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Sensitive Dependence

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I see with relief the sign for the pull-off. It seems like an eternity since we left New Arizona, and my eyes are blurring.

“We'll stop here, sweetheart,” I say. Theresa is a limp weight against my thigh. She's slid under the chest-straps again. Without even looking I gather her up against me one-handed as the transport judders to a stop and she starts to slide along the seat. Such reflexes we gain as parents.

I carry her part of the way before she starts to twitch and whimper. The tunnel feels very long, but Theresa walks much further and with less complaint, these days; I wonder if that is because she's learned to, or because the lighter gravity means it is simply less hard on her.

There's a woman there. She gives us water, and her house is cool, blues and greens after the dusty red of the desert we could see sometimes through the tube's tetraglass portholes. This is an oasis of living things, colour, taste. I haven't tasted food like that in years. I lie in her bed for a while, trying to work out where I have seen her before. Before I fall asleep, it comes to me. The lady with a candle, incongruous in this setting. A tenuous, upright flame flickering in her cupped hand, looking for the places where the planet is trying to break in. Mars is so big, and we are small.

*

Theresa is drawing at school. She comes back to the dorm with printouts on the shiny, bamboo paper. It seems to be the only thing she likes doing at school.

“It's a goat,” Theresa says.

“Is it?” I say. “It's wonderful.”

I put it on the dresser. Some of the other guys have pictures on their wall, photostats and fingerpaintings. Not many of them have young children, though. At least she's here, I tell myself. Lo-How, who lives in the room next to mine, left two young boys on Earth. He looks like half a man.

“Daddy,” Theresa says seriously. She struggles to pull herself up on my bunk, then gives up and tugs at my knee instead. I lift her up and set her down beside me. “Daddy, I want to go home.”

I'm so damn tired.

“Honey,” I say, “Where's home?”

She starts to cry after a moment, tired, whimpering sobs. I feel heartless.

“Oh, Little Heart, I'm sorry.” I gather her to my lap. “We'll make a new home here. A real one.”

I sound like an advertisement. Come to the Commune, start again. We have the same brand of blankets here as we did in the dorms in Yorimitsu, unlikely as that seems. It's like some kind of cosmic joke.

“I'm going to see Martine and the goats again in a few days,” I tell her, in an attempt to get away from my empty promises. I'm going to have a look at Martine's separator. I hope I can fix it. It doesn't sound too difficult; I've modified systems like that before, back when I was working on irrigation. We were working with second, third-hand system machinery, and it all had to be repurposed and synched.

She sniffles. “Can I see the goats?”

“Not this time, you'll be at school, but I'm sure Martine will let you go back and see them again soon.”

I bite my tongue. So much for empty promises. Lenin, but she has so little to hope for.

“Maybe I'll bring one home,” I say, teasing gently. She's old enough for that now. “The biggest and smelliest lady goat.” She laughs through her tears.

“Daddy, where would we put her? There's no room.”

So serious. Should a six-year-old be so practical?

“She can sleep in your bed, you'll have the floor...”

“No!”

The conversation dissolves into a tickle fight, which dissolves into more tired tears before we've even made it to the cafeteria for dinner. I carry her back and tuck her in to the bed above mine. Another night outside the children's dorm. They'll give me looks, but I can't leave her there now, I'm sure it's only making her anxiety worse.

*

“Martine Jansch is one tough sonovabitch,” Karl says.

Theresa is at the creche. We're on outside labour duty, taking a coffee break. Karl is my supervisor. I've asked him if he knows Martine Jansch.

“Went out when they were resettling the ridge. Damn, that shit was hard. They'd mostly finished it when I came out.”

I like Karl; he smiles often, a flash of white in his dark face, like a solar flare. When I first met him, I thought he had dyed his hair copper-red, some crazy Martian fashion; it was only later that I saw him off-shift and realized that it was Mars dust. It sticks to the suits, even through the airlocks, comes off on your hands and rubs into the skin like rouge; I soon learn that you can tell outside workers by their red palms. There's a joke in there somewhere.

“What's she like?”

