Walkabout

“Do you mind explaining how a thousand inflated condoms made you bullet-proof? And- goddamnit, how the fuck did he get another cigarette?”

Vick reached out and yanked the cigarette out of the captive’s mouth, awkwardly butting it on the floor before throwing it in his pocket in exasperation. Zero gravity didn’t allow for a lot of dramatic flair when it came to just throwing things away.

The young man floated in the chair to which he had been zip-tied -a fact which was causing increasingly loud grumbles from the ship’s IT contingent, given that zip ties were limited- as proud as a strutting jay bird and carefree as a child. Even without his cigarette, he came across aloof and bemused. Like he was in a movie about his life, reenacting something that had already happened, instead of living through it with no idea of what would happen next.

“Perpendicular forces with the condoms,” said the young man, turning ever so slightly sideways with a wide grin on his face. In the three months he had been held captive, after stowing away on board the ship, Ali Cohen was infuriatingly not yet bored with zero gravity. “The cigarette was slight of hand, although nicotine addiction was the ultimate cause.”

Vick made a gesture over his data pad and the picture on the large screen in the center of the room froze. It was a picture of the same young man in Mecca -rare due to the fact it had not been censored for blasphemy- surrounded in holographic smoke and if you looked closely… also covered in about a thousand inflated condoms. He looked like a balloon animal dreamed up by HP Lovecraft.

“Uh-huh,” said Vick, “care to elaborate on that?”

“Well, let’s see. An object at rest will remain at rest, an object in motion-”

“Assume you’re talking to people who have studied engineering for a long time. Who are very annoyed. And that you’ve already wasted their time for the last three months and are wearing out any good will you started with, which was almost none,” sighed Vick.

“Isn’t this boring to you yet? I know none of you really have your hearts in this. Why play the game when it’s not of your choosing? Instead we have to put on this theater. I, the lone genius facing down a tribunal with my life in the balance. You, the backwards, bigoted judges who need to be swayed by my silver tongue. Except that describes absolutely none of you. Is this what you wish to bring to Mars? The same old same old? It’s bad enough that it’s wrong. It’s also tired and cliche.”

With another gesture, Vick shut down the screen and all that was visible through the windows was the dark of space. Yindi felt pity for him. He seemed worn. They all did. They hadn’t wanted this. Not one of them.

“Will you please explain?” asked Vick in a quiet voice.

Ali Cohen straightened himself the slightest bit and nodded, evidently bored enough to give them another little insight. It was the only emotion they had ever been able to induce in him that could cause him to speak.

“I wasn’t bullet-proof. A bullet has too much kinetic energy to stop without heavy barriers. I simply made sure the bullets were not where I was. Also, I more or less just threw the cigarette up from my sleeve and caught it in my mouth when it floated behind my head. Zero gravity has its advantages.”

Ali Cohen floated again, or as much as his restraints allowed anyway.

“Forget the cigarette. Explain this technology of yours,” groaned Vick, “even exile is conditional on you explaining how it works.”

Poor Vick was rubbing the bridge of his nose, fighting exhaustion. Yindi had seen him up the previous night, reading through the transcripts of the other interrogations. Cramming like a grad student. The hours long talks with their captive were like playing a game of chess, where the rules and pieces changed at the whims of their supposed prisoner. It had taken them almost a month just to get through what was surely a fictional account of the young man’s life.

The situation was ludicrous in the extreme. It was also perhaps the first true political crisis of the Colonization.

Would Mars enforce the laws of Earth?

Or would Mars make its own laws?

“Bullets are faster than sound, but not faster than light and they follow the laws of motion. Hold on -I’m not finished. You beat me this time. I’m bored. I’ll explain it.

“The cameras on my body saw the bullets, the computers calculated their trajectories. From within a few microseconds of any bullet being fired, the computers knew exactly where they would be at a given moment. They used this information to detonate a Flat Fold -or condom if you prefer- at the precise time necessary to hit the side of the bullet perpendicular to its motion and move it to the other side of my body. It’s a very rapid, indeed explosive inflation. Think of it as a balloon bullet. The spiral of the metal bullet caused the Flat Fold to wrap around it like a scroll. The energy from this spiraling causes some quite interesting deformations in the material of the Flat Fold which use the bullet’s own energy to create a parachute, and drag. This sends the bullet both to the side of me and up.

“So, you see, perpendicular forces explain everything. It doesn’t matter how fast something is coming at me from one direction if I can simply push it aside from a different direction. I shot a metal bullet with a balloon bullet. I try to look at the world with this principle of perpendicularity in mind. I grant you, the application is sometimes a bit ridiculous in practice.”

The young man smiled his wide idiot’s grin again.

“Let me cut to the chase. Who do you work for? The Russians? The Chinese? Who gave you that technology?”

Everyone on the ship had seen the video, not to mention every human being in the solar system. The sight was astonishing. Ali Cohen striding in the middle of Mecca, clothed in holographic light and bulletproof. No less than three of the would-be terrorists had been firing at a distance of less than three hundred feet. Yindi calculated that unless a bullet was fired at several times the muzzle velocities presently attainable or at near point-blank range, that the “Bubble Vest” in the video would render any standard projectile almost completely harmless.

Balloon bullets. It was world-changing.

“I am in service only to my Art,” he said.

Yindi looked down at her own data pad. Other than the unbelievable autobiography, the charges of endangering the public, and the heroic blasphemy that had brought a sort of confused anger to half the world, this was the other troubling matter they’d have to confront. The sheer volume of odd crimes that had been laid at the feet of this boy boggled the mind. Based on a number of cop movies she’d seen as a child, she’d like to have said the rap sheet was as long as her arm, but her arm could never hope to be that long.

Most recently, he’d spent three months impersonating a substitute high school physics teacher, taken the local robotics team to a worldwide competition and won, all apparently to motivate a single group of juvenile delinquent students to try harder. All done as an homage to a film he’d seen as teenager with a similar plot. Yet it was neither the strangest nor most involved “crime.”

There was a conspiracy theory on various internet message boards that he’d once stolen the Mona Lisa, and as much as Yindi would have liked to believe these were far-fetched and absurd, the evidence in favor was unfortunately compelling.

As was the evidence that he had broken back into the Louvre to return it after showing it to a dying street painter.

He claimed to regret only one of his escapades, early in his career, when he’d broken into the home of a pathological hoarder and cleaned it top to bottom while they were away on a business trip. It had sent the poor man into therapy for half a year when he returned home. Ali Cohen claimed to have since learned to take the full psychology of his “victims” into account.

“This is ridiculous,” said Vick.

“Seconded,” said Omar.

Vick yawned so wide his jaws clicked and he muttered something unintelligible as he filled out a few forms on the data pad. Omar Weber did something similar, and knowing him probably cursed his declared religion for getting him assigned to this panel for cultural sensitivity reasons. Before the Mars Colony had become a reality, and lit a fire under his ass, Omar had spent most of his adult life working as a bank auditor, tracking down problems so obscure they hadn’t yet been automated by machine learning. All with the primary purpose of avoiding social interaction. After four hours of interrogation a day for the last three months, both men were exhausted and eager to be about their other duties on the ship.

For her own part, Yindi watched all of this, riveted.

“What would you have us do? Your little… performance has put this entire mission in jeopardy! You put thousands of lives at risk by not going to the appropriate authorities! You couldn’t have known you would be able to save all those people! The United Nations has already promised to hand you over to the Kingdom if you ever return to Earth. Do you want a death sentence that much? Don’t you realize your life is in serious danger?” Omar thundered, though without much passion by the end.

Ali Cohen straightened his back, affronted.

“I did nothing wrong,” Ali said.

