Dave Shuster has been confronted by secret government agents over a photo taken by a Mars lander of a graveyard, complete with crosses, on Mars. Shuster claims that, in an alternate timeline, he was a low-level bureaucrat in the administration of a joint U.S.-Soviet Mars colony when he was caught up in a murder mystery involving the illegal use of robot technology.
In that timeline, the Cold War took a very different turn—largely influenced by Admiral Robert Heinlein, who was allowed to return to naval service following World War II.
When Shuster is thrown into a power vacuum immediately upon his arrival on the Mars Colony in 1985, he finds himself fighting a rogue industrialist, using his wits and with some help from unlikely sources in a society infiltrated by the pervasive presence of realistic androids.
"This is a terrifically inventive and highly creative novel about troubles with androids set on Mars and set in an alternative future. It is quite funny and exciting, but the biggest joy is the well thought alternative history. Highly recommended."– Amazon Review
"Lou Antonelli is a creative writer & thinker. He seems to have a great grasp on bureaucracy, politics & space travel. Love stories & greed. It's all there & more. I've read 30 SciFi novels in 2 years and this is up there with the best. Worth the read."– Amazon Review
I'm sorry, I'm not smiling. I'm grimacing.
Yes, I'm nervous—anxious, really. After all these years, to have someone believe my story—to come and ask me about it. I'm practically in pain. I can't believe it; after so many years!
Let me take a deep breath and try to calm down and get it out. It's quite a story, and all true.
Oh, first and foremost, just let me go through it once without a break. No questions or interruptions, please?
Okay. Hmmm …
I guess you could say it all happened because I wanted too much, too soon. I was only 27, and I asked for the Moon. They gave me Mars instead. I had it coming. Hubris, I suppose.
It was a bitterly cold winter night when I left Manhattan to catch the shuttle to the Moon. You could see your breath. I had a long scarf on, but no hat or cap, and the cold air made my hair stand on end.
I hoped I wouldn't have to wait long. My apartment building was eleven stories tall and had a hover cab stand on its roof. None of the buildings at the Broadway and 110th Street intersection, strangely enough, were even ten stories tall, so the sky taxi stand for that intersection was atop my building.
So far uptown, it wasn't a particularly busy location, and I had to wait a good quarter of an hour for a cab to come down from the sky. I had 15 long minutes to ponder what I had gotten myself into.
The taxi stand was only an open shelter, so I was freezing as I looked toward midtown. I could see the RCA Building with its bright red logo at Rockefeller Center, and farther south, the Empire State Building with its illuminated set-backs. At the tip of Manhattan, the twin towers of the World Trade Center—which were over 1,100 feet tall themselves—flanked the mile-high Space Trylon. It was clear as well as cold, and as I looked toward Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, it seemed to be pointing to the stars. This, of course, was the idea, since it embodied the joint American-Soviet space exploration program that settled the Moon in 1955, and, twenty years later, Mars.
I rubbed and pounded my hands together, trying to keep warm, and shifted around on my feet. I kept messing with my scarf, because of my nervousness, I suppose, and that only made me colder. One good thing about the cold, though, was that it stifled some of the worst city smells. The air atop my apartment building was crisp to the point of being almost electric.
When I fumbled with my scarf again, I thought that maybe I wasn't as steady or ready for my new job as I thought I was. Self-doubt was stalking me like a bump-and-grab mugger. I ran my hands through my hair, which made me even colder.
Yeah, I had hair back then, over thirty years ago.
I was all alone up there, and I had some time to think. I realized I was facing such a long journey to such a strange place because I was young, cocky, and too ambitious. Getting a full scholarship to Columbia University had contributed to that. And why I was freezing my ass off atop 545 West 111th Street. I still lived in the apartment I'd had in college.