Such a stupid question. Why am I so interested in this woman, anyway? Karl certainly wonders. 'Resa keeps asking if we can go and see the goats again. It felt good to work on her separator, flex muscles other than my arms, legs and back.

“Keeps her own business,” he says. “Smart. You know? She doesn't take any shit from the old timers.”

“I guess the people who came here first were pretty tough,” I say, trying to draw him out without making it look like I am obsessed with her. Another blinding grin. I'm sure he sees right through me, but he doesn't say anything.

“Your lady was army,” he says. I bite off the urge to snap at him - it'll only make him worse. I've done it now, I think. And sure enough, Karl asks me how 'my lady' is every time I work with him from that point on.

*

Perhaps she reminds me of my mother. Her harsh, blunt face and salt-and-pepper hair, her weather-lined skin, her low voice. Living out there on the ridge all by herself, not that she seems to mind. Jerusalem, she called it. I looked it up later, but, sure enough, that name wasn't on the maps. Funny.

'Resa and I visit Martine again, and a third time. I find it easy to be around her, she is so self-contained; there is so much space around her. There's no space in the dorms. On the trip over, I slept in room with five other men, my few things shoved in the little padlocked, zipsealed compartment above my head; on Mars, I have my own room for the first time in years, but the sounds of others are still all around me, reassuring and invasive. Theresa sleeps with me more often than not anyway, although I suppose I should start getting her used to the dorms. The water reclamation project feels like it's clogging my veins, filling my pores, like the dust after I've been outside; but somehow, in her kitchen, sipping her beer, I can let it out. It doesn't do any good, of course, but it doesn't feel like it's taking so much room inside my head. Lenin, but I'm tired.

*

It occurs to me, in a stray thought as I unload boxes of aspirin from New Arizona, that Martine might be infatuated with me. Alexi Dormov, destitute single father, shrimp. It's so ridiculous, I laugh out loud. My partner stares at me. But that night, in my bunk, I think about her. I can't imagine touching her. She is tied inextricably in my mind, I realize, with her house, her goats, the taste of water after a nineteen-hour drive across the Martian desert. I should feel bad about this. I'm sure she would be mortified. She is so defensive of her extricability from her possessions; she was uncomfortable with my admiration of her house, I could see it. It occurs to me to wonder if this is a leftover from the Cleansing Winds; does she think I distrust her commitment to Commune ideology? Or does she just pity me and not wish to show it? The latter, I think, is more likely. She doesn't really seem the type.

And yet, I cannot stop trying to find out more about her. I know I'm making myself ridiculous. But it doesn't seem to matter all that much, when I'll be on the reclamation project in a few months. I'd be more careful, if it seemed like word would come back to her, but everyone says she doesn't come in that much, she doesn't socialize, she doesn't listen to talk. She's a milepost, a landmark. I try to imagine her running a regiment like she marshals her goats. I'm fascinated with her.

*

I keep looking for some paste, or tack, something, to put Theresa's picture of the goats on the walls. It's been joined by another, one of bees and daddy and Theresa. There is one more of the goats and the goat lady, whose name Theresa only remembers periodically. It occurs to me that I could take it to Martine as a gift next time I see her; I certainly don't have anything else to give her. But maybe it would make her uncomfortable. She is so serious with Theresa. She can't have spent much time with children, I suppose. Maybe she doesn't like them.

I will take the pictures with me, if I have to go to the pole. When I have to go to the pole. Possibly I am avoiding putting them up because I can't look at them here without thinking about how it will feel to look at them there, when I'm thousands of miles away. Lo-How says he's heard it's worse than the corridor down there. I can't imagine anything worse than the corridor. I don't know what to do.

*

“We could get married,” she says. I don't want her to be here, I want to lie down and not think about the council meeting, maybe cry. I hadn't realized I was hoping so hard that somehow, this time, something would work out for us. You'd think I'd have learned by now. I hardly even listen to what she's saying, I'm trying so hard not to think about how I'm going to tell Theresa.

“We could get married,” she says again. She sounds different, seems smaller here in my ugly room, against my bare walls. She shrinks from a landmark in my mind to a woman, suddenly, like Geri, like Theresa will be. It occurs to me that if I laughed at her, I could hurt her. But I can't laugh. I can't even speak. Lenin and Mao Zhedong, she's completely serious. What is she thinking?

