by Cory Doctorow
They say you can’t smell anything through a launch-hood, but I still smelled the pove in the next seat as the space-attendants strapped us into our acceleration couches and shone lights in our eyes and triple-checked the medical readouts on our wristlets to make sure our hearts wouldn’t explode when the rocket boosted us into orbit for transfer to the Eagle and the long, long trip to Mars.
He was skinny, but not normal-skinny, the kind of skinny you get from playing a lot of sports and taking the metabolism pills your parents got for you so you wouldn’t get teased at school. He was kind of pot-bellied with scrawny arms and sunken cheeks and he was brown-brown, like the brown Mom used to slather on after a day at the beach covered in factor-500 sunblock. Only he was the kind of all-over-even brown that you only got by being born brown.
He gave me a holy-crap-I’m-going-to-MARS smile and a brave thumbs-up and I couldn’t bring myself to snub him because he looked so damned happy about it. So I gave him the same thumbs up, rotating my wrist in the strap that held it onto the arm-rest so that I didn’t accidentally break my nose with my own hand when we “clawed our way out of the gravity well” (this was a phrase from the briefing seminars that they liked to repeat a lot. It had a lot of macho going for it).
The pove smelled like garbage. There, I said it. No nice way of saying it. Like the smell out of the trash-chute at the end of our property line. It had been my job to haul our monster-sized tie-and-toss bags to the curb every day and toss them down that chute and into the tunnel-system that took them out to the Spruce Sunset Meadows recycling center, which was actually *outside* the Spruce Sunset Meadows wall, all the way in Springville, where there was a gigantic mega-prison. The prisoners sorted all our trash for us, which was good for the environment, since they sorted it into about 400 different categories for recycling; and good for us because it meant we didn’t have to do all that separating in our kitchen. On the other hand, it did mean that we had to have a double cross-cut shredder for anything like a bill or a legal document so that some crim didn’t use it to steal our identities when he got out of jail. I always wondered how they handled the confetti that came out of the shredder, if they had to pick up each little dot of it with their fingernails and drop it into a big hopper labelled “paper.”
Mom and Dad were forward in the adults’ cabin, where they were being served fake no-booze Champagne (no one was allowed to touch alcohol for 72 hours before lift — this was also from the briefing, and had been accompanied by graphic images of free-fall vomit), far from the howling, spitting kiddilees.
The announcements played twice, once in English and once in “Simplified English,” for the foreigners. Simplified English had been new to me when I entered the program, but I soon got used to it, words of one or two syllables drawn from a vocab of 5000 or so. I sometimes even found myself chatting in it over dinner with my parents which drove them crazy. But Simplified was the official mission language, which had been decreed by the Mars Corp in its charter on the sensible grounds that we couldn’t have a new world with a hundred stupid complicated languages, but English was as stupid and complicated as they come — “the tough coughs as he ploughs the dough” — so Simplified was the right compromise.
The pove listened close to both sets of announcements, like he was anxious to learn Real English so he could stop being such a pove, but I knew it was a lost cause. Poves are poves are poves. Once you’re born a pove, you get all the lessons of being a pove, the idea that the world owes you a living, that you can just get by being lazy and begging, and it’s nearly impossible to un-learn that lesson. But he’d have to, if he was going to make it on Mars. No handouts on Mars, pove!
They played the liftoff countdown through the PA in the cabin, and at first we all laughed and counted down with it, like it was New Year’s Eve: 10, 9, 8…
But by 4, no one was counting along. The whole ship was rumbling like a dragon, shaking slightly, feeling full of potential, like it had its legs coiled underneath it and it was getting ready to jump, which it was. And when it did — 3 — we would be underway, on a one-way journey to an alien world and we would never see the green hills of Earth again.
At 2, I started crying, really bawling, though I couldn’t tell you way. Screw the Earth, anyway, the crummy old planet with its environmental bellyaching, its teeming anthills of poves and refugees and crazy religion people with their suicide bombs. But it was Earth, my Earth, my homeworld, and —
I wasn’t the only one crying. We were all sobbing, and the only reason it didn’t sound like a nursery school before nap time was that the engines were so damned loud you’d couldn’t hear it if you threw back your head and screamed as loud as you could. The pove next to me was crying, too, and I wondered if his parents were forward, or whether he was one of the orphans the Mars Charity put on board the ship to show what a great bunch of people they all were. We all were.
And then we were boosting. It was like a thousand hands on every centimeter of me, pushing as hard as they could, even on the back of my throat, on my tongue, on my nose, on my lungs, and it didn’t stop, it got worse and worse and worse and then
The next thing I knew, the pressure was off, and I seemed to be falling in no particular direction. I had just enough time to open my eyes and see the loose ends of my face mask straps floating around my head and think free fall! and then my stomach decided to send everything it had up to have a look at the wonder of space-travel. I gagged and tried to pitch forward, but the straps held me in.
Mars, Inc had anticipated this, of course. Us kiddilees hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for 24 hours — the grownups ate like hogs, but they had the anti-nausea injections that weren’t kid-safe. My stomach was practically empty, except for some stringy green mucous and bile that tasted like — well, it tasted like puke! — and it burned in my throat and sinuses. A little escaped my lips and floated up my nose and back down my throat and I started to choke.
I wasn’t the only one. Lots of people were making gagging noises and choking noises. The blob of puke was lodged in my windpipe and I could only get whistling sips of air past it, and I was seeing stars. There weren’t any Space Attendants nearby, and even though I was mashing the call button, I couldn’t hear anyone rushing to my aid.
Then there were small, calloused fingers at my straps, undogging my shoulders, arms, wrists, forehead, so that I could lean forward — the falling feeling worse than ever, my stomach churning. A small, strong fist thumped me between the shoulders and I coughed convulsively and the puke was back in my mouth and I spat it out and saw it wobble away like a jellyfish.
It was only then that I saw whose small hands had been on me. The pove, who had somehow slipped his bonds and had hooked his foot through one of his straps so that he was able to maneuver while floating above me. He smiled at me as my puke-jellyfish hit him in the chest, leaving a splotch like a greasy paintball hit.
“You OK?” he said. He had a funny convenience-store-clerk accent, clipped but somehow liquid.
“Fine,” I said, and it came out with a rasp from my burning throat. He had drifted so that he was upside down, his face bobbing centimeters from mine. “Thanks.” It was disorienting. He had toothpaste breath. It made me conscious of the fact that my breath smelled like a dead bear’s butthole.
He put a hand out. “Vijay Mukherjee,” he said.
“David Brionn Oglethorpe Smith,” I said. He snorted. I was used to that. I waited until he’d finished snickering and said, “the Third.” It’s true. Great-grandad had been the first, converted from Brian to Brionn by a Marine induction sergeant who couldn’t spell, and I was the third to bear his name. It was silly and long and weird, but it was mine, and no one else had a name like it (except Dad and Great-grandad, of course).
