Read Marsbound Online

Authors: Joe Haldeman

Tags: #Mars (Planet), #Martians, #Space Opera, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Space Colonies, #General, #Angels

Marsbound (5 page)

BOOK: Marsbound
7.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The machine was set on a hill-climbing program, but I really didn't want to be the first person aboard to work up a sweat. So I clicked it to “easy” and pedaled along while reading the magazine.

So little of it was going to be useful or even meaningful for the next five years. Hot fashion tips! ("Get used to blue jumpsuits.") Lose that winter flab! ("Don't eat the space crap they put in front of you.") How to communicate with your boyfriend! ("E-mail him from 250 million miles away.")

I hadn't really had a boyfriend since Sean, more than a year ago. Knowing that I was going to be on another planet for five years put a damper on that.

It wasn't that simple. The thing with Sean, the way he left, hurt me badly enough that the idea of leaving the planet was pretty attractive. No love life, none of that kind of pain.

Did that make me cold? I should have fallen helplessly in love with someone and pined away for him constantly, bursting into tears whenever I saw the Earth rise over the morning horizon. Or did I see that in a bad movie?

There weren't any obviously great prospects aboard the carrier. They might start to look better as the years stretched on.

I did start to cry a little and the tears just stayed in my eyes. Not enough gravity for them to roll down your cheek. After pedaling blind for a minute, I wiped my eyes on a nonabsorbent sleeve and cranked on. There was an article on Sal the Sal, a hot new cube star that everyone but me had heard of; I decided to read every word of that and then quit.

He was so sag beyond sag it was disgusting. Fascinating, too. Like if you can care little enough about everything you automatically become famous. You ask him for an autograph and he pulls out a rubber stamp, and everybody just comes because it's so sag. Forgive me for not joining in. I bet Card knows his birth date and favorite color.

Pedaling through all that responsible journalism did put me on the verge of sweating, so I quit and went back to my seat. Card had put aside the helmet and was doing a word puzzle.

"Card,” I asked, “what's Sal the Sal's favorite color?"

He didn't even look up. “Everybody knows it's black. Makes him look 190 pounds instead of 200."

Fair enough. I handed him the magazine. “Article on him if you want to read it."

He grunted thanks. “Five letter word meaning ‘courage'? Second letter P, last letter K?"

I thought for a couple of seconds. “Spunk."

He frowned. “You sure?"

"It's old fashioned.” Made me think of the pilot, who seemed to have “spunk,” Space Force and all, but was scared by an elevator incident.

I sat down and buckled in and got scared all over again myself. He had a point, after all. Accidents could happen on the way to Mars, but nothing that would send us hurtling to a flaming death in Earth's atmosphere.

Don't be a drama queen, Dad would say. But the idea of dying that way made my eyes feel hot and dry.

* * * *

10. Social climbing

The fear faded as we fell into routine, climbing up toward the Hilton midpoint. We grew imperceptibly lighter every hour, obviously so day by day. By the sixth day, we'd lost 90 percent of our gravity. You could go upstairs without touching the ladder, or cross the room with a single step. There were a lot of collisions, getting used to that.

It was getting close to what we'd live with on the way to Mars. We wore gecko slippers that lightly stuck to the floor surface, and there were gray spots on the wall where they would also adhere.

The zero-gee toilet wasn't bad once you got used to it. It uses flowing air instead of water and you have to pee into a kind of funnel, which is different. The crapper is only four inches in diameter and it uses a little camera to make sure you're centered. A little less attractive than my yearbook picture.

I hope Dr. Porter gets paid really well. Some of the little ones didn't climb the learning curve too swiftly, and she had to clean up after them.

It didn't help the flavor of the food any to know where the water came from. Get used to the idea or starve, though. I found three meals on the menu I could eat without shuddering.

I mostly hung around with Elspeth and Barry and Kaimei, a Chinese girl a year younger than me. She was born in China but grew up, bilingual and sort of bicultural, in San Francisco. She was a dancer there, small and muscular, and you could tell by the way she moved in low gravity that she was going to love zero-gee.

