On Mars, it was a generally accepted fact that Earth was a civilization in decay. Lazy, coddled citizens who lived on the government dole. Fat, corrupt politicians who enriched themselves at the expense of the colonies. A degrading infrastructure that spent close to 30 percent of its total output on recycling systems to keep the population from drowning in its own filth. On Mars, there was virtually no unemployment. The entire population was engaged either directly or indirectly in the greatest engineering feat in human history: the terraforming of a planet. It gave everyone a sense of purpose, a shared vision of the future. Nothing like the Earthers, who lived only for their next government payout and their next visit to the drugstore or entertainment malls.
Or at least, that was the story. Suddenly Bobbie wasn’t so sure.
Repeated visits to the various information kiosks scattered through the complex eventually got her to an exit door. A bored guard nodded to her as she passed by, and then she was outside.
Outside. Without a suit.
Five seconds later she was clawing at the door, which she now realized was an exit only, trying to get back in. The guard took pity on her and pushed the door open. She ran back inside and collapsed on a nearby settee, gasping and hyperventilating.
“First time?” the guard asked with a smile.
Bobbie found herself unable to speak, but nodded.
“Mars or Luna?”
“Mars,” she said once her breathing had slowed.
“Yeah, I knew it. Domes, you know. People who’ve been in domes just panic a bit. Belters lose their shit. And I mean completely. We wind up shipping them home drugged up to keep them from screaming.”
“Yeah,” Bobbie said, happy to let the guard ramble while she collected herself. “No kidding.”
“They bring you in when it was dark outside?”
“They do that for offworlders. Helps with the agoraphobia.”
“I’ll hold the door open a bit for you. In case you need to come back in again.”
The assumption that she’d give it a second try instantly won Bobbie over, and she actually looked at the guard for the first time. Earther short, but with beautiful skin so dark it was almost blue. He had a compact, athletic frame and lovely gray eyes. He was smiling at her without a trace of mockery.
“Thank you,” she said. “Bobbie. Bobbie Draper.”
“Chuck,” he replied. “Look at the ground, then slowly look to the horizon. Whatever you do, don’t look straight up.”
“I think I got it this time, Chuck, but thanks.”
Chuck gave her uniform a quick glance and said, “Semper fi, Gunny.”
“Oohrah,” Bobbie replied with a grin.
On her second trip outside, she did as Chuck had recommended and looked down at the ground for a few moments. This helped reduce the feeling of massive sensory overload. But only a little. A thousand scents hit her nose, competing for dominance. The rich aroma of plants and soil she would expect in a garden dome. The oil and hot metal from a fabrication lab. The ozone of electric motors. All of them hit her at once, layered on top of each other and mixed with scents too exotic to name. And the sounds were a constant cacophony. People talking, construction machinery, electric cars, a transorbital shuttle lifting off, all at once and all the time. It was no wonder it had caused a panic. Just two senses’ worth of data threatened to overwhelm her. Add that impossibly blue sky that stretched on forever …
Bobbie stood outside, eyes closed, breathing until she heard Chuck let the door close behind her. Now she was committed. Turning around and asking Chuck to let her back in would be admitting defeat. He’d clearly done some time in the UNMC, and she wasn’t going to look weak in front of the competition. Hell no.
When her ears and nose had gotten more accustomed to the barrage of inputs, she opened her eyes again, looking down at the concrete of the walkway. Slowly, she lifted them till the horizon was in view. Ahead of her lay long sidewalks passing through meticulously tended green space. Beyond it in the distance was a gray wall that must have stood ten meters high, with guard towers regularly spaced on it. The UN complex had a surprising amount of security. She wondered if she’d be able to get out.
She needn’t have worried. As she approached the guarded gate to the outside world, the security system queried her terminal, which assured it of her VIP status. A camera above the guard post scanned her face, compared it to the picture on file, and verified her identity while she was still twenty meters from the gate. When she reached the exit, the guard snapped her a sharp salute and asked if she’d need a ride.
“No, just going for a walk,” she said.
The guard smiled and wished her a good day. She began walking down the street leading away from the UN complex, then turned around to see two armed security personnel following her at a discreet distance. She shrugged and walked on. Somebody would probably lose their job if a VIP like her got lost or hurt.
Once Bobbie was outside the UN compound, her agoraphobia lessened. Buildings rose around her like walls of steel and glass, moving the dizzying skyline far enough up that she no longer saw it. Small electric cars whizzed down the streets, trailing a high-pitched whine and the scent of ozone.
And people were everywhere.
Bobbie had gone to a couple of games at Armstrong Stadium on Mars, to watch the Red Devils play. The stadium had seats for twenty thousand fans. Because the Devils were usually at the bottom of the standings, it generally held less than half that. That relatively modest number was the greatest number of humans Bobbie had ever seen in one place at one time. There were billions of people on Mars, but there weren’t a lot of open spaces for them to gather. Standing at an intersection, looking down two streets that seemed to stretch into infinity, Bobbie was sure she saw more than the average attendance of a Red Devils game just walking on the sidewalks. She tried to imagine how many people were in the buildings that rose to vertigo-inducing heights in every direction around her, and couldn’t. Millions of people, probably in just the buildings and streets she could see.
And if Martian propaganda was right, most of the people she could see right now didn’t have jobs. She tried to imagine that, not having any particular place you had to be on any given day.
What the Earthers had discovered is that when people have nothing else to do, they have babies. For a brief period in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the population had looked like it might shrink rather than continue to grow. As more and more women went into higher education, and from there to jobs, the average family size grew smaller.