The air in prison is stifling, just enough oxygen to keep us alive, just enough carbon dioxide to cause distress. The guards use oxygen masks. Some prisoners have been here for months, either due to drawn-out trials and appeals, or being rich enough to bribe their way out of the death penalty. I don’t understand that choice; I’m existing in a constant state of alternating extreme panic and paralyzing dissociation. I would rather die.
I’ve spent the days since I arrived mining my memories, doing anything I can to escape the present moment. My fingers ache for my photo album and a guitar. My shoulders long for my mom’s gentle, confused embrace. And then my body floats away. Somewhere on the edge of my consciousness I know it is buzzing with pure physical terror, but I’m mostly elsewhere.
Dad used to warn me about becoming lost in stories. He didn’t really read, considered fiction a frivolous pastime and nonfiction merely reference material for relevant circumstances. He didn’t understand how I went to dozens of new worlds, became hundreds of new people. He never knew I wrote my own fiction so I could express the parts of me that I couldn’t be in the real world. He never read it. I felt like the image he built of me, from the tip of the iceberg that he could see, was less real than the protagonists of my own stories. They held more of myself than I was ever brave enough to show him.
Yet somehow I still feel like a coward for failing to live up to his expectations. In our culture, inherited from the affluent patriarchal refugees of the war-torn United States, the most important thing for a child to do is become the person their parents see in them. Like the Germans of the early 20th century, they idolized a certain model family, an ideal against which to measure the personhood and value of others. Like their predecessors they dashed their country to pieces in pursuit of purity, and many of the survivors fled responsibility and settled Mars. Some called it the New West. I saw it as both a betrayal of our family’s principles, and a potential chance to start over and be better.
Then they recreated the whole mess and I lost everything, and I finally saw what the less fortunate had been telling us all along. It was like I put on glasses for the first time, and I saw in sharp focus the meaninglessness of the rules. The person I’d been training my whole life to be was merely a fuel source for a machine. I was part of a crop to be harvested.
People told me it was a dangerous line of reasoning. But after a lifetime of being taught how dangerous it is to express myself honestly, that no longer meant anything. The danger was the same either way. I’m going to vibrate with constant intense anxiety either way. I joined the growing socialist party, and slowly began letting pieces of myself surface. Every time I did, I felt a little more relaxed, a little freer.
“Pssst, Melvin, is that you dude?”
I am rudely yanked out of my mental retreat and dumped back into the suffocating present by a familiar voice and the irritating word ‘dude’. I sit up and blink several times until my eyes adjust to the bright lights. In the cell across from me I can see the blurry shape of an enormous man, so tall he is hunched under the two-meter-high ceiling.
“Hell yeah it’s me. What’re you doing in here?”
“They charged me with conspiracy in the assassination. What about you?”
“Same, plus smuggling and stuff. They just brought me in while you were conked out.”
My eyesight finally focuses, and I can see the stubbly grinning face of Mason Lynch. He’s the local socialist group’s friendly giant with a secretive past, which is rumored to include mercenary work for multiple governments. These days, when he’s not protesting or in prison, he runs an electronics repair shop and sells drugs.
“It’s good to see you,” I said. “I haven’t made it to any meetings in a while because my mom’s health is getting worse.”
“Oh fuck, is it serious?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s dementia. I’m so worried about her right now. She can still feed herself but there’s so many ways to accidentally kill yourself on a planet like this.”
I’ve been trying to avoid those thoughts, but they’re always waiting somewhere to pop out and surprise me.
“I’m sorry man.”
“I really want to die, Mace.”
“What? Why would you say that? This situation ain’t hopeless, the group is getting us a good lawyer.”
“Existence is pain.”
“Come on, there’s good stuff too, like pussy.”
I glare at him.
“Sorry man, I mean, the company of women is, well, a good thing to live for. Cause they’re amazing and shit.”
I’m a complete virgin and not sure if I experience sexual attraction, but that’s not something I usually mention and for now I just drop it. “Do you really think we’ll get fair trials?”
He shrugs. “If not I’ve got a backup plan.”
Someone stirs in the next cell over from me, and I look to see a young woman stand up from her cot and move to the bars, which she sags against as if she might be able to ooze through and escape. Her stylish clothes are torn and burned in spots, but I recognize them as relatively high end, a black vest over a light blue shirt with long, loose sleeves, paired with black pants that hug her hips and then flare at the knees. I don’t know her, but she looks exhausted.
“Hey Nia, you ok?”
“My head is a fuckin fusion reactor.”
“I saw the burns from the stun gun on your neck. Whoever did that should be charged with assault, it’s illegal levels of electricity. Oh, and that’s Melvin Jayce in the cell beside you. Cool dude. Mel, Nia Ross is one of my, er, business associates.”
She gives me a skeptical glance and then returns to her cot and lies down again. “Have either of you seen my dad?”
“I haven’t,” Mace said. “Wait, did they get Tony too?”
“I don’t know! That’s why I’m asking.”
I feel her frustration. I’m on a razor edge between control and panic myself. “What’s your backup plan, Mace?”
“You won’t like it. Also…” he gives a slight nod toward the door and I notice the camera above it. “You gotta assume they’re always listening.”
