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A Complete Disaster
I was dangling from a rope, fifty feet up the side of a great pillar of red Martian rock, with my arms buried in a sopping curtain of tanglemoss and bury-beetles trying to build a hill over my head, when I finally realized I had chosen the wrong summer vacation.
My friend Matthew, Viscount Harrison’s son, had invited me to spend the summer with him. But no. I’d decided to come home instead.
What an idiot.
Right about now, Matthew’s family would be settling down for their tea or going for a quiet stroll in the warm afternoon air. In the evening, when the glitterswarms rose from the depths of the Valles Marineris to spread like a cloth of gold across the sky, they would raise a toast to King George, like any normal family on British Mars.
What they would absolutely, definitely not be doing was swaying dangerously halfway up a giant stack of rock, hunting for an angry bushbear.
This hadn’t exactly been my plan when I got up this morning.
What I had planned was to get my latest copy of Thrilling Martian Tales, lock my bedroom door, and be left alone until lunchtime. I’d finished my chores and even made a great big “Do Not Disturb” sign for my door—to keep my little sister, Putty, out.
In the last issue of Thrilling Martian Tales, Captain W. A. Masters, British-Martian spy, had been left hanging by one hand from a mountain temple while the tyrant’s dragon swooped down upon him.
I’d hardly been able to sit still all month, waiting to find out what would happen in the next issue. If I had been Captain Masters, I would have waited until the dragon was almost upon me, then launched myself onto its neck, clambered onto its back, and battled the tyrant riding it. But Captain Masters always did something unexpected.
Today, I would find out what.
Or I would have, if our malfunctioning ro-butler hadn’t wandered off, taking the mail with him.
I caught up with the ro-butler just in time to see him coming down the attic ladder carrying three parasols and a wig stand, but no mail. So, with a sigh, I climbed up into the horrific chaos of our attic to see where he might have put it.
I didn’t find my Thrilling Martian Tales, but what I did find was an infestation of crannybugs. The tiny creatures had snuck in during the night and built their little glass palaces under the rafters. Now they were hanging out their miniature silk flags. Soon, they would be multiplying.
I put my head into my hands and groaned.
Matthew had every issue of Thrilling Martian Tales, back to the rare issue no. 1 with the free clockwork death spinner that Captain Masters had used to destroy the Emerald Tyrant’s flying palace.
I’d never even read that issue. And there wouldn’t have been any crannybugs in Viscount Harrison’s house. If there had been, I wouldn’t have had to deal with them. Viscount Harrison’s valet would have sent out to Isaac’s Xenological Emporium for a consignment of catbirds to chase the crannybugs right back out of the attic. Or, if Isaac’s was out of catbirds, he might have sent the automatic servants up to the attic, armed with dusters and drills, to clear away the crannybugs’ palaces, and hope the creatures would leave in a huff.
But no. Here I was instead, while my family tootled about in their own little worlds, leaving it all to me.
Any normal family would do something that would actually get rid of the crannybugs, before they ate completely through the rafters and collapsed the roof down on top of us all.
Not my family.
My family is not good at that kind of thing. They wouldn’t notice the crannybugs until the house collapsed and they were sitting there in the dust and rubble, wondering what had happened.
Which left it to me to save us all from complete disaster, as always.
That was why, an hour later, Putty and I found ourselves on top of one of those pillars of rock, searching through the thick curtains of tanglemoss for the only thing—other than a catbird—that could clear out an infestation of crannybugs: a bushbear.
The bushbear is an evil-looking creature, all spikes and tongues and damp, moldy fur. It lives deep in the wet, slimy folds of tanglemoss, only peeking out at sundown with tiny, bloodshot eyes. If you can drag it into the daylight, it curls up tighter than a hedgehog and you can take it back with you to deal with the crannybugs.
Bushbears try to eat crannybugs, but that’s not what bothers the crannybugs. What they really don’t like is the bushbear’s horrible appearance and general bad temper. Put a bushbear nearby, and the crannybugs get so offended they move out.
Of course, first I had to find one, and that was turning out to be harder than I’d hoped.
From up here on the pillar of rock, I could see the whole of Papa’s estate. The house itself was a great, sprawling mess of a building on the shores of the Valles Marineris. To either side, thick stands of fern-trees whispered and chattered to each other whenever the wind blew, but in front of the house, the lawns stretched down to the water, and good English oaks lined the drive.
Right now, the lawns were being covered by stalls and trestle tables for Mama’s long-planned garden party, which was due to take place tomorrow afternoon. Ridiculous, fake native Martian hovels were being erected on the edge of the fern-trees, and workmen were arguing over the half-finished, towering dragon tomb that Mama was having built beside the water’s edge just for the party. Beside it, a steam lifter stood motionless, its enormous arms spread wide, puffing steam from its mouth into the clear sky.
The dozens of pillars of Martian rock behind the house formed a maze of gullies and dead ends. Mama had wanted them flattened so she could have a proper, carefully designed wilderness like the one on her father’s estate, but Papa wouldn’t hear of it.