The smaller kids were going detroit with the light gravity. Dr. Porter set hours for playtime and tried to enforce them by restraining offenders in their seats. Then, of course, they'd have to go to the bathroom, and wouldn't go quietly. She looked like she was going to be glad to send them on to Mars or leave them at the Hilton.

I would, too, in her place. Instead, I get to go along with them, at least the ones who were ten and older. After we left the tourists at the Hilton, we wouldn't have anybody under ten aboard—if there were any small children in the Mars colony, they'd have to be born there.

Luckily, the two worst offenders were brother brats who were getting off at the Hilton. Eighty grand seems like more than they were worth, and you'd think their parents would have had a better time without them. Maybe they couldn't find a babysitter for two weeks. (Hell, I'd do it for less than eighty grand. But only if they let me use handcuffs and gags.)

We weren't supposed to play any throwing and catching games, for obvious reasons, but Card had a rubber ball, and out of boredom we patted it back and forth in the short space between us. Of course it went in almost ruler-straight lines, how exciting, even when he tried to put English on it—he needed speed and a floor or wall to bounce off, and a little bit of space for the thing to bounce around in. But even he was smart enough not to try anything that would provoke Dr. Frankenstein's wrath.

Elspeth and I signed up for the exercise machines at the same time, and chatted and panted together. I was in slightly better shape, from fencing team and swimming three times a week. No swimming pools on Mars, this century. Probably no swords to fence with, either. (The John Carter fictional character the ship was named after used a sword, I guess when his ray gun ran out of batteries. Maybe we could start the solar system's first low-gravity fencing team. Then if the Martians
show up, we could fight them with something sharper than our wits.)

Actually, Elspeth was better than me on the stair-step machine, since in our flat Florida city you almost never encounter stairs. Ten minutes on that machine gave me pains in muscles I didn't know I owned. But I could pedal or row all day.

Then we took turns in the “privacy module,” which they ought to just call a closet, next to the toilet, for our daily dry shower. Moist, actually; you had two throwaway towelettes moistened with something like rubbing alcohol—one of them for the “pits and naughty bits,” as Elspeth said, and the other for your face and the rest of your body. Then a small reusable towel for rubdown. Meanwhile your jumpsuit is rolling around in a waterless washing machine, getting refreshed by hot air, ultrasound, and ultraviolet light. It comes out warm and soft and only smelling slightly of sweat. Not all of it your own, though that could be my imagination.

I fantasized about diving into the deep end of the city pool and holding my breath for as long as I could.

Six hours before we were due at the Hilton, we were asked to stick our heads into the helmets for “orientation,” which was more of a sales job than anything else. Why? They already had everybody's money.

The Hilton had a large central area that stayed zero-gee, the “Space Room,” with padded walls and a kind of oversized jungle gym. A pair of trampolines on opposite walls, so you could bounce back and forth, spinning, which looked like fun.

People didn't stay there, though; the actual rooms were in two doughnut-shaped structures that spun, for artificial gravity, around the zero-gee area. The two levels were 0.3g and 0.7g.

The orientation didn't mention it, but I knew that about half of the low-gee rooms housed permanent residents, rich old people whose hearts couldn't take Earth gravity anymore. All of the people in the presentation were young and energetic, and vaguely rich-looking in their tailored Hilton jumpsuits, I guess no different from ours except for the tailoring and choice of colors.

We would stop there for four hours, and could explore the hotel for two of them. We were all looking forward to the change of scenery.

"Don't use the Hilton bathrooms unless you absolutely have to,” Dr. Porter said. “We want to keep that water in our system. Feel free to drink all of theirs you can hold."

The four hours went by pretty quickly. Basically seeing how rich folks live without too much gravity. Most of them looked pretty awful, cadaverous with bright smiles. We looked at the prices at Conrad's Café, and could see why they might not want to eat too much.

We did play around a bit in the weightless gym area. Elspeth and I played catch with her little sister Davina, who obediently curled into a ball. Spinning her gave us all the giggles, but we had to stop before she got totally dizzy. She looked a little green as she unfolded, but I think was happy for the small adventure and the attention.

