chapter 11: The Elevator
excerpt from The Martian Princess, Volume Three of Drift
The line to the elevator was as disorderly as it was long. Thousands of people were crammed into holding pens and then fed through portals to a converging set of tunnels where humans merged against each other. All of the inmates had been kept in dormitories of ten to twenty people and this was their first contact with others. Jedidiah was a little ahead of Phaedra and she pressed forward, afraid of losing him.
KBI classified them as a family unit. Jedidiah was listed as ORPHAN, with Phaedra as GUARDIAN. She was MOTHER with CIA (Child In Arms). There was no food, limited water and no bathroom. They wore diapers that swelled and leaked. It took almost 24 hours for them to pass to the final holding pen, where they and 97 others, mostly middle-aged men and women, waited for an elevator to the surface. There were few children. The mood was morose, even though they had all dodged going to the Outer Solar System or being uploaded and sent to Alpha Centauri B.
After Elma’s death Phaedra shrank so deep into herself she was speechless. It was then that she named her baby for her. She nursed Elma, stayed hydrated as best she could and stared at the backs in front of her, running through her life in an endless loop. Whenever she got around to the Admiral she paused to savor her hatred, her desire to kill her. But killing her wasn’t enough, she wanted to hurt her. She wanted to humiliate the Admiral, make her beg for her life. Phaedra wanted to carve Yrmela’s scars into the Admiral’s cheeks. And then, just as her blood lust was at its most feverish, when she could see the whole thing like a movie and forget where she was, when she had become a burning star of hatred, it would come to her with apodeictic certainty: it was her fault, not the Admiral’s. Phaedra had become an object of speculation, of exchange, and her value was precisely that and nothing more. She had been that her whole life and she had known it for a long time, but at the moment it had become most true, she had become blind to the fact and had acted as if she were free. Phaedra abased herself before this knowledge. In the line, in the hours of standing, she flogged herself down to a self-loathing shade. Only slowly would she rise back into herself, and review her life again, until she got to the Admiral, when her rage would blaze and she would again pause to burn in its fire, and invent ways of killing her.
Phaedra sat next to Jedidiah on a hard bench, grateful not to be on her feet. “Excited?” she asked, hoping to wrest more than angry monosyllables out of his silence.
“About what?” he asked.
“Going to Mars?”
“Who cares. I didn’t want to go to Mars, I wanted to go to deep space.”
Phaedra got angry. “If you had any idea of what I went through to get you here.”
“You shouldn’t have bothered. Gert and the other kids are going to Pluto.”
“You would not have been kept together.”
“Thanks to you and your stupid play.”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“I asked if you are excited, not about what happened.”
“I’m hungry.” He hung his head down and rested his arms on his legs.
“They said there would be c-rations.”
“What are those?”
“Military food kits.”
“That synthetic Saturn shit? No thank you.”
“You complain about the sweet potatoes too.”
“Because the food sucks. I’m still hungry. I’m surprised people don’t eat their own flesh.”
That was a grisly thought. “It goes against our nature,” Phaedra said. She looked around for someone in charge.
“When I was a kid we played Space Cannibals.”
“So is incest,” he sneered.
“What on earth do you know about incest?”
“Gert said in space brother and sister fuck and have mutant babies.”
“There is something wrong with that girl.”
“Why do people fuck anyway? It just makes trouble.”
“OK, Jedidiah, I’m not talking about cannibalism or incest with you. We need to plan what we will do on Mars.”
“They will work us to death in the mines,” he said.
After that they stopped talking. Eventually she slept, awakening every time her head dropped to her chest. He slept slumped on his own lap.
The room slowly stirred to life, like thawing water. Joining the impersonal force of a crowd in motion, they walked single file past a blue cube that scanned their scarcodes against the database of approved prisoners. Phaedra’s brain tightened as they approached the check point. She wasn’t sure her new identity would work, and her new identity made her so sad she could not even think about it. It reminded her of the day that she, Sargon and Titania had to pass the checkpoint in Central Park. The fear as they approached the Red Suits gripped her. Sargon drawing his gun and shooting Titania. Titania! Sargon. They were in the marble foyer of 1220 Fifth, Balfour licking her Papa’s face. Blood everywhere. Heads engulfed in globes of fire. Titania. The line moved. Elma, poor Elma, what did she feel going out the vent? They had loved each other. Phaedra should have warned her that it was death to know her, death to cross her, death to love her.
