Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor



Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

It’s the Martian Way

By Bob Sojka

TONY OROFINO RUBBED THE DARK stubble on his face and sniffed his pits. Yup, he was the source of the stench he’d smelled before they had herded him up from the cold subsurface cubicle to these tepid rust encrusted chambers. His ill-fitting florescent green jumpsuit chaffed his crotch. The halogen lights hurt his eyes in rhythm to their fifty-cycle hum. The salt running down his lips onto his tongue inflamed the canker sores erupting in his mouth. He was at least grateful to be above ground—about as grateful as the bridegroom at a shotgun wedding.

More important, as he surveyed the other inmates lined up before the magistrate, it was clear he needed a new angle if he was to walk away from here with a life worth living. The old Monopoly board had been brushed away. A new reality had arrived. How could he game this new system?

Would it ever even be possible to live on Mars anymore by gaming the system? Actual work had been hard enough before. He wasn’t sure he could handle it if he had to survive some other way, like working. He could only imagine how much harder jobs for his sort would be now that the war flaring up on Earth had destroyed all the OTTO nodes serving Mars. OTTO stood for Object Transmission and Transport Organizer. It was the technology that enabled serious Mars colonization in the first place.

The colonists seemed to be holding up pretty well, despite the economic disaster that months of speculation, culminating with the declaration of war, had wrought on Martian investors, their enterprises, and ultimately their workforces. In the prelude to conflict, the colonial government had stepped away from its famously libertarian policies and tightened controls over nearly every aspect of life. They seemed especially focused on curbing all manner of alleged frivolous or morally erosive activities. Mars would need diligent colonists of strong moral fiber, the reasoning went, in order to weather this crisis, which would last decades and amount to celestial stranding for a generation or more.

All Tony really knew was that his easy meal ticket was gone. He was a smuggler and OTTO had been his mule. He’d had a good life, exchanging exotic Martian ceramics, made using the fermium hasside-laced fire clays from the red planet’s dry lake beds, for Earth-produced luxury goods and the recreational drugs in demand on Mars. Nobody ever really got hurt. It was just a business, giving people what they needed, what they wanted, what they really had a right to. Isn’t that what they had risked migrating tens of millions of miles for? Their own brand of freedom? He liked to think so. It worked for him economically.

But that was over now for all intents and purposes, and Tony was at a loss for what would come next. He just knew he could never go back to climbing the windmills or, God forbid, shovel-feeding the enormous oxygen generators if they had to restart them again because of the Earth wars.

Tony was in a courtroom in Lake Garden, Mars’ largest commercial hub, and seat of the planetary government. He’d expected to wind up here dozens of times over the years, but was chagrined that, of all the times, and for all the stupid reasons, this would be it.

Lake Garden was the ostensible center of authority for the nearly two hundred thousand colonists, situated near the southernmost extent of the buried northern ice fields. The location had been essential to the initial colonization sixty years earlier when heat from nuclear reactors melted the underground ice fields and provided the colossal amounts of power needed to decompose oxygen-rich minerals to slowly regenerate a breathable, life-sustaining Martian atmosphere.

All those requirements changed overnight a decade ago when OTTO came on line, allowing instantaneous transfer of huge masses of raw materials and manufactured goods across the solar system—science fiction stuff made real. Oxygen and water were grabbed from the gas giants and their icy moons, metals from the asteroids, and advanced industrial equipment and luxury goods from Earth. Interplanetary trade and commerce established a toehold, and smuggling by the likes of Tony suddenly got a hell of a lot easier. His improved income gave him a kabillion percent better odds getting hooked up with the planet’s scarcest resource—desirable women.

A couple years back, when he began making real money, Tony finally started to meet some of these classier women. He’d gone through a few without finding anyone who mattered to him once they left the room. It wasn’t like he was really trying or cared. But one night that changed.

Madeleine was sitting there in the Canal Bar—actually, outside the bar, al fresco, if you can imagine. Each table had little oxygen snifters to help out on high CO2 days. The ambient atmosphere had improved enough by then that you could spend some extended time outside the controlled-atmosphere buildings without pressure suits. That one change in life at about that time made life on Mars suddenly feel exotically normal instead of routinely desolate. The transformation stemmed as much from attitude as physical reality. It had quite an impact on the love lives of the Martian population.

