The man came across the red sands alone and on foot, the storm whipping at his back. He flailed his way through the dome lock with his one free hand, then stumbled through the inner seal and wide, wooden double doors to collapse to his knees on the old, worn carpeting. Still cradling a small case in his other hand, he unlocked the faceplate of his suit and took whooping, desperate breaths even as his eyes found the unimpressed gaze, neither welcoming nor otherwise, of the man who sat with his chin in his hands looking down at him from the ancient and dusty desk. “By all the gods, old and new, loved and feared, named and unnamed, and fierce Ares highest among them all,” the man on the floor said, “please, tell me you have a vacancy.”
The old man at the desk pushed his antique spectacles up his nose. “Do you have a reservation?”
“You take reservations?” the newcomer exclaimed.
The desk clerk sniffed. “No,” he said, that one word suggesting blame for that fact could be laid at the feet of the newcomer as easily as anywhere else. He flipped open a wide paper book, and after some consideration, looked again at the new arrival. “I may have a room available,” he said at last. “There is the matter of payment, and expected length of stay.”
The newcomer unclipped his helmet, took it off, and laid it carefully on the carpet. Laboriously he unbuckled his pack and set it beside the helmet, then held out the small case. Flipping the latches as he got to his feet, he opened it for the old man. On the couches behind them, the young girl with shockingly pink hair who had been trying desperately to act as if she was paying no attention craned her neck, but could not see inside.
The old man behind the desk raised one eyebrow. “How long do you plan on staying?”
“Four days,” the newcomer said, closing the case again and setting it down on the desk. “Perhaps only three, perhaps five, but no more nor less than that.”
“There are rules.”
“So I have been led to understand,” the man said. His suit began to make small snapping sounds as it adjusted to the change in temperature.
“No weapons. No exceptions. No modern tech beyond the lobby. If you have medical implants or other assistive devices, you must disclose them and potentially submit to having them examined. If you disturb the other guests unnecessarily you will be ejected, with or without prior warning depending on the offense, with no reimbursement for any remaining time. By that same token, the hotel is not responsible for any damages to your person, your dignity, or any possessions not in our direct safe-keeping inflicted by other guests, especially if you work for the government.”
“Hotel staff exist for my convenience, not yours.”
“And no parties.”
The man raised his two arms, empty hands outstretched to either side, as if to emphasize that he had come alone. “Also agreed.”
The clerk picked up the case, and it disappeared behind the desk. He pushed the old register forward and handed the man a pen. “Sign in,” he said.
The man picked up the pen, tapped the paper with it, and stared at it in puzzlement. “Click the button on the top to activate the ink,” the clerk said, “then use it like a stylus.” The man did that, and with an unpracticed hand managed to scrawl out a name across the register. He had barely lifted the pen back up off the page when the clerk slid the book out from under it. He turned it around, harrumphed, then plucked the pen out of the man’s hand. “Mr. Smith. Welcome to the Rosley,” he said, “the most expensive run-down-to-shit hotel in human space.”
“You’re Mr. Rosley?”
“I’m Eddard,” he said, and pointed at the man’s pack. “If you’ll hand over your tech and any other items you’d like to place in the hotel’s safe, I’ll see that your bottles are recharged by the end of your stay. Compliments of the hotel.”
The guest opened his pack, took out a small hand-held device. “My electronic assistant . . . ?”
The clerk rapped the desk and the man set it down with a sigh, then removed more items from his pack. “A satellite compass and an interactive novel,” he said. “And a legal pad.”
“You can keep that,” Eddard said, taking the others. “What else?”
“Only my pack itself, of course. Sir.”
“Your exosuit as well, if it’s smart. You can drop that off once you’re settled and changed,” the clerk said, picking up the items and stowing them in a padded box. Then he reached up behind him and pulled down some object hung there on a piece of red string and tossed it down on the desk. It was a brass oval ring with an extended limb terminating in wide, flat teeth. “Twenty-two B. Nice view of Arsai Mons to the northwest.”
Smith picked up the object, turning it over in his hand. “What is it?”
