Arabella of Mars - David D. Levine
THE LAST STRAW
Arabella Ashby lay prone atop a dune, her whole length pressed tight upon the cool red sands of Mars. The silence of the night lay unbroken save for the distant cry of a hunting khulekh, and a wind off the desert brought a familiar potpourri to her nose: khoresh-sap, and the cinnamon smell of Martians, and the sharp, distinctive fragrance of the sand itself. She glanced up at Phobos—still some fingers’ span short of Arcturus—then back down to the darkness of the valley floor where Michael would, she knew, soon appear.
Beneath the fur-trimmed leather of her thukhong, her heart beat a fast tattoo, racing not only from the exertion of her rush to the top of this dune but from the exhilaration of delicious anticipation. For this, she was certain, was the night she would finally defeat her brother in the game of shorosh khe kushura, or Hound and Hare.
The game was simple enough. To-night Michael played the part of the kushura, a nimble runner of the plains, while Arabella took the role of the shorosh, a fierce and cunning predator. His assignment this night was to race from the stone outcrop they called Old Broken Nose to the drying-sheds on the south side of the manor house, a distance of some two miles; hers was to stop him. But though Khema had said the youngest Martian children would play this game as soon as their shells hardened, it was also a sophisticated strategic exercise … one that Michael, three years her elder, had nearly always won in the weeks they’d been playing it.
But to-night the victory would be Arabella’s. For she had been observing Michael assiduously for the last few nights, and she had noted that despite Khema’s constant injunctions against predictability, he nearly always traversed this valley when he wished to evade detection. Its sides were steep, its shadows deep at every time of night, and the soft sands of the valley floor hushed every footfall—but that would avail him little if his pursuer reached the valley before he did and prepared an ambush. Which was exactly what she had done.
Again she cast her eyes upward. At Michael’s usual pace he would arrive just as Phobos in his passage through the sky reached the bright star Arcturus—about half past two in the morning. But as she looked up, her eye was drawn by another point of light, brighter than Arcturus and moving still faster than Phobos: an airship, cruising so high above the planet that her sails caught the sun’s light long before dawn. From the size and brightness of the moving light she must be a Marsman—one of the great Mars Company ships, the “aristocrats of the air,” that plied the interplanetary atmosphere between Mars and Earth. Perhaps some of her masts or spars or planks had even originated here, on this very plantation, as one of the great khoresh-trees that towered in patient, soldierly rows north and east of the manor house.
Some day, Arabella thought, perhaps she might take passage on such a ship. To sail the air, and see the asteroids, and visit the swamps of Venus would be a grand adventure indeed. But to be sure, no matter how far she traveled she would always return to her beloved Woodthrush Woods.
Suddenly a shuff of boots on sand snatched her awareness from the interplanetary atmosphere back to the valley floor. Michael!
She had been careless. While her attention had been occupied by the ship, Michael had drawn nearly abreast of her position. Now she had mere moments in which to act.
Scrambling to her feet