With a song in their hearts the
celibates of Mars gaily relived—
THE GEISHA MEMORY
By WINSTON MARKS
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Peter Duncan lay strapped, drugged and supine on one of the eighty narrow bucket-couches on the passenger deck and was miserably, continuously sick. It was not a nice steady nausea that a man could adjust to. Nor even a rhythmic vertigo like one suffered from an ocean liner wallowing in ground swells. It was a shifting, sliding instability in three dimensions, as the Mars-bound vessel responded to automatic radar controls.
The concept of interplanetary space being empty was long since an exploded myth Duncan was reminded as the space ship veered, accelerated, decelerated and corrected course to avoid collision with meteorites approaching from thousands of miles away.
That seventy-nine other passengers and the whole crew were suffering as much as he, was little comfort. They, at least, had a substantial reason for being here. Aside from the money, in which Duncan, too, shared, these others were vital players in an enormous game, supplying energy-starved earth with fissionable materials from the inexhaustible mines of Mars.
The single ship was the only link between the two planets, and it represented earth’s greatest extravagance in history. The passengers, replacements for eighty mine workers who had served their four years and 100 days contract time, provided the essential manpower. For them it was important work and brought them not only the $100,000 contract fee, but also membership in the highly honored and exclusive fellowship of the Mars Society. Back on earth they were assured a life-long position of fame and wealth. To facilitate the recruiting of future crews, public relations man, Peter Duncan, was to see to it that romance and glamour surrounded the Mars Society with honor bright and a yard wide.
And it wasn’t easy. The rigors of the round trip, alone, were no secret on earth. After thirty years operation, most visions of romance in space flight had been dissipated by the grim details of the stomach-wrenching journey.
Duncan was new to the job. And too young for the job, he had thought. But now the joker was apparent. Senior publicity men in the employ of General Fission enjoyed the high pay and conventional public relations work with their feet comfortably secure on earth. But G.F. needed a 25-year-old for this assignment that broke all precedents. Experience came only with age. And age was the disqualifier for space ship travel. It was not his Phi Beta Kappa key his employers admired, but his youthful circulatory system, his sturdy, compact skeletal structure and above all his emotional stability quotient.
And the world-shaking assignment for this proud package of manhood was to track down the meaning and implications of a song. A song that had seeped out of the bistros and night clubs of earth, a song that could have no other origin than returned space miners. There were endless verses to it, but the last lines were always similar. Several stanzas ran through Duncan’s brain to the tune of the ancient patriotic ballad, America The Beautiful.
“We want to know,” Duncan had been told, “what the devil is going on out there!”
“Why not cross-examine the returned miners?” Duncan had asked. The answer was simple. They wouldn’t talk. There appeared to be a conspiracy to keep secret the significance of the song’s suggestive last lines.
Never had a taint of immorality touched the Mars operation. When the first party of young women were included in the crew ten years ago, eyebrows had been raised. But subsequent returnees had given no cause for the slightest whisper of impropriety.
They couldn’t afford to.
The rules were hard and uncompromising. On Mars, no female member of the company was allowed to associate with any male except in working hours and within the strictest limitations of her official duty. Twenty women and one hundred forty men lived in complete segregation. Violation of this rule imposed a $10,000 fine on each of the violators.
When Duncan had asked the obvious question he learned the fantastic truth: In spite of General Fission’s world-wide recruiting campaign, they couldn’t fill their quota of 80 men for the half shift change every other year. After the physical examinations reduced the thousands of applicants to a few hundred, the emotional tests took their toll. Of the remainder, 10 berths always remained open—the housekeeping, supply and medical care jobs went begging. Women were the only answer.
It was not difficult to recruit suitable female candidates for the 20 berths. The complications came with the problem of a mixed crew in isolation for over four years. Marriages would be inevitable if allowed. But in Mars’ reduced atmospheric pressure pregnancy would be fatal to mother and child. Hence, the segregation rule.
Until the song reached Earth, all had gone well. Young people selected for their emotional stability seemed able to withstand the terrible loneliness. But now—the song. And the whisperings that were threatening to disrupt the whole recruiting campaign. These young people were subject to the influences of their parents, churches and sweethearts. Even this tenuous wisp of smoke might indicate fire. And if the verses of the song became one shade more ribald, G.F. would whistle for qualified applicants. A wide open scandal could wreck the whole enlistment program.
Back on earth the problem had presented Duncan with a provocative challenge. Now, 20 days out, with 42 days travel ahead, his thoughts were wrapping into a tight spiral of resentment. His imagination had run the gamut of every possible situation he might find, each more lurid and revolting than the last. He cursed man’s lustful nature that made this whole mission necessary, and in particular he blamed the Mars colony for the physical discomfort he was being forced to endure. What kind of medal might they award him for spying on a herd of billy-goats and weak-willed nannies?
A buzzer vibrated under his arm. It was his turn for exercise. Wearily he unfastened the webbing that strapped him to the g-couch and hauled his way forward to the tiny physical therapy chamber. They were in so-called free flight, but the lurches required that he hold fast to the padded rail and move hand-over-hand.
There would be the tension exercises, then a “shower” with a damp towel. Then meal time. He made a face at the thought. So far he had been able to eat fewer than a dozen meals orally. His arms already were becoming freckled with scars from the intravenous feedings and anti-vertigo injections.
To his considerable surprise he was able to step through the air-lock and descend the steep, cleated ramp to the surface of Mars under his own power. The setting sun was a tiny, hot eye burning across the reddish orange plains. A light breeze refreshed his face after the rank humidity of the space ship. But the mask through which he breathed and the oxygen bottle on his back reminded him it was an unfriendly wind, the movement of a thin ocean of nitrogen in which a man could drown within minutes. He sucked gratefully at the low-pressure oxygen, and in silence shuffled after their guide.
Gravity was only a third of earth’s. After weeks of free-fall and the last hours of heavy deceleration, the replacements stumbled drunkenly seeking their land legs. A half mile from the ship the lights of the mine and lesser glow from the settlement alongside guided their course. As they neared the village he could make out a sprawl of squat, box-like buildings of a dull, silvery finish. They were the thin-walled, magnesium alloy structures in which Duncan would sleep, eat and spy until the next ship-landing.
Behind him the holds were gasping open and beginning to disgorge the massive supply cargo that must keep 160 souls alive for 780 terrestrial days. Fragile appearing trucks rumbled out and passed the group. A pair of spindly cranes that could barely have supported their own weight on earth, jounced behind tiny jeep-like tow-cars.
Now the sun was below distant low hills. Duncan noted the suddenness of the sunset, and as he looked, Phobos, the nearer moon rose out of the west, a huge crescent like the stage moons on earth. Only 3700 miles from Mars’ surface, it would race overhead in the space of minutes. Even in the dark, its progress could be followed by the disk of blackness against the stars. Now the crescent lay horizontal and narrow, but even as he watched, the sliver fattened and separated itself from the low mountain range.
The new group was waved into the largest building, through a double entrance of curtains. Inside was air. Everyone was removing his mask. Evidently this was the recreation room. A small stage at one end held a man and ten women.
When they were all seated in the rows of chairs, the man on the rostrum arose and spoke. “Fellow PhD’s and fatheads, may I welcome you to your new home for the next,” he looked at his wrist watch, “781 days, six hours and 18 minutes.” He was short, blond, powerfully built and pleasant of face. A rather pale, symmetrical blotch of skin containing his mouth, nose and part of each cheek, was outlined by his heavily sunburned complexion. That would be the shadow of his oxygen mask, Duncan surmised. “My name is Lee Bowen, your newly elected spokesman,” he went on. “My chief qualification is the biggest mouth and the loudest voice on Mars. Before you leave you will have two elections in which to vote, but until the next ship comes you’ll have to put up with me. And the girls here.” He waved forward one of the slack-suited females. Like the others she looked intelligent, but her closely cropped brown hair and loose-fitting clothes almost concealed her sex. Her face was pretty but seemed pale without make-up. “Discretion is the better part of pallor,” Duncan punned to himself.
“Dr. Martha Rice is spokesman for the ladies.” Bowen bowed briefly and stepped back.
The girl smiled and looked them over thoughtfully. “We have problems here. I would like to emphasize a couple of them. Please don’t cut yourself, shaving or working. The slightest wound in our low atmospheric pressure requires a compress bandage. They are nuisances. A modestly deep gash can cost you your life.”
She paused and studied them some more. “And so I hope you are all careful or at least thick-skinned. For another reason, too. Our second problem here is the high price of love.” The nine girls behind her laughed as she looked back at them, but her face became serious.
