Title: GLASS HOUSE
Rated: M I guess, though at the moment it's PG
Summary: So far? A look at the relationship between the colonies of Mars and Earth.
Earth is not a museum. It is a glasshouse in a universe that likes to throw stones. A house of cards that plays it own hand. Little more than a rock, dragged unwilling through space with its waters bulging out the sides and its face to the sun.
That is what I would like to believe. It gives me comfort on cloud choked nights. Yet it is not the complete truth. Earth is a crucible with its slippery edges curved inwards. We settle in its centre, writhing against the silence.
THE FIRST CRACK
Mars rested against the chiselled wall. It was cool and black on his bare skin. He dropped his hands to the ground and let his fingertips trace lines across the sharp dust that had accumulated over the millennia and now layered the floor. Its microscopic crystals reflected the mounted night lights. This sparkling dust clung to the tiny ridges on his skin, glimmering like the diamonds buried deep below.
He would be eight when the red glow hit the uppermost rocks of the mine. The vertical entrance was a roughly cut cylinder, reaching up to the icy surface. The shaft could comfortably fit one of the Colonial cities but instead the ground was bare, kept clean by the LushShuttles purring in and out of expressway lines, even at this dismal hour.
There was no day or night, only shifts. Mars was still a child, forbidden from following the tarred track that led into the central mines where the precious mould thrived. His home was hacked into the rocky wall not far from it, impossible to make out from the honeycomb structure of the worker’s accommodation. Figures crawled between their holes, some glittering as they stepped carefully amongst the shattered rocks.
Mars’s enormous eyes flicked to the ceiling, their black disks dilating into watery orbs. He thought he saw a shadow deepen high above, and then slip between the cliff faces.
Dawn he thought, waiting for that burnt amber on the iodised rock. He absently watched a LushShuttle clear the rim and make the long descent into the shaft. The lines of windows on its hull glowed brightly making patterns on the rocky walls while its spinning alarm managed a pained cry as it announced the arrival of an empty vessel, impatient to haul the mine’s cargo halfway to the sun.
Mars felt it first. The dust danced beneath him jumping playfully away from the ground as it vibrated. Instinct snapped his neck upwards, his pale eyes switching between the ancient rock faces. They were more fragile than they looked and as the ground grew angry, flexing its molten muscles, Mars slid up against the wall, plastering himself flat on its harsh surface.
A fog rose up from the ground, swirling like liquid stars against the black walls. Mars quickly worked his way along the cavern wall towards the dwellings. Any one of them would do. He needed a roof and the safety of darkness.
The little light in the cave dimmed abruptly as their world succumbed to the deep grumble of the Martian core. LushShuttles flocked beneath the central hanger, their pilots parking them and placing their heads on the dashboards, bracing for the worst. A whispered plea was lost to the room and the lights in the shaft flickered out.
A crack appeared. Amidst the quaking surrounds, it spread down a weathered fault and dislodged a cluster of sharp pebbles. They slipped over themselves, tumbling from the crevice to meet the air. The opposing elements embraced, riding each other until their mindless obsession was toppled by gravity and the pebbles fell. They were gone a second later, lost to the abyss.
The noise halted as it had started. The earth relaxed, shivering ever so slightly as the roar echoed off the walls and died. The dust spiralled briefly, enjoying its rare separation from the ground.
Grasping his hands over his head, a pilot exhaled.
“No more of this,” he said, wiping his forehead on his bleached sleeve. The soggy material stuck to his arm as he lay back in the seat.
Beneath the hanger he saw a thousand stunted vessels roughly parked. Pilots like himself were already fishing for their bulky headsets and beginning start up procedures. The machines had lost their gleam and some would say their glory. He flicked a nearby switch and a burst of air flushed the dust of his windscreen.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
It was the unwelcome voice Lowliar, his supervisor. ‘Low’ because that was most personnel’s opinion of him and ‘liar’ because that’s all he ever seemed to do. Still, he was one of the few still crazy enough to mine the tunnels for Lush.
“Go ahead,” replied the Pilot, pressing several flashing buttons.
“There was no mineral dust contamination to the crop so you’re good to go for pickup. Just as well too, this stuff has to be on Earth inside three months or it’ll spoil and the orbits wait for no one no matter how overpaid they are.”
“What was the bad news?”
There was a pause in the static. Lowliar was deep within the tunnels, no doubt slipping a few dislodged diamonds into his pockets whilst the chaos settled. “You’re still alive – bad for me, I was hoping to replace you next round.”
Great, thought the Pilot as he hand-signalled to the ship beside him.
