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Jack is just another orphaned kid working the tourists, except Jack lives on Mars and works the Pavonis Mons Beanstalk Terminal guiding visitors through the delights and dangers of New Chicago City.
But his new client is a mysterious man named Aldan who wants to go into the Maze and take on one of New Chicago City’s most dangerous men. There is something different about Aldan, but Jack needs money to save Mary and can’t turn back now.
Can Jack survive and maybe, someday, find a way up that beanstalk and off of Mars?
Jack Who Works the Beanstalk
Robert J. McCarter
Jack looked small for his age, which was fine by him. Looking like he was ten when he was twelve was a competitive advantage. He had more experience, he knew more. When you’re competing for scraps from tourists, or the proceeds of an occasional lift, you took what you could get. And today he needed it all. Mary was counting on him.
Jack ran his fingers through his stringy brown hair, his sharp blue eyes watching everyone and everything. His face was dirty, his clothes ragged, and he walked with a slight limp. All of it on purpose.
His mouth still had the metallic tang from the cheap antibiotics he had taken and he wasn’t quite healthy, but he was well enough. Jack stood in his usual spot, under the scant shade of a mesquite tree in front of the Martian beanstalk terminal high on the slope of Pavonis Mons. The beanstalk rose before him out of sight; at first appearing large, about eight meters in diameter, but then thinning to an apparent thread as it reached to the red-tinged heavens. Several times a day cars slid down it bringing visitors or cargo from orbit.
From here you had “the best view in the universe,” as he was fond of telling travelers. Pavonis wasn’t nearly as tall as Olympus Mons, but sitting on the equator it was ideal for the beanstalk and there was water below the surface from ancient glaciers for the city. You could see New Chicago arrayed on the southern slope of the volcano below, and beyond it green patches of agri-land and the still mostly red expanse of Mars. And beyond that you could just make out the bulk of the CO2 mines as they continued to work, thickening the still thin atmosphere.
Jack longed to ride up that beanstalk, to escape to the moon, to the asteroid belt, or even Earth. But a sonofawhore like him never got to leave. He was destined to have a hard life of subsistence on a Mars that the rest of the solar system was no longer so enthralled with.
“Hey, mister,” Jack said to the man who had just exited the towering glass-faced terminal, its Gothic-inspired architecture harking back to when Mars’s future was much more promising. The man was dressed well but simply, and carried a metal briefcase. “Mister, do you need a guide? I’m the best, none better in all of New Chicago City.”
The man, who had a bland, forgettable face, looked down at the boy and their eyes locked. Jack always made eye contact with his clients. He knew it made him appear trustworthy, and he got to learn about them that way.
“What’s your name, boy?” the man asked.
“Jack, my name is Jack. What’s yours, mister?”
“Jack?” the man asked, shaking his head and smiling, pointing over Jack’s shoulder at the beanstalk. “You’re Jack, there’s the beanstalk. That’s good. I like that. Aldan. Call me Aldan.”
Jack’s brow furrowed; he didn’t understand what was so amusing about his name. “OK, Mister Aldan, where can I take you?”
“You don’t know about Jack and the Beanstalk?” Aldan asked.
Jack shrugged, sticking to business. “I’ll give you a good deal, only 50 creds for the day.”
Their eyes had remained locked for the entire exchange. That never happened; nobody looked you in the eye for that long. And Jack noticed something odd. The man had exited the terminal out into the bright Martian sunshine, but the irises of his gray eyes hadn’t constricted, not one bit. He would either have to be so high on kethylin that he couldn’t walk, or he was an artificial.
“50 creds, huh? Looks like you could use more,” Aldan said with a smile. “How about 75 a day for the next two days.”
“Sure, Mister Aldan, sure,” Jack said with a smile that masked his concern. No one ever offered more, ever. And while he had heard rumors of artificials, he had never seen one.
Most days after an exchange like this, Jack would have come up with a convenient illness and begged off. But not today, even though he was barely well. He needed the money and Mary needed him.
On Earth, in Chicago, they wouldn’t have really called it a car. It was a three-wheeled, open-air cart with a large solar panel on the top. It was adept at navigating the narrow sloped streets and sharp turns.
“Come on, Mister Aldan,” Jack said, tugging on the man’s sleeve as he moved quickly, his limp becoming more pronounced. “Come meet Junior, best driver in all of New C.”
Junior had brown skin, with bright green eyes, and was leaning against his car working his teeth with a bit of wood as the two approached.
“Junior,” Jack began, “this is Mister Aldan, and he has important business here, real important business. He needs a driver and I told him you were the best.”
“Happy to help,” Junior said with a tip of his wide-brimmed hat indicating for the others to get in his car before following. “Where can I take you, Mister Aldan?”
“To the Maze, please,” Aldan said casually, pointing down to the chaotic jumble that clung to the western edge of the orderly New Chicago streets.
Junior threw Jack a piercing glare. “Uhh, Mister Aldan,” Jack said, “that is not a safe place. Are you sure you want to go there?”
“Sure,” Aldan said, “I got the best guide and best driver in all of New Chicago; it shouldn’t be a problem, should it?”
Jack swallowed, forced a smile on his face, and said, “Nope.” He studied the man further. He was tall and thin and he sat with his hands on his lap, and both feet on the floor looking forward. His metal briefcase sat between his feet. Jack stole a few glances at the case; it was made of a burnished metal with two small black rectangles along the top edge. Jack figured they were fingerprint readers. He began regretting the 75 creds a day; he should be getting more for this kind of work.
“So what’s your business in the Maze, mister?” Jack asked once Junior had started driving. Jack knew Junior didn’t want to go, his tensed shoulders as he gripped the steering wheel told the story.
“I promised my aunt I would look up a relative of ours.”
“Yeah, what’s his name? The Maze is pretty big and if I can tell Junior which way to approach it, that would really help.”
“I think they call him Carl,” Aldan said.
Jack saw Junior’s shoulders rise up another notch. “Carl, huh? He doesn’t go by Carl the Caterer, does he?”
“Yes. That’s it.”
Junior gasped and Jack saw his knuckles go from brown to white as he gripped the steering wheel. Jack “accidentally” kicked the back of Junior’s chair.
“OK, mister,” Jack said with his heart beating fast and a smile on his lips. “Junior, go around the south end. You can park there and I’ll walk Mister Aldan in.”
“Your funeral,” Junior mumbled.