“I want you to put me in prison!” the big, hairy man said in a trembling voice.
He was addressing his request to a thin woman sitting behind a desk that seemed much too big for her. The plaque on the desk said:
LT. PHOEBE HARRIS
TERRAN REHABILITATION SERVICE
Lieutenant Harris glanced at the man before her for only a moment before she returned her eyes to the dossier on the desk; but long enough to verify the impression his voice had given. Ron Clayton was a big, ugly, cowardly, dangerous man.
He said: “Well? Dammit, say something!”
The lieutenant raised her eyes again. “Just be patient until I’ve read this.” Her voice and eyes were expressionless, but her hand moved beneath the desk.
Clayton froze. She’s yellow! he thought. She’s turned on the trackers! He could see the pale greenish glow of their little eyes watching him all around the room. If he made any fast move, they would cut him down with a stun beam before he could get two feet.
She had thought he was going to jump her. Little rat! he thought, somebody ought to slap her down!
He watched her check through the heavy dossier in front of her. Finally, she looked up at him again.
“Clayton, your last conviction was for strong-arm robbery. You were given a choice between prison on Earth and freedom here on Mars. You picked Mars.”
He nodded slowly. He’d been broke and hungry at the time. A sneaky little rat named Johnson had bilked Clayton out of his fair share of the Corey payroll job, and Clayton had been forced to get the money somehow. He hadn’t mussed the guy up much; besides, it was the sucker’s own fault. If he hadn’t tried to yell--
Lieutenant Harris went on: “I’m afraid you can’t back down now.”
“But it isn’t fair! The most I’d have got on that frame-up would’ve been ten years. I’ve been here fifteen already!”
“I’m sorry, Clayton. It can’t be done. You’re here. Period. Forget about trying to get back. Earth doesn’t want you.” Her voice sounded choppy, as though she were trying to keep it calm.
Clayton broke into a whining rage. “You can’t do that! It isn’t fair! I never did anything to you! I’ll go talk to the Governor! He’ll listen to reason! You’ll see! I’ll--”
“Shut up!“ the woman snapped harshly. “I’m getting sick of it! I personally think you should have been locked up--permanently. I think this idea of forced colonization is going to breed trouble for Earth someday, but it is about the only way you can get anybody to colonize this frozen hunk of mud.
“Just keep it in mind that I don’t like it any better than you do--and I didn’t strong-arm anybody to deserve the assignment! Now get out of here!”
She moved a hand threateningly toward the manual controls of the stun beam.
Clayton retreated fast. The trackers ignored anyone walking away from the desk; they were set only to spot threatening movements toward it.
Outside the Rehabilitation Service Building, Clayton could feel the tears running down the inside of his face mask. He’d asked again and again--God only knew how many times--in the past fifteen years. Always the same answer. No.
When he’d heard that this new administrator was a woman, he’d hoped she might be easier to convince. She wasn’t. If anything, she was harder than the others.
The heat-sucking frigidity of the thin Martian air whispered around him in a feeble breeze. He shivered a little and began walking toward the recreation center.
There was a high, thin piping in the sky above him which quickly became a scream in the thin air.
He turned for a moment to watch the ship land, squinting his eyes to see the number on the hull.
Fifty-two. Space Transport Ship Fifty-two.
Probably bringing another load of poor suckers to freeze to death on Mars.
That was the thing he hated about Mars--the cold. The everlasting damned cold! And the oxidation pills; take one every three hours or smother in the poor, thin air.
The government could have put up domes; it could have put in building-to-building tunnels, at least. It could have done a hell of a lot of things to make Mars a decent place for human beings.
But no--the government had other ideas. A bunch of bigshot scientific characters had come up with the idea nearly twenty-three years before. Clayton could remember the words on the sheet he had been given when he was sentenced.
“Mankind is inherently an adaptable animal. If we are to colonize the planets of the Solar System, we must meet the conditions on those planets as best we can.
“Financially, it is impracticable to change an entire planet from its original condition to one which will support human life as it exists on Terra.
“But man, since he is adaptable, can change himself--modify his structure slightly--so that he can live on these planets with only a minimum of change in the environment.”
So they made you live outside and like it. So you froze and you choked and you suffered.
Clayton hated Mars. He hated the thin air and the cold. More than anything, he hated the cold.
Ron Clayton wanted to go home.
The Recreation Building was just ahead; at least it would be warm inside. He pushed in through the outer and inner doors, and he heard the burst of music from the jukebox. His stomach tightened up into a hard cramp.
They were playing Heinlein’s Green Hills of Earth.
There was almost no other sound in the room, although it was full of people. There were plenty of colonists who claimed to like Mars, but even they were silent when that song was played.
Clayton wanted to go over and smash the machine--make it stop reminding him. He clenched his teeth and his fists and his eyes and cursed mentally. God, how I hate Mars!
When the hauntingly nostalgic last chorus faded away, he walked over to the machine and fed it full of enough coins to keep it going on something else until he left.
