This is a follow-up to the story “Grounded”.
“Eye of the Beholder”
by P. Orin Zack
“There it is,” Peter whispered when he spotted the stylized ‘Z’ on the launcher’s handgrip. He cleared away the pile of disremembered keepsakes stacked atop the pair of tethered metallic canisters sitting beside it, each about five inches across and an inch thick, and extracted them from the condo’s basement storage unit. After setting them down in the hallway, he reached back in and carefully extracted the launcher itself, which was kind of a cross between a forked casting rod and an atlatl, one of the world’s oldest weapons. Unlike an atlatl, though, which offered leverage for throwing a stone or a dart, it was used to launch the tethered canisters, a scale model of the two-part cylindrical spacecraft that had ferried his late Aunt Angie to Mars ten years earlier.
Peter hadn’t played with the thing for years. For that matter, he wasn’t all that sure it still worked. But then, he was hardly an expert on electronics. Senior year of high school was enough of a problem without begging for trouble by taking on an extra-credit program if you didn’t have to. But then, school wasn’t why he’d gone spelunking in the bowels of the complex. That honor belonged to his older brother Daniel, who’d just signed on to join the Mars colony.
On his walk to the schoolyard, which was the closest spot large enough to try a launch, an old friend drew up alongside him and bent to get a look at the gear he was carrying. Peter had known Rod since before his aunt had boarded a real Zubrin-designed spacecraft, and the two had played with the model throughout her months-long trip across space. “Hey,” he said at last, “that’s your aunt’s ship, isn’t it? I heard she died out there.”
“Yeah,” Peter said, picking up the pace.
“You planning to destroy it or something? You know. Bad memories?”
He stopped short. “No. I’m going to fly it. What bad memories?”
“That she’s dead. It’s what I’d probably do, anyway.”
Peter scowled, and took off at a run. By the time Rod caught up with him, he’d activated the electromagnets in the tips of the launcher’s fork, used it to scoop up the tin cans by the blob of metal at the half-way point of the cord between them, and was whipping the launcher up and down to get the cans spinning. Before Rod had a chance to say anything, Peter brought his hand up, angling the fork behind him, and then quickly whipped it forward. Just as the spinning cans were right over his head, he pressed the release, and they sailed away, spinning one over the other in a high arc across the ball field.
Rod took off downrange, as he’d done countless times years earlier, his head craned, waiting for the sensor in the hub to realize it had stopped climbing and separate the cans. Peter yelped as the hub snapped and the cans flew apart on their tangential paths, sending the crew can rising yet higher, while dashing the habitat towards the ground. A second later, a small parachute popped out of the habitat, slowing its fall. Meanwhile, the crew canister had reached the top of its arc, and its chute deployed as well.
Rod managed to snag the habitat canister just before it hit the ground, and ran towards Peter, who had just stopped running below the other one, and had his hands out to snatch it out of the air. But instead of handing the canister back to Peter, Rod held it up and glanced sidelong at his friend. “Ever wonder what it was like for her on that trip?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, spinning like that.” He twisted the canister in his hand a few times, pressed the chute-retractor button, and then handed it back to Peter. “I realize it gave the colonists a bit of gravity for the trip, but I’d have spent all my time heaving if there were any windows in there. And if there weren’t… well, talk about claustrophobia!”
“Don’t know. She never mentioned it in her videos. Mars was all she ever talked about.”
“Yeah, right,” an unfamiliar voice said from nearby.
Peter turned to look at the man. He guessed the stranger to be about Daniel’s age. A pair of particularly ugly forearm tattoos reinforced his belligerent stance. “What do you mean?” he asked, with an unsettling edge to his voice.
“Like anyone’s really ever been to Mars, much less colonized the place. It’s all a hoax, if you ask me.”
“Well, I haven’t. So if you’ll just leave us alone…”
“And let you spread lies about people living on another planet? Not likely.”
Rod had begun eying the stranger in that manner he always had before starting a fight. Peter had warned his friend not to telegraph his intentions so broadly if he ever wanted to surprise an adversary, but this time he just let it go. “Look,” Rod said sharply, taking a step towards the guy, “we’re just out here playing with an old toy. Nobody asked your opinion, anyway. And if the sight of technology bothers you so much, go live in the woods, you freakin’ Luddite!”
Peter winced at the man’s twitchy reaction, and raised open hands to get him to lower his fist. “Come on,” he said calmly, “there’s no reason to fight over this, either of you. The Mars colony is as real as this city. My aunt lived there for ten years, and my older brother’s already started training to go.”
“That’s rich. And I suppose your aunty climbed into a can like that to get there. Well, I’ve got a news flash for you buddy. She never went anywhere, and neither will your brother. The whole thing’s a hoax.”
Peter brandished the crew canister in front of the guy’s nose, its chute still hanging loose. “It’s no hoax, moron. Where’d you get that idea, anyway?”
“Get that thing out of my face.” He snatched it and flung it across the field. But because the chute was still out, it didn’t get very far before the canopy filled and it floated down to a soft landing in the grass. “It’s obvious, twerp. The whole fantasy they’ve spun is all about living off the land, but the place is barren. There’s nothing there. Hell, there isn’t even any air, just like on the moon!”
“No air?” Peter laughed. “The natural atmosphere may be almost all carbon dioxide, but the colonists brewed an oxygen-nitrogen mix from the rocks, and it’s maintained by all the plants they grow for food. Besides, all the breathable air they make is kept inside the colony.”
“They’d like you to believe that.”
“So tell me something, then,” Rod said, cooling a bit. “What would you accept as proof? What would convince you that the Mars colony is real, and that people have been living there for years? Obviously all the news footage hasn’t done it.”
“Of course not. Pictures can be faked.”
“Sure,” Peter said, keeping the tempo up like a tag-team handoff, “but why would anyone go to all that trouble? What’s the payoff of sustaining a hoax that complex for so long? There wouldn’t be any point to it.”
“Sure there is,” the guy said, his face revealing some defensiveness.
“Good,” Peter said, like he’d just checked an opposing king. “Name it.”
The guy bit his lip and snarled. “There are plenty of reasons. Keeping all you gullible idiots occupied watching the fake news feeds ensures eyeballs for the vidfeed’s ad stream for one.”
“What, are you nuts?” Rod exclaimed. “You think propping up some company’s business model is worth the expense of mounting a multi-year hoax? Next?”
“It’s the government, then,” he said flatly. “The government uses it to keep people from getting all bent out of shape about their intrusive policies.”
Peter gave the guy a withering look. “You’re grasping at straws, you know. I’ll tell you what. You go figure out what you think, and why, and meet us back here next week. Okay?” He picked up the launcher and calmly started walking towards where the crew canister had landed. It took a second or two for Rod to follow.
“You’re really coming back next week?” Rod asked.
“Of course not. But he’ll probably show up. Maybe by then he’ll have had enough time to check in with whoever fills his head with that crap.”
They’d reached the other canister, so Rod bent to snatch it up. He pressed the chute retractor button, and then handed it to Peter. “So what about you, Pete? What convinced you it was real?”
“My aunt’s vids, of course.”
“Come on. Like the dope said, pictures can be faked. So what was it really?”
“I’m serious, Rod. But it wasn’t the pictures that did it; it was the person in the pictures. I knew my aunt wouldn’t lie to me. Its real, all right. You could see it in her eyes.”
[Author’s Note: This and my other Mars-related short stories will also be available at MarsNews.com starting in January 2010. If you’re interested in Mars, space flight, and the colonization of Mars, please click over and explore the site.]
Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack