Martian Honey
Pierre Comtois

"Anyone ever tell you, you've got beautiful eyes?"

"Is that the line you hand out to all the girls?"

"No, just the ones with beautiful eyes. Like you for instance."

It was true enough that he'd used the line many times as a conversation starter. . . even if no girl ever believed it outright, they wanted to . . . but in this case, he could have just as easily complimented the attractive secretary on her long red hair, her creamy skin, her button nose, or her shapely legs. Well, it was true he hadn't caught a glimpse of her legs yet from where they were tucked under the chromalite desk but judging from the rest of her, he was sure he wouldn't be disappointed.

"What did you say your name was?" she asked, tossing the question over her bare shoulder from where she was doing some digi-filing.

"Bannon," he said from where he was perched on the edge of the desk. "Alec Bannon. Like it?"

He saw those creamy shoulders shrug, sending ripples of light shimmering through her hair.

"I like yours," he said, leaning over to get a better view of her name from where it hovered in an air-light projection. "Dorcas is it?"

She turned suddenly but it was too late to change the expression of consternation on his face.

"What's the matter, changed your mind?"

Alec decided to take a chance on honesty being the best, and least expected, policy.

"Well, it is . . . different. Old Testament isn't it?"

Dorcas smiled relieving Alec no end.

"That's right! You know the Bible?"

Religion wasn't something most people talked about in public. It made unbelievers uncomfortable. Besides, it could get you thrown in jail on intolerance charges. In this case, however, Alec sensed that he could make points if he pushed the subject just a little.

"I'm as familiar with it as any Judeo-Christian."

He could see that the girl had finally relaxed and that her green eyes really were beautiful.

"That's actually pretty refreshing to hear," said Dorcas, smiling and lighting up the room at the same time. And that was saying some since the walls of the room were mostly glassomite that let in plenty of noonday Martian sunlight.

"Well, I . . ."

"Wait."

The girl put a finger to a button in her ear and assumed an attitude of listening.

"Yes, sir, Mr. Brisbee. I'll send him in."

Dorcas smiled again and again lit up the room. "Play time’s over. Mr. Brisbee will see you now."

"But the question is, will the two of us see each other again?" asked Alec, vacating his spot on the desk.

"Will you have more business with Mr. Brisbee?"

"Maybe . . . ."

"There you go," she said, turning back to the files.

Alec decided to take that as a yes, but not in a professional sense, and walked into Brisbee's office with a much lighter step than he had when he first entered the reception area twenty minutes before.

Brisbee greeted him with a handshake before waving him to an adapto-chair.

Alec cocked an eyebrow at that.

It wasn't the kind of Earth normal furniture one found in every Martian suite, let alone a small bio-research company like Brisbee Enviro Solutions. Taking his seat, Alec made a mental note to up his asking fee . . . if he chose to take the job that is.

"Time is money as they used to say, Mr. Bannon," began Brisbee taking his place behind a desk that was more glass topped table than work surface. Alec guessed that if Brisbee did any of his own enviro solutionizing, it wasn't done here.

"I agree," replied Alec, settling down in the adapto-chair as it conformed to his body structure. "So let's get down to business."

"To the point. I like that," said Brisbee. "Mr. Bannon, you come to me highly recommended as a man who knows his way around Mars."

"I've been here for about fifteen years," said Alec. "Arrived as a colonial Marine. After mustering out, I kicked around the back country for a while, did some prospecting, made some contacts among the natives. After that, picked up some work in the corporate sector as a guide and troubleshooter . . . "

"I spoke with Sergius Dennehy . . . "

"Director of Mars Metallics, right."

" . . . who told me you had a remarkable record of problem solving in the field."

"I earned my pay."

"Well, I have an interesting problem that I hope you can help me with. I'm prepared to pay you well for the service."

"Money talks," said Alec. "That's another thing they used to say."

Brisbee cleared his throat and continued. "Mr. Bannon, have you ever heard of floridi triniscus?"

"Come again?"

"Floridi triniscus," repeated Brisbee. "It's a plant that I'm told once grew wild on Mars until the water began to disappear. It had disappeared altogether by the time the first rockets from Earth got here a hundred years ago or at least that's what was believed."

"This floridi triniscus," asked Alec. "It wouldn't also be known by another name would it? Say the Martian soul flower?"

"I've heard it called that," admitted Brisbee.

Alec chose not to pursue the point right at that moment. "Go on, Mr. Brisbee."

"Well, it was recently discovered that the plant had not completely disappeared but that it might still exist somewhere on the planet."

"Is that so?"

"Our company managed to get hold of a specimen from one of the natives and based on stories about its hallucinogenic properties . . . you have heard that the natives at one time used the plant in some of their religious ceremonies?"

Alec nodded. "They're all very hush hush about that, but one thing I do know is that if the plants still exist, the natives aren't going to tell anyone where they are, let alone Terrans. This Martian you say provided the plant must have been pretty desperate or was he an outcast?"

"I don't know anything about that," said Brisbee quickly, obviously preferring not to discuss the social status of his Martian benefactor. The likelihood was that he was an outcast, a non-person to his people, and so had nothing to lose in dealing with Terrans. Outcasts were pretty rare among the natives, something Alec had never run into personally. He'd been under the impression that the tribes didn't go in for that sort of thing anymore. He found himself wondering what the fellow could have done to warrant being ostracized from his people when he noticed that Brisbee was saying something.

" . . . passed it through the usual body of tests. Finally it was distilled into a solution and tested on human subjects. What we discovered will . . . Mr. Bannon, I must insist that this conversation remain strictly confidential even if you turn down the job."

"Of course." Alec realized early on that if he didn't behave in a professional manner, he'd quickly starve.

With little choice at this point in the conversation, Brisbee continued. "What we discovered will not only make millions for our company, but revolutionize space travel itself."

Alec perked up. Space travel? What little he knew of it from his colonial Marine days was that it was mostly boring.

"How would it revolutionize space travel?" Alec asked. "We are still talking about a flower here, aren't we?"

Brisbee nodded. "As I mentioned, the Floridi triniscus or soul flower, has been said to possess hallucinogenic properties. Well, while not strictly mind altering, it does have certain qualities of time dilation that when taken, causes the subject to believe only a few minutes have passed when in actuality, hours have gone by. The subject, you understand, does not speed up his actions, it's only his sense of time that is changed. Thus, long space voyages, especially those to the outer planets, might seem to take only days to crew members under the influence of the drug we have distilled instead of the years that would pass in actual time. Any question of isolation, boredom, short tempers, or even insanity would be moot. Why, a five or ten year journey to Uranus or Neptune would seem like a walk in the park to future astronauts." Alec sat thinking. He could see how such a drug would be useful to the government's space agency as well as corporate liners and haulers. Crew recruitment alone would be so much easier. Yeah, there was money to be made from the stuff . . . big money.

"But all of it means nothing if you can't find more specimens of the soul flower," concluded Alec finally.

"Which is where you come in," said Brisbee. "Can you find more specimens? All we would need are a few from which more of course, can be cultivated under controlled conditions."

"It's not going to be easy. As I said, the natives are pretty close mouthed about the subject," replied Alec, rubbing his chin. "But I've got some ideas. Who was this Martian who provided you with one of the plants? Where can I find him?"

Brisbee consulted a digi-file and came up with a name.

"Shantu something or other," he read.

Alec glanced at the name and nodded.

Actual Martian names often consisted of as many as ten or more syllables making them virtually impossible to remember let alone pronounce so Terrans usually shortened them to the first two or so. In this case, Shantu would do.

"That's a southwest desert name," said Alec. "Likely living in the Red Sands quarter of the colony. Got an address there too?"

"Just the place where our man met the native to pick up the specimen . . . a water bar called Bartom's."

"I know it. Okay, Mr. Brisbee, I'll take the job," said Alec, rising. "You've looked over my rates?"

"I believe Brisbee Enviro Solutions can meet them," said Brisbee.

"Then I'll be on my way. Don't call us, we'll call you when I have anything to report."

Alec skipped the parting handshake routine, eager to get back to the reception area. Dorcas was still there, her legs still hidden beneath the desk. His eyes locked on hers before she could turn away.

"You around later?" he asked, lingering by the desk.

"Well I do live in the colony if that's what you mean."

"It's not."

The girl sighed. "When?"

"I have some checking to do but if it pans out, I'll pick you up tonight at eight. Okay?"

"I thought you had work to do? Didn't you accept the assignment from Mr. Brisbee?"

"I see there's nothing wrong with your earpiece. Yeah, I got the job. But I rarely let such a thing interfere with my personal life."

"All right, Mr. Bannon. Eight o'clock. I live in the Haley Apartments. Just look my name up in the foyer."

"Will do," said Alec, sketching a salute goodbye.

Outside of the company offices, Alec used his cell-comm to look for some local dead space. It wasn't easy under the colony's dome but it could be done if you knew your way around. Finding some a few squares toward the perimeter, he switched his cell-comm to sub-space and placed a quick call to the agricom colony at Burroughs City. It was expensive but if his idea panned out, it'd be worth it.

