STICKBALL ON MARS
By: Andrew Dunn
It was illegal to play stickball on Mars. Or any other sport like it outside the athletic dome near the center of Patriam. The Central Council banned playing most sports outside the athletic dome. The dome was reinforced so that a stray ball wouldn’t shatter its panes. Even if a pane did shatter, the dome was safe inside Patriam.
According to the thirty second infomercial Central Council inserted somewhere in every block of commercials on television, a stray ball, arrow, or even a frisbee could break one of Patriam’s panes. If that happened, the healthy supply of breathable atmosphere carefully maintained at an Earth-like 14.69 pounds per square inch would woosh out into the 0.087 pounds per square inch of poisonous gas that made up the Martian air.
Tommy took a balloon once and filled it as full as he could with deep breaths. Then, he took a strip of clear tape and placed it on the balloon. He pierced the balloon through the tape with a needle and nothing happened. “This is what would happen if a ball went through the glass,” Tommy flashed his most sinister grin and then pulled the pin out of the balloon. In a matter of seconds the balloon collapsed, shriveled, then dangled limp in his hand.
I tried to do the same trick for Marcie but I wasn’t as good at it as Tommy was. Somehow, when I pierced the balloon it popped. Marcie wasn’t impressed. She knew like we all knew that if Patriam’s glass dome was ever pierced, the whole place would collapse and shrivel right there on the Tharsis plain.
“Did you know they named Tharsis after Tarshish from the Bible, because Tarshish was a place the farthest away from all other known civilizations?” I asked Marcie after the balloon popped. It was a shot at redemption. A chance at not looking like a total idiot in front of one of the cutest girls in all of Patriam.
“Who’s they?” Marcie burst my bubble. I couldn’t blame her. Not when she’d wanted to feel that quiver of fear everyone felt when they imagined Patriam as a balloon spewing its breath and the lives of 4,227 citizens across the Martian landscape. That’s what life was like at the farthest known outpost ever established by the human species.
“So remember, always maintain a safe distance from the dome itself and its panes, never throw things at them, and if you see something say something,” went one version of the infomercial.
“Have you ever touched the panes?” Tommy flashed that sinister grin.
“No,” I said. Because I hadn’t. I wanted to though.
“I have,” Tommy claimed.
“You did not,” Eric chided.
“I did so,” Tommy was sticking to his story.
“There’s no way,” Eric continued, “you can’t just touch the panes.”
Eric was right. Central Council mandated a No Man’s Land twenty feet wide between the panes and a five foot high electrified chain link fence that made up the inner perimeter. Even if someone made it through the fence and across No Man’s Land, there were sensors and alarms and who knows what else that would keep them from actually making it to the panes.
“I touched the panes,” Tommy insisted.
“Aren’t there land mines in No Man’s Land?” I asked.
“Are you stupid?” Eric was getting aggravated.
“That’s what they say.” I could feel my face blushing red. But it was what they had told us. In school. Mr. Ikashi said that Central Council placed land mines in No Man’s Land.
“Think about it,” Eric exclaimed, “a land mine blows up that close to the panes and what happens to Patriam.” Tommy filled his cheeks with air and then mashed his hands against them to force the air out. It made sense. If a land mine blew up near the panes wouldn’t It shatter them?
“Anyway,” Tommy said, “I wouldn’t be here if there were land mines in No Man’s Land because I touched a pane.”
“Prove it.” Eric crossed his arms.
“What do you mean prove it?” Tommy asked.
“If you touched one prove it.” Eric challenged.
“Okay,” Tommy said after a minute, “I’ll do it again and I’ll leave my handprint there so you can see it from your bedroom window.”
The next day we met in Eric’s upstairs bedroom and took turns looking through binoculars at the triangular window panes behind his house. They all looked the same. Framed in light blue or white and lightly tinted so that the harsh oranges and reds all around Patriam were a little less menacing.
“It’ll say panel 00142-A,” Tommy said as Eric scanned each pane searching for the one Tommy said he had touched.