Being a well-spoken and energetic foot soldier for the ruling political regime since graduation, I had expected bigger rewards than I probably should have. I had worked as a clerk for Senator Javits for six years, but that meant nothing, and I'd made no career progress. I didn't move in the right social circles. I'd grown up in a poor working-class New England family. Every time I passed a restaurant and smelled a whiff of spaghetti sauce or the aroma of pork sausages, I still smiled.
I suppose I made an unlikely Republican candidate for Congress in 1984. But the Manhattan Republicans, a small group to begin with, had trouble finding a candidate in the neighborhood. This was Bella Abzug's old seat, and impossible for a Republican to win.
I was old enough to run, and lacking any better alternatives, the party gave me the nomination. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I quit my job and spent a year campaigning.
1984 proved to be a better year for Republicans than expected. John Anderson was as popular a President as ever and easily trounced both the Democrat Walter Mondale and the American Party candidate Ronald Reagan. There had been some talk that Reagan, coming from California instead of the old Confederacy, would be able to expand his party's base beyond what George Wallace had established, but that scenario fizzled.
That "feel good" election—and my hard work—allowed me to garner a solid 48 percent of the vote. I made the race competitive. But the morning after Election Day, I was unemployed and needing a job. I looked over a pantry full of Italian spices, and realized I had no sausage, meatballs, or pasta to go with them. My stomach grumbled like a wolf at the door.
Looking back, I realize I'd had over-zealous expectations about how much I deserved from the party. I was still a loser, and only 27. There were a lot of people ahead of me in seniority and experience.
But every so often you catch a lucky break. The Manhattan Republican party chairman, Senator Greenman, had sent out a survey to defeated candidates for their feedback and asking how the party might help them. I asked for an administrative posting on the Moon colony. I knew Greenman had close personal ties to the Battery Gang at the World Trade Center and the Space Trylon, where the joint U.S.-Soviet administrative offices were located. I thought he might be able to find something for me. He did, but it wasn't what I expected.
I was still a bit of a youthful dreamer, I suppose.
There were a few days after the election when the air over Manhattan was clear and crisp, and when I looked up at the Moon I thought of how interesting it would be to go there. The colonial settlements had spread to the point that you could make out its pattern and, if you squinted just right, the connecting train lines rights-of-way etching their tracery across the pale landscape.
Finally, one day I got a call from Republican Headquarters in the Roosevelt Hotel that Senator Greenman wanted to see me. I practically skinned myself alive shaving, and then winced when I splashed on a dash of aftershave. I used just the slightest amount of Vitalis on my hair, to hopefully hold it in place—adding more would make it obviously visible. I was self-conscious of the stereotype about Italians with greased up hair.
I put on my most respectable blue blazer—there was no way I could compete with a rich grocery store heir in suits—and headed off.
The noises and smells of the city somehow seemed more alive that day, like I knew I would be heading into a new and exciting world. Or at least I hoped. The sidewalks and gutters didn't smell of piss and puke, like they so often do—Mayor Costikyan kept hundreds of public welfare recipients busy sweeping and cleaning the streets.
As I walked, I thought, in hopes of lessening the inevitable stress of what was essentially a job interview, I'd splurge and take a hover cab. They cost five times what a ground-level Checker did, but it was worth it. That was only the third time I ever paid for a hover cab, and that day I also paid the twenty percent premium and "went high"—flying at 1,000 feet.
Now, on that last night in New York City, waiting for the ride out of town, I thought I'd take in the high view of the city one last time.
As I waited on the cold rooftop, I recalled that meeting at the Republican Party headquarters and how I suckered myself into the proposition I was embarking on. I realized, in retrospect, that my high spirits and hope had led me to charge into something I was probably completely unprepared for. But the air was lucid, and the sunshine danced on the East River as we flew downtown. While in the back seat, I sniffed a little, and realized I had not overdone either the Vitalis or the aftershave.
Thanks to going high that day, I got to the hotel to meet with Senator Greenman with plenty of time—which was great; I certainly didn't want to be late.