I still felt like I was falling, but it wasn’t as unpleasant as it had been, and I could see where it would stop feeling like falling and start feeling like flying, eventually. “Thanks,” I said, and “sorry,” gesturing at his stained shirt. He waved off my apology.
“Think nothing of it. We’re going into space together, my friend! We can’t let little things get to us!” He shook my hand again. He had calloused fingers, but a soft handshake, limp and a little damp. Everyone I knew shook hands like they meant it. But this pove — Vijay! — had rescued me from my choking and hadn’t put up a fuss when I puked on him. (A nasty part of me wondered if his slum or whatever wasn’t carpeted in worse things than puke). I could live with a damp handshake.
The space attendant finally showed up and demanded to know what we were doing out of our straps and then didn’t want to listen when he explained. The spacer — who floated through the air with the greatest of ease — strapped us back in without missing a word in his lecture on shuttle safety.
I turned my head to look at Vijay and I could see that he was doing the same. “Thanks again,” I said, my voice muffled by my mask, which reeked of barf.
He gave me another thumbs up, and then we boosted again and were pushed back into the chairs.
Debarking at Eagle’s Nest Station was a lot simpler than boarding had been on Earth. The space attendants swarmed us and bound us wrist-and-foot to our neighbors with soft bungee cords in chains of ten kids. Then they simply grabbed the lead kid and towed the whole chain up along the length of the shuttle, through grown-up territory, through the airlock, and into the station’s mustering area. We were cut loose and then each of us was issued a set of one-size-fits-all velcro gloves and slippers, and we struggled into them, some of us flying off into the low ceiling, which might as well have been the floor, except that no one was standing on it at the moment.
It was all pretty chaotic. Every few seconds, ten more colonists came through the airlock, pushing us all further in, and anyone who wasn’t velcroed down drifted away, and it soon became clear that there just wouldn’t be enough room in the mustering area for all of us, but more people started coming out, and I couldn’t find Mom or Dad in the press, and then Vijay plucked his way along the carpet to me and said, “Come on, it’s too crowded on this wall, let’s stand on one of the others,” which sounded like a crazy plan but I couldn’t say exactly why, so we pushed off together and grabbed the ceiling with toes and hands, laughing as we skidding and ripped around until we were standing upside-down (relative to everyone else, though I still felt like I was falling in every direction at once). At first people stared at us in that familiar hey-you-stupid-kids-cut-it-out way, but as the room grew more and more crowded, many of the other kids and then some of the grownups joined us on the “ceiling.”
I knew some of the other kids from orientation. There was the big, butchy red-haired boy who liked to mouth off, but who was looking as pukey as I felt. There was the shy girl with the incredible movie-star face and its big, wide-set violet eyes, who wasn’t looking shy at all now, but was looking frankly and unashamedly at the upside-down adults below her, peering through the seaweed tangle of hair that floated around her head. There was the dreamy girl who never turned her earphones off — you could tell, even though they were implants, because she was always doing this head-bobbing thing to the rhythm — now wide awake and plucking her way across the ceiling on her hands, feet brushing the hair of the adults “below.”
I spotted Mom and Dad just before the space attendants pushed through the last ten-some and dogged the airlock. As it sealed, the air-pressure in the room changed slightly and I realized with a shiver that the funny-looking door I’d passed through wasn’t just a door, it was a door between two spaceships and that the only thing that had stopped me from being sucked into space where my lungs and eyeballs would explode while my body turned into a freeze-dried popsicle had been some accordioned metal, rubber and plastic. And now that was gone, and the shuttle that had lifted us to Eagle’s Nest was floating through that same void.
The same void that I was going the spend the next six months sailing through in a tin can whose thin skin would be all that stood between me and total ass-plosion.
A space attendant standing sideways, sticking out the wall like a thumbtack, touched an invisible button on her workspace and a two-note whistle sounded. “Colonists, attention please.” Her voice was amplified and came from every corner of the room. It was the same system they used in orientation: the room’s cameras knew where the speaker was and tuned an array of directional mics to follow them, so that you could speak without the inconvenience of a mic. “Colonists?” she said again, when the chatter barely dimmed. It was as loud as a rocket-engine (well, not quite) from all the talking. She twiddled an invisible knob, using some hand-jive the ship’s computer understood. “COLONISTS,” she said again, her voice so loud it actually made we want to go to the toilet as it vibrated the poo I hadn’t realized was lurking up my colon.
The silence was thunderous. My ears rang. “Welcome to Eagle’s Nest,” she said, “I am Lainie. Just Lainie. As in ‘Lanie Lanie, no complainy.’ I am your mommy for the next six glorious months aboard the *Eagle*, and it will be my job to head off any potential strife before it rises to the level of complaint. We live by a strict ‘no whining’ ethic on Mars — that’s why you signed up to go — and it’s never too soon to start practicing.” She gestured at the kids and the few adults on the “ceiling.” “I see that some of you have already gotten into the no-complainy state of mind and solved your own problems by your own wits. Good people of upside-down-land, I salute you.” She ripped off a perfect Navy salute. Her uniform was vaguely naval, though Mars Colony didn’t have a navy or an army. It had a security force, of course, contracted for out of the colonial fees and charged with enforcing our Mutual Code of Conduct and Respect. But Lainie didn’t talk like one of the meatheads who worked security around the Mars, Inc. properties; she talked like a Marsy, smart and confident and assertive. Like my parents and all their friends.
“Now, we are just about ready to move you from the Nest straight onto the Eagle. We’ve been making her ready for days now, and she is just in her final inspection from the *International Space Agency* –” She squeaked out *International Space Agency* in a pinched, cartoony voice, the way every Martian did. No one liked the pencil-pushers at the ISA, with all their stupid rules. “And then we can get you aboard. We didn’t anticipate this delay, and unfortunately, there’s no way we can let you wander around the *Nest*. This is a working job site, and there’s no way you could be safely permitted to move about freely, much as we’d like to.” She drew a breath and said, in one long word, “Marsincdeeplyregretstheinconvenience,” and grinned. More than a few people chuckled with her. Phrases like “deeply regrets the inconvenience” were the kind of thing we were going to Mars to escape.
“It shouldn’t be very long folks. In the meantime, think happy thoughts, talk amongst yourselves, mingle. These are the people you’ll be spending the next six months with. These are the people you’ll be sharing a planet with for the rest of your lives.”
OK, an admission. I’m not much of a Martian. Martians are supposed to be full of colonial pluck, ready to grab Earth’s neighboring planet with both hands and head-butt that mother into submission. We are the winners, humanity’s best hope for surviving once stupid Earth is used up by the poves and the stupids. We’re all rich, of course, and that’s how you know we’re winners. We didn’t whine like all the poves who claim that the world owes them a living. We made our own fortunes on Earth and now we’re off to set up a new planet that’ll be as great as the Earth could be, if only you left all the whiners out.