“I see 1022-F,” Eric mumbled, “01077-G...I don’t know Tommy...”
“You try,” Tommy took the binoculars from Eric and handed them to me.
The panels all looked the same. There were rivets in the corners that glimmered silver and bronze. On the frames they all had a serial number. The world beyond each came through as a numbed blur of the inhospitable.
“So do you see it?” Tommy asked.
“What was the number?”
“00142-A,” Tommy replied.
There it was. In the bottom corner of panel 00142-A. A bright red hand print.
“Take a look Eric,” I held the binoculars in place so he’d be able to find Tommy’s hand print.
“That’s really your hand print?” Eric asked.
“Yep,” Tommy sounded satisfied, “I used red so it would blend in better with what’s outside.”
“What was it like?” Eric couldn’t take his eyes away from the binoculars.
“It’s soft,” Tommy reflected, “and kind of springy.”
“Springy?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Tommy said, “like a sponge or something.”
“What if you get caught?” Eric asked.
“How would I get caught?” Tommy laughed.
“Well,” Eric finally put the binoculars down, “it’s your hand print and even though it’s red eventually the patrollers will see it and they’ll read the fingerprints.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Tommy said matter of fact.
“Of course it matters,” I shot back.
“No, it doesn’t.” Tommy replied.
“What,” Eric guessed, “did you wear a glove or something.”
“Ever play stickball?” Tommy answered.
We played stickball for the first time in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the truest version the game but it was the best we could do we three players. One would pitch. One would play catcher. And the third would swing at the ball and sprint hard full on running the bases for a home run unless the pitcher or catcher could tag him out. Score a home run and then we all rotated positions. Get tagged out and we rotated positions. It was stickball stripped down to bare essentials.
Whenever we saw headlights we hid for cover, but we never saw a patroller come by. There was something about moving out from the shadows and playing the game for a few rapid fire minutes, then vanishing again until the headlights went away.
Tommy could have played all night. He said he could. Tommy said he could stay out until the sun started to come up.
“What about school?” I asked him.
“What about it?” Tommy smirked.
After that first night, playing stickball became something bigger than a game. It was our secret. Our club. It set us apart from everybody else in Patriam. We were rebels. Outlaws that thrived on our raw competition. We decided a red handprint would be our symbol. Whenever we finished a game of stickball, whoever had the most runs left his handprint right there where we’d played.
And we never got caught.
“You ought to come watch,” I hinted to Marcie. She’d been wondering why I seemed tired lately. She knew something was going on that she hadn’t been let in on.
“I don’t know,” she said plaintively.
That wasn’t how it had played out in my imagination. I imagined I’d hint that she should come out one night and watch us play the game. That would make her curious. She’d say yes. And then one of the cutest girls in all Patriam would come out and see us outlaws playing stickball.
“It’s fun,” I tried. Marcie had to come see us play. She had to see me, the anonymous kid that sat in the third row of Mr. Ikashi’s class living after midnight. Breaking the law. Leaving only my mark behind when I was done.
“Is this what you left Earth behind for,” Marcie complained, “you came all the way to Patriam for this?
“Give it a chance,” it wasn’t the best reply.
“What happens when you get caught?” Marcie went on. “Do you know what they do when they catch someone?”
Come to think of it, I didn’t. None of us did really. We’d heard things. Everybody had heard things but nobody ever knew of anyone getting caught.
“They won’t catch us.” I sounded firm. Confident.
“You don’t know that.” Marcie sounded more confident.
“We’ll see.” I shot back. I was right though. We’d left handprints all over Patriam. None of them were especially hard to find. What was stopping Central Council from checking our fingerprints against the citizen database?
“You don’t understand do you?” Marcie glared.
“What do you mean?”
“They’ve seen you.” Marcie said before she stormed off.
“I was just thinking maybe we ought to take a break for a while,” I ventured.
“Take a break?” Tommy stopped in his tracks.
“You know,” I said, “we don’t want to push our luck or anything.”
“What about our pact?” Eric demanded.