The Manhattan Republican Party office looked like the admissions office at an Ivy League school, a setting I was somewhat familiar with since I had attended Columbia. The anteroom smelled of leather and wood polish, with a hint of dust baking on the old light fixtures.
The setting reminded me that I had lucked out when I had applied to Columbia. I wasn't typical Ivy League material. In the wake of the student protests over the draft and American involvement in Czechoslovakia—during which Columbia wound up with its campus occupied for a number of weeks—the university stretched further afield to get students with less radical backgrounds. I was a first generation Italian-American Catholic, and I received a full scholarship.
The Senator himself came out to usher me into his office. He smelled of hotel barbershop shaving cream, and I couldn't help noticing how neatly manicured his nails were when I shook his hand.
A rather thin, middle-aged man with black swept-back hair, his round glasses made him look like the preppy he was rather than a New York City politician. A Republican in genes rather than sentiments, he fit in well with the moderate Anderson administration in DC.
He directed me to my seat, and sat back down behind his desk.
"You asked for a posting on the Moon colony," he said. "You really don't have the résumé for anything currently available there. You certainly have chutzpah, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It shows self-confidence and drive. The Republican Party needs young people like you."
His dropping of the word "chutzpah" seemed jarring, given his level and cultured accent—the result, I was sure, of his prep school and Ivy League education—but still showed he was a good native New Yorker.
He leaned forward as if to impart a secret. The light on his desk glinted off his glasses. "By 1988 we will have held the White House for 20 years. We need new blood in the party, and we need to reach out to new people if we are to hold on much longer. People will be looking for a change. To some extent, we've been lucky. If George Wallace hadn't split the Democratic Party down the middle in 1968, Nixon wouldn't have been elected. If Nixon hadn't been forced out as soon as the burglary at the Democratic headquarters was discovered, he probably would have dragged the party down with him running for re-election in 1972."
He smiled. "Thank God Mark Hatfield stepped up to run for President, and now John Anderson is doing the same fine job. But we've been lucky. Nixon only won because of the Democrat-American Party split, and who knows how Hatfield would have done if he faced either McGovern or Wallace, or McCarthy and Maddox," he continued.
I shifted in my chair, which squeaked rather impertinently.
"Is there really any cause for concern?" I asked. "President Anderson seems incredibly popular."
"The American Party is finally fading away after contesting so many elections and not winning any," the Senator said. "The Democrats are gaining back control of border states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, and western states like Texas and Nevada. If Senator Bentsen runs in '88, we're in big trouble."
He looked at me seriously. "We will need young, hard-working, and energetic party loyalists, and with a little seasoning, you could be very useful after serving a few years in the hustle and bustle of the space program administration. And I've found a job for you."
I started to get a little excited—and then came the letdown.
He smiled in a way that signaled he had good news but somehow he wasn't personally happy. A pleasant professional smile.
"I know you'd love to have a posting to the Moon, but really, after 30 years it's become as settled as Locust Valley. There's a lot of competition for joint program jobs there, and quite frankly, I'm not the only county chairman in the country. I do have a little extra oomph because of being the local chairman here, where the international headquarters are. Which is why I was able to find something for you."
He smiled that smile again.
"Mars is a small, relatively new, colony, and a position has just opened up—just today, as a matter of fact. I called Admiral Heinlein's office already and put a hold on it, since I knew we were meeting today. It's a small job in the colony's administration, but it's still admin, not support staff. Do you want to hear more?"
"Of course," I said, being careful not to appear obviously disappointed. I held my breath.
"The U.S. admin office there, which coordinates the whole colony, has a staff of ten. The governor, Wilder, relies a lot on his staff …"
I've heard why, I thought.
While investigating job prospects, I'd asked around a few people who knew something about the space colonies. Governor Wilder's drinking was legendary.
"The lieutenant governor left a few months ago, and the Soviets haven't signed off on his replacement. They like to drag their feet, you know, since we have the colony administration in rotation right now. I just got word that the executive assistant has resigned for health reasons, effective immediately."