Which was a good thing, because without the pillars, the blankets of tanglemoss wouldn’t grow, there would be no bushbears, and we wouldn’t be able to do a thing about the crannybugs that would soon collapse the house around our ears.
So, as I said, Putty and I were on top of a pillar of rock. Although, when I said “on top,” I meant Putty was on top, looking after the rope, while I swung halfway down with the rope around my waist, clawing through the thick moss.
I tried to imagine myself as Captain W. A. Masters, battling my way to the lair of a tyrant of Ancient Mars. Except Captain W. A. Masters would have a helichute or sharp-clawed grip-gloves and would swing easily down the precarious rock face. He certainly wouldn’t have to rely on Putty keeping him safe.
There’s something you should know about Putty. First, her name isn’t Putty. She’s my little sister, and her name is Parthenia, but “Putty” fits her far better. Putty is nine years old, three years younger than me. She is incredibly enthusiastic and as impressionable as wet putty. Show her a new idea, and she’ll throw herself into it like a diver from the top of a cliff.
A month ago, for instance, she met a photonic mechanician and spent the next few weeks poring over books about photonic capture and emission devices. Before that, she read an article by the celebrated xenologist Frank Herbert Kynes and decided to dedicate her life to the study of sandfish. She even got halfway through building a sandfish containment tank in the corner of her bedroom before she encountered the photonic mechanician. And before that … Well, you get the idea. Right now, Putty had decided she was going to be Papa. This was one of her more common obsessions. At least once a year, she turned herself into a little doppelgänger of Papa, complete with tweed jacket, disheveled hair, and eyeglasses she didn’t need, to Mama’s complete despair.
The other thing you need to know about Putty—and this one is much more important—is that she’s very easily distracted. Which might make it seem odd that I would be hanging fifty feet up in the air, suspended only by a rope that Putty was looking after. Well, it was odd. But the chances of me being able to persuade either of my older sisters, Olivia and Jane, to do anything so improper and unladylike were slightly less than zero.
Which left me with Putty, who was at least enthusiastic.
“I say, Edward.”
I shoved my way free of a fold of tanglemoss and shook the damp from my face. Putty was looking down at me.
“Are you holding that rope?” I shouted.
A guilty look crossed Putty’s face, and her head disappeared. A moment later, she reappeared. “Yes,” she called.
“What is it?” I said. I dug one hand deep into the tanglemoss, just in case.
“Is that a pterodactyl, do you think?”
I twisted around and squinted in the direction she was pointing. High above the house, coming toward us from over the glittering water of the Valles Marineris, was a tiny but growing black speck.
You don’t often see wild pterodactyls these days, but from time to time you can glimpse one flapping past, far out over the water. I’d heard there were several breeding colonies on the Chinese side of the Valles Marineris, and a hundred miles or so down the coast from us, well away from civilization, there was a pterodactyl reserve. Even so, it would be rare for one to fly so close to where humans lived.
The brightness of the sun and the glare from the water made it impossible for me to see the shape clearly, but it didn’t look quite right. It was bobbing and slipping from side to side in an unpredictable, jerky manner, quite unlike the usual smooth glide of a pterodactyl. A strange whirring sound accompanied it, too, growing quickly louder.
It sagged down briefly, almost catching on a chimney.
“Oh, no,” I said as I realized what it was. “Oh, no.”
It was a cycle-copter, but its balloon had almost deflated and was dragging behind it. From what I could see, its springs were completely wound down. Its rider was pedaling as fast as humanly possible, but it was hardly enough to keep the device up. The blades spun manically above his head.
The cycle-copter brushed the tops of the fern-trees, then tipped to one side and stuttered its way up again, heading right toward the pillars of red rock.
The rider wrenched one of his steering levers. His cycle-copter lurched around the first of the pillars, slipping sideways and down. The rider gave a shout of alarm and tugged the other steering lever. The cycle-copter straightened. Now it was aiming directly at me.
“Down, you idiot!” I shouted. “Go down!”
The rider’s legs spun even faster, and the cycle-copter surged up.
But not far enough. The pillars were at least a hundred feet tall. No amount of pedaling was going to lift a damaged cycle-copter and rider that high.
“No!” I yelled, waving my free arm wildly.
A grimace of horror crossed the rider’s face, and he did absolutely the worst thing possible. He let go of both steering levers and covered his face with his hands. The cycle-copter spun, completely out of control. It crunched into the pillar, not six feet above me, and buried itself in the tanglemoss.
The rope holding me parted, sliced neatly through by the copter blades, and dropped down.
Parts of cycle-copter clattered past me. A spring broke free with a twang. I hid my face in the tanglemoss. A shower of brass cogs spun by, bouncing off my shoulders and back.
“Edward!” Putty shouted.
I pulled my face free to shout back that I was unhurt, but before I could, a great tearing sound came from above.
The whole blanket of tanglemoss ripped free of the rock, and I was falling.
Copyright © 2016 by Patrick Samphire