The Emperor of Mars: Chapter 1
Chapter 1: The Trouble With Vine-Mining
I was twenty feet underground, surrounded by glowing blue sandfish crystals, with my head jammed in a beetle-vine warren, when I realized that vine-mining wasn’t for me.
I had seen the notice pinned up outside the local office of the Imperial Martian Airship Company:
ROOT OUT BEETLE-VINES!
SAVE LUNAE CITY!
SIGN UP TODAY!
BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!
Perfect, I’d thought. What a great idea.
I had never been so wrong.
You might have thought that living in the middle of Mars’s biggest desert would mean that you never got wet. You would have been wrong. Once a year, it rained for a solid month in the wilderness hundreds of miles upstream. The Martian Nile rose, and the river valley turned into a gigantic lake. The Inundation, they called it, and it was very, very wet indeed.
That would be all right if you didn’t mind a bit of water. Or it would have been, if not for the beetle-vines. All year they had been burrowing away under Lunae City, sending out satellite clusters through their tunnels. When the Inundation arrived and water rushed into the tunnels, the beetle-vine clusters would erupt like fireworks made of multicolored toffee. The whole city would end up covered in bright, sticky string.
It was a crisis, but I was ready.
We’d been in Lunae City for eight months, and the truth was, I was bored. So when I’d seen the advertisement for vine-miners, I’d thought this was it: something fun to do at last.
I managed to believe that for almost half an hour. Then I found myself wedged upside down, dangling over a particularly ripe beetle-vine cluster, while sweat dripped onto the disgusting-smelling thing.
Water was what made the beetle-vine cluster think the Inundation had arrived, and here I was, dripping on it like a leaking pipe. I wondered what would happen if it exploded right in my face.
Beetle-vines were semidormant at night, so the mining took place after dark. I’d had to wait until my entire family had gone to bed before I could sneak out. Now I was wishing I’d stayed in bed.
“What the devil are you doing?” a voice snapped out.
I twisted around and saw that a tall, thin man in a long, black coat had emerged from a side tunnel and was peering up at me through thick lenses. My shoulders were still jammed tight, so I indicated the beetle-vine cluster with my head.
“Trying to clear that out.”
The man adjusted his lenses with a small lever set into the side of his glasses and squinted up at me again.
“And this is the way you propose to do it?” he demanded. “If you damage it, you’ll drive it further underground, and then who will go after it, boy? You?”
“This wasn’t exactly my plan,” I muttered.
“Amateurs,” the man said under his breath. He reached into one of his many bulging pockets and pulled out a small clockwork saw. “Don’t move.”
“Um, about that …” I said.
The man knelt beside the beetle-vine cluster and began cutting one of the tendrils that joined the satellite cluster to the other parts of the vine.
When I’d received my instructions, I’d been told that I would need to slice through every tendril before I touched the beetle-vine cluster itself.
Something crunched where my shoulder pressed into the tunnel wall. Sand and fragments of sandfish crystal powdered down over my face.
“You might want to hurry,” I said.
The man ignored me.
The sand shifted and I felt myself slide an inch down. I still couldn’t move my arms. I scrabbled about with my fingers, but there was nothing to grab hold of.
“Seriously,” I said.
“Please stop talking,” the man said waspishly, without looking up. “I’ve a good mind to leave you hanging up there all night.”
More sand trickled past my ear.
“Somehow I don’t see that happening,” I said.
The man straightened then moved around to the second tendril. In the pale blue glow of the sandfish crystals, I could see eight or nine tendrils snaking away into little tunnels.
I tried to slow my breathing so as not to dislodge any more sand. My left arm was itching like mad, and I was starting to feel dizzy from the blood going to my head.
Something gave way, and I dropped almost a foot before my arms jammed again.
“Keep still!” the man barked.
I bit back a reply. A knot of sandfish crystals pressed hard against my lips. If I spoke, they’d end up in my mouth.
The man stopped cutting to wind his clockwork saw. I wanted to scream.
“Use a knife!” I hissed through tight lips.
The man didn’t bother to answer.
Sand slid against my arms. I pushed them outward to hold myself in place. Hard crystals pressed into my shoulders.
“Oh, God,” I mumbled.
The sand crumbled. The sides of the tunnel gave way. With a yell, I dropped like a plunging crash-eagle.
I barely had time to get my arms in front of my face before I hit the beetle-vine cluster with a splat!
Sticky, stinking fluid sprayed across me. The smell was like rotting meat. I gagged and spat and clawed the stuff from my eyes.
“You imbecile!” the man screeched. “You useless, careless, dangerous imbecile!”
I pushed myself up just in time to see the vine tendrils whipping away into the tunnels, carrying fragments of the beetle-vine cluster with them. Within hours, each of them would have grown into a new beetle-vine cluster deep beneath the city.
“Get out!” he screamed, waving the clockwork saw at me with a shaking hand. “Get out, and never, ever come back!”
Aching, covered in reeking, gluey beetle-vine goo, I limped out of the tunnels and into the evening streets.
Vine-mining had turned out to be as big a disaster as everything else I’d tried here.