I cleared my throat. "Would I be working with the governor directly?" I asked.
"Yes. Because your position doesn't need Soviet confirmation, you can take it right away. It's still going to be a few months until a lieutenant governor can find his way there," the Senator said. "After that, you'll be the Number Three man. But you start out as de facto Number Two. It will be a great learning experience."
I got a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I could take a hint.
"I'll help where I can, and go where I'm needed," I said, my hands in my lap. "If you think I can help there, I trust your judgment."
"I don't think there'll be any problem," he said. "I'll tell them at Admiral Heinlein's office that you're my recommendation."
We stood up and he gave me what seemed to be a smile of relief and a really strong handshake. I had an insight: he was really a rather diffident man, and was happy I had cooperated and been pleasant.
I caught a whiff of something that took a moment to register—Cuban cigar smoke. I guess he was more normal than one might think. Right then I could have gone for a smoke, myself.
"I'll get my affairs in order so I can leave as soon as needed," I said. And with that I headed home to prepare.
* * *
I was single then, and not seeing anyone regularly, so there wasn't much preparation needed. My major chore at the time was cleaning my apartment to make sure I got my deposit back. The walls were sparsely decorated, and the floors old hard wood. After a few days of cleaning, every sound seemed to resound. I didn't know that dust and dirt could muffle so many sounds. I made a special effort to cook up all my food and spices to minimize what I would have to toss out. The apartment smelled like Puglia's Ristorante.
A week after my meeting with Senator Greenman, I got the call that I could leave for my new assignment. Within three hours of learning my appointment had been cleared, I was told I could take the Northeast Space Shuttle the next morning.
There were a half dozen U.S. shuttle ports at the time—Pittsburgh, Cape Canaveral, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, and LA. Going to Florida and the Kennedy Space Center—named for Joseph Kennedy, Jr. who died near the end of World War II testing one of the guidance systems that would eventually go into the nascent U.S. rocket program—would be faster, but I never could sleep on a jet. I was taking the Pennsylvanian overnight from Penn Station to Pittsburgh. I booked a small sleeper.
The space shuttle had a "24/20" rule for government passengers: you had to be ready to leave within 24 hours with only 20 pounds of personal items. We were considered "deadheads"—free riders. So I only had one small carry-on bag with me on that cold rooftop.
The spaceship from the Moon to Mars had a much more generous allowance, because the energy needed to lift off from the Moon was so much less. I could buy stuff there to take to Mars, but for the flight from the Earth to the Moon you had to pack light.
I was so wrapped up in my thoughts as I waited that I jumped back and stumbled when the hover cab honked its horn and descended.
The air coming off its engines warmed me pleasantly as it blew across the roof and up against me. I pulled open a door and slid into a back seat, tossing my bag ahead of me. The driver was a young black man. It said "Barry" on his license up front; his last name was a jumble to me.
"Where to?" He reeked of cigarette smoke.
"Penn Station, I'm catching the Penn Central to Pittsburgh."
"Long trip, and one bag," he said. "Let me guess. You're taking the shuttle to the Moon?"
"Sure am; leaving in the morning," I said.
"You want to go high or low?" he asked, looking at me in the rearview mirror.
The fare was cheaper if you stayed below 500 feet, but you had to follow the street grid pattern. If you "went high," you could cut directly to your destination, diagonally if need be, but it cost more.
"Let's go high tonight, I want the view," I said. "I may not be back for years."
"You settling on the Moon?" he asked.
"No, I'm going on to Mars."
"Dang," he said as he flipped the meter, looking truly impressed. "You've got a trip ahead of you."
He looked back at me in the mirror. "Mind if I smoke?"
"No, not at all," I said.
We lifted up, and headed south.
He was neatly dressed, but there was a certain fraying around the edges of his clothes. As we lifted off, I could just see his eyes in the rearview mirror. They looked bloodshot, perhaps from the nicotine, maybe he was just tired, but still alert.