I did a few bounces on the pair of trampolines, managing four before I got off-target and hit the wall. Card was good at it, but quit after eight or so, rather than hog it. I suppose two people could use it at once if they were really good. Only once if they weren't. Ouch.

The interesting thing about the jungle gym was gliding through it, rather than climbing on it. Launch yourself from the wall and try to wriggle your way through without touching the bars. The trick is starting slow and planning ahead—a demanding skill that will be oh-so-useful if I ever find myself having to thread through a jungle gym, running from Martians.

Dr. Porter had found a whistle somewhere. She called us to the corridor opening and counted noses, then told us to stay put while she went off in search of a missing couple. They were probably in Conrad's Café guzzling hundred-dollar martinis.

I mentioned that to Card and said there wouldn't be any vodka on Mars—and he bet me a hundred bucks there would be. I decided not to take the bet. Seventy-five engineers would find a way.

The missing duo appeared in the elevator and we crawled back home to wait in line for the john. The carrier seemed cramped.

John Carter
would be about three times as big, but nothing like the Hilton. After that, though, a whole planet to ourselves.

* * * *

11. Up and out

The trip from the Hilton out to the end of the tether was more subdued than the first leg. Half as many of us and all of us headed for Mars, except Dr. Porter.

We spent a lot of time sitting around in small groups talking, some about Mars but mostly about who we were and where we came from.

Most of us were from the States, Canada, and Great Britain, because the lottery was based on the amount of funding each country had put into the Mars Project. There were families from Russia and France. The flight following ours, in eighteen months, would have German, Australian, and Japanese families. A regular United Nations, except that everybody spoke English.

My mother talked to the French family in French, to stay in practice; I think some disapproved, as if it was a conspiracy. But they were fast friends by the time we got to the ship. The mother, Jac, was back-up pilot as well as a chemical engineer. I didn't have much to do with their boy Auguste, a little younger than Card. His dad Greg was amusing, though. He'd brought a small guitar along, which he played softly, expertly.

The Russians kept to themselves but were easy enough to get along with. The boy, Yuri, was also a musician. He had a folding keyboard but evidently was shy about playing for others. He would put on earphones and play for hours, from memory or improvising, or reading off the screen. Only a little younger than me, but not too social.

Our doctor on the way to Mars would be Alphonzo Jefferson, who was also a scientist specializing in the immune system; his wife Mary was also a life scientist. Their daughter Belle was about ten, son Oscar maybe two years older.

The Manchester family were from Toronto, the parents both areologists. The kids, Michael and Susan, were ten-year-old twins I hadn't gotten to know. I didn't know Murray and Roberta Parienza well, either, Californians about our age (Murray the younger) whose parents came from Mexico, an astronomer and a chemist.

So our little UN among the younger generation was two Latins, a Russian, two African-Americans, two Israelis, and a Chinese-American, slightly outnumbering us plain white-bread Americans.

We'd all be going to school via VR and e-mail during the six-month flight, though we started going on different days and of course would have class at different times, spread out over eleven time zones. If Yuri had a class at nine in the morning, that would be ten for Davina and Elspeth, eleven for Auguste, five in the afternoon for us Floridians, and eight at night for the Californians. It was going to make the social calendar a little complicated. As if there was anything to do.

Meanwhile, we could enjoy the extra elbow room we got from dumping off the nine tourists. I moved upstairs to sit next to Elspeth, which put Roberta on my right. Dr. Porter rolled her eyes at three teenage females in a row, and told us to keep the noise down or she'd split us up. That wasn't exactly fair, since the little kids were the real noisemakers, and besides, most of our parents were on the second level, too.

But you had to have some sympathy for her. The littlest ones were always testing her to see how far they could go before she applied the ultimate punishment: locked in the seat next to your parents with the VR turned off for X hours. She couldn't hit them—some parents wouldn't mind, but others would have a fit—and she couldn't exactly make them go outside to play, though if she did that once, the others might calm down.

(It was no small trick to get a recalcitrant child back to its place in zero-gee. They'd push off and fly away giggling while she stalked after them with her gecko slippers. Hard to corner somebody in a round room. The parents or other adults usually had to help.)

BOOK: Marsbound
7.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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