Actually it’s not completely dark at all. The light from inside the Base shines through the dome into the thin atmosphere beyond and illumines the flat granular underbellies of the clouds. They smolder a soft rust-orange color. As a kid back home on Earth, I always knew that snow was coming when I saw the sky turn more and more radiant—it reminded me of the deep orange glow in the fireplace, hours after the real flames had been spent. I longed for that color descending closer and closer to the ground until suddenly, in a burst, the snow would come pouring out of the sky as flour might spill from the torn gut of a burlap sack.
The Martian sky makes its quick descent, and, just as I remembered it, the first flakes of the storm whisk in, changing the ruddy world outside to one that’s just like the snow globe that still sits on my widowport ledge, its glass scratched from over five decades of use and moving van crates, the Currier and Ives village inside always the same, the Rockwell snowman in the Grandma Moses town square waiting for me to shake it up, to make a storm, to make it feel at home again.
I sit most of the night by my front port, the one that looks over the newly finished road that leads to the main hanger doors and then to the bitter world just beyond, a ten-foot wide tongue of asphalt inside the dome lined by a gaunt line of brambles and bushes, a meager touch of Earth. The doors are an illusion, of course. They don’t open. There’s no need. You can just as easily pass through the membrane. But doors, both large and small, give a sense of “back home.”
My front port offers the best of three possible views from my 12 by 20 “apartment.” There are four such sparsely furnished rooms inside each of the twenty or so rectangular buildings—nicknamed Pods by the first Martian colonists back in the early days. From the front, I can see the street lamps and can observe the direction and intensity of the snow beyond the thin cellophane of transparent gel that covers Belmont Base. Named after an early 22nd century explorer of the Asteroid Belt, this is one of the 28 bases that dot Mars.
Every hour or so, out of the white whirl, the headlight of an incoming skytrain glares through, the silver cylinder seems silent till it ruptures the membrane, and comes racing through, the gel sealing shut behind it with a deep gurgle. Then the artificial clattering created to make this place seem more nostaligically familiar comes closer, deepens, turns Wagnerian, shakes my Pod, and disappears, the homage to Doppler a homey triumph, the winter picture made perfect, the ensuing silence deeper.
It’s intense, this silence.
Bronte—Charlotte, Emily, or Anne—would be proud.
For fear of immediately turning you off, I must address the crux of my dilemma, the one that dominates the course of my life.
This is the point when I start thinking about the whole religion thing—you know, whether in reality Jesus is not only the savior of the Earth, but the whole wide Universe with its countless billions of planetary systems, wondering whether other galactic civilizations—like the Martians—ever needed some kind of Savior. Think about it: Did the Martians need a godly incarnation before Olympus Mons blew up and descimated their planet overnight? And if Jesus is Savior of just the world, well, isn’t that just a tad arrogant of us Earthlings to think so highly of ourselves? A third-rate planet in a small galaxy tipping away to nowhere near the edge of the visible universe. The Hubble telescope told us so over a century ago. And now that we’re out here, it’s truer than ever: A little bit of a planet compared to all those other worlds and their massive moons. And some rabbi from a dusty Mediterranean village is supposed to be not just the god but the Savior of all this? Of course, it would be fascinating if any of this were proven true, an irony which I have come to appreciate over time, especially since I got exiled for publishing such thoughts. Ironic and perhaps comforting. People seem to like the idea of having a personal god they can tap into at any given time—makes people feel less alone.
Please don’t run. My tale isn’t really about religion at all; as you will see—if you stay with me—is that it’s about rejection and how one copes because of one’s beliefs.
So, as I was saying, gods can give people a sense of security. Especially on nights like this—staring out a windowport at the lonely light poles and their insistent light. When the snow beyond the Base dances an angry tango with a relentless wind. When the silence inside one’s quarters is made more frightening by the gunfire-like thwack of snow pellets against the pliant dome. When anyone would wonder whether the membrane of organic gel might rupture from the push of angry isobars and blast the artificial world of our Base into dust. It’s then, in the depth of those moments, that I’m most likely to think of what a god might be, of whether all the nonsense about “only son of” means anything at all, what all the blood still being shed on Earth in the name of religion tells us about ourselves and our relationship with the Ineffable.
O, the snow is snowing, the wind is blowing . . .
Will the real god please stand up?
The applause sign waits in stunning darkness.
The whole Jesus thing is what I grew up with back on Earth, even before the Alliance took over. All those years of Sunday school, choir rehearsals, brimstone sermons. If I’d been raised Moslem, Jewish, or Hindu, I might be thinking of those flavors of divinity instead.
Years of therapy later—the good ones before Dr. Albert took over—I came to conclusions about god quite different from the ones I’d been taught, conclusions I still believe, despite my exile. I’ve healed from the damage of seeing myself as a piece of crap that needs to be saved, of having to be cleaned up by a Jesus as though I were some toxic dump in god’s lovely paradise, of believing that god wouldn’t even want to see my dirty little face. That only god’s only son, that only some divine incarnation—some literal deus ex machine—could break out the spiritual Spic and Span and scrub my muddy little soul to respectability, and that then and only then could I approach the father god with any hope of entrance into the big house hereafter. “Only”—for such a tiny word, it’s caused a whole lot of trouble.
And don’t get me going on all that patriarchal stuff either. God with balls? Are you kidding me?
But what do I expect? Beyond the Martian storm that wails outside the dome, there lies a different place, the far away Earth where I grew up. The planet where many hate me for who I am and what I dare to do. Hate me so much that I’m sent here with others. Of course, they don’t call it prison. Not at all. No, it’s presented quite differently: “We’ll send you to a place with like-minded people so that you can feel more at home. We’re really protecting you so that you might be free to think as you will.” It’s a fancy conceit for what used to be called a prison. Now they’re called Bases.