Men saw women on the streets in ordinary feminine clothing, without all the bulky marshmallow-woman wear. Both men and women made a greater effort to be attractive in ways that had almost been forgotten.

Tony picked Madeleine up with some line about her eyes being bluer than earthshine, and they drove his rover to the edge of town to gaze at the stars alone together from inside one of the weathered craters that was being converted to grassland. While they drove there, though, the damned dust billowed over them from the unpaved roads as it always does.

“Are you a natural redhead?” Madeleine asked Tony.

“I didn’t know women could change hair color while driving,” he said in response. “But you still have eyes bluer than earthshine.”

“Just exactly what do you do that you can afford your own personal surface rover?” she asked him.

He lied of course. “I’m an investor,” he said. “I sort of do commodity trading and run a little export-import consignment business with my partner, Corbit.”

If she didn’t believe him she never let on. Or maybe he just didn’t want to see it in her face, in her beautiful blue eyes.

Madeleine was nearly as vague about herself as Tony had been. When Tony asked what she did, she made light of it.

“I’m the spoiled brat daughter of some soft-handers—a student at the university,” she said. “My father’s been kind of hoping I’d finish a degree some day and start making some money to pay back all the tuition he’s laid out for me.”

“And just what courses have you been taking?” he asked.

“Lots of things,” she said, “but nothing that anyone but soft-handers care about. Ethics. Philosophy. That sort of thing. I’ll probably have to test out to get credentialed in something useful someday if I ever expect to make anything of myself.”

They saw each other for months before ever making love. When it happened, Tony knew he had gotten into something more sublime than he could understand. For the first time in his life, when he went home from her that night, he knew the kind of guilt that actually registers in a man’s soul and won’t let go until it is acknowledged.

He didn’t have guilt for bedding Madeleine. Neither had he felt the cheesy thrill of victory that usually accompanied his casual conquests. He simply felt unworthy of her affection. The realization gripped him so utterly it made his hands shake and his head hurt. He avoided contact with Madeleine for over a week, trying to sort it all out.

When they got back together, Tony was conflicted. They didn’t argue, but they didn’t exactly click as they had before either.

They went out again a week later and their uneasiness with each other was even worse. Madeleine used the excuse that she was on edge because of exams she was studying for.

“Maybe we should just let things cool off for a while. Give each other a little space. A little time to think.”

Tony was irked by this. “Well, if that’s what you really want,” he said, unable to look into her beautiful blue eyes as he spoke. The truth was, however, that he was putting a big smuggling deal together and was on edge about keeping up the charade with Madeleine.

He needed to stay focused, pull himself together. Especially with the political situation getting more troubling. Maybe it was relationship fatigue, or maybe they were both simply stubborn, waiting for the other to admit they just wanted the other to be the first one to soften. Whatever it was, by not really deciding they decided by default to take a break from one another.

It saddened Tony almost instantly, but his pride took over and he was unwilling to be the weak negotiator. He gave her a peck on the cheek and walked away into the night.

His pride eventually allowed four months to elapse without contacting her. He had nearly made up his mind what a fool he’d been when the Earth war broke out.

Within days, the world had changed. Actually two worlds had changed. And those changes seemed to remake the entire universe for Tony.

Out of obstinate vanity he reminded himself that he had an investment in himself. It had taken a long time to become Tony the operator, Tony of the easy buck. That part of him was looking for new validation. He was the master of his inner identity and emotions, that old Tony. That’s exactly what he needed to be again now. So, he eased back to what came naturally. What came easily.

As Tony waited in court, he slouched against a rusted support beam while the inmates ahead of him cycled before the magistrate, who presided from behind a tig-welded aluminum judge’s “bench” that looked more like a sarcophagus. The colonial government was rousting prisoners for fines and labor to cope with its biggest crisis in three generations.