I looked at his license again. It struck me that he looked familiar. "Haven't I seen you at the university before?"
"Yes, I'm in the College of General Studies," he said. "I was raised in Indonesia and received a foreign students' scholarship to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years, and then I decided I wanted to see the East Coast. I was accepted at Columbia five years ago and I've been going part-time ever since. I drive to pay my tuition."
We chatted as we headed downtown. I realized this fellow might be the last person in New York I'd have a conversation with for many years. "You wanted to see the East Coast? You sound like you want to travel."
He put on a hard smile and forced a laugh. "No, it's more like I've been all around the world already. I'm a one-man United Nations. My mother was from Kansas, my father was from Kenya, I was born in Hawaii. I spent grade school there until my mother remarried and then we went to live in Indonesia," he said. "Then I went to college in California."
"Wow, I grew up in Massachusetts, went to college here, and that's it," I said. "You got me beat!"
He rubbed his nose and the corners of his mouth turned down slightly. I decided I'd let him lead the conversation if he wanted.
We passed 110th Street and flew over Central Park. There was an NYPD aerostat right above the reservoir, which gave it an excellent view of all the traffic across mid-town Manhattan from 1,500 feet. The lights of the skyscrapers blazed in the dark; the streetlights and the lights along the parkways looked like strands of Christmas tree lights.
"Why are you going all the way to Mars?" Barry asked. "You look kinda young for a factory manager."
I saw in the rearview mirror that he looked away.
"I've gotten a job as an aide in the colony's administration."
He took a hand off the steering wheel and snapped his fingers. "That's where I've seen you! You're the Republican who ran for Congress, Dave Shuster."
"Yep, one and the same."
"So it's just a political job," he said. I could hear a sneer in his voice.
"It's a government job, and the Republicans happen to be running the government."
"That will change some day, sooner than later." He craned his head and cracked his neck.
"Well, it usually does," I said. "Governments change. But for the time being, I'm the most loyal Republican a government paycheck will buy." I thought I was being clever.
"Ouch, you sound very cynical." He chuckled.
"No, but I did lose that election, I need a job, and I'm still single, so it's easy for me to pack up and go to Mars," I said rather finally.
There was a moment of stillness.
"I voted for Mondale," he said flatly.
"I didn't think you voted for Reagan."
He laughed again. "Goldwater is 76, Reagan is 74, and Wallace is 66. The American Party is dying out, and once the split with the Democrats is healed, we'll have a majority back."
I rubbed my hands.
"Good luck then. Maybe in ten years I'll be asking you for a job," I said.
The conversation ceased for a few minutes and then we began our descent as we crossed Central Park South.
Barry exhaled rather quietly. "Are you going to miss New York?"
I thought about that. "You know, what I miss is that I'm not a kid any more. I'm twenty-seven now. It's time for me to get a real job."
"Twenty-seven is a dangerous age," he said. "Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Ricky Nelson, Rupert Brooke, Robert Johnson—all died at twenty-seven."
"You need to go on that new quiz show, Jeopardy," I said quickly.
He smiled broadly and his eyebrows danced. "Hah. I'll take 'Dead 27-Year Old Artists' for $200, Alex."
We descended between skyscrapers as we passed Times Square. The lights in the offices flashed past us.
"We're going to go around the block at least once," he said. "I can see the cabs are stacked up over the roof."
"At this time of night?"
"It's Penn Station!" he said with a bit of a double take. "It's always busy. Besides, it wasn't designed for flying cars to land on the roof back in 1910. The landing zone is actually pretty small."
I could see he was right as we circled above. His radio crackled as the cab air-space controller gave him ongoing updates.
I opened my window to get the full effect of the descent. The warm air rushed up toward us from the rooftops and streets, and as we got lower, you could smell the mixture of gasoline and diesel fumes, as well as the fumes from a nearby steakhouse's grill.