By any other name.
And we’re out of sight. Self-sustaining. Self-governing. No contact with the home world.
For fear of.
But you know something? Just because you’ve been told you’re healed doesn’t mean you’ve been cured; just because the bone has mended doesn’t mean it won’t always be weak, always have the knack of telling you when the weather’s about to turn for the worse. And always when you don’t want to know.
“Now why Martians?” Dr. Albert asks. “Is this how you see yourself, Erika?”
“I prefer Rickie.”
“Yes, that’s right.” He smiles. “Forgive me. But answer the question, please. Is this how you see yourself? A Martian?
Too obvious, I think, but I say, “No. I’m not a Martian. But there were Martians once; we now know that.”
“Well, how do Martians look? What are they like?”
I hate these questions, but say, “I don’t know. We don’t have fossil records. Yet.”
Again he smiles. “Your uncomfortability—your resistance—to these questions says something, doesn’t it?”
I think, Who says I’m resisting, but say, “This could take years.”
“Are you in a hurry?”
And not just the religious “deviants,” but the queers. Women. The Jews. The Liberals. The Alliance is vanilla’s greatest advocate.
The boys who now make the rules—like the ones who threw Emmit Till in the river long, long ago—hate them—hate us—though they would never use the word hate.
Words like misinformed, deluded, and antisocial—these are some the comfortable euphemisms of hatred in the 22nd century.
OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Maybe they don’t hate us all. That’s self-pity. It’s a woe-is-me of the worse kind, the kind that keeps you a victim—or a martyr—and provides, in truth, the excuse never to have to move out, to leave home, to really live your life. Everyday that I see myself as a victim, I put the responsibility for my happiness in the hands of someone else. Even in prison, it’s important for me to feel—somehow—empowered.
We all know that only one of the ten lepers came back to thank Jesus for providing a cure, but not because the other nine were ungrateful as some theologians would have you believe. No, they didn’t come back because they were deathly afraid. Scared to the marrow. Why? Because they suddenly had to grow up. They couldn’t beg anymore. They couldn’t expect people to drop food or a stray coin in their laps. They had to get up with the rest of the town and work for their loaves and fishes. Yes, there’s a certain ease in leprosy, and now it’s gone.
For me, at least I have staring through a windowport at snow.
At the dark.
At the storm.
Ring. The last thing I expect is a phone call. Even at low volume, the ringing is severe, a trumpet disturbing a garden.
I rarely use the phone, actually. There’s no need. It was put in to create another touch of home, I imagine, but when you live in such close quarters, why bother? Just walk next door or go to the Community Room if you want. But once in a while, the phone does ring. And then you have several dilemmas.
Pick it up and you get caught in the conversation with the last person you’d ever want to hear from. (The wrong person always calls on a night like this.) Don’t pick it up, let the machine answer, hear the voice, and then decide leaves with two problems: If you pick it up after hearing who it is, I’m screening. Looks bad. Makes the other person feel weird, awkward. If I don’t pick up and it’s someone I really do want to talk to, I let the opportunity slip away.
And after they leave their message—“Call me, please”—and the metallic hang up clicks across the room, you’re left by the windowport still staring at the churning snow beyond your fragile world, and the primal loneliness settles in, the tentacles of its cancer reaching deep.
Oh, you’re still here in your safe little world. But the other possibility—the human contact on the phone that you’ve just shunned—still echoes around the room, like a fading note in a stone cathedral; like the incense lingering long after the coal is dust; like the skytrain and its workers approaching, passing, vanishing into the gloom of the dome, its potential a lathe that peels away the skin from your gut; like Shakespeare’s Titus serving a child to the unsuspecting Queen, and despite the revenge, never knowing real satisfaction, the chef still hungry.
The second ring, and I’m still undecided.
So that’s how it went for months at a time, the government-paid therapist—Dr. Albert—trying to probe to the core of my “antisocial views,” my “ill-advised thinking,” my “self-indulgent patterns.” All he kept coming up with is “You’re resisting the truth.”
I just couldn’t make myself believe the way they wanted me to, not that I tried that hard to “see things their way.” And so, after a brief trial—their euphemism for what actually happened—I was sentenced off-world. Of course, it’s not called a “sentence.” I’m merely being sent to a “safer place” where I can exchange my ideas more freely with the “Like-Minded,” as we’re called. The choice of Base is specific. Every year about 50 of us world-wide are “selected.” There’s a televised lottery ceremony that’s full of dignified rhetoric. “These people will be sent to a better place; a place where they can be happy like us. Isn’t that the goal of the human condition? To be happy and fulfilled? Now we can all pursue our dreams at peace. This is the brilliant plan devised by the people of our Alliance and adopted by most of the world. We are finally a world at peace with citizens who are truly free.” And similar bullshit. They used to call it segregation. Now they call it a “world at peace with and within itself.”
When I left there were about 75 Outposts—on the Moon, Mars, a few Jovian moons, and sundry asteroids. Most were scientific bases, but a number were set aside for the likes of me. I understand that now even more Bases are being built near Jupiter and a few as far away as Neptune. Uninhabited places. Or so they thought. I’ve heard through the grapevine that a couple of exopaleontologists found proof of the Martians, of their volcanic destruction. Of course, the Alliance ain’t gonna let that one out! We’re the supreme, sole creatures of the Universe. No one else, baby!
