Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chapter 16

I was a little sad to miss the city,” Kristin said, fitting a pouch of food to the hot water nozzle and filling it. “But from your stories, I think maybe I'm glad I didn't go. Doesn't sound like my kind of place.”

I don't think it's really trying to lure in spacers,” Aaron commented. “I mean, they'll let us in and happily take our money. But we're not the main audience. I think they're looking for rich folks who want a little novelty without any real hardship or change in their normal routine.”

I think I'll try to avoid taking shipments from there in the future,” Jass said, before draining a juice pouch. “The difficulty of approach, combined with the gravity...I'm not sure it's worth the price. If I do run future routes through here, I'm not leaving the ship. Ever.”

Well, we've got a good long space between here and Vesta. Even with the shortest route I could plan, it's about ten weeks.” Aaron tucked an empty pouch into a waste compartment. “Lots of clear space between us and there, so you have plenty of time to get sick of zero g again.”

You have to admit, it is a little frustrating trying to learn how to walk all over again every few weeks,” Kristin pointed out. “Much simpler just to go between Mars normal and zero g.”

Much simpler,” Jass agreed, “but that involves only ever going from Mars to the black and back again. There are new colonies cropping up all the time, new places to go and see. And they're not all crazy. Cybele was fun. And Vesta was great the last time I was there. It's got that crazy asteroid gravity and the city is unlike anywhere else I've ever been.”

I heard that they're trying to get a colony to Europa in the next decade,” said Denjiro, soaring into the room. “It'll be a research thing at first, naturally; most colonies have started that way. But they'll need to bring people in to start making it self-sufficient.”

Self-sufficient?” Jass laughed. “On that block of ice? There's not even any dirt there! Just kilometers and kilometers of ice, with an ocean underneath.”

Well, I wasn't asked to be on the planning committee, I don't know how they're going to do it.” Denjiro rummaged through a drawer until he found a food pouch to his liking. “I just heard they're planning it. Hey, Jass, isn't it your shift up in the main cabin?”

Jass checked the time. “Damn, it is. I'll see ya'll around.” She deposited her food pouch in the waste container and pulled herself through the doorway. The corridor was empty, and she made her way up to the cabin. When she arrived, Kara was unbuckling the belt that held her in her seat. “Oh good, you're here. I'm starving!”

A couple of the others are in the galley,” Jass said, checking her console for any messages of important. “Looked like they were going to be there for a while, if you want to go catch up with them.”

Sounds good to me.” The slender woman was gone in a moment, and Jass settled in to read the latest set of reports from Mars and Earth that had been uploaded into the system. While messages of importance and major news items were beamed their way daily, they had to wait until docking at a station or colony to get the full news briefing. Unrest on the Luna colony, Jass saw, no surprise there. A strike in the spaceworkers union on Earth. Also typical. A smaller story caught her eye, and she pulled up the full item. The story started with more accounts of sabotage, but continued with the account of a saboteur who had been brought back unharmed. Upon questioning before his trial, he had claimed that Federated Shipping had sent an agent to recruit him, using the threat of blackmail and a bribe of substantial proportions. He had no proof to back up his story, but the story had been enough to start an initial probe into Federated Shipping. The news item ended with a quote from the accused company: “We are as shocked by these accusations as everyone else, and we extend our sympathies to all of the companies who have lost ships and personnel in this time of crisis. We hope that those responsible are brought to justice swiftly.”

Jass hid the news story again, and relaxed in her seat. What if Federated Shipping was telling the truth, and they weren't behind the wave of damages? Who else could it be? She hesitated a moment, then checked her own personal messages. There was nothing urgent, just the usual messages from home. She paged through a few messages from her mother; it was nothing out of the ordinary, just wishes for her safety interspersed with news of her sisters and their children. Jass was grateful that her mother had seldom bothered her about getting married or having children. She'd been disappointed when the relationship with Vijay crumbled, but had staunchly defended her daughter's right to live single against other family members who had not been so kind. Jass pulled up a new screen and composed a brief message to her mother, updating her on the state of the ship and asking her to greet the rest of the family. She stored the message in the queue that would be sent in the next batch, and turned away from the screen.

