“I have lived a long life,” my master used to say. “Soon it will be my turn to die. And not long after, the world’s turn.” And then he would order another drink.
When my master took me in, I might as well have been an orphan. He bought me from my mother for a handful of ceramic chits laced with the radium of Illium. They were worth a dozen rations of water, but he might as well have handed her his flask of liquor directly. I know he was carrying one.
Why my master did that, I don’t know. He told me, at various times, that my father had been his brother-in-law, or that they had served together in the war. There were other stories, too. Any or all of them could have been true. I often suspect that he took me on because he pitied me.
Whatever the case, he raised me from the age of 13 as his own child.
He died three years ago.
The master was a man of wild stories. He had been across our Red World a dozen times or more. He told me of hard-fought battles, of daring deeds, of the love of princes and princesses. He talked most often when we were practicing with swords. I think he talked to teach me how to fight while distracted. He told me his stories, and he told me that one day I would have as many of my own.
From the time he adopted me until his death, he made his way as a fencing instructor and a hired bravo. He made little money this way, but always enough to keep him in his cups and to keep me well looked-after.
This book is our world as he saw it, the world he lived and died in. I am giving you his words, as honestly as I can, and with care taken not to reveal certain indelicate secrets. I am giving you the words of a dying man on a dying world. I am giving you Mars.
The Desert Towns
I spent the first 13 years of my life in the desert. It is, as anyone will tell you, a hard life, harder even than in the cities. We were fortunate… we had an old well, an artifact of the First Martians that plunged deep into the permafrost and sucked out the water.
The desert brigands merely collected dues from our village; we were spared the seasonal ravaging that came to so many others. My master told me about the brigands. He told me that no man joins them by choice, that they are bands of outcasts driven farther away from society than any others, save perhaps the lost inhabitants of the dusk cities.
He never said whether he fought with or against them.
Without walls or buildings, the desert towns are also subject to the full fury of the elements, including the dust storms. When those great red clouds come rolling out of the desert, they bring scouring debris. Worse, though, is the dust itself, fine as smoke. It will seem to suck the moisture from your tissue, and you must try desperately to hold your breath, lest you be taken by a ghost. Storms give voice and motive power to the dead, who can otherwise travel only on the wind.
Still, there are reasons to stay. Overland trade can support many a community, as can the rare operating mine. Some take the difficult path of raising meat animals, and bring in a measure of prosperity in selling them to the larger settlements. Some few are even located on oases, where vegetables can be grown and water is not quite so scarce.
Desert towns aren’t precisely hospitable, but they can be good places to go to ground. I can vouch for this from experience. More than once, my master and I were been hunted across the desert by those would have our water. Some towns will hire wanderers as protectors, to ward off desert raiders, or even to enforce the law.
A few of our ill-omened expeditions into the lost places began in towns like the one I grew up in. Despite the danger ahead, I was never tempted to stay behind.
And here begins a series exploring a red world of strange adventure. Stay tuned.