Part of 2100 CE.
As a child he had spent Sundays with his great-grandfather, listening to stories from Grandpa Seth’s childhood on Earth. He loved those stories. They were from a time before the settlement of space. Grandpa Seth would talk about the first colonies, the first cities on Luna and Mars, the terraforming of Ganymede. His Uncle Omar was the most fascinated of the family, taking copious notes which he utilized in his graduate school thesis. Uncle Omar called it “an oral history of a bygone era,” but to Landon, they were just really cool stories.
Then there were the sad stories, the ones about the civil war and the world war that followed. Those inevitably revolved around Grandpa Seth’s younger brother, the boy soldier Adrian. Those were the times that ended badly, with his great-grandfather becoming agitated, sometimes shouting, sometimes storming out of the room midsentence. When his mind went in his final years of life, he repeatedly mistook Landon for his long-lost brother. Those were the hardest and most uncomfortable visits to stomach, because they usually ended with Grandpa Seth crying.
He stopped visiting after it happened too many times, and then Grandpa Seth died one day and it stopped mattering.
That was when he lived on Fahiri in Martian high orbit. When his family moved there, Fahiri and neighboring Tsavo had only just celebrated their second anniversary. In his child-mind’s eye, it was a paradise complete with a climate perfected in its imitation of the savannah plains of the Serengeti. Gazelle, wildebeest, zebra, and even Masai Giraffe—clones, of course, so few remaining on Earth—freely roamed the open countryside of Fahiri. In his own front yard there stood an umbrella acacia tree which played host to a family of hornbills and attracted the hungry blue tongues of local giraffes. But his favorites were the massive Kori Bustards, whose ungainly forms he would see stalking eerily across the golden plains of grass behind his house. It was back there that he spent his afternoons, absorbed in African guidebooks from the early 20th Century or stories of the Unification Wars.
Back then he could walk to visit his cousins and regularly celebrated holidays by going from house to house. Uncles Omar and Dennis were his favorite to visit. They always concocted some adventure that usually made his father unhappy. Sometimes it involved visiting Fahiri’s sister colony, Tsavo, to see the mane-less lions living on their island. Another time it involved zero-gravity wind-gliding, during which they nearly collided with a passing bustard and ended up crash-landing among a herd of impala. Nobody was hurt, but after that his mother ended unsupervised visits with his uncles. Of his uncles, she said, “They’re worse than teenagers!”
Nights were spent gazing out at the glass sky panels and space beyond. During certain parts of the year, Mars would make an appearance, filling the panels with its colossal red form topped by a polar ice cap that looked like a bad toupee. In the time he had lived on Fahiri, he had watched as the red dust storms gave way to white, puffy clouds indicative of a developing atmosphere. The clouds were usually concentrated over the cities, most of which were constructed into the bottoms of craters and gorges on the Martian surface. It allowed them to take advantage of the planet’s natural gravity to contain the atmospheric gases being pumped from the crater or canyon rims down onto the inhabitants below. The excess gases then would, with time, change the rest of the Martian atmosphere, so that one day it might be possible to wander the surface freely, like in any colony or on Earth.
The rest of the year he would look out at the pinpricks of stars far beyond the Areosphere, a universe of endless possibilities spreading out before him. Living in a space colony, you intuitively understood what it meant to be part of something greater than yourself. You weren’t like the people from Earth, who thought only in terms of replicating their homes and expanding the possibilities of Earth. Space colonists thought of the larger scope of humankind and its greater survival beyond its ancestral home.
But here, so far from beautiful Fahiri, the world was small and cramped, backward and ignorant…
Rural bumpkins dominated everything here, people content to just be, to never expand or move up. They didn’t care about the universe beyond, the happenings on Mars or on Earth, or in the Zeosphere. They didn’t care if humanity expanded to the outer-most planets or if they returned to Earth and decayed into the sands of time. They liked their boring lives in a no-name backwater and would happily live it out and die under its artificial sunlight. And that would fine, Landon supposed, if it just ended there. But no, their children would repeat that same comfortable cycle of complacent, blissful ignorance, and so would their children and their children’s children in an endless loop of mere existence.