“It wouldn't be a real marriage, of course. There are two bedrooms, we can add a third for Theresa. And if you wanted to end it, after a couple of years, of course,” she rushes on, chin up, eyes front, “that would be fine.”

“I admire you a lot,” I say, sounding like a teenager to myself. “I don't want your charity, I want -” I falter suddenly. I can't lie to her. Oh, Alexi, you idiot. “Well, to start, I want your respect.” And, true to form, I follow that by blabbing on myself, confessing all about my spying. What if she thinks I was doing a background check? My face is hot.

“It wouldn't be charity, Dormov,” she says, and her voice hardens. She stares at me with those piercing eyes. “I get up some mornings at three-thirty, four a.m., and I'd expect you to do the same.”

She gets more captain-like when she's nervous, I realize suddenly. It's sexy. I have to resist the urge to stand to attention, she'd think I was making fun of her. I'm hysterical, I realize, I have to pull myself together.

She's preparing to leave, gathering herself together. I think I'm going to be able to let her go, give myself some space to make the decent choice. I can't possibly let her take me and Theresa in like strays into her lovely house.

Instead, I ask for a kiss. She gives it to me. Her hands come up to grip my upper arms, then slip behind my shoulders. After, she buries her nose in my hair so her breath tickles my ear - she is taller than me, and even that seems funny - and her fingers dig into my shoulderblades when, daring, I suggest I walk her home. After we get out of the dorm, I slip my hand into hers; I think we both feel we are getting away with something, we're walking quickly in case either of us thinks better of this. After an awkward silence past the cafeteria, and into the main tunnel, I stammer out the first question I think of.

“What does Aron Fahey do?”

My palm is getting sweaty, so I readjust my grip on her hand, and at the same time find that the skin between her index and middle fingers is soft, not callused; I stroke there, interested in the contrast. After a few seconds, she says, “What?”

“I've forgotten,” I confess.

She laughs, almost a hiccup. It's the first time I've made her laugh, and it feels like a magnificent achievement. I feel drunk; I wonder if it's been as long for her as it has for me.

In her kitchen, she offers tea. Her hand is shaking. I reach over to hold it still, and she steps into the circle of my arms and kisses me again.

“Maybe beer,” she amends, after a minute or so.

“Maybe we shouldn't give ourselves the opportunity to lose our nerve,” I say. I've already got my hand under her wool sweater, on her skin.

“Maybe,” she says, and laughs again, a little breathless. I did that. It feels wonderful.

She hesitates, at the doorway to the bedroom.

“I don't want the light on.”

“All right.”

I'm perfectly happy to let the dark be kind to me, I'm no prize. Although I do feel like she should see what she's getting. But it's easier in the dark to enjoy her gasp when I find her throat with my lips and suck, to laugh when my leg gets tangled in the sheets and I nearly knee her in the stomach trying to pull it out, and to be unembarrassed at the noise I make when she finds my weak spot.

“Really?” she says, and nibbles experimentally on the shell of my ear.

“Really,” I say, through clenched teeth. “Ah, that's - Martine - oh - don't -”

“I think I like this, Mr. Dormov,” she whispers.

“Please, Martine, I'm serious -”

We scrabble to get our clothes open and our bodies together, and it's clumsy, and too fast, and I think I hurt her. My orgasm hits me like a freight train, far before she's ready. She lies very still as I pant, “Sorry, sorry, just a second,” into her hair, but I think I redeem myself by taking her pants fully off, shimmying down and putting my mouth between her legs.

“Ah!” she squeaks, surprised.

I used to love doing this, and it comes back quickly, but it takes her a long time, long enough that I have to take several breaks and I'm fucking her with two cramping fingers by the time she grabs my hair, presses my face against her cunt and cries out.

“Ow,” I say, after a few seconds, pressed comfortably against her hip.

She makes an apologetic noise and loosens her fingers immediately. She strokes my hair. I don't mean to fall asleep, but when I open my eyes, she's crawling back into bed, and her feet are freezing.

