The only habitable area of Mars is situated very close to Latitude
25° 40', Longitude 130° 50', approximately nine hundred
kilometres north-west of Adelaide, less than an hour's drive in
from the new Stuart Highway.
The soil is red enough there, perfect for Robert J. Enright's purposes, so construction and landscaping costs were kept below the originally-estimated 8.6 million figure. Old Enright built himself a length of canal straight out of the Martian stories of Bradbury and Burroughs (much of the money went on that slowly-flowing, carefully-reticulated re-cycling system), a sprawling Mars-style bungalow called Anness, complete with appropriately off-world-looking sand-gardens and sculpture-gardens, sun and wind-traps on the roof for power, dream-traps in the yard from whimsy and 'for his soul's sake', as he told the only person ever to hear all the details of his story, his trusted attorney and executor, Alisdair Ross.
Connie Ingleman sat in the office of this dignified, elegant, very cautious legal expert and was reduced to cipher-thoughts in his mind quick, bemused identifying thoughts that would have angered, but not surprised Connie Ingleman had she known of them.
Small, tight, beaten but not quite, he decided. Very nervous, yes, but not afraid. Interesting opposites. Plain. Very plain. Forgettably so. The sort of presence that never really registers, someone you look beyond in a crowd, see the spaces around rather than let yourself see as an actual person.
Though now she had his undivided attention, now, sitting across from him in the deep red-plush visitor's chair.
Alisdair Ross watched her across the width of his desk.
"Miss Ingleman," he said to her, reading from her letter, "You've got here: 'If I can make my own madness work, I will have done a good thing with a bad'. That's an odd, disturbing thing to say; an odd comment from a registered psych nurse. I assume you are as sane as I. Do you really feel that way?"
"Yes," the plain, sad-looking, hopeful (yes, that was definitely there too, emerging hope) woman said. "But I'd change part of it."
Of course you would, Ross thought. You've made it this far. "Oh? Which part is that?"
"I'd say: 'I will have done a good thing with something I have been made to feel is bad.' There's a difference."
Quiet words, but determined too under it all.
"Yes," he said. "An important and dare I say? shrewd amendment under the circumstances."
"I know it's transparent," she said, letting her gaze drop to her hands. Ross couldn't see those hands, but he knew they would be twisting the strap of her handbag. No amount of emerging hope could conceal her true nature. Though her next words surprised him. "Which is why it isn't."
"I'm clever, Mr Ross, but not that clever."
He regarded her shrewdly, studied this 34-year-old woman, her so ordinary face, plain, not ugly, just plain and that thin body. He did not believe that she was not clever, but accepted that she might not think she was.
"Tell me again why you came to me, Miss Ingleman. Tell me in a way which explains your last remark here in your letter."
"You have my professional record, Mr Ross. My bona fides and testimonials, countersigned by my last two hospital supervisors. I'm not a sociopath; I can fit in at Anness. I just need to . . . escape from here. From all this. I want to make my own madness work."
I don't understand her, Ross realized. We are not really communicating. Not a sociopath? Want to make my madness work? What did that mean? He did not ask about these things.
"Hm. Do you can you appreciate what's at stake here? The risk? There is no precedent, no provision for it in Mr Enright's arrangements, in his instructions to me. You don't know . . ."
"I just know he lost Garry four weeks ago. In Malaysia. I was Garry's nurse before that."
Ross frowned. Don't encourage her, he cautioned himself. "You don't know what it means."
Connie Ingleman actually leant forward, uncommon boldness now, part of the hope and fierce resolve pushing up. She knew she had chance.
"I know you haven't told him yet."
She flinched from the force of his reply, but said it again, as relentless and inexorable now as a snail's eye. "I don't think you've told Mr Enright that his son is dead yet. Which is why you agreed to see me."
"You think so? And why is that?"
"Mr Ross, Robert Enright is on Mars. Everything he knows has to be couched in that reality. You, better than anyone, know this."
"We talk by phone," Ross said, sounding defensive he realized, urging himself to go slow, but disconcerted by this queer mixture of hard and soft, bold and meek, timid and direct in the woman, wanting to believe, wanting to take this way out. "I can tell him that way. It won't violate our arrangement."