And what frightened him more than anything else, what frightened him down to his very core, was that he might be caught and ensnared by it—and that he might drown in it.
His parents were already a lost cause, content to work and live in this place, so far from anything meaningful. His father had taken a position as a communications technician because it supposedly paid better than his job on Fahiri, but Landon also knew how desperately Luas Ray wanted to get away from his family. His mother was likewise happy to get away from what she called the “suffocating hustle of Mars,” to go somewhere quiet and simple. So Mikelia Ray took a job as a Customs officer at the colony’s spacedock. It made them among the better off members of society on this mining colony, but what they were going to do with their earnings was a complete mystery to their son—there was nothing out here. His father had once mentioned the idea of “homesteading” an asteroid of their own, to which Landon had threatened to join the Peacekeeping Forces or the Merchant Flotilla if they did. His father had laughed it off, promising to wait until Landon was emancipated, but his mother had been terrified by the prospect of seeing her son leave and he regretted saying it.
But life was supposed be more than just this mediocrity, than isolation from reality. The way Landon saw it, it was everyone’s responsibility in life to do everything they possibly could to break free from the chains of conservatism. Traditions only served to hold you back, while innovation worked to advance humanity. Only once you broke free from the restraints of the past could you find your true self, instead of having it dictated to you on the patterns of the past. It was impossible to be pleased with a life spent closed off to wonder, curiosity, and discovery—
An immense hairy hand slamed down on the tablet in front of him, shattering the reverie of Landon’s thoughts. He looked up with a start—and in to the unhappy, pinched face of Coach Monfries, his teacher of Advanced Applied Engineering.
“We say that colonization is easy, don’t we, Landon?”
He darted his gaze around the classroom for some sort of inspiration. What were they talking about? “Yes,” he replied reflexively, trying to look past his teacher to the e-board at the front of the class.
“And is it?”
Landon frowned in anger. He was being baited. “Is what?”
Coach Monfries pursed his lips in disapproval. “Is it easy?”
“It depends,” Landon shot back. Somewhere in the back of the room he heard somebody moan. “It depends on your intended purpose. What is it you’re trying to do?”
He didn’t think Coach Monfries could pinch his lips further, but he somehow managed. “You’re over-thinking it, Landon.”
“No,” Landon shot back, “I’m not. This isn’t a simple question. Building a space colony is different than building a city on Mars or Luna, to say nothing of terraforming—”
“Did you read the lesson?”
“Of course I did.”
“And what does the textbook say?”
Landon sat back, startled. “What does the textbook say?” he repeated.
“Chelsea,” Coach Monfries said, turning to another student. “You read the lesson?”
“What does the textbook say?”
It didn’t matter what the textbook said—it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. That was the problem with these people, these backward know-it-alls. They thought that just because some book said something, it made it true. Textbooks were, he knew, largely published by undereducated, over-politicized private businesses—people who were more interested in accumulating mass numbers of purchasers and their revenues than in true education. Textbooks had their place, but their place was not in a University Prep class! Simply distilling facts and figures to appeal to the lowest common denominator did nothing to advance the pursuit of real knowledge.
“Did you get that, Landon?”
Piss off, you stupid jock. You’re just here because you coach football and lacrosse. You know fuck all about engineering, he thought.
But instead Landon replied, “Yes, sir.”
Coach Monfries sighed. “Your parents want you to do well, Landon. Please pay attention,” he said and walked back to the front of the classroom.
The mention of his parents bothered Landon. The colony was too small for everybody to know exactly everybody else. Coach Monfries and his father went to the range, played golf, and drank beer together. It was like having a more annoying version of his father teaching the class.
Landon rolled his eyes at Coach Monfries’ back and looked back down at his desk—and grimaced. What had not noticed was that the hairy hand had left something behind: a yellow slip. Another yellow slip. The last one yellow slip had stated that Landon was “annoying” after he had bypassed a redundant part of a lab exercise—a redundant portion that the textbook admitted was redundant and could be skipped under normal conditions. But Coach Monfries wanted everybody to do every single stupid step—and when Landon had told his teacher that he thought it was unnecessary and because he had skipped it, he had finished the assignment early. Not only had he been forced to repeat it, but he had been given a slip to take home and an afternoon of detention.
With Coach Monfries eyeing him as he spoke, Landon put the yellow slip into the outside pocket of his tablet and smiled at his teacher.
And that, he supposed, was what it meant to have a good education. Ever since his parents had stopped paying for a tutor—they said he didn’t need it, they said the school system was good here—he had devoted his spare time to keeping his mind active from fear he might fall into the claustrophobic trap of life on an asteroid mining colony. The Earth-funded public school was a pale reflection of the schools on Fahiri—even the library was tiny, owning less than half of the licenses he had been able to access from Fahiri. He regularly explained that particular point to anyone who would listen, but more and more people stopped listening. They didn’t care—they just wanted to get through their day, blind to the outside world. And the older they got, the less they cared, their idealism and yearning for something better likewise dying a little more with each passing day.
It was why he sometimes got in trouble in class. He would explain to teachers, the counselor, the vice principal, and his parents that he wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, but the stuff they were teaching was simply subpar. It was pitiful, he told them, that he was being forced to cover material in Advanced Engineering that he had already covered in Pre-Engineering in junior high! And the textbook he had used in Engineering II last year was the exact same one from Pre-Engineering on Fahiri three years prior!
Why didn’t people understand? That was why he spent his allowance downloading as many books as he could afford on as many topics as he could find. Plato’s Republic, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Machiavelli’s Prince, texts on evolutionary theory, mechanical engineering, theoretical physics, biographies, histories, political commentaries—anything. He easily averaged three books per month, not counting his readings for school—though he rarely bothered doing those since they were all too often boring and probably useless. For Landon Ray, it was more important to keep his mind active and sharp than to bother with the everyday nonsense that occupied his peer’s time—he had to stay ready for the day he could finally leave this rock.
The yellow slip was, in many ways, a sign that he was accomplishing his task of honing his thinking. Good, he thought. To his alarm, he had recently caught himself staying silent in class, not bothering to argue important points or to debate with his teachers or classmates. He told himself it was because he couldn’t be bothered to engage in conversations with these Earth-educated teachers who still believed in arguments of “universal principles” rather than a localized, contextualized reality. They were uninterested in recent developments in the fields of logic and philosophy, particularly transhumanism. His attempts at educating them often cost him time in after-school detention and notes home—notes that rarely went without an accompanying email, as if he were too much of a coward to face this particular stupidity. Was he avoiding those consequences and therefore going silent? He worried that his silence might in fact be a sign of growing complacency, clear evidence of the toxic environment of 8-Gitano.
With a flick from his stylus, Coach Monfries cleared the e-board. There were a few panicked groans as students rushing to write down every word protested. “You don’t need everything,” the teacher responded, though a moment later he recalled the screen. “You have to take more condensed notes. Shorter notes. Not everything I write.”
Then why did you put it back up? Landon thought. He frowned down at his tablet notepad and scribbling a few lines of his own. If he missed the notes, it really wasn’t a big deal—he could just pull the “right answers” out of the textbook, or ask Chelsea or Geoffrey for one of their notes.
“No, wait—please wait!” someone called.
Monfries sighed. “You don’t need everything.”
Landon rubbed a hand across his face, irritated at this stupid game. It was like this every single class. If he wanted to teach them anything, he should just move along. He was just rewarding stupidity.
“Okay, I’m changing it…”
“Wait, just one second!”
“I’m changing it now…”
There followed another long pause in which Landon looked over at Chelsea.
Chelsea looked bored, though not irritated like Landon. She was doodling something in the margins of her notepad as they waited. Landon had always found Chelsea pretty, with her large emerald eyes, tawny skin, and short light-brown hair—she had been something of a dream girl of his before they had kissed surreptitiously in the hallway between classes.
Were they dating? Maybe. They both thought traditional relationships—I’m with him, I’m with her—were too passé. Why should people define themselves based on their ties with someone else? They were still individuals, even if they decided to “be” with someone else, so why bother with the titles and stuff. And it wasn’t like they were a couple—not that they dated other people either, but they definitely weren’t boyfriend-girlfriend…right?
But she was too passive about this place. Her family had come from another mining colony, larger than this one, but still a mining colony. Her life had always been structured this way, closed and condensed. It worried him deeply how she—and others—could simply go through life without challenging claims of omniscient authority, or just go on repeating statements they did not fully understand. As obvious or insignificant as one falsehood might seem, it was a signal of society’s failing.
For an uncaring society is a failed society, one which is too tied to the past to evolve. Those were the words of Junius Zanscar, Landon realized, as he scribbled them down.
Because his peers were not taught to care, they expended their energies on wasteful nonsense: social media, relationship statuses, fashion trends, the latest phone. Here students got into fights over being tagged in an unflattering photo or because they suspected somebody was spreading rumors about them. Immature name-calling ensued and then they would fight, as if a name could do anything more than wound an ego!
On Fahiri, it was different. Kids got into fights, but those were real—those were based on substantiated grounds, not rumors. People fought because their brother had been jumped or someone disrespected their sister. Something real. On Fahiri, people had true dignity, so they ignored base emotions. They realized, as Landon did, that engaging in that sort of behavior just harmed your own dignity. It was better to let an idiot blab and blab than to give him the attention he desired.
The class let out before Coach Monfries could start on the next part of the lesson. “Okay, okay—listen up! Before you go, make sure you give me your homework on your way out the door. We’ll cover the second part of the unit tomorrow.” The classroom was already filled with the sound of chairs scrapping on the floor and students chattering. “And plan for a quiz tomorrow!”
To a general groan, Landon squeezed past Coach Monfries—by the expression on the other’s face, he clearly wanted to say something—and out into the hallway where he disappeared amid the crush. He looked back to see those pinched features poke out the door, looking right and left for him. Landon shook his head. Idiot.
He usually spent his lunch period in the school’s small courtyard, the single redeeming factor of John Bower High School. Unlike most schools he had been to, JBHS let students have an entire hour for lunch so that students who wanted to go home to eat or to a nearby diner had the time to do so. Landon rarely joined them, and he rarely bothered going home—if he did, he suspected he might not bother coming back to class. So instead he spent his time at the picnic tables, reading and writing.
Plopping down next to him with a tray stacked high with odd-looking food, his friend Iain blinked down at him in the artificial sunlight. “Nice going with Coach Monfries.”
Landon looked up from his tablet. “Whatever, man.”
Chelsea and Geoffrey also joined them. Although they might be his friends, Landon couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed at their presence. It meant he wouldn’t be able to do any reading.
“You know, Landon,” Chelsea said, opening her lunch container. “You could try getting along with him.”
He gave her a skeptical look. “Really?”
She shrugged. “I just think you sometimes like to get on his nerves.”
“That’s for sure,” Iain said around a mouthful of—of whatever it was he was eating. He swallowed. “Remember that time you got called to the principal’s?”
Landon rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Geoffrey tittered. “You said that lab was stupid.”
“Funny, I was just thinking about that during class…”
“Or what about when you told Colonel Santiago to—what was it you told him?”
Landon sighed. Colonel Santiago was the Earth History teacher at JBHS, but as his title implied, he was not originally a teacher. He was a retired colonel from the Dragoon Corps whose primary job on 8-Gitano was as the colony’s security chief, but who—like a lot of people at the school—wore many hats, one of which was as a teacher, making Earth History more like Military 101 to Landon’s ears. “I swear,” Landon said, “it’s like every other thing out of that guy’s mouth is America or World War Three.”
“Well, he does say that if it was wasn’t for that civil war, there never would have been a Third World War, and then the Confederation wouldn’t exist,” Geoffrey put in. “We might never have colonized space.”
“Please,” Landon sneered. “Humanity was always going to colonize space. Just because it was a bunch of Americans who decided to leave Earth first doesn’t mean that humanity wouldn’t have colonized space. Just go back and read some of the reports published by NASA during the Space Race—they talk all the time about setting up bases on Luna, traveling to Mars.”
“Yeah, but then nothing happened,” Chelsea pointed out. “I don’t think Colonel Santiago should spend so much time on America either, but it doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”
Landon grimaced. “Okay, fine. Sure. But that’s not really what I was getting at…”
Iain pointed his fork across the table at Landon’s tablet. “What’s that?”
Landon swiped his hand over the tablet, shutting it off. “I’ve been reading The Collected Works of Junius Zanscar.”
“Zanscar?” Iain repeated in surprise. He chewed some of his food. “Why are you reading that? We’re at war with the Zanscars.”
Landon sighed angrily, making a sound close to a growl. “No. In fact we are not fighting a war. The Confederation is fighting a war, and it’s against a government that has abused and perverted the teachings of Junius Zanscar.”
Iain considered that for a moment. “Oh, yeah? Sure could have fooled me,” he said, chewing all the while. “Don’t they call themselves the Zanscar Union—”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“They dropped a meteor on Earth!”
“It was an asteroid,” Landon corrected, “and that is beside the point. Just because they call themselves the Zanscar Union doesn’t mean they have anything to do with Junius Zanscar or his teachings.”
Iain rolled his eyes. “Okay.”
“What about that rebellion Zanscar led?” Geoffrey prodded.
“So what? They were fighting for their independence from Earth,” Landon shot back angrily. “They tried petitioning the international community, but they had no choice when Earth wouldn’t listen.”
“I don’t know, man,” Iain said. “It seems pretty weird that you’re reading about the bad guys…”
“They’re not the bad guys!”
He only realized he was shouting when the last word echoed back at him against the courtyard walls, immediately drawing unwanted attention from other students and the knot of teachers pretending to supervise.
“Landon, calm down,” Chelsea said admonishingly.
Frustrated, he balled his hands into fists and cracked his knuckles against one another.
She watched him a moment before adding, “It’s hard to deny that they’ve done some bad things.”
“I’m not denying that! I’m not denying that,” he said, animatedly waving his hands. “The problem is that we can’t judge them based on one act that was, arguably, an act of war. I know it’s bad, but maybe independence has a high price.”
“Now you sound like Colonel Santiago,” Iain said.
“And besides,” Landon went on, ignoring his friend’s comment, “that’s not what I was talking about! What I was saying was that Junius Zanscar and the Zanscar Union are two totally different things,” he said, jabbing a finger at Iain. “You can’t just superimpose the actions of one onto another.”
“So you think they’re not the bad guys?” Iain said. “So why are we at war with them?”
“Iain,” Geoffrey started to say, “I don’t think he—”
“Geoffrey, have you read Junius Zanscar?” Landon bit out.
“Then why are you trying to defend him?”
“Jeez, Landon, I was just trying to help. What’s your problem?”
“My problem is,” he said, turning bodily towards Iain, his other friend instantly forgotten, “the nations of Earth have more say on the Defense Council than any of the space states. That means they have more control. The United Kingdom, China, Russia, France, the United States of America, Germany, and Japan,” he said, ticking them off on his fingers, “are all permanent members of the Council, leaving seven other seats to be divided among the other nations of Earth, the space colonies, the Martian cities, and the Galilean League. That means that at any given moment, Earth is disproportionally represented in the Confederation government, to the obvious detriment of the space states.”