Next, he hopped a rail skimmer and magnetized his way across town to his own place at the Colony Apartments. There, he spent the rest of the day catching up on sleep and dolling himself up for his eight o'clock date with the lovely Dorcas.

*

It was 8:05 p.m. Mars Colony One time and Alec found himself sharing a seat in a rail skimmer as it magno'd its way through the streets to the Red Sands quarter.

In his opinion, the cramped seating in a typical skimmer was too small for comfort but just then, Alec didn't think it was small enough. As it was, he couldn't get much closer to Dorcas without sitting in her lap but that wouldn't have been bad at all. As it was, every time he turned his head, his nose would be buried in her red curls and the scent of shampoo used in the Deimos-light home hair stylist was all but intoxicating.

Running his eyes over her again, he confirmed his earlier suspicions that Dorcas' legs would more than measure up to the rest of her and in the colony's dimmed night time lighting, she appeared more exotic than when he first saw her. Sure, she had that Earth girl next door adorability about her but there was something of the Martian about her too. Alec had some personal knowledge of the native girls and so felt qualified to judge. But in the case of Dorcas, the individual parts definitely added up to more than the whole.

"You're idea of a date is to take me to the native quarter?" asked Dorcas, noting the direction the skimmer was headed.

"You deserve something out of the ordinary, doll," replied Alec, casually throwing his arm around her shoulders. "Not the usual watering holes you find downtown."

"I suspect you have something more up your sleeve than just showing a girl a good time," said Dorcas, eyes narrowing.

"I cannot tell a lie," said Alec as the skimmer slowed and stopped in front of Bartom's.

The skimmer's canopy opened with a hiss and as Alec stepped out, he took Dorcas' proferred hand but kept his eyes on her legs.

"Don't they only serve water in these native water bars?" asked the girl, looking up at the brightly lit sign over the entrance.

"Right. Water doesn't exactly make Martians drunk but it definitely loosens them up. They're a desert people you know and normally, they don't come across water too often. But when they do, it's cause for celebration and that's when they let their hair down . . . if they had hair."

"So what's in it for us?" asked Dorcas not unreasonably.

Alec avoided the question by pointing out a gaggle of natives leaving the bar. A good six inches past six feet, Martians were on average taller than Terrans with much deeper chests needed for breathing the thin Martian air. Clothing was limited to colorful loin cloths and a few pieces of leather they used to hang personal belongings on.

"Ever see any natives close up?" asked Alec.

"Not really," replied Dorcas, trying not to stare. "You've spent time with them in the desert?"

Alec nodded. "I have. Once you get to know them, they're not much different than us. The same kinds of emotions and motivations."

"Do they resent us?"

Alec shrugged. "I don't think so. After thousands of years of drought, they've lost any hope that their planet will return to the way their ancestors knew it. They've become resigned to eventual extinction . . . if it comes to that. A lot of them though, see Terrans as a blessing actually; if you'll pardon the expression. We've managed to find sources of water on the planet and have impressed them with our efforts to revive agriculture on Mars."

By that time, they'd passed through the entrance into the gloomy interior of the bar where a raucous crowd of both Terrans and natives were displaying every sign of having a good time. Alec steered them to a distant wall where two seater self-servers were located. They sat and Dorcas asked the auto-server what drinks were on the menu. A voice with a native accent replied in the same language listing the different kinds of flavored water were available. Alec let Dorcas choose while he surveyed the crowd.

It didn't take long for him to find what he was looking for.

A few tables away, he spotted him, sitting alone. A ritual scar that creased his face and that marked him as an outcast was easily visible even in the red tinged atmospherics of the room.

"Dorcas," he said. "There's someone I'd like to talk to over there. Mind?"

Dorcas looked over to where Alec had inclined his head and spied the Martian sitting by himself.

"Why don't you ask him over?"

"Don't think he'd talk with anyone else around."

"Who is he?"

"If I don't miss my guess, his name's Shantu . . . "

"The native who sold the soul flower to Mr. Brisbee?"

"So my meeting with Brisbee was bugged, huh?"

Dorcas reddened briefly. "Part of my job is to transcribe Mr. Brisbee's meetings . . . "

"Whatever. But, yeah, that's him."

"Wait a minute!" said Dorcas with rising temper. "You brought me here on business?"

"Take it easy, kid," said Alec, placing a calming hand on her shoulder. "I'll be right back."

Alec left Dorcas fuming and approached Shantu's self-server.

The Martian expressed surprise when he saw the Terran heading in his direction and watched him with unblinking eyes.

"Shantu . . . " Alec said before completing the remaining eight syllables of the native's name.