But I’m not much of a Martian. I’m not much of a winner. I guess that makes me a loser.
Here’s the thing: my grades are OK, Bs and B-plusses, except for a C in American History, which, honestly I deserved. I think I slept through more than half those classes. I would have given me a D-minus.
Here’s the thing: I’m not the popular kid. I’m not even the popular kid’s best friend. I’m the kid that the popular kid’s best friend used to play with before he made friends with the popular kid. I’m not last picked for teams, but I’m the last picked from the kids who aren’t total spazzes or fat or handicapable or whatever.
Here’s the thing: the only place I’m not a loser is when I’m playing Martian Chronicles, the Mars Colony game that I’ve lived, breathed, eaten and shat for the past five years. The reason for that is that I am a stone Martian Chronicles monster freak. I can play MC for 18 hours without coming up for air, bringing it with me to the toilet and the table. There’s something that just *fits* in the game, which sounds kind of boring from the outside: you are a Mars colonist and you have to build your homestead, sell your wares and services, work to elect sympathetic officials (or become an official yourself), and try to get your neighbors to see things your way when it comes to the day-to-day running of Ares City.
Boring, right? Wrong. The game is all about figuring out what everyone else wants, and how to make them feel like they’re getting it, even though you’re really the one getting what you want. I have a huge fortune in MC. I’m a raygun millionaire (the Mars, Inc. company scrip — our money — is called “the raygun,” or “the Martian raygun” if you’re feeling formal. There’s even a raygun on every bill, stylized and old-fashioned and cool.). Not real money, but I know that if I can do it in MC, I’ll be able to do it on Mars. And then I won’t be a loser anymore, and I’ll be a real Martian.
I am self-aware enough to know how pathetic this sounds. And I’m pathetic enough that I don’t care.
The Eagle took on her passengers after three long hours stuck in the Eagle’s Nest mustering area. For a group of no-whiners, there was a lot of complaining about the strange, lengthy time stuck there in zero-gee (not technically zero, as orientation had reminded us, just “micro-gravity” but I couldn’t tell the difference), waving back and forth in the air-recirculator’s breeze like a bed of sea kelp. They whined about the wait. They whined about the line for the toilet. Then they saw the toilet — a kind of giant vacuum cleaner you stuck your whole ass into — and they whined about that. The only ones who weren’t whining were the kids who were hanging from the ceiling and the adults who’d joined us. We were having too much fun in upside-down land to worry about the toilets or the wait. And there was plenty of room on the roof.
“What’s your corp?” the girl with the violet eyes said, with no pre-amble at all. She was asking about Martian Chronicles — specifically, what my corporate affiliation was in-game. That is, which team I played for.
“DBOS-Corp,” I said, casually. She had thrown up on the shuttle too — I could tell by the flecks of dried puke down the front of her shirt.
She nodded sagely. “I hear good things about it, but isn’t it a hard company to ladder up in? Super-competitive?”
“I don’t really need to worry about that,” I said. “I’m the CEO.” It didn’t come out as casual as I’d hoped, because I caught someone’s floating, gelatinous sneeze in the eye as I said it and ended up twitching and flinching away.
She cocked her head at me. “If you’re lying, I’ll find out as soon as we get our cabins. And then I’ll spend the next six months making fun of you.”
I held up two fingers in an obsolete boy-scout salute. “I swear by Ares, God of War. May he strike me down with, uh, lightning?” (I wasn’t really clear on what Ares — the Greek name for Mars — did in the course of his War-Godly duties)
“OK, that’s impressive.”
“Seriously,” said a voice from a few centimeters “over” my head. I looked up and found Vijay floating in space just “above” (OK, I’m going to stop with the “above” and “over” and “below” quotes. There was no up or down, OK?) “That is fantastic. Really top-hole.”
He’d taken off his light jacket and twisted it into a rope with one of his velcro-gloves safety-pinned to the end of the sleeve and stuck to the bulkhead’s surface. In effect, he’d created an anchor line, and he was using it to fly around the middle of the room like a super-hero.
Violet-eyes’s face twisted up like, Who’s the pove? and I said, “This is Vijay. He flies. Apparently.”
Vijay stuck his hand out and she took it. “Helene Gonzales-Ginsburg,” she said.
“I’m Dave,” I said, feeling like I was falling behind.
“Dave Smith,” Vijay said, inches from my ear. “I should have made the connection when you told me your name. Well, that is interesting!”
“What corp do you work for?” Helene said, pointedly.
“Oh,” he said, airily, “I work for the auditor-general.”
Now it was my turn to boggle. The AGs were one of the exalted heights that every player secretly aspired to. They only recruited players with absolutely, positively impeccable reps, and gave them the power to kick open the doors of any corp, any meeting, and go over its books with a fine-toothed comb and confiscate any money that wasn’t properly accounted for. They could take away your corporate charter, bust your character down to the bottom rank. You didn’t get to be an AG without playing a long, hard, tight game that made you a lot more friends than enemies. I was a pretty top dog, but Vijay was a minor god. Woah.
“Work for?” Helene said. “What does that mean, work for? You snitch for them for money?”
“No,” he said. “I am a senior auditor.” We both boggled. A bit of drool actually attained separation and liftoff from my lip, forming a glossy sphere that drifted off toward one of the air-recirc vents. Senior auditor! He wasn’t just a god, he was a major god.
Suddenly I felt very self-conscious. Vijay could buy or sell us all ten times over in MC.
But then I realized that I could probably buy and sell Vijay ten times over in real life. It’s a kind of nasty, ungenerous thought, but it made me feel better. And worse.
“Of course,” he said, “that’s all just for another three months.”
Three months. Turnaround. In three months, we’d stop facing Earth and the ship would spin around to face Mars. In three months, we’d be closer to Mars than to Earth, and the lightspeed lag will have hit a brutal 100 seconds, making the game almost unplayable. So in three months, the ship’s network array will cut over to Mars and we’ll all start fresh, new characters on the Mars servers.
Yes, Martian Chronicles is big on Mars. Yes, they actually play a life-on-Mars simulator on Mars. Except, of course, on Mars, it means something, because the best lessons learned on Mars server are actually turned into policies for Mars government.
In three months, we’d all start over as noobs in the Martian Chronicles. And three months after that, we’d touch down and we’d all be noobs on Mars. I was abandoning DBOS-Corp. Vijay was abandoning his position as senior auditor. Thousands of hours, flushed down the toilet.
“Who do you play for, Helene?” I said.
She grinned, not looking shy at all anymore. “I’m a raider,” she said.
We both drew back from her involuntarily, and I lost my balance and ended up standing on my head for a moment while I sorted myself out.
