Updated: Jan 17, 2020
I’m not quite sure who I am. I don’t do much, don’t know much, and I don’t need to. I know literally everything about levitating scooters and cruisers, and as the top salesperson at the biggest dealer on Mars, I sell more than anyone on the planet. That’s about all I know.
My salary is modest, but enough for mom and me to live comfortably on our Martian homestead near Valles Marineris. With dad dead and my twin brother missing in action, I‘m all the immediate family mom has left, and I‘m not about to leave her for the military adventure my uncle promises. Adventure always struck me as a scam beyond the context of novels and movies. Maybe I’m a simple person, but the quiet life feels right. I miss the everyday moments of life as a child, just being in the present. That sense of stability gave way to chaos when we left Earth in my late teens.
Now after a couple decades on Mars, the memories of living on our origin planet feel more like the desperate delusions of my lucid dreams. I managed to build something of an idyllic life for us, but I can’t shake a growing sense of impending return to chaos. As mom’s health deteriorates and my few friends leave the planet for work and love, I feel trapped between a past that haunts my nightmares, and the fear of an unknowable future.
I’ve been awake for several minutes, lying in bed and flipping through my physical photo album to take my mind off how fucking awful I feel every time I wake up. I touch the corners of pages worn into wrinkled curves by many thousands of these morning journeys through their secrets. Everyone said I was insane for keeping so much of my childhood memorabilia, when every ounce matters in space. But I was stubborn and we had the money, and some things can’t be replaced. It wasn’t just photos; I had diaries, I had drawings and stories scribbled out on scrap pieces of paper. I had solid-state drives, already outdated tech when I first used them, with my favorite songs and hundreds of hours of home video and even more stories. I kept a clay cast of my own tiny handprint, which I painted bright sparkly pink because I was five and it was the best color.
Most people digitize everything and that‘s good enough for them, but I‘m disturbed by the fallibility of memory, whether it’s biological or electronic. I need the solid unchanging assurance of a handwritten diary and printed photos. Even so, I feel like I‘m perpetually on the verge of my identity slipping away, like I’m about to lose any connection to my past and my dad, like at any moment I might spin off uncontrollably into a future that isn’t my own.
Shaking myself, I put the album away and crawl out of bed. I stand, stretch my hands to the ceiling and try to shut down the violent flashbacks to the nightmares I just had. My shoulders are so tense the muscles feel like stone, and the ever-present anxiety in my gut snakes through my limbs and jolts me repeatedly with bursts of terror. Mornings are absolute hell when I have good dreams, but waking up from the nightmares is another level of torture. Lately they’ve happened every night.
I stare out through my small shielded window at the sepia-toned Martian dawn, a vast expanse of shifting sandy plains giving way to the nothingness of the canyon in the distance. My heart races and my head pounds, and I push roughly against the erection I woke up with and have been trying to ignore. Tears sting my eyes and I bite my tongue in helpless rage. There’s an asshole in my head who’s always telling me terrible things, and he sneers, “You’re an irreparably broken pervert, Melvin Jayce, maybe you should take out your dad’s pistol...”
No. I’ve fought too hard. With my fists clenched and my eyes shut, I focus on the pain and I wrap it up in anger. I will survive. I am too stubborn to die. I am a real person and I will exist. Minutes pass before my body lets any of the tension go. Eventually the morning wood recedes and the monster in my gut calms, slightly, just enough to ignore. Taking deep breaths and already feeling exhausted, I tiptoe to the kitchen and start a pot of coffee mostly by feel in the dim light from a single window.
Like every morning, I feel slightly better once I eat something and the sun comes up. Still tense, but I’m functional. When the first rays of cold sunlight pierce the dusty atmosphere, I crack two eggs in a skillet for mom, and then I turn on my phone and scroll through the early morning content.
A weekly briefing from the Martian Times informs me that the reactionary frontrunner for planetary president has confirmed the authenticity of a disturbing video, which shows him forcing a clearly unwanted kiss on his eighteen-year-old niece’s lips. Also, scientists on Earth estimate the extinction of another 8,500 species, up from last week’s 8,350, as ecosystem collapse accelerates. I check social media, and most of the notifications are from Martian acquaintances telling me how stupid I am to support the long-shot socialist challenger to the problematic frontrunner, video be damned. I reply that I’m not interested in debating the merits of fascism or sexual assault and then block them all. The whole situation makes me ill.
“Melvin! Where are my nuts!” Mom’s voice snaps me back to immediate reality and I turn her eggs over, give them a moment, then put them on a plate and carry them to her room.
I need to make another appointment for her with the psychiatrist, but it’s a long journey that always exhausts her. I don’t know how to balance protecting her physical health with addressing the creeping dementia, but I need to do something soon. One moment she seems normal, and the next every other thing she says has something to do with nuts. It isn’t just innocent tree nuts, anything remotely associated with the word is fair game, and the woman has no filter. She’s also increasingly paranoid and confused, leading to hours-long standoffs where I can’t even help her because she thinks I’m an attacker bent on plundering her precious nuts.
“You’re a good nut, dear,” mom says as I set her plate on the bedside table.
“Thanks mom.” I kiss her forehead and then point at the plate. “Eat your nuts, I mean eggs, I need to leave early so I can stop by the tech supply store and get some new battery packs for my cruiser.”
“Get some salted nuts while you’re out?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll bring you some actual nuts.”
I grab my bag and keys and go to the airlock. I pull on my pressure suit, click the helmet in place and run through the safety checklist three times. Everything is normal. Everything in my body screams at me that normal is gone today, that once I step out of this house my life will change forever, and then I’ll die. I did something wrong, just one little mistake, and one by one the dominoes will fall until I’m left gasping for air, dying alone on a hostile planet millions of kilometers from home.