“Sorry,” she whispers. “I went to the bathroom.”

I follow her example, and when I get back, she's put our clothes on the dresser and straightened the blankets. The clock on her side-table's flashing 00:34. Up at four or five to milk the goats, I remember. And I have to pick up Theresa at seven for breakast. Oh well, that's why coffee was invented. Now that I'm awake, I'm remembering how strange it is to share a bed with someone. She shifts next to me, and I try not to breathe too loudly.

“I'm not taking that as an answer,” she says suddenly. “I mean, that we've slept together. Don't think this puts you under any obligation. We're both adults.”

“Okay,” I say.

“We probably shouldn't have done this.”

“Well,” I say, trying to make her laugh again. “You know what they say. You should always squeeze a melon before you take it home.”

“You're not obliged to - I mean, I won't expect - I meant it about the two bedrooms, Alexi.” She sounds flustered. Not something to tease about yet, then.

“It was a joke, Martine,” I say, as gently as I can. I wonder if it would be appropriate to kiss her, or put my arm around her. Something. She's become distant again, even when the bed's small enough that our shoulders are touching. “Like you said, we're both adults.”

“Hm.”

She subsides into silence.

“I can do better, by the way,” I add, after a while.

“You were fine.”

“You're too kind.”

She snorts. I fall asleep smiling.

*

I try my best to look cheerful when she turfs me out of bed at four a.m.; she, on the other hand, stares at me over coffee like she can't remember my name.

“Alexi Dormov,” I say helpfully. “We had sex last night after you proposed to me.”

“Get out of here, I've got to milk the damn goats,” she says. I steal a kiss on my way out. I think she's pleased.

*

I don't see her all day, and my stomach's churning with nerves by the end of my afternoon shift. Not making plans to see her again, I realize, was a tactical error. I get up the courage to call her on the transmitter before evening.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello,” she says.

We both laugh, nervously. At least that's something.

“I'd invite you to dinner,” I say. “But, you know.” I shouldn't draw attention to the fact that I don't have anything. Or maybe I should. What are we doing? What kind of basis for a relationship is this?

“I couldn't leave the kitten, anyway,” she says. “It chewed a hole in my coveralls last night while we were - while I was out.”

A pause.

“Sue Ziobolski asked me to fix her separator. I'm going out there at the end of the week.”

“Okay,” she says. “Come over tomorrow evening,” she says. “If you like. You and Theresa.”

“Okay.”

*

I cannot tell Theresa until I am absolutely sure, of course. I am terrified that Martine will say something to her, but of course she doesn't. We stay playing with the kitten until 'Resa's eyes are drooping and Martine is beginning to look at the clock. I should take Theresa home or put her to bed here, but then I'd have to sleep with Martine and we'd talk, and I know she wants me to say I've made up my mind one way or the other.

“You could stay,” she says. I lose my nerve.

“I should get back. You need to sleep.”

She starts to say something, then breaks into a yawn. She smiles a little, self-deprecating. “Okay.”

*

We don't see each other for a few days. We talk on the transmitter. She offers to take Theresa while I'm at the Ziobolski's overnight. I am telling myself I have not made a decision yet, but any fool could see she's already practicing for having us in her life, and I feel like a hypocrite. I should start getting up at five a.m.

The Ziobolski's holding isn't as nice as Martine's, although it's bigger. They grow vegetables - kale, beans, potatoes, and something with fine, reddish leaves which I don't recognise - and they have a special, heated nursery, subsidized by the Commune, Sue Ziobolski tells me, where they grow medicinal plants that they send straight out to New Arizona for processing, although I'll bet they make a bit on the side. I'd wondered where Karl was getting his tea. Ginseng for constipation, dang gui for cramps, bai shao for colds and flu. She's one of the first settlers, and has a prosthetic leg that hisses when she moves. There are two children, tall and silent, with very black skin, darker than their mother's. I wonder who their father is. The older, a girl with short, fuzzy hair, watches me as I jack into the system.

Both her children were born here, Sue tells me proudly over my evening meal. They'll be part of the first generation of true Martians in the Commune, along with Aron Fahey's daughter, who will not be sent to the water reclamation project. New Arizona was settled several generations ago, of course. I wasn't aware that there was snobbery about this, but of course there is.

“I hear you're gettin' posted on the pole,” she says, grimacing. I am jolted with the memory of what a small, small place this is. It occurs to me for the first time that if anyone had seen me and Martine holding hands that night outside the dorms, it would be all over the Commune by now. Perhaps it is. Is she trying to find out if the rumours are true? I sip my tea to cover my confusion.

“It looks that way,” I say.

“You've got a daughter, right? She'll be just fine in the creche in New Arizona. My Talia was there for a year when she was eight while I was out on the ridge, after Rob was killed.”

I make a noncommital noise, which I hope falls somewhere between agreement and sympathy. She looks piercingly at me.

“Or Martine Jansch could take her, I suppose. You two are friends, right?”

Marx and Lenin, I knew it.

I decide my best defence is to act dumb. I shrug.

“Well,” she says, and bustles around the kitchen for a while. We talk about her separator. Her cousin out on First Peak might need some work done, do I know anything about adapting systems for motion sensitive controls? After a while, I relax, deciding I've dodged the conversational bullet. I feel that I should call Martine and warn her, but of course if I use the transmitter here I'll have no privacy.

I sleep in their spare bed, whose temperature controller hums with a high-pitched whine all night, just within in my range of hearing. I think about going out to carve one of her precious potatoes into plugs for my ears. At last I fall asleep, and I dream I am looking for Theresa; I can't find her anywhere, and finally Martine tells me, with total unconcern, that she has stolen a transport and set out for New Arizona.

*

“Linda McKenzie was here,” Martine says over the transmitter, a few days later. I know immediately what she's going to say. “She asked me what I thought I was doing with someone half my age who clearly only wanted me for my honey.”

I choke a laugh, I'm so appalled. “What did you tell her?”

“I told her to mind her own damn business, what do you think I told her?”

Her voice is shrill. I can't tell if she's angry or laughing.

“I'm sorry, Martine.”

She sighs. “I suppose I should have expected this.”

“I can't feel too badly that she thought I was half your age.”

“Do you want to come over?”

I look over at Theresa. She's lying on my bed, watching her favourite kiddie soap on the wall screen. Her earphones are in, and it doesn't look like she's listening.

We haven't had sex again since that first time. On the trip back from Sue Ziobolski's I whiled away the time by thinking about all the things we hadn't done, and nearly drove myself mad with frustration.

“I can't stop thinking about you,” I say. Some of my hunger comes out in my voice.

“Yes.” Her voice is taut.

Theresa will be fine in the dorm tonight. “I'll be over in a few hours.”

*

I'd forgotten how intoxicating a warm body could be. This time, we don't make it to the kitchen, detouring straight into the bedroom instead. The room is dark and she doesn't offer to turn up the light, but it's still early evening, and some daylight is still filtering into the dome, so I can see her. Her face is so concentrated as she tugs up my shirt and skates her fingertips over my stomach.

“Let me -” I say, reaching for her, but she pushes me back down, hard. I gasp a laugh, surprised, as the heat in my belly ratchets up a notch.

“Sorry!” she says.

“No,” I say - should I tell her I've been imagining her in uniform? Probably not - “I like it. Be as aggressive as you like.”

A worried line creases between her eyebrows. She presses down on my chest experimentally, then bites her lip and opens my pants. I have to close my eyes when she puts her mouth on me.

“All right?” she says after a while.

“Yes,” I gasp. “But if you want me to - if you want - I won't last like this.”

She's silent for a moment. I wish I could see her better, but it's almost dark now. Then she climbs off me and I hear the sound of clothes rustling, hitting the floor. Then she's holding me, positioning me, sliding down onto me, and she makes a noise, like being hurt.

“Martine -”

She drops down fully on top of me suddenly, shifts, and her mouth is hot against mine. We just lie for a while like that, kissing carefully in the dark. I reach under her shirt so I can unhook her bra, and pull the whole lot off her; she starts to rock against me, and keens when I get my mouth to her breast.

“That?”