A raider! They were the scum of Mars. They’d borrow a giant amount of money and use it to buy up a majority share of a corp, then they’d vote that the corp should take on their debt. Then they’d sell off all the corp’s assets to pay the debts, leaving behind a hollow shell, sucked as dry as a bug in a spider’s web. It was great for the “investors” who loaned the raiders their initial stake — they could take millions of player-hours’ worth of work and turn it into a nice fat bank balance for themselves. Was it “legal?” Well, no one would send you to jail for it. And it was an open secret that some of the biggest corps had been founded by — or had bankrolled — raiders. If an auditor caught raiders in the act, he could bust up the party, but it was all part of the game. That didn’t change the fact that I was instantly tempted to punch Helene in her movie-star nose and then push her out the airlock.
“You should see the look on your face! Come on, it’s just a game.” They always said that. “Besides, maybe I’ll change my ways when we hit apogee. Start clean on Mars as a goody-two-shoes corporate worker-bee.”
Vijay nodded. “And maybe I’ll be a raider,” he said.
I swallowed. I wanted to say something like, “I will be a CEO. I have always been a CEO. It’s all I ever wanted to be.” But “it’s just a game” didn’t allow me to say anything like that. There was one place in the world — and off the world — where I wasn’t a loser, and that was in the Martian Chronicles. I’d come to grips with the fact that I was going to have to abandon my beautiful, perfect corporation in 90 days, but only by promising myself that I’d start building a new corp on day 91.
“It’s just a game,” I said.
The Eagle had only been finished two weeks before we boarded, the last carpets laid, the last bunks prepared, the last safety checks completed. But it still smelled like people had been sweating freely in its corridors for generations. Smelled like a cross between the locker room and the garbage-filled green canal outside of the wall of Spruce Sunset Meadows on a hot day.
The Smell — it deserved the capital S — travelled like a sneaky fart into the Eagle’s Nest in small gusts as the colonists passed out in groups of ten through the far airlock, just as they had entered by the opposite lock. Each time the lock cycled, a little bit more of that toxic air puffed out, until the room was choking on putrescence. Dad broke off from the intense conversation he’d been having with his buddies and gestured impatiently for me to join him and led me to the lock. He had a look on his face of steadfast refusal to face reality. He was not going to admit that the spaceship we were about to take up residence in had a Smell. We were going to *Mars* and it was all going to be so freaking *awesome* that it was impossible to even take notice of any imperfection, not even a Smell with its own capital letter. No whining!
Mom took my hand and helped me down onto the same local vertical as them and we velcro-shuffled our way to the lock, rip, rip, rip, a family hand-in-hand with our space-bags slung over our shoulders, about to become pioneers, about to leave behind Earth and all its authorities and laws and rules and governments. We were going to a place where we could be Free, with a capital F, and if Free had a Smell, so be it.
The airlock closed behind us, the equalization hiss was the only sound in the lock. There were ten of us, and I noticed that Vijay was part of our gang and managed to nod at him and he nodded back. Now that the lock was sealed, we were officially, irrevocably gone. When the International Space Agency completed its certification tour of the Eagle, they completed their duty to the citizens of Earth’s nations, and now they had no more authority over us. No one on Earth did. We were in space, and we were a new human race, free as almost no human being had ever been free. No one had any claim over us or our work or our freedom except for our peers, the people we’d elected to go to an alien world with. We were off to start anew.
And we couldn’t arrive a moment too soon.
Spaceships suck. You probably didn’t realize that, but they do. Spaceships are small, cramped, Smelly, and crowded. Our cabin — the room that Mom, Dad and me would spend the next six months in — was smaller than the mud-room at home, where we took our boots and coats off before going into the house. All the furniture folded away into the walls, and there was no toilet or shower. We had to share the communal toilets at the end of the hallway. Supposedly, there was one toilet for every six people, which someone had calculated was optimal. At home, we had four toilets for three people, not counting the one in the basement. And anyway, Helene did a count once we were underway and calculated that there was one toilet for every twelve people, not that any of the grownups would listen to her.
The toilets had a double-Smell — that putrid human smell that got worse, not better, as time went by (as though my nose was bravely refusing to get used to it, sacrificing itself by insisting on staying totally revolted by it so that I would know that I should get out ASAP); and the lesser smell of the air-freshener that squirted constantly out of little misters around the giant vacuum-cleaner head that we stuck our butts into. That was like the smell of bubblegum, times one million, and it clung to your clothes after you used the head, so that you smelled it for hours.
Yes, we were pioneers. Pioneers had never had it very comfortable.
“They drove covered wagons across America,” my Dad said. “They were killed by bandits, by Indians, by disease. They starved. They baked. They froze. They drowned.” Dad’s grandparents came to America from Spain and Holland. They were middle-class architects who met at university and married and moved to San Diego because they wanted to live by the Pacific Ocean, and they did for most of their lives, retiring to Arizona just before most of San Diego ended up under water. The closest anyone in my ancestry had come to a covered wagon was a business-class seat on a British Airways 777 to LAX.
“Yup,” I said. “They sure did. Nevertheless, Dad, you have to admit that this ship is kind of crappy. None of the carpets are laid straight. Half the doors don’t close right. Your bed falls off the wall every time you fold it out.”
He grinned a little. “Yeah, OK, it’s not exactly the Queen Mary. But it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to get us from Earth to Mars in one piece. If you don’t like the room, there’s always the lounge.”
Junior Colonists (yes, seriously, “Junior Colonists”) had their own lounges, three of them, one on each deck. These were comparatively large spaces in the center of the ship, where there was almost no gravity — the Eagle was a big spinning doughnut, with lots of centripetal force — which feels a lot like gravity — around the edges, and almost none in the middle. The floaty parts in the middle were mostly shunned by grownups, who found them a little ulpy-gulpy and were prone to losing their lunches in the middle of our play areas. That was fine by us.
The JC Lounges were pretty big to start with, but the absence of gravity made them even bigger, because it meant that we could use the ceilings, walls and middle as functional space, and we did. At any time of the “day” or “night” — the ship had a 24-Martian-hour clock that the colonists stuck to — you’d find them full of kids, most of us in our teens (the little ‘uns had supervised play areas that parents took turns overseeing). We’d be flying around the space with fins on our hands and long bungee cords around our waists, or we’d be tethered to something with our faces masked by goggles and our hands running up and down virtual keyboards suspended in midair.
I never gamed with goggles and virtual keyboards at home, but then, I never had to. My Martian Chronicles competition had all been physically separated from me, but now they were literally on every side of me, and if I’d used even a small screen, dozens of people would have been able to shoulder-surf me.
“Good morning, boss,” Helene said, her voice so clear through my headset that she might have been right beside me. Then she tapped me on the shoulder and I shoved my goggles up on my forehead and realized that she was right beside me, floating in space sideways to me, lazily sculling the air with her hand-fins to keep herself from drifting away on the air-currents. I suppressed a scowl.
“Good morning, Helene. Why have we abandoned operational security on this fine day?”
Helene was supposedly going straight. She had vowed that she would give up raiding forever once we made Marsfall, and go into legit business. This had cheered Vijay and I no end, and, at Vijay’s insistence, I had given her some minor status in DBOS-Corp, so that she could get some experience working for a living instead of destroying things. But she was a total loose cannon. She knew that we only talked business through the game, to avoid being overheard. The game had good crypto protecting our conversations, something that was totally lacking in the cheek-by-jowl (by-butt-by-knee) atmosphere of the JC Lounges.
But she wanted to actually talk, face to face.
“You’re supposed to have been this big deal raider,” I said. “How did you survive? You’ve got the secrecy instincts of an elephant.”
She shrugged, which caused her to start spinning in slow circles, which she seemed to enjoy. She’d shaved her head after the first day in space and kept it clean to the scalp, something that a lot of other kids had done since. “I suppose I managed to keep it on the down-low when it mattered and ignored it when it didn’t.”
“This is exactly the kind of thing that’s going to get you in trouble when you go to work for some corp Marsside,” I said, aware that I was lecturing, but unable to stop myself. “Companies need to have policies; employees need to obey those policies. It’s fine to have ideas of your own, to try to get them circulated within the company and adopted. But you can’t just go rogue whenever an idea comes into your shiny bald head.”
She rubbed her gleaming noggin — she must shave it every day to keep it so shiny. “You seriously get off on this? Seriously? Role-playing that you’re some bigshot in a suit telling other people what to do and amassing a fortune?”
She’d hinted many times that she thought that straight Martian Chronicles players were suckers and drones, but this was the first time she’d come out and said it to my face. She had that same lazy smile and didn’t seem to be intending offense, but it got my back up. I swallowed a couple times. “I get off on making things. I pay a good salary to people to help me create amazing things that succeed, that make money and make people happy. Making things together requires that you give up some of your individual freedom in order to help the company succeed. If you don’t want to do that, you shouldn’t take a job.”
“OK,” she said. “I won’t take the job. Thanks for the memories!” She gave no impression of being upset. She never showed much emotion beyond a kind of lighthearted, detached amusement.
I was so shocked that I just watched her grab hold of her bungee, use it to pull herself to the bulkhead, where she could get her legs coiled under herself and then push off and go sailing away through the lounge, dodging and weaving between the players with their goggles, and the other fliers who were generally a lot less reckless than she was.
Vijay plucked his way along the wall to me, taking dainty, quick Velcro-ized steps that seemed ridiculous but actually got him around the space with a lot of speed and control. “What was that?” he said, drawing level with me and stopping his motion with a single finger pressed lightly against my shoulder.
I became aware that I was snorting hot air from my nose like a cartoon bull with a head-cold. I made myself stop. “She quit,” I said. “Because I asked her to adhere to corp policy.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess there’s no helping some people. She must have been born to be a raider.”
Vijay pressed his lips together and managed to look both disapproving and nonjudgmental at the same time. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. After a week on the Eagle, Vijay seemed to have worked out where all the angles were — he was bunking in a hardship-case dorm with 30 other poves, but he knew which dining room served the biggest portions, which gangways were fastest, which viewing ports were most likely to be free.
No one apart from Helene and I talked to him. We might have been the only ones who saw him; peoples’ eyes just slid over the poves like they were invisible. Vijay never gave any sign that he minded. He used his invisibility to get into places where we couldn’t go, and he always had a fun adventure — what he called a “good wheeze” — up his sleeve.
“Well, I suppose she’ll have to figure it all out when we get to Mars, anyway,” he said. “As will we all.”
“What does that mean? I know how to build a corp. I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again.”
“But you’ll be a different kind of person on Mars than you were on Earth. You’ll be an immigrant. A newcomer. You won’t have any assets. You will be a pove, if you’ll forgive the expression.”
I had never called him a pove. I was raised better than that. But we both knew that he was a pove and I wasn’t.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “I can’t be a pove.”
“Why not? If you don’t have money, you are poor. You have poverty. You are a pove.”
What a stupid day this was turning out to be. First Helene’s temper tantrum and now Vijay was trying to needle me. “In the first place, no one is an immigrant on Mars. An immigrant is someone who comes to your place — your country or planet — to live. But Mars is our country. Mars, Inc. and its stakeholders — that’s us — own it.
“In the second place, a pove isn’t someone who’s poor. A pove is someone who refuses to stop being poor. They want handouts, not work. Their governments have told them that they have the right to food and shelter, so they want what’s theirs by right.”
Now, I had heard and said these words hundreds of times. They were part of every civics class I’d ever taken. They were repeated several times a day through the Mars, Inc. orientation. But I have to say, I never really thought about what it would be like to hear those words if you were a pove. Not until they came out of my mouth on that day.
I felt the blush burning in my cheeks. “I mean, Vijay, not you, obviously. Obviously you want to work, you want to get out, and see, you did! You’re smart and motivated. That’s how you became an auditor. It’s how you got to get on the Eagle.”
He cocked his head. “Dave,” he said. “You never asked where my parents were.”
I swallowed. “No,” I said. “I mean, I figured that you had to be an orphan –”
“Oh, yes, I am an orphan. That’s because when I was ten, a Procter and Gamble neutraceutical plant near my village leaked seventy thousand tons of toxic fumes into the air. It killed over 95 percent of the people for 200 kilometers around. Many of them worked at the plant, or providing services to the people who did. The company argued that the division that owned that factory was totally separate from Procter and Gamble, even though P&G was the majority shareholder in it, and its only customer was P&G. Because of this, the Bangladeshi court was only able to render judgement on this ‘separate company,’ which was practically bankrupt at this point. Luckily there weren’t many of us alive. The ones that lived got enough money to go to a good school and not to one of the bad orphanages where the survival rate is about the same of people living in the toxic plume of a P&G plant.”
I tried not to show much much this shocked me. It practically skewered me. It was so much goddamned reality. Made everything I knew seem so… fake. Pointless. Like I’d been complaining about a splinter in my toe and this guy had had both of his feet eaten off by a tiger. So first I felt surprised. Then embarrassed. Then angry, though I didn’t know at who or what. Maybe my parents for keeping me from reality, though hell knew that I wouldn’t want to live through what Vijay had been through.
“Dave,” he said. “Please, calm down.” Made me wonder what my face had been doing. I hadn’t said anything. “I just wanted you to see that people aren’t just poor because they’re lazy. Some people work as hard as mules, every day of the week, and die poor.” Unbidden, the thought rose to my mind, They must be stupid then. It’s not enough to work hard. You have to work hard doing something valuable. “Some people work hard as mules and get hit by a bus or a chemical leak. Some people sit around on their fat asses all day and get rich.” I saw that some heads turned when he said this. Statements like that one were about the worst thing you could say to a Mars colonist.