The reason for the strangeness suddenly became clear to Yindi. Not only did the boy act like he was in a movie, it was like Ali Cohen was playing to an audience only he could see. Everyone else was stumbling along, like actors who hadn’t spent enough time learning their lines, babbling and slipping up, and Ali Cohen was looking through them to the audience, speaking with precision.

“He has a point. What if one of your machines had failed?” Vick asked.

“We were well within margins,” said Ali.

Simple and direct. Again, like in a movie. Not even believing that something might go wrong. Like it was already written. Yindi chuckled, drawing odd looks from her two compatriots.

“What would an apology hurt?” Omar sighed, exhausted.

“I have lived as a slave, afraid to act, afraid to speak, afraid even to think anything other than what was permitted. Never. Again,” said Ali Cohen.

Yindi weighed the options. Imprison an unrepentant lunatic on Mars, where resources were scarce, in some sort of hellish exile that went against everything Mars had come to represent? Or send him back to Earth, where he would be executed for blasphemy? A punishment that the western world had been successfully and politely pretending wasn’t still practiced for the last few decades.

“How old are you?” asked Yindi, after a moment had passed.

“Twenty-six probably,” said Ali Cohen.

“So young, to have lived such a life. A slave you say? What else are you? A scientist, from the design of your machines. One of our other colonists had a lot to say about that. And an artist too, from what I have heard. Yet I have heard other stories about you. I heard you’re an industrial saboteur. That you think of yourself as some sort of techno Robin Hood. You stole agro-gene technology and used it to end a famine. You stole desalination technology and ended a drought. Germ technology and ended a plague. Is that true?”

“Twenty-six wasn’t always considered so young. It’s still not, depending where in the Solar system you happen to be.” Ali gave a slight smile to the window at that, although all there was out there was the black. “In fact, I’d say it’s rather recent dilemma that a full grown adult can be considered to still be in their childhood. That’s Earth thinking. It will have to be left behind. We don’t live long enough to remain children for decades beyond maturity.”

“I watched the tape of your… performance? Act of salvation? No one died, but I think you were luckier than you realize. After all, your failure in the end is what brought you here. Your illusion faded and you fell. You should have called the police. I also read the translations of what you and your friend were saying. Do you really think you’re God?” asked Yindi.

“Do you believe that the Neural Lace will be successful and will augment human intelligence?” asked Ali Cohen.

“It seems likely. It already is, in many ways,” said Yindi.

“Do you believe technology improves over time?”

“Given certain conditions are met, yes.”

“Do you believe somewhere out in the universe, there is an intelligent species far older than us?”

“So sharp it’s a wonder you don’t cut yourself,” Yindi laughed.

That got a rare laugh from Vick and Omar.

Ali Cohen went stonily silent and licked his lips before continuing.

“If those three conditions are met, I’d argue that you believe in God too. If by God you mean a higher intelligence with near omnipotent power. Except… where is He? Have you ever wondered? Holy Book or Science Book… where is He?”

Yindi massaged her temples.

“What do you want?” she asked. “Where does all of this go? Your friend is refusing to apologize as well. It takes a while to understand him, because he stutters so much no one can understand, but he still follows your lead. You risk his life as well as your own. Why are you doing all of this?”

Ali Cohen shrugged, or as much as he could, zip-tied as he was.

“Why does anyone do anything? Boredom? My own amusement? To find out what it all means? To prevent the destruction of the human race? All of those things?”

“I am sorry. I am almost seventy years old. I am having a senior moment. Can you explain what you mean by that?”

“Do you ever wonder why it is we attach meaning to the thing we attach it to? I’m not deflecting, I promise.” Ali gave a placating smile to an ever more surly Vick. “Our latest models of the universe predict at least eleven spacial dimensions. There are over a hundred billion stars in this galaxy alone. Who knows how long it will be before true Artificial General Intelligence is constructed? An event that will place the survival of humanity at risk. We have no solution to the Fermi Paradox. All of it feels like an abstraction, no emotional resonance at all. Yet here we are, arguing if a certain image I programmed could reasonably be construed to be a man who has no recorded image.

“Why is that what’s important? Why is that more important than those people being alive? Perhaps I could have gone to a corrupt police force and found someone who would have acted. I probably would have failed, but I could have failed in a way you approve of. But I did a wrong thing and no one died despite that. I did a wrong thing and people lived. Is doing what is approved and stupid more important than doing what is wrong and moral to save humanity?”

Yindi massaged her temples harder.

“Again, if you just say it’s not an image of Mohammed and apologize, you will be allowed to live free on Mars,” Omar muttered.

“Billions of years ago stars died so that we could be born. A sacrifice greater than that of any god. A real scientifically-validated sacrifice. Lights went out in heaven so that we here, all of us in this room, could exist. I have done the math myself. It is true. If children have the duty to be worth the sacrifices made for their birth, we have a duty to bring light to the universe greater than the stars. That’s truer than anything someone wrote down in a book two thousand years ago. So no, I won’t apologize!”

Despite herself, Yindi felt her heart flutter at that.

“This isn’t being recorded, there’s no need to perform,” said Vick.

“What does it mean to perform?” snapped Ali Cohen.

Ali groaned, then yelled, a sound wild and primal that would be heard throughout the entire ship.

“Is suffering the only truth? Should I have been content to lay down and die after I was first raped? Is that the dream that brought you to this ship? That sent you to Mars? The idea that you should just lay down and take what’s dealt to you? Why are you afraid to be as great as you are? As great as you could be? If only you let yourself believe! If you got up and decided it was your choice!”

Yindi realized then who it was that Ali Cohen was talking to. Knew who the person was in the audience that Ali Cohen was speaking to. Had been speaking to this entire time.

“Why am I this way? Because we have grown into a people too fat and too afraid to do what is right if it is not approved! Because we want orders instead of freedoms! Because we want permission instead of worth! Because I know what it is to live in hell because those in heaven are afraid to be called judgmental! Because we have lost confidence in ourselves and the Great Filter approaches! And because even if all of your are going to lay down and die, doing what everyone says you’re supposed to, I’m going to keep caring and get mad and I’m going to fuck the Great Filter wide open!”

Ali Cohen was talking to God.

*****

Mari heard the shouting, even in the botanical lab tucked into a remote corner of the ship.

She paused for a moment, staring blankly at some sludge on the other side of a plexiglass tank. The sludge was what she called Eco Snot and it was perhaps the most miraculous booger-like substance to have ever been created. And it couldn’t hold her focus.

Mari shook her head after a moment, determined to get back to work. Yet she couldn’t. The sludge was more important than whatever else was happening, the key to making the Flat Folds function as farms and-

“I love him, Mari,” said Mathilde.

This in itself was not a surprising statement, though the timing left something to be desired. Still, it almost took Mari’s breath away and it was hard to keep a straight face.

“I’m pretty sure he just promised to cheat on you with the first extinction level event that comes along,” said Mari.

She’d been a good friend, hadn’t she? When she’d separated them? By always finding a reason to bring Mathilde far away to this part of the ship from where Ali Cohen was being held? That had been for the best, hadn’t it?

“He is the only honest man I have ever met. Passion burns in him like the sun! Did you hear what he said to me? The beautiful words? When I pulled off his helmet, so full of rage, not knowing I was furious at the beatings of my own heart? Did you hear what he said to me when he must have known his life was at risk?”

Mari rolled her eyes, trying to be light but inside her stomach was in knots.

“He said, ‘I am having a subconscious intuition about the bone-structure of your face.’ Casanova better watch out. The guy is clearly out of his mind. It’s probably for the best if-”

“Mon dieu! Yes! Those words, exactly! Such precision! So honest! Other men would have tried to pretend it was something more profound, something magical. Yet in a sentence he cut me to the quick! And he was so delighted when he found out who I was! He never knew my face yet he’d read all of my papers! Even the ones I’ve never published! My work had intrigued him so much he’d hacked into my personal computer years ago, before we’d ever even met!”