At the bar, he ordered a beer and used it to wash down another oxidation tablet. It wasn’t good beer; it didn’t even deserve the name. The atmospheric pressure was so low as to boil all the carbon dioxide out of it, so the brewers never put it back in after fermentation.
He was sorry for what he had done--really and truly sorry. If they’d only give him one more chance, he’d make good. Just one more chance. He’d work things out.
He’d promised himself that both times they’d put him up before, but things had been different then. He hadn’t really been given another chance, what with parole boards and all.
Clayton closed his eyes and finished the beer. He ordered another.
He’d worked in the mines for fifteen years. It wasn’t that he minded work really, but the foreman had it in for him. Always giving him a bad time; always picking out the lousy jobs for him.
Like the time he’d crawled into a side-boring in Tunnel 12 for a nap during lunch and the foreman had caught him. When he promised never to do it again if the foreman wouldn’t put it on report, the guy said, “Yeah. Sure. Hate to hurt a guy’s record.”
Then he’d put Clayton on report anyway. Strictly a rat.
Not that Clayton ran any chance of being fired; they never fired anybody. But they’d fined him a day’s pay. A whole day’s pay.
He tapped his glass on the bar, and the barman came over with another beer. Clayton looked at it, then up at the barman. “Put a head on it.”
The bartender looked at him sourly. “I’ve got some soapsuds here, Clayton, and one of these days I’m gonna put some in your beer if you keep pulling that gag.”
That was the trouble with some guys. No sense of humor.
Somebody came in the door and then somebody else came in behind him, so that both inner and outer doors were open for an instant. A blast of icy breeze struck Clayton’s back, and he shivered. He started to say something, then changed his mind; the doors were already closed again, and besides, one of the guys was bigger than he was.
The iciness didn’t seem to go away immediately. It was like the mine. Little old Mars was cold clear down to her core--or at least down as far as they’d drilled. The walls were frozen and seemed to radiate a chill that pulled the heat right out of your blood.
Somebody was playing Green Hills again, damn them. Evidently all of his own selections had run out earlier than he’d thought they would.
Hell! There was nothing to do here. He might as well go home.
“Gimme another beer, Mac.”
He’d go home as soon as he finished this one.
He stood there with his eyes closed, listening to the music and hating Mars.
A voice next to him said: “I’ll have a whiskey.”
The voice sounded as if the man had a bad cold, and Clayton turned slowly to look at him. After all the sterilization they went through before they left Earth, nobody on Mars ever had a cold, so there was only one thing that would make a man’s voice sound like that.
Clayton was right. The fellow had an oxygen tube clamped firmly over his nose. He was wearing the uniform of the Space Transport Service.
“Just get in on the ship?” Clayton asked conversationally.
The man nodded and grinned. “Yeah. Four hours before we take off again.” He poured down the whiskey. “Sure cold out.”
Clayton agreed. “It’s always cold.” He watched enviously as the spaceman ordered another whiskey.
Clayton couldn’t afford whiskey. He probably could have by this time, if the mines had made him a foreman, like they should have.
Maybe he could talk the spaceman out of a couple of drinks.
“My name’s Clayton. Ron Clayton.”
The spaceman took the offered hand. “Mine’s Parkinson, but everybody calls me Parks.”
“Sure, Parks. Uh--can I buy you a beer?”
Parks shook his head. “No, thanks. I started on whiskey. Here, let me buy you one.”
“Well--thanks. Don’t mind if I do.”
They drank them in silence, and Parks ordered two more.
“Been here long?” Parks asked.
“Fifteen years. Fifteen long, long years.”
“Did you--uh--I mean--” Parks looked suddenly confused.
Clayton glanced quickly to make sure the bartender was out of earshot. Then he grinned. “You mean am I a convict? Nah. I came here because I wanted to. But--” He lowered his voice. “--we don’t talk about it around here. You know.” He gestured with one hand--a gesture that took in everyone else in the room.
Parks glanced around quickly, moving only his eyes. “Yeah. I see,” he said softly.
“This your first trip?” asked Clayton.
“First one to Mars. Been on the Luna run a long time.”
“Low pressure bother you much?”
“Not much. We only keep it at six pounds in the ships. Half helium and half oxygen. Only thing that bothers me is the oxy here. Or rather, the oxy that isn’t here.” He took a deep breath through his nose tube to emphasize his point.
Clayton clamped his teeth together, making the muscles at the side of his jaw stand out.
Parks didn’t notice. “You guys have to take those pills, don’t you?”
“I had to take them once. Got stranded on Luna. The cat I was in broke down eighty some miles from Aristarchus Base and I had to walk back--with my oxy low. Well, I figured--”
Clayton listened to Parks’ story with a great show of attention, but he had heard it before. This “lost on the moon” stuff and its variations had been going the rounds for forty years. Every once in a while, it actually did happen to someone; just often enough to keep the story going.
This guy did have a couple of new twists, but not enough to make the story worthwhile.
“Boy,” Clayton said when Parks had finished, “you were lucky to come out of that alive!”
Parks nodded, well pleased with himself, and bought another round of drinks.
