Knuckles rapped against the front door. The sound made me flinch, and I sprayed hot glue across my tired fingertips.
“Christ’s sake,” I said, wiping my calluses dry. I hauled myself to my feet, grumbling. Nobody ever came knocking with good news, anymore.
I cracked the door enough to see the boy’s face. It was that kid, Manny or Marty or whatever, from the hotel. Smooth-skinned, pale-eyed, and even taller than me. An Outer Colony tourist, through and through. His face beamed with hope.
“Lucita’s busy,” I said, a bit too harshly.
His cheeks sank. Behind him, the rain fell on the Martian wetlands in a slow rhythm of big drops. In the center of our floating parking pad, a sleek double-seater sat on cooling vertical jets.
“The Dance is tonight. We’re all busy.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Could you tell her–”
I shut the door, and shuffled back to my chair. The living room was a mess of faux feathers and polyester ribbon. It looked like a flock of plastic turkeys had dropped down the airshaft and exploded.
“Who was that?” Lucita stood in the hallway, eyebrow arched.
I waved a dismissive hand. “That boy. I told him you’re busy, because you are. We’ve still got all this lace to tie for the costumes, and we haven’t even strung the lights yet.”
I was making a move to sit down, but she stepped into the room and planted her hands on her hips. I wasn’t about to give her any extra height on me if this was gonna be a real argument, so I stood my ground.
“I’m not dancing,” she said.
“Like hell you aren’t.” I tried to keep my lip from twitching, the way it always does when I just said something I wish had come out nicer.
“It’s a stupid dance.”
“It’s your birthright. This is the Toloi Homestead, not some Daedalia slouch. Your grandmother was Mars’s greatest Rain Dancer–”
“Have you looked outside? It never stops raining. Maybe the dancing made sense back in New Mexico, or when Mars was still dry. But now the whole thing is a joke.”
I pursed my lips. Same damn argument as last year. Probably every year, since Thomas died.
“I don’t ask you to dance every day–”
“I’ve been slaving over these costumes for weeks. And the cleanup’s even worse!”
I rolled my eyes. The melodrama of youth. You’d think I was running a penal colony. “Why do you think Marty and the others are here to begin with? It ain’t the weather.”
“It’s Manny, Mother.” Her face ripened to a deep pink. “He’s from Callisto.”
“Whatever. If it weren’t for the Dance, he’d be vacationing on some Europan resort right now.”
That got her to bite her tongue. I seized the opportunity.
“You’d do yourself a favor to keep that boy at arm’s length. I know his type. He’s hunting for a native girl. Something exotic to take home and show off to his buddies.”
Lucita threw her arms up, and her fingertips grazed the ceiling. When my great-grandpa built this homestead, nobody could’ve imagined how tall we’d be in just a few generations on account of the lower gravity. Now all of us had to duck through doorways and make sure to keep our hair from getting sucked into the vents. Of course, nobody could’ve imagined we’d have to hoist the damn building onto stilts to keep it above the waters, either.
“How are you so sure?” she said. “You’ve never even given him a chance to talk.”
“I don’t have to. Already know what he’s gonna say.”
“He’s with the Brigade. He helps people, Mother. More than you can say for yourself.”
I drew in a breath to retort, but she beat me to it.
“I’m gonna enlist.”
I clenched my hands into fists, and I could feel the tiny aches in each joint. “Like hell you are. You belong here.”
“Nobody belongs here, anymore. The Outer Colonies–”
“The yuppies can have their Outer Colonies. Cultural black holes, every one of them.” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation with the Dance just hours away.
“Mars is a complete failure,” she said.
“It’s our home. Always has been.”
Lucita eyed me skeptically, and I swore under my breath.
“Long as you or I can remember, at least. The answer is no. You’re not going anywhere. I need you here.”
“I’m an adult, I’ll do as I please. You can have your stupid backwater traditions.”
I was shaking so hard I couldn’t respond.
“Dad would be on my side,” she said. “He always was.”
That was all I could take. I pushed past her and stormed out the back, grabbing my coat and emergency gear on the way. Outside, at least nobody could tell my tears from the rain.
From atop the light tower, Solis Planum was a vast expanse of tumultuous water. It was a wonder they never changed the name of the place.