Connie Ingleman hunched forward even more, modified the intensity, the desperation of that. She looked uncertain for an instant. Only an instant.
"But you haven't. Because it has to matter, has to do him some sort of good. He loved Garry. Garry never accepted Mars, I know, because of what he told me in the hospital. He never forgave his father."
The alienation of it, Ross thought, noting the tragic joke, studying the peaked face, the desperate eyes of Connie Ingleman RN, trying to interpret it, trying to decide what he thought and felt. Enright had been 'on Mars' five years. Forty-two supply ship 'drops' in that time; 107 'radio' calls from 'Earth'. Hell, what did the settlement look like, he wondered, after five years? An old man like that, in his late sixties . . . sharp-witted, alert when he went in, and on the phone link, but how could he be sure? Those days of re-enforcing the 'Martian' reality . . .
"Garry . . . " he began.
"Don't say it, Mr Ross." The woman was startling now in her assurance. "Don't say that Garry was disturbed long before Mr Enright became a recluse. He told it another way entirely, just before he signed himself out of Dalwood. And what matters is that he still felt his father deserted him."
"Miss Ingleman, there were visits to Sydney, phonecalls, numerous overtures made long before Mr Enright's final decision to retreat to the property in South Australia. Garry had plenty of opportunities for reconciliation, for stating his case. I know his father could be a hard man he learned that back when he was a school-teacher. Had it re-enforced when he went into the redevelopment business. But he is a good man; he can be talked to. He thought he was trying, giving his best. Surely you, as Garry's nurse, would have known of Mr Enright's attempts. Garry disappeared. I never knew about Dalwood until now. What matters . . ."
The woman shook her head. The sight of it stopped him, the absolute certainty in the gentle way she did it.
"Mr Ross, all that matters ultimately was how Garry saw it. As abandoned, rejected. He signed himself into Dalwood, arranged payment of the bills, but gave us no background until the night I read to him from a science fiction story set on Mars."
"Mr Enright searched for years!" Ross said, feeling that Robert Enright's case had to be given fairly. "He was heartbroken when he retreated to his estate."
"Then Garry told me and only, me Mr Ross what his father had been planning for years. That's how I knew to write to you, how I know about Anness."
Ross nodded, staring down at the letter laid out on his desk. "Miss Ingleman, I don't think letting you go to . . . the estate . . . will do any good . . ."
"The plan will work," she said, eyes pleading it for her so much more urgently, Ross thought, than her whining words ever could. And she had not mentioned the obvious alternatives: Going to Anness without his approval, bypassing the security arrangements, or worse going to the media and making it all public, effectively destroying the old man's dream, drawing the curious, the daring, destroying everything.
He went to speak but she seemed to have read his doubts.
"I will be a Martian," she said, "coming in from one of his own deserts. Only to give a message, a prediction you would later confirm. To ease him into it. He has read enough stories: Bradbury, Dick, Ellison, others. I need not stay. Unless he wants me to."
"I can't just trust anyone."
"Here!" she said, powerful now, driven, slamming an envelope down in front of him next to her own letter. "From Garry. Written after he left Dalwood. Before he killed himself. You know his writing."
Ross snatched it up, glanced at the Malaysian postmarks, drew out the note, opened it and read.
Don't hate me for doing it after what we promised. It's just no good for me. Nothing's good but those times together, the stories you brought, the nights you just held me. Think of that, okay? Me smiling down at you. Think of those times. You made it better, really you did. Just forgive me now, okay?
She thought about them on the flight to Adelaide, the three men:
about old Robert Enright sitting before his length of canal somewhere
out there ahead in the night below her, pretending that it was
Mars, that there were no fences, no guard checks beyond those
Martian hills, no security systems; thought about Alisdair Ross
back in his office, happy enough, doing his best, managing the
investments, paying the bills, pretending to be on Earth, making
Thought about Garry, dear lost Garry, sweet means to an end, and their time in the hospital. About the stories she had read him, and how she finally surrendered her last bargaining piece in the game with men, her virginity, planning it all really, knowing who Garry Enright was.
Not for the money. How much happier Alisdair Ross was having those papers signed and filed away. It wouldn't stop a direct bequest with Garry dead, but at least there was some protection. It had made Ross feel easier about the plan she had put to him.
