ExcerptTHE HOPE CHEST (anthology)
Tomorrow's Promise novella
Publisher: Signature Select Collectgion
Pub. Date: March 2005
Mars was calling to Dr. Sara Tolliver in more ways than one. Feeling like a college student on her first day on campus, she anticipated her trip to Mars where she could put her degree in Martian archeology into practice. With lots of hard work and a little luck she could expand upon the discoveries Dr. Dixon had already made on the planet's North Pole. She looked forward to reuniting with her former mentor, a man married to his archeology. However, she didn't intend to end up a salty old soul like Dixon, who might study the mating rituals of other peoples, but never experienced any sex first hand. And since Mars was no longer considered a raw frontier, she planned to enjoy a social life along with her work, preferably with a man who didn't necessarily ask more from her than great sex.
Studying relics was one of her passions, but she liked the old-fashioned physical kind of passion, too. In fact, Sara impatiently contemplated being pursuedalmost a guarantee due to the lack of available women on Mars. She liked the idea of having choices. There certainly hadn't been enough men in her life recently. Her colleagues believed she was too pickythat she couldn't compare the Alpha men of history to the civilized men of today, but they were wrong. While she hoped the men on Mars might be more to her liking, individualistic, entrepreneurial, dynamicnot the I-want-to-get-in-your-head intellectual archaeologists that she tended to meet, Sara preferred a-make-love-and-move-on kind of relationship to one that required . . . feelings. Feelings opened up too much risk of pain. And from the assortment of men around her right now, she suspected that she could find a man to satisfy her needsone who would overlook real intimacy for a good time and a willing partner.
One of only two women among twenty males in the boarding line for a rocketship, Sara appreciated the ratio in her favor, a reflection of the population of her soon-to-be-home-planet Mars. Even in her baggy jumpsuit, she was drawing the attention of several hot-looking men.
Hmm. She could become accustomed to this kind of advantage. The men who surrounded her in the boarding line, tall men, short men, husky men, kept eyeing her as though she were a prize. One shot her a charming, knock-your-spacesuit-off smile, and she nodded back, but lost sight of him as her line moved forward toward the ticket agent.
So far, Sara had no regrets about her eminent departure from Earth. The planet was overcrowded and even the oceans had few places left to discover. She craved the excitement of exploration, of seeing new sites and meeting new people, especially men who wouldn't be too demanding on her time. Sara was smart enough to comprehend that she feared intimacy due to the fact that everyone whom she'd ever loved had died. However, recognizing the source of her problem and eliminating it were two different things. While she couldn't change the way she felt, that didn't mean she had to be alone. She simply had to find a man who had a full life that kept him occupied when he wasn't sharing lusty companionship with her. Although many women had ventured into space, the majority of the first Mars explorers had been male, and females remained a rarity among the planet's population.
Filled with hope, eager to get to work, more than ready to leave her old life behind, Sara looked forward to her departure and her new life, which made the slowly moving line seem to creep.
Finally at the front of the line, Sara stepped forward, holding an heirloom that had been in her family for generations, a box that contained all her Earthly possessions. With care she set the painted box on the scale, pleased when it weighed out at twenty-eight pounds, the maximum allowance for the Earth-to-Mars trip without paying a penalty.
Sara couldn't afford a penalty. She'd spent all her credit on the box's precious contents. Inside were computer chips that held her life's work, research and reference material, book and music chips, pen and paper and holographic scenery from Earth. She might not be able to take her favorite Daytona Beach to Mars, but she'd carefully packed a vial of ocean water to help her remember the scent, a pinch of sand for the computer to replicate and thousands of books, romance, science fiction and fantasy, to keep her company in the Martian Outback. Among her luxury items were precious seeds to grow a variety of tropical flowers and plants as well as her ancestor's journal from the 1800s, several magazines that had sentimental value, her mother's dried wedding bouquet and her father's chronometer.
Sara pressed her finger onto the access plate and the travel agent read her essentials. "Dr. Sara Tolliver. Martian archeologist. Age thirty-two. Single. No living relatives. No life insurance. Your will is in order. Residence on Mars?"
"That area isn't open for colonization."
And despite her wish for a passion partner, Sara hoped the area would remain uninhabited for decades. Professor Dixon had told her the ancient ruins were extensive, and Sara's excitement rose every time she considered the alien art, exotic buildings and curious relics waiting to be uncovered, catalogued and studied. Sara had explored ancient pyramids in Egypt, the legendary Anasazi cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and the mystery of Tiahuanaco, but Earth's greatest sites of antiquity couldn't compare to those built a millennium ago by an unknown race of beings that might not even be humanoid.