The old man sighed. “Your room key, Mr. Smith. Sofi, can you show him how to work it?”
The girl on the couch perked up, and with a grin vaulted over the back of the sage-green sofa. She walked toward the desk, straightening out a pink mini-skirt that matched her hair perfectly. “Twenny-two Bee,” she said. “Easy, right up the vader. You family with Smith in Thirty-one Aye?”
“Oh. Or Smith in Thirty Aye?”
The girl wiped her brow. “Sure not, ’cause you don’t look like a Haxallian.”
“There’s a Haxallian named Smith here?”
The old man chuckled. “We seem to get a lot of guests named Smith, Mr. Smith. Even occasionally alien ones.”
“Vader’s this way,” the girl said, pointing. “You know about vaders?”
“Elevators?” The man guessed. “Of course.”
“Smokeydokey,” she said. She pressed a button set into the gold-brocade patterned wall, and a door slid open on a dusty and ill-lit carriage. The man stepped in after the girl and faced front as the door closed again, then flattened himself against the back wall when the elevator gave a lurch and began to move upward.
“It’s not magnet-lift,” he said.
“Naw,” she said. “S’got a big string out of the top for pulling it up and down.”
“How old are you?”
She shrugged. “Dunno. Hey here, second floor!” The elevator gave another lurch and came to a stop, and the man left it with a little more haste than necessary. “Twenny-two Bee, over here.”
The girl led him around the corner to a door with the number in brass in the center, no palm-plate beside it. She pointed at the handle and a small hole in the center of it. “You put the key in there. Turn one way, clicky, door locked. Turn the other way, clicky, door unlocked.”
He frowned. “But if someone else has a key . . .”
“Yes, but, what if they took mine?”
“Then your stuff gets to be in their room.” She shrugged again. “So don’t let anyone take yer key.”
“It doesn’t seem like a very secure system.”
“S’why we has a safe.”
He stuck the key in, wiggled it around clumsily until it clicked, then pushed the door open. The room was fairly small, accented with reds and golds to match the landscape outside. He walked across the carpeting and looked out the room’s small window at the dome in the distance, the promised view beyond it obscured by the same dust storm that had chased him here.
Something moved on the grounds below and he jumped. Three large animals ambled slowly across the sand, pale brown with black and white faces and long, sharp horns. “What the hell are those?”
The girl was still lurking in the doorway. “Oryx,” she said. “From Earth.”
“What are they doing on Mars?”
“Some guest. Couldn’t pay so he took off without ’em. At first Roz thought maybe he’d come and buy ’em back, but been years now.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Not as long as them,” she said.
“I can’t place your accent. You’re not from Mars.”
“Here now, tho.’ ”
“You’re not one for specifics, are you? Thanks, I think I’m okay.”
“Smokey,” she said, and left.
He spent five minutes or so fumbling with the key before he found the small latch on the door that allowed him to lock it from the inside, and after flipping it he laid down on the bed, his arms wrapped around his near-empty pack, and watched with amazement the slow wanderings of the magnificently improbable animals outside.
The girl returned to the lobby and couch, flinging herself sideways over the back to land prone on the cushions, then fished blindly on the carpeting below with one hand until she found and retrieved her book from where she’d dropped it.
The old man at the desk sighed, having long since given up complaining about her abuse of the furniture. “So, what do you think?”
She didn’t look up. “Trouble.”
“Trouble?” A young woman walked into the lobby. She was wearing an apron emblazoned with the stylized hotel logo and carrying a small mountain of biscuits on a plate, which she set down on the desk. Her blonde hair bore faint remnants of the same pink so boldly declaring itself on the girl’s head.
“New guest. Another ‘Smith,’ ” the old man said. “Makes three.”
“Is that a record?”
“Five once, ten years or so back. There was a fire.” He took a biscuit from the plate, stuck it in between his teeth, then rapidly shoveled the rest into a fold in his shirt.
“Hey!” Sofi shouted. “Verah, he took—”
The woman reached into her apron pocket and set another handful of biscuits on the couch arm. Then she pointed toward the front window, and a more distinct dust-plume growing more discrete by the moment. “More on their way,” she said. “That can’t be the supply buggy, can it?”
Eddard came out from behind the desk, acquiring a brass-knobbed cane on his way around it, and stood, slightly stooped, beside the blonde woman. “Damned dust,” he said, then after a minute. “That is the buggy.”
“But it’s due today,” Verah said. “It’s not late. It’s never not late.”
“Hmmmph. Can’t be coincidence. Got to be trouble.”
“Said so,” Sofi said from the couch.
Rickard was the sort of man whose facial expression was fixed into a permanent angry scowl, so much so that it was the subject of heated discussion among the longer-term residents as to whether it was an indicator of gross shortcomings in personality or in genetics. He had been driving the supply run to the Rosley for eight years now and would without fail show up days—or weeks—late, curse at and otherwise thoroughly abuse whatever staff or residents he happened to lay eyes on, and invariably threaten that, iron-clad agreement or not, this delivery-which-amounted-to-nothing-more-than-theft-from-the-good-and-hardworking-people-of-Ares-Two would be the last and they’d all starve (or suffocate or freeze) and he’d only return when he could burn the wreck of a place down and spit on all their corpses.
No one ever really paid him much attention. Secretly, they were all somewhat fond of him, and suspected he was of them as well. Now, though, beneath his scowl lurked something deeply and uncomfortably anxious. He had not come alone, and if he didn’t seem inclined to stand anywhere near the old man or Verah, or Hroknek Jarir from Seventeen Aye (who had come down yet again to complain about the scents of mating from the room beside his own), neither did he seem particularly keen on standing with the two men who had escorted him in the door.
Rickard,” the old man said.
The driver nodded slightly. If acknowledgement, if apology, if neither, it still seemed a concession.
It was one of the other men who spoke first—a tall, solidly built man in a quietly nondescript suit that screamed government. “I’m Agent Chernin,” he said, as if that explained everything. “We need to search the premises, and we’ll start by having a look at your guest list.”
Chernin blinked. “Excuse me?”
“No.” The old man repeated. “Sorry.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Also, no. Some first-gen bunghole someone managed to stuff into a suit and sent out to hassle folks, at a guess.”
A faint but unmistakable Sofi-chuckle floated down from the mezzanine. Verah glanced up quickly but couldn’t see where the girl had got herself to. For his part, Hroknek Jarir was rubbing his arms together and emitting a low-pitched hum of displeasure.
Chernin undid a pocket and pulled out identification and a badge. He thrust it out, almost slapping the old man in the nose with it. “Mars Colonial Authority. Does this help you?”
“Well, now I know who to complain to once you’ve ceased stinking up my lobby,” the old man said, sitting back on the stool behind the desk. “This hotel and its grounds are neutral territory. You have no authority here.”
“We bring you air, water, fuel, and food,” Chernin says. “You want that to end, Mr. Wise-ass? Because all I have to do is snap my fingers, and then where would a miserable little parasite like you be?”
“Sitting right here with my copy of the Agreement at hand and our lawyer on the sat line. It’s been tried before.”
“This is a law enforcement action,” Chernin said, emphasizing each word. “I’ve tried being reasonable—”
“Sir, let me try reasoning my way,” the other newcomer said. He stepped forward and stuck an energy pistol in Eddard’s face. Beside Verah, Hroknek Jarir’s hum had become louder, lower, and now was accompanied by a hissing sound as the Ponkian drew in air. Anyone watching—which wasn’t too many people, at the moment—would see that the alien was swelling up, growing larger. “The guest list, now,” the man with the gun said.
“Arning . . .” Chernin said.
“We can’t afford to lose this, Chernin. We do it my way.”
“I’d put down the gun, if I were you,” Verah said.
The man glanced at her, pistol still steady in the old man’s face. “And what do you think you can do about it?”
“I’m saying, if you’ve got any brains at all you’ll put that thing away.”
“You think you’ve got some sort of immunity here?” he shouted, swinging the pistol around. “You think you—”
At that point the expanding Hroknek Jarir had reached comical proportions; the barely discernible vestiges of his distorted head were now pressed against the lobby ceiling. When the gun swung toward Verah, who was standing directly beside him, he let out an ear-piercing shriek. Then, with an enormous pop, the entire lobby was lost in a cloud of viciously foul-smelling, sea-green gas.
A shot went off, the flash an indistinct blur in the haze, and was followed by a loud crack and the distinct sound of the pistol hitting the floor. A chorus of coughing and retching came from within the cloud. From somewhere down the halls an indignant voice called out. “Hey, what fucking idiot just scared the Ponkian?”
By the time the miasma had begun to clear—no small feat, even with the hotel’s overdriven air-handling systems—the old man had retrieved the pistol from the floor, hefting his cane with pride and hoping he’d left a mark on the man’s hand when he’d hit him.
Someone had closed the fire doors between the lobby and the rest of the hotel to try to contain the gas. Hroknek Jarir had collapsed onto one of the sofas, wiping at his brow. “Dear-oh,” he said. “Such a mmmm headache that will leave, always mmmm.”
Rickard had been fast-thinking enough to snap his faceplate shut and was standing as unobtrusively as he could manage behind a potted palm. Arning knelt, gasping for breath, tears streaming down his face and onto hands splayed out on the carpet below. Verah stood behind him holding a broom, clearly prepared to do something non-janitorial with it if the moment required.
“What . . . the . . . hell?” Chernin said at last, on all fours not far from his comrade.
“Our guest, Estimable Jarir, is a Ponkian,” Eddard explained. “Kind of like a cross between a pufferfish and a giant skunk, and very prone to emotional upset. And I think we can all agree that guns are very upsetting, can’t we?”
Chernin rolled over and lay on his back on the floor, groaning. Arning started to rise to his feet, saw Verah’s grip on the broom handle shift, and stayed put. “We’ve got a convoy of armored personnel buggies out there with an entire team,” he said. “You can’t hold us hostage forever.”
“Hostage? Idiot. You can leave anytime.” Eddard waved at the front door. “Please, go right now.”
“I can’t believe they sent you damned clowns to do this,” Rickard finally spoke up. He met Eddard’s eyes. “Old man, we’d like to rent a room. One night.”
“Rickard, what the hell?” Arning said. “You don’t have—”
“Shut the hell up. A room, old man.”
“There is the matter of payment.” Eddard said, warily.
Arning made to speak again, but Rickard turned and pointed at him with a single fierce finger and made his angry face, and the man shut his mouth. Then Rickard unzipped the front of his suit, slipped a hand in, and took out a rectangular object, holding it out to Eddard by thumb and forefinger as if fearing contamination.
The man’s eyes lit up and he took it, turned it gingerly edge-on, and read the faded gold print there. He opened it, turned a page, and for the briefest of moments pure joy creased his lips. Then, perhaps realizing he was giving away too much, he frowned and snapped the book shut. “This will cover it, even for you,” he said. “There are rules.”
Rickard looked at the other two, then scowled and began unsealing his suit. From a pocket he produced a small but mean-looking pistol that he laid on the front desk. It was followed by a small handful of gadgets, then after some contortions the suit itself. He turned to look at the two men who had come with him, only to see them staring, unmoving, at him. “Hurry it the fuck up, assholes,” he said, and pounded his finger on the empty desk next to his own stuff.
“I am not surrendering my weapon to these outlaws,” Chernin said.
“Fine. Then give your stuff to your shit-for-brains partner here and send him back to your rent-an-army so he can tell them to sit quietly out there and wait like good little soldiers,” Rickard said, pointing at Arning. “Loose goddamned cannon makes me want to kick him in the face. You want what you came here for, you do it my way now, got it?”
“Rickard, what’s your plan here?” Chernin asked.
“You can’t storm the place, so do the next best thing—check in. You’ve got your eyes, haven’t you? You want to know if what you’re looking for is here, what more do you need?”