With one quick motion, she unbuckled herself from the seat and stretched into the air. She glanced around the cabin to insure that no-one else was watching, then made her way to the door and closed it. She pulled herself back to her console and turned on the speakers. In another moment, music filled the cabin. It was a simple melody, sad and sweet, and she felt it in her bones. She floated to the front window and hovered there, face close to the cold glass, looking out into the stars.

It's hard to pick out constellations here, she thought, scanning the star field. The stars were so bright and numerous when they didn't have to fight their way through a planet's reflected light and atmosphere. She found a cluster of stars that she thought might be the Pleiades, but couldn't be sure. Her computer could have identified a score of constellations in an instant, but it wasn't the same as picking them out with her own eyes.

The music echoed in the cabin, and Jass found herself wishing to be back on Mars instead of heading for another asteroid colony. She wanted to see the butterscotch sky again, with the sun moving overhead like a polished coin. “Must be a pretty crappy spacer if I'm this homesick for life planetside,” she said to her reflection in the window.

I don't know about that.”

Jass turned around with such force that she had to put a hand against the wall to keep from bouncing off it. Dani had entered the room so quietly that she hadn't heard her come in. The programmer closed the door behind her. “Sorry, but it's my shift in a few minutes, so I thought I'd go ahead and come in.” She floated to her usual spot near the ceiling of the room and pulled out her computer. “And I meant what I said. I don't know that missing Mars makes you a bad spacer. Everybody misses stuff. We can't have everything we want all at once, so we take what we can get at the moment and miss the rest.”

Jass shrugged and took a final glance out of the window before returning to her seat. “Maybe. But it seems like I just don't know what I want. When I'm at home, I want to be out here, and when I'm out here all I can think about is getting back to Mars.”

It's part of being human,” Dani insisted, not looking up from her computer. “It's part of that not-so-fun side, along with things like self-doubt and regrets. Everyone has them, no one wants them.”

Don't get me started on regrets, I've had enough of those this week.” Jass looked at her console and began organizing the watch schedule for the next week.

The treadmill bounced under Jass' feet as she ran, and she wondered for a moment if she should check the supports. Shipboard treadmills tended to undergo a lot of wear and tear on deep space voyages, and it wasn't unusual for one to lose an important screw or come loose from its anchors. No spacer wanted to the one strapped into the machine when that happened. Jass made a mental note to check the machine when she was done and pushed forward.

The ship was three days out from Gaspra, and no further signs of sabotage had been found. At least, not yet. Jass was frustrated that she had not been able to narrow down the list of possible culprits, but it was impossible. Until the first bomb was found, she would have trusted this crew with her life. Now when she actually had to trust them with her own life and the lives of the entire crew, she found that she couldn't.

She pushed the thought aside and concentrated on running. The physical effort of running required focus and helped her collect her thoughts. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Just the basics, just the elements of moving forward. Left. Right. Left.

When her legs began to burn with the exertion, she finally slowed to a walk then brought the machine to a halt. Grabbing a towel, she wiped her face and neck down. The world seemed simpler than it had earlier; there was nothing more to be done than to keep her crew alive and get them all home safe. That was it. She didn't know how she'd do it, but the actual task was very simple.

After a shower, she headed up to the galley for a quick meal. Jass wasn't sure what she would do after that; the schedules had been made and sent to the crew, all messages and reports had been read, and the preparations for docking with Vesta wouldn't need to be started for weeks.

In a way, the sailors of centuries ago had had things simpler, Jass mused as she ate a meal bar. On board a sailing ship, the vessel itself required constant upkeep, so there was always something to do. The Curious Machine needed maintenance, too, but most of it was done in dock, and very little by the crew itself. It had been created to carry a crew safely for months through the harshest environment in the galaxy with few or no repairs. The cargo needed to be checked at certain intervals and there was always the science payload to worry about, but after a certain point, everything had been done and she was left with a daily life aboard the ship. There were no restaurants, stores, or new friends to break up the routines.