Out of habit, she kept her excitement from her tone. "Station 32 is a designated research area. I'm an archeologist."
Sara had been lucky to be assigned the post. Most Martian archaeologists had to study the ancient ruins from Earth by examining holographic visuals, so her opportunity to examine them firsthand was rare, preciousworth a one-way ticket from Earththanks to Professor Dixon's invitation to join him. There was nothing like working on a dig, uncovering the remains of ancient civilizations with one's own two hands, and after Dixon had sent her the mysterious visuals of his latest find, Sara longed to walk the site with one-third Earth's gravity, breathe the otherworldly air, and view the relics without even the Plexiglas of a spacesuit to mar the view.
Since scientists had terraformed Mars and released oxygen from the water hidden in the planet's core, the atmosphere was thinbut fit to breathe. Exploration at even the poles of the planet was now possible. So far only the one site had been discovered but the concept that man was not the only intelligent race was still difficult for many people on Earth to accept. But not to Sara. With billions of stars in the galaxy, it seemed likely that other intelligent life had formed. That they'd visited their solar system and left behind artifacts that she could study left her breathless and filled with adrenalin and ready to be on her way.
"Proceed to the medical station." The agent passed her through to the next line.
Mars had attracted Earth's first interplanetary astronauts, who had reached the solar system's fourth planet from the sun in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Thanks in part to one of her forebearers, Ryan Kinsey, a NASA scientist who'd discovered a fuel formula that shaved years off interplanetary travel, engineers, agricultural and terraforming specialists could make the journey in a few weeks. Sara clutched her box tighter, pleased that Ryan had inscribed part of his precious formula inside the lid and that she would take it with her to Mars. The journey had become safe, if not routine. With new drugs to place the body in cold sleep, the weeks would pass like minutes, her body resting in deep hibernation for the trip's duration.
The medical line moved forward. Her chart must have come up automatically because the medic held up a hypomist. "Ready for your vaccination?"
The medic swabbed her arm with alcohol. "You're aware that this injection may cause a fever?"
"That this hypomist will prevent pregnancy?"
"That you will be fuzzy-headed when you awaken?"
"Yes." Sara had been warned of the potent side effects, but apparently the technician's job required him to inform her again.
"For several days after you arrive, your inhibitions will be very low."
"I understand." And the men on Mars were known to take advantage. After the first women arrived, rumors of orgies had reached all the way to Earth. While she very much wanted to find a passion partner, she was particular. That's why she'd arranged for her pod to drop at the North Pole at a remote location where Professor Dixon would seal her into a chamber until Sara had fully recovered from the shot's effects.
The medic injected her arm and opened a sleeping pod. A good thing she wasn't claustrophobic. The pod was the size of a casket. She set the box in the baggage niche and yawned as she lay down, sanguine in the knowledge that the doctors would monitor her vitals during the journey. The drug flooded her system. Her eyelids grew heavy. She closed her eyes, confident that when she awakened, she'd be safely ensconced in a private chamber at the dig site of Mars. Meanwhile, she'd dream . . . erotic dreams.
Three hundred years later
KENDAR STRODE THROUGH Station 32, imagining what the first people from Earth, whom offworlders now called Terrans, to find the site must have thought when they'd discovered the ancient alien ruins. The exotic machinery fashioned out of elements unknown on Earth must have puzzled the archaeologists and scientists alike, especially the woman, Dr. Sara Tolliver, who, according to his extensive historic research, had heroically spent every waking moment trying to understand the alien machines. No one knew who'd turned them on. Maybe Dr. Tolliver herself had accidentally triggered the machinery that caused Mars to blink in and out of time, disturbing the time continuum and causing the deaths of all women on Mars. Those who tried to flee died in space. Those who stayed died, too. Doomed by the lack of a Y chromosome, their DNA strangled by an unknown alien force that had been unleashed, women still avoided Mars, an automatic death sentence.
According to Kendar's research, three hundred years ago, Sara had worked on this very site, frantically struggling to shut down the machines. Outside Station 32 was a statue erected in memory of her courage.
