“What kind of problem?” Hutch asked. Even though he was from the settlements near Mariner Valley, he didn’t have the relaxed, drawling accent of that part of Mars. Hutch’s voice buzzed like a radio on just the wrong frequency.
“It’s not bad,” Leelee said, leaping to his defense. “It’s not bad, right, David? Not really a problem. Inconvenience maybe.”
“Inconvenience,” David echoed.
The silence was uncomfortable. David tugged his fingers, pulling each one straight out from the hand until the knuckle popped, then moving on to the next. He was half a head taller than Hutch, but he couldn’t seem to bring his gaze up higher than the thin man’s sternum. In two months, David would be sixteen, but he felt about six. Hutch’s meetings were always in small rooms, away from the main passages and corridors. This one had been a storage hole from the first generation of settlements. The walls were the polished stone of Mars covered with a clear insulative ceramic that was starting to bubble and gray with age. The light was a construction lantern, the burning white of the LED softened and made ruddy by Leelee’s paisley silk scarf draped over it. They sat on metal crates in the cold. Hutch scratched at the scars on his wrist.
“Don’t let it choke you, little man,” Hutch said. It was an old joke between them—David’s family were Polynesian before they were Martian, and between genetics and growing up at barely over a third of Terran g, David was over two meters tall and leaning toward pudgy. “Just say what it is. You got a bad batch, right?”
“No, nothing like that. The batch is fine. It’s just my aunt Bobbie’s come to live with us for a while. She’s always at the place now. Always. Anytime I get home, she’s there.”
Hutch frowned and tilted his head. Leelee put her arm around his shoulder, draping herself close to the man. Hutch shrugged her back but not off.
“She knows you’re cooking?”
“She doesn’t know anything,” David said. “She just lifts weights and watches video feeds all day.”
“Lifts weights?” Hutch asked.
There was an undercurrent of amusement in his voice that made David’s guts unknot. He risked a glance at the thin man’s tea-brown eyes.
“She used to be a Marine.”
“Used to be?”
“Something weird happened. She sort of quit.”
“So not a Marine anymore. And now what is she?”
“Just a f**king inconvenience,” David said. He took a little joy in the profanity. Hell and damn were the worst language tolerated in the Draper house. Fuck would have gotten him yelled at. Worse than that would be unthinkable. “The batch is fine. But it’s going to be harder to get the next one done. I can’t do any of the prep work at home now.”
Hutch leaned back, his laughter filling the air. Leelee’s face relaxed, all the little worry lines vanishing back into the eggshell smoothness of her skin.
“Shit,” Hutch said. “You had me thinking there was trouble for a minute there. Thought I was going to have to tell my people that my best cook fell down.”
David picked up his satchel, fumbled through it, and came out with a rattling plastic jar. Hutch took it, cracked the seal, and poured four or five of the small pink lozenges into his hand, then passed one to Leelee. She popped it in her mouth like it was hard candy. The 2,5-Dimethoxy-4-n-propylthiophenethylamine was a serotonin receptor agonist that broke down into—among other things—a 2,5 desmethoxy derivative that was a monoamine oxidase A inhibitor. The euphoric effects would start to tighten Leelee’s joints and lift her mood in the next half hour. The hallucinations wouldn’t kick in for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and then they’d last her through the night. She rattled the lozenge across the back of her teeth with her tongue, grinning at him. David felt the first stirrings of an erection and looked away from her.
“You do good work, little man,” Hutch said, taking out his hand terminal. The small chime meant the transfer was done. David’s secret account had a little more money in it, not that he was in this for the money. “Now, this auntie thing. What’s it going to do to your schedule?”
“I’ve still got the lab at school,” David said. “I can sign up for more time there. Seniors get preference, so it won’t be too hard. It’s just—”
“Yeah, no,” Hutch said. “Better we play safe. You tell me how much time you need to make the next batch; that’s how much time you can take.”
“I’m thinking a couple weeks at least,” David said.
“Take them, they’re yours,” Hutch said, waving his scarred hand. “We’re in this for the long haul, you and me. No reason to get greedy now.”
The thin man stood up. David was never sure how old Hutch really was. Older than him and Leelee and younger than David’s parents. That gulf of years seemed to fill infinite possibilities. Hutch shrugged on his dust-red overcoat and pulled his brown knit tuque out of a pocket, flapped it once like he was whipping the air, and pulled it down over white-blond hair. Leelee stood up with him, but Hutch put a hand on her bare shoulder, turning the girl toward David.
“You see my girl here back to the land of the living, eh, little man? I got a thing to do.”
“All right,” David said. Leelee pulled her scarf off the lantern, and the dirty little room went brighter. Hutch gave a mocking three-finger salute, then unsealed the door and left. The rule was that Hutch left first, and then ten minutes later David could go. He didn’t know exactly where Hutch went, and if Leelee was here with him, he didn’t care. She leaned against him, smelling like verbena and girl. She was a year older than him, and he could have rested his chin on the top of her head.
“You’re doing all right?” he asked.
“Am,” she said, her voice slushy and soft. “It’s starting to come on.”
“That’s good.” He gathered her a little closer. She rested her head against his chest, and they waited quietly for the precious minutes to pass.
Seven communities—called the neighborhoods—scattered through the northern reach of the Aurorae Sinus made up Londres Nova. The city, such as it was, had burrowed deep into the flesh of Mars, using the soil as insulation and radiation shielding with only ten domes pressing out to the surface. Forty thousand people lived and worked there, carving new life into the unforgiving stone of humanity’s second home. Tube stations made a simple web topology that determined the social forms and structures. Aterpol was the only station with connections to every other neighborhood, and so it became the de facto downtown. Salton was under the biggest agricultural dome and had a surface monorail to the observatory at Dhanbad Nova, and so the upper university and technical clinics were concentrated there. The lower university was in Breach Candy, where David and his family lived. Nariman and Martineztown had been manufacturing and energy production sites in the first wave of colonization, and the displacement that came with new technologies meant both neighborhoods were struggling to reinvent and repurpose themselves. Innis Deep and Innis Shallows each had only a single tube route out, making them cul-de-sacs and havens for the sort of Martian who was almost a Belter—antisocial, independent, and intolerant. An address in either Innis was the mark of an outsider—someone dangerous or vulnerable. Leelee lived in the Shallows, and Hutch lived in the Deep.