Jass pulled out her computer and began to look through the ship's library of films. Most of them held little interest for her; filmmaking on Earth consisted mostly of continuations of story franchises created decades ago, documentaries on subjects she had no interest in, and comedies that failed to elicit a single laugh. Most ships had access to the same films, since the film companies had sold them at a very low rate, hoping to recoup the money in bulk sales when they convinced investors that the movie package would be an essential on every deep space ship. Jass exited the library, and pulled up a directory from another part of the computer. She had uploaded another film library, one she had paid for with her own money. It wasn't strictly legal to upload her own film library into the ship's system, but every captain she knew did the same thing, and no-one ever questioned it.

She scanned the collection. Film-making on Mars was still in its childhood; for years, the colonists had relied on Earth to continue creating the culture that they consumed. But over the years, as the quality of the culture produced continued to fall, many Mars citizens had begun to clamor for entertainment made on their own homeworld.

Forty years ago, a film student named Milo Sorenson had sold most of his belongings aside from his film equipment, and made a movie that was later hailed as the beginning of the Marswave movement. Until that time, movies were rarely created for the Mars audience, since the vast majority of moviegoers lived within Earth orbit. Mars colonists were often depicted as backwater ruffians, comedic sidekicks, or crazed villains proclaiming the bankruptcy of Earth culture.

Milo Sorenson's films had been different. Eschewing traditional cost-cutting studio filming with computer-added effects, he filmed in the open expanses of Mars, setting his actors against sweeping backdrops of red dusted rocks, kilometers of canyon, and the looming shape of Olympus Mons. The characters, derided as “boring” by Earth-based critics, were the sort of people familiar to every Mars dweller: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, students, shop owners, cooks, the sort of people that one could find anywhere. One critic reviewed an early Sorenson film by stating, “Without the travel-brochure landscapes, one wouldn't even know the story took place on another planet.”

Sorenson's first films had been low-budget affairs, made with donations from his local fans and whatever the previous film's ticket sales had brought in. But soon Sorenson's films had many fans in his hometown, Opportunity Dome, and word began to spread. Bootlegged copies of the movies were uploaded to the planet-wide network, and the files began to migrate through the Earth networks. Aficionados of independent film-making began to declare themselves fans of Sorenson's work. As sales of his films began to bring in more money, Sorenson had invested in better equipment but still refused to use any sort of computer-generated effects, though he never said a word against any film-maker who did use them. “If you're looking at Mars through a computer,” he had once said, “you're not seeing my Mars anymore.” Other young film-makers began to make their own movies inspired by his work, and the Marswave film movement had been born.

Twenty-two years into his film-making career, Sorenson had unexpectedly found himself to be the height of fashion among Earth moviegoers and critics. Marswave films garnered sweeps of the highest awards at film festivals, and each new Sorenson film was greeted with wide acclamation.

At one film premier, a representative of an Earth-based film company ambushed Sorenson on the red carpet as he was giving an interview to a smiling reporter. The man explained that his company would like to hire Sorenson to direct a series of movies for them, and offered him an astronomical sum. When asked what the series would be about, the man replied that the studio wanted Sorenson to direct remakes of some of their most popular titles, but set the movies on Mars instead of Earth. Sorenson had emphatically refused the offer, and had retreated swiftly. For eight years, no one in the public heard anything of Sorenson; no new movies were announced, no interviews given, and no public appearances.

Then, with no warning, announcements for a new Sorenson film began to appear. It was billed as the final word in the Marswave movement, the culmination of Sorenson's career, and a film that would change the world of movies forever. Audiences poured into theaters on two worlds to see the film on opening night. No-one was sure what to expect, but everyone had a guess: they were all wrong.

The film, titled “Exodus,” followed the travels of a single man across the face of Mars. There was no dialogue, and very little music. Most of the sound came from Mars itself: the faint whisper of dust blown by the wind, the crumbling of gully edges into valleys, and the sound of the actor's boots scraping across the planet.

After the movie ended, over three hours later, Sorenseon appeared on screen and thanked those who had supported his work over the years, and announced his retirement. The audience was shocked, and many wrote to him to beg him to return to film-making, but he was adamant.

Jass had loved his movies ever since she was a girl, and Exodus was her favorite. She often played it when she was at home, letting the sounds of Mars fill her apartment.

She pulled up the film on her computer, instructing the screen in the main cabin to prepare the file for viewing. A second message invited the rest of the crew to join her in watching the movie.

