by P. Orin Zack
Mission Commander Sarah Ping glanced at the MarsLift transport capsule on the nav screen, and then resumed glaring at Insky. “You’re damn lucky the elevator was near enough to completion for us to use it this trip.”
“Why?” he asked defensively. “What’s the big deal? We could have just stuck to the mission profile. It’s not like this ship can’t land normally.”
“It’s a matter of trust,” Glencoe said quietly. As the colony’s new botanist, he was acutely aware of the importance of trust in such a hostile environment. “And none of us trust you.”
People on both Earth and on Mars had become increasingly polarized over how to deal with Loren Insky when the colonization craft he was on finally reached the red planet. Of course, people on both worlds had the luxury of distance to think it all through calmly and rationally. The same could not be said of the other members of the mission, who’d been cooped up with the outed suicide bomber for months.
Commander Ping chuckled. “Oh, we’re planning to set down as planned,” she said, “just not with you aboard.”
“Not with me…?”
“That’s right. You’re going to be testing the elevator for us. That’ll give us the chance to land and discuss your fate with the rest of the colony before you arrive. You have put us all in a very awkward position, after all.”
“You’ve got that right,” Glencoe said. “Though I really do have to hand it to you. Making it all the way through the training, and a month into the crossing without anyone catching on to why you were really here.”
He looked away. “And I would’ve succeeded if it hadn’t been for that idiot who forged my credentials. Not that it should have mattered which school I got that degree from. But then, that’s exactly the sort of elitist crap I came to Mars to expose.”
“Oh, give it a rest. If all you wanted to do was expose an interplanetary old boy’s club, you wouldn’t have spent all that time working out how to destroy the colony’s closed-loop recycling system. And believe me, the folks who rely on that system to stay alive are not going to take too kindly to your subterfuge. That threat is a whole lot more theoretical to the brass back on Earth than it is to your Martian welcoming committee. A lot of them have been asking for blood.”
Just as such confrontations had done since the transport reversed orientation to use the VASIMR ion engine for braking on the approach to Mars, this one sputtered to an awkward end. Once they’d gotten Insky safely aboard the capsule, and signaled the surface to start his descent down the carbon-fiber mesh, the Mars transport started de-orbit ops and the crew prepared for a landing at Port Thoris.
Most of the colony had gathered in the port complex to welcome the newest members to Mars. One of the big displays had been set up as a countdown clock to remind everyone of how long they had until Insky arrived: not very.
“You should have killed him when you first found out what he was up to, Commander!” someone shouted from the back of the room.
“It figures you’d say that, Chris,” another voice boomed. “The guy deserves a trial, just like he would on Earth.”
“A trial?” some else said incredulously. “You volunteering to be the judge, then?”
Commander Ping pleaded for quiet, but the irrational bellowing continued on for more than a minute before people started to notice that she had left the knot of command-level officers and was standing in front of the MarsLift airlock.
“Someone suggested,” she said into the lull, “that we space Insky en route. Correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I had thought we all volunteered to live on Mars because we’re explorers, not murderers. Is that really the sort of precedent you folks want to set?”
“You’re damn right,” another colonist said among the murmur.
As the crowd drifted towards her, she noticed that Glencoe was chatting excitedly with a man with the same specialty insignia that he wore. “She’s got a point,” he said, grinning slyly. “I’d have killed him myself if I’d had the chance. But spacing him? Not on your life. That would’ve been a terrible waste of good fertilizer!”
“I’m serious,” she said sharply. “I checked the colony logs. There’s never been a murder on Mars, and every other dispute that’s come up has been handled with either a negotiated settlement or some sort of community service.”
The man who was acting mayor this month spoke up. “Well of course. There are far more important things to deal with around here than setting up any sort of penal system. And besides, we don’t have any spare quarters to dedicate to being a jail. Well, not at Port Thoris, anyway.”
“But we have to do something. You’ve all heard the arguments and read the action plans submitted by the various governments in the Mars Coalition. Hell, they can’t even agree on whose jurisdiction it falls under, much less which body of laws to apply. Remember, Insky hasn’t actually committed any crimes, aside from misrepresenting himself. The best charge anyone’s even suggested is conspiracy to commit terrorism. But unless and until he actually attempts to carry it out, it’s still only a potential crime.”
“Don’t give me that,” Glencoe said angrily. “Once we knew what he was planning, every breath we took on that ship could have been our last. And if he gets his hands on the ‘ponics plant or scrubber tanks, the same goes for every soul on Mars.”
An alert tone first drew everyone’s attention to the countdown display, and then to the airlock, which had already begun to cycle. As the crowd spread out around the airlock door, Commander Ping turned to look at the faces, most of which flickered between anger and dread. Then, when the pressure differential hissed and the door slid open, she straightened and pivoted smartly towards Insky.
He took a tentative step forward, glancing left and right for an exit that wasn’t there. Most of the colonists had adopted an aggressive stance: legs slightly apart, arms crossed, eyes fixed on the greatest threat to their safety ever to set foot on Mars. Nodding slowly, he stepped close to Ping and smiled. “What are they going to do?”
“I’m pretty sure they’re not going to kill you, despite the fact that you had every intention of killing them.”
He made eye contact with several colonists. None of them blinked first. “I see. Then what happens? Where do I go? What do I do?”
“That does appear to be the question, doesn’t it?”
“I take it, then, that I won’t be assigned shared quarters.”
Several people laughed nervously. “And risk having your roommate’s throat slit in their sleep?” someone called out. “Not a chance.”
“Private quarters, then?”
Ping nodded, her eyes fixed on his.
He shrugged. “Fine. If you’re not going to kill me, then show me this cell you’ve got picked out.”
“Oh, it’s not a cell,” the mayor said lightly. “In fact, you could say it’s something of a local landmark.”
Insky gave him a weary look. “Whatever. As long as you’re not going to kill me, I’ll be fine. Just show me where it is.”
One of the colonists stepped forward and handed him a map. “It’s marked. You can’t miss it.”
“Then it’s not at Port Thoris?”
“Not even close,” the colonist said, tapping the sheet of digital paper. “But you’ll have plenty of air for the hike, if you don’t mind towing a trolley-full of spare tanks. Well, unless you get lost out there and tangle with a dust storm. One crater does tend to look a lot like the next until you’ve been here for a while.”
“All right,” he said nervously. “A joke’s a joke. Where are you sending me?”
“I’ll tell you,” Glencoe said, running his finger across the map. “Touchdown Alpha: the first Mars base, a cluster of the original Mars Direct habitat canisters. Telemetry reports that life support is still operative. It’s been brewing fuel, so you’ll be able to use the mars-buggy, once you’ve figured out how to fix it. And the greenhouse automation system reports that you’ll have plenty of food, water and air… well, as long as you don’t do anything stupid like you were planning to do here.”
“I get it. Solitary.”
“Uh-huh,” Ping said. “Well, until you’ve either managed to kill yourself, or you decide you’d really rather do something constructive with the rest of your life. It’s up to you, really.”
Insky looked at her for a long moment. Then he glanced at Glencoe and at several people in the crowd. “You’re awfully trusting, then. I mean, assuming I fix the buggy, what’s to stop me from driving back here and killing you all?”
[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