With obvious reluctance Chernin drew his own weapon out and held it grip-first to his partner. “Arning, take this and go wait with the others at the perimeter.”
“You can’t be serious—”
“I am. Rickard’s right. You know what’s at stake.”
“But . . .” Arning scrambled to his feet and away from Verah before taking the pistol. “My energy pack needs time to recharge before I can leave. The suit heater—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Rickard said. He rummaged through his pack, then tossed a small rectangular block to the man. “Take it and get the hell out of here.”
Arning unclipped his own supply and clicked the new one into place. “A spare? That’s convenient.”
“That’s prepared. This is Mars, not camping in your mommy’s backyard with a flashlight and a teddy bear. Now, do you think you can make it back to the others without someone coming along to hold your hand?”
“Screw you, Rickard, you low-life, loser Martian scum. Do you have any idea how much I hate you?”
“No, but you can tell me all about it someday when I’ve sliced you open and I’m eating your own liver in front of you, just to show you how much I care.”
Before Arning could leap at Rickard, Chernin was between them, hands out to block the confrontation. Arning turned, slammed his suit faceplate shut, and left the hotel with a swagger that struck more than one person there as unearned. “Good mmmm-ridding of him,” the Ponkian muttered from where he was slouched on the couch, slowly deflating.
The old man slid a key across the desk, and Chernin picked it up. “Thirty-five A. Southeast facing Solis Planum. Nice view of back the way you came,” he said. “You can’t miss it; it’s right next to the ice machine.”
Chernin claimed an overstuffed armchair as his own and sat there with a hotel newspad in his hands, fidgeting, scowling, and occasionally dozing, but not, as far as anyone could tell, actually reading. When Smith Three found his way back down to the lobby a few hours later to ask about dinner, Chernin started awake, dropping the newspad on the floor.
The pink-haired girl was sitting perched on the desk, the old man Eddard nowhere to be seen. “Dinner soon,” she told Smith Three. “ ’Pends on what supplies came in. Gov’ment agent over there rode in with the buggy and might know.”
Smith Three turned sharply to stare at Chernin. They locked eyes with each other for a long minute. “I’ll take dinner in my room, if that’s okay,” he said, turning back to Sofi.
The girl nodded. “Smokey. I’ll tell Verah.”
The man glanced back at Chernin, then hastily left the lobby. Chernin stood up and pretended to stretch, and then started to head after Smith.
“No rassing guests,” the girl said, just as Eddard appeared through the same doorway, blocking Chernin’s path.
Defeated, Chernin glared back at the girl. “Why the hell did you tell him I was an agent?”
“ ’Cause y’are,” she said. “Be stupid if I said you was a rocket-tech or someit, since we don’t got rockets.”
“How long’s he been here?”
The girl answered, “While.”
“And I don’t suppose you can tell me what his name is?”
She smiled. “Smith!”
“You know, sometimes people use the name Smith to hide their real identity, because they’re criminals and agitators hiding from the law,” Chernin said.
“Oh, true? Shouldah interduced you as genius gov’ment agent.”
Chernin’s hand strayed toward where his pistol would have been, fingers twitching.
“Maybe now’s a good time for you to go back to your own room until dinner is ready,” Eddard said.
“He can’t. Rickard locked him out,” the girl said. “Said he paid for the room, he was gonna have hisself a bath and a nap.”
“Then you, Sofi, can go to the kitchen and give Verah a hand, like you’re supposed to,” the old man said, and gently but firmly shoved her off the desk.
Once she was gone, Chernin sank back into the chair. “Quite a mouth on that girl. Get her in trouble some day.”
“Has before and will again,” the old man agreed. His eyes narrowed. “Not from you, though, and not here.”
“You sound awfully sure of that.”
“That’s because I am,” the old man said. He reached under the counter and pulled out the book Rickard had paid him with, running his fingers over the worn cover before gingerly lifting it to reveal the first page. “Now shut up. I’m reading.”