He has a point, but I’d like anything that can get me out of here.
The trial for me and several others who have been charged with conspiracy begins a couple days later. As the prosecutor presents evidence, it becomes clear that there’s no way we’re getting off. Whoever set up the whole thing was too meticulous, and even innocent correspondence is easily cast in a sinister light.
Those who have more serious charges like smuggling and murder are tried separately, so I don’t see Mace and Nia until we are taken back to our cell block. We are all very quiet, until at last I break the silence. “Hey Nia, did you see your dad?”
“Yeah. They’re holding him in max security. He’s been a target for a long time. Looks beat to hell and I don’t think they’re letting him sleep.”
“You didn’t get to talk to him?”
“Nope, they’re deliberately separating us.” She crawls off the cot and goes to the door of her cell. “Yeah good luck with that, fuckin fascists.”
I lie there thinking for a moment longer, and then wonder what she’s doing when I hear a soft electronic beep.
I sit up and see Nia walk straight out of her cell. “What!”
“Hush, Melvin.” She waves her hand over the lock on my door and it opens.
At first I think I’m hallucinating or dreaming. She does the same to Mace’s lock and then peers through the small window in the door that separates our cell block from the main corridor.
“Mace, do you see this?”
The big guy is sleeping so I kick his leg to wake him. He bolts upright and grabs my throat, eyes wild.
“Mace, stop, it’s me.”
He releases me with some difficulty. “Fuck dude, why are you in my cell.”
“Nia just opened them all.”
He looks up, and then jumps to his feet. “Nia! It isn’t time yet.”
“I gotta get out of here or I’ll hurt myself.”
Mace grabs her arm as she reaches for the door, and stares at her empty hand. “Where’s the key card? What’s going on?”
She smirks. “Dad and I are always a step ahead.” Then she jerks her arm away, touches the lock, and the door opens. “Try to keep up, boys.”
Mace gives me a helpless look and honestly, I’m ready to go. I can feel my mental stability slipping away hour by hour in this toxic atmosphere. “I have to take this chance, Mace. I’ll hurt myself too if I have to stay here any longer.”
He nods. “Okay, I got you, we’re in this together.”
The exact moment we open the door, a guard is walking by. He manages to get out one word, ‘how?’, before Mace’s fist shatters his jaw.
Nia wiggles her fingers in the guard’s face. “I’m magic, baby.” She grabs his pistol, stun gun, and key card, and tosses the latter two items to me.
Mace and I follow her down the hall toward the central hub, where another locked door separates us from potential freedom. Nia stands on tiptoes and Mace stoops and they both look through the window. Then Nia unlocks the door with her magic touch.
At the same moment, the alarms I’ve been expecting finally go off, and a red light flashes on every door. We got through just before lockdown.
In the circular corridor of the central hub, the air is refreshingly oxygenated and I can feel my fuzzy mind begin to clear. Hurried footsteps echo from one direction. Nia dashes the opposite way and we follow her again, straight into an emergency airlock.
She touches the control panel and the interior door shuts. Then she shoots the panel with the pistol and it goes dark. “Mace, get the pressure suits.”
Footsteps and voices gather on the other side of the door. Someone shouts for a laser knife. Mace pulls two pressure suits out of a storage compartment.
“Where’s the third?”
“I only see two.”
“It’s regulations, you gotta have at least three stashed in every airlock.”
“Since when does the Martian government follow its own regulations?”
Mace hands us the suits. “I don’t fit into these cheap things anyway.”
Nia and I exchange glances as we get suited up. She looks frightened, for a moment, and then determined. “We’ll come back for you, Mace. Don’t worry.”
“Get out of here, kid, take Melvin back to his mom. I’ll buy you some time.”
“Okay, don’t hold your breath.”
Mace lets the air out of his lungs, and Nia yanks the lever to depressurize the airlock. It takes seconds, and I’m afraid Mace will just drop dead. Nia pats his shoulder, then shoves me out the door into the swirling dust and cold darkness of night. I look over my shoulder to see Mace flip the lever back, and then the door shuts and hides him from sight.
“He’ll be ok,” Nia says through my suit’s communicator. “Pressure is already back to normal in there.”
“He’ll be okay aside from getting beat up, and then executed if we don’t get him out.”
“Don’t you understand yet? That was already going to happen to all of us. Less talking, more moving. They’ll have drones in the air any moment now.”
We stay close to the building and make our way around toward the parking area. I spot a high-end cruiser, probably belonging to someone important, and point at it. “We want to take that one.”
“It’s a Mackin 8500, fastest commercially available levitating cruiser.”
“Cool. I’ll just assume you’re an expert on that sort of thing.”
“I’m the top salesperson on the planet. So yeah. The only problem is it’s biometrically locked, but you have a magic hand, so…”
She giggles. “Yeah, let’s go.”
I hear the drones just as we reach the cruiser. With a tingling sense of urgency I point out the controls, but Nia brushes me off and waves her hand over the retina scanner.
“Welcome back, Daniel Zaveri,” says the robotic voice of the computer.
“How the hell are you doing this?”
“I’ll tell you later. Buckle up, things are about to get fuckin intense.”