Read Marsbound Online

Authors: Joe Haldeman

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

Marsbound (6 page)

BOOK: Marsbound
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What finally worked was escalating punishment. Each time she had to strap a kid in, she added fifteen minutes’ VR deprivation to
next punishment, no exceptions. At ten, they were old enough to do the math and started policing themselves—and behaving themselves, a small miracle.

We went a little faster on the second half, and it would've taken only four and a half days, except we had to stop again while the robot repaired a tear in the tape ahead.

I had a vague memory of watching the news when they started building the two Mars ships eleven years ago. They'd taken the fuel tanks from the old pre-Space Elevator cargo shuttles, cut them up, and rearranged the parts. The first one, the
Carl Sagan,
was assembled in Low Earth Orbit; the second up at GEO, where the Hilton is now. I guess the Elevator wasn't available for the first. Anyhow, they both took a long crawl up here, spiraling slowly up with some sort of solar power engine. The first one took off while they were still working on ours.

had made two round trips, and was on its third, in orbit around Mars, now. Ours had only been once, but at least we knew that it worked.

Of course a spaceship doesn't have to be streamlined to work in outer space, with no air to resist, but the fuel tanks these were built from had gone through the atmosphere, and so they looked kind of like a hokey rocketship from an old twentieth century movie, though with funny-looking arms sticking out on the left and right, with the knobs we'd be living in.

We could see the
John Carter
a couple of hours before we got there, at least as a highly magnified blob. Slowly it took shape, the stubby rocketship with the two pods rotating around it, once each ten seconds.

The carrier slowed down for the last couple of minutes. Strapped in, we watched the spaceship draw closer and closer.

It wasn't too impressive, only ninety feet long, unpainted except for the white front quarter, the streamlined lander. We were going in through the side of that, a crawl tunnel like we'd used for the Hilton.

The carrier came to a stop and Dr. Porter and the pilot Paul put on space suits to go check things out. They came back in a few minutes and said things were fine, but a little cold. The air that came through the open airlock door was wintry—colder than it ever gets at home. Paul said not to worry; we'd warm it up.

They opened the storage area under the exercise machines, and we started carrying things over. Not as easy as it might seem, in zero-gee. Nothing had weight—if you let go of it, it wouldn't fall—but everything had inertia. If you wanted to move a piano, you'd have to get behind it (with your feet anchored) and shove.

We didn't have a piano, except for Yuri's little folding one, but we did have some pretty heavy boxes, a lot of it food and water for the trip. “Starter” water, which would be recycled. I'd almost gotten resigned to the fact that a little bit of every drink I took had gone through my brother at least once.

You could see your breath. I had goosebumps and my teeth started chattering. Barry and his parents were the same way, fellow Floridians. My parents and Card seemed to have some Eskimo blood.

A lot of the stuff we stored in the Mars lander, under Paul's supervision. Some of it went into A or B, the pods where we'd be living.

That was sort of like the Hilton in miniature. There was a relatively large zero-gee room, a cylinder twenty-two feet long by twenty-seven feet wide. On opposite sides there were two four-foot holes, A and B, with ladders going down. No elevators.

Of course we were all pretty good with zero-gee, though there were a few bumped heads.

I couldn't get warm. Fortunately, one of the things I delivered was a bundle of blankets for “Sleeping A.” I was A-8, so I liberated one of the blankets and wrapped it around myself.

Saying good-bye to Dr. Porter was more emotional than I would have thought. Tears sticking like glue to your eyelashes. She hugged me and whispered, “Take care of Card. You'll love him soon enough."

She went back to the carrier and the airlock closed. Paul warned us we all had thirty minutes to use the toilet, and then we'd be strapped in for almost two hours. I didn't really need to go, but might as well be prudent, and I was mildly curious about what I'd be putting up with for the next three months. I got at the end of the line and asked my reader for a random story. It was an amusing thing from France a million years ago, about a necklace.

The zero-gee toilet was the same as the carrier's, but without the little camera. I didn't miss it, nor did I miss the target.