Eight months ago, I’d been caught up in the villainous Sir Titus Dane’s scheme to rob a dragon tomb. It had taken an airship full of clockwork crabs, being lost in the Martian wilderness, and a terrifying fight against Sir Titus’s minions in the middle of the desert for me to understand something important: most of the time, when they weren’t being kidnapped or attacked by deadly hunting machines, my family could look after
themselves. It didn’t matter how terrible the disasters or how awful the scandals they got into, they could usually find a way out.
Which meant I didn’t have to spend my entire life keeping them out of trouble.
On the other hand, I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself anymore. I was like a swarm of Martian slug flies, bouncing off walls and going nowhere.
Out here, surrounded by the tombs of the old Martian emperors and thousands of years of Martian history, it should have been like an adventure out of my favorite magazine, Thrilling Martian Tales. I should have been fighting off smugglers and tyrants, and uncovering amazing relics, just like Captain W. A. Masters, British-Martian spy, did in every issue. Instead, I’d been reduced to burrowing after beetle-vines in the middle of the night.
I was seriously thinking about canceling my subscription to Thrilling Martian Tales.
The desert chill had seeped into the city, leaving a thin layer of dew on the dusty streets. Years were twice as long on Mars as they were on Earth, and we were now well into the six-month Martian autumn. While the days were still baking hot, the nights often got cold. My clothes were soaked in beetle-vine sap and I was starting to shiver.
“Blasted beetle-vines,” I muttered to myself. “Stupid city.” Papa might be happy here with all his ancient artifacts to play with, but I’d had enough. More than enough.
I could just make out the sound of the Martian Nile lapping at the docks several streets away as I trudged through the city. Moored boats creaked on the water, and the faint, eerie songs of the native Martian sailors drifted through the night air. Maybe I should just get on one of those boats and go sailing away. I bet sailors never got bored.
The moons were high in the sky, wreathed in a faint mist, but still bright enough to light the cobbled street. I’d been told that Earth’s moon was much larger and brighter than either of Mars’s moons. That must be weird. I wondered if I’d ever get to see it.
I was still aching from falling into that beetle-vine cluster, and sandfish crystals had gotten into my socks and pantaloons. I glared at the moons, wondering exactly what they had to be so cheerful about.
And that was when I saw the fourth-floor window of Lady Harleston’s enormous town house shoot up and a figure dressed all in black emerge, carrying a sack over one shoulder.
I didn’t often go wandering about in Lunae City at night, but even I knew that this wasn’t usual.
A rope uncoiled and snaked down the wall to end five yards short of the ground. Then the figure swung over the ledge and scrambled down.
I had lived long enough with my little sister, Putty, to see a disaster when it was coming straight at me, and I’d learned not to hesitate.
I launched myself forward just as the figure reached the end of the rope and lost their grip. Feet crashed into my outstretched arms, the sack hit my head, and we both collapsed to the hard road with an explosion of breath. The stranger leaped up and I stumbled after, still half tangled with their arms and legs.
“Are you… ?” I started, but I didn’t have time to finish.
The figure whipped away the scarf that had been tied around their face and let long, brown hair fall free. I found myself looking up into a girl’s dark eyes.
“Oh,” I said, letting go quickly and stepping back. At a guess, she was about a year older than me, but she was much taller, and I could see she was part native Martian.
She looked completely furious.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
“What do I think I’m doing?” I spluttered. “What do you think you’re doing?”
She looked at me like I was an idiot. “I’m escaping. What does it look like?”
I glanced over her shoulder at Lady Harleston’s house.
“Who are you escaping from?”
The girl gave me a pitying look. “From whoever owns this house. Obviously.”
This conversation was getting away from me. My mouth opened and closed like a hungry fish. “Were you robbing it?”
“Let’s think,” she said. “You caught me climbing out of a house on the end of a rope in the middle of the night with a bag over my shoulder. What did you think I was doing? Cleaning the windows?”
“That’s wrong,” I said, realizing how stupid I sounded. I didn’t normally get this flustered, even when arguing with Putty. But Putty didn’t make me feel sweaty and fidgety, like I was wearing a shirt made from squeezethorn fibers. I wondered if falling into the beetle-vine cluster had made me sick.
“So what are you going to do?” she said. “Report me to the militia?”
I kept catching myself staring at her, then having to look away quickly.
“You’d be arrested,” I said.
She glanced around. “Look, where are you going anyway?”
I pointed up the road with a shaky hand. “Um. To the Flame House,” I said, giving the name the locals used for our new home.
“Well, I’m going the opposite direction. You can make yourself useful and help me with the bag if you like. I can’t wait here all night.”
I gawped like a confused marsh bat. “I’m not going to help you carry stolen goods.”
“Fine, then.” She hoisted the heavy bag onto her shoulder. “If I’m caught and hanged it’ll be your fault.”
I spluttered. “My fault? I saved you! You’d have broken a leg if I hadn’t caught you.”
“Don’t be absurd. I’ve done that a thousand times.” She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “You smell really bad. Now, good-bye!”
“It’s the beetle-vine,” I mumbled, but she’d already turned on her heel and jogged away down a nearby alley, into the concealing darkness.