"So you're taking the train to catch the shuttle in Pittsburgh," he said. "It would have been more convenient for all of us if they had built a spaceport in the Meadowlands."
I glanced at my watch. "Ground's too marshy, and besides, there's only so much traffic to the Moon."
Barry clicked off his radio. "Or Mars. We're cleared to land."
He kicked on the thrusters and lowered onto the landing platform of the turn-of-the-century structure.
He opened the door for me, and I handed him the fare, with a generous tip.
"We're off," I said.
"Give them hell, man!" he said with a forced smile and an ever-so-slightly upraised fist.
I thought that was a bit strange at the time. A few months later, as things unfolded on Mars, I would think it was a lot strange.
* * *
I took the overnight train to Pittsburgh, rather than flying, because I wanted to sleep on the way and I had trouble sleeping in cramped jetliner seats. The concourse of Penn Station still had the shine from its renovation in the 1970s, and I was an hour early for the train's departure. As it was, I slept very fitfully anyway—I suppose it was a combination of nervousness and excitement. The trains and station also reeked of diesel, which I always found especially clinging. I also realized, when I was at rest, that Barry's cigarette smoke in the cab had infiltrated my freshly cleaned and pressed clothes.
I thought a lot that night, as the train rocked through Pennsylvania. I remembered how interesting it was when I was growing up, to see how once and future science fiction writers had influenced the space program.
Heinlein, the one-time pulp magazine hack, never looked back after he had his commission reinstated by President Wallace in 1946, but his persuasive skills certainly showed as the new space program head. Admiral Rickover put him charge of the Moon project. He rallied the nation behind it—and cooperation with the Soviets—with his Destination Moon film in 1950.
The next year, we all heard the live radio broadcast as Colonel Chuck Yeager stepped on the lunar surface; a week later, we saw the film footage in the newsreels.
"The stars are ours," he said. "Hitch your wagons."
Rickover stayed head of the space program, but Heinlein took over the colonial administration. It was pretty much a two-headed beast; Ernie Kovacs making the expression literal in skits with his gaudily-bedecked officer with two heads, Space Admiral Bobrick Hymanlein. Another pulp science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, also changed careers, going straight from his working with Heinlein at the Philadelphia Naval Yard to joining the nascent cybernetics division of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development.
You have to understand why the Moon looked so attractive to me compared to Mars. Thirty years after its groundbreaking, the central Moon Base was looking positively suburban—it even had a shopping mall and a multiplex cinema. The main city, Pattonville, was named by the Republican post-war Congress to remind the Soviets what might have happened to Russia had President Wallace not recalled the general after the German surrender.
The Moon's colonial capital now had a population over 30,000.
Mars still had only one base and a mere 6,000 people. But in the ten years since it began, it had attracted a dozen manufacturers, using the robots and androids that were banned on Earth.
The big advantage Mars had was minerals, exposed in the walls and alluvium of the great Valles Marineris, the largest and deepest river valley in the solar system, left dead and dry for millions of years after the planet dried up. It was discovered by the Mariner space probe in 1971, when—spurred on by the success of the Moon colony—a suitable place for similar exploits on Mars was sought.
The colony itself was set in the Melas Chasma, the deepest and widest part of the valley—eleven kilometers below the surrounding plains, which meant it had the highest natural atmospheric pressure. Water was readily available just below the rock slides along the edge of the canyon, and being on the planet's equator, it also had a relatively warm climate. Still, the distance, size, and grit of Mars made it a crappy assignment, and I'm sure Greenman knew it, but being jobless and coming off a losing campaign for Congress, I felt I needed to take it. Plus, Greenman was actually offering me something, even if it was to prove party loyalty, and I at least owed it to him to make the best of it.
Since I really hadn't slept after I boarded the train, I'd had a lot of time to think about during the days leading up to my departure, the time between when I agreed to take the posting, and that night.
A lot had happened in that interval.