"I am he," replied the Martian, impressed.

"May I sit down?" asked Alec, slipping into the empty chair. "You're an outcast?"

To Terrans, the question might have seemed indelicate, but Martians preferred direct talk.

"I am." Shantu replied.

"A female?" guessed Alec.

"No. I took water from the tribe's store."

Shantu offered no more explanation and Alec really wasn't interested.

"You sold a soul flower to a Terran company called Brisbee Enviro Solutions,"said Alec matter of factly.

"I did."

"Where did you get it? It's my understanding that there were no soul flowers left on Mars?"

Shantu performed a native equivalent of a shrug.

"Where there's one, there's usually more," persisted Alec. "I see by your bodily scrimshaw that you come from the southwest deserts. Is that where I might find a soul flower if I looked?"

Again, Shantu shrugged but not before Alec caught a look in his narrow, sheathed eyes that he'd hit close to home.

"The soul flower doesn't like direct sunlight," Alec continued. "From my visits among the tribes, I've learned that it grows best in the gloom of dried canyons where the sun doesn't reach and water hasn't run in centuries."

"There is no secret in that," said Shantu.

"But there are no deep canyons in the north the way there are further south," persisted Alec. "But there are networks of caves carved by water that once flowed from the melting ice caps . . . "

That was all the questioning Alec had time for before a shadow fell across the self-server. Looking up, he found himself staring at a pair of natives. The expression on their faces indicated that they weren't happy.

"What do you here, Terran?" one demanded. He clearly saw what Alec was doing there but tribal law prevented them from acknowledging the presence of an outcast.

"At the moment, I'm engaged in a conversation, if it's any of your business . . . is it?"

Because he could not acknowledge even the existence of an outcast, Alec had put the speaker in a difficult position. He couldn't, for instance, say the real reason why he and his companion had approached the table. Instead, he did the only thing he could: he took a poke at the defiant Terran.

But Alec saw it coming and kicking away from the server, avoided the blow. The Martian's roundhouse swing and miss had thrown him off balance, something Alec had no problem taking advantage of. In a second, the native found himself crumpled on the floor and rubbing his jaw to make sure it wasn't broken. By then, Alec had moved on to his friend whom he rabbit punched where a human's kidney would have been. The punch did little to harm the gangly Martian but it did bend him over enough so that Alec could reach his jaw easily with a left uppercut. That rocked the native back on heels but didn't fell him. By then, the first Martian was on his feet again and charging Alec. Unable to avoid him, he was plowed back onto the server, spilling Shantu's drink. With a shriek, the outcast pulled out a cloth from somewhere and began lopping up the water as it dribbled off the table.

By then, Alec wasn't paying much attention as he wrestled his way back onto his feet and drove a fistful of knuckles into his assailant's abdomen. The Martian grunted and folded like a cheap traveling bag. Alec was still steadying himself when a growl from behind caused him to whirl just in time to see the other Martian back on his feet and winding up to throw another punch.

Alec was imagining what being on the receiving end would feel like when something crashed on the Martian's head and he collapsed into unconsciousness.

Relieved, Alec looked up and was surprised to see Dorcas standing there, a heavy drinking glass in her hand.

"Glad I brought you along," said Alec, noting that Shantu had made himself scarce.

"You sure know how to show a girl a good time," replied Dorcas, tossing the shattered glass over her shoulder and blowing a stray lock out of her eyes.

"What was it with these natives?" asked Dorcas. "Friends of yours?"

"Just feeling their water. C'mon, let's get out of here."

Some currency exchange via cell-comm by way of Brisbee's expense account went a long way to calm down the water bar's establishment and Alec was able to steer Dorcas outside without further incident. A quick rail-skimmer ride took them to more familiar haunts and Alec treated Dorcas to dinner before dropping her off at her apartment. Unfortunately, the mood had been lost and there was no invitation for Alec to join Dorcas for a nightcap. There wasn't even a good night kiss before the door to her apartment hissed shut.

*

The next day, Alec woke up with the insistent tone of his room's cell-comm warning him that someone was trying to call him. The night before hadn't exactly been a hell bender so his head was clear and he had no excuse not to respond to the call.

"Hello," he said from the recesses of an overstuffed pillow. "Who is it?"

"This is Peltro Brisbee, of Brisbee Enviro Solutions," said Brisbee unnecessarily.

"Mr. Brisbee? Why are you calling me now?"

"Because I demand to know what you're doing for the considerable sum I'm paying you to find the Floridi triniscus!"

"What do you mean? You just hired me yesterday. How far did you expect me to get since then?"

