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Chapter Two

Mars is a bleak place, but it was exciting to be there just the same. They trooped us into a clear plastic dome where we got our first look at the outside. It was a big dome, a couple of hundred feet across, and not at all safe, but they didn't tell us that.

The thing that struck me most was the stars. It was daylight outside, and although the sun looked a little small, it seemed about as bright as I remembered it being on Earth. The next thing I noticed was the sharp outline of the shadows: Mars boasted the darkest shadows I'd ever seen—although everything the sun hit was brightly lit. That was strange enough, but the stars got to me.

The sky was pink at the horizon, real pink, and you couldn't see stars there, but straight overhead they were glorious. There were more than I'd ever seen in Baltimore's smoggy nighttime skies. My old man had taken me out in the country once.

We had to drive damn near a thousand miles, and he never did it again, but we looked at stars, and they were beautiful. Now I was looking at stars in daytime.

The camp was located at the edge of a rugged, dust-covered plain. I found out later that Hellas Basin stretched out fifteen hundred miles to the southeast, so it wasn't surprising that I couldn't see across it. Boulders were piled every which way out there, bright on the sunny side, dark as night in the shade. Anything might hide in those shadows. Once I thought I saw something moving. North and curving east rugged mountains stuck straight up into the dark sky. Some had pointed tops, but a lot more were jagged-rimmed craters, while some had flat tops like Arizona mesas. The tallest had wispy clouds stringing out from their peaks.

Two big tractors covered with little bright-blue squares were crawling out of the mountains toward us. Their treads threw up clouds of dust that fell in slow motion back onto the plain.

I don't remember much about the trip out. They shipped us in cold sleep, stacked in tubes like expensive cigars. About one in ten never woke up. That's one reason people don't volunteer to be colonists.

I hadn't been enthusiastic about the cold sleep myself, but it seemed like better odds than what I was facing if I stayed on Earth.

I looked at my fellow transportees, wondering what had made them choose to come here. Reasons much like my own, I decided. We were a pretty scruffy lot.

We stank. We didn't walk any too good, either, because we weren't used to the 40 percent gravity. Low gravity's tricky. It makes you feel light—hell, you are light—but you've still got the same mass. If you turn a corner fast, your legs go out from under you. Walking takes a peculiar gait, and running takes a lot of practice.

Actually, we didn't reek anywhere near as much as we should have. Not that we were clean. The air was thin. They kept the pressure lower than on Earth, about ten pounds rather than Earth's nearly fifteen. You had to shout to be heard very far away, and nothing smelled right. Food didn't taste too good—but for the moment, in that company, with no bath water for weeks and none likely, the thin air seemed a blessing.

Of course I didn't know a single person there. There'd been too little time since we were taken out of our cigar cans and put on our feet—those of us who woke up. We were dressed in welfare coveralls. We were all ages, but most were older than me. Out of the hundred of us, only six were women. The youngest one was thirty and she looked older.

The women tended to cluster. A herd of men circled around them; I didn't see any point in joining that game. Not yet. I could wait to see what choices I had. If any.

We were all white North Americans. The Federation goes through phases in its policies, and just then there was a lot of pressure not to ship blacks to Mars because it was cruel and unusual punishment. There's some chance of getting home from the Moon, but Mars is strictly a one-way trip. I thought about that, and shrugged to myself. Okay, I'm here, I thought. So I'll make the best of it. The landscape was more interesting than my fellow convicts, so I turned back to it.

The tractors were closer now. They were big boxy things, with wings sticking out from the sides so they could carry more of the blue solar-power cells. The cells took in sunlight and gave out electricity. I knew about them; I was more fascinated with the slow-motion fall of the dust.

There wasn't much wind out there at the time, but I'd heard the Federation guards say that sometimes there were dust hurricanes, with winds of more than three-hundred miles an hour. That, I thought, would be something to see. A man out there would be blown away like toilet paper in front of a fan. For a moment I wanted nothing to do with this planet.

I'd better learn, though, I told myself. This is home. Feel the low gravity. Talking about low gravs in school didn't mean anything, but now I'm in it. I'd heard people can live to be two hundred on Mars because of that low gravity, only they don't because Mars kills them first. There are a lot of ways to die here. So learn or die.

"HEAR THIS ALL PILGRIMS. NEW ARRIVALS REPORT TO THE MAIN HALL. ON THE DOUBLE." The speaker said that three times, then repeated it in Spanish.

The guards started moving through the crowd to hurry us along. They were all a little older than me, all convicts who'd been recruited into Federation Service, with a few Federation troopers from the volunteer army. They didn't like Pilgrims. They were slaves, too, but slaves with weapons and power—the worst kind of slavemasters.

"On the double," one said. He laid his billy club against my butt. It splatted, and it hurt. I balled a fist and turned toward him. He was grinning. "Want to try it?" he asked.

"No." I turned away and headed for the main hall. No point in getting my skull bashed in for nothing, but it rankled that I had to take that.

"Always they push you around," someone said behind me. I turned to see a white-haired old man. "Always they tell you what to do. It is the arrogance of power. They think of nothing but to hurt people, to beat them, to show how important they are. Some day we will take that power away from them."

"Yeah, sure," I said. In about a million years. I could walk faster than him, and I did.

He tried to keep up. "I am Aristotle O'Brien," he said. "You may laugh at the name if you like,"

I didn't want to laugh at his name, I wanted to get the hell away from him before he got me in trouble. I didn't figure I owed him anything. As far as I was concerned the first rule was to keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble until I knew what the score was. That lonely old man could have been my grandfather, but he hadn't learned that first rule, and probably he never would.

I put on the speed and left him. I wasn't too proud of that, leaving a lonely old man with no friends, no one to talk to, no one to help him feel human. I wasn't very proud, but I left him.

The main assembly hall, like all of Hellastown except for the dome, was underground. The walls of the tunnel leading down to it were concrete, but of a funny color—red, like the dust outside. The air stank from too many people with too little wash water. The ramp down was steep and hard to walk on. Just ahead of me was a giant, the biggest man of our group, one of the biggest men I'd ever seen. Kelso, his name was, and he was a good bit taller than my six feet. On Earth he would have weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds, no fat.

The assembly hall could have held ten times the hundred of us. It had seats and a stage. The stage was crowded with junk, such as a portable field organ like military chaplains use, a big plaster relief map, a blackboard, and a movie projection screen. Overhead were a bunch of faded streamers, old decorations of some kind.

There wasn't any wood in the room. I thought about that for a second and realized I hadn't seen any wood since I got to Mars. Even the guards' billy clubs were plastic.

The furniture was stone, concrete, iron, or plastic, none of it painted. A panel of colored glass was set high up above the stage, some kind of Mars landscape with human figures in the foreground. They were all out on the surface without suits and there was a bright blue sky all around, overhead as well as at the horizon. Idly, I wondered what it meant.

Most of the men crowded around the women. They kept pushing and shoving to get near them. Kelso plowed his way through the press until he was next to a big-chested woman with flaring hips and tight coveralls. She grinned at him. "You're a big one, aren't you, ducks?"

He started to answer, but someone shoved him, "Who the hell you pushing?" he yelled. The other guy answered, which was a mistake. Kelso reached out and picked him up. He held him off the ground for a moment, then tossed him. The guy sailed ten feet. Low gravity, but it was impressive anyway.

That's when the riot started. The guy had friends, and a half dozen of them set on Kelso.

"Break it up." The guard sounded bored. When nobody paid any attention he waded into the fight. He raised his billy club and brought it down on one head, then another. He didn't care who he hit, and I was damned glad I wasn't anywhere near that fight.

Kelso got whacked with the billy club and grabbed for the guard. But by then some other guards had come rushing over, and more came through a door into the hall. Pretty soon they had Kelso wrapped up and were beating on his head. Every now and then Kelso would get an arm free and send one flying. Everybody else stood back to watch. Kelso against the guards.

It was stupid. He couldn't win. But goddamn, what a man! I wished I had the nerve to do what he was doing. It might be worth the lumps to have somebody to strike out at. The fight didn't last long, though, and when it was over Kelso was bleeding from a dozen places, his hands were cuffed and he was sprawled out across a bench, not quite out cold.

"Was it worth it?"

A man had come onto the stage while we were watching the fight. He was about fifty, dressed in gray green coveralls with three black bands at the ends of the sleeves. He wore what seemed to be a skintight body stocking under the coveralls. "I asked, 'Was it worth it?' " he demanded. "Anyone here think it was?"

There was a lot of talk, mostly babble. One of the guards picked up Kelso's shoulders. Another grabbed his feet.

"Leave him there," the man on the stage ordered. The guards shrugged and dropped Kelso. His head banged on the bench. I could hear it all the way over where I was. One of the guards laughed.

"And the rest of you, shut up!" the man said. His voice had that quality in it: you knew he was used to being obeyed. It cut right through the babble. We were quiet.

"My name is Alexander Farr, and I am superintendent here. You might like it better if I said warden." Farr talked without using a microphone. We could hear him fine.

"You'll get more lectures, this talk's unofficial. You can go to sleep if you like. I don't advise it."

Farr reminded me of a science teacher I'd once had. The teacher used to say we could go to sleep, but he'd been willing to help you learn, as long as you wanted him to. He'd gone out of his way to teach things that weren't part of the usual program at the school. Because he didn't try to force it down my throat I'd got interested, and I learned more science than I'd thought I would.