I found this out by sheer luck. My Dad worked for the Space Agency and he broke the prime rule of all—he told me about his work. Guess he trusted me; plus, he loved talking with me. I was never “Daddy’s Little Girl.” I was an intelligent equal, a peer when it came to discussing the deeper, more existential matters. And as far as I know, he never spoke with Mom about any of this; she was good-hearted and a little too enamored by the Alliance point of view.
So Dad told me about the Martians. I don’t know how the government expected to keep all of this under wraps, but they did—and continue to—denying for years before I was sent away that there are any other civilizations. The reason’s easy to figure out, right? Once the Alliance took over our country, followed one by one by similar governments in other nations, it became necessary to maintain a solid, “spiritual” point of view. We’re the pinnacles of God’s creation. Terra-centricism with a heavy dose of theocracy.
All I can think of is Galileo and the Catholic Church a few centuries back. It took hundreds of years for the Church to officially admit it was wrong in excommunicating the man who dared say, along with others, that the Earth wasn’t the center of the Universe. Or remember all those people right down to the mid 20th century who went to hell for eating meat on Fridays? Hold a council, and—Poof!—now you’re all in heaven! Of course, when I said all this stuff to Dr. Albert, it only confirmed his adamancy that I was definitely not “fitting in.”
That they only ship away 50 of us a year is—should you excuse the religious expression—a miracle. Of course, I’m sure the number’s much bigger. We’ll never know.
I lucked out with one of the Martian Bases, I guess: It beats others I’ve heard about. There’s an undersea Outpost beneath the icy crust of Europa that’s supposed to be pretty bad. But that’s only rumor. Remember, we only know what we’re told.
Anyway, they set up the outpost with “all the comforts of home”—they say. Indeed, the government has mastered the art of cliché. They give each of us our own room, calling it an “apartment” inside a metal Pod with four other rooms, calling that a “home.” There’s a central community room in a separate Pod where we cook, socialize, watch ancient—and approved—vids, and try to carry on with our lives as “normally” as possible. There are usually twenty Pods in each Outpost, meaning each base has about 75 people, not including the police guards. We live under a dome of organic material, a thin membrane of sophisticated gel that siphons out oxygen from the otherwise tissue thin, noxious atmosphere beyond. (They tried terraforming Mars a few years back, but that didn’t work—what remains is the emaciated, stormy air of Mars remains.) Think of the dome as an enormous, pliant lung that let’s in light during the day and keeps us warm at night, that provides an unlimited supply of air to breathe and keeps the relentless winds and night time snow or dust storms out, that lets the sound of the outside world in and lets explorers beyond the dome see their homes, that immediately re-seals itself when ruptured and knows—thanks to nano-sized computer cells called “smart molecules”—when to get tough-skinned enough to protect us from the occasional meteor shower.
At times, especially on a “sunny day,” the undulating, glistening skin of the dome reminds me of spinnakers on sail boats back on earth when I was a kid. I like to remember boats and the sound of waves, so when the membrane is less rigid on warmer “summer” days and it makes a gentle flapping sound and the light poles outside the dome clang quietly like rigging on an aluminum mast, I close my eyes and in my mind dip my feet into the glinting water that races past the bow.
But here’s the brilliance of the Alliance’s scheme: Once you’re at a “relocation base,” you’re here. Sure there are the occasional heavily guarded supply ships, but by and large, you’re stuck. There’s no “breaking out.” They do leave you with three or four “skytrains” to scout around your new home world, assuming it’s got a solid surface, but the engines are small and even if refitted for some kind of jerrybuilt space craft, they would never support a trip back to Earth or to one of the other Bases on the planet not designated as a prison. The truth is that some of the other bases, like Zebulon only a few hundred miles away, don’t even know that we’re a prison camp. It’s really ingenious how the Alliance pulls this off.
The radio communication systems are limited, with a range of only a few miles. We can venture beyond the outpost in our environmental membrane suits (EM’s for short), but no one would dare go beyond a few thousand yards for fear of losing touch. There are some skytrain runs to “Eden Cavern” as it was nicknamed because of the green alga that grows along the walls in its deep recesses. It’s only three miles away. People go for the day in their EM’s and wander with their phosphorescent torches through some of the tunnels. But by sunset, the train returns, making it back before the night storms reach full tilt. I’ve only gone once so far; I’ve gotten too used to the cozy security of my apartment.
And finally after all this extraordinary extravagance to get us out here, they’ve coded our genes to be sterile. Once the last of us dies, the Base dies. The membrane that surrounds us and makes our life possible is supposed to sense life forms. When none register, the membrane’s supposed to collapse, its “smart molecules” chewing up and digesting us and our Pods til only a thin goo is left. In the end, our home, for however long we live, becomes part of the landscape. No monuments for us.
Of course, none of this makes sense to me. I mean why would a group, a country, or a planet put so much of its energy and resources to eliminate those it finds dangerous? It’s preposterous. Why aim the energy of the scientific community towards finding a way to get rid of its own? Why develop such remarkable capability only to send the so-called sociopaths off-world? Why not use all this technology towards something fruitful. It’s all as absurd as a novel by Jonathan Swift I once read.
That’s when I wonder about religion.
And about the snow that flies overhead at night.
About reasons for all this.
About common sense.
The phone rings a third time.
Dr. John Stanley sits in front of the Parliamentary Committee. He pauses, takes a drink, and uses the time to size up the scene. Twelve legislators and a room packed with “approved” spectators. Wood paneled, plush carpets, and leather chairs for everyone, even the audience. Hanging high over the dais at the front of the granite hall is a huge polished disc of silvery metal. On it is engraved in brilliantly colored coat of arms for the Alliance: The blue eagle spread over a red maple leaf surrounded by 63 white stars.
He’s been testifying for over half an hour, filling them in on the “case” of Erika “Ricky” Finlay. It’s quite the case and he’s had to be very careful not to reveal his partiality in the matter. The current Prime Minister and the Majority want to send “dangerous citizens” to a prison facility to be specially constructed on the Moon. They’d be far from Earth there and—in the case of murderers—could be executed out of the public’s eye. It’s seen as a permanent and foolproof solution to the age-old problem of what to do with a society’s unwanted. On the Moon, the argument goes, even if inmates did bust loose, where would they go? One step beyond the prison walls and ZAP! They’d be dead—from lack of air and the broiling heat or flash-freeze cold—in a matter of seconds. “That’s one way to get rid of the Opposition,” one of the Legislators whispered ironically to friends when the Bill was first introduced in the Prime Minister’s Easter Day speech two years ago.
But the PM was new and hadn’t quite established his power base, so his legislation about Lunar Prison (which contatined strong passages supporting the death penalty) was narrowly defeated. Since then Walker Stockwell had sharpened his skills and rarely lost anything. That early defeat still ate at him malignantly, and he used any opportunity to discredit the ever-shrinking Opposition.
Since the Prison Bill had been narrowly defeated, Stockwell was able to push through some cleverly worded laws in Parliament, including one stating that until something “like the Lunar Prison” could be built, all criminals who would have been sentenced to the Moon would be put, instead, into a facility deep in the Rocky Mountains. There, even contact with prison guards was to be kept to an absolute minimum—only occasional use of an intercom system for what was vaguely described as “emergency or necessary communication” would be allowed. Otherwise nothing. No contact. All meals would be delivered through a vacuum tube into the 12 by 20 foot cell and three portholes filled with special Plexiglas would allow officials to look in, but would make it nearly impossible for prisoners like Rickie Finlay to look out.
To date, over fifty prisoners—usually labeled social deviants in the official government sponsored media—had been incarcerated in Wakefield Facility in Montana Province. Finlay was one of the first sent in, and word of her “deteriorating” condition was beginning to leak into the underground media. People wanted answers. Stockwell and his administration couldn’t ignore the mess any longer, so it “allowed” a hearing.
Such things were important to Stockwell. It had to appear that there still was a kind of freedom in the Alliance, however controlled or contrived. People could still express ideas that were contrary to government views, and from time to time, token hearings in Parliament on “controversial” issues were permitted. “New clothes can make even the dirtiest urchin look respectable,” was Dr. Stanley’s journal entry on that subject.
Meanwhile, the counter arguments to the Lunar Prison made by several members of the Opposition weren’t exactly altruistic: Almost all of the so-called compromises came down to finances. Why waste all this money when we could be doing real space exploration? Or bring back the death penalty and save money. Besides, there’s already a few lunar Bases. We’d have to spend millions to create a security system just in case some really smart criminals did find a way to survive in the hostile environment and make their way to one of the “regular” Bases. What if he or she found a way to penetrate a scientific Base? Beyond the personnel, we could lose millions of dollars of vital equipment and precious years of valuable experiments. On and on.
What Stanley and some of the Opposition leaders were hoping to do was put the focus on the prisoners themselves. As bad as they were—at least in the eyes of the Alliance—we couldn’t reduce ourselves to their level by the way we handled them. That was seen as the strongest argument by most. But to pull off any kind of change, the eminent—but barely tolerated—John Stanley had to look at least somewhat impartial, even at what was clearly a heavily rigged, government-sponsored hearing run by the Majority.
“We knew,” Stanley begins again, “that such long isolation in prison could create psychological problems. But nothing this extreme. Rickie Finlay’s been in for two years. According to the records that I’ve been allowed to see—and according to a few of her guards—by the end of 18 months, she was refusing all outside contact and just staring out her cell window. Now, she actually thinks she’s on Mars on one of our Bases there. Clearly, her condition is so miserable that. . .”
“Excuse me, Dr. Stanley,” Senator Ripley interrupts. (“Here comes my ‘big opportunity’,” Stanley thinks.) “Why wasn’t something done immediately? Why is she still in there at all?”
It’s a leading question, of course, but pronounced without the tiniest hint of “agenda.” Everyone already knows the answer, but someone of Stanley’s stature will give the answer much-needed media exposure, even if Stockwell himself controls most of that media. So hopes Senator Ripley and his friends on the Committee.
Stanley plays along in his most seriously disinterested voice: “She’s there because District Court 68 put her there, sir. Because that Court couldn’t hand down a death sentence for her crime, it put her in permanent solitary at Wakefield Facility. After much debate in several lower courts, I was assigned the case about three months ago by Court 68 as an ‘observing psychologist’ to look into possible charges of cruel and unusual punishment. Unfortunately, because I’m not allowed actual contact with Miss Finlay and because I may only visit the Facility and speak only to her guards or go through the declassified Court files, I find that it’s difficult to make a case.” Stanley emphasizes the key words with the subtlest glint of irony.
Ripley picks up on the tone and carries it a bit further: “By Court order?”
“Yes, by Court order. So when I say that I began to notice a great decline after her eighteenth month, I’m only going on what I have heard. It will be imperative for the Committee to allow me to see Miss Finlay so that we can determine the fairness of her punishment. Surely we know the Prime Minister would want nothing less than that.” Maybe he shouldn’t have added that last line, but he figures he might as well pull out the stops. Stockwell’s bullies won’t try anything on him now that the matter’s so public. Although, god knows, in a few years, he could be put away on some trumped charge or other. That’s a sure bet.
Ripley pretends to check through some papers on a clip board: “So do we know why you can’t speak to her directly? I can’t seem to find anything here.”
“I’m not completely sure.” Stanley pauses long enough for meaningful eye contact with Ripley. The good doctor has said exactly what the Senator and his allies want to hear. After another swallow of water that allows the murmuring in the Committee Room to settle down, Stanley continues, “Even after repeatedly pleading with the Court to remove her from isolation long enough for me to see her, nothing’s been done.”
“Who’s the Judge in charge, Dr. Stanley?” (As if no one knows.)
“Judge Wilbur Thomas.” (An undercurrent of snickers, more soft conversations.)
“I remind my fellow Committee members that District Judge Thomas was appointed by the current Administration, an Administration whose record on human rights, the death penalty, and . . .” Legislator Ripley can’t finish. The well-seeded audience begins booing and the Committee Chair, Legislator Fiore—of the same party as the current Prime Minister—bangs his gavel vigorously, shouting protests.
It would be the last time Ripley’s seen in public.
It takes months of haggling, lawsuits, and one judge overturning another judge—most decisions being made along purely party lines—for Stanley to get permission to speak with the prisoner. In the end, it’s the Prime Minister’s attempt to make himself look really good to everyone. He’s smart enough to know there’s a very vigorous underground. If he can look even nominally fair to the Opposition, he might win a major victory.
So here’s the well-brokered deal: Nothing face-to-face. Only a conversation over the phone system. The official word is that since the prisoner is to remain in “profound isolation” for her crimes—sedition and terrorism—actual contact with an outsider in Finlay’s cell or even in some high security conference room would “undo” the “desired effect” (those last words being said by Judge Thomas who grudgingly obeyed the five to four voice of the Supreme Court). Legislator Ripley and the others could only shake their heads at the ridiculousness of it all but were at least pleased that Stanley would have some form of actual contact. Maybe, they hoped, some morsels of the truth could get spread. And Stockwell knew he couldn’t repress everything. He liked to think he had learned some things from the annals of history and literature: Yes, he liked his Hobbes and Machiavelli, but he took to heart the warnings implicit in Orwell and Huxley.
And so on a cold snowy day in February, Dr. John Stanley is escorted down a series of long tunnels painted a hideously drab green, through enormous metal hanger doors, and into a vast underground room chiseled out of the Wakefield Mountain. Nearly thirty meters in height and about one hundred wide, the cavernous room resembles the old blocks seen in late night prison films from the mid 20th century.
There are two levels of cells on each side. Stairwells at either end of the steel-grated second levels connect to the ground floor. There are ten concerte-walled cells per side—five on the first, five on the second. Between each unit there are lanes, thus creating three walls with “windows,” as the guards called the portholes, through which a person can look in. A large open space with desks and monitors manned by about a dozen guards lies between the two cell walls. The floor is a highly polished, nearly glittering zinc black granite.
Evidently because it’s nighttime in the outside world, the lights are being kept very dim; just two rows of halogens on the ceiling shine down like theatrical spotlights. To add to the sharp-edged gloom, the air conditioning is pumped up so high that Stanley swears he can see his breath.
I wonder if it’s this cold in the cells? He makes many such mental notes along the way. He’d try to get them published. Somewhere. Some day.
In silence, he’s led past the central monitoring stations to a set of stairs on the right side of the cavern. The expressionless guard in his tight-fitted blue uniform leads the way, his leather boots thudding on each tread.
Stanley realizes how he’s suddenly perspiring despite the cold.
When they get to the second level, they walk only a short distance to the corner cell, No. 15. Stanley looks around. With its sharp pinpoints of light streaking through the blackness of the open space, the room seems endless, a difficult place to judge distances—a cosmos in minature with distant flickering stars.
Near the Cyclopian porthole on the front wall, a phone, streamlined and black, rests in its cradle. The guard turns. “You can use that.” His tone is blank and his stark features nearly lost in the bitter darkness.
Stanley picks up the receiver and through the earpiece, he can hear the first shrill ring.
There’s a long pause.
A second ring.
So do I pick up the goddamned phone or not? I’ve waited who-knows-how-long, and I still don’t know.
But it’s a no win, isn’t it?
If I get up right now, leave my damn window port, walk across the room and lift the receiver, somebody’ll say something. I’ll respond. The conversation will begin. And that could be the happy ending to all this, the “well-made” plot, all the ends neatly resolved. In this version, I obviously have a revelation: All this psychic pain is useless. I finally realize I’m not going home any more. That I have to live by the new rules. I might as well make friends here at the Base.
Final Score: Christians 1, Lions 0.
But if I just sit here, let the machine pick up on the fifth or sixth ring, let the person on the other end think I’m not here, I’m weak-kneed. Then I am the sociopath I’m accused of being. I deserve to be here. But then the story becomes unfulfilling. I become a coward of the worse sort. I live in my little apartment by myself and complain eternally about the stupidity of the government and living on this forsaken frigid base.
Final Score: Snivelers 1, Real Women 0.
Of course, I could compromise—pull a Charles Dickens. When people didn’t like the original ending of Great Expectations, he just wrote another one—happier, full of possibility. Now publishers always print both endings and let the reader debate the merits. Don’t you think that’s a cop out?
And if I don’t tell you what I do, a whole bunch of you’ll be really pissed off that I made you plow through six thousand words of angst for nothing. No Final Score at all. Most people don’t like that. Some admire those artsy European films from the 1960’s with their ambiguous endings and plotless plots, but today, the general public—the shopping mall drones—like definitive endings, even if they’re sad, because at least we all know what happens.
Or I could go the route of the blind prophet of Greece, Tiresias, when he pronounces: “I can see it now, Odysseus, your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well. And even if you escape, you’ll come home late and come a broken man—and you’ll find a world of pain at home, crude arrogant men devouring your goods. No doubt you’ll pay them back in blood, but once you’ve killed these men in your halls—by stealth or in open fight with slashing sword—you’ll go forth once more because you must, but end up more unhappy than ever before.”
Or Tennyson: “Though much is taken, much abides.”
Sometimes a world of allusions is easier than the false promise of illusions.
Besides, I can show off then: See how many different pieces of literature, art, and music I know? You can’t do that with an illusion. Illusions are personal, but mention Michaelangelo and everyone nods, knowing his name even if they’ve never seen The Painting—you know the one: God touching that poor sucker Adam’s finger, the guy with the skeletal wife who started this whole mess—or so some would say.
This, of course, brings us back to the very attitudes about religion that landed me here in the first place.
The phone rings a fourth time.
You know what? I’ve decided . . .
And we’ll leave it off here.
Make whatever god-damned ending you want. It won’t matter anyway. They can have their Jesus. I know what I’m about, and that, in the end, is what’s really important.
The fifth ring. Click. Inaudible chatter. Click.
Rickie turns from the front port and sits at her desk.
She pulls up the Solitaire program on her Screen and begins, slowly but surely, to uncover the kings and queens she’ll need to win her game.
 An earlier version of this story appears in TEN. Booksurge Publishers, 2006: 75—104.
You are floating in space, a few hundred meters above Habitat.
It orbits serenely about a thousand kilometers above Earth.
On the night side of the surface, you see fires raging—glowing spots and deep clouds of soot wafting across millions of acres.
On the day side, the thin cellophane of the planet’s atmosphere is gray with smoke.
Individual features are often obscured by the roiling banks of weather systems and the ash of humanity’s still raging wars.
If you stare long enough, you see the brilliant flash of a bomb detonation.
After so many years of war, the fact that there’s anything left to destroy seems incredible.
But here, in space, high above an angry world, Habitat slowly turns—brilliant, silvery, glittering, a squat cylinder five hundred meters across and two hundred meters deep: Eighteen levels topped with a hundred-meter-wide Observation Dome rising thirty meters above the top level.
We descend from our vantage point, gliding, circling closer and closer to that Dome, and pass through its clear skin, settling in the center.
It’s a huge, cathedral-like space, dozens of smart metal ribs holding the curving pie sections of the diamond-hard thermoplastic roof in place—a massive atrium in which the citizens of Habitat can gather under the starry sky to talk, to play, to wonder at the universe beyond.
It’s the night before the launch and most of the passengers are here.
Some sit on the perimeter benches, pondering the planet below for the last time.
Others lounge on the many chairs and sofas scattered around the room.
A few stretch out on blankets, their arms behind their heads, looking up, gazing out into the galactic ocean that will now be their home.
Woven into the thick carpeting at the center are directional arrows like the kind one might find on an old compass.
The one marked EAST also bears the words CHUTE ONE.
If your eyes follow the line, you see the top of an elevator tube shaft about two meters wide and five meters high rising from the floor. Here, people enter and exit from the rest of Habitat.
At the moment we arrive, we see the Chute door open with a pneumatic whoosh and watch Jaja Huang and her husband Tulku Najari come in.
Jaja—five feet of kinetic energy—is 29.
She manages the elaborate computer and electronic systems that run everything from the climate to the propulsion system.
Tulku—born in a place called Mombasa—is two years younger than his wife and is Habitat’s chief linguist and historian.
He’s helped stock the Archive with a database of Earth’s languages as well as details of the planet’s historical record. He’s also directly in charge of the twenty-five Mechanicals on board.
In the Uprising that will come in ten years, I will be the only one of the twenty five to survive, and he will utilize fragments of electronic devices to piece together the Emogram that he’ll install in me.
Near the Chute, we see a grouping of dwarf trees—cherry, weeping willow, palm—planted in enormous terracotta pots.
Kelvin McLoughlin is tending them.
He’s in his early 40’s, has a head of shaggy blond hair, and wears a grey-colored canvas apron in which various gardening tools are arranged—clippers, a small shovel, a watering bottle.
He stands on a three-step ladder, reaching to cut a stray twig from the top of the willow.
He’s in charge of the HydroGarden that takes up all of Levels 10, 11, and 12.
There, Habitat’s fresh food is produced, waste recycled, oxygen created by varieties of flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees. He calls it Paradise, though like the great mythic Garden of the Islamic-Judeo-Christian narratives it, too, will suffer great loss.
Fortunately, only a portion of Habitat’s Garden will be destroyed in the Uprising; it will be completely restored thanks to Septimus Walking Moon.
You’ll meet him later.
As we move away, the laughter of a young man catches our ear.
It’s Mars Walking Moon.
He’s a 6 year-old aboriginal—a Navajo boy from a reservation in the deserts of North America. He sits cross-legged with his father, Solomon, and his aunt, Mary Petersen, eating a picnic supper.
Theirs is a sad and romantic tale.
Back on Earth, on the reservation, Solomon and his wife, Sonja, hoped for children more than anything else—Mary (Sonja’s beloved sister) would tell me this years later.
They tried many times, and after a series of miscarriages, Sonja became pregnant.
At the doctor’s request—and Solomon’s insistence—Sonja stayed in bed and pampered herself through relatively uneventful trimesters.