I knew what I was supposed to say here. It was drilled into me. I said it. “If someone figures out how to do more with less, that tells us that he’s doing something right, and he should be rewarded for figuring stuff like that out. We don’t want people to just work harder — we want people to work better.”
He nodded. “Of course, Dave. That’s what we’re told. But Helene is a raider and she’s figured out a way to get a lot of money without working hard at all, by ruining the hard and valuable work of others. Where does she fit in?”
I swallowed. “I suppose that’s why it’s not illegal. But –” I fumbled for the argument. Lots of people were listening. I felt like I was divulging corporate secrets to my competition, even though nothing we were saying had to do with my business. “Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s good.”
“No,” Vijay said. “But you just said that anyone who figures out how to make more money with less work should be rewarded.”
I wanted to sink through the floor. I felt like everyone who was listening in could see that I really was just a loser, one of those people who didn’t really understand everything that Mars Colony stood for, not in my heart. I should have had some decent arguments right there on the tip of my tongue. But all I had was ashamed, furious blushing.
“Listen, pove,” said a voice from below me, loud enough to be heard around the room. “You’re a guest here. Nobody wants to hear your opinion on what successful people deserve or don’t deserve. Why don’t you go hang out with your own kind?” It was Liam, the redheaded mouthy kid. He ran an investment bank in Martian Chronicles, moving giant chunks of money around on behalf of big corps and big players. He was always too friendly with me, and too loud, but he also managed to make me feel like I had to go along with him or he might punch me in the gut. Not that I’d ever seen him be violent — he was just, you know, *intense.*
Vijay nodded his head, not ducking it, but nodding, as if Liam was confirming something he’d suspected all along, which somehow made Liam seem like even more of a jackass. “As you say,” he said, and took off into the middle of the room, using a hard shove to get himself moving and steering himself expertly through the crowd. Liam swiped at his ankle as he passed, but missed.
Liam righted himself relative to me, so that we were face to face. “You need a better class of friend, Smith. Judge a man by the company he keeps. You’re going to have to get yourself set up again Mars-side and the impression you make on this ship will follow you around for the rest of your life. Just some friendly advice, from your banker.”
You’re not my banker, I didn’t say. And I also didn’t say, You’re not my friend. And also not, The impression that’ll follow you around for the rest of your life is going to be of a big-mouth jerk.
And also, I didn’t say, Vijay’s my friend and I’m proud to be his.
Instead, I plastered a smile on my face and waved vaguely at him and plucked my way along the wall to the hatch and made for the gravity in the outer rings.
Helene came and got me a couple days later, rescuing me from a truly epic sulk in my parents’ cabin.
“You look like Martian crap,” she said.
“How’s that different from Terran crap?” I asked her.
“It’s redder, with a slightly longer day. Also, less gravity.”
My father chuckled and my mother smiled and I heard the klaxon go off in the back of my head, the one that went ALERT! ALERT! PARENTS ARE ABOUT TO SAY SOMETHING LIKE “IS THIS YOUR LITTLE GIRLFRIEND, DAVID?”
“Mom-Dad-this-is-Helene-we’re-going-out-now-kay-bye,” I said and grabbed Helene and dragged her down the corridor as fast as I could. From behind me, I heard my parents call, sarcastically, “Nice to meet you Helene!” and “Come by any time,” and other parents looked at us from their bunks through their open doors as we tore ass toward the hatch that led in-ship, toward the low-grav zones.
“What is it?” I asked, when we were through the airlock that separated the decks.
“I’ve been leaving you messages in-game but you haven’t answered them. Finally I decided to see when you’d last logged in and I saw that it had been like 72 hours and I decided you must have something terminal so I came to find you so I could tell you my secret before you died.”
“You’re really a crown prince who was hidden away by the king and queen, sent to live with a provincial bourgeois family so that the evil grand vizier couldn’t catch you. You are the rightful heir to the ancient kingdom of Freedonia.”
She bowed. “Indeed. So, what is it? Cholera? Plague? The crushing ennui of daily existence in a futile and uncaring universe?”
I squirmed. The deck we were on was lightly trafficked — it had a different night than we did, everybody slept in shifts — and semi-deserted at this hour. I was conscious of the fact that Helene was very pretty and somehow managed not to smell like The Smell, but rather like something slightly floral and nice. I was conscious of the fact that we were alone. I was conscious of the fact that the last time I’d spoken with Helene, I’d chased her off by treating her to an uninvited lecture on corporate responsibility.
“I just didn’t feel like coming out,” I mumbled, staring at my shoes.
“Oh, right then,” she said. “OK, back you go. See you later.”
She began to walk away. I started at her retreating back.
“Wait!” I said.
She looked over her shoulder at me. “Yes?”
“I feel like coming out now,” I said.
“Oh, all right then. Let’s go find Vijay.”
I felt weirdly disappointed. Helene wanted to hang out with me and Vijay, which suggested that the half-formed romantic suspicion I’d felt was totally unfounded. Of course. Why would someone as pretty as Helene want anything romantic to do with someone like me? Besides, she was as weird as a sack of snakes, there was no way to predict what was going on in her pointy little head.
I knew, approximately speaking, where Vijay’s quarters were. The “scholarship” bunkroom — the place where poves who’d been lucky enough to get a free ride on the Eagle slept — was also at the ship’s hub, where there was no gravity to speak of. This allowed for a much higher density of humanity — you didn’t need bunks, just loosely tethered cocoons where people slept. Vijay had told us about it with a shrug, as if to say that it wasn’t any worse than his Bangladeshi orphanage, but I’d had a vision of a huge space, in perpetual twilight, where insectile sacks filled with softly breathing people drifted silently into one another, and it had given me a shiver.
“You’re sure he’s not in the JC Lounge?” I asked.
“No, he stopped showing up two days ago. The lag was killing him.” The further we got from Earth, the laggier the game got, as our play traffic had to traverse the widening lightspeed gap between us and the servers twice, once in each direction. Almost immediately after takeoff, we’d lost real-time voice communications with the dirtside players. We could leave them voicemails and they could reply the same way, but that was all.
Then we lost real-time graphics. Rather than flying through a constantly updated, pin-sharp rendering of the Mars of Martian Chronicles as it was, we saw it in blocky, symbolic graphics, covered in glyphs warning us that these buildings and people and vehicles might or might not still be there.