Despite Chelsea’s attempt at stopping him, Geoffrey interjected again, “Isn’t the Martial Union supposed to receive a permanent seat?”
“Yes, but that’s just to keep Mars from rebelling again,” Landon said over his shoulder. “And let’s not forget that the resolution to add Mars to the Security Council also includes adding two more Earth nations: India and Brazil.”
Iain looked unimpressed.
“It won’t matter what changes they make. They’re still going to keep power in the same hands.”
Landon reeled as if his friend had struck him. He blinked a few times. “What?”
“So what?” Iain leaned across the table. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“Wha—what? How can you say that?” he screeched in response, his voice breaking. “Of course it’s broken! What do you think motivated all the American wars, the African Unification Wars, the Third World War last century? What about Zanscar’s rebellion? They are all symptoms of a broken system—an outdated, broken system!”
“But everyone gets a vote,” Geoffrey said. “That’s why there’s an Assembly.”
“Okay,” Landon said, turning to Geoffrey. “They can pass resolutions up to the Council, but if it gets rejected, what then? The Assembly can’t do anything if the Council decides against it. Do you know what it takes to overturn a veto from just one permanent member? Seventy-five percent! That percentage goes up—up if more than one permanent member casts a veto.” Landon looked desperately from person to person at the table, but from Iain and Geoffrey he got looks of skepticism, while Chelsea just looked weary. “How can you not see this?”
Before anyone could respond—well before he realized what time it was—the bell rang, their five-minute warning before the start of the next class session. All around them students started shuffling back inside, while teachers stood by waiting to make sure nobody decided to skip class.
Across the table, Iain gathered his things. When had he finished his food? “Seriously Landon, you need to take it easy, man. It’s not like any of that stuff affects us anyway.”
Geoffrey nodded in agreement. At just five feet tall, the gesture was almost comical next to Iain’s gangly five-nine. “Yeah, Landon, Earth, the Zanscars, the war—why do you care so much about that stuff? We can’t get drafted as long as we stay here.”
“I don’t want to stay here,” Landon growled, gathering his own things. He ignored the rumbling of his stomach—he sometimes forgot to eat lunch. “I want to get off this stupid rock and go back to a real settlement, like Fahiri or Tharsis.”
Iain rolled his eyes. They had heard it all before, time and time again, about how much better Mars was, how much better Fahiri was, how much life on 8-Gitano sucked. Iain and Geoffrey both walked away in one direction, while Landon and Chelsea went in another, down the hall where they shared their first kiss and to their lockers. They had the next class together.
After an awkward silence—the silence between them; the noise in the hallway could be ear-splitting—Chelsea said, “Why do you get so worked up, Landon?” They wove their way through the organized chaos of a high school between classes. Students called out to each other and laughed, while lockers slammed, and students shuffled to class.
“They’re idiots,” Landon said, opening his locker. “They don’t see that this place is full of a bunch of inbred bumpkins with nothing better going for them than farming or mining.”
“My mom and dad are miners…”
“Maybe that’s good enough for some people,” Landon went on, not really listening, “but I want to actually make something of myself, do something great with my life. This place doesn’t have anything like that.”
Chelsea slammed her locker shut. “So, you want to go to the war?” she said, her voice suddenly accusing.
“Well, no,” Landon said, taken aback by her tone. “Not exactly.”
“Well, that’s exactly what’s going to happen if you leave, Landon!” Her face was flushed.
He frowned. “Chels, I—”
“Shut up, Landon,” she said. “Why can’t you just be happy with what you have now? There’s nothing wrong with 8-Gitano.”
He rolled his eyes. “Come on, Chels—”
“Shut up, Landon,” she said. “Just— If you want to be so cavalier with your life, fine. Do whatever the hell you want!” and she stormed off.
He stood motionless next to their lockers, studying her as she disappeared in the tangle of students.
What’s her problem? he thought, closing his locker. And then, as though in response, She just doesn’t get it.