For a few minutes, the cavern was too quite. Mars was accustomed to the ever present hum of LushShuttles and the raised voices of workmen. Huddled in a crevice, he shivered against his knees. Mars hated the quakes. When they came he felt like the whole world might tumble in and then forget that this place had ever existed.
His parents named him Mars because he was born on its surface and they knew that he would never leave. When they looked at him, they were reminded of this. He became their determination and eventually their regret. Now that they were gone, Mars was the only thing he had for company. The planet was a harsh friend. Right now he wished that it could speak. Maybe if it could, he wouldn’t have to be frightened any more.
SHUTTLE TO EARTH
Parked in a reasonably straight fashion in front of T98 – one of the larger tunnels, the Pilot opened the back hatch in preparation for the delivery of Lush. Satisfied he reached behind him for his exo-boots and deliberately clicked their latches firmly into place.
“Out we go, come on,” he shouted behind him.
Feet tripped over themselves and a foreign tongue swore as its owner scurried about the back compartment. The Pilot calmly stretched his arms forward. They cracked unpleasantly, vengeful of the cramped quarters they had endured for the past forty years.
A small child scurried over from the cavern walls and lifted its skeletal arms up desperately. The Pilot made his way down the ramp from his shuttle and draped his embroidered sash over the child’s hands. He took a breath of oxygen from his portable tank – one breath every three minutes.
The Pilot’s eyes flickered shut. He could feel the ever-present pain at the base of his skull more acutely in the thin air. If only it would fade with the step of the planets, drain away as the sky blushed before the night. The Pilot was not that naive, each turn of time worsened it but he could not bear to know why.
He could almost see the air hang around the base of the pit on descent. It was held down by a forceshield, hopelessly weak in design. Precious air leaked through it, even more so when the quakes came. A few more decades and it might collapse completely. Nobody would care. There were a thousand mines more productive than this one, and a dozen developers rubbing their sweaty palms together in expectation of this one’s demise. It would be re-dug, renovated, and outfitted without the painful workforce whose bones would be flushed onto the Martian ground.
The child beneath him tucked the sash into a small satchel. The Pilot wondered how the people of the mines could breathe unaided. Supposedly it was due to their short statue and hungry lungs, inflated to the point that their rib cages protruded awkwardly. They were almost a different species now, the Martian settlers.
The Pilot’s companion, the ever incompetent Pul, was born in an era where parents gave up naming their children after their ancestors. In his case, there was not an ancestor that had lived that would want Pul lugging around their name. He was an embarrassment to his race and an irritating pebble caught in the Pilot’s engine.
Pul exited the LushShuttle clad in the bulky travel suit. Its padded form made him resemble a grey marshmellow with his arms and legs almost indistinguishable from his torso. Pul toddled awkwardly through the door and overstepped the stairway. He fell slowly, turning as his arm hit the Martian rock and his frizzy red hair obscured his sight. Unlike everybody else, he had chosen to wear a standard issue helmet despite reasonably breathable air.
“How many times,” muttered the Pilot, “have I told you to switch on your boots?”
Every pilot needed a companion. They were as close to slaves as you could get in 203 099. Unfortunately, they were almost all of Moon decent and utterly hopeless. Now, the Pilot never considered himself to be a prejudiced man, but this was his twelfth Mooner and the odds were stacking up against them. Pul was a real highlight – so useless that he had thought about selling him to the entertainment industry more than once.
“You look like an idiot,” continued the Pilot, hauling his companion to their feet. “No-one wears their helmets on Mars. Take it off at once and – not without your oxygen tank! Go back in the shuttle and get it.”
Pul turned awkwardly and lunged forward for the railing which he used it to haul himself back up into the shuttle. The Pilot shook his head in distress, hoping that none of the other pilots were watching the appalling spectacle of Pul waddle uneasily in the low gravity.
The child was still there, the watery moons of his eyes sadly gazing at him. The life in them was desperate and fragile. It hurt to look back, but it was polite, so he did.
The Pilot quickly delivered his name, ship number and load requirement to the child who ran off across the dusty surface toward the information office. He would be back shortly with a new marking on the Pilot’s sash. Four more and he would earn his right to run one of the orbital ships. Far more beautiful, he imagined. A room with a permanent view of the reddish surface? He hoped so. No more traipsing down into shit holes like this one, waiting in the dirt. He would be a captain.
Pul, the Pilot and the child waited outside T98. Never still, the child had scooped the dust beneath the rail tracks into several mounds of varying sizes. On the largest he placed a fragment of diamond, twisting it until it caught the glow from the hovering lighting system.