The line budged towards the cube. She felt the bumps on her wrist rise and burn. Jedidiah held his hand up to the cube with the hard face of a prisoner. He looked like he wanted to hurt someone, like it would make him feel good. The other men and women were not like that. They were mostly professionals. Glowing hair, great height, high cheekbones, full lips. If it weren’t for the uniforms they could have been business people on an amphibatrain going from the Upper East Side to Grand Central.
The cube’s eyestalks examined her and scanned her scarcode, then the baby’s. She took her first breath after that, as they passed through the airgate onto the elevator. The elevator was a passenger container that would be transferred by mechanical arm from The Constellations End port to the elevator track. Each container had twenty rows of five seats each. The seats were not assigned. They simply walked forward and took the next one available. Phaedra settled into a middle seat next to Jedidiah. A man sat next to Jedidiah and two men sat next to her. They had little leg room but the seats reclined a few inches. The car was a glass hemisphere. She felt an enormous lightening as the prospect opened out on all sides. Below was Mars, red, scarred with canyons and craters. The other passengers were eagerly looking up and over each other’s heads.
“Beautiful,” Phaedra mumbled.
“What?” asked Jedidiah.
“Nothing. Beautiful is all I said.”
“After nine months on that ship anything would be beautiful,” said the man next to her.
The man next to him said, “It looks beautiful, but it’s deadly. They told us it’s deadly.”
“Like a tarantula,” said the first man.
“There’s no dust storm at the moment. That’s why you can see so much,” said the second.
The man next to Jedidiah chimed in. “Get a good look now, it’s all we’ll see of the surface.”
“I wonder what it’s really like down there?” the man next to Phaedra asked.
“You don’t believe all that bullshit they feed us about careers in space? Mining Engineers! Ha!” said the man to Jedidiah’s right.
“There were some suckers who fell for it. Me, I’d be fine sweeping up so long as they don’t vent me,” said the man next to the man on Phaedra’s left.
“Is that how they do it on Mars?” the man next to Jedidiah asked.
“Yeah, out the door. Airlock,” the man to the left of the man next to Phaedra replied.
“They don’t burn you?” asked the man next to her.
The man to his left answered, “No man, fire is like taboo there. All that oxygen they’re making and pumping. After what we’re used to they say it’s rich. Problem is all the sublimating CO2. You have to always be scrubbing. So actually, there is much less oxygen when the scrubbers don’t work properly.”
“That’s right. Were you in the business?” asked the man next to Jedidiah.
“No, a guy in my cell was.”
“What are you?” asked the man next to Phaedra.
“A poet,” answered the man to his left.
“Really?” Phaedra asked, leaning forward so she could see him. He was in his late forties, skin hanging off of him like he had lost a lot of weight fast. His face was sad, with heavy brown pillows under the eyes and the mouth, once used to smiling, drooped from atrophy. “Where?”
“What kind of work do you do? Do you publish?”
“Free verse epic. I’ve been working on a long poem for decades, about Toussaint Louverture. I won the Duckwald Prize and was short listed for the Pugilist.”
Phaedra became animated and leaned in the man’s direction. “You remember any of it? I don’t know the first thing about Toussaint Louverture.”
“Maybe we should switch places,” the man seated next to Phaedra said.
Phaedra slept poorly but she slept. Some of it was deep enough to forget she had ever been awake. The rest of the time she chased her thoughts and ran from her feelings. Mars was looming closer. The planet was brown with a pink tint, not red at all, and the most lifeless thing she had ever seen. She realized for the first time where the hell she had chosen to go. Outer solar system and exoplanet voyages were terrifying for their finality, dissipating like energy on the drift of time. But on Mars she would be buried alive. Better to have remained in space, to have found a window and gone mad watching the stars.
Both the Admiral and Elma said she would be put to work in a brothel. She supposed she had been a whore on The Constellations End, albeit with a single client she became obsessed with, but it was not her first time, if she counted Budapest. There, if she needed more than her guitar had earned, she would suck whatever dick she had to to get by. The first time she was so fucked up she barely remembered it, Lug kneeling on her shoulders and thrusting his giant schlong in her mouth as if it were a pussy. It came to her in flashes devoid of feeling. That didn’t really count since she wasn’t paid and she hadn’t consented.
