravity the dust seemed to weigh him down. After-effects of the aerobraking, he realized. According to the book, none of them should even be moving around yet, let alone trying to work.

He made it to the base entrance, a half-buried section of corrugated pipe that led to a cluster of metal and durofoam structures that looked as solidly built as a child's tree house.

He held on to the hatch valve to get his breath, then looked back toward the ship.

Mars filled the sky.

For an instant he felt he was falling into the vast dark side of the planet. He groped behind him, found the edge of the steel tunnel, and clung to it.

He hung by his feet and hands over a brilliant yellow and white and orange crescent, suspended in absolute black. On the right-hand tip Kane could see the Argyre Planitia, white with frost; to the left was the great inflamed wound of the Valles Marinaris, torn from the upper right edge down to the center of the crescent, disappearing into the dawn along the Tharsis Ridge. Ascreus Mons, the only one of the Tharsis volcanoes touched by the rising sun, trailed a thick plume of ice crystals down toward the west. The Lunae and Chryse plains glowed ghostly white against the orange of the surrounding high ridges.

If Kane stood there long enough, the sun would reach Pavonis and the third volcano, Arsia Mons. He wondered if the ruins of the base would be visible from this far away, if the great foil mirrors would catch the sunlight. He could point to the spot where they'd be, there, northeast of Arsia Mons, toward Pavonis, still in darkness.

The speakers in his helmet buzzed and Reese said, "We're inside. We've got power and the pressure's coming up...looks good."

"Oh, man," Lena said. "Oh, man. I'm just starting to figure out how scared I've been."

"Don't break out any champagne," Reese said. "There's a ways still to go."

Kane himself felt the first stirrings of relief, the easing of a knot of tension in his stomach that had been there so long he'd lost his awareness of it.

He turned his back on Mars and concentrated on the mechanics of the hatch. The station's power was on standby and none of the automatic controls functioned. He finally found the manual release set into the recessed spokes of the cover, the flat of the handle barely wide enough to grip with his fingertips. The lever resisted the strength of his hands, but he finally forced the toe of his boot into the opening and threw the mass of his body against it.

The hatch swung open, and Kane scrambled to hold on to the lip of the tunnel above it.

Just a few more minutes, he thought, and I can go sleep this off. The light on his chest pack revealed the standard switches inside the airlock, with an additional set for bringing the main power on line. He ran through the sequence, and a moment later the caged bulb overhead came to life.

"Reese," he said. "I've got power up in here, too. Now what?"

"Go on in," Reese said. "Check it out."

"What's going on?" Takahashi broke in. "Kane? Where are you? Are you inside the base?"

Kane lied without stopping to think about it, instinctively protecting Reese. "Morgan wanted to know if it was still habitable."

"He didn't say anything to me about it."

"Come off it, Takahashi," Kane said. "What difference does it make who he told?"

Takahashi let the silence drag on for a few seconds, and then said, "All right. But be careful. And you can make your report to me, and I'll pass it on. Understood?"

"Sure," Kane said.

The telltales for internal pressure all showed green, so Kane gave his helmet a quarter-turn and pulled it off. With the servos operating, the inner hatch swung open easily, and Kane stepped inside.

The auxiliary generators had kept the air above freezing, but only slightly. Kane's breath puffed out in thick clouds, and it took a second or two for the smell to penetrate. When it did, he fumbled his helmet back into the collar and turned the PLSS up to high.

Beneath the odors of rot and decay had been a dry, alkaline smell like moldy bread. As he coughed the last of the foul air out of his lungs, he saw that it was mold, thick and bluish gray, growing up to shoulder height on the foam walls. Oily water dripped from the ceiling and pooled on the floor, which felt spongy under Kane's feet.

He slogged through the tunnel and crossed a bulkhead into the Control Center. At first glance the damage didn't seem so bad, but Kane found rust on the chrome surfaces and greenish corrosion on the solder points. He brought up the drives on the main computer and tried booting an operating system, but nothing came up on the lead CRT. It could have been anything from ROM failure to bad cabling, and Kane didn't see the value of trying to pinpoint it.

The astrometry processor, attached to a wire grid telescope on the far side of the moon, was still running, its red map lights still winking into new patterns as Kane watched. The gauges on the little fusion pile were stable as well, and with a little work the place could be used again. But it would be a long time before the smell was gone.