As a womanologist, Kendar spent his time studying women from rare books, holovisions and transmissions from Earth. Although he had close male friends, he always felt something was missing from his life, hence his fascination with women. And one woman in particular intrigued him most, Dr. Tolliver, or Sara, as he fondly thought of her. She had become more like an imaginary friend than a historical figure. According to the records, she'd been beautiful, bright, young and enthusiastic and had come closer than anyone else to reading the alien language before death had prematurely ended her work. Unfortunately, most of her research had died with her. In retrospect, her feverish dedication, although admirable, seemed foolish. In the three centuries since her death, no one had solved the ancient mystery or understood the principles behind the ancient machines abandoned by a race that only partially resembled humans.
The secrets apparently had died with the aliens who'd built the time machine. But unfortunately, no one had learned to turn off the machine or counter its ill effects on women. To Kendar's deep regret, due to the accident on Station 32 when the time machine was activated over three hundred years ago, he'd never met a woman.
However, men had remained behind to colonize the planet and mine the precious vidium needed by humanity for their computer chips. Forced to adapt, Martian men imported ova from Earth and raised babies, all males in creches. The vidium was sent back to Earth on unmanned podsno human personnel or cargo allowed. And no woman from Earth ventured near his world.
Kendar yearned to meet a womanhowever, the trip from Mars to Earth was not merely forbidden, but the route ferociously guarded. Any Martian ship attempting to enter Earth's atmosphere with human life aboard was summarily shot downno questions asked. Terrans feared contamination and ruthlessly protected their women. Kendar didn't blame them. If he'd had a woman to love, he'd protect her, too.
Especially if she was as smart and determined as Sara had been. The records from that era had survived to reveal that Sara Tolliver had been a woman of uncommon resourcefulness, who had fought her fate to the last with a bravery and determination that inspired songs and legends. Cities and streets and spaceships were named in her honor. Yet, in the end, she'd failed, and the entire planet wept.
Ducking into an underground passageway, Kendar tried to imagine Sara's feelings, her thoughts and her mental processes as she'd walked this very corridor. According to his research, women were supposed to be more sensitive and intuitive than their male counterparts. He wondered if she'd sensed that she would fail, if she'd wished she'd stayed on Earth. Had her last weeks of discovery been worth losing her life?
Had she spent that time alone? Or had she had friends or a lover to comfort her? Personal details of her life remained sketchy. Only one holopic of her remained, and to the amusement of his creche brothers, Kendar had spent hours studying the strong face, the curious eyes, the full mouth.
Kendar supposed that upon her arrival, she must have been excited and fascinated, eager to explore and uncover the greatest relic in the solar system. In her boots, he would have been. And yet, women didn't react like men. Study upon study had concluded that men and women processed data and experiences differently. Terrans of the twentieth century had attributed those differences to genetics and hormones, but scientists in the twenty-eighth century had discovered that Mars blinked in and out of time, altering the time line by causing electromagnetic distortions that killed those without a Y chromosome but left men unharmed.
Kendar often wished that Sara Tolliver had passed on her genes before she'd died. Bold, beautiful and brave, she'd faced death as she'd embraced lifewith curiosity and little regret. Kendar supposed that he'd built her up in his mind so much that no living woman could compare to his Sara, but since his likelihood of ever meeting a woman was highly improbable, he allowed himself dreams of Sara, the fantasy of Sara, carrying her image close to his heart.
One moment, Kendar was standing, peering at the alien time machine and thinking of Sara, and the next, he stood in the exact same spot, only the time machine was covered with Martian dirt.
So what in Stars had happened? Mars didn't have quakes.
He frowned and surveyed the chamber more closely. At this time of day, the lights should have been bright, not dim. Moments ago this section had been huge, not the size of his living quarters. And where were the guards and the force fields to shield the alien machinery's delicate mechanisms from tampering? Alarmed, Kendar turned around, wondering if he'd wandered into a restricted area.
No, he hadn't taken a wrong turn. He recognized the chamber, the alien pictographs on the exposed machinery remained exactly as he recalledyet the chamber was smaller, darker, different. Instead of clean air, he inhaled a whiff of disinfectant and stale dust, a closed-in, old smell as if the air rebreathers were clogged. He gawked at the alien machine encased in sand, instead of fully excavated as it had been since Sara's time. Had there been a cave in? But where were the monitors and security cameras? And who was the boy sleeping on the alien platform, his face to the wall?
Kendar approached the boy in hope of getting an explanation. But as he neared, the hair on the back of his neck prickled. Either someone had laced his breakfast with Martian dust or the exceptionally pretty and smooth-skinned creature with curves that tented the sheet wasn't a he . . . but a she . . .
Surely, this couldn't be a woman? He had to be hallucinating because her face resembled Sara's statue, just outside the main airlock.