We had made a pact. All for one, one for all. Either we all played stickball or none of us played stickball. There was no in between.
“I’m just saying why don’t we take a break for a little while,” I tried.
“Who did you tell?” Tommy accused.
That was another part of our pact. We weren’t supposed to tell anyone, not a soul, about stickball. Ever.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” I lied.
“Fine,” Tommy said, “so we can play then.”
“I don’t know,” another approach, “I don’t feel too good.”
“What’s the deal.” Eric shot back.
“I just don’t feel,” I began.
“If you ask me,” Tommy cut me off, “there’s only one way to fix this.”
“What’s that Tommy?” Eric asked.
“We need proof,” Tommy pronounced, “that the pact hasn’t been broken. Do we all agree on that?”
We all nodded.
“Then the best way,” Tommy turned his stare my way, “is for you to mark your handprint as high up on the panels as you can.”
“When?” I almost choked as I asked.
“Tomorrow night,” Tommy decided, “we’ll take a break from stickball tonight and tomorrow night we’ll meet by the fence behind Eric’s.”
How had they seen us? Instead of going home and sneaking back through my bedroom window, I made my way to the place where we’d first played stickball.
There was nothing special about it. Our first game had been behind a low row of shops near the athletic dome. We’d played it just a few blocks from Central Council headquarters. From time to time we had seen headlights in the distance and we’d ducked where ever we could until they were gone. Had they seen us?
If they had, why hadn’t the patrollers emerged from the shadows and...
What would have happened if patrollers came rushing out of the shadows to enforce Central Council’s mandates? Everybody had heard stories about the things that happened to people that got caught. They were taken to places underneath Central Council headquarters.
Maybe. In school Mr. Ikashi said there were six layers underground. That was where all the machinery that gave us air and water and everything else had been installed back when most of Patriam was still being assembled on Earth.
Eric thought there was another Patriam down there too. Not as fancy or nice as above ground Patriam, but just enough to keep everyone alive if something bad happened. Like the old underground shelters people on Earth once had when nuclear war was something people were worried about.
“It’s late,” she said as she walked up behind me.
“I was just out for a walk.” A lie. A bad one too. I didn’t even believe it when I said it.
“Out for a walk huh?” Her hair was a dull red and her eyes were either blue or hazel. It was hard to tell in the dark. She wore the brown work clothes Patriam’s technicians always wore. I’d never seen her before though. There weren’t many red-heads in Patriam.
“Um yeah,” I fumbled, “I couldn’t sleep so I figured I’d go for a walk.”
“Look kid,” she dismissed my story as she sat down beside me, “if you were out for a walk or out doing whatever I don’t care. That’s your business. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t really know what she meant.
“My name’s Lisa,” she said and then we shook hands, “I’m a Systems Technician 4th class. Know what that means?”
“Me neither kid me neither,” she laughed.
I tried to laugh too. Even though I didn’t know what Lisa meant exactly.
“You’re homesick kid?” Lisa asked.
“I keep forgetting,” Lisa said, “the younger you are in Patriam the less you remember about Earth.”
“I don’t really remember much about Earth.” I admitted.
“Earth.” Lisa said staring upward at the low red darkness of Patriam’s nights. “They said we’d make history coming over to the red planet. We’d be the new natives or some such.”
Mr. Ikashi had shown us a video about that. It had been filmed before I was born. A group of scientists talked about what would eventually become Patriam. It would be the first step towards one day making Mars into a new Earth.
“What I miss,” Lisa continued, “is being able to look up and see the actual sky and the stars and clouds.”
“Real clouds kid,” Lisa laughed, “they don’t look like the mist we put up in the mornings to help keep things in here on balance.”
Every morning a misty fog puffed out of vents located all over Patriam. Since it didn’t really rain or snow inside the dome, the mists were designed to keep plant life on its normal life cycle. Beyond the dome though, it was sometimes possible to see darker or lighter patches of red in the Martian sky. Were those like the one’s Lisa missed back on Earth?