I stared after her. I wanted to say, Don’t go, but I knew how ridiculous I would sound.
Almost as ridiculous as I looked standing here, mouth hanging open, as though I were trying to catch glow moths.
My head hurt.
I backed away, and my foot hit something. It skidded across the cobbles, glinting metallically. I followed, then crouched to pick it up, frowning.
It was some kind of mechanical device—but old, like something that had been pulled out of a dragon tomb. It was cylindrical, the size of my fist, and cleverly made. I peered at it. Through a dozen small holes in the side, I saw fine brass cogs and levers, and the hint of a coiled spring deep inside.
I had no idea what it was. The thief must have stolen it from Lady Harleston’s house and dropped it when we got all tangled up. The thought made me feel uncomfortably hot in my jacket again, despite the cold air.
Perhaps she would come back for it.
I dithered, peering into the alley, the device clutched in my hands.
And a hand closed tight on my shoulder. “Got you!” a voice exclaimed.
I nearly jumped out of my skin.
My little sister, Putty, was standing right behind me, grinning. “You shriek like a girl, Edward.” She was wearing the loose, native Martian robe that had been driving Mama crazy all week. Putty changed her obsessions even more often than my oldest sister, Jane, changed suitors, but this particular obsession had been one of her more frequent ones since we’d traveled on a native Martian boat across the desert.
“What are you doing here?” I hissed.
She waved a hand casually in the air. “Oh, I was just delivering a forged letter for Jane.”
“You were just … Never mind.” Putty had come up with some unlikely stories in her time, but the idea that Jane would send her out in the middle of the night to deliver a forged letter was beyond absurd.
“Actually, she wanted you to deliver it, but you were too busy playing at vine-mining, so she sent me instead.”
I frowned. “How did you know I was going vine-mining?”
“You talk in your sleep. That’s how I know all your secrets.”
“Are you telling me you’ve been standing in my bedroom listening to me sleep?” That was … disturbing.
Putty looked offended. “That would be silly. I simply fitted a speaking tube between our rooms when we first moved in. I attached it to a silent alarm so it would wake me whenever you said anything or went sneaking about. It’s very clever.”
“You bugged me?” I demanded, trying desperately to remember everything I’d said and done in my bedroom since we’d moved in.
“Of course. I’m surprised you didn’t notice. You’re the one who wants to be a spy. You’ll have to notice that kind of thing, you know. Cousin Freddie would have found it in minutes.”
I ground my teeth.
“Anyway,” Putty said, “it was for your own good. If you’d been captured by villains again, I’d have been able to rescue you. Again. Who was that you were talking to?”
I blinked at the sudden change of direction. Putty’s brain was like a rubber ball shot from a steam cannon: I could never tell where it was going to bounce next.
“A thief,” I said, as calmly as I could, even though just mentioning her made me feel strange. “She was stealing from Lady Harleston’s house.”
Putty’s jaw dropped. “I can’t believe you arranged a rendezvous with a thief and you didn’t invite me.”
My face turned as hot as a steam boiler. “It wasn’t a rendezvous. She was trying to escape.”
Not that I’d been trying to stop her. Maybe just delay her a bit.
Putty’s eyes bugged. “We should catch her! Maybe Lady Harleston will give us a reward! Maybe she’ll let us use her library.”
As usual in conversations with Putty, I lagged several steps behind. “Why on Mars would we want to use her library?”
Putty put her hands on her hips. “She’s a collector. She’s got the biggest collection of Ancient Martian documents in the city. Imagine if she let us read them!”
I shuddered. The Ancient Martian language used impenetrable symbols called ideograms instead of proper writing. I’d never managed to get the hang of them. A whole library of them sounded like a nightmare.
“What’s that?” Putty jabbed a finger at the device in my hand.
I shrugged. “No idea. The thief dropped it.”
“Good.” Putty smiled. “We’ll give it back to Lady Harleston. I’m sure she won’t mind being woken in the middle of the night if we’re returning her artifact. She’ll definitely let us use her library.”
I looked down at the strange device in my hands and realized I didn’t want to give it back. This was the most exciting thing that had happened to me in eight months. It was an adventure. If I gave the device back, it would be over before it began. I didn’t even know what it was. Anyway, maybe it didn’t belong to Lady Harleston.
“I’m not giving it back to her,” I said, making a decision. “I’m giving it back to the thief.” I wondered what she would think when I did. I realized I was grinning and straightened my face.
Putty stared at me. “You want to give it to the thief? After she stole it?”
“We don’t know she stole it,” I said. “All we know is she dropped it. It might have been hers.”
“Really? What would she be doing with something like this?”
I peered at it again. “Using it to break in?” I hazarded.
“Well, we should definitely give it back to her, then,” Putty said sarcastically. “In case there are some more houses to burgle. Maybe you two can run away together and live a life of crime.”
I glared at my little sister.
“You know—” I started.
But I didn’t get a chance to finish.
Above us, a window shot up, and Lady Harleston’s head appeared, her long, graying hair loose and tangled over her nightdress. She stared down at us, and we gaped back up at her.
“Thieves!” she shouted. “Thieves!”
Hellfire! Hellfire and damnation!
I put down my head, and we ran.