It was a planetary emergency. Mars had declared independence from the nations of Earth two days earlier to prevent being declared an enemy of any of the warring factions on Earth. And by Christ and Allah and Krishna and Buddha and this flag and that flag and this social-economic system and that, there were warring factions enough to go around.

Relatives were arriving at courthouses and processing centers to pay fines and in order to keep their kin from being conscripted into the forced labor gangs that were being assembled to reactivate and run the hulking run-down oxygen generators.

People arrived on sand blasted rock rovers, carbon fiber spring walkers, and even the big ungainly red-dirt-smeared balloon-tired dust floaters. All but the most destitute or quarrelsome lot were released on bail. The rest were remanded to the work camps.

The only reason there were so many prisoners here was because the announcement of independence had come at the end of the Martian work week. Mars was some kind of cross between a scofflaw urban society that treated its laws with a wink and a nod, and the rootin’ tootin’ vigilante societies of North America’s Old West. The latter was mirrored in the Martian tendency to run schizophrenic between prudish rules of personal conduct and bloodthirsty belligerence from strangers who could justify violence simply because they didn’t like one another’s looks.

The Martian populace was a mixed-race, multi-cultural, hard-working, hard-living bunch, and jails commonly filled on weekends as people got along by getting rowdy. As a result, on typical Mondays, the courts were always clogged by inmates paying fines and seeking their release. The momentous events of the previous weekend had inflated the ranks of the rowdy makers. Furthermore, the needs of the colonial government for labor and revenue had been communicated to the judiciary by Monday, so out-processing had slowed to a crawl.

Tony’s case was complicated by further bad luck. He’d been swept up by the local authorities in a gambling hall when they were called in to quell an argument at a poker table. Tony was one of the players and a fight broke out when two and half pairs of aces hit the felt at the same time from the same deck of cards.

Most of the money Tony had on him was in the pot, and all he was holding in his cards was a kangaroo straight. But it was about seventy million miles to the nearest kangaroo that night. There was no getting away once the fight broke out. Most of the rest of the players wanted to know who’d rigged the deck. By the time the fracas was halted, the players owed the gambling hall for broken furniture, whiskey bottles, and a bruised up dealer. The cops pocketed whatever cash the house didn’t, and the players were all incarcerated for the weekend.

The authorities, who had appealed for calm and cooperation after news of the OTTO attacks and the declaration of independence, weren’t being sympathetic to much of anyone. Their appeals had been largely answered instead by widespread chaos.

People had a lot on their minds and they sought public gathering places to vent their feelings. They congregated in tinny makeshift town halls, yeasty smelling bars, cramped sweaty gymnasiums, brightly decorated schools, and sod-floored cave churches. Some gathered to rally support, some to demand answers to questions, some to voice outright protest and disagreement about declaring independence from Earth. For yet another fraction, though, it was all just a big excuse to raise hell.

So here Tony stood, a man who was beginning to accept himself as belonging in this line of reprobates, even as his mind rebelled against accepting the consequences of such behavior. As he stood, he cleaned his teeth with a sonic dental pick and watched the faces of the other inmates, their accusers, their lawyers, and the rest of the courtroom gallery lard asses who seemed to think this was the best free entertainment today in town.

What was with those people? And where the hell was that lawyer he’d gotten his partner Corbit to call? Tony had no experience with such things. Corbit was the fixer. Tony trusted him to find the right one to call. He’d be sure that if the lawyer couldn’t win his freedom through talent, he’d get released by virtue of the lawyer’s personality or connections. If the old Tony could have his way, he’d go for a connected lawyer over a talented one any day of the week.

By Phobos and Demos, though, couldn’t that lawyer get here sooner than this? He’d barely avoided becoming a shared bitch for three genetically-enhanced rare-earth-metal miners who kept hinting about wanting to take him for a walk on the wild side. He was really hoping like hell he could just post bail and disappear before ever seeing the mighty muscle men of Mars again.

If that damned lawyer missed this hearing he wasn’t just getting a new attorney, he was getting a new partner, even if this hotshot legal beagle was some special connected pal of Corbit’s. He had waited so long now that he didn’t care how good the lawyer’s connections were.