“Yeah kid,” Lisa said, “sometimes I miss Earth but know what?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she whispered and smiled, “all you really need is to go off the grid for a little while and it all comes back to you.”
Lisa eased back up on her feet and started off down the street. For a second I thought about following after her. I wanted to know what she meant about going off the grid and it all coming back. Then I thought about sneaking from shadow to shadow after her. To see where she went and what she did and maybe get some answers that way.
Then again, like she said, it was late. And I didn’t know who else might be around.
“So remember, always maintain a safe distance from the dome and its panes, never throw things at them, and if you see something say something,” the cartoon character explained on eighteen big screens suspended from the lunch room’s ceiling.
“Are you ready?” Tommy asked.
I’d done my best to avoid Tommy and Eric all morning. At home I’d waited in the bathroom, pretending I had an upset stomach, until I was sure they were walking to school without me. It wasn’t hard to pretend my stomach was upset. I was so nervous it felt like I might throw breakfast up.
They couldn’t talk to me in class. Mr. Ikashi was one of the coolest teacher’s in school but he didn’t like it when students passed each other notes or whispered back and forth while he was teaching. Tommy and Eric eyed me and tried to gesture when they caught me looking their way. I pretended I didn’t notice and instead I hid behind the Spanish-American war, long division, and a pop quiz on photosynthesis.
Lunch though made me fair game.
“Ready?” I asked.
“C’mon,” Eric laughed, “the pact, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” I mumbled.
“So,” Tommy pressed, “are you ready?”
No. That was what should have popped out of my mouth. I wasn’t ready to sneak across the fence and make a mad dash across No Man’s Land to put my handprint on a translucent pane.
“I don’t know.” I finally said.
“What do you mean you don’t know.” Eric hissed.
“I said I don’t know all right!” Too loud. Eyes turned towards our spot at the end of one of the long tables.
“Hey,” Tommy soothed, “calm down man. It’ll be easy okay?”
“They saw us.” I whispered.
“What?” Eric asked.
“You heard me,” I hissed back, “they saw us.”
“Who?” Tommy leaned in.
“I don’t know,” I began, “but last night, I was sitting there where we played our first game and this technician came out of nowhere and started talking to me.”
“So what,” Eric complained, “he was a technician. They can’t do anything.”
“She was a technician,” I corrected, “Lisa. That’s what she said her name was. She just came from out of nowhere.”
“He, she, whatever,” Eric argued, “technicians aren’t patrollers so what difference does it make.”
“A lot.” Tommy fired back at Eric.
“So yeah,” I plunged a fork into my food, “I’m ready to get caught and then get hauled off to Central Council headquarters.”
“We aren’t going to get caught,” Eric said dryly.
“You don’t know that.” I said.
“I do,” Eric said through a mouthful of salad, “we’ve put red handprints all over Patriam and not a peep. It hasn’t been in the news. Nobody’s come to talk to us. Nothing.”
“Eric’s right.” Tommy nodded.
“How do we know this Lisa person even exists.” Eric looked at Tommy then at me.
“She probably works at night or something.” I couldn’t believe Eric thought I was making Lisa up.
“That makes sense,” Eric grinned, “we play at night so she was out there doing her job and she saw us. Then she saw you so she talked to you.”
“Wait. Is that it? What did she say?” Tommy said.
“We just talked,” I offered.
“About?” Tommy pressed.
“I don’t know.” I replied. “She was homesick for Earth. She said sometimes it was best to go off the grid for a little while.”
“Go off the grid?” Eric laughed. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know what it means but that’s what she told me.” Too loud a second time. Much too loud. More eyes turned our way this time than before.
“Okay,” Tommy decided, “well if we run into this Lisa tonight maybe we’ll ask her. The pact still stands.”
“I don’t think it’s fair that you talked about us with Tommy and Eric,” Marcie caught up with me on my way home from school. I’d stayed late in study hall so I wouldn’t have to walk home with Tommy and Eric.
“What do you mean?” I had no idea what Marcie was talking about.
“At lunch today,” Marcie was really angry, “you yelled that you didn’t know what it meant but it was what I had told you and everybody looked at you.”
“That wasn’t about you Marcie.” I tried to set things right.
“Wasn’t it?” She answered.
“It was something else.” I tried again.
“No it wasn’t,” she said, “there isn’t any something else in this.”
“You don’t understand.” What else could I say?
“I do understand,” she fired back, “I understand everything!”
“I don’t!” It was true. I didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t understand why Marcie was so mad and why she wouldn’t listen to me.
“Admit it,” Marcie was furious, “you know what you did and you knew it when you did it and now you’re playing dumb with me.”
“Can we talk about this?” I begged.
“Talk about this.” Marcie mocked.
“It wasn’t about us,” I tried.
“This is all about us mister,” Marcie seethed before storming off.
My dreams came weird and fast. In one I was laying on red soil holding my breath as long as I could, and taking in short gulps of atmosphere when I couldn’t. The short gulps made me hurt at first. Then they made me numb. I liked being numb even though I wasn’t supposed to.
Lisa came up in my next dream. Still in her work clothes and still dreaming about Earth. She talked a lot about Mobile on what she called the gulf coast. After another place called Houston, Lisa said that was where most launches occurred. They’d given up on Florida after, well anyway, all the launches were from Houston and Mobile now.
In my dreams I wanted to be in Mobile where I could walk down by the gulf coast and watch towers atop columns of fire arc high and vanish from view. I wondered where they went.
What if they vanished to places where they landed and everyone clutched sullen ground, gasping for breath, and going numb when Martian air displaced the processed air in their lungs.
2:13 was what the clock said when I jolted upright and wide awake. Outside Patriam was a shrouded world. The misting was well underway. Through the window my world seemed different somehow. Constrained. Confined. I’d never felt that way about Patriam before. That it was a small world, carefully maintained underneath a translucent dome.
Why didn’t all those rockets from Mobile and Houston ever make it out to Patriam. Mr. Ikashi said Earth was always launching rockets. But we never saw them. The docking station at the far end of Patriam always seemed empty.
The clock said 2:17 when I drifted off again. To Mr. Ikashi and me riding an open cockpit rocket-ship straight through Patriam’s dome. It collapsed, shriveled, and lay splayed beneath us as we gasped for what was left of atmosphere and hoped we could hold our breath long enough to make it to Mobile.
“Tonight’s the night,” Tommy sang as we shuffled our way to school.
“Is it?” I asked.
“The pact man,” Eric replied, “the pact.”
“I was thinking.” I replied.
“About what?” Tommy asked.
“The pact is important right?” I ventured.
“Yeah,” Tommy said after he thought about it for a moment.
“So if the pact is so important, why are we waiting until tonight?” I replied.
“Because we do what we do at night.” Eric offered.
“So what.” I rasped back.
“Let me get this straight,” Tommy cut in, “you want to skip school and go out in broad daylight to leave your mark on the dome?”
“Yeah,” my voice sounded weak, almost questioning.
“You know what happens if they catch you?” Eric challenged.
“Catch us.” I emphasized “us”.
“Hold on,” Tommy said, “nobody’s getting caught. That’s because we do this at night.”
“Why?” I shot back. “Why don’t we do it right now?”
“Because we can’t,” Tommy hissed, “if we don’t show up at school then they’ll come looking for us.”
Tommy was right. Three missing people on Patriam could trigger a full-scale search operation. Whatever sensors Central Council used to keep our world alive would no doubt be brought on-line to find us. There was probably some underground bunker full of Lisas that would collect data and transmit it to the patrollers.
A patroller with its spidery appendages would claw through my bed sheets. Studying. Sensing. The patroller would estimate my health using whatever it could glean from my sheets. I wondered if it would drag a shining, sharp finger across my pillow and see last night’s dreams.
“Good morning class.” Mr. Ikashi began. “Before we begin today I have a very important announcement to read from Central Council.”
Mr. Ikashi opened a manila envelope and unfolded a plain white sheet of paper. He read through it once, maybe twice. Then he paused, unsettled.
“Class,” Mr. Ikashi’s tone was grave, “Central Council reminds all citizens of Patriam that areas beyond the inner perimeter are off limits at all times. Violations of this policy will result in the maximum authorized punishment.”
The classroom seemed absolutely silent. Mr. Ikashi stared at the page for a long time. As if there was something more there he couldn’t bring himself to read out loud.
“You don’t understand do you?” Marcie whispered.
“I don’t know.” I muttered.
“They’ve seen you.” She hissed.
“You don’t know that.” I whispered back.
“Do you know what they do when they catch someone?” Marcie glared.
“Class,” Mr. Ikashi finally said, “is this what you left Earth behind for?”
Tommy wiggled uneasily in his seat. Eric played it cool.
“Did you come all the way to Patriam for this?” Mr. Ikashi went on. “Being here isn’t just an opportunity. It’s a privilege. You all were chosen for this.”
We were. Some of us before we were ever even born. There had been a registry. Chromosomes had been collected and studied. A list had been made with millions of names on it. From all over Earth. Each name was assigned a serial number. Then there was a lottery that picked 6,000 people that could go to Patriam. 4,227 made the final cut and boarded the rocket-ships bound for Mars.
“Class,” Mr. Ikashi finally stood from behind his desk, “if it’s you that’s going into No Man’s Land, please please think about what’s at stake before you do it again.”
“Maybe we ought to wait.” Eric said as we walked home from school.
“Wait?” I asked.
“Didn’t you hear what Mr. Ikashi said?” Eric complained. “They might be on to us.”
This was too much. I lunged into Eric and slammed him to the ground.
“Hey,” Tommy shouted, “break it up. Break it up!”
Tommy yanked me off Eric and shoved Eric back down to the ground when he started after me.
“We need to think about this.” Tommy begged.
“Think about what?” I stepped towards Tommy. “There’s a pact right? We’re in this right? We either are or we aren’t.”
“Yeah but think about what you gave up to be here.” Tommy muttered.
I didn’t. As hard as I tried I had no recollection of what Earth had been like. Mobile. Houston. Xi Chang. Guyana. Bangalore. I didn’t know which one I’d been launched from or what it was like there my last day on Earth. My earliest memories were big rooms where we slept in bunk beds and spending weeks waiting to heal after they’d surgically implanted the cyber involved environment device in the back of my neck.
“Tommy,” my tone was even although inside I was anything but, “we either are or we aren’t.”
“Tommy we can’t,” Eric whined from the sidewalk.
“I don’t know,” Tommy mumbled.
“What do you mean you don’t know Tommy,” Eric cried, “we can’t we just can’t!”
“I don’t know!” Tommy shouted.
“Well I know,” I stepped even closer to Tommy, “I’ll be out tonight and you’d better be too or the pact is done.”
“What do you mean?” Tommy wrinkled his brow.
“Whoever isn’t there,” I made sure to stare hard at Eric for a second, “I’ll turn in to Central Council.”
“You won’t.” Eric seethed.
“Watch me.” I wasn’t about to back down.
“What if I turn you in right now?” Eric fired back.
“What if I go to the dome right now?” I moved towards Eric.
“Look,” Tommy said, “nobody’s turning anybody in. Nobody’s going to Central Council. Nobody’s breaking the pact. We got this alright? We just have to figure it out.”
“And?” I crossed my arms.
“How about,” Tommy began, “how about we wait until tomorrow night just to be safe.”
“That’s fair right?” Eric agreed.
“I guess so,” I replied. We could wait until tomorrow night if that’s what they wanted to do. And I could go out by myself and leave my mark on the dome. Tommy and Eric could see it later. Whenever. Or never. I didn’t care anymore.
“Did you know they named Tharsis after Tarshish from the Bible because Tarshish was a place the farthest away from all other know civilizations?” Marcie asked.
“Who’s they?” I couldn’t remember who had first given a name to the vast Martian plain surrounding Patriam.
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
“You ought to come watch,” I offered.
“You have to remember to