Pul hissed at the bright orb closest as it drifted in too close. Its surface was fiercely hot to the touch for those unlucky enough to stand in its path.
The child quickly retrieved the diamond and swiped a hand over the piles, demolishing them in a swift movement. The hurried sound of icy footsteps preceded the emergence of an awkward figure in the throat of the tunnel.
Lowliar was a typical Martian settler; short, pale with disproportionally large eyes. Added to this, his years spent underground had turned his scalp into a bare stretch of skin and robbed him of his eyebrows. The effect left him largely expressionless, even with his bony arm waving enthusiastically.
“Made it through that little disturbance I see,” he said, bending down in front of the child. The child stared at Lowliar in awe, his little mouth agape. “This is for you.” Lowliar handed the child a roughly cut diamond, larger than the one the Pilot had watched him play with. The worthless stones were nevertheless beautiful and more than a worthy reward in the eyes of the child. “My next shuttle is due in three hours – you process them through like this one and I’ll see if I can get a pink one of these.”
The child nodded enthusiastically but said nothing. When the Pilot looked back a moment later, the child had disappeared leaving nothing but a trail of footprints in the dirt.
“This way gentlemen,” a practiced grin pushed the corners of his mouth towards his pointed ears. “I have a full load for you today.”
Lowliar led Pul and the Pilot into the mouth of the mine tunnel. Five mining containers rested closely together. They had transparent hoods covering their precious cargo of Lush, protecting it from the oxygen pumped into the tunnel. The Pilot could tell by the deepness of the green that Lowliar had found a richer vein since the last trip. No wonder he was pushing for time, there was a lot of money to be had from this haul. Time to ask for a raise.
Loaded, and ready to begin the long haul back to Earth, the Pilot lined up the LushShuttle with the exit route.
“What do they use this stuff for anyway?” asked Pul, as he took his seat next to the Pilot. The ship swayed slightly as it lifted off the ground.
The Pilot rolled his eyes and called up the digital screen display. Other LushShuttles lining up for departure flashed red on the screen. The Pilot looked to the upper left hand corner and saw the number fourteen appear. He sighed, shaking his head at the delay caused by the earthquake.
“You’re awfully quiet,” said the Pilot, after watching a couple of shuttles take off and vanish in a puff of dust.
Pul averted his pink eyes to the Pilot. “I – I was waiting for you to answer, sir.”
The Pilot lowered his eyes and turned. “Serious?” he said, his hand gesturing automatically. “They use it in the cloning process.”
“Then why do the Old Ones own it?”
By ‘old ones’, the Pilot assumed Pul meant the Immortals. A smile slid across the Pilot’s face as he imagined the fragile forms of the Immortals, slouched over their chairs watching the world slip by without them. “Because they’re smart.”
Three months and two Earth days later, the blue blur had become a solid sphere. The approach to Mars was always impressive, its red canyons slicing through the crust and the ever-present trail of smoke from Olympus Mons painted onto the sky – but Earth was something else.
It was a marble. Indiscriminate banks of clouds obscured the shattered continents. Lights lit up the coastlines where neither the sun nor moon could reach and its satellites sparkled as their solar panels tilted to the warmth.
“Home at last,” said the Pilot, yawning as his shuttle ducked behind the shadow of the earth.
Pul watched the Moon from his window. A few spiderlike colonies were visible on the rim of one of the craters. Pul smiled and touched the window.
“Come on now,” scowled the Pilot. “You’ll leave fingerprints all over the glass! Switch on the news, we’re close enough. Let’s see what we missed. Can’t imagine it would be much – nothing ever seems to change in this place.”
The LushShuttle and the Earth trod carefully around each other, sizing each other up as the space between them shrank. Stars watched on, amusing themselves with the display. No doubt they averted their eyes when trivial pleasures led to heartache, laughed against the darkness, and hoped that their fate would be different.
The Pilot frowned as he felt a repetitive tugging on his sleeve. Pul had the fabric of the Pilot’s shirt clutched in his fist and was jerking it insistently.
“What?” said the Pilot, trying to free his arm and perform an orbital manoeuvre simultaneously. “Would you stop it Pul, you’re wrecking my shirt. I have to wear this to greet my relatives when we get there and I don’t have time to – what on Earth is wrong with you?”
Pul was incapable of separating his eyes from the screen that glowed in front of him. His eyes read the trailing banner at the bottom, disbelieving its text. An attractive woman wore a practiced face of concern as she re-read the news flash for the fourth time since the last commercial.
“Murder,” whispered Pul, finally releasing the Pilot to turn the sound up.
There had not been a murder on Earth for 10 000 years.