“Yes -”

It doesn't take her as long this time. It's a bad angle for me, but even so I barely manage to last until she finishes, panting and silent, and I roll her over and come after barely a couple of seconds. We lie together in sated lassitude.

“I'm hungry now,” she says eventually.

We eat a late meal in the kitchen, soup with blocks of tofu. We talk about nothing; her bees, Theresa the goat, Theresa the girl. I know we should talk about the thing hanging over us, but we don't. We go to bed. At five, I get up with her and follow her to the goats. Wordlessly, she shows me the one-two rhythm of pulling at their teats. Kate-the-Shrew snuffles curiously at my head, then takes a mouthful of my hair and chews. I swear and bat at her face trying to escape, and she retreats across the yard looking offended as Martine laughs out loud. She truly loves the goats, it occurs to me. I suppose one must love what one depends on, in self-defence if nothing else. Or perhaps it's easier to love something that depends on you for everything. She smacks Kate-the-Shrew and rubs my head. My indignation melts at the warmth on her face.

I make my eyes big, try to look as pathetic as possible. “Kiss it better?”

I don't know if she plays, yet. I think she could be persuaded to. She should laugh more.

Her mouth twists. “Only because you're a beginner,” she says. She leans over and gives me a stiff kiss on the top of my head, then, hesitantly, runs her finger around the shell of my ear and strokes the soft skin beneath my earlobe. I shiver.

“Try Lilith, she likes men,” Martine suggests, and ignores me as I tug and pull at the stoic goat's nipples with inadequate results. She fills the pail twice in the time it takes me to fill a third. But then I get warm, fresh, sweet milk with oats for breakfast. It's like a revelation. I look up from my suddenly empty bowl to find Martine watching me, an odd expression on her face.

“I like to see you eat,” she says.

“Why?” I say, ready to be defensive if she gets maternal. Perhaps I shouldn't play little boy with her. So many wrong turns. What am I doing?

She shrugs, and looks away.

“You enjoy it.”

I leave before we have the conversation we need to have. But I feel warm inside and out, and I have a small can of milk and oats for Theresa for breakfast.

*

Theresa comes home after school. She's drawn another picture. It's a small stick figure with an inevitable goat. I'm beginning to worry that the friendly, flustered-looking older lady who teaches the six-to-sevens is letting her paint instead of catching her up with the class.

“Who's that?” I say.

“Sara,” she says. Her friend from Yorimitsu. Sara was eight, and screamed, and Theresa trotted along after her like a kicked puppy. Sara is still on Earth. Her mother was trying to get back to New York, to stay with her parents. They lived in a commune in New Jersey.

“Why did you draw Sara, Little Heart? What is she doing with the goats?”

“She's resting,” says Theresa. “That's Theresa the goat.” She says it in one word, like Martine does, Theresathegoat.

“Daddy,” she says, “Are you going to marry the goat lady?”

My stomach drops, and then I'm furious. Does nobody in this place keep their mouth shut? Shit. I have to talk to to the dorm mistress. I have to talk to Martine.

“Where did you hear that, baby?” I say.

She shrugs. I rub my face.

“I don't know,” I say. “I don't - I have to think, I have to think.”

“Why do you have to think?”

“Because I do. What did you do at school today?”

She's distracted unusually easily. It hurts me to think that she already knows that there are some questions she doesn't want the answer to. But later she spills sauce on her dress and has a world-class tantrum. She pushes her chair over, and beats at me when I try to hold her to me, like a wild animal. As she sobs herself to sleep on my shoulder, a warm, miserable weight, I feel like I do not know where I am.

I wake in the middle of the night with a crick in my back and Theresa snuffling into my collar. I manage to undress her and settle her into the lower bunk without waking her fully, and then I lie down on the floor to try and straighten out my back. It's nearly eleven, and I've been up since five, milking goats, lifting boxes, hunched in the cold, uncomfortable chairs in the stock office filling in a work card. Theresa's small breaths soften the room.