Connie Ingleman saw their faces. Quietly, with a smile no-one in the cabin saw, she went over what she would say then what she believed.
If I can make my own madness work, she thought, knowing that no-one could really understand what she meant by that unless they had lived it, then there can be some good, some chance.
She was mad enough in her own way, but not stupid.
Connie Ingleman had always been ordinary, one of the people in a crowd at school, at fellowship outings, in nursing lectures, one of those who simply made up the number, the quantity, the mass, a piece of the mosaic against which the other smiling, winning faces could be set. Part of the frame, never part of the picture.
Some people shone from corners, ruled from them. Connie had been lost in them, among others, others bland and branded by the ordinariness of their lives. Most made a virtue of it, went with the flow, but not Connie.
The madness in Connie Ingleman, the unlikely madness she had spoken of in her letter to Alisdair Ross, and again in his office, thought of now so sanely, was a curious one, never rated as such, never spoken of for what it was, unrecognized.
It was born out of fatalistic acceptance, out of the frantic, chilling, total realization that the frame was all there could be. It deserved being called by that name because it could fit anywhere, be hooked onto anything.
Connie, let's go prospecting for gold!
Connie, let's go on a houseparty to Stanwell Tops!
Okay. Whatever you say.
Connie, lend us your car so we can surprise Nancy in Melbourne. Yeah, you can come too!
Yes, madness was what is was. The madness which came from simply being less. Quiet frenzy at being trapped and unable to transcend, unable to matter in a way to match your own needs and expectations. Locked into ordinary.
Everyone should be able to transcend, she decided. Given the chance to understand the need and focus it, a fair chance. To be heard and noticed the way that Garry had come to notice her over the long months, the gentle patient warmth of her presence, the slow-burn of her smile, the way she read to him and put up with his anger, put up with his abuse, trying to persuade and coax him out of despair.
If the other nurses Kate and Trish, to name two winners had given him even half their attention on rounds, or learned who his father was, it wouldn't have happened. They were the ones who said kind things when they thought they were 'being nice to Connie', involving her, having heart-to-hearts. Their platitudes and consolations were insufferable. The meek shall inherit, one of them actually said that. Be grateful for what you have. Endure for a while and live for a happier day. There's always someone for everyone.
Lines coined by people with power, a messianic urge, opportunity. Frame-jumpers on their way, some of them. Powered by Connie's own madness themselves at one time, but forgetting it, transcending the frame. The madness goes once you're on the rise, measuring yourself against other standards, by simple possibility, no longer less.
But Connie Ingleman had been there in that ward in Dalwood, in that private room, patient, careful and caring. She sat there in the softly-lit passenger salon high above south-eastern Australia, on her way to Anness, and thought of the three men.
Yes, the frame was always there, all there could be. Unless it could take on someone else's picture, be used exactly for what it was.
In a way, going to Mars was easy, was nothing. But so vitally important, her chance to confirm what she was, be it and so be free of it.
Connie Ingleman's jump from the frame was powered by love.
Robert Enright sat on the long verandah of his bungalow and watched
the stars shining in two registers, down from the clear chill
Martian sky, and up from the cool, deep water of the Garry J.
Enright canal. On the roof the windmills turned steadily, bringing
in the life of the night wind, storing the power. Behind him in
the house he could hear the old Earth-time clock he had brought
all this way, ticking, ticking, ticking out the hours of his old
man's life. The clock was a deadly companion, but he never forgot
to wind it. He needed the reality of it; the way it took on the
role of the man standing behind the returning hero riding his
chariot in those Roman triumphs, the one who murmured: "Remember
thou art mortal!"
Enright stared along the quiet canal to the new plantings, to where his vegetable gardens sheltered under six pale moonswept geodesics. He never saw the second moon, of course, not at these latitudes. He listened to the wind off the desert wastes and the chirruping of lowly lifeforms, and his clock, and he dreamed.
Bed soon. And tomorrow, or the day after, he would possibly call Alisdair back on Earth, see how things went, ask him about the orbiters he had seen passing over, the occasional lights by night, the high faint contrails by day. For an-all-but-dead world, Mars had busy skies sometimes. Though none ever landed, of course. Never.