I take a deep breath and step into the airlock. It’s business as usual, and I have levitating vehicles to sell.
Outside I climb into my cruiser, make sure it’s fully pressurized, and then remove my helmet for better visibility. I recall fondly when dad and I hauled this classic out of a junkyard and brought it back to life. The propulsion unit is a custom quad-laser design by the late Captain Jayce, and it can outperform anything short of the massive unstable engines popular on drag racers. Dad had dreams of partnering with one of his obscenely rich friends and producing the design, but those plans died with him and he left behind just a few prototypes. My uncle has one, and if my brother is still out there, he’s probably taking his for a spin on the ice plains of Europa or somewhere equally spectacular.
The Martian landscape is awe-inspiring, for the first few weeks after you arrive. Then it becomes normal, and after a decade the planet feels small and stifling. What was a vast unexplored wilderness in my youth is now a cold dusty corner of the galactic neighborhood, a neglected suburb of the human empire, a place where half of the businesses shut down and those that remain largely send our productivity off planet in the form of luxury goods, spaceship parts, and food.
The tech supply store is a short few minutes away, if you’re doing a straight shot across the plain at eight hundred kilometers per hour. A few stores are clustered together with a food production facility and some low-cost housing in the nearest small dome town. I wait in a short line to get through the airlock into the dome, and then I find a parking spot behind the grocery store.
The air in the dome is relatively thin but breathable, comparable to Earth’s atmosphere at an elevation of three or four kilometers. It is a bit sour, but I’ll breathe it to conserve my oxygen canisters. I buy some mixed nuts and a few other groceries, then cross the street to the tech store. I know the clerk and greet him as I close the door behind me. He looks up with an eager expression.
“Hi Jayce, you heard about the government’s new secret weapon, right?”
I lift my eyebrows and take a couple battery packs from the shelf. “If it’s a secret, why would I have heard about it?”
“I mean, all your friends are government employees who can’t keep secrets.”
I place my merchandise on the counter. “Like you?”
“Exactly. Anyway, I heard from one of my sources at the weapons department that they’ve made a huge breakthrough in antimatter technology, and bombs are right around the corner, tiny little things that could take out an entire planet. My contact thinks they’re already building a prototype and deciding on a test target, maybe Pluto.”
“And you believe them?”
“They sound like they believe it, why shouldn’t I?”
I shrug and hold my phone over the counter to transfer payment. “I guess that’s how a lot of people end up believing things they shouldn’t. Somebody says something confident, and then a bunch of people believe them.”
Before I leave town, I stop at the household goods trading post to wander through the clothing racks. My wardrobe is sparse and simple, chosen more for comfort than style. But sometimes I like to look through the flashy and expensive clothes, the stylish jackets, short colorful dresses, things rich people wear while socializing in the clubs and parks of the larger cities. I run my fingers over delicate, impractical folds of bright fabric, and breathe deeply the scents of various materials and dyes. I might buy a single blue shirt next week to replace one that’s a decade old and falling apart. I doubt I’ll ever have a chance to wear any of the things I really want; I don’t have the body for most of it anyway.
On my way to work, I keep thinking about the antimatter question. For so long it’s been unbelievably expensive and difficult to make and store antimatter, and while modern science seems to have uncovered some paths forward to harness its power, nobody has made any progress in years. I don’t understand the theories well enough to know whether they’re plausible, let alone probable, so I tend to err on the side of skepticism.
The dealer I work for is so big that it has its own town-sized dome. Located a few dozen kilometers outside the biggest city on the planet, it has thousands of vehicles in stock of every variety you could want, ranging from little scooters I could buy with a week’s paycheck, to huge space yachts that could take you on a comfortable three-week cruise through the outer solar system and cost hundreds of times more than I’ve earned in my entire life. The current planetary president owns three of those, and the frontrunner “man of the people” Greg Rockwell has a fleet of five.
I park in the distant employee lot and walk past rows and rows of shiny new cruisers on my way to the showroom. When I walk through the door, my manager shouts his favorite greeting across the room, “Hey faggot!”
I wince and try to veer off to the break room and avoid him, but he shouts at me to come to his desk and I meekly obey. This is my third new manager in the past month, and since he left sales for management after failing to beat my records, I have a feeling his disdain for me goes a bit deeper than my appearance.
“If you don’t pick up the sales, Melvin, I’m afraid I won’t be able to justify keeping you around.”
I stare at him, trying to assemble a coherent response to the nonsense I just heard.
He pulls up the ledger of sales on his screen, sorted by salesperson. “Look at the sheets. Twelve government sponsored scooter sales all week? Seriously?”
I point at an entire block of high-end sales attributed to J. Gomez. “Those are all mine, Gomez has been out sick. Whoever input those got the wrong name on them.”
The manager waves my hand away. “I don’t want to hear it, fuck. Just get your butt out there and take a pounding for the company like a good little queer.”
I grind my teeth, imagine throwing his screen with all its lies across the room and storming out. But I don’t, instead I’m a coward and I slink away to play my part in the faceless corporate machine. I catch my reflection in a windowpane and pause a moment, staring at my shaved face and shoulder-length hair. Maybe if I grow out my patchy beard I’ll look less like a genetically privileged middle-aged twink, and more like the depressed teenager who cleans the rentals. I haven’t heard anyone harass him for his long hair since he let the beard go wild.
I’ve been making my way through a pile of paperwork for about an hour when the manager gets my attention again. He is aggressively pointing in my direction and has a couple cops behind him, big muscular blond dudes with multiple weapons each.
“Hey faggot, the law’s asking about you.”
The cops get on either side of me and grab my arms before I get any words out. I’m beyond confused.
“Melvin Jayce, you’re under arrest for conspiracy in the assassination of presidential candidate Greg Rockwell.”