Finally, the game turned into a set of spreadsheets that were updated once every minute, filled with vital statistics about market activity, sales, mergers, acquisitions, corporate raids… And as we sped farther and farther from our worn out mother-planet, the update lag would be worse and worse. Until apogee, the point where we were an equal distance from Earth and Mars, when our antennae would be reversed and we’d begin three months’ worth of reverse flight, finally slowing down enough to put us at a relative standstill by the time we reached our new home. At Turnaround, the ship’s networks would change over to the Martian Internet, a system that was almost entirely separate from Earth’s spam-riddled cesspool. The two networks could barely communicate with one another — for one thing, Martian computers reckoned time differently, counting by Martian seconds, which were 1.025 Earth seconds long (just as the Martian day was 2.5 percent longer than the Earth day).
“So, if you’re sure he’s not in the JC Lounge, are you also sure he’s in his quarters? You know Vijay, he could be anywhere.”
“It’s the tail end of his sleep cycle. He’s due to wake up in about 30 minutes. He’ll be there.”
The pove quarters announced themselves with their own Smell, a Smell distinct from the overarching Smell of the Eagle. This was the smell of people stuck together so close that every fart blew directly into someone’s face; every toe dangled tantalizing inches from someone’s nose; every armpit was wafting its perfume into someone else’s breakfast. As we neared it, we heard the Hum, the perpetual sound of a thousand people whispering, trying not to wake the others who were on sleep-shift.
The dim room was just as I’d imagined it. Unsurprising, since my impressions were based on candid photos posted to the ship’s blog, snapped by colonists who’d snuck down to see how the other half lived. It really was like looking in on a termite’s nest or the underside of a rotten log, a squirming mass of half-seen humanity wrapped in gauzy harnesses.
“Looks like the povetowns in Martian Chronicles, doesn’t it?” Helene said, in a normal conversational voice that cut through the Hum like a cymbal-crash. I squirmed with embarrassment, mostly because I’d been thinking just that. You could always tell when a Martian Chronicles player was a pove, because they built houses and businesses that looked like the pove slums you saw in the news. They were too close together, and they ran businesses right out of their residences, and they always tried to do three thousand things at once — jetpack repair, accounting services, hairdressing, spacesuit designs, all with enthusiastic, badly spelled signage.
“I guess,” I mumbled, and squinted into the darkness. There was a pove sitting by the door, a man with a little cracked palmtop clipped to his flowing white shift. Apparently the backlight had gone — he was reading it by the light leaking in from the doorway, which we were blocking by standing there, gawping. He made an impatient gesture at us. “Come in, come in,” he said in accented English. Maybe he was African? It sounded like the African accents in the games I played.
We scooted past him, and were enveloped in the close, overbreathed air of the pove quarters. I had the same feeling I got when I stumbled into povetowns in Martian Chronicles: claustrophobia, nausea, and an awful, nagging guilt. And then anger. Why were we taking the poves to Mars anyway?
Meanwhile, Helene was floating through the space, peering at peoples’ faces, looking for Vijay. “Found him,” she sang out, again too loud for the space, and people rolled over in their cocoons and gave us dirty looks. I drifted over to her, grinned weakly at Vijay, who was scrubbing at his eyes with his long, skinny hands.
“Hello,” he whispered. “Funny meeting you here.” He struggled out of his cocoon and I saw that he was wearing grey underpants and a t-shirt, and I looked away as he snagged his clothes from the ditty-bag under the cocoon and pulled them on.
“Toilet,” he said, and led us out of pove-land. There was a huge line for the nearest toilet, but he sailed past it and led us down a maintenance corridor that was barely wide enough to pass down, even turned sideways. “‘Scuse me,” he said, and ducked into a niche I hadn’t even seen. A moment later, I heard the pee-plus-vacuum sound of a low-gee toilet. “I think they used this while they were building the Eagle,” he called over the noise, seemingly unembarrassed by having an audience for his toilet experience. “It’s not even on the as-built drawings. But they must have had a toilet while they were working, after they pressurized her.” Before pressure, everyone would have worked in space-suits and gone in a diaper. He emerged, fastidiously wiping his fingers on a sani-wipe that he tucked in the waistband of his loose cotton pants. “OK,” he said. “Onward, stout comrades!”
He led us further up the corridor and I felt myself growing heavier, a sense of downhill that told me we were headed into the higher-gee outer rings. I heard muffled conversations from beyond the thin bulkhead — snatches of conversation in Simplified English and then in Spanish, which the crew spoke when there weren’t any colonists around. They were mostly Mexican, poves, really, and they were getting a free ride to Mars and a free start as colonists in exchange for driving the big tin can across the solar system for us.
“Where are we?” Helene said in her stupid loud voice.
“Quietly, please,” Vijay said, without rancor. “Crew quarters. This corridor goes all the way from the center to the outer ring. This is about as far as you can go before you start sliding downhill, though. I thought it’d be fun to come back some time and do it again with pitons and ropes, see if we can get all the way down to the passenger decks without falling straight down and breaking both legs.”
“That does sound like fun,” Helene said. “Count me in.”
“You two,” I said. But it did sound like fun. We had months left in this tin can. And spending it all playing Martian Chronicles didn’t sound nearly as much fun as it had before we’d actually left for Mars. “OK, Vijay, you’re officially the coolest guy in outer space. Can we go now? It’d be nice to actually be able to see you guys, rather than the backs of your heads.” We were all turned sideways, remember. There wasn’t even enough room to turn our heads.
“Don’t you want to know what I learned here in my secret perch in crew territory?” He was barely speaking above a whisper — we were all keeping it quiet — but he managed to convey unholy glee.
“Do tell,” Helene hissed in a very loud whisper — like a whispered shout. The voices outside the walls got quieter, and we all held our breath for a second. Then they got louder again.
“Well, I speak some Spanish,” Vijay said. “Just a little, but it’s helpful in Martian Chronicles to be able to audit a company’s books in the language that they’re kept in. And there are so many Mexican and South American corps now in MC –”
“Farmers,” I snorted. Everyone knew that the Spanish-speaking corps were just fronts for “farmers” — players that did mind-numbing, repetitive tasks in-game to amass wealth that they could sell to real players who didn’t want their transactions to show up on the official registry.
I could hear Vijay’s silence from further up the corridor, just make out his shoulders tightening. “Many of them are very good firms,” he said. “Operating under the highest ethical standards.”
I opened my mouth to say something that would defend my position, but Helene spoke before I could. “You were saying, Vijay?”
“Yes. Well, the thing is, the crew are very active MC players. And they have access to the Martian Internet.”
“Jesus,” I said. “That must be laggy as hell.”
“Oh yes,” Vijay said. “About 200 seconds of network delay. But that’s plenty fast enough to let them get a look at Martian Chronicles.”
“They’re logging in?”
“Oh yes. Logging in and even joining up with corps. They want to be sure that by the time they land, they have a good position. Think about it. Once we hit apogee and switch the Eagle‘s main systems over to the Martian Internet, there’s going to be 1000 colonists all trying to get in with the corps or found their own, all at once. They’re beating the rush.”
“But that’s cheating!” I said, too loud, and again the voices from outside dipped.
