Back in the shower of the dingy room, I let the hot water pour over my head, and watched it run down the drain in a dirty red-brown river. Every muscle in my body hurt, and the left side of my back ached right where it connected to the hip. Soon a bump the size of a golf ball will balloon up and I’ll toss and turn all night. I was familiar with this routine. Sometimes it happens even if all I do is pick up a pair of socks. But this work is sure to bring it on. It would all be worth it if I could find Baxter. That would stick something unpleasant in Broderick’s craw, really throw a wrench in the purity of Martians. Humans were fallible, even Martian ones.
Human. The word doesn’t really apply to me anymore. I’m not exactly human, not since my entire body was reconstructed by nano-machines. I’m certainly as fallible as humans are. That much, and more, we have in common, but I’m removed from them in a lot of ways—on the outside looking in. That doesn’t mean that I want to be alone, and tonight was no exception. I needed food and the feeling of people around. I dressed and headed out for some dinner at a restaurant that I’d seen on the way to the mines. It was built up against the side of the dome at the western gateway where the trains left to various parts of Mars.
The place was crowded and not at all like the Barsoom. There was apparently zero dress-code here. A mishmash of people of all types mingled and chattered, drinks in hand. Tables scattered about in an irregular array in the center of the room, and booths bordered a glass wall on the west side looking out into the barren wastes of the Martian sunset. No one met me asking how many for dinner, and no signs marked, “Wait to be Seated”. I selected a booth by the glass and settled in with a sigh as my back relaxed into the cushion of the bench.
I looked around at the crowd, trying to guess who the people were. My years in the investigation field told me things. Some of these people worked in the mines. I could see gruff, well muscled men in a group back in one corner slouching over their beers, keeping to themselves. And yet, there were also office workers, lawyers, and accountants. I caught snatches of their conversations as they complained and bitched about their work, or passionately debated political issues. Or just talking about the guy or girl across the room that they wanted to bring home to their bed. Alcohol is a miracle drug for the PI, as long as it is administered liberally to the ones that I’m learning about and not to myself.
I thought about what Sledge said about Baxter dying in the mine. That was complete bullshit. I don’t know what kind of game Baxter is playing, but he isn’t dead. I’m certain of that. He’s messing with me, stringing me a long, distracting me until he strikes somewhere else.
A waitress came by and I ordered a beer. She was busy and looked a little tired, but she still managed a smile. I didn’t miss that my age beaten face had slipped right by her notice. The fact is, I don’t have to look my age. I could get the gene treatments. But that would be a lie, and that’s not my style. Sure I’ve got a mug that resembles the surface bark of a redwood, but I’m Martin Coswell. To change that, would be to pretend that I’m someone else.
The waitress returned with the beer and I thanked her. She moved off with a tray of six other drinks weighing down her tiny arm, and I wondered how she managed it. How did she make it through each day grubbing out a minimum wage, dealing with crabby customers, and going home with aching arms and feet? People did what they needed to survive—just like the men in the mines that I worked with today. They carve out a living in the depths of their world, risk their lives for a lousy grand a week. If they make it home alive to pay their bills and have a little left over for a couple of beers, they count themselves lucky.
I don’t think that’s how life is supposed to be. Ninety percent survival and ten percent living. Hell, it’s more like five percent if you think about all the time you spend doing things you’d rather not. How did it get like this? Is “The Man” that all-powerful? Who duped the masses into this? Or is it just the law of nature? Some law of thermodynamics that requires X amount of work for Y amount of living, and the math just ends up putting the bulk of the human race in debt. It doesn’t seem to matter how much technology improved. Most people still spend their entire lives working for the dollars to survive. Well, the people who haven’t given up, that is, or the ones running the show, the ones with the wealth and the power.
Maybe professor psycho Follet hadn’t been totally nuts. He’d wanted to improve the human condition, but he’d been willing to build it enslaving Afterlifers. If you have to improve your lot by making someone else’s worse, it’s not a solution. But there has to be a way. I don’t know what it is. For a split second I had one of those moments where I felt that I was on the verge of solving something that was beyond me. Like I was in a dream and I just worked out some impossible equation, and then I woke up, and the mystery of the dream logic had been lost.
A conversation caught my ears and I looked nonchalantly in the direction of the current speaker. A gaunt faced looking man of respectable build stood at the bar talking with two other men. The man had a greying beard and a distinctive way of speaking, where he enunciated each word very precisely and gave it his own personal flare.
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying if they want us down there in the mines when those explosives go off, we need to be paid a lot more than we’re getting.” The man’s face became severe, causing it to become even more drawn with lines. His hooked nose looked like the beak of a predatory bird about to rip the flesh from one of his audience.
“And I’m saying, that we don’t have any choice. If we say we’re not going to do it, they’ll just fire us and bring in some rookies and train them. They’ve done it before.”
Their voices lowered and I could no longer overhear their conversation. I got up and settled myself on an empty bar stool next to the old man and ordered a scotch.
The man’s wiry companion replied. “That’s why they outlawed the unions on Mars. It gave them absolute power over us, and now we don’t matter. We’re expendable.”
The old man leaned while seated unsteadily on the barstool and hovered his greying beard above my arm. He propped himself up with an elbow on the bar. “The key to life is learning how to not give a shit. Secretly you can give one, but you should never let life know that you do.”
“That’s some mighty-fine advice.” I grinned back at him lopsidedly, feigning drunkenness .
“Let me tell ya somethin’ else, son. You might be tempted to care, but the moment you do, you open yourself up to a can of whoopass the likes of which you should never know. Don’t fall for it. Don’t do it. If you just keep cooling your heels and keeping chill, pretending with all your might that whatever happens can’t touch you, calamity will just pass you by, and your oblivious heart will just pay a never-you-mind without even sayin’ a howd-ya-do.”
“Sounds like you’ve seen some hard times.” I said.
“You don’t know the half of it.” He coughed loudly into his elbow and then began again. “When I first got here on Mars, I lost everything to a dust storm. I scrimped and saved for ten years to pay for my gear. Gone. Wiped out in the space of an hour.”
“That’s some bad luck.” I said.
“Bad luck? Ain’t such a thing here on Mars. No sir, it’s the way of it. That’s how it goes here. You get knocked down and you stay there. You learn your place and you go to your corner and do as you’re told. If you doesn’t then you maybe have an accident, and then you just don’t get in the way no more. That is how it is.”
“And you’ve known some people that got in the way.” I prompted.
The man lowered his voice another notch. “Aye, that I have, son. That I have.”
There was a loud commotion in the back by the dart board game and two big men about my own size were throwing fists at each other and a circle of other people surrounded them. They got about four exchanges in before a slew of six bouncers streamed into the room and dragged them out the door. I noted how efficient they were and how the entire bar settled right back down as if nothing had happened. This smacked as being a common occurrence. Everything returned to normal, except that the old man and his debater had ducked out during the commotion and was nowhere to be seen. But I had some interesting clues to follow up on now. I thought that it was all over with, but then one of the security guys walked up behind me.
“Couldn’t help but notice you talking with old Laurence there. You’d be better off not listening to that crazy old bastard. It’ll bring you nothing but trouble.” The man had dark hair and wore a serious look that bordered on hostile.
“Whah you mean?” I continued my drunken feint. “Why you not like him?” I drawled and turned around slowly. But by the time I stood up to size the man up he’d walked away into the crowd and disappeared behind a door that read, Employees Only.
I decided that I’d had enough. There’s more dirt and noise, and back beating to be done tomorrow and I went back to my little dirty room to get some sleep. But before I nodded off, I triple checked the canary.