"I can't say but certainly farther than doing the town with my secretary and brawling in native quarter water bars!"

"Now hold on there!" said Alec, springing upright and throwing his feet to the floor. "The hours I work are my business, not yours."

"Just the same, I demand that you concentrate on business and leave pleasure until after you've completed your assignment."

"In the first place, I'll conduct my affairs in any way a damn well please and in the second it so happens that I've made some progress on finding your precious Floridi," said Alec.

"You have?" said Brisbee, instantly forgetting his complaints. "Where . . . ?"

"Take it easy," warned Alec, getting up to stretch his muscles. Through the open balcony area, he could hear the hum of the city and the pink glow of the Martian sky outside the dome gave the room a reddish tinge. "I'm still working on it. I got a lead but it'll be a few days at least before I know anything for sure. So don't keep calling me to ask how I'm doing . . . or to complain every time I have a drink."

"I . . . "

"And since you seem to know what you're secretary does on her time off, I'll make it easy for you . . . she'll be going with me on a little trip down south . . . I need somebody to take notes for me while I'm at work. Off!"

"Breakfast is available in the dining room until noon . . . " continued the hotel's cell-comm service.

"I said off!"

No use getting any more sleep now, thought Alec, heading to the toilette facilities. He'd get dressed, reserve a private air car, and have breakfast. By then, Dorcas would have gotten warning from Brisbee that he might be calling.

Alec smiled at that. He'd miscalculated the night before. She might not even give him a second chance if he asked for it. But if he used the excuse that he needed to see her again on business, it might be enough to get her in his company again where he could work his charms on her. Away from the city and out in the countryside for an extended period, he was sure he could bring her around.

Later, after laying his plans and having had a bite to eat, Alec felt good. He dug out is cell-comm and called Brisbee's office. As expected, Dorcas was the one who answered.

"Brisbee Enviro Solutions," said her voice over the ether.

"Hey, beautiful," said Alec, trying hard to make it sound as if the events of the night before never happened. "This is Alec Bannon."

"Just a moment, Mr. Bannon, while I connect you with Mr. Brisbee," replied Dorcas icily.

"Hey, wait a minute! It's you I want to talk to."

"I don't think we have anything more to say to one another, Mr. Bannon."

"Aw, c'mon, baby! You're going to let a couple of bad mannered natives come between us? You know that wasn't my fault."

"I don't consider going somewhere on business with you a date, Mr. Bannon."

"Admit it, you had more excitement with me on that one outing than a dozen dates with any other guys."

Receiving no reply, Alec concluded that he was making some progress so he decided to plunge ahead.

"Look, Dorcas; I already cleared it with Brisbee. I'm going south to check out the lead we picked up last night and I need you to come with me."

"Why do you need me?" demanded Dorcas not unreasonably. "Need somebody to conk someone over the head again?"

Alec laughed. "Maybe. Who knows? But really, I'd like some company and you really need to get out of that stuffy office. Besides, I need someone to testify to Brisbee that he's getting his money's worth."

There was more silence.

"C'mon. How about it? I've already got an air car reserved and filled with supplies . . . "

More silence. But Alec was familiar with this routine. He knew he'd won but women liked to keep a guy wondering.

"We'll be going south to where melting ice from the pole once flowed. And let me tell you, it's beautiful down there. The flowing water has sculpted the surrounding desert into every kind of shape with winding canyons and mesas like islands in a dry sea. Have you ever seen where the old canal system begins? Built way down there by the ancient Martians to catch the last drops of water from the vanishing ice and distribute it to the parched cities of the north. It's spectacular, Dorcas; definitely one of the wonders of the solar system . . . "

"Okay, okay!" laughed Dorcas. "I'm sold! When do you want to leave?"

"Right now. I'll meet you at your apartment. You can pack some things for the trip. We'll likely be gone a few days."

*

Alec smiled as he surveyed the landscape spread out before them.

It had not taken long for Dorcas to admit that he'd not been exaggerating when he described the beauty of little explored Martian south.

After he'd advised the girl on what clothes to wear for a trip into the deep deserts, they'd left Wellsville Colony two days before. It took half a day to negotiate the rough country beyond the new farmland springing up around the colony but once clear of it, they were able to make good time and arrived in the south latitudes the day before.

Alec knew that Shantu's clan lived in the southwest deserts and likely near the head of one of the old canals where the last of the planet's water would have been located centuries before. Martians were a sedentary, traditional lot if nothing else and Shantu's tribe would not likely have moved far from its original home. There were only three canal heads at the south pole and only one of them in the southwest. So that's where Alec decided to start his search for likely places where a long presumed extinct flower would likely hole up.