If we got married, I would always be depending on her. What basis for a relationship would that be? It wouldn't need to be a real marriage, of course; but then I'd be sleeping with the boss. She could start to hate me, and keep me there out of pity, because of Theresa. If it weren't for Theresa... but there's no point taking her out of the equation. She is the equation. I wonder if I'd love 'Resa as much if she didn't depend on me absolutely. I suppose I wouldn't.

Of course there is no decision to make, in the end.

*

It takes a week to sort out the paperwork. It has to be filed in New Arizona, and filed here, and filed with the Mars Settlement Project on Earth. We have to go in together twice, once to sign the declaration, once to take a health exam and sign another set of papers. There's an ceremony to be performed by the overly friendly notary, who I recognise as the man who runs the clothing lottery. It's offered as optional, but we are scheduled in without, as far as I can remember, either of us having any say in the matter.

Beforehand, I am ridiculously nervous. We sit in the concrete-lined corridor outside the reception room. Not knowing who to invite, I asked Karl to be my witness, since Lo-How is at the New Arizona depot; Martine has a friend here, Linda. They have taken Theresa off to get some juice, presumably to give us time to compose ourselves. Martine is smoothing down her pants. She's wearing black slacks and a severe blue blouse. I am wearing a clean, pale yellow shirt I cajoled from Lo-How before he left.

Martine leans over to me.

“You look like you're about to be sick,” she says.

I am about to tell her she doesn't look so good herself when I am suddenly afraid I may actually be sick, and I rest my head back against the wall and breathe through my nose.

“Alexi,” she says. She takes a deep breath. “Why did Karl Marx only drink decaffeinated tea?”

I stare at her, incredulous.

“What?”

She looks white, fragile, like she's about to cry. “Why did Marx only drink decaffeinated tea?”

“I have no idea what you're talking about.”

“Because proper tea is theft.”

It takes me a few seconds to parse it; then I start to laugh, a horrible wheeze, and I can't stop. She giggles, then starts hissing through her laughter, “Stop laughing, Comrade Dormov,” which only makes it worse. She leans against me, tears on her cheeks, and I wipe them away with my fingers, but I can't stop laughing. We both have the giggles all through the ceremony, and the notary keeps stopping to frown at us. Then we all go back to Martine's. Linda has some homemade spirits, Karl produces a set of coloured sticks to play pick-me-up with Theresa, and we all get drunk before seven p.m.. The next day, I go and sign me and Theresa out of the dorms and officially move us in.

It's surprisingly anticlimactic; we have nothing, after all. We only bring back a couple of duffel bags, Theresa's pictures, and ourselves. Martine pins one of Theresa's drawings up on the kitchen wall, the one of the goat by itself.

*

Martine doesn't want me to come to the council meeting. “It'll be horrible,” she says as she buttons up her blouse. It's the same one she wore to our wedding. There's barely enough room for us both in the tiny bathroom, so I sit on the waste reclamation unit. “They're going to be assholes about you. And me.”

“I may as well come, then,” I say. I shrug. “Would it help if I brought Theresa and looked pathetic?”

She gives me a look I can't fathom. “It'll be too long for Theresa,” she says. “You should stay here.”

I'm exhausted, but damned if I let her face this by herself. It's only since I moved in and I started getting the looks that I've realized what she was letting herself in for, taking us in. I suspect she's only starting to realize, too.

“No, I should come. You don't have to do this on your own.”

I stand behind her, and reach around to fasten her top button. We look at each other in the mirror. We met one month ago, and now we are married. We are strangers to each other.

“All right,” she says abruptly. “But Theresa can't come. And look handsome.”

We're leaving Theresa with the two women who live in the next dome over and grow lentils, Shani and Padma. They have different last names, so they're not sisters, although I suppose they could be widows. I wonder if they're lovers. Is that something one can do so openly, on Mars? I will ask Martine about them, maybe. I'm not sure of her views on gays; I keep coming up against how little I really know about her. They look at me curiously. I suppose we're neighbours, now.

I'm surprised by how unquestioningly they take Theresa, since presumably Martine has never offloaded a six-year-old onto them before. Padma is older, perhaps fifty, and she nods, a slow rolling of her head, as she interests Theresa in sifting lentils in a sieve. Theresa lets go of my hand reluctantly. She's been clingy all week; hardly surprising. We're very early, so we sit for half an hour as I sift lentils with Padma and Theresa to get Theresa settled, and listen with half an ear as Martine and Shami make quiet conversation at the table. Shani's a round, pretty woman with hair down to her waist.