The Mars lander was set up sort of like an airplane, two rows of seats separated by an aisle, but with the pilot and all his gear up front. We strapped in and waited for twenty minutes or so. Then the engine grumbled and roared, and for six minutes we were heavier than we'd been on Earth. It was hard to breathe, and might have been scary if you didn't know how long it was going to last. But a clock counted down on the screen in front.

The blanket I'd wrapped around me had a crease that pressed into my back like a dull knife. I tried to pull it smooth, but my arms were like lead, and I gave up.

Most of the speed we needed for getting to Mars was “free"—when we left the high orbit at the end of the Space Elevator, we were like a stone thrown from an old-fashioned sling, or a bit of mud flung from a bicycle tire. Two weeks of relatively slow crawling up built up into one big boost, from the orbit of Earth to the orbit of Mars.

We had to stay strapped in because there would be course corrections, all automatic. The ship studied our progress and then pointed in different directions and made small bursts of thrust.

It was only a little more than an hour when Paul gave us the all-clear to go explore the ship and get a bite to eat.

Compared to the Space Elevator carrier, it was huge. From the lander, you go into the zero-gee room, which was about three times the size of our living room at home. The circular wall was all storage lockers that opened with the touch of a recessed button, no handles sticking out to snag you.

You climb backward down the ladder, in a four-foot-wide tunnel, to get to the living areas, A or B. Both pods were laid out the same. The first level, for sleeping, had the least gravity, close to what we'd have on Mars. Then there was the work/study area, basically one continuous desk around the wall, with moveable partitions and maybe twenty viewscreens. They were set up as fake windows, like the carrier's “default mode"—thankfully not spinning around six times a minute.

The bottom level was the galley and recreation area. I felt heavy there, after all the zero-gee, but it was only about half Earth's gravity, or 1.7 times what we'd have on Mars, the next five years.

It had a stationary bicycle and a rowing machine with sign-up rosters. You were supposed to do an hour a day on them. I took seven A.M., since eight and nine were already spoken for.

Elspeth and Davina found me down there, and we had the first of about two hundred lunches aboard the good ship
John Carter
. A tolerable chicken salad sandwich with hot peas and carrots. Card showed up and had the same. He made a face at the vegetables, but ate them. We'd been warned to eat everything in front of us. The ship wasn't carrying snacks. If you get hungry between meals, you just have to be hungry. (I suspected we'd find ways around that.)

It was a lot more roomy than you'd expect a spaceship to be, which was a provision for disaster. If something went wrong and one of the pods became uninhabitable, all thirty-three of us could move into the other pod. Then if something happened to
I guess we could all move into the zero-gee room and the lander. I don't know what we'd eat, though. Each other. ("It's your turn now, Card. Be a good boy and take your pill.")

I sat down at one of the study stations and typed in my name and gave it a thumbprint. I had a few letters from friends and a big one from the University of Maryland. That was my “orientation package,” though actual classes wouldn't start for another week.

It was very handy—advice about where to get a parking sticker, dormitory hours, location of emergency phones and all. More useful was a list of my class hours and their virtual-reality program numbers, so I could be in class after a fashion.

It was a little more complicated for me than for the kids actually on campus. Up in the right-hand corner of the screen were UT, universal time, and TL, time lag. The time lag now, the time it took for a signal to get from me to the classroom, was only 0.27 of a second. By the time we got to Mars, it could be as much as twenty-five minutes (or as little as seven, depending on the distance between the planets). So if I asked the professor a question at what was to me the beginning of the fifty-minute class, he'd already be halfway through, Earth time. He'd get my question while everybody else was packing up their books, and his answer would get to me twenty-five minutes after class was over.

Actually, it would be even more complicated once we were on Mars Time, since the day is forty minutes longer. But I didn't have to worry about that until we got halfway there, and switched.

Ship time was Universal Time, until we hit the halfway point, which put us on the same schedule as people living just up-river from London, which I guess had made sense when they were planning things on Earth. Why not go straight to Mars time? Whatever, I got a few pages into the college catalog and my body said sleep, even if it was only two, 1400, to the folks in Merrie Olde Englande. I dragged my blanket up to the light-gee sleeping floor and wrapped myself up in it, and slept till the dinner bell.