When she realized she could make money doing it, the decision was easy enough. A guy, middle aged, undistinguished, staring at her outside the theatre on a shitty day, asked her into the WC and she followed. She felt like shit, kneeling on the dirty wet floor giving what she realized now was a miserably bad blowjob. When he came she gagged and she was sure he could hear her puking as he left. She tried later to abstract herself, to disappear but it was impossible to do so with a stranger thrusting away at you. She just wanted to get it over with and got good at the fast version, which was bad for business. They were always disappointed. That was when she learned to get the money first and carry a small knife.
It took five minutes. She’d be sucking cock for free if she were with a man; she might as well get paid for it, she reasoned, having had no experience yet of what it was like to suck a cock she wanted to suck. But she knew now. She didn’t want to ruin the images in her mind of Sargon with some fat dirty Martian whose nasty load she would have to spit on the ground. Ground? Is that what they called it? No, they probably called it the floor, since they were always inside. And then what? He beats her up for not swallowing and the girls laugh at her. No business. She once heard two whores talking on a Budapest stoop. One was sitting on the steps and the other was standing. It was a hot day and the one on the steps fanned herself with a theatre playbill. She said, Why don’t you have a seat, and the other one laughed, Every time I sit I fart. Dude put some gas in my ass!
Phaedra laughed out loud at the memory and opened her eyes briefly. Everyone else was asleep. The planet was dark. It was night. She shut her eyes. Elma kicked her just to remind her for the thousandth time that she was there.
What was she doing to her? She was a shitty mother. No kind of mother at all. She didn’t deserve Elma. And Elma deserved better than her. The convict status traveled down the generations. She had condemned her child, hers and Sargon’s, to a life of perpetual servitude and darkness. And then on top of that being the daughter of a whore. Elma would sit in the corner quietly while Phaedra fucked men. They would spank her, tie her up, beat her up, fuck her mouth, her ass, her cunt. They would jerk off on her. She would piss and shit on them. She would have no power. She would be a bucket in the corner.
Elma squirmed against her. She needed a new diaper and a bath. When she was able to change her the smell blooming up made Phaedra gag. The elevator toilet was tiny and after the first few hours filthy, covered with shit and vomit and there was always a line of miserable looking, grey prisoners. They had taken off their diapers and the garbage can was overflowing. She had been given four for the baby and had one left, but she didn’t want to awaken her, it was bad enough that she cried on and off for hours. The other prisoners despised her for it.
Elma wouldn’t stop crying or lie still. Phaedra’s nipples were sore from the constant nursing. Her left nipple was infected, raw and red, the ducts hard and the right wasn’t far behind. She tried to focus. This life, she thought, it isn’t living. Were it not better to die quickly? Her hopeless numbness overwhelmed her and the strength it took to care, to love, to nurture was gone. The paralysis of a dream had crept out of her limbs and into her heart. She wanted to murder her child.
Phaedra watched the reddish brown sphere grow larger and larger. As shadows stretched off of mountains and filled canyons, craters came into focus and then structures. The planet flattened out and they descended at a speed she hadn’t realized was so fast. Everyone was awake now, staring at the approach of the glass geodesic dome that capped the volcano Pavonis Mons. The rising sun flared off its crystalline edges and they saw helicopters and jet craft taking off and landing from the surrounding airfields. In the near distance, vapor plumes rose from arrays of smoke stacks, into the brown pink haze. Industrial beetles plied the slopes of the volcanoes.
The elevator terminus raced towards them and there was an abrupt bump as they slowed for the approach. They entered the dome and descended through massive concourses full of shops and throngs of Rulers, tourists and business people. They sank slowly through this and into the deeper Small Caldera, and from there they descended five kilometers before landing with a thud. She stood and stretched, her sore joints creaking. Silent excitement, perhaps only vigilance, spread through the car as they crowded the door.
