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Daniel's Story

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2238. Mars Colony.

            “Welcome to Mars!”

            Daniel looked around. His new “apartment” wasn’t more than a bedshare – one tiny room, with a cot, and nothing else. There was no space for furniture – the door could barely open as it was, and mere inches separated the bed from the walls. A small window over the bed looked out to a cloudless, orange Martian sky.

            His whole “apartment” wasn’t much bigger than a closet.

            “You have to be kidding,” Daniel said. “Where am I to put my clothes?”

            “Most people lift their beds up on blocks. That should give you plenty of room.”

            Daniel raised his eyebrows at the man’s definition of “plenty.”

            “Don’t look at me like that. The gravity is weaker here. You can lift your bed, I know you can.”

            Daniel didn’t have many belongings with him – he’d placed most of his possessions into storage in preparation for the move – but he’d still expected to have more space than he would in a prison cell.

            “And where is the bathroom?” he asked.

            “Down the hall.”

            “We all share a bathroom?”

            “Ten to a toilet.”

            “I thought the company was putting me up in better quarters than this, to be honest…”

            “You Earth types always complain. These are good quarters! Private quarters! You’ve got a window! You’ve got hot and cold water! Look, the door has a lock!” He gestured to the totally inadequate device. One solid kick and the “lock” would go flying off the wall. “And only ten people to a toilet. That’s good living. We Marsies don’t need much to get by.” Unlike you spoiled Earthers, the man thought.

            Daniel paid his month’s rent – in cash – and got to work setting up his room. A flyer on the back of the door explained the colony’s water conservation regulations. Nerio was a relatively new small town, bigger than a hamlet or a homestead, but nowhere near as populous as any of the three major Martian cities, or even as Xanthe Terra, a smaller city located a two-hour train ride away from Nerio, eastwards across the cold, barren Martian landscape.

            When Daniel left the apartment block to find something to eat, he stood looking out beyond the dome at the endless expanse of reddish desert. The sunlight, even at mid-day, was weak, and the lighter gravity made him slightly dizzy. Already, his nose was sore from the dry air that didn’t smell quite right.

            No rain. No birds. No trees. No ocean. Wan and sickly sunlight by day, utter darkness by night. Terraformed or not, he decided, no place could be farther from his native Puerto Rico.

            I’ve been banished to a god-forsaken rock. I’ll never make it.

*****

            Six months passed. At seven thirty in the morning, Daniel arrived at his usual café, one of a chain across the red planet owned by a company back on Earth. Plastic vegetation stood along the inner and outer walls, in a vain attempt at synthetic lush ambiance.

            Every table in the small establishment was already occupied, so Daniel had to wait outside, by the narrow street – still the widest and busiest in Nerio. Since space on Mars was so limited, strangers always sat together, and no seats were ever left vacant. It sometimes made for interesting breakfast conversation.

            After a half hour of waiting, Daniel’s turn for a seat arrived. “May I sit here, ma’am?” Daniel asked, gesturing. “Do you mind sitting with a telepath?”

            His middle-aged tablemate looked up at him and shifted in her seat, clearly uncomfortable. Sitting with a telepath had not been in her morning plan.

            “I would never use my abilities to read your thoughts, ma’am,” Daniel said, reciting the script he’d been taught in school. “I’ve been carefully trained not to pick up on stray thoughts.” He knew to avoid the word “scan” if he wanted anyone to give him a seat.

            He smiled as best as he could, but he still felt like a puppy assuring a homeowner that he was housebroken.

            “I don’t want you sitting with me, no,” she said flatly.

            “That’s quite all right, ma’am,” he lied, “I’ll wait for another table.”

            He gave the seat to the next person in line, a normal, and waited another ten minutes for the next seat to open up. The rejection stung, even after all these years and countless similar rejections. The Marsies, despite their animosity towards Earth, had no more love for telepaths than the people of the mother planet.

            His second table-mate didn’t mind sitting with a telepath. “I’ve worked with your kind for years,” the older business-woman said nonchalantly. She wasn’t interested in conversation, however – only in reading Universe Today and drinking her coffee in silence. Daniel was a bit disappointed, but said nothing. That was life – at least he had a seat.

            He ate breakfast without fuss, even though it tasted terrible. Living on Mars, he missed his mother’s cooking more than ever. And his grandmother's! Everything on Mars came from a can, processed beyond all recognition and flavor - what he would have given for some sofrito, some fried plantains, some carne guisada - heck, even anything that resembled real pork! The café’s so-called eggs weren’t more than reconstituted yellow mush. The milk had no doubt arrived in powdered form much like the eggs, and his coffee tasted bitter. Even a simple glass of water had a sour, artificial taste to it. Fresh fruit or vegetables were unheard of.

            Perhaps food was better in the major cities, he figured, for a price - but out here, it was barely edible.

            He was almost finished with his coffee when a worker walked into the café, wearing loose-fitting overalls, thick boots and gloves. It was unusual for construction types to frequent the café (whose clientele tended to be more professional), but not too out of the ordinary. The worker seemed nervous. She glanced around as if looking for someone in particular. Her eyes settled on Daniel.

            I’m going to do it, she thought clearly, with a knife edge of hate, I’m wired with explosives and I’m gonna blow you Earth-loving scum to bits and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

            Daniel stared. He was casually familiar with the lawlessness of Mars history, inasmuch as school lessons back home had covered it. Mars's first colony had been mostly lost, years ago, when the shockwave of a terrorist's bomb had ruptured the colony’s main dome,[1] the fragile bubble that kept air and warmth inside. Hundreds had died,[2] including – as far as Daniel could recall – the bomber.

            The worker pulled off one of her gloves, and reached into her pocket.

            The detonation switch! Surely no criminally-minded group could be so foolish – twice?!

            Heart pounding in his chest, and without thinking, he jumped up from his seat, knocking over his coffee, the business woman and the table in his haste to reach the murderous woman on the other side of the café.

            His tablemate fell to the floor with a startled scream.

            “She has a bomb!” he shouted, trying to act before the construction worker set off the detonation switch in her pocket. He pushed people out of the way in his race toward her. “Everyone get out!

            Heads turned as people tried to register what was happening.

            Not enough time… not enough time…

            He crashed into the woman, tackling her to the floor of the café, pinning her hands behind her back. She screamed.

            “She has a bomb! She has a bomb!”

            Patrons fled for the exits, falling over each other in the mad rush for the door.

            “Let go of me, you mindfucking son of a bitch!” the worker shouted, trying to push Daniel off of her. He didn’t care what she called him, only about stopping her. He kept her pinned to the floor.

            There was more shouting, as people tripped over each other, pushing and shoving and kicking their way to the door. Someone spilled scolding coffee, someone else tripped in it. The plastic vegetation went over in a cascade of fake fronds. The worker struggled, but he held on.

            Mundane police came running in.

            “She has a bomb!”

            “Get off of me! Let me go!”

            Police separated them, roughly. They lifted Daniel off the floor and wrenched his arms behind his back, slammed him into the wall of the café, and someone slapped handcuffs on him. Another officer began questioning the woman. Daniel heard her telling the police that out of nowhere, he had jumped up out of his seat, screaming, and attacked her.

            “Why are you handcuffing me?” he asked the officer, angry. “I just saved everybody’s lives!”

            “Don’t struggle, freak, or you’re getting a boot up your ass.”

            “That woman has a bomb!”

            “He’s crazy!” she shouted. “He’s out of control!”

            With his face pressed to the wall of the café, Daniel couldn’t see what was happening, but he could feel the officers’ thoughts as they reluctantly searched the woman for explosives. He took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself. The mundane police were never his friends, he reminded himself. They would take anything he said or did as resisting arrest.

            But they’d find the bomb, and then everything would be all right.

            Except… they were letting the woman go. What the hell?

            “She has a bomb!” he shouted. “You can’t just let her go!”

            “You’re coming with us.” The officer who had him pinned to the wall now spun him around and shoved him toward the door.

            “What the fuck?" He cursed at the officers in Spanish, too, for good measure. "You’re just going to let her go? She’s wired with explosives!”

            “You’re under arrest for assault and battery, disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.”

            Through the adrenaline, realization clicked into place – he’d been set up. There was no bomb – she’d only wanted to cause panic. He looked back at her with shocked disbelief, saw the smugness under her mock injured pride. There were a thousand names he would have shouted at her, had mundane police not had him in their grip, dragging him off to the waiting ground vehicle.

            I hate this fucking planet, he thought.

 

[1] Midnight on the Firing Line (“But I’ll give you points on one thing. We’re alike in one respect. We have experience with sneak attacks. Pearl Harbor, the nuking of San Diego, the destruction of our Mars colony. It’s a long and bloody history. Know what we learned? The sneak attack is the first resort of a coward.”) See also the Official Babylon 5 Monthly Magazine for more specifics on this attack.

[2] Id.