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Authors: SW Fairbrother

Merely a Madness

Merely a Madness

 

SW Fairbrother

 

 

Copyright 2015 Sandra Fairbrother

 

All rights reserved. Except as permitted, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior permission of the author.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Other Books by this author

 

London Bones Series

 

The Secret Dead

A Murder of Crones

 

Anthology Contributions

 

No Way Home
(First print of Merely a Madness)

Crime and Punishment (To be released 2015)

Ladies and Gentlemen of Horror 2015 (Release date 31 October 2015)

 

Merely a Madness

 

1

 

The place is nothing but mud and stink: a godforsaken hellhole supposed to be special because this was where humanity first crawled out of the ooze.

Of course it did
, Mullen thinks. No creature would stay in something so fetid if it had any choice.

Except for Hannah. She stands beside him, eyes like stars, taking in deep gulps of the Earth's putrid stench as if it's the last oxygen in the universe. Her warm hand slips into his and squeezes, and God help him he actually smiles back, as if this is what he wanted too.

Behind him, fat little Fisher scuttles back and forth between the shuttle and the transport, directing the locals as they load the baggage from the cargo hold.

Don’t look up. Whatever you do, don’t look up. There’s nothing between you and the sky. No ceiling. No dome. No nothing.
And even though Mullen knows the thought is ridiculous, he can still feel the vast grey expanse
pulling
at him, as if it wants to suck him up into the heavens.

Nausea rises, and to distract himself – to stifle it – he says the first thing that comes into his head. “You know, I could have paid for a better quality tour.”

“Yes, you said. Eight or nine times, if I remember correctly,” Hannah says, gentle amusement in her voice. “This is better. By the time we get home, everything will feel so bland and sterile by comparison. It'll be worth it. Trust me.”

“I do,” he says, and he does. Not about Mars being bland when they get back, but that the tour will be worth it. He hadn't paid for a holiday – he’d paid to see Hannah happy, and that was all the holiday he wanted.

Even so, he can't wait for this to be finished. The local humans –
pre-humans. Not proper humans at all. The animals we were before we left
– have eyes which drill into the back of his shirt. What is it? Doesn’t Fisher pay these creatures?

It's not just the sullen expressions. Physically, too, something about these people has just gone
wrong
. Half have missing limbs. This he can understand: it's a hard life in the mines after all. It's the fact that the other half seem to have additional ones that makes something twist in his stomach. That, and the fact that they hardly seem to be aware of the mud and dirt caked onto their emaciated bodies. And he imagines that when humanity crawled out of the ooze, this is what it might have looked like. As if, somehow, evolution is running backwards here.

With some relief, he watches the last of the baggage disappear into the back of the truck, and the locals slink off towards a corrugated steel hut. None of the creatures seem to notice the freezing mud in which they sink up to their ankles.

One of them remains, a sallow-skinned brute with the same gaunt face as the others. Unusually, he appears to have the right number of extremities. The man –
pre-man
– leans back against the fat-wheeled transport, unfazed by the cold and the dirt. He notes Mullen's gaze and raises a single finger in acknowledgement.

Hannah waves back. She leans in, whispers, “That's John Arnou. He was our guide on the last tour.”

He could do with a good wash
, Mullen thinks.

Hannah pokes him in the ribs with a single slim finger. “Be nice. I can see what you're thinking. Open up your mind a little.”

“Sorry. Of course.”
It is open,
he thinks.
As open as it can be.
But he still can't see the attraction of the place. It's not much more than mud, rubble, and grim-looking huts as far as the eye can see.

Fisher scuttles past them again, and enters a code into the shuttle door. It slides open. Moments later, the two young brothers from Europa, whose parents paid for the trip, emerge blinking into the cold and the dirt.

“Everyone has to visit Earth at least once,” the elder Europan had earnestly insisted to Mullen on the trip over. “It's our heritage.”