You would have thought she was describing a carriage ride through Central Park with champagne. What worried Mari wasn’t that Mathilde was positioning herself to be heartbroken. What worried Mari was the ever more likely possibility that Ali Cohen and Mathilde were something akin to soulmates. That their insanities sang in harmony, and that their madness marched into the brilliance of the human collective consciousness with the same stride.

“You know I grew up in the oil fields, right? After my parents died?”

Mari shined a line at the Eco Snot, trying to keep a thread of focus on the future. On cleaning the Martian soil. On the crops she’d bring to feed the colony, clean the air, build the ecosystem.

“Oui, I am so sorry again, for your loss. To be so young and so alone… I can imagine it all so well. I meant not imagine it. Except I can. Because I lived such a life. I am sorry, that is an odd thing to say. But I know how sad it is to not be most people. It is very sad.”

Mari bit her lip, trying not to think of her uncle or the man tied up on the observation deck. For some reason, one always reminded her of the other.

“And you know that the men who raised me were roughnecks? That’s… very coarse men who use very vulgar language? Who do hard work with machines? Who speak bluntly?”

“Oui! What is your meaning?” asked Mathilde.

“Girl, you’re dick drunk,” said Mari.

Mathilde paused a moment.

“Does this mean… all-consuming passion? A throwing aside of the small but important things that make life balanced and stable? A state of… ecstasy?”

“Yes,” said Mari.

“Is it not wonderful to be dick drunk?”

Mathilde lowered her head.

“Yeah, I guess maybe it is. Just be careful. And don’t forget you’re the most brilliant geneticist of all time just because of a piece of dick.”

“Oui!” said Mathilde.

And it was only after that that Mari could go back to pretending to be checking on the Eco Snot.

*****

“Well, I’ll be damned,” huffed Al.

The cards on Al’s data pad ripped themselves into pieces, turned into confetti and formed the word “LOSER” which flashed on the screen several times at a rapid rate. It seemed a bit on-the-nose as far as computer poker programs went. But it wasn’t every day you lost to a straight royal flush.

“I am suh-sorry,” said Ford, holding his own data pad, bashfully. It didn’t stop the sound of clinking virtual golden coins or the party poppers. Which also continued a bit too long for Al’s tastes.

“Beginners goddamn luck… and don’t apologize for winning!” said Willie, although it was evident in his voice he was also disgusted with his loss and that the last bit was an afterthought. Ford had won five of the last five hands. One trait all Martians shared in common was that they were hyper-competitive. Perhaps the only thing stopping everyone from breaking into a full-on screaming match about hacking and cheating was that they were quietly competing to be the most gracious.

“Yes, fortune smiles on you, Ford. Yet I don’t know why we’re playing this game. There’s so much work to do. The landing is so soon. I have left my cultures unattended for-” Dhanishta said, but Willie got all worked up and cut her off.

“We all know your space steaks aren’t going to go bad,” said Willie, “besides, if we have to guard a prisoner, might as well do something to pass the time. I mean… I don’t suppose there’s a way we could cut open one of those cultures and…”

Dhanishta shook her head, not understanding the sarcasm.

“Those cultures are the germ lines of all the animal protein Mars will ever produce. We can’t use them for food for another three generations at least. I’ve shown you the math four times now.”

“You sure it will taste like the real thing? I mean, a burger is kind of like magic and…” Willie cleared his throat when Dhanishta gave him a look and turned back to Ford. “Say, how’d you learn to play cards like that anyway?”

“I’m not a beginner. Ali taught me. Well, we taught each other. We funded a casino once a few years ago.”

Everyone took a moment to process the information and groaned.

“Is this one of those times where I’m supposed to say ‘Do you mean robbed?’ and then you’re going to say ‘no, I mean funded’ and then tell some kind of fantastical story about making someone’s life better that’s completely counter-intuitive and ludicrous except it all works out? I’m not judging. I’m just saying it does have a weird anti-story logic to it after a while,” said Al.

What little bit of Al’s late teens and early twenties he hadn’t spent advancing his career in aerospace and flipping houses, he’d spent watching television shows from the 1980’s on various streaming services to put himself to sleep. His favorites had been “Quantum Leap” and “MacGyver” although “The A Team” had given them a run for their money. He had a personal theory that if he went back a way into Ali Cohen’s personal history he would have found a similar television viewing habits. Either that, or the god that was writing Ali Cohen’s life had also once incarnated as the show-runner for 80’s action series.

“Pruh-pretty much, yeah. The luh-lady who ran it, her duh-daughter got sick. Only oh-opened it to puh-pay for her care. She was no guh-good at it, though. So Ali and I fuh-fixed her up and luh-lost big there, and she shut it down be-because she cuh-could pay for the treatment.”

“How in the wild blue fuck do you two get so much money, anyway? I mean… do you steal it? Credit card scams aren’t as easy as they used to be. Ask Omar Weber about that. That’s the one thing I can’t wrap my head around. I heard your buddy up there got a bounty from the US government for taking out some terrorists back when he was just a kid, but that’s got to have run out after all this shit,” Willie shook his head in bewilderment, but pressed a few buttons on his data pad to deal another hand of cards to everyone. “If you don’t mind my asking, of course.”

“He duh-did. That was only his suh-seed money though. He guh-got ten million for that. Now we inv-vuh-vent things. There’s lots of stock in start-ups. And we consult. Muh-most of it was before me. The buh-big stuff. We don’t have tuh-time these days. Too much tuh-to do,” said Ford.

“But how does that work? I mean, he’s insane. Brilliant, but insane,” said Al, frowning at his cards.

“We juh-just show up. St-start working. We are guh-good. It works muh-more than you wuh-would think.”

“What did you invent?” asked Dhanishta, leaning forward, which made this one of the few times Al had ever seen her express curiousity. It was hard not to be curious. Ali Cohen seemed to be one of those rare people like Harriet Tubman or Theodore Roosevelt who was left over from a better, more awesome draft of the universe before God got exhausted with it all and decided to rewrite everything and tone it down. Like when he’d left all the action series in the 80’s intact.

“Lots of pruh-propietary algorithms, mostly. He also invented a lot of the huh-holograhpic technology in use in the Fuh-Fleet. Or he led the teams that did. I huh-help with the mechanical and pruh-programming side. And art, wh-which is my true puh-passion. We are guh-good at team-buh-building. The buh-biggest thing we did was fuh-found AutoDoc. I was uh-only around for the luh-last little bit of that. But we are wuh-worth buh-billions.”

Al was the first to raise his jaw back up, but Willie and Dhanishta weren’t far behind. Say one other thing for Martians, they didn’t stay surprised for very long.

“Holy! Fucking! Shit! I mean- fuck me in the ass and call me Susan! Really?” shouted Willie, who had literally gone red in the face. The tendons in his neck had also become visible. Willie turned to the side and saw Dhanishta biting her lips but even that barely caused him to tone it down. “I mean… wow.”

“I think we are all surprised, William. But, yes, I must say I find this claim to be somewhat dubious. If I recall, Doctor Ellis Harding founded AutoDoc with a group of his college friends… and… ah. Nevermind then. The story about the weirdo. I remember now. The one who wanted them to keep going until they cured death.”

Ford nodded.

“They kuh-kicked him out pretty hard after that. Th-though he was wuh-working with Big Ph-pharma to bruh-bring down the company. No one buh-belived he cuh-could be that puh-puh-passionate. But he still got ten-percent of sh-shares. He puh-put it all tuh-together.”

Imagine a common gym bracelet that keeps track of your pulse rate, steps taken, and sleep received. A simple wrist-watch like the kind that had been available in the mid-umpteens. Then imagine that in addition to this, the bracelet is also equipped with certain optical capabilities and lasers that are able to continuously and non-invasively take your temperature, a pretty comprehensive blood test, and blood-pressure test. Couple this with a simple phone app compatible with high-resolution phone cameras that use machine-learning to diagnose outward symptoms with a simple selfie.

It had changed everything. It had slashed the cost of healthcare by over eighty-percent in the first five years alone. Even when most of what it did was illegal, it had gained such immediate and widespread support that no politician dared to crack down.

If you were feeling sick, with the press of a button your information would be sent to a doctor or nurse-practitioner in your state who would either schedule more tests or sign-off on a prescription. Automation and suggested diagnosis brought time visits down to an average of five minutes. After the virtual “check-up” a drone would arrive, usually within fifteen minutes, to either drop off the medicine or a cell culture for more testing. And if you just needed something simple done, an automated car would show up with a robotic arm and a doctor on a holo-display. Beyond that, a mobile nurse would show up in a fully-equipped, fully autonomous medical car. It had been hailed as the Netflix of Healthcare and was so unbelievably dirt cheap for standard care that it had made an entire domain of health insurance unprofitable. These days, you really only had to go to a doctor’s office if you needed surgery or were dying.

And Ali Cohen had thought it was not enough. Ali Cohen had wanted to keep going. Where to, though? Where to?

“Why does he do all of this? What is it that he wants?” asked Al.

Al was vaguely aware that he had lost yet another hand to Ford but he was too lost in thought to care. He heard shouting at the other end of the ship. Shouting like he’d heard before, except this was not the shouting of a lunatic but the shouting of a man who’d saved a billion lives.

“I didn’t understand it at first, either. I thought he was crazy too. You’d show him a homeless person, and he’d be honestly confused why the man wasn’t a king. Wouldn’t understand why everyone kept walking by like they couldn’t see the problems. You tell him the way the world is, and all he wants to know is why everyone alive isn’t some kind of god. He just cares about… everything. He cares. When you’re around him, he makes you care too. That’s all the reason he needs, and that’s how he does all of it,” said Ford.

Al turned to Willie. For perhaps the first time in his life, the cowboy was speechless.

*****

Yindi’s favorite part about zero gravity by far was that her joints never hurt when she woke up in morning. Or rather, her joints never hurt her at the time everyone on board the ship had agreed to was the morning. It wasn’t quite the morning, but she woke up anyway. Today would be landing day. The ship deliberately synced landing to occur at noon on the last day of the journey. Which meant there wasn’t much time.

Throwing herself down the central corridor of the ship she made her way to the storage containers where Ali Cohen was being held. She’d may have a few hours with him. Maybe three if she was lucky and no one else was curious. No, not much time at all. Not nearly enough.

Doing her best to be quiet and circumspect she made her way to the storage locker and knocked three times very softly on the side. Then she brought herself low to the ground, opened the single door with her thumbpring and slipped inside… where approximately twenty people were standing shoulder to shoulder.

“I… was going to…” said Yindi.

A rough-looking who Yindi recalled barely fit into his spacesuit gave her a wide grin. The Hindu-looking woman at his side was more serious.

“Let me guess,” said the Hindu woman, “You didn’t think it seemed right, either?”

Yindi returned the big man’s smile.

“No,” she said, “I did not.”

“Glad to see I’m not the only one who didn’t want to start my life on Mars doing something wrong. So, between us and the people we all represent, would it be easier to compile a list of the people onboard who are against helping him escape?” asked Al, who Yindi recalled was a very accomplished builder.

There was some muffled laughter at that, then the tiny French genius woman brought everyone to order with some profanities no one understood.

“Mon Dieu, this is not done yet! No more congratulations until he is safe! We must make sure his rover is provisioned and his escape is plausible. He will have to go over six-hundred kilometers for refuge. That means extra life-support, extra battery power and reprogramming parts of the landing sequence. We have three hours,” said the tiny French woman.

Yindi nodded slowly, and for the first time in a long time felt a smile actually reach up from her lips and touch her eyes. It was a beautiful thing to be happily surprised. Perhaps even the best of things.

“Mars is no place for a Walkabout. Where will he go?” Yindi asked.

Other than Colony One there weren’t a lot of places on Mars to go. Barely half a dozen locations that were self-sustaining, though only in terms of life-support.

“How much do you know about Space Mormons?” asked Mari, a name Yindi had seen coming up very often in relation to the Bubble-Vest, who was turned to face their presumptive escapee.

“I believe I may have accidentally invented them,” said Ali Cohen.

 

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Lift Off

T-Minus 3 months…

 

Dhanishta was not embarrassed when she said goodbye to her cow and cried.

How could she be?

Crying was appropriate when leaving your world behind.

There could be no shame in such a display of emotion.

Sad as she was, though, she was happy to be crying here. In the lush grass of her family farm in California, she was surrounded by everything she had ever loved about the Earth. The land and green things growing, life everywhere as far as the eye could see. Butterflies and beetles, pigs and chickens, wild rabbits and a bull roaming on a distant hill. Hay bales stacked high and wild flowers every which way. You could hear it, smell it, feel it.

All the life that it hurt to say goodbye to.

How could one stand in the midst of such beauty and not cry?

It helped that her best friend since childhood, Lulabelle, did not have a judgemental bone in her massive bovine body. And that the cow was standing next to her breathing in her face. When you are upset, there are few things in the universe as comforting as a cow breathing on your face with hay-scented breath. Dhanishta stroked the cow’s neck, tenderly.

It helped to know that one of the first six, the hardest and strongest man the Earth had ever borne, had posted a heart-wrenching video of saying goodbye to his dog and cried with nothing but pride and love for what he was leaving behind. He had not hated the Earth at all, but loved it and wished to bring its wonders among the stars and knew that to do so he must leave the Earth behind. For that he had cried tears of sorrow and beauty.

Dhanishta did the same.

It continued for several minutes before she could say what she had come to say, but when she cleared her throat her voice was firm. She was, after all, an astronaut, and therefore an old hand at duty and discipline.

“I will bring them meat. Each day they will eat of you, but you will never die. There, the Law of the Jungle will be rewritten. By the time we bring animals to Mars, my way will be the only way and they will be left in peace. No Martian shall ever eat flesh brought forth from suffering. And every Martian shall know your name and your sacrifice.”

Dhanishta placed her head against the side of Lulabelle’s ribs and felt the cow’s powerful breathing. She had done so many times in her youth, and once all night when was old enough to confront the practical horror of what it was her family actually did for a living. The simple, terrible necessity that came of living in a world where living required death. Dhanishta had eaten nothing from a living animal since that night and had tasted no meat until a year ago.

The year she had succeeded.

The year she had broken the Law of the Jungle.

She picked up a metal canister, dull and gray, and held it before Lulabelle. It weighed a little over twenty pounds but it contained both the future and enough food to feed a world. Above all, it contained a people free from sin.

“Because of the work we have done together, soon no human will want to hurt you ever again.”

Dhanishta wrapped her arms around Lulabelle’s thick neck and kissed the cow a single time on her perfect pink nose.

Then she walked back to the house, shook her father’s rough hand, abided his histrionics and hysterical prayers in Portuguese, ordered a Fleet vehicle and slept all the way to the airport.

 

*****

 

“Huh. I honestly wasn’t sure it would be you,” said Al with genuine astonishment.

On the other side of the plexiglass separating Al from the rest of the world was a face he hadn’t seen or thought of in ten years. A face that in many ways had murdered the child in him and sent him on the road to adulthood. It looked old and worn, and far less intimidating than he remembered.

“How many fucking people do you know named Snake?” asked Snake, who was wearing what for him was no doubt formal wear.

Al looked down at himself for contrast, half-convinced he was dreaming. He wore what was basically a set of white cotton pajamas, designed to be thrown away. The sort of garment he’d worn for the last few months in the pre-Launch quarantine. The only permanent garment he wore was a wrist computer that monitored his vital signs. Al looked exactly like what he was, a spaceman on a short holdover on Earth.

Snake, on the other hand, wore a sports jersey that shone like silk and crisp blue jeans. Even his wallet chain seemed to gleam like it had seen a heavy polish. His sneakers too, looked new. There was no bandana at all, not even pale skin to mark where it had been worn for so many years. Not to be totally disarmed by his clothing, Snake did somehow manage to slouch on the stool that the Launch Facility had provided for him.

Still, they might as well have been time-travelers for all they shared in common.

“Honestly? Knowing a drug-dealer named Snake is kind of like knowing a construction worker named Mike. Or Spider. Lots of Spiders walking around the old neighborhood. Not a lot of imagination, if I recall,” said Al.

Snake opened his mouth and closed it again, as if unsure of what to say. His expression dark and unreadable. Brooding and a bit pissed.

“Are you still mad about your car? I left it on the side of the interstate. I figured the cops would return it to you,” said Al.

Al suddenly remembered the beatings he’d taken all of those years ago. Could Snake have been harboring revenge fantasies for all of these years? Snake couldn’t hurt him but what if he managed to breach the quarantine? Would Launch Authority ground Al for another two years? Orbital windows to Mars didn’t just open up every day and quarantine was vital. You couldn’t have the flu debilitating entire spaceships full of people.

Snake’s expression was easier to make out now. The other man seemed to be suffering a moment of genuine confusion.

“What? What car? That car? The one with the hydraulics? You stole that piece of shit?”

“You didn’t know?”

Al had spent the first three months of his escape sleeping with one eye open, waiting for Snake and his friends to show up and beat him to death. Imagining a thousand dramatic showdowns. The idea that Snake hadn’t even known, hadn’t even suspected, was somehow disappointing.

“I always figured that the guy I stole it from just stole it back,” said Snake.

“Then… why are you here?”

No one from those days had shown up, before. Not the people who helped him, not anyone. Even Al’s parents had never tried to make contact after his name had been splashed all over the news. In fact, the only person from those days who’d ever bothered to see him was sitting in front of him right now.

“Well, how many fucking people do you know who are going to other planets?” said Snake.

Al smiled, and rolled his eyes. He supposed he could at least enjoy this moment. Rub it in his ex-abuser’s face. He smirked.

“That’s literally everyone I know, now.”

“Jesus, why do you have to give me such a hard time? I came to say congratulations, or whatever! And… man I knew this was a fucked idea.” Snake fumbled to get a piece of paper out of his pocket, which he held up to the glass after a moment of hesitation.

Al expected a death threat, a picture of one of his parents bound and tortured, some kind of awful catastrophic information that would mean he wouldn’t be able to go to Mars… Instead, it was a crayon drawing of an astronaut on the planet Mars. In the background was a spaceship and two moons.

In the corner was written: “For Dad’s Friend!!!!”

The a’s and the e’s were backwards.

“I think… I’m missing something,” said Al after a moment.

Snake sighed and it seemed like the other man was fifty years old, though they were both still in their mid-twenties. Snake stood up suddenly, and his motions were erratic and frustrated, like he didn’t know what to do with himself so that even his body was confused. From the other side of the glass, in the far corner, a member of Launch School security gave Al a questioning look.

It was a “Do you want me to take care of it?” look

Al shook his head.

“I… I got a kid now. I don’t deal drugs or any of that shit anymore. I got out of that after high school. Listen, I’m sorry for the way I was to you. I work on a road crew now, busting my ass for shit pay… who cares. I got my own life now. I don’t have a gang no more. Anyway, I saw you on the news. It was goddamn surprising. Motherfucker I picked on in high school is going to Mars? Shit. I was so surprised I accidentally told my kid I knew you. He asked how and what the fuck was I supposed to say? I said we were friends. And he wanted to meet you…”

Al, who had grown greatly accustomed to the mental gymnastics necessary to go from his former life to his current life, still found himself astonished.

“You? You have a kid? You?” his mouth was hanging open but he was too surprised to close it even though he could partly see his reflection in the glass.

“Man, keep it down! He’s waiting right over there. Forget about it. I knew this was a fucked idea. I wouldn’t have come if I had any choice. Listen, I’ll tell him there’s germs or something and we had to go. I just… Jesus, forget about it.”

Al stood up and bent closer to the glass so his angle of view would be less obscured. There was a boy in the far corner, six maybe seven, with a toy Mars Colonial Transporter and astronaut action figures. A healthy, well-fed, well taken care of boy. And for some reason Al did not think of vengeance or comeuppance or getting even with Snake. Instead, he thought of a teacher with a telescope, and a librarian who said an old mutt was a service dog and a gruff old welder who told Al that he’d write a letter to get him anywhere he wanted to go.

“Bring him over,” said Al.

“Dude, I swear to God if you break that kid’s heart I will come through that fucking glass-”

“Bring him over,” repeated Al.

With obvious conflict, Snake waved with his hand. The little kid lit up like a light bulb and bolted to his father. Running so fast the security guard jolted with surprise. Then, shyly, the boy tucked his face into his Snake’s chest. Wonder of wonders, like watching a lion lay down with lambs, Snake whispered encouraging words into the child’s ear and the boy turned to face the glass. Al’s breath caught. He could see the resemblance, all of the little lines and angles that the mind processed to recognize other people, just none of the hate. None of the cruelty.

“Hello,” said Al.

“Are you an astronaut?” asked the boy.

“I will be tomorrow. Nine months from now, I’ll be a Martian. Your father tells me you like space. Is that true?”

The boy nodded, holding up his toy MCT and astronaut action figures for explanation.

“What is your favorite part about space?”

The boy looked at Al… and Al realized this was probably the reason he had become an astronaut. So that one day a kid could look at him like that and it would be real and appropriate.

“The aliems! And the moon and the stars and being able to fly ‘cause gravity and outer space and Mars and the rockets going vrooosh so high and the barge landings! And the astronauts and the spacesuits and spaceships going circle-circle-circle, and unflatble houses and…”

It continued for an hour and a half.

At one point, Al had to rack his brain with every bit of Astronaut discipline he’d acquired to remember that Snake’s real name was Robert when the child wanted to play a guessing game and would only hint that his name was the same as his father’s. It was the one time after the boy had come over that Snake looked genuinely panicked.

There were all the usual questions about going to the bathroom in space, sleeping in space, taking a shower in space… important questions, but not the most important.

“Do you want to be an astronaut one day?” asked Al.

The boy nodded, vigorously.

He thought again of a teacher with a telescope, and a librarian who turned a blind eye to an old dog, and a gruff old welder who’d promised to write a letter and delivered on that promise.

“Well, when you’re ready and if you still want to go, I’m only fifteen minutes away by email.”

Now, the look in the boy’s eyes said that there were two worlds and that both of them were achingly, hauntingly beautiful.

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The Norman Rockwell of Mars

“The message of my art is belief in humankind. Belief in humanity and all that we can do. Belief that somehow, someway, somewhere we can all come together and bring out the best in each other. That our existence is worth it, that the universe is better for us, and that we can do wonderful things. I paint that destiny with humankind among the stars,” said Ford.

Ford stepped aside and let the other students take in his painting, his smile welcoming and bright. Silence followed as his painting was inspected. When Ford noticed glares, he stepped even further aside thinking the other students still couldn’t see his painting, and when the glaring continued his smile faltered the slightest bit.

“That is the most bigoted shit-fuck worldview I’ve ever heard,” muttered a short girl with blue hair. Ford thought her name was Apple or something, but he couldn’t quite remember. She routinely condemned the work of everyone outside of her small circle of friends, so he tried not to let her comment bother him too much.

“Class, wait for turns please. Constructive, socially conscious criticism only. Victoria, what is your feedback for Ford?” asked the professor.

Victoria, whose hair was pink and who had one side of her head shaved in retro ump-teens fashion, put down her phone and somehow conveyed enormous disgust by crinkling her nose. Her head gyrated around like a dashboard bobble figurine as she spoke. Ford felt ice in his stomach. He’d seen her head gyrate like that before. Victoria was far more invective than her blue-haired friend.

“Ummm, how am I supposed to describe… this? So many thoughts. At first glance I’d call it Wishful White-Washing War Propaganda or maybe Manifest Destiny Murder Porn, and uh… yeah… of course, problematic. I mean, wow. Just wow.”

Ford didn’t know what to say, or what to think for that matter, so he tried not to say or think anything. He just stood next to his painting with the same wide smile as before, and accepted he didn’t quite understand art school. Especially the other students. For one, they were all ridiculously rich and went to great lengths to pretend otherwise. Their parents were present and functional but they were all deeply ashamed of this. Many of them were also incredibly talented, and did everything they could not to conceal this beneath apparent lunacy. Rich people had always confused Ford and he was starting to believe they always would.

“Ford, how would you respond?” asked the professor.

“Thanks, Victoria!” said Ford.

The blue-haired girl -maybe her name was Fuji?- threw her hands up in the air and made a weird nose that sounded like a horse when it sneezed. A sound with which Ford was intimately familiar from living on his aunt’s farm. He’d mucked enough stalls in his youth to never forget the sounds a horse made. Or the way a horse smelled. Or the way a horse pooped. Ford believed that the sound was meant to convey exasperation. The knowledge didn’t help much. He still had no idea what had exasperated her.

Excuse me?” said Victoria.

A resigned peace settled over Ford. He hadn’t understood painting when he’d picked up a brush three years ago, and he hadn’t understood computer graphics until he’d gotten access to the library computers six months ago. But they’d made sense after a while. They had felt right. He knew art school was where he needed to be in the same way he’d known he was meant to be a painter. He’d figured out all of the other obstacles. Given enough time he would figure out the other students.

“Ford, do you understand Victoria’s critique?” the professor asked from beneath a truly impressive and owlish set of eyebrows. The eyebrows appeared well-groomed and well-kept. They even came to little horns at the outsides.

“No?” ventured Ford.

Victoria rolled her eyes. Nearer to Ford, the short girl with the blue hair -Honeycrisp?- walked up and planted herself only a few inches away from him, with both of her hands placed on her hips.

“What do you think it says that you’ve blatantly changed an entire planet to suit your imagination? And that you’ve done so without apology, remorse, or thought to what the planet’s feelings are? What gives you the right?” the blue-haired girl demanded.

-Braeburn?-

“Oh! Oh, I understand! You see, there’s no life on Mars. I forgot not everyone is as into astronomy as I am. The planet’s completely duh-dead. So…”

This information did not seem to change anyone’s mind and Ford’s smile broke.

If anything, the other students looked angrier. The same way they’d looked on his first day when Ford had stupidly tried to help them make their paintings look more like actual things. Instead of splotches of paint or toilet seat covers they’d found in a dumpster and hung on their easel, or a can of soup they’d bought at the grocery store and glued to the canvas. Ever since that day Ford hadn’t been able to do anything right in their eyes.

“I juh-just don’t, underst-stand.”

He continued, stuttering so bad his whole jaw shook. He kept trying to smile through the stutter and felt that the effect was horrifying. There was a feedback loop with stuttering. The more he did it, the more self-conscious he got, and the more he stuttered.

“Th-there’s no one there to huh-hurt. If we change th-things. Like in my puh-painting. It doesn’t huh-hurt anybody. Be-because nuh-nobody’s there. To buh-be h-hurt.”

Scowls deepened. Piercings glittered, arming the facial expressions they accompanied like knives. Art school sure wasn’t like anything he’d ever experienced before. Not like Chicago. Not like his aunt’s farm. Not like the high school art class he was increasingly coming to realize had been a personal heaven. And one which he would probably never find again.

Here, weakness was strength. Hard work was universally seen as an unwillingness to listen to your true self. Talent was only useful in the expression of mediocrity.

Several of the students sighed and buried their faces in their hands. As if they couldn’t even stand to look at him. Life was all about new experiences and new points of view, wasn’t it?

The blue-haired girl -Gala?- growled.

Literally growled.

Wasn’t it?

“So what, Ford? Check your privilege! You think it’s okay to just go up there and trash another planet like we’ve trashed our planet?” Victoria shrieked.

The blue-haired girl -Idared, Winesap, Elstar?- pointed her finger directly at Ford’s nose, for some reason he couldn’t quite determine. It was both intimidating and smelled slightly of onions. He stumbled backward a step.

“But… but… it’s duh-dead. I don’t uh-under-st-stand. If we put a guh-garbage dump on muh-Mars, it would be the buh-best thing to ever huh-happen th-there. There’s nuh-nothing on Mars for us to huh-hurt. Even if we went up th-there and tuh-tried to make things worse, we could only puh-possibly make it buh-better!”

Several students threw brushes to the ground in exasperation. Others threw textbooks. Some threw up political hand gestures he didn’t understand. Some threw middle finger gestures he did understand.

“Do you think a planet is dead just because there’s no life on it? Who the fuck are you to decide what is better and what is worse for a planet? I don’t understand how you can stand there, and just ignore the history of all the indigenous peoples who have been murdered by Western civilization. I mean, think about Martians for a fucking second!” Victoria spat.

“There’s no puh-people on muh-Mars. Uh-other than the ones we’ve suh-sent there… they’re the ruh-real muh-Martians” said Ford.

“Oh, so now you get to decide what’s real and what isn’t?” said Victoria.

Ford blinked, trying to fight back tears. He hadn’t felt this horrible since the last time he’d met with his mother. At the custody hearing when he was a little boy. And that… better not to think about it if he didn’t want to cry.

Ford looked at his painting, trying to look with fresh eyes to see what the others saw. It was a painting of the planet Mars, as it would appear in a few thousand years time, with blue oceans and shining silver cities. A Martian in a spacesuit floated in the lower foreground, racially ambiguous, with an expression of awe when looking up at the planet.

The piece was titled “Look Up.”

“But… but… but who else are the muh-Martians going to buh-be if we don’t be-become th-them?” he said.

It was the sincerest, truest thing he knew to say. The beautiful dream that filled him when he picked up his paintbrush. The one he’d had since childhood, watching Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the Cosmos on a tiny television in his mother’s one bedroom apartment. The Spirit of Apollo, resurrected and resurgent. A dream of mankind united, brave and noble.

“You mean the people the white patriarchy sent there? And you just gave a big stamp of approval to the whole fucking mess! Look at this astronaut? You tried to destroy his racial identity, like you always do. And you know what a destroyed racial identity defaults to? Whiteness! It’s like… like you want people to just continue on forever, fucking up everything!” Victoria was standing up and shouting now, and her blue-haired friend -he could no longer thing of any apple names- inched even closer.

Ford stumbled back another step.

“Yuh. I mean, yuh-yes. I wuh-want people to go on fuh-forever. The astronaut isn’t whu-white… why wh-would ethnic di-dist-st-inctions exist in th-thousands of yuh-years? Muh-Mars is our guh-greatest opport-tuh-tunity to buh-be wuh-wonderful,” said Ford, but he stuttered too badly to be understood at the end and the blue-haired girl pushed forward so closely, she almost shoved him over.

“Ford, you’re being very insensitive,” said the professor, making sure to look only at Ford and not the student who had been physically assaulting him for the last few minutes.

“I duh-don’t uh-underst-st-stand,” said Ford.

“Humans are a cancer on this Earth! Do you fucking get it? I mean, do you? Humans are a fucking disease!” shouted the blue-haired girl.

