The Dark Army

© Robin Kirk

The Dark Army

Men’s voices rumbled like distant thunder.

His skin prickled. “Evie?” he mumbled. “Evie?”

Something rubbery and heavy pressed to his lips. He strained for a sound that would measure the distance between him and the army. Surely, he would have time to hide. The soldiers had paused to eat, he guessed. Jesson sniffed for smoke, but only caught alcohol and a meaty whiff of blood.

“Water,” Jesson said. Or thought he said, since no sound emerged. Water, he thought. Suddenly, water coated his swollen lips: cool, wonderful water, with a bright lemony flavor. He held up a hand and there was Evie: her long, warm fingers, the perfectly rounded nails. Again, water brushed his lips. He opened his mouth and in came a small, ridged sponge on a stick. A lollipop of water.

“So good,” he tried to say. The idea of water and the fact of water and the hope of water and the memory of water all condensed into the water that was inside his mouth. Water. “WA-ter,” he heard himself say.

Every morning, he swam thirty minutes in the lap pool in the engineers’ quarters. Through the dome, Mars’ fractured moons were like two red thumbprints. Evie exercised nearby with an instructor who played the dance music she and her friends liked.

Surely, Evie heard the army. Booted feet tramped. “How much longer?” he asked.

She snuggled against him. Before bed, he read to her that way. He could never skip forward or miss a page. Even after Evie learned to read, she preferred Jesson to read to her. She loved fairy stories and anything with animals. Since leaving Earth, the only real animals she had seen were pets or the lions and monkeys in colony zoos.

On Mars, Evie had a thorot. The creature slept with her at night, its soft, brown tail curled around her shoulders. Jesson bought the thorot after Karen died. “Panta,” Evie named it. The housekeeper hated Panta, muttering every time the thorot snuck scraps from the waste chute or left a smear of white excrement on the floor. While Evie was in school, Panta hid.

“You spoil her!” the housekeeper accused him. Jesson remembered the mole on the woman’s upper lip. But he couldn’t come up with her name. He didn’t like her, but she fed them well and kept their quarters spotless.

“What was her name?” he asked. Karen told him he needed to be nicer to the help. But he didn’t care about the help. He only cared about her and Evie. Now, only Evie mattered.

“He’s awake.” This wasn’t Evie’s voice. Still, he could feel his daughter pressed to his side.

Jesson struggled to pull open his eyes. How his head ached!

“Dr. Jesson.” A cool hand stroked his forehead. Perhaps the soldiers were sleeping. “You are on the Septima Clare. Do you know what day it is?”

“Septima Clare.” He wanted to be chief engineer on the Septima Clare, the most advanced cruiser in Orcox’s fleet. But that would be hard on Evie. She had lost her mother. If he accepted the post, she would lose her father, too. Even at light speed, missions could last years. Evie would be a woman by the time he returned to Mars.

“No,” he replied. He couldn’t be on the Septima Clare. Was Evie at her dance lesson? He was late for work. The Orcox dome was only 15 minutes from their quarters. He needed to catch the tram.

“Today is March 15. I’m Dr. Clark. Can you tell me your name?” Jesson didn’t like Dr. Clark. No one did. The man’s first name was Richard, so everyone called him Dr. Dick. Dr. Dick would refuse to issue a sick pass or write you up for some minor thing, like a heart murmur or the sniffles. Twice, Dr. Dick had refused Jesson’s request for a home pass. Jesson smelled the menthol tablets Dr. Dick constantly sucked on.

Jesson felt a sickness in his gut. The last thing he remembered was sampling a gas and dust-filled cloud that nursed developing stars. The cloud was nowhere near Mars.

“Jesson,” a man said, waking him. Standing next to his bed was a man with the smooth, brown skin of an Indian. “Who is the president, Dr. Jesson?”

What did that have to do with the army? It felt like the soldiers had jammed their tent poles into his brain. He saw flashes of light, just like the meteor shower he once encountered as a young pilot. That was before Evie, before even Karen. One minute he navigated black space and the next his warning sensor shrieked as fireballs flamed through the mesosphere. The small ones skipped like stones on a pond while the larger ones streaked toward the ground, trailing shards of rock that spattered his hull. He thought he would die, but didn’t. Later, Jesson ran his hands over the pocked shroud, marveling at his luck.

“Once in a lifetime!” his commanding officer had said to him. That night, he met Karen at a friend’s house. Evie was born a year later, hair as red as a fireball tail.

“Daddy.” She stood beside his bed wearing a blue nightgown. Her hair was in pigtails. The room was dark, though he saw flashing lights. A machine whirred.