On the occasional days when the rain let up, the whole valley turned into a single mirrored sheet of water. Still enough to walk across, I always thought back when I was a kid. Papa would tell me stories about the oceans on Earth, how strong the tidal effect is down there. He said even the rain was different. Tiny drops hammering down real hard. Nothing like the big, slow drops we get here. Elephant tears, Papa always called them.
The harness dug into my hips. It didn’t feel good, but the activity was the best way to get my mind off Lucita. I inched farther up the light tower until the arcing fixtures were within reach. With each movement, the structure creaked as loud as my own bones.
I pulled the light coils from my backpack and started stringing them along the first fixture. Around the branch, then through the loops to hold them tight. Always making sure the transceivers were facing down. Just like Mama taught me. Just like I taught Lucita, years ago.
The thought of Lucita made my face hot. Where had I gone wrong with that girl? Was it because I decided to have her so late in life? Mama would’ve scolded me if she saw the kind of child I’d raised. Just like she did when I married an outsider. Diluting the lineage, and all that. As if Solis Planum had a plethora of quality male specimens.
To the north, the Valles Marineris hotels sprung out of the lake like the stamen of a water lily. Used to be prime real estate, before late-stage terraforming sent surface temperatures sailing and subsurface water surging past expectations and then some. No amount of hole plugging, greenhouse gas vacating, or dyke building made a bit of difference. Mars was flooded. Most everyone high-tailed it to the spanking new Outer Colonies.
Most everyone but us. The New Homestead Act had an ethnic diversity clause written in, the only way my people had been able to afford the ticket up here. Now, generations later, we were some of the only ones left.
I pulled myself onto the second fixture. The plastic creaked under my weight. These old towers were built from tough polymers, a hundred years back. But nothing lasts forever, and some of these fixtures had more patches than original material. All I could do was hope they’d hold out for another few years.
As I swung toward the end, I caught sight of the arena below. The bleachers wrapped around the floating network of dance platforms like giant arms. Big enough to hold five thousand. I shook my head. Hadn’t filled that many seats since I was riding paddle boats with the neighborhood kids. Now we were lucky if we sold two hundred tickets. Two hundred! And the profits had to last until this time next year. To think, Mama used to shun the tourists. Called them “oglers”, said they were diluting the spirit of the tradition. Everything was always diluting something, to Mama.
The creaks in the fixture were getting louder, and at the joint something popped. I started shimmying my way back to the center of the tower. Sounded like I was gonna have to patch this girl up again, after the Dance–
I reached the tower and paused. The popping noise was getting louder, and it wasn’t coming from the fixture. It was the tower itself. I clambered down as fast as my muscles could move. I was halfway to the waterline when the tower buckled and shook. The tower twisted and bent overhead, then snapped like an old bone. The top half swung down and clanged against the lower half. A pair of light fixtures pinned me to the ladder. The fixtures dug deep against my chest and legs. Only my left hand was unrestrained. Bolts popped along the base, and the whole tower tipped over. The water rushed up to meet me.
I reached my free hand over, punched the emergency broadcast on my wrist comms. It flashed once in the rain, then went dark. I sucked in a deep breath before plunging into the lake, still pinned between the ladder and those big fixtures.
Warm water rushed around me. Bubbles drifted to the surface. The tower carried me toward the lake floor. I struggled, but it was no use. I was trapped. Panic overtook me. I nearly let out a shout that would’ve cost me my remaining air. Just the thought of it got my attention, and I stopped struggling.
I reached into my backpack, groping around until my hand closed on the emergency breather. I popped the seal and squeezed the mouthpiece of the fist-sized device between my lips. Cold air blasted my mouth. I drew in a half-dozen breaths, then tried the supports again. I winced as metal dug into my side. It was no use. The more I struggled, the tighter the damn thing pressed against me. All I could do was hope the geolocator on my wrist comms had worked, and that Lucita wasn’t too far away.
The light from my headlamp pierced through the water like a beacon. Everything went silent, but for the pounding of blood in my ears. A strange sense of calm overtook me. I let the tower drag me down to my fate.
Objects took shape through the shadows. Big carbon fiber slabs and rebar. The old boardwalks. They were meant to be stopgaps, until the government could get a handle on the flooding. We used to play hopscotch on them, me and the neighborhood kids. Just like everything when you’re young, I expected them to stick around forever. But they were shoddy prefabs, and they didn’t last three years before they started sinking.