Ford stumbled back again and he felt so awkward, quivering and upset, that it was like his whole body was stuttering too.

“I wish there was something more I could do to instruct you. Everything you paint looks like some kind of Sci-Fi… bluntly, Norman Rockwell. Who was garbage. A jingoistic, patriotic, sentimental fraud. I’m sorry. Why is everything so… clean? It’s the same in all of your works. Where are all the minorities? You have to be socially conscious. There aren’t any minorities represented in any of your works and the world doesn’t have any room for a whole new ethnicity. I think what Victoria is trying to say is that we all expected more after the Map of True Names,” the professor was very intently looking at the painting and not the blue-haired girl with the apple-name, who was still pushing Ford backward.

The Map of True Names had been his first project, the one that had got him into art school. A simple map where every nation was labeled with its own native name. España instead of Spain. Deutschland instead of Germany. Nippon instead of Japan. And on and on and on. His high school art teacher had put it online and it had gone viral. Critics had hailed it as a work of genius, both a critique of Western cultural hegemony and a way of undoing the damage done by Western domination.

Ford had just thought it made sense and was good manners to call people by the names they called themselves and had not understood why all maps were not made this way.

“I just… I buh-believe in puh-people and I believe in the fuh-future,” said Ford.

“Dude, that is so fucked!” said Victoria.

“I agree with Victoria. That is an incredibly immature mindset. I’m afraid I’m going to have to fail this project,” said the professor.

The blue-haired girl -Cortland! Her name was Cortland!- stepped forward to grab the painting. She shoved Ford aside and reached forward. He stumbled to the ground, landing hard on his elbows. Both of his arms tingled, like they’d been plunged into a river of ice.

“I’m putting your garbage future in the garbage where it belongs,” said Cortland.

“I rather like the idea that the future will be about itself. So many problems now, why should they all continue? This future feels… liberating,” said a voice.

The voice was deep, ponderous, buzzing somehow. Like bees. The accent impossible to place.

Without warning or explanation, another person stood between the painting and Cortland. A youth, black-haired and tan, standing with a casual menace that laughed at the danger presented by a pampered twenty year old girl. The youth did not raise his hands, did not do seem to do anything at all, except there was a shifting of his feet and posture. An imperceptible change in the way he stood. However small the motion, it firmed the boy’s body, and Cortland fell to the ground when she barrelled into his chest.

The youth peered at the painting, unmoved and unperturbed.

Cortland moaned on the floor.

“How dare you-” began Victoria, but the youth cut her off.

“I like this painting,” said the boy, decisive in his opinion, obviously uncaring of what the others thought.

He stood above Cortland and smiled like Ford had been only a moment ago. His green eyes flashed like emeralds.

“Also, am I the only one who has noticed that Ford is black? And that the rest of you are white? And that you are all absurd caricatures of art students professing belief in an absurd caricature of liberal values? Ah yes, I thought you knew. Everyone knows almost everything at some level. How sad. We all must work to bring that knowledge to the surface, but you must never hurt someone who hasn’t hurt you. Not ever. Do you understand?”

None of the words made any sense to Ford…

But for some reason, that made all the other art students, and especially the professor, turn away in shame.

*****

“Thank you. I mean… I duh-didn’t even know whu-what to do. It was all just so struh-strange. How duh-did you nuh-know to huh-help?”

Ford observed, distantly, that his hands were trembling. Ali Cohen -he had given his name after leaving the classroom- for his part seemed almost bored. In fact, Ali turned to the side to hide a yawn. He held Ford’s painting in one hand, having taken it from the art room in the calm following his defense of it. After picking up the painting, Ali had paused only to pick up Ford from his place on the floor next to Cortland, and then again to write an “A+” in the professor’s ridiculous old-fashioned paper grade book.

“I cannot abide people who choose to look like Jesus Christ,” said Ali Cohen in the most appropriate tone possible.

“I’m suh-sorry. Wuh-what did you say?” said Ford. His knee twitched and he found it hard to stand. He often felt that disconnect, given the life he’d led. Like the world was far away and he was floating over the top of it and anything could happen but it would be okay as long as he wasn’t inside of himself.

“Jesus Christ. Of Nazareth. In case you know of another one. It is so easy to look like him. In fact, I would say resembling Jesus Christ require only a lack of effort to look like anything else. Follow me.”

Ford realized he had been marveling at Ali Cohen’s resemblance to Abraham Lincoln in that dazed way people wonder things to distract themselves from shock, and was taken aback by the the other boy’s statement. It was as if they had been subconsciously preparing to have a light conversation about resembling historical icons, which they would arrive at after calming each other down for a few hours. Except Ali Cohen, like an overeager actor, had jumped ahead a few pages to give his lines without bothering with the build up.

Ali lit a cigarette and walked forward, his long legs eating the distance in colossal bites. Ford struggled to keep up.

“Looking like Jesus Christ is a willful choice. An obstinate decision. Any man, of any ethnicity, build, or demeanor can simply grow his hair and beard and resemble Jesus Christ. A shave, a haircut, and it is undone in moments.

“I say this, of course, because you have been quietly remarking on my resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.” Ali didn’t wait for Ford to nod, “Looking like Abraham Lincoln is not a choice. It is an undeniable part of my identity. I once shaved my hair into a Mohawk. I looked like Abraham Lincoln with a Mohawk. I once pierced my nose. I looked like Abraham Lincoln with a pierced nose. My resemblance to Abraham Lincoln is not easily undone. Do you know why I do not have tattoos all over my face?”

Ali Cohen turned wistfully toward the horizon, facing the silhouettes of the several buildings that made up the art school. Even when looking at one thing, the green eyes took in everything. Ripping the world apart and putting it back together.

“Because you would still look like Abraham Lincoln with tattoos all over his face?” guessed Ford.

“Correct,” said Ali Cohen.

“What… what are you talking about?” asked Ford. He was no longer trembling and somehow that brought his stutter under control. Barely.

“I am asking if you are real person,” said Ali.

Ali Cohen’s long legs started forward again, and their rapid pace quickly put Ford behind. A pause of a few moments, taken only to process his immediate surroundings, and Ford found himself short of breath just trying to stay in line of sight. Ali Cohen proceeded down the ave, a busy road bordering the college environs, thick with people coming in and out of stores and restaurants.

Ford struggled to press his way ahead fighting against the crowd for every foot.

Ali Cohen, as if to punctuate his physical superiority, lit another cigarette and proceeded unimpeded. Whenever he disappeared in the crowd, Ford located him by the cloud of cigarette smoke looming above his head. None of the rude looks shot Ali’s way seemed to bother him at all.

“I don’t know what that means,” said Ford, through a throng of a dozen teenagers trying to enter a VR laser tag arena. They were all already syncing up their headsets and barely even registered Ford brushing by them.

“Your art. The sunshiny optimism. Hold on, I’m trying to articulate.” Ali stopped abruptly, holding Ford’s painting in front of him. Ali’s long arms seemed to set the painting at infinity. The crowd moved around either side of Ali and the painting, like a river around a stone. Ford ran into the opening in the crowd and panted to catch his breath. Which ended in a coughing fit when he ran into a cloud of Ali’s cigarette smoke.

“I believe I have it now. What is only on the surface is easily erased. Easily undone. It’s all veneer. The top does not match the bottom. When I see simple happy things, I suspect deception. It’s a surface over something else. Only the bottom is durable. You seem to be the same underneath. Like my face is not undone easily, so too it seems that your personality cannot be undone. So, are you real?”

Ali Cohen turned the painting this way and that, his eyes deep-set and digging.

“I believe in people and I try to do the best I can… if that’s what you’re asking,” Ford’s jaw shivered again but he didn’t stutter this time.

The tall boy nodded decisively and handed Ford’s painting back to him. Only when Ford held it, and the painting was free from the proportions of Ali, did he remember how large it was. It covered his whole chest and holding it made it hard to see.