Kane turned back to the astrometry unit. It was one of Pulsystems's most sophisticated computers, designed to measure the universe with a combination of light, radio, and neutrino detectors, so sensitive that it could calculate the motion of planets around nearby stars.

As a teenager he'd seen it being tested in the basement of the company's downtown Houston office, encased in glittering black aluminum and plastic, promising answers to questions that no one had even thought of asking. Now it lay in the ruins of a deserted outpost, part of another era. Kane felt like a Goth at the sack of Rome, watching his stream of piss wash the delicate paints from a piece of Grecian marble.

No, he thought, not as bad as that. The fact that he was standing there at all proved that it hadn't been completely forgotten, that the riots and hunger and brutality of the last ten years might be no more than a temporary setback. Now that the worst of it was over, the human race had a genuine chance to start fresh, to make a blind, quantum leap into an unimaginable future.

Maybe it was already happening; maybe this expedition of Morgan's would be the first step. For once Morgan might have seen past his anachronistic squabbling over the division of the world's spoils, but Kane found it hard to believe. For Morgan, self-interest was everything, and sooner or later Kane expected to find the short-term payoff that Morgan was counting on.

A shame, Kane thought. Once he'd seen himself as the answer to Morgan's greed, a new program for a new age, but now he wondered if he had the conviction to bring it off.

He was pulling a clogged filter from the ventilator when Reese broke in on the radio. "I'm in the airlock. How bad is it?"

"Not good. Leave your helmet on."

A few seconds later, Reese came through the bulkhead. Kane noticed the gray stains on his suit where surface dust had turned to mud in the hallway. Reese clicked his radio off and waited for Kane to do the same. Then he crouched in front of the astrometry unit and pulled a diskette out of the drive.

Kane stood next to him so they could touch helmets. "What the hell are you doing?"

"I need this."

"That's the map, isn't it?" Kane asked.

"Yeah," Reese said. "It's the map." For twelve years the processor had been updating and refining the state vectors of every object it could perceive, storing not only position but direction and speed of relative motion.

"What for?"

"I can't tell you that. Maybe later, but I can't tell you right now."

"Okay, Reese. If that's how you want it."

"I didn't take this, okay? We looked around and then went back outside."

"Sure, Reese. Whatever you say, man." He pulled away and turned his radio back on. "The place needs some work."

Reese switched on. "Too much to do anything about it now. Let's get back to the ship." Reese slipped the diskette into a zip pocket on his thigh. "The lander looks tight. The computer came right up, and it seems to think it's okay. There's nothing it can't check out better than we can anyway."

"A piece of luck, then," Kane said. "We were about due for some."

"Not luck," Reese said. "It's a good piece of hardware. Takahashi's gassing it up right now, and we're going to go ahead and get out of here."

"Suits me," Kane said, grateful not to have to spend another night in the Mission Module. It's happening, he thought. In a few hours he would be on Mars.

"Get your stuff together," Reese told him, "and take it on over to the lander. Bring Lena with you. We should be ready to lift inside an hour."

He nodded, not caring that Reese couldn't see it, and stayed behind to shut off the lights. Before he left, he put a fresh diskette into the astrometry processor and reloaded its program.

Just in case, he thought, shutting the outer hatch of the base. In case we're back this way some time.

Back inside the ship, he hung his helmet on the wall outside the airlock and wore the rest of his suit into his quarters. Dirty clothes were slotted into neoprene knobs along the wall, and he wadded them into his fist, wondering what he should bother to bring. Somewhere in his overhead locker was a duffel bag that he'd unloaded when he first came aboard and hadn't looked at since. He pulled it out and tore open the Velcro fasteners.

A Colt .38 Police Positive, huge, steel-blue, and menacing, tumbled out of the bag.

It spun end over end as it drifted toward the gridded floor, bounced once and hung there, the hammer snagged in a metal hexagon. The barrel of the gun slowly wobbled in a parabola and then stopped, the muzzle pointed accusingly at Kane's chest. He jammed his palms into his temples and held on as a yellow beam of pain arced through his skull.

"No," he said out loud. It had to be a hallucination. It was the same gun he'd found in Houston, hidden underneath his cot in the Project Management Building. But he'd gotten rid of it then, put it in a dumpster or something...hadn't he?