“Go,” whispered Vijay. “Quietly.”
Quietly, we backed down the corridor, turning around to face the way we were going only when we reached Vijay’s secret toilet. We popped back out near pove-land, and Vijay floated up onto the ceiling and gestured to us to join him. We put our faces close together and spoke softly.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But it is cheating.”
“No it’s not,” Helene said. “It’s just taking advantage of circumstances. Look at the colonists who went up on the Falcon.” That was the first Mars Inc colony ship, which had made the voyage ten years before. “They got to set up Mars-side Martian Chronicles without anyone else in the way. They had a totally blank world. They could mine the best mineral deposits, grab the best mountains to hollow out and pressurize, stake out the best oxygen patches. Are they cheating? Should they have waited for us to get there before they started?”
I swallowed. “It’s not the same thing,” I said, but I didn’t sound very convincing.
Helene waved her hand at me in a dismissive, floppy gesture.
“What did you find out from them, Vijay?” But before he could speak she put her finger to her lips. “Dave, you might want to move out of earshot until we’re done here. Wouldn’t want you to get tainted by all this cheating.”
“Children,” Vijay said, with mock sternness. “Enough.”
I glared at Helene, who smiled at me with so much dimple and lip-action that I felt myself blushing.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Now, what I discovered was this. The Mars-side game is almost nothing like the game we play. It’s a lot meaner, and raiding is the order of the day. Four corps control the entire show, and every corp has to pay tribute to one of them for a license to operate, or face financial ruin. The four main corps hate each other, but they’ll work in concert to destroy any independent corp that threatens their arrangement — anything it takes: price-fixing, unfair advertising, market lockouts…” He went on, rattling off a long list of sins that only auditors truly understood. Basically, these were all the ways that a corp could try too hard, like when all the corps in one sector, like oxygen, do exclusive deals with all the Mars habitats to supply their air at a discount on the condition that the habitats agree not to buy water from some other corp. This was strictly forbidden on Martian Chronicles — Earthside, at least — though of course people were always trying it.
“So that’s the shape of things,” he concluded. “The Eagle‘s crew are trying to work out — from the spreadsheets and news-bulletins they’re getting from the Mars servers — which of the four corps they should go to work for. They’ve decided to offer themselves as a team, thinking that they’ll get higher wages if they all stand together.”
I shook my head. “That’s collusion!” I said. If there was one thing that was even more against the rules I’d always lived under than unfair competition, it was labor collusion, when a bunch of workers decided in secret to hold out for a higher wage, or to stop some of their friends from being fired or having their hours cut. It wasn’t just illegal in Martian Chronicles — it was illegal on Mars, one of the fundamental tenets of Mars, Inc.’s charter. Totally free labor markets!
“It’s a different game on Mars,” Vijay said. “Besides, what’s really wrong with it? A company puts a lot of workers together so that it can earn more profits — why shouldn’t workers get together to earn more wages?”
Helene raised her eyebrows at me, as thought to say, Do you have an answer? One that you’re OK saying in front of Vijay?
I tightened my lips. “Vijay, can I say something to you without worrying that you’ll be offended?”
He smiled and bobbed up and down in the null-gee. “Of course, Dave. You’re my friend. Let it all hang out.”
“What you’re talking about is pure pove-talk. The world has two kinds of people in it: whiners and winners. A winner goes out and starts a company and figures out how to make as much as possible. A whiner complains that the winner isn’t paying him enough, and, rather than starting his own company, complains and demands more money from the winner. The real way to get higher pay is to take a risk, start your own business, make something important in the world.” I checked to see if he was offended. He was floating upside-down, so it was hard to tell if he was smiling or not.
“OK, so this is why you can always find the poves in Martian Chronicles. They’re the ones bitching about the unfairness of everything instead of doing something. It’s why there are so many poor people on Earth. It’s a thought-virus they all catch from their society, demanding that the world provide for them instead of providing for themselves. And it’s the job of the doers and the winners to ignore the whiners and go on doing and winning so that the whiners will have somewhere to work.”
Vijay was looking at me with something like a mild smile on his face. I replayed my words and heard just how offensive they might sound to someone like Vijay. “Look,” I said, no longer meeting his gaze. “Look. I’m not saying it’s genetic — no one is saying that poor people are inherently inferior or anything. But it’s a disease, and you catch it from the people around you.”
Helene shook her head at me. “You really believe everything your dad tells you, don’t you?”
I nearly turned around and left then, but I was still keenly aware of the loneliness I’d experienced for the three days I’d spent locked up in my parents’ cabin. So I stood my ground and pretended I hadn’t heard her.
Vijay said, “I’ve heard this theory before. There are only one thing I wonder about. Maybe you could help me with it.”
“Go ahead,” I said.
“Can you explain where the people who died in the Procter and Gamble leak were whiners?”
I shook my head. “No, of course not, but –”
“Do you have any idea how many workers I’ve met who are missing fingers or eyes or hands? How many of them were called whiners and sent away because they asked their employers for compensation for the machines that mutilated them?”
I shook my head again. “You don’t get it –”
“No,” Vijay said, and I heard that the calm voice he used — that he always used — was just a tight belt cinched around an enormous pool of anger. That Vijay was angry at me, at us, at the colonists. “No, Dave. I do get it. Do you know what cognitive dissonance is?”
We’d studied it in school, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention. “It’s like when you believe something and the facts don’t agree with it.”
“That’s right. So say, for example, that you believe that the world is fair, but when you look around it, you see that you have so very much more than everyone else.” I could see where this was going. I began to walk away, but he floated and skipped after me, continuing to talk. “So you have cognitive dissonance. How can the world be fair if you have more than everyone else? It must be fair for you to have more, then, right? And how can that be? It can only be if you are better than everyone else — and everyone else is therefore worse than you –”
I reached a hatch and passed through it and moved out toward the living quarters, downhill in the gravity.
For some reason, there were tears in my eyes.
About the Author
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist and journalist. He is the author of many books, most recently RADICALIZED and WALKAWAY, science fiction for adults; HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, nonfiction about monopoly and conspiracy; IN REAL LIFE, a graphic novel; and the picture book POESY THE MONSTER SLAYER. His latest book is ATTACK SURFACE, a standalone adult sequel to LITTLE BROTHER; his next nonfiction book is CHOKEPOINT CAPITALISM, with Rebecca Giblin, about monopoly, monopsony and fairness in the creative arts labor market, (Beacon Press, 2022). In 2020, he was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
About the Narrator
Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him.
His full-time day job is as Marketing and Volume Purchasing Program Coordinator for Smoky Hill Education Service Center in Salina, continuing his career of putting his talents to work in support of education.
He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.
You can also hear his narration and audio production work on two mediocre Audible audiobooks, and as a regular producer and occasional narrator for The Drabblecast.