“I thought so,” said Ali. He resumed his rapid walk. “Your mother was a drug-addicted prostitute. You had to be mister sunshine to survive. The stutter speaks to a rapid mind. So many thoughts about the future to take you out of the present. You internalized the defense mechanism. It is part of you.”

“Eh-Exc-cuh-use muh-me?” said Ford.

He hadn’t told anyone. Not a soul. Even his aunt had only suspected. His mother hadn’t always been that way, after all. He’d seen pictures of her when she was young.

“I do not mean to be abrupt. I was not born here, where to speak of such things is rude. Or rather, where to speak of such things is to speak of the impossible. These people… the students and the professors, they look at this as if this is all of the world. Even when they profess to try to change the world, they do not imagine it is their world they are changing. As if to think of the outside world is to think of another universe. I am not this way.

“I do not care, or judge, or believe it is impossible to be born in such a place. I was a slave, once. If it helps you to know, please know it. I do not speak of it because such things are not common here and it sounds a joke. I have seen horror. The students who yelled at you today are not real. They have seen no horror. They do not even know what it is they object to.

“Their surfaces are so thick they cannot see what is at their bottoms. The tragedy is what they are on top doesn’t match what’s down below. It is nice to be told it is righteous to attack someone and it is easy if you do not know what is beneath your surface. I know much of this. There are people who look at great things and wonder ‘How was it done?’ and there’s people who look at great things and wonder ‘How much trouble would I be in if I broke this?’ Or perhaps, with the last, ‘How great will I be for breaking this?’ It is very hard to rip away what is on top and see what is down below. To understand the greatness and terribleness inside of your own soul? Do you understand?”

“You’re out of your goddamn mind,” said Ford.

“Exactly,” said Ali, “Now, let us discuss the genre of Positive Crime. I am its founder. I would like you to be my student. The light is almost right now.”

Ali climbed on top of a bike rack and turned back to look at the art school. He held a hand over his eyes, a visor to protect them from the sun.

“Are you even a student? I haven’t seen you around before,” said Ford.

“No. Of course not. I learned my art in Paris, China, Indonesia and a thousand other places. The world is the only true teacher. The world taught me what I know. I came here for you, Ford. I came here because though we have only just met we are true and good friends and I would risk my life to save yours,” said Ali.

“Can I have a few moments to think? Please, I’m very tired. I need… to sit somewhere.”

Ali shook his head sadly and brought some kind of remote control out of his pocket.

“I would not be a very good friend if I were to let you miss this opportunity. And trust me, I am your friend. Truly and deeply. Right now you are open. Wonderful things could be brought to you in this state. Things that could shine light on the darkness your childhood put in you. To perceive true beauty we must lower our defenses. Now, in this moment, you are open. I have waited for this day.

“Please, turn back to the art school. The political display in the middle. The one that got all the students worked up. That made them all feel so important. Silly works, but we live in a frivolous age. I was going to use the binoculars hidden in the shrub to your left to observe what I am about to do, but as I am your friend I would like to share this with you. When I saw your works online. I knew you must be protected from this kind of place. Though we have no near ancestor, I am your brother and loyal to you in the extreme.”

Ford started shaking again. Oh God, he was in the presence of a lunatic. He should scream. He should warn someone. Except, for some reason, he laughed. It was impossible when seeing the earnest excitement on Ali’s face not to laugh. His hand found the binoculars hidden in the shrub.

“What are you?” Ford whispered.

“A difficult question. I am the son of an Arab mother and a Jewish father, who dared love each other against custom. My existence was offensive to the world from the moment I was born. Even my name was a joke. For seven years after monsters murdered my parents, I was a slave, a dancing boy used as a piece of meat by those very monsters. For seven years, I lived thus until I rose up and slew my oppressors. I saw men engage in destruction against all laws of nature and man, for no reason but to bring carnage to the innocent and break beautiful things they could never have made. I have seen the very worst of humankind and have chosen to reach toward the best.”

“I don’t think people slay their oppressors anymore. Of if they do they call it something else. I think… I think I might be passing out. Sorry about what happened to you. It’s all just a bit… much,” Ford’s head rocked.

Somehow, though, Ford found the strength to bring the binoculars to his eyes. Here, in this one place, the crowd was thin enough to make the vision clear. He saw the art school, the central quadrangle where the political display was featured. Ford had walked by it once and found it rather… uninspiring.

“Never mind, you will see me in my art, soon enough. The central thesis of the genre of Positive Crime is to do something beautiful and wonderful, and sincerely considerate, without permission or apology. To commit crimes of wonder. It is the opposite of terrorism. This morning, I pick-pocketed a poor man and put a hundred dollars in his wallet. I replaced his wallet before he had a chance to know. Last week, I broke into a single-mother’s house and stocked her pantry with food. I have made dresses for young girls with more virtue than money and delivered them magically. I have staged street dramas before young boys who doubted their courage, so that they were forced to intervene and find bravery in the face of what they believed was danger. I have fixed fifteen pot-holes without permit since my arrival in this city. Today, I have found a true artist of noble soul and am about to show him he is right in his assessment of humankind. Now… look up!”

Ali pointed his remote control at the center of the art school and pressed a button.

Smoke, great pillars of smoke rose up from the center of the art school. Explosive except that the smoke was white as snow. White as a sheet. White as ghosts. The throngs on the ave turned to stare. Murmurs of horror rose up. Panic, all of them fearing the worst. Someone shrieked…

And then the shrieks stopped.

Ford looked through the binoculars at the smoke.

Lasers shot into the smoke from neighboring builds, dozens, hundreds projecting an image of Mars. Ford’s breath caught. He’d never seen someone do something this vivid with lasers. Even in the holographic display in Fleet cars, created with the latest technology, no image had ever seemed so rich. The planet turned, real and alive displaying a rusty crimson surface with tiny white caps.

The white caps exploded and… there was sound! Thunderous sound from everywhere, as if he stood on the planet with the exploding caps. The image on the smoke turned and the planet grew in size and definition. The perspective was changing. The image was animated!

A hush fell over the crowd.

Water ran in great rivers from the poles of the planet to the equator, forming oceans, blue and clean. Clouds, white and puffy, turned around the planet. And green grew in splotches. Forests! Trees! Verdant life, everywhere and abundant!

The image zoomed in until the display was from the point of view of a bird flying high over the Martian landscape. Two moons shot across the daylight sky. Herds of animals loped in low gravity, jumping at impossible heights over rivers full of fish. And there were cities! The cities of Ford’s own paintings! Then people! The people who bore no touch save that of Mars, the ones Ford had imagined, and they were… beautiful.

It was Ford’s own painting!

He put down the binoculars because his hands were shaking too much to hold them.

There was no need for the binoculars anymore. The smoke had spread further still and the display was massive. The perspective had returned to space and the planet was new-made and Earth-like. A Martian regarded the planet in the lower foreground. Ford held up his painting of the Martian planet and looked to the display and saw the images matched perfectly.

Ford didn’t realize he was crying until he felt his tears wetting his shirt.

The display now showed a magnificent Martian tower, high and unyielding, breaking through the clouds and daring to reach greater heights still. At the base was a plaque, golden and proud.

It said:

WHOEVER YOU ARE
WHEREVER YOU WERE BORN
WHATEVER YOU HAVE DONE
YOU ARE A PIECE OF THE UNIVERSE
THAT WALKS AND BREATHES
YOU ARE STARDUST COME ALIVE
AND YOU CAN DO ANYTHING
LOOK UP

“Thank you,” said Ford.

He had never really known before what those words were for. Never dared to dream that he could know. But he did now. The image reset and played from the beginning.

Ford closed his eyes and listened to Ali Cohen laugh.

 

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