By the time she reached the main cabin, Denjiro and Kara were already there, along with Martina, who had been on watch. As the film began, Dani, Aaron, and Kristin slipped into the room. Jass looked around the room as it was flooded with the ochre light of home, and felt the homesickness began to seep away.

I don't think I'd ever seen that one all the way through,” Denjiro commented after the movie was over. “I saw parts of it in college, but never sat and just watched it.”

If it's not an inappropriate question,” Kristin asked, “do you consider Mars or Earth your home? It seems like people who don't grow up on Mars have a hard time thinking of it as home.”

It's a great question. I'm still trying to answer that for myself. There are a lot of things about Mars I don't think I'll ever get used to. Living in a dome, for instance, or not having oceans. I miss the oceans. But on the other hand, Mars is a great place to be. The gravity doesn't take that long to get used to, and the landscapes are amazing. There's something about seeing the way the land lies with no plants to hide its shape...It's very compelling.”

Those are reasons, not answers,” said Jass. “Finding a home isn't about weighing pros and cons. It's something else, a moment when you look at where you are and realize that you belong there.”

Denjiro shrugged, and stretched his legs. “In that case, I don't know. I haven't felt that yet. Maybe I'm still looking for home.”

Aren't we all,” commented Kara with a wry smile.

Not all of us,” Kristin said. “I knew Spirit City was my home ever since I was a kid. I've worked all of the world, but nothing's quite like being there.”

What's so special about Spirit City?” Martina asked, frowning. “It's just a town. Bradbury Dome's a lot bigger.”

Bigger doesn't mean better in every case, but that wasn't what I meant. Spirit City is just where I always belonged, where it was ok for me to be me.” Kristin talked while scanning her console for messages. “I worked in Bradbury for a while, and it was a great town, but it was never home. I always felt out of place. It was good to come home when that job was done.”

But you probably spend more time in space than you do in town,” Martina protested, “or at least, as much time. I just don't see how it can really be your home.”

It's not an easy thing to explain if you haven't experienced it,” Jass said. “But that doesn't mean it isn't true.”

I think you don't always have a choice about where 'home' is,” Dani added. Jass was surprised, since the programmer rarely talking in larger groups of people. “Have you ever read any of the stories of the first colonists on Mars? Several of them talk about how they always felt like Mars was their home, even before they arrived on the planet. That was before there was anywhere on Mars that they could live, much less stores and movie theaters and things like that. I mean, Clara Morgan's first words to the colonists when they stepped onto the surface were 'Welcome home.'”

It's weird to think about that,” Denjiro said. “It makes me wonder how many people living on Earth felt like Mars was home and never got a chance to go, just because they were born too early.”

Maybe there are people on Mars right now who feel like Europa is home,” laughed Kristin. “And in a few hundred years, there will be people on that ball of ice having this exact same conversation and being glad they were born at the right time.”

Just the thought of being near that ball of ice makes me feel cold,” Jass said. She checked the time. “I think I'm going to catch up on replying to some of my messages.” She made her way over to her console and pulled up her messages.

The group slowly dispersed until only Dani, Aaron, and Jass remained in the main cabin. Dani had reclaimed her place floating near the ceiling of the cabin, and Aaron was strapped into his seat, going over a set of routes.

I think you all missed something when you were talking about 'home' a few minutes ago,” he said, looking up as she turned around.

Oh really? Please enlighten me, then.”

No-one mentioned people. Sometimes home is other people. Think about when you were a kid; when you'd go running home after school or something, or after sleeping over at a friend's house. Or if your family moved when you were young—you might miss the house you used to live in for a while, but eventually the new one becomes home, because the people you love live there.”

Jass thought for a few moments. “I can see that. I'm not sure it holds true for everyone, though. I love my family, but home isn't with them anymore.”

Not everyone is you, Jass. Most people have someone who is home for them. Or they're searching for someone to be their home.”

Do you have someone like that?”

That is a highly personal question, and I am going to exercise my right not to answer it, if you don't mind.”

Jass shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

1 comment:

  1. With an Indian captain in charge of movie selection, I'd think Bollywood has earned enough stripes worthy of a mention, in thought or in verbs.