“Your mother,” he said. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry Karen died. He was sorry about everything.

Evie shook her head. “I remember the canals.”

When Evie turned sixteen, her present was a vacation to Titan, where Orcox had a recreation park for employees. He rented a cabana on Fels Sea, bright purple from the bornite shelf left after the precious minerals far beneath the surface had been quarried. Each cabana had a canal that emptied into the main body of water. A canoe and paddles were tethered to a short dock.

He and Evie swam, paddled, read books and shopped. He bought her a bornite necklace with matching earrings. Orcox had shipped in peacocks, too. On Earth, bornite is known as peacock ore for its iridescent wash of blues, greens and purples. Worthless for anything but jewelry, but haunting in the icy glow of Saturn’s rings. At twilight, the peacocks began their eerie screams, until the keepers herded them into the coops.

On a Saturday, Jesson took Evie in the cable car up Mount Cox to have lunch with Davis, his boss, and his daughter, Stacy. Like Jesson, Davis was a widower. The restaurant was surrounded by high windows and slowly turned. They ordered burgers. After they finished, the girls went off to watch a movie while the men drank beer.

That was the first time Jesson heard about the Septima Clare. Cox himself was supervising the construction. The Clare would be the company flagship. Everyone wanted on.

“Revolutionize travel,” Davis said. His face and arms were bronzed from a visit to the spa. Davis had never been much of a pilot, but he knew how to push paper around. “It will make the trip between Arconis IV and Mars in under five years. Less if we can up the storage capacity.”

Fuel storage was Jesson’s specialty. “That’s where you come in.” Cox had asked for him by name. “Name your price,” Davis said.

They ordered more beer. Any engineer would give his teeth to crew the Septima Clare.

Jesson held up his hand and Evie was there, smelling of floral shampoo. She had on shorts and a t-shirt. Her hair was loose on her shoulders and still wet from a swim. In the water, her hair fanned our like a fan as she rose from the depths. Her mother’s hair.

“Where am I?”

Evie smiled. “You’re with me! Dad, I need the scooter. Stacy and I are going to meet some friends. I’ll be home for dinner.”

It’s not safe, he wanted to tell her. But what did that mean? Fels Sea was completely safe. The only people here were Orcox employees, their guests and the support staff. Cox was a bastard, but he treated his people well. Everything was top of the line. Jesson was happy that Evie and Stacy had hit it off.

A sob welled in his throat. There was something Evie was not telling him, something about the scooter. The soldiers were there, he was sure of it. Stabbing him so hard that he winced.

But it was too late. She was gone. Dr. Dick was next to him again with some other people, all wearing white lab coats. The Indian looked at him with mournful eyes.

“You’re awake! Wonderful,” Dr. Dick said.

Jesson wanted to punch him. Bastard. He could smell the doctor’s menthol tablets and soap and something garlicky he had eaten: Vietnamese noodles, he guessed. The other people smelled, too: mint gum and farts and cleaning fluid and a spicy perfume, like the one Jesson always bought for Karen in the duty-free, a mix of lilacs, cinnamon and freshly cut limes.

Karen was dead. On the way home from a party, a police cruiser had slammed into the tram. The officer had been chasing a suspect when his cruiser skidded, crashed through a bridge rail and fell to the causeway below. He remembered how the cruiser chassis disintegrated as it bounced toward the tram, relentless. In his youth, Jesson had been one of the most decorated pilots ever. But he couldn’t do anything about the tram, which deposited Karen directly into the path of the debris. He had been sitting three rows forward, next to a colleague. Jesson walked away without a scratch.

“I miss Mom,” said Evie sadly. “I’m sorry about the scooter. I should have checked it, like you always said. But I’m glad I’ll always be with you.” Again, she snuggled beneath his arm.

Happiness flooded him. The pain ebbed. Sometimes, he missed Karen desperately. His daughter was about to be a woman. He could warn her about machines or recommend books. But Karen talked to her about things he couldn’t even comprehend. Would Evie tell him about her first boyfriend? The new blouse she wanted? Would she talk with him like she used to talk to her mother, with low voices and secret smiles? What would Karen have told her about love?

He turned Davis down. He would retire and move back to Earth, where Evie could go to college. He’d buy an apartment nearby, where she could take weekend breaks. He wouldn’t be the kind of parent who hovered. Maybe, he’d find a woman to go to concerts and the theater with. Evie would apply to his alma mater. Someday, he might be a grandfather. He would take his grandchildren to see birds and ducks and squirrels. Until he left Earth behind, Jesson had never realized how much he enjoyed those kinds of every-day wild animals.

“Did you have a pet like Panta when you were a boy?” Evie asked. Panta curled in her arm. The bornite glimmered above her collarbone. The stone suited her. She would be beautiful like her mother, flame-haired and pale.

“Lots,” Jesson answered. “Dogs and cats and hamsters and even once a snake.”

“What did you do with a snake?”

“Mainly showed it off and fed it mice.”

“Ew!” Evie switched Panta to her shoulder, and the thorot blinked at him with huge, milk-white eyes.

“Frozen mice,” Jesson said, “though I did have to thaw them. We called him Sly. He was a pygmy boa.”

“I like animals that are soft. It’s nice when they can sleep with you. Daddy, can Panta come with us to Earth?”

Orcox had a strict ban on moving native species, except when they were destined for zoos. Evie would have to leave Panta on Mars. A great sadness came over Jesson. It wasn’t fair to lose a mother and a pet before you were even eighteen. His daughter would also leave behind her friends. She would have to get used to a yellow sun, which would burn her skin. He would make it right for her. He’d been a bad father, he knew. Karen said so. Too many missions, too many late nights away.

He shouldn’t have let Evie take the scooter. He was preoccupied with a report he had to finish. He had promised her that he wouldn’t take work on vacation, but of course he lied. Evie wore a new flowered top and flip-flops. After ordering another beer, he had waved her off without even saying goodbye.

Warm tears slid down his cheeks until he couldn’t feel them anymore.

“Dr. Jesson.” This time, a woman stood next to him. She wore a blue sweater and had thick black eyeglasses and no makeup. “Can you feel this?”

She frightened him. Had she been sent by the army? The woman had a nametag but it looked like someone had erased the letters.

Nametag held a tablet. “Dr. Jesson, can you tell me what day it is? Who is the president? Dr. Jesson, who is the president?”

Jesson had always been a gentleman, but he wanted to scream at Nametag. Stupid questions! He was a fuel engineer, Orcox’s best. He was a decorated pilot, he owned property on three planets. He had seventeen patents and was a millionaire. Once, he had been a husband.

But he couldn’t remember the president’s name. Lighterman? Delaney? They were presidents when he was a boy. He couldn’t remember the president’s name.

“March 15,” he said. Dr. Dick said March 15. Jesson’s voice was hoarse and wet, and he realized that he hadn’t spoken aloud in days. Yet he had been speaking so clearly to Evie.

“It’s March 21,” Nametag said. “You are in the sick bay on the Septima Clare. Do you remember what happened? You had a stroke, Dr. Jesson. One of the cleaners found you.”

A stroke. Did Evie know? “My daughter,” he said, trying to sit up. His body was like a sack beneath his head. “I don’t want to frighten her.”

Nametag had an odd look on her face. “Dr. Clark will be in to talk to you.”

He didn’t want to talk to Dr. Dick. He never wanted to see Nametag again. He was so thirsty. His stomach grumbled. Was he a prisoner of war? Again, he heard the tramp of the dark army and moaned. He would have Nametag and Dr. Dick fired. He was Dr. Andrew Jesson. He could have the entire place incinerated.

An icy cloth lay on his brow. He would have to let the housekeeper know not to expect him. Someone would have to help Evie with her college applications. He had a brother on Earth who he hadn’t talked to in years. They fought when his mother died, Jesson couldn’t remember why. When Karen died, his brother sent a condolence message that Jesson ignored. Surely, his brother would forgive Jesson for Evie’s sake.

Dr. Dick came several times and tried to get Jesson to talk. But Jesson always waited until the doctor left. Then Name Tag came in and he gave her the same treatment. The only one he wanted to talk to was his daughter.

“Sometimes, I don’t know where you are,” he said to her.

Against his side, she wriggled. “I’m always here. I’ll always be with you, Daddy. Tell me a story.”

How lucky was he? His daughter would always be as close to him as his left arm. He would be better to her, he promised himself. Maybe they could finally take that trip to visit his brother. Evie would meet her cousins and hike the Sawtooth Range, as he had as a boy. There was nothing like children to heal wounds between brothers.

“He thinks his daughter is here,” Nametag was saying. She stood again at his bedside, next to Dr. Dick and the Indian.

“He has a lot to wake up to,” Dr. Dick said.

Jesson tried to grab the doctor’s lapel. But his hand only got as far as the bed rail before Evie caught it.

“Don’t you see,” she said, laughing. “This is the best possible news! We can always be together. There’s nothing more to worry about.”

“The army,” Jesson said weakly. The truth was that every time she spoke, he forgot about the army. There was something sad there, too, something that passed just outside the room. But as long as she was beside him, he would never have to open the door.