The superintendent wasn't a very big man. He sat on the edge of the stage and his legs didn't reach the floor. He dangled them and kicked them back and forth. "Smoke 'em if you got 'em," he said. "If you're smart, you won't. Tobacco's too bloody expensive out here. Save two ways by quitting. You don't have to buy 'em, and you can sell what you've got to some sucker who's hooked."

That was no problem for me. The Dog Soldiers didn't use pot, and I'd never got interested in tobacco. One of the men handed a cigarette to the middle-aged woman in the row in front of him. He lit hers, then lit one for himself and blew a smoke ring right at the stage.

If Farr noticed he didn't show it. "You'll get the official garbage later," he said. "What I'm giving you now is the straight skinny. Hear and believe." He looked down at Kelso. "How you doing?"

Kelso grunted and tried to sit up.

"Going to behave now? Or do you like being cuffed?"

"I'm okay," Kelso said.

"Didn't ask that." Farr's tone showed curiosity but not much concern.

"I'll be a good boy."

Farr nodded. "Right. Corporal, take those cuffs off him."

"Yes, sir." The guard unlocked the handcuffs. He didn't bother to lower his voice as he told Kelso, "Next time I'll break your goddamn skull for you."

"Hear and believe," Farr said. "Okay, chums, let me give you the facts of life. Number one.

Don't try to escape. There's no place to go. If you make it outside, you'll live about fifteen seconds. There's no air out there, and your blood will boil away in your veins. It's not a pretty way to go, and I'm told it's painful as hell.

"Number two. Don't try to escape. You may think you're smart and see a way to get a p-suit. You may even be able to operate it. And then what? You can't make air, and you can't carry enough to get anywhere worth going. Running out of air's not a lot better than going out without a suit.

"Number three. Don't try to escape. Sure there's a town here, and sure there are a lot of people in it. But you'll pay for everything, and I do mean everything."

He lifted an orange disk that hung from a chain around his neck. I'd noticed that everyone except us newcomers wore one, but they weren't all the same color. "Air-tax receipt," Farr said. "Mine's orange because I'm due to have it recharged. If it turns red, that's it. Pay up or go outside. You'll need air medals, because God help you if anybody catches you in town without one."

"Why? What happens?" someone demanded.

"Outside," Farr said. "Not even a chance to pay up. Just out."

"And who's to put me out?" Kelso demanded.

Farr grinned. "Every man jack who's paid his taxes, that's who. Might take several for you, but they'll do it."

"This is not fair." I recognized the voice. Old Aristotle O'Brien. "Not fair," he repeated.

"Probably not," Farr said. "But it's the way things are." He grinned. His teeth had two gaps, and they gave him a ferocious look.

"Number four," Farr said. "Don't try to escape. We're going to give you a crash course in survival. Pay attention and you might stay alive. While you're taking the course, there won't be any Mickey Mouse crap. You'll get food to eat, water to drink, and air to breathe. The only work you have is the classes and some general crud like keeping the barracks clean and helping out in the kitchen. I guarantee you won't find anyplace you could escape to as pleasant as where you are now."

"What happens to us when we're done with this course?" Kelso demanded.

"You find a job. There's plenty of work. Company recruiters have more jobs than people. Most of 'em are pretty grim, but people do get rich on Mars, if they live long enough and find something they can do well. Most don't get rich, because the companies aren't in business to pay big salaries. And they know they've got your arse in a crack, because when that disk turns red you'll take the first offer you get. That's when they sign you up for ten-year contracts."

"Yeah, but—you mean we're just loose?" someone asked.

Farr laughed. "Yep. Whatever sentence you think you've got to serve, forget it. They don't give me a budget to run a prison and there are too many companies screaming for workers. Matter of fact, I erase the records when they come in. Nothing you ever did matters a damn now."

"How 'bout that?" There was a general babble. Some of the guys were laughing. "Son of a bitch, beat their asses again!"

"Hell, thought I was facin' ten years in the bucket!"

"But I really am a volunteer!"

"Now let me tell you about crime." Farr grinned. "Maybe some of you think you know something about the subject?"

He got a lot of laughs with that. "You know nothing," Farr said. "We don't have much crime here. We live too close together to put up with people who steal from their comrades. Back on Earth you got busted, and maybe they sent you to court, and maybe they put you in the hands of the shrinks. You had parole officers, probation officers, social workers, welfare people, psychologists, and all that. Right?" There were shouts. "Yeah."

"So they kept throwing you back until one day they lowered the boom on you," Farr was saying. "And they sent you here to work your balls off until a blowout kills you. That's the breaks. But before you think there's a better way than working, let me tell you that there's not one social worker on this whole planet."

He paused to let that sink in. "And we've got one jail in Hellastown. And no prisons. Or reform schools. Or detention hospitals. Or rehabilitation centers. Or any of that good crap. Give us trouble and we take off some hide. Give us more and we'll sell your contract to some awful place. Give us enough trouble and we put you outside. That's the way it is. You believe?"

Clear enough, I thought. I believed.

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