The morning of the birth arrived, and, as if on cue, the contractions began.
The doctor was called.
One hour of labor became two, then three, then four.
After the sixth it was abundantly clear something was wrong.
Because the local hospital had been shut down and there weren’t any ambulances on the Reservation—they’d been deployed to the West Coast war zone—the doctor called the midwife and the local medicine man with his herbal remedies.
Nightfall: The tenth hour.
Men and women from the tribal council arrived, huddled at the doorway, keeping vigil, chanting prayers, burning fragrant incense.
Solomon and Mary were frantic.
Finally, the twelfth hour.
The crown of the baby’s head appeared, the rest of the body following in a burst.
The boy was born, and, with a slap, began a newborn’s fervent squall.
Aunt Mary took the baby.
Some of the elders rushed in and with the others desperately tried to revive Sonja.
Despite everyone’s efforts, she died.
Her body had endured too much, had lost too much blood.
The doctor—who had known Sonja since she was a child—dropped any pretense of professional demeanor and sobbed on the midwife’s shoulder.
The medicine man—also a life-long family friend—stared at the floor, shaking his head in abject disbelief, moaning.
Solomon howled like a wounded animal, cradling his wife in his arms.
It took three council men to pry him lose.
He ran from the trailer to the corral, where he mounted his horse, Rising Moon, and roared to the top of the mesa.
Up there, at the cliff edge, he screamed and wept until dawn.
Later that day, members of the council coaxed him back down.
He entered the trailer.
It was empty.
The breezeless heat of the afternoon, the sun cutting through the voile curtains Sonja had just made, dust motes hanging in the air.
Mary walked in with the baby.
Solomon looked at it—and then tenderly took it his arms, cradling it to his chest.
He cried quietly.
Then he said: “Your name is Mars. Mars Walking Moon. Just like the bright red star your Mom and I...” He stopped and took in a deep breath. “...like the star she once loved to watch on clear desert nights.”
From that moment on, father and son were inseparable.
After the funeral—a traditional Navajo burial—Mary would come every day to help Solomon with the baby.
The boy grew—and it was obvious from the start that he was special.
Full of laughter and spice.
And then, perhaps best of all, Solomon and Mary fell in love.
Yet, out of their respect for Sonja, they never married.
Sonja would remain Solomon’s wife till the day he died.
Mary understood this without question.
But Mary became his life’s helpmate, comrade, and confidante.
They also chose to remain celibate—another way to honor Sonja.
Some people thought this very strange; indeed, many on the Reservation begged them to marry, saying that Sonja would celebrate the love that Solomon now had for her sister.
But the couple would hear nothing of it.
Then, when Mars was around 5, Solomon and Mary—because of their skills as scientists at the region’s remaining University—were asked to join the Habitat team.
They agreed, but only if Mars could join them.
Not only did they want to keep the family in tact—the alternative would have been to let the boy be raised in an orphanage, and “We would never have agreed to that”—but they sensed that he’d become a remarkable scientist in his own right, a valuable member of Habitat.
Time proved them right.
So tonight, there they sit.
Solomon and Aunt Mary have been telling a story to Mars, and he laughs heartily.
Solomon, 40 years old, is an astrophysicist who’s also a competent bioengineer.
Two different passions merged into one multi-layered career.
His Mary—whom he calls Loved One—is a bit younger (34) and is the chief Maintenance Officer.
Both of them will die.
But we won’t think of those terrible things; for now, we see a family laughing, enjoying each other’s company on the eve of humanity’s greatest adventure.
Mars starts telling a story of his own—Sol and Aunt Mary listen intently; he is the pearl of their eyes.
Mars, though 6, is already a prodigy—one of those one-in-a-million humans capable of world-changing thoughts.
He’ll be 17 at the time of the Uprising and, like his father, a great bioengineer.
But now we must turn to the darker side.
Every tale has its antagonists, and we can spot Raymond Tucci—35, dark-hair, somber brown eyes—sitting on a bench near the Southern side of the Dome with his friend, Sidney Feldman—27, un-smiling, a devoutly religious man.
I really do want to believe that there’s no such thing as a purely evil man.
I still think Raymond started out with all the best intentions, was loved and loveable.
But things change.
Souls can darken.
Beliefs can warp.
Habitat’s chief engineer and dazzling computer expert will become convinced—we will never fully know why—that Habitat’s mission is an “abomination.”
He and Sidney—who turns into a spiritual fanatic of the worst kind, claiming personal messages from God—will start the Uprising by convincing a handful of others to join their cause.
Thanks to them, two-thirds of Habitat will lie in ruins, a burnt-out tangle.
Tonight, however, you can’t imagine that.
You see two men sitting side by side in quiet conversation and would never think these comfortably dressed men would become raging anarchists a decade later.
Such is the mystery of humanity—and why I sometimes fear Tulku’s implant.
I think: Who knows what I might do someday now that emotions are beginning to root into my programming?
Fear is new to me, but from the data I’ve studied, my inner reactions to certain things are just that: Fear.
And my greatest fear is that I might one day destroy something, perform an irrational act.
The next morning, Jaja, Raymond, and Sonja take the Chute down to the Command Center on Level 2, and begin the launch process.
An announcement is made.
Those remaining in the Dome take a last glimpse.
And with an almost imperceptible tremor, Habitat slowly moves away from Earth.
So slowly at first that some think Habitat isn’t moving.
But it only takes a few minutes for everyone to realize that the continents below, the cloudy atmosphere, the gray oceans are becoming increasingly smaller.
An hour later, the hulking, icy mountains and craters of the Moon begin to fill the sky above the arching Dome.