* * * *

12. Trouble

The first week or two we were under way, I was asleep as much as awake, or more, which got Mother worried. She had me go talk to Dr. Jefferson, who asked me whether I felt depressed, and I'm afraid my response was a little loud and emotional. I mean, no, I wasn't depressed; I was just imprisoned and hurtling off to some uncertain future, probably to die before I was legally an adult, and I asked him aren't

He smiled and nodded (maybe not “yes"), and gave me a light hug, the big black bear, which might have made me slightly telepathic. It wasn't so much the abstract danger. I was really upset at not being able to concentrate, falling asleep over my college prep work ... but what was that, compared to being the only doctor aboard, waiting for someone to need an appendix out, or even a brain tumor? Or just pulling a tooth or looking up someone's ass with an ass-o-scope. He only had to take care of thirty-two of us, but anything could happen, and he was responsible for our life or death.

He probably had a suitcase full of pills for depression, and said he'd give me some if I needed them, but first he wanted me to keep a personal record for a week—how many hours asleep and awake; when I lost my temper or felt like crying. After a week, we would talk about it.

He said he was no psychologist, but that seemed to work, maybe because I wanted to impress him, or reassure him. After a week I was sleeping eight hours and pretty much awake the rest of the time. And I was undramatically less sure that space wanted to kill us all, especially me.

All of us between ten and twenty had “jobs,” which is to say chores. Mine was easy, cleaning the galley after meals, a lot less mess than the kitchen at home, with nothing actually cooked. Card had to clean the shower, which I suppose enriched his fantasy life.

Everybody spent thirty minutes a day learning about Mars. That was mostly boring reinforcement of stuff we already knew, or should have known. I tolerated the half-hour until regular classes started, and really just sort of thought about other things while it droned on. Nobody was testing me on Mars facts, but I had exams in history and math and philosophy.

Of course, Mars would test me on Mars. I knew that and didn't think about it.

School was absorbing but tiring. Part of it was that every professor was a kind of a star—I suppose every subject, every department, picked its most dramatic teacher for the VR classes, but the net result was almost like being yelled at—"This led to the Hundred Years War—how long do you think that war LASTED?” “Look where potassium and sodium are on the Periodic Table—what does THAT suggest to you?” Socrates and Plato getting it on, more than I wanted to know about student-teacher relationships. And could I have just one subject that's not supposed to be the most important thing in the world? I should've taken plumbing.

Actually, the stories and plays in the literature course all promise to be interesting, no surprise, since that has always been the most enjoyable part of school. It doesn't have any exams, either, just essays, which suits me.

I didn't want to major in lit, though. I couldn't see myself as a teacher, and I don't think anybody else gets paid to read the stuff for a living. I didn't have to choose a major for a couple of years. Maybe I could become the first Martian veterinarian. Wait for some animals to show up.

Something I would never have predicted was that the virtual-reality classrooms smelled more real than our real spaceship. If someone was chewing gum or eating peanuts near where you were “sitting,” it was really intense. Our air on board the
John Carter
was thin and it circulated well. When you peeled the plastic off a meal, you could smell it for a few seconds, but then it was pretty much gone, and a lot of the flavor as well.

Roberta and Yuri were also starting college, though in Yuri's case it was more like a practical conservatory. Most of his courses were music. (I wondered how the time lag was going to affect that. When I suffered through piano lessons in fifth and sixth grade, I cringed in anticipation of the
Ms. Varleman would make with her stick on the side of the piano whenever I lagged behind. I might have liked learning piano if the teacher was twenty-five minutes away!)

My life settled into a fairly busy routine. Classes and homework and chores and exercise periods. A blood test said I was losing calcium and so my forty-five-minute exercise requirement went up to ninety minutes; two hours if I could schedule it. Hard to beat the combination—what else is both tiring and boring for two hours?

BOOK: Marsbound
3.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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