They debarked as they had come, in an orderly shuffle through the pressure lock into a dirty tunnel far beneath the grand concourse of Cooper Station. Cooper Station was the center of the large caldera of Pavonis Mons, home to the International Zone and Cooperstown, the largest Martian city, built on the gentle slopes of the crater. Skylight tubules admitted shafts of weak Martian sun into the subterranean settlement, magnified by lenses and diffused through the crystal walls and ceilings.
Humans in red uniforms with gold braid and white nightsticks stood at a line of gates scanning their scarcodes. When it was their turn they stood before a very short armored guard who barely looked at them but pointed in the direction the other prisoners were going, a hall that sloped downwards into the dark. She and Jedidiah soon found themselves milling about a room containing numerous tables evenly spaced, each with a human in red armor with a black helmet with a square, canine snout. They spent hours going from table to table. Her feet and back hurt. She had not eaten in two days and was weak with hunger. The sling weighed her neck and shoulders down and Jedidiah, silent for the first hour, began to grumble and then curse.
Perhaps an hour beyond when it seemed hopeless, when hunger and thirst left her lightheaded, so that she thought she might fall asleep standing, Elma stirred and began to scream. She emptied one breast and started in on the infected one. It was agony. The pain sent bolts of lightning through Phaedra’s nerves. Raw as the nipple was, she needed to drain the milk out or she risked mastitis and a blocked duct. She wouldn’t be able to nurse Elma then and had no idea of how she’d feed her. She wasn’t old enough to eat solid food even if Phaedra chewed it up, of that she was certain. But she didn’t actually know much about babies, after all. She was an imposter.
“I’m hungry,” Jedidiah said for the tenth time that hour.
“I know you are hungry. I’m hungry too. Elma’s hungry.”
“She can eat whenever she wants. I can’t suck your tits.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk that way to me,” she said.
Phaedra would not engage. She didn’t even believe he knew what he was saying. He knew the power of words instinctively but not what those words really meant, he had never sucked anyone’s tits and he didn’t have them. As they argued, and Elma cried, she tried to center Elma on her burning broken breast, the pain arcing through her. The attendants were glaring at them.
They stood at the next desk, anticipating the likely result.
“Scarcode,” the guard asked. Phaedra waved her wrist. “Not this desk.” They went to the next one.
“It’s probably not here,” said Jedidiah, stumbling along. “Its probably at the end.”
“You don’t know that. God that hurts,” she said under her breath. “I’m falling asleep.” Her head was pounding. Her mouth was dry. “Do you have any water left?” she asked.
“A little.” He took out a crumpled water bottle and shook it. “A couple of sips.”
“Never mind, you have it.”
“It’s too warm.”
Five desks on and she felt herself sinking to the ground, head swimming. She said to the guard, “Please, we haven’t eaten or had anything to drink. The baby needs to nurse. Would it be possible—”
“Not this desk, move on.”
“Can’t we find out which desk?”
They weren’t the only ones. The poet was arguing with a guard. “I must have my assignment!”
“I refuse to move! On Earth, even prisoners—”
“This is Mars, not Earth. Next.”
He walked away ranting, “Bastards! I haven’t eaten. It’s been days. For god’s sake you’re just going to kill me anyway, let’s get on with it!”
Phaedra wanted to say something to him but as she was about to two guards began to beat him over the head with their nightsticks until he lay in a blubbering heap on the ground. She couldn’t make out what he was saying but it seemed to be, Harder, hit me harder!
“Scarcode?” She waived her wrist as did Jedidiah. “Child in arms?”
“Here’s your assignment. Area G. Take the French Zone shuttle.”
The shuttle was ten halls away. There was a moving sidewalk for the last five, which took them to the station, where they boarded a tram with a few other convicts, and ordinary people who stared at them angrily. It took two hours to arrive at the French Zone. The shuttle screeched to a stop and a voice announced Vous arrivez dans la zone G francaise…Tu’ve lazone G franc….You have arrived in the French Zone G…then in Chinese, Spanish, German, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Swahili. Zone G was carved out of a vein of carbon dioxide ice. The scrubbers and vents clanked and periodically stalled, only to start again with a groan. Her feet were cold and wet, treading slowly through the slush. It smelled sulfurous, with the funk of unbathed humans heavy in the air. The chairs were beat up spacemetal, unpainted, with silicon cushions. They sat down and she looked at the assignment. All it said was French Zone G, Qudra.