The younger, on the other hand – a tall skinny thing with the same unfortunate nose as his brother – had been less keen. He hadn't once looked up from the screen between his fingers, although he had heard enough to roll his eyes at his older brother's words.

The Kozlow family follow them out of the shuttle: dull husband, duller wife, and two dull little Kozlows, faces pale and green from the journey, and growing paler and greener at the sewer stench of the Earth.
Poor little sods
, Mullen thinks. They hadn't asked to come. They hadn't asked for parents who thought an educational holiday was a good idea.
What lesson can they possibly learn from this? Visit the luxury dome next time.
He snorts.

Hannah pokes him again, “Seriously. You promised.”

“Sorry.”

Fisher claps his hands together three times in quick succession, and plasters a grin on his round froggy face. “Welcome to Earth, people. I won't keep you all standing around. We've got a full schedule, and I know it's cold. The camp's around a half-hour away by truck. Once we get there and we're all warmed up, we'll have a chance to grab a bite, and then I'll go over the programme for the next few days. All aboard!”

A thin wire mesh covers the truck windows, protecting the real people from the rabble outside. The newsfeeds had reported on increased rumblings from the local savages just before they'd left. Mullen considered cancelling the trip, but it's been years since there was any real trouble, and he didn't want to disappoint Hannah. The sight of the mesh brings back his fears. He shakes them away. It's only a week. Nothing is going to happen in a week.

Long thin boards have been laid across the mud, leading towards the truck. Hannah pulls at his hand, and the boards creak and bend under Mullen's weight. Unsurprisingly, Hannah takes the seats right at the front. They are cold, made of some smooth yet unfamiliar material, worn in some places and patched in others. Mullen slips in beside her and stretches his arm around her shoulders. She leans into him, her side warm and snug against his.

“See there?” Hannah says. Mullen follows her pointing finger. “See the smoke?”

He doesn't at first, but then he picks out a darker patch of grey sky roiling up against the horizon.

“That's one of the Harbin-Beck mines. One of yours.”

Hardly. He just works for them, as does a full fifth of the Martian population, but he doesn't argue the point. Instead, he snuggles closer to her and grunts in acknowledgement.

Hannah points in a different direction. “And there's the Valadez space elevator. I still can't believe they're going to tear it down. It's a landmark.”

An ancient, decrepit, and expensive landmark that no one uses any more. Mullen nods anyway. If Hannah thinks it's worth saving, then it is, for no reason other than she says so.

The Kozlows settle into their seats. Fisher takes the passenger seat beside the driver, looks around to make sure everyone is on, then nods at Arnou who reaches down and twists something to his right. The truck rumbles to life.

It's a small group, much smaller than it should be. The remaining nine places had been reserved for a large family of Lunans. Fisher had refused to let them on the shuttle when they couldn't provide proof of vaccination.

Idiots.
Mullen can almost feel the Earth's germs burrowing into his skin. He imagines the clear liquid of his vaccinations rising to the surface, providing a bright and shiny barrier that turns golden as it meets the filth.

Fisher, that little grub, had stood unexpectedly firm at the shuttle port, repeating the same line about insurance and liability over and over. Eventually one of the Lunans had stormed off, presumably to find someone to appeal to. Fisher had just put everyone else on the shuttle and left. Mullen wonders if they'll get a refund.
Probably not.

The truck vibrates and rocks over the grubby terrain. Mullen's eyes start to adjust to the brown and grey landscape, and he begins to make out the road beneath the thin veneer of mud, smoother than the churned-up sludge around it. Arnou drives with the confidence of someone who has travelled the route a thousand times, and can do it another thousand blindfolded. Shacks line the edges of the road. Bitter-faced locals turn their heads to watch the truck as it passes.

For the most part, Hannah is silent, although every now and then she points something else out to him with an overarching enthusiasm, as if trying to compel him to love the place as much as she does. She always was an Earth fanatic, even when they were children.
Especially
when they were children. She would spend hours skimming through pictures of what it had once been, mouthing the words to old movies. Mullen would mouth them along with her: not an Earth fanatic, but a
Hannah
fanatic, only knowing the words because he'd watched her lips sound them out a thousand times over.