The tower carried me farther down. My ears popped. The light from my headlamp shone off a broad sunken platform. A shiver ran through my body. The old dance platform. Mama used to tell me how the first ones could only handle a meter of water during the rainy season. The new ones were an elaborate network of small platforms, allowing for buoyancy and portability. This was a giant, hulking mass of plastic. It would’ve been impossible to perform the Rain Dance on that thing. Had the Dance changed that much, in just a hundred years?
The tower came to rest at the bottom of the lake. Red silt drifted about me in a cloud. Next to me sat an old sign, battered and faded, half sunken into the tenuous Martian soil. I squinted through the haze. It said: “Toloi Surface Habitat. Est. 2065. Pop. 159.”
Toloi was the name of our homestead, built by my great-grandfather. All this time, I thought it was a Zuni name, brought over from Earth. But it seemed there were people living right here, even before the terraforming began. Were they Americans? Did they have their own Rain Dance? I imagined a bunch of people stuffed into those old-fashioned spacesuits, bobbing around on the surface of Mars in a silly attempt at a dance. The thought made me smile around the breather.
“Backwater traditions,” Lucita had said. The smile slipped from my face. Down here, there were generations of traditions, stacked on top of one another like strips of sedimentary rock. Each one silently giving way to the next. Fighting it was like stabbing at the rain. Just like playing hopscotch on the boardwalks, I expected everything in my life to stick around forever. Thomas. Lucita. The Dance. I’d been a goddamned fool, and now it was too late to admit it to anyone that mattered.
Nothing was coming out of the breather anymore. I held my breath and spat the mouthpiece out, watched it sink to the ground. Black spots crept in around the edges of my vision. My lungs burned. I struggled against the beams. The air streamed from my lips in a rush. The bubbles slipped past the old sign, drifted up through the generations. I imagined them bursting at the surface, carrying my lost apology to Lucita through the rain.
Light blinded me from overhead. Hands squeezed my sides, and plastic pressed against my face. Cold air blasted me in the nose and mouth. I sucked in a deep breath, then another. The light dimmed, and figures shimmered at my sides. Lucita. That tourist boy, Mickey or Manny, or whatever the hell his name was.
The heater was glowing at full blast and it was going to cost a fortune. But Lucita had insisted and I wasn’t in a position to argue just yet. Besides, it felt good on my water-wrinkled skin.
I wrung my hands. Damned tower. The Dance was just a few hours away, and now I’d have to run the whole thing at three-quarter illumination. The tourists would probably expect a discount. I suppose I should’ve been thankful that I wasn’t injured beyond a few scrapes and my battered pride, but the timing made it hard to think positive.
The clink-clink of teacups drifted in from the kitchen. Lucita. I had all these things to tell her, sentences I’d carefully constructed at the bottom of the lake. But none of it sounded right now. Maybe I’d hallucinated all that stuff I saw. Or maybe I just didn’t have the guts to say what needed to be said.
I settled deeper into my chair. Lucita had angled it closer to the heater, and when I leaned back I bumped the mantle. A picture frame went skittering across the floor. I grumbled and picked it up.
Thomas’s boyish face smiled back at me. It was one of his academy photos, and he was stuffed into that tight-fitting uniform with all its patches and shiny mylar. Good-looking man. He was leaning against the wheel of his transport shuttle without a care in the world.
“Tea’s ready. Mother, you really shouldn’t go out by yourself–”
It was too late to smooth over my expression. By the time I looked up, Lucita had big worry lines running across her face. She set the tea down.
“It fell,” I said dumbly.
Lucita was about to say something, and I was afraid of what it might be. So I opened my mouth and the words just came tumbling out.
“I got so mad at your father after he died. If he’d just taken a surface job like I was always saying, instead of piloting those damn shuttles up to Orbital, he’d still be alive. He’d be sitting over there right now. Stringing beads and laughing and bringing smiles to everyone in the room.”
Lucita knelt down beside me.
I shook my head. “Back when he was in the academy, a little after I took this picture, we got into a big fight. I didn’t talk to him for months and eventually he started seeing another girl. Kayla. Curly hair, smooth skin. Fresh out of the academy, down from Europa. She wanted to take him off world, back to the Outer Colonies. Nearly succeeded, I reckon.”
Lucita watched me with her big brown eyes. “What happened?”