“You were led to believe that a kiss would cost you only $10,000.00. Well, you were misled. The price is $20,000, and the market is wide open. Any one of us will accommodate you, but you’ll have to pay our fine as well as your own.”
Duncan gasped at her first words, then, as they sank in, he smiled. Morale, good. Morals, even better if this wasn’t just an act. Applause was enthusiastic, but there were no whistles.
Bowen came up again as the girl sat down. “Remember that, gentlemen. You came up here to earn a tenth of a million dollars. Believe me, you’ll earn it. But don’t kiss it away. It’s only worth five kisses up here, and these girls will put you on report if you lay a finger on them. If they don’t, they go on report.”
The first two days were spent unloading supply cargo and stowing it. The out-going passengers took care of loading the stockpile of concentrated minerals, so Duncan had no chance to talk with them. On the third morning the ship was launched. The bustle of activity died, and Duncan moved into the smooth mining routine like the polished cog that he was.
Personnel training was done on earth. All were preassigned to their tasks, so the old crews had only to point. The mining operations went on as if no replacements had been made. The men’s work was roughly divided into outside and inside work. Duncan’s inside specialty was feeding samples to a spectrograph and assisting the nuclear chemist in charge of the lab. On alternate days he took his turn in the field tending excavating equipment.
Since the mine was located near the equator, this alternation of the whole crew was necessary to reduce exposure to the miniature sun that provided so little useful heat, yet whose ultra-violet pierced the cloudless, thin atmosphere with vicious intensity.
No one went hungry, but as the weeks passed the seeming variety of food rations disappeared. The monotony of dehydrated vegetables and meats palled. But worst was the silence. For ten hours each day almost no communication passed among the workers. All breathable oxygen had to be extracted from the oxides of minerals, and the by-product oxygen from the mining operation was barely enough to supply the total demands of their masks. So even the inside working areas were left to Mars’ unbreathable gases, and masks could be removed only in off-duty quarters.
Chief occupations in off-hours were games of chess, reading, writing and activities that used a minimum of conversation. No one felt like talking much after a full shift of sucking hard at oxygen to keep up with his body’s demand. Although the lessened gravity appeared to make all physical labor easy, Duncan could never remember such complete fatigue at the end of a working day. He ate, worked, played chess and slept 10 hours a day.
The women replacements had disappeared into their compound and were seen no more. He wondered at the type of indoctrination they were getting. Did it include an item concerning the use of loving hands? Strangely, the men made no reference to the women, and he was reluctant to draw attention by broaching the subject.
The living quarters, mess-hall and recreation spaces were grouped intimately, but placed in such a manner that windows and entries allowed no casual glimpses of the women from the men’s areas. Complete security in the matter of segregation appeared to be guaranteed on the honor system alone. All 140 men slept in one long bunk-room, all 20 women in another.
Intelligent men are not easily bored, but Peter Duncan discovered a certain restlessness developing among the new men during the fourth month. There was a tendency to break off in the middle of a chess game, or to speak tersely. Duncan ascribed this to a phase of adjustment, because the second term crew seemed better tempered.
Then it began to bother him. He found himself developing an unreasoning impatience. He began using profanity at slight annoyances. The stiff soreness of chest, neck and back muscles became chronic, and he began laying awake listening to his own rapid breathing, begrudging every inhalation of his overworked lungs. The devil with expense! Why didn’t they at least pressurize the sleeping quarters so a man could get some decent rest?
He recognized the symptoms of increasing irritability in himself as it distracted him even during his work. But he couldn’t put his finger on the cause. It grew worse. During the twelfth month he reached a stage of exasperation that almost cost him his life.
He was tightening a bolt on one of the spindles. The second time his wrench slipped off the nut he squared away and threw the spanner at the horizon. Too late he saw his crew-mate, geologist Magnus Porter. Horrified he watched the wrench arc three times as far as it would have on earth, and strike Porter in the face. He went down.
When Duncan reached him the scientist’s face was gushing blood, and his smashed mask hissed its charge into the sterile air. Fortunately, they were on the camp side of the pits, only two hundred yards from sickbay. Porter weighed no more than a blanket roll, and the odds seemed good at first. But before Duncan had bounded half the distance his lungs pumped to the bursting point. His vision dimmed, and his legs faltered. He tore off his mask, pressed it to Porter’s face, gulped a chest full of dead air and screamed for help.