“Something like that happened to me a couple of years ago,” Clayton began. “I’m supervisor on the third shift in the mines at Xanthe, but at the time, I was only a foreman. One day, a couple of guys went to a branch tunnel to--”
It was a very good story. Clayton had made it up himself, so he knew that Parks had never heard it before. It was gory in just the right places, with a nice effect at the end.
“--so I had to hold up the rocks with my back while the rescue crew pulled the others out of the tunnel by crawling between my legs. Finally, they got some steel beams down there to take the load off, and I could let go. I was in the hospital for a week,” he finished.
Parks was nodding vaguely. Clayton looked up at the clock above the bar and realized that they had been talking for better than an hour. Parks was buying another round.
Parks was a hell of a nice fellow.
There was, Clayton found, only one trouble with Parks. He got to talking so loud that the bartender refused to serve either one of them any more.
The bartender said Clayton was getting loud, too, but it was just because he had to talk loud to make Parks hear him.
Clayton helped Parks put his mask and parka on and they walked out into the cold night.
Parks began to sing Green Hills. About halfway through, he stopped and turned to Clayton.
“I’m from Indiana.”
Clayton had already spotted him as an American by his accent.
“Indiana? That’s nice. Real nice.”
“Yeah. You talk about green hills, we got green hills in Indiana. What time is it?”
Clayton told him.
“Jeez-krise! Ol’ spaship takes off in an hour. Ought to have one more drink first.”
Clayton realized he didn’t like Parks. But maybe he’d buy a bottle.
Sharkie Johnson worked in Fuels Section, and he made a nice little sideline of stealing alcohol, cutting it, and selling it. He thought it was real funny to call it Martian Gin.
Clayton said: “Let’s go over to Sharkie’s. Sharkie will sell us a bottle.”
“Okay,” said Parks. “We’ll get a bottle. That’s what we need: a bottle.”
It was quite a walk to the Shark’s place. It was so cold that even Parks was beginning to sober up a little. He was laughing like hell when Clayton started to sing.
“We’re going over to the Shark’s
To buy a jug of gin for Parks!
Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho!”
One thing about a few drinks; you didn’t get so cold. You didn’t feel it too much, anyway.
The Shark still had his light on when they arrived. Clayton whispered to Parks: “I’ll go in. He knows me. He wouldn’t sell it if you were around. You got eight credits?”
“Sure I got eight credits. Just a minute, and I’ll give you eight credits.” He fished around for a minute inside his parka, and pulled out his notecase. His gloved fingers were a little clumsy, but he managed to get out a five and three ones and hand them to Clayton.
“You wait out here,” Clayton said.
He went in through the outer door and knocked on the inner one. He should have asked for ten credits. Sharkie only charged five, and that would leave him three for himself. But he could have got ten--maybe more.
When he came out with the bottle, Parks was sitting on a rock, shivering.
“Jeez-krise!” he said. “It’s cold out here. Let’s get to someplace where it’s warm.”
“Sure. I got the bottle. Want a drink?”
Parks took the bottle, opened it, and took a good belt out of it.
“Hooh!” he breathed. “Pretty smooth.”
As Clayton drank, Parks said: “Hey! I better get back to the field! I know! We can go to the men’s room and finish the bottle before the ship takes off! Isn’t that a good idea? It’s warm there.”
They started back down the street toward the spacefield.
“Yep, I’m from Indiana. Southern part, down around Bloomington,” Parks said. “Gimme the jug. Not Bloomington, Illinois--Bloomington, Indiana. We really got green hills down there.” He drank, and handed the bottle back to Clayton. “Pers-nally, I don’t see why anybody’d stay on Mars. Here y’are, practic’ly on the equator in the middle of the summer, and it’s colder than hell. Brrr!
“Now if you was smart, you’d go home, where it’s warm. Mars wasn’t built for people to live on, anyhow. I don’t see how you stand it.”
That was when Clayton decided he really hated Parks.
And when Parks said: “Why be dumb, friend? Whyn’t you go home?” Clayton kicked him in the stomach, hard.
“And that, that--” Clayton said as Parks doubled over.
He said it again as he kicked him in the head. And in the ribs. Parks was gasping as he writhed on the ground, but he soon lay still.
Then Clayton saw why. Parks’ nose tube had come off when Clayton’s foot struck his head.
Parks was breathing heavily, but he wasn’t getting any oxygen.
That was when the Big Idea hit Ron Clayton. With a nosepiece on like that, you couldn’t tell who a man was. He took another drink from the jug and then began to take Parks’ clothes off.
The uniform fit Clayton fine, and so did the nose mask. He dumped his own clothing on top of Parks’ nearly nude body, adjusted the little oxygen tank so that the gas would flow properly through the mask, took the first deep breath of good air he’d had in fifteen years, and walked toward the spacefield.
He went into the men’s room at the Port Building, took a drink, and felt in the pockets of the uniform for Parks’ identification. He found it and opened the booklet. It read:
PARKINSON, HERBERT J.
Steward 2nd Class, STS
Above it was a photo, and a set of fingerprints.
Clayton grinned. They’d never know it wasn’t Parks getting on the ship.