“He came down to the homestead one day. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure it was to say goodbye. But it just so happened to be the night of the Rain Dance. So before he could talk to me, he had to hang around the arena. He’d never seen me dance before. I was real self-conscious, afraid he’d think it was a silly tradition.”
Lucita flinched. “Mother, I–”
“Turns out, he didn’t think that at all. After the Dance, he asked me to marry him. Said he didn’t have a ring or nothing, admitted that he didn’t have it in mind when he came down on the shuttle. But he said that after watching me dance, he couldn’t imagine living another day without me. I told him if he was still around for next year’s Dance, I’d marry him. From that day forward he never missed a Dance.”
“I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t. I never told you.”
Her eyes sank. “Earlier today, I didn’t mean–”
“I know. I ain’t bringing it up to make you feel bad. Thing is, sometimes I think he’d have been happier if he’d gone with Kayla. Sure, he had a good life while he was here. But he had the soul of a wanderer, just like you. After he moved in, every time the rain would stop I’d catch him sitting on the roof.” I pointed up, as if she didn’t know where the damn roof was. “Just sitting there, staring up at the night sky. And his face. It was the only time I ever saw sadness on that face. Through all the laughter and the good times, he carried a deep longing for the worlds he’d never see. There was a part of him that could never be happy here.”
I looked down at Lucita, kneeling at my side. “Now I realize I’ve been sticking the same cage on you.”
She rested a hand on mine and I could feel her warmth on my skin. We sat there for a few minutes, not saying a word. Then she cleared her throat.
“Father loved it here,” she said. “And so do I. Wherever I go, this place will always be my home.”
I gave her hand a squeeze. I didn’t ever want to let it go. But eventually I had to.
“Tell me about this Brigade,” I said. “But tell me quick. I’ve got a Dance to run, and you’ve got a date with that boy Manny.”
I wrapped my hands around the straps and gave them a tug. My costume’s wire frame sprang up around me in a whir of blues and blacks. I cinched the fabric tight around my waist and shoulders, then draped the feathers over my neck. My Mama’s moccasins were a second skin as I tapped out a warm-up to get the blood flowing. I planned on giving them to Lucita one day, as long as they hadn’t fallen apart by then. I planned on doing a lot of things.
I slit the curtains. The crowds were still settling in beneath the big sweeping rain-guards. A buck-fifty, if I was lucky. I shook my head. Who was I fooling? This was never about the money. I’d find a way to get through the year. The drummers had already started pounding that deep, resonating beat, and all my bones wanted to do was dance.
I wrapped the proximity band around my forehead and flipped it on. A staticky tingle shot down my neck and across my arms as the field established parity with the surrounding air. It felt like being hugged by a big teddy bear. It ate up batteries like crazy, but it was the only way to keep the rain off the costume. Lucita always loved watching the rain stream down around her from inside the invisible bubble.
I let out a sigh. This would be the first time in all my years I’d be dancing solo. Whether it was Mama or Lucita, there’d always been someone at my side. Helping each other into our costumes. Lunging and leaping across the platforms. The times with Lucita were always the best. Watching her move, as fluid as the water, as graceful as this planet.
The drums beat louder, then slapped to silence. Fabric rustled behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, irritated at the distraction.
There she was, dressed in her ceremonial garb like a Zuni-Martian princess. She smiled at me, that big, warm smile of hers that just takes over the whole room. Her father’s smile.
“Hi, darling,” I said.
She hustled to my side in a flurry of feathers. I opened my mouth, but she squeezed my hand before I could get a word out.
“Let’s dance,” she said.
I turned and thrust the curtains open. The crowd rose to their feet. The way they were cheering, there could’ve been a thousand of them.
The drums and the Dance swept Lucita out into the night. She spun and kicked. Those big elephant tears burst all around her proximity bubble in slow-motion explosions. She danced faster and smoother even than Mama. That night, my little Lucita was the best Martian Rain Dancer I’ve ever seen. I knew it was the last time I was gonna watch her dance, and I’m pretty sure she knew it too.
I turned my gaze upward at the thick clouds overhead. I imagined all the stars up there, and a whole lot closer, the Outer Colonies. I reckoned at least one of them could use some rain right about now. I hoped that once Lucita got there, she’d keep on dancing. Bringing the rain where they needed it most.