Five more minutes, Enright decided, watching starlight mirrored on the dark water, watching it curve up, reflect up into a solitary shape.
Enright sat up, leapt up, staring at the white figure by the canal, on his side, along there near the plantings.
Heading this way. Coming towards him.
There were enough doubts, there was enough Earth in this Mars for Enright to curse deep down, feeling the dream-fabric torn. That was one deep level and it was bitingly, infuriatingly, fleetingly there fleeting because of patterns, habits of seeing and thinking, fleeting because he had learned it in the beginning, to protect Mars, forgetting physics, devising solipsistic strategies, tactics of evasion.
He wished he had his gun.
Two levels of it, working as one, violating, thrilling.
Intruder. (Damn, Alisdair! Damn the security people!)
Martian. (Oh, my God! It can't be!)
"Mr Enright," the figure said, a female, thin, sharp-faced, walking with poise and purpose, vivid in the cool night.
"Wh-who are you?" Enright said, his voice croaking on the words.
"Asyr," she answered, at the edge of the verandah now, just standing there in a white robe and hood, watching him intently. "I am a Martian. The one you have been waiting for."
"What? What's that?" he said, hating her last comment, but loving it too, the unknown newness of it, the confident pre-knowledge, the implied sureness that there was some corner of this safe, pre-digested Mars he did not know about.
"There are none," he said, saying the rote words, reaffirming the practised reality.
"I am one of the last," she said, saying the rote words too, healing that same reality.
"But . . . wh-why?" Enright said, loving it, finding it deliciously perfect, a consummation. "Why are you here?"
"To bring you sad news, Robert Enright, last human on Mars. To tell you that tomorrow your friend, Alisdair Ross, will call you from Earth to tell you of the death of your son, Garry."
A dream in a dream could not harm him. Robert Enright believed nothing, accepted it all as vivid experience, as reality working. The clock behind him in the house ticked and shouted the count of his mortality.
"It is true," she said, "and I wish to share your grief." She stood there, unmoving, talking up at him with the canal at her back, very much as a Martian would, except there were no Martians anymore.
"Garry can't be dead."
"Do believe it, Mr Enright. It matters that you do. Garry is dead, and soon Alisdair Ross will confirm it."
"You look human . . ."
"Mr Enright. Robert. You know we can shape-change. (He did. Of course he did. In the books, yes!) I have taken the form of someone who once loved you, years ago, back on Earth when you were still a teacher. A little girl when you were a grown man. Too young for you. You never noticed her, one so young and plain, but she loved you with all of her tiny heart, really really loved. True love. I have taken that form, girl into woman as you see me, to bring this news of your dead son to you."
"Garry . . ?"
"Alisdair Ross will confirm it. Garry is dead now."
And his tears started, penetrating the dream, piercing the slow cool numbness with wet fire.
"Garry . . ?"
"Will you trust me, Robert? Will you?"
He nodded, discovering those tears on his cheeks. They told him it was true. Those and the hall clock counting the last years, the last experiences, murmuring behind him, the voice in the chariot, whispering at his ear.
He saw Asyr come up the steps to him.
"Will you hold me now and kiss me?"
He did it instinctively, bewildered and weeping, because it seemed absolutely the right, the perfect vehicle for his need, his loss, and men are not really made to refuse such an invitation from a woman, not ever, especially one entering at the level of dream.
He took her in his arms, fumbled his old man's kiss on her sharp face, her mouth, under those radiant, intense, sharp eyes. Those weeping eyes, matching his now. A plain face really, but striking too, this girl-form he had never noticed.
"I don't understand," he said, holding her, feeling her clinging, a Martian from the desert hills, hard up against him.
"I shall keep this form for as long as you need it," she whispered in his ear. "And I shall bring your son back to you. It has already begun, I can feel it. Garry's spirit is already living in me. Soon, soon, he will be here."
Enright clung and clung, feeling new tears over the first, believing her, believing what she said.
And tomorrow, tomorrow, he thought, holding her, holding his son, I will not wind the clock.
Originally appeared as an Eidolon Quality Pressbook from Eidolon Publications, January, 1992.
Reprinted in An Intimate Knowledge of the Night, Aphelion 1995.
Copyright © 1992 Rynosseros Enterprises.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.