At the moment, they stood on the edge of a high plateau overlooking a vast depression in the local topography. In it, veiled in dust that always hung in the air in some quantity was the head of the Great Southern Canal. It's massive stone walls, fifty feet high, ending in a mass of rusty metal and stone that once had been one of several pumping stations created by the ancient Martians to draw water from the melting ice cap and distribute it to the thirsty cities farther north. Now, all was dry and slowly being reduced to dust.

"See those openings in the cliffs there?" said Alec, pointing to shadowed crevasses in the continent sized plateau that had been exposed once the pole was left without its covering of ice. "That's where we'll find any soul flowers if there are any around."

Dorcas nodded. Her hand in his felt warm and friendly. He'd been right about this little trip. Alone together in an environment completely alien to her but familiar to him allowed Alec to be her guide and as his experience was proven, her regard for him grew such that they had soon grown to be good friends. And maybe more, thought Alec, as he squeezed her hand in his.

"Is that where we're headed?" asked Dorcas, shading her eyes against a rising wind, her voice funny due to the nose filters needed against the thin Martian atmosphere.

"Not directly," replied Alec. "We'll pay a visit to the local clan first. Likely the one that Shantu had belonged to before being declared outcast."

"Was it because of the flower he sold to Mr. Brisbee?"

Alec shrugged. "He claimed it was because he stole water. He might have lied. But if it was due to the flowers, it'll make access to them difficult for Brisbee. That's not my problem though."

Going back to the air car, they hovered slowly down from the plateau to the valley's floor and followed the course of the canal northwards. Soon, they came into sight of a Martian settlement and Dorcas remarked on how the town's crowded arrangement of stone buildings looked just as they did in vid-docs she'd seen in the 'casts.

Their arrival didn't go unnoticed and when Alec brought the air car to a halt on the municipal parking apron, a small delegation of natives was on hand to greet them.

"Kor," said Alec, stepping from the 'car. "I hope they speak something close to the dialect of the equatorial clans otherwise we'll have to resort to my cell-comm translator. A much slower process."

"They don't look threatening," said Dorcas from where she remained inside the 'car.

"Kor," replied the leading figure of the group, holding an empty hand in the air in imitation of the Terran "hello."

"Well, that's a good sign," said Alec, doing the same. "We come in friendship from Wellsville Colony."

"Be welcome in friendship, Terran," replied the Martian who was dressed in traditional style. "We have heard that your people can find water in the driest desert. Can you help us?"

"That's getting to the point fast," said Alec after translating for Dorcas.

"But we don't know how to find water," she objected. "Will they be angry when they find out we can't help them?"

"Hard to tell. Martians aren't normally hostile to Terrans, so I don't think so. But Brisbee Enviro Solutions has the know how, right?"

"Yes, but I don't know if . . . "

"He will," said Alec of Brisbee. "If he wants his flowers I'm pretty sure Brisbee will agree to just about anything we can arrange with these people."

So saying, Alec proceeded to inform the Martian that though he and girl were not equipped to help in finding water, they had the connections to do so at some future date. That was enough for them to be more warmly welcomed by the natives who beckoned them to take a closer look at their settlement.

As they were escorted along the dusty streets, Dorcas still expressed concern.

"But Alec," she said as she clutched his arm, "what about the soul flowers? What will happen when they find out that's what we're here for? Won't they be angry? After all, Shantu . . . "

"Sh!" Alec shushed. "Don't say that name! He's an outcast, remember? Besides, we don't know for sure that the flower was the reason for his being shunned. The best thing to do is to go ahead as if we never heard of him. We'll move slowly, give them a little time to get used to us. Sound them out some before raising the subject of the flowers."

They were shown the principal points of interest in the town before ending up at the chief's villa overlooking the canal. It must have been quite a sight once when there was still water flowing in it, thought Alec. As it was, it was still impressive perched as the villa was on the brow of that fifty foot drop.

They were welcomed by the chief in traditional style each being offered a small cup of water. With no sign of moisture anywhere for miles around, Alec guessed it was imported from Terran wells farther north, paid for in money earned from trade goods. He knew that many clans were still quite skilled in manufacturing and found a ready market for household items that were too expensive to be shipped all the way from Earth. Thus, most of the interior furnishings at Wellsville Colony were locally produced.

The chief motioned his guests to thickly cushioned chairs on a veranda at the rear of the villa. The chairs were made for Martian physiognomy and so a bit uncomfortable for the average Terran but politeness prevented Alec or Dorcas from mentioning it aloud.

Also Martian like, the chief got straight to the point, asking to what his clan owed the honor of so rare a visit by Terrans.