“I'll send Alexi 'round tomorrow with the soft wrench.”

“Thanks, Martine. Oh, I remember what I was going to tell you. You want to take a look at your solar panel. Padma went out yesterday to look at ours, and it's taken a beating. Lots of storms lately.”

“Okay. Thanks. I haven't been out lately, with the goats. Three nannie-kids, two billies.”

“You going to sell it on?”

“No, with Alexi around I'm thinking of expanding a little.” She sounds self-conscious. She doesn't want to call me her husband.

“It's good that you have another pair of hands around the place. We worried about you up on that ridge by yourself, although we didn't like to say. You can always call us, you know. You don't come by enough.”

“Daddy, I found a stone.”

Padma clucks. “Into the bag with it! Bad stone, bad stone!”

Theresa gives her a contemptuous look, then says to me, “The stone is bad because we might swallow it.”

When I tune back in, they are talking about the price of lentils. I can tell Martine wants to leave, so I say goodbye.

*

“They're nice people,” I say, in the tunnel.

Martine shrugs. I take my cue from her, and say nothing for the rest of the walk.

The council is as bad as Martine said it would be. At one point she, Fahey and Cord are all up on their feet, shouting at each other; Fahey says Martine has always resented him, Martine tells him not to be a fatheaded idiot, and Cord keeps saying the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment. In a lull in the shouting, Linda points out Aron Fahey's daughter to me, over in the corner, stringy blonde hair and a dull, clear face. She looks very young. The commune is leaning towards sending her, I realize. She may die out there.

If it were Theresa - but it will probably be Theresa, in a few years. It doesn't seem as hopeless as the corridor, but the drive and the rhetoric is the same. They'll be settling and reclaiming the deserts of Mars for decades. The Commune's leaky domes cling tenuously to the surface of the planet; everybody here knows each other's business because if one person falls ill, or becomes pregnant, or starts a feud, or falls in love, somebody else doesn't get their lentils. Or their water.

The big man, Mannheim, thumps his hand on the table. “The question is not who is forgettable, but whose labour is expendable for the community?”

“The children are the future of the community!”

“You were willing to send the lone parent of a traumatized six-year-old,” Cord snaps. “I'd been in the army for three years when I was twenty, and how long had you, Martine? Five? Ai Li'll have the same chances as the rest of us did.”

“This isn't about my own circumstances, Cord-”

“New Arizona would hardly send anybody into certain death,” a young man pipes up.

“Oh, don't be so naive -”

“Are you willing to look those recruits in the eye and say -”

The meeting runs late. They decide to send the Fahey girl as the fourth recruit, and they'll negotiate with New Arizona about a fifth. Martine strides ahead of me as we walk back; I am not sure if I should let her cool down or try to comfort her. It can't have been easy, facing down that den of vipers. She did it for me, of course, although she might say she did it for the Commune, for equality, anything. I don't know if telling her how grateful I am, how overwhelmed, would make her more furious.

She drops back, after a while, and grabs my hand. She grips it tightly.

“I wonder if Linda has any more of that hooch,” she says.

“We can find out,” I say. “You were magnificent, by the way. Very masterful. Very sexy.”

She snorts.

“You're mad.”

I squeeze her fingers in mine, and lean in to peck at her cheek; we kiss, against the wall of the tunnel. Her arms slowly relax around my neck. Above us, the tunnel creaks and groans as Mars' tectonic plates shift infinitisemally.

“A volcano's probably erupting on the other side of the planet,” I say. It's like that old physics lesson. A butterfly flaps its wings in Shanghai, there's a tornado in Cleveland. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions: small factors affecting non-linear systems. Life is a non-linear system, even though its patterns repeat. My old engineering teacher told me that.

Mars is very big. But we survive in the cracks. We have no choice but to depend on each other.

We pick up Theresa, and take her home. We have to get up at five to milk the goats.