Red streaks of pain tore through his head, down his neck muscles and into his chest. The slightest breathing movements racked his lungs, but, incredibly, they sucked in rich, sweet oxygen, heavy and dense.
He knew he must be in a compression tank. The whispering pump and muffled sound of voices outside were evidence enough, although he couldn’t open his eyes.
The mists cleared quickly now, and the voices formed words. He recognized Martha Rice’s voice. “—anoxia. I can’t determine how severe. Have to wait and see. He may be all right when he gets over the headache. Then again there may be permanent brain damage.”
Duncan hurt too much to care. He passed out again. When he regained consciousness he realized the pressure was reduced, for his lungs were pumping hard again. Then the coffin clanked apart, the sides dropped and he was trying to focus on the ring of female faces that surrounded him.
“Hiya, Mister?” Martha’s face settled down to a recognizable fuzz-ball.
His head was clear now, but his throat was too tight to consider speaking. He stared back blankly. The physician shook her head, misunderstanding his failure to respond. A nurse rigged an intravenous bottle, and they left him to his thoughts. He slept again, restlessly this time. He dreamed of the accident, the wrench floating with terrible slowness toward Porter. Abruptly, he was back on earth. His mother was rubbing his neck and shoulders. Her hands were soft and reassuring. They kneaded down over his pectoral muscles and massaged his whole chest. But how did his mother know his chest hurt. You don’t hurt your chest playing tennis. But this chest did hurt, and the firm, supple hands brought it warmth and life. His mother understood—
His eyes flipped open, and he stared into the inverted face of a nurse, stubby blonde curls bobbing crazily as her body swayed over him. “He’s up,” she said aloud.
Dr. Martha Rice moved into view. “I’ll take over. Save yourself for tonight, Muriel. It’s getting rougher.”
The physician’s hands replaced the nurse’s, but the gentle, rhythmic touch was the same. Duncan relaxed in an orgy of tactile ecstasy.
“You are Peter Duncan. Do you understand?” she asked. He blinked, and she took that for affirmation. “In fact,” she continued, “you are now Hero Peter Duncan.”
This didn’t register right. Hero? They must have saved Porter’s life, but they didn’t realize how it happened. And now she was misconstruing his puzzled expression. “I am Dr. Martha Rice. Remember me?”
All Duncan could think of now was the hands. Loving hands. What was the right answer? If he answered wrong the hands would stop. He closed his eyes. Loving hands. He remembered his mission.
How could he have better arranged it? This was ideal. By feigning slow recovery he could—
The hands stopped. A finger peeled back an eyelid. “You are awake. Come to, mister!”
Duncan opened the other eye and stared at her and let his lips part. “Thuh!” he grunted.
It was night. Duncan was detached from the intravenous needle and tube, and a small compress bandage covered the throbbing vein where his blood had boiled out when the needle was withdrawn. He had decided to reveal enough recovery to take oral nourishment.
The wall chronometer, adjusted to the slightly longer Mars’ day, read 2300, an hour before midnight. He was alone. It should have been quiet, but several times heavy footsteps had passed down the hall near his tiny room. The sick bay was attached to the women’s quarters.
Distinctly he heard an outside door open and the clump of safety boots passed his room. Slipping off the high bed he opened his door and looked into the hall. It was a man. Even in the dim light there was no mistaking the broad physique.
Duncan whipped a sheet around his nude body and followed a few yards to where the visitor had disappeared through a curtained arch. Before the curtains stopped swaying he saw the outlines of cots within. It was the women’s sleeping room! His stomach turned cold.
So the legend of the song was based on fact. And his trip out here was justified after all. And what now, after he had uncovered the mess with his own eyes?
He approached the curtains uncertainly. A sob from within startled him. It was a man’s cry. A girl’s voice said something softly reassuring, and all was still again.
Duncan lurched through the arch and stood rooted. The denunciation died in his throat. Twenty single bunks were spaced around the walls. Each was occupied, but only three girls were asleep. The rest were sitting on the edge with their feet on the floor. At each girl’s feet with his back resting against her legs was a member of the male company. The pale light of Deimos, Mars’ second moon, shone through the overhead panes to reveal the secret of the loving hands.