The Rosley’s dining room was small, with a handful of round tables covered with old but clean tablecloths, an eclectic collection of mismatched chairs unevenly spaced around them. A large window looked northwest toward the distant crinkling of the red-orange ground that was the far edge of Noctis Labyrinthus. The boundary of the dome shield was a pencil-thin line crossing the ground, like a shadow cast by a wire, everything outside it made just perceptibly darker. Inside it a solitary antelope wandered past.
Sofi put small trays of rolls on each of the tables, then picked one up—still warm—and took a bite as she watched the animal out the window. She liked the view better in the morning, when a faint mist from sublimating frost ghosted across the distant canyons.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Someone spoke, and she turned around to find that Smith One—a short, reedy man who moved like a dancer—had entered and was filling a clean mug from the nearby stack at the coffee urn. “Can’t get used to that yellow sky. It seems weird, where I come from.”
She shrugged, taking another bite of her roll. “Grew up on a space station,” she said. “Whole planets is weird.”
Verah came in with the cart and handed Sofi a stack of still-warm plates. The girl set them on the tables, then returned for silverware. A man and a woman, both wearing matching bright red “I biked Olympus Mons” T-shirts, strolled in holding hands, their eyes looking only at each other. They took two seats at the back of a table in one corner of the room and drew the seats to touching before sitting down.
Smith One turned from the window, glanced briefly at the couple, then took a seat on the other side of the room. Verah and Sofi were setting down covered dishes on the tables as the Haxallian, Smith Two, made its way into the dining hall. Two of its five fluorescent purple legs had been tucked, somewhat ridiculously, into the arms of a white Rosley Hotel bathrobe, the remainder of which dragged on the floor behind it. It eyed the couple in the corner much as Smith One had, except through many more eyes, then moved to join the solitary man.
The alien extracted a small, rounded box from a ventral cavity and placed it on the table. He whistled at it, and moments later the box produced a credible human voice. “Do you mind if I join you?” it said.
Smith One waved for the alien to take a chair, and after some contortions to get its legs realigned to fit, it did. The Haxallian’s head swiveled around and it eyeballed the couple, then rolled back. “All of that intrusive noise and smell,” it complained through the translator, “and still no eggs. How much longer until she can kill and eat him?”
“Unfortunately, humans don’t work that way,” Smith One said.
The Haxallian eyed the couple again. “A pity,” it said.
Rickard came in, looked at the couple, looked at the table with Smith One and the Haxallian, and picked the empty table in between. He was just starting to butter a roll when Chernin entered, looking haggard and as if he’d slept on a floor all night. He stopped halfway into the room and stared. Smith One, just serving himself some pasta, froze as well.
“You!” Chernin shouted.
“You!” Smith One shouted back, and in one smooth motion sent the pasta fork sailing across the room.
Chernin dodged as it flew over his shoulder and stuck into the wall behind him. His hand slapped at his side where his gun should have been. Swearing, he turned and picked up the coffee urn and hoisted it up above his head, ready to throw, when the urn was plucked with sudden force out of his hands from behind.
He stumbled backward with it and found himself face to face with Verah, the urn now in her arms. She glanced at the fork stuck in the wall, then over at the table where Smith One stood, every knife but one from the table now held in his left hand, the lone exception poised in his right for throwing.
“Mr. Chernin,” she said. “You got an explanation?”
“He’s a Sfazili government operative,” Chernin said.
“And you’re an Earth one,” she reminded.
“He has no jurisdiction here!”
“Neither,” she said, her voice severe, “do you. The Rosley is neutral ground. It’s in the Agreement.”
“No ‘buts.’ You know the rule about bothering the guests. Both of you.”
“I was not bothered,” the Haxallian said.
“. . . what?” The groom asked from the corner.
Verah let out an exasperated sigh and set the coffee urn back on its small stand. “And either of you? Do you want to lodge a complaint about the other?”
Smith One and Chernin locked eyes. “No, ma’am,” Chernin said, and Smith One nodded. “Me either, ma’am.”
“Fine,” she said. “Then sit down and eat your dinner, and if I catch either of you throwing stuff again, you’re gonna get nothing but beets and peanut butter every single meal for as long as you stay.”