This was important. An entrepreneurial sort like himself can only ever hope for one or two decent wars in a lifetime. And if you’re late to the party you might never get a seat at the table.

Tony wasn’t sure yet how he was going to turn this all around. Sure, the old smuggling routines were history. But it was certain he couldn’t figure out his next move if he stayed locked up with this herd of knuckle draggers and mattress humpers.

He distracted himself with his dental hygiene for a few more minutes. He felt lucky to bribe the night guard to bring him a sono-pic. The ever-present red grit that dusted furniture, clothes, hair, and everything else on Mars for that matter, was a particular bother for teeth. It carried a native strain of bacteria particularly destructive to human dental health. A day without sonic cleaning and your gums smelled like skunk and tasted like sewage seasoned with turpentine. Your mouth felt like every man-made interior on the planet looked—tired, foreign, and abused—kind of a definition of Martian citizenship.

Thinking about the red dust had been a mistake. A picture of Madeleine flashed into his mind’s eye and his brain began scolding itself. What the hell is the matter with you? That was the most wonderful woman you ever met. You fool. The world turns upside down and you decide to become a hermit. Idiot.

Tony now stood at the front of the cattle call. The last prisoner, a surly old fellow who had told the magistrate just where he could place his gavel, was being led out a side door to a waiting transport vehicle.

Tony would have looked at his watch if they hadn’t stripped him of it in exchange for the sono-pic before incarcerating him for the weekend. Barely a minute before he expected the magistrate to call him to the bench, Corbit entered the room in front of a woman he could not quite make out behind Corbit’s well-fed frame and the continual swirl of the milling crowd before the dais. Tony wanted to scream. No, Corbit, not a woman lawyer, this judge will eat her alive.

The sea of people parted almost biblically just in time for Tony to see the woman from the rear as she appeared to casually approach the bench. She stepped up onto the dais and leaned briefly to the magistrate’s shoulder where a one or two second whispered exchange took place—an exchange that he could almost swear ended with a light peck on the magistrate’s cheek.

The woman lawyer turned and strode to seat herself behind counsel’s desk for the defense. Tony nearly went into cardiac arrest at the recognition of a bespectacled Madeleine settling into her chair after the briefest moment of acknowledgment of Tony, her client.

Tony didn’t know whether to feel relief or to look for a hole to crawl into.

The bailiff read the charges against Tony. They were limited to a charge of disorderly conduct and responsibility for a share of the damages incurred because of the altercation at the gambling hall.

The Judge examined the paper work that had been presented to him. He ordered Tony and Madeleine to stand before the bench.

“Mr. Orofino, your counsel has made an offer of monetary restitution for damages. I am concerned, however, about the arresting authority’s statements regarding your background check. They have brought no further charges against you, but state that they have had you under surveillance for some time now for suspicion of circumvention of customs laws. In essence, it states that you are, or at least were until very recently, a smuggler.

"I need to know if there is any truth to these assertions. Is it true, Mr. Orofino, that you have extensive experience with legal and illegal trade activities between Mars and Earth?”

Tony looked from the magistrate to Madeleine. Her bright blue eyes showed little hint of how Tony should respond.

“I encourage you to give an honest answer, Mr. Orofino. If we determine that you are lying there could be severe consequences. The oxygen generation plants are in need of a large workforce. On the other hand, my daughter—er, that is defense counsel—has suggested that you have certain skills that could be of significant value to the new free and independent government of Mars in the sphere of trade regulation and policy, an activity that the counsel for the defense has been appointed to organize for the new government.”

Tony’s face brightened as the implication of the magistrate’s question sunk in. He turned with a questioning gaze for Madeleine who acknowledged his look by volunteering only the slightest hint of a smirk.

“I am waiting for your reply, Mr. Orofino,” said the magistrate. “How say you?”

“I do,” said Tony, “I do.” END

Bob Sojka is a retired soil and environmental scientist with over 260 career science publication credits. He is an alumnus of the James Gunn, Clarion West, and Odyssey workshops. His last story for us was “Coming of AGE” in the 12-JUN-2012 update.






adjacent fields