The sky darkens further as they drive, turning from grey to deep black, blotting out the smoke from the mines. Watery flecks begin appearing on the windows through the mesh. Muller stares at them for a full minute before he realises it’s raining.

The flecks come faster and faster, until the noise that had at first been soft and almost soothing on the roof of the truck turns to hammering. As if the raindrops are slamming down, trying to get in.

When he turns his attention back to the window, he can no longer distinguish between the drops; they have turned to an endless, shimmering sheet of water sliding down the glass.

The littlest Kozlow begins to cry. The older Europan brother says, “Um, is this normal?”

Mullen already had him marked down in the shuttle as Boy Most Likely To Ask Stupid Questions, and this cements his opinion.

It’s John Arnou who answers, and he has to shout to make himself heard over the noise of the rain. “It's just a storm. Should wear itself out by tomorrow.”

It's the first time Mullen has heard the Earthling speak. His voice is unexpectedly deep with an Earthian accent so thick it sounds like a parody. If it weren't for Hannah's obsession with the place, Mullen wouldn't have been able to understand it at all.

The boy exchanges a confused look with his brother. The younger Europan shrugs, rolls his eyes again. Mullen can't remember the younger brother's name either. He has him privately marked down in his head as Mr Enthusiastic. The elder leans forward in his seat. “What?”

Fisher repeats Arnou's words.

“Oh. OK.”

And then the sky breaks in half. At least, that is Mullen's first thought. Either that, or something explodes. The only sound he has ever heard that comes close was when he'd witnessed a controlled blast at one of the mines on Deimos. His eyes flicker to where Hannah pointed out the mine. There's nothing visible in the dark sky. Not even the smoke. A flash of white light illuminates the truck. It's nothing more than lightning.


Jesus
,” he mutters.

Hannah squeezes his hand. “I know,” she whispers, breath warm on his ear. “It's something, isn't it? Can you smell it?”

He can. It's like nothing he has ever experienced. Somehow, despite the stink and the dirt, the Earth's scent has turned fresh and clean, and almost
cold
. And for all his misgivings and determination to just get through this, he has to admit, if only to himself, that he kind of likes it.

The truck slows, finally stops, then turns and reverses a couple of metres.

Fisher undoes his seat belt, then twists to face the group. “OK, people, we're here.”

Mullen peers out of the window, but the rain is coming down too hard. He can just about make out some sort of one-storey building through the downpour, but that's about it. Whatever it is, it has to be an improvement on the truck.

The boards go down again, onto the mud. They wait in the truck while Arnou sets everything out and unlocks the doors, ready for them to run into the building across the way.

He hadn’t expected the rain to be like this. He'd thought it would be something like a cold shower, but the droplets are too warm, too big, and too rapid. Ten seconds of it, and his face is soaked by the time he makes it through the door. Water streams down his jacket and down the back of his collar.

Inside, it couldn't be more basic: stripped concrete floor, and roof made of some kind of metal so that the rain beating down on it makes it sound as if the world is ending.

Two fold-out tables fill the opposite wall, a vertical line of stackable chairs behind them. Otherwise, the room is bare, with the exception of two doors: one to the left, one to the right. A single bare bulb flickers overhead, so dim that more light comes through the pair of barred windows beyond it. OK, he'd expected basic, but this is ridiculous. And the noise!

Behind him, someone says, “Where the fuck
is
it?” and the words are so irritable and panicky that it takes Mullen a second to realise that the voice belongs to the relentlessly cheerful Fisher.

“Under the table,” Arnou says. Mullen mouths the words to himself, parroting the Earthling's ridiculous accent without thinking. Hannah pokes him in the ribs and shakes her head. When he looks at her, he sees for once she's genuinely irritated.

“No, no. There's nothing there,” Fisher says.

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