By then, Alec had had time to figure out what to say. He'd offer the Martians a trade, water for flowers. He thought it a good deal for both sides and something very likely to be accepted. But for the offer to work, he'd have to make a bluff.

"We'd like to offer the clan a trade," said Alec. "This could be done," replied the chief. "The clan has many products for trade . . . "

"There's only one item we're really interested in," broke in Alec. "We have learned that the soul flower still grows among in the deep shadows of the pole. We would like to be able to have some for our own cultivation efforts."

The chief's big eyes widened even further at this revelation and immediately protested.

"I do not know where you heard that the soul flower grows in the clan's precincts, but you have heard wrong . . . "

Alec held up a hand. "I'll be candid. We not only know the soul flower exists but we know where it can be found. You know as well as I do that such being the case, there's little the clan can do if the Terran company I represent wants to take them away. But my employers are reasonable men and are prepared to strike a bargain that will be mutually beneficial."

The Martian's eyes immediately narrowed as he calculated. "You spoke of a trade?"

Alec smiled. He'd won! "My employer is a company that has had much success in finding water on Mars, even in the most unlikely of places. If they could find water within the clan's precincts would you be willing to consider allowing them access to where the soul flower blooms?"

Alec could imagine the thoughts running through the Martian's head; of the value of the soul flower in the native's religious rituals against freeing the clan from the rapacious prices charged for water by more fortunate clans. It was no contest.

"Agreed," said the chief. "When can we expect work to begin finding the clan its own water?"

"Within a few hours," replied Alec confidently. "If you'll excuse us, my companion and I will return to our air car to make the arrangements."

The Martian rose and sketched a slight bow as Alec took Dorcas by the hand and led her from the veranda.

"What happened?" asked Dorcas as they picked up their escort again. "What did the chief say?"

"We've got a deal," replied Alec. "The old boy agreed to give Brisbee access to the flowers in return for finding him water."

"It was that easy? He just agreed to tell Mr. Brisbee where the flowers are?"

"Well, not exactly. He thinks we already know where they are."

"But we don't!" exclaimed Dorcas.

"I know that, and you know that, but the Martians don't."

"I don't understand. If they think we already know, how does that help us? What will happen when they find out we don't know?"

"If everything works out the way I plan, we'll never have to worry about that."

"Well, you'd better hope this plan of yours works, because if it doesn't, Mr. Brisbee will see that you never land another job on Mars again, that is if the Martians don't kill you first for lying to them."

"You have to have faith in me my dear," said Alec playfully.

With their escort having faded back to allow him privacy, Alec accessed his cell-comm and placed a call to Burroughs City. He confirmed that the package he'd ordered a few days before had been shipped to Wellsville and should be waiting for him at the colony's post office.

Next, he called Brisbee.

"Bannon! Where have you . . . ?"

"Never mind that, Mr. Brisbee," said Alec, cutting off Brisbee's expected tirade. "If you want your floridi triniscus, you have to pick up something for me at the post office and then get down here as soon as you can."

"Post office? I'm not a messenger . . . "

"You want your soul flower don't you?"

"You've found it?"

Alec avoided the question. "Go to the colony post office and pick up a package there listed under my name. Then get a water search crew together and get it all to the southwest polar region as quick as you can."

"A water search crew? What . . . ?"

"It's part of a deal I made with the native chief down here. Water for the flowers. Here are the coordinates. Now move!"

"Judging Brisbee's eagerness to get his hands on those flowers, I figure he'll be here lickity split, say in a few hours in one of those high altitude speeders," Alec told Dorcas. "All we have to do now is wait."

"And you don't know where the flowers are?" Dorcas asked, needing to make sure she understood the situation.

"Right," replied Alec.

"Let me guess. Something in this mysterious package of yours is going to help you find them."

"You're as smart as you are beautiful," said Alec recklessly.

"Flattery will get you everywhere . . . " Dorcas was saying as Alec decided to interpret the remark as permission to lean in for a kiss, " . . . but I'd rather wait and see if you're still alive after this is all over before I make any commitments."

Alec shrugged. "I can wait," with enough confidence to fool Dorcas.

The pair had time for a leisurely meal in one of the town's many eateries before the expected speeder with Brisbee Enviro Solutions markings filled the sky with its drone. They waited at the edge of the parking apron until the vehicle had settled and the cargo door unfolded with a final clunk.

"Where are they?" demanded Brisbee as he stormed from the hold.

"Take it easy," said Alec. "Did you get that package I asked for?"

"Yes, yes, of course," said Brisbee as Enviro Solutions employees waited at the bottom of the cargo door. "But the flowers, man!"