Rickard stifled a laugh, and she turned on him. “And you, Mr. Rickard—your lopsided supply deliveries are why I have an excess of beets and peanut butter to threaten them with in the first place. Think about that as you enjoy your dinner.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, the smirk never leaving his face.
“Mmmmmmpardon me,” the Ponkian said, from the doorway.
“Ah, good! Estimable Jarir,” Verah said, brightening, taking one of his arms and leading him over to the table. “If you do not mind, please sit beside Mr. Smith, here.” Obligingly, the Ponkian slid out the chair beside Smith One and collapsed onto it. Verah turned, gesturing imperiously at Chernin with a crooked finger. “You,” she said. “Sit on the other side of Estimable Jarir.”
“SIT!” She roared.
“There. Enjoy your dinners, and please mind your manners around our Ponkian guest, here.”
Verah returned to the kitchen where Sofi was just loading up a tray with dinners for those guests who had chosen to stay in their rooms. The girl was finally putting on a little weight, had even grown a few inches since they’d come to the Rosley, never intending to remain for more than a few days.
“Do you like it here?” she asked.
“What?” Sofi seemed startled by the question. “S’good. Nice and quiet, most’a the time, and I like Eddard. And Roz, when he’s awake. And the books.”
“It could be getting dangerous.”
“Dang’rous everywhere. More safe here than lots of places,” Sofi said. She looked down at the tray, continued loading it. “And it feels like home. ’Sides, there’s oryxes here. I like them.”
Verah folded a napkin into a fan, set it on the tray. “Then we’ll stay a little longer,” she said. “Homes are good things to have, when you can. And family’s what you make.”
Sofi smiled wide. “Sisters’a the heart,” she said, and picked up the tray and left the kitchen.
She dropped off three meals at guests’ doors, thinking about Verah and coming to Mars and wondering what the book that Rickard gave Eddard was and making up a poem about oryxes in her head. It didn’t rhyme, but Verah said they didn’t always have to rhyme, so she thought it was probably okay.
Smith Three, the last delivery, let her in on the second knock. She carried the tray in on one hand, picking up the antique folding stand with the other. Kicking it open with one foot as Verah had taught her, she set the tray down and stepped back. “Dinner’s pasta,” she said, pointing, “and soup and salad, and tea. Hope it suits.”
Smith Three picked up the pasta lid and peered underneath. “It looks great, thank you,” he said. “Can I ask a question?”
“Sure.” She shrugged. “Don’t know much answers, though.”
He turned, pointed toward the window. “Why are they all standing right outside my window?”
“Is they?” Sofi walked over and looked down, and sure enough a half-dozen long, black and white antelope faces peered back up. “Must like you, I guess.”
He laughed. “Or there’s something to eat down there.”
“Probably. They’s modded for Mars, to eat terrorformed lichen. Also Verah says they’s emphatic. Know who they like.”
“Empathic?” He guessed, sounding dubious.
“Yeh, someit like. When you’re done with dinner, put the tray out your door and somebody will get it.”
“Okay, thanks,” he said.
She closed his door behind herself, and went back to the elevator. When the doors opened, inside it Smith One was sitting on top of a very red-faced Chernin with his hands around his neck, and Chernin was whacking Smith One in the head as hard as he could with one of his shoes.
She coughed, and they froze. “Killin’ a guest is kinda like ’rassing,” she said. “Also, you’re using up all the space in the vader.”
Smith One loosened his grip, but didn’t remove his hands from Chernin’s neck. “We’re just goofing,” he said.
“Go back to the dining room, or to your own rooms,” she said, and made her best angry-Verah frown. “Whatever you two is fighting over, neither of you going to get it if you’re both dead or thrown out.” She laughed. “And if you’re dead we throw you out anyway! Har!” She stood there, holding the tray in front of her like a shield—or a weapon—until the two men released each other, stood up, and walked stiffly away in opposite directions. Then she stood there a little longer to make sure they didn’t come back. . . .
.Copyright © 2012 Suzanne Palmer