Tiny hemispheres of sweat clung to his forehead. He bent over and touched the steel, its hardness palpable even through his thick gloves. Not an illusion, then. But he had no memory of packing it, would in fact have been insane to bring a gun into this fragile tin can of a ship.

"Kane?" Takahashi's voice came from just outside the cubicle. We're closing the ship," he said in Japanese. "Hurry up. Isoide kudasai!" The polite form, Kane noticed, but his use of Japanese instead of English was uncharacteristically rude.

Kane's hand closed over the pistol barrel, shoved it into the duffel bag, and pushed a layer of clothes in over it. "Yeah, okay, for Christ's sake. Kite! I'm coming."

His hands shook. He felt an eerie, disembodied compulsion urging him to bring the gun along; at the same time he was terrified of bringing it, wanted somehow to break the chain of events already forming around it.

He had no time left to decide. Takahashi, already suspicious and irritable, might take it on himself to search Kane's quarters. Nearly frantic, Kane stuffed the rest of his clothes into the bag and ducked into the hallway to put on his helmet. He could see Takahashi's feet through the open gridlock of the floor above him, making a last pass through the ship.

He cycled through the airlock and followed Lena's retreating suit toward the MEM.

Without conscious intent, his eyes moved upward for another look at Mars. The sunrise had reached Pavonis Mons, to the north and east of the colony. Frontera.

It had been ten years since the last ship had left there for Earth. Fifty-seven colonists ignored the recall order from the collapsing US government. For two years messages trickled out sporadically: grim stories of nitrogen shortfalls, radiation-induced cancers, famine, and suicide. One of the last told of the failure of the Russian settlement at Marsgrad, on Candor Mesa in the Valles Marineris. The survivors had arrived at Frontera over a period of weeks, starving, crippled, irradiated, and no one knew how long they'd last.

Then the messages had stopped altogether. NASA's last official act had been the launch of a final shuttle, deploying a lightsail vehicle full of medicine, electronic components, food, and chemicals. But a solar flare had scrambled the drone's guidance system and sent it hurtling off into the asteroid belt.

The sight of the decaying Deimos base had turned Kane's imagination loose, conjuring endless hideous details of the disaster on Mars: cryptic, desperate messages typed into video terminals, slaughtered livestock, tiny deformed skeletons.

Sleep, he thought. Just get through these next few minutes and sleep.

The entry module was only a little larger than the old Apollo spacecraft Kane had seen at NASA, but with its fuel tanks and conical shielding, the descent vehicle stood over thirty feet tall. Reese, who had obviously taken over for Takahashi, was uncoupling the FLOX hose that led to the tank of fluorine/liquid oxygen built into the base's refinery complex. He held up one thumb and Kane managed to acknowledge him with a wave of the hand.

A ramp led up inside the cowling, and from there Kane climbed three rungs to the open cockpit. He stowed his duffel under the canvas slings and then crawled in next to Lena. She didn't ask how he was and he didn't volunteer any conversation. It was enough to close his eyes for a few minutes.

His nerves kept him from falling completely asleep. As Reese and Takahashi strapped themselves in, he gave up and opened his eyes again. He waited in cold silence while Lena and Takahashi ran through the pre-flight checklist, and then, with no more than a sort of throat-clearing "de wa," Takahashi lifted them gently off Deimos's surface and turned them toward the "high gate," the point where they would hit the Martian atmosphere.

Kane forced himself to focus on the pranayama exercises Reese had taught him, separating his breathing into outgoing, incoming, and the long kumbhaka between them.

The shielded bottom of the capsule brushed the outer layers of the atmosphere and the screaming started again. Kane opened his eyes to columns of data scrolling down the screen in front of him. The capsule bucked as the braking rockets fired and Kane ground his teeth together. No more than two Gs this time, Kane told himself. It's almost over.

Within a minute or two, Kane could feel the pressure easing. As the MEM hit terminal velocity, the gravity stabilized at Mars normal and the module began to fall straight toward the caldera of Arsia Mons.

When the soft, female voice came through his helmet speakers, Kane was too startled to manage a reaction.

"This is Frontera Base. Since you're obviously not going to turn around and go home, why don't you set down southeast, repeat, southeast of the dome. We'll send somebody out for you."

"Reese?" Lena said. "Reese, did you hear that?"

Jesus Christ, Kane thought.

They're alive.