Alec chose not to reply, heading for the speeder and asking that his package be stored in his own air car.

That done, he waved Brisbee and Dorcas in and revved up the turbo fans.

"Where are we going?" asked Brisbee from the back seat. "To the flowers?"

"I hope so," said Alec with a wink to Dorcas.

Dorcas only glared at him.

"What do you mean you hope so?" Brisbee yelped.

In reply, Alec brought the 'car down to a gentle stop at the base of the steep cliffs that had once been covered by the planet's southern ice cap and whose sides were veined with deep ravines and natural fissures formed by melting waters thousands of years before.

The others followed him as he exited the vehicle and watched as he removed the package that he'd asked Brisbee to pick up for him. He set it down gently on the ground and freed it from its alum-foil wrapping. Formed of white plastic, the object inside stood about three feet tall and seemed comprised of a number of drawers similar to a piece of Martian bedroom furniture.

Following brief instructions that came with the box, Alec pressed a small red button on the side of the box. Immediately a buzzing came from inside that caused Dorcas and Brisbee to take a few uncertain steps backward.

"What is it?" asked Dorcas, her curiosity overcoming her wariness.

"Bees," said Alec finally.

"Bees?" said Dorcas. "Like honey bees?"

"Right. I ordered a colony from the Burroughs agricom. They specialize in genetically altered insects to help in their work to reclaim Mars for plant life. These bees have been bred to thrive in the thinner atmosphere and to help pollenize different plant species."

"So how does that help us?"

"Simple," said Alec as he pulled open one of the drawers and watched as the first insects began to emerge. "Where there's flowers, these bees will find them."

"You mean . . . "

But Dorcas had no time to finish before the emerging bees gathered into a small swarm and dashed off immediately in the direction of a nearby fissure. In seconds they had all disappeared inside. Alec opened a second drawer and the same thing happened.

"I don't think you need me to tell you where your floridi triniscus are," Alec told Brisbee.

But Brisbee had already figured it out and was running in the direction of the cave.

"Guess I can wait for the money transfer," said Alec looking after his employer's receding figure.

"Before you get too satisfied with yourself," said Dorcas, "answer me one thing."

"Sure," said Alec, slipping his arms around the girl's waist.

"If you were so sure the bees would find the flowers, why did you bother looking up Shantu?"

"Oh, that. Well, I didn't want to waste my time looking all over the south pole for those flowers. I wasn't looking for a full time job. It was easier to find out from Shantu where he came from. Likely, the flowers would be there too."

"So then . . . wait a minute!" said Dorcas. "You knew all the time that the bees would find the flowers. But you never said anything about it!"

"Half the trouble with being a freelancer is making the work look hard," explained Alec. "I need to make a living you know. Now more than ever."

"Why now?" asked Dorcas, leaning into the circle of his arms.

"Because very soon I'm going to need to earn enough for two."

"Two?"

"I'm still alive," noted Alec even as a jubilant Brisbee emerged from the distant cave. "And might I remind you about what you said before about being sure of that before making any commitments . . . "

There was a long pause and when they finally came up for air, Dorcas smiled.

"Now I'm sure," she said.

CONTENTS


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Pierre V. Comtois is a newspaper reporter writing from Lowell, MA who has been editing and publishing Fungi, the Magazine of Fantasy and Weird Fiction intermittently since 1984. Comtois’ latest book Goat Mother and Others was released last year by Chaosium Fiction. Marvel Comics in the 1980s: An Issue by Issue Field Guide to a Pop Culture Phenomenon was published in 2015 by Twomorrows Pubs. Earlier volumes include Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, Comtois has contributed fiction to many other small press magazines over the years including Haunts, The Horror Show, Thrilling Tales, and e magazines Planetary Stories and Liberty Island Magazine. Comtois’ fiction has also appeared in various magazines for Cryptic Publications and Rainfall Books as well as such collections as Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth, Eldritch Blue, and various Chaosium Books anthologies. The author has also written a number of books including novels such as Strange Company and Sometimes a Warm Rain Falls; non-fiction such as Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor; and short story collections such as The Way the Future Was, The Portable Pierre V. Comtois, and the forthcoming Autumnal Tales from Mythos Books. Comtois has also found the time to contribute non-fiction articles to such magazines as World War II, America’s Civil War, Wild West, and Military History, many of which were collected in Real Heroes, Real Battles. Also from Sons of Liberty is River Muse: Stories of Lowell and the Merrimack Valley, to which Comtois has contributed a personal recollection entitled “I Was a Teenaged Bibliophile.” For more information about the author, visit www.pierrevcomtois.com