Duncan watched seventeen pairs of arms encircling the necks of as many men, hands reaching down under loose jackets to massage aching chests and rising to knead gently on tired shoulder muscles. Fingers strayed tenderly over masculine foreheads and necks with unmistakable caressing motions.
The prone figure near him stirred, and a sleepy face looked up at him. “Oh, my gosh, it’s Duncan!” she said. It was Martha Rice. She slipped from the blankets and drew him over to her bunk. “Sit down,” she invited.
Stunned, Duncan lowered himself to the edge of the bed. “No, not there! Down, boy! On the deck,” she pointed. “The fellows would get the wrong idea, patient or no patient.”
Duncan complied, leaning against her warm legs as the others were doing. She sighed, yawned audibly, and began the massaging routine. With the touch of her hands the confusion left Duncan’s tortured mind. Propaganda, morality arguments, missions into space and the importance of $10,000 fines disappeared. This was real. A woman’s heart reaching out through her hands to comfort her man. It was physical, but it transcended the physical. It justified the rigid segregation rules even as it glorified them and violated them.
The need of man for woman was too great for any barrier. And no woman could refuse giving of herself when the need was desperate enough.
Three more men came through the curtains.
Two found girls, but the third stood hesitantly. A girl on the next bunk from Duncan and Martha, rubbed her man’s head briskly and said quietly, “Good night, mister. Got another customer. See you soon.” She waved in the new man as the other heaved reluctantly to his feet. “Good night, honey,” he said simply and left.
Men stepped over Duncan’s legs coming and going, without remark, without greeting.
Almost no conversation took place. A whispered good night or a soft word of comfort, and then minutes of silence except for the rustle of deep sighing breathing.
Then Martha’s hands stopped. She pulled him to his feet and led him toward the arch. Instantly several girls’ heads turned toward them. “Want help, Doctor?” one asked almost sharply.
“No thanks, Claire. This boy’s sick.”
She led him back to his room. He turned his back to the bed as though to sit down, but instead he moved to her. She slid into his arms as though it were rehearsed, and he crushed her close to him. Through their light garments he felt her body strain for a brief moment then completely relax. She peeled away from his lips.
“Mister, that will cost you just $10,000. You’re on report!”
The shock of her voice was a cold plunge back to another reality. Duncan’s hands fell to his sides and he sat down heavily, head bowed. Martha lifted his legs, untwined the sheet and tucked in the blankets. Suddenly she dropped to him and pressed her face to his. “You poor devil! You poor, poor, devil!” Her tears rolled down to his face, and she cried unrestrainedly for more than a minute. Duncan kept his hands at his sides, and it was his greatest triumph of self-control.
He gave himself two days to affect recovery. On the second morning he called for Dr. Martha Rice. She came in alone, her darkly handsome face inscrutable. “You are better, I hear. For exactly how long have you been feeling better?”
Duncan smiled. “Long enough to want to get out of here. How is Magnus Porter?”
“He left an hour ago. He’ll wear a bandage for a week, but your mask saved him from anything serious. That was quite a gesture, my boy. As I mentioned the other night, you are on report—”
“—for a citation for heroism beyond the call of duty.”
“You’re quite a girl, yourself,” Duncan said. “Where are my pants? I have some ore to get out before the next ship. We mustn’t return short of cargo, must we?”
“What do you mean, we? You have a term and a half to complete,” she said.
“I’m here on a special assignment, and we’ll be going out together on the next ship.”
“I will, but you—you! What kind of special assignment?”
“Some fuddy-duds down sunward had some foolish ideas about reducing the crew out here by some twenty persons. You know, trying to save money. I’m to report upon your dispensability. I will be pleased to report that the women’s contingent is completely and magnificently indispensable to General Fission. Which reminds me, will you have dinner with me when we get home?”
Martha was somewhat paler. She leaned against the door. “And I put you on report!”
“Answer my question, girl, and hand me my pants.”
“Your question? Oh. Yes. Yes, of course, I’ll have dinner with you. Here are your pants.”
“And breakfast and lunch?”
“Is this a proposal?”
“Proposals on Mars violate our contract. So do propositions, so let’s just call it a date.”
“Date?” Martha fondled the word that sounded so alien and lovely. She smiled. “All right, Peter, it’s a date.”#ENGLISH