The dazzling silvery light reflecting off the plains contrasts with the intense blackness of space.
Every eye is filled with wonder—and the realization that not only do the fusion engines really work, but there is now no turning back.
Read their eyes.
Explore their faces.
What do you see?
Such deep truths and revelations:
They are the last humans.
This is a one way trip.
They will never see Earth again.
And for many, there exists the most exciting and most terrifying question of all:
We are standing on a rise of yellowing grass clogged with gravely sand. Looking west, we squint.
Brother Richard stands with his back to us, facing the sun and the blue-gray machine of the sea. The waves groan.
The wind is cool and tussles his brown curls.
The sand blows up from time to time; you blink and rub your eyes. You’re fine in a few seconds and look again. Richard’s silhouette against the clementine sunset, the russet splashes on cloud bellies, and the inexorable ocean are all so astonishing that you wish you could take a photo, but, of course, your camera was shattered in the explosions a couple of weeks ago. You’re just grateful to have eyes to see.
We all moved to the new island last week, fearful of more bombing raids. But those seem over for now, too. I guess the enemy’s given up on us in the Orkneys. I mean what possible threat can we pose? I’m sure that’s what they thought when they sent the clean-up crew two weeks ago--they said, “Who are those stupid farmers and fishermen up north?”
How wrong they were. Yes, there were only eleven of us--Brother Aloysius, Brother Richard, Brother Stefan--and the eight kids: Mary, Alice, Harry, and me--all teenagers--and the four little ones: Anne, Samantha, Eve, and Clark, aged 6 to 11. Yet we proved resourceful and strong.
It happened quickly.
A trio of soldiers arrived by helicopter and attempted to wrest us from the farm house we’d moved to after the bombings had destroyed the monastery.
When Richard complained about their rough treatment of the kids, one of them, in a fit of rage, blasted a bullet into his leg. I think that was the tipping point for Clark, one of the smallest. He’d evidently found a piece of unused 2-by-4 in a hall closet and with extraordinary stealth crept up behind the commander and started to beat him. Within moments, the other kids were joining in, kicking, and screaming, howling like wolves.
They killed him.
Meanwhile, Harry and me were out back with the other two, getting water from the well--or that was the story we’d invented to get them away from the house. Here we were, two 17 year old boys--I guess now we’re men by all accounts--able to rip away their rifles, all because they didn’t take us seriously. We dispatched them quick enough, too, with a kind of cold-heartedness that sent shivers even through us.
But that’s war. You do things to survive, and even the youngest child can tap into that inner brute to defeat the tiger about to leap.
Of course, Aloysius still feels guilty for it all. He’s a writer--much to the annoyance of his superiors in the Provincial office down in Edinburgh--and Eve had asked him to tell her a bedtime story. Like some of us, she was recovering from injuries we’d sustained when our shelter was blown to bits. Her parents and all the adult villagers had been hiding in the undercroft of the church. They’d been killed outright in the bombings. Somehow we 11, battered and bruised, survived because we’d hunkered down in the stone wine cellars deep beneath the monastery. We’d made it, true enough, but that was thin consolation to everyone, especially the kids who were overnight made orphans. So a bed time story seemed to be in order--something that would remind her of her now shattered Mum.
When the others heard he was telling a story, we made him finish it to all of us at the dinner table the next evening--the evening the soldiers flew in. But the tale--about survival against all odds--inspired us in ways Aloysius never expected, and he attributed Clark’s brutality directly to his story-telling.
For the last two weeks, he’s been a quieter man, praying in silence, wandering off alone, his face carved with remorse. I worry about him.
Last Wednesday, we stole a boat. Of course, if all the fishermen are dead, is it really stealing?--or the providence of God?
Who knew the answer?
We certainly didn’t strain over it; we took the boat, and rowed our way north for a full day to this rocky, bluff-fringed place.
We no longer heard bombing to our south and the fires on the horizon that we once saw clearly at night had faded. Night was night.
The rumbling sea.
The Orkney wind.
We were utterly alone. Three monks, 8 kids. An island. The provisions we’d brought over in our boat.
This might be it.
But then Richard called us to the bluff this evening to witness the sunset, to watch and hear the ocean, to participate in things that are beautiful.
“If fear is our reality,” he says, “then that’s what will shape us.”
He looks at each of us with his hazel eyes and says in that remarkable tenor voice, “We need to be careful how we use our imaginations. If what you imagine is always the worst thing, then that’s how you’ll act and react to everything in life.” He pauses when he comes to me. “Yes, be careful what you imagine--it’ll guide your every step.”
Then he turns again to face sun and sea, balancing on his good leg, his wounded one held rigid with sticks and wrapped in voile from old curtains.
That’s when, to our surprise, he starts to sing. I knew from Mass that he had a pleasing voice, but this is something unexpected, something astonishing.
He sings out as gently as anything I’ve ever heard on professional recordings, a beautiful song I know from an old opera CD in the monastery library, now long reduced to cinders.
He sings into the kaleidoscopic light dipping into the edge of the sea, the persistent rhythm of the ocean below accompanying him, the cool evening breeze blowing off the water: “Una furtiva lagrima negl'occhi suoi spunto: Quelle festose giovani invidiar sembro. Che piu cercando io vo? M'ama! Sì, m'ama, lo vedo, lo vedo.”
And then again, in English: “One tear falls so furtively from her sweet eyes as if she envied all the youths who passed her by. What more could I want? She loves me! Yes, she loves me! I see it, I see it.”
With the repeat--which sounds just as good as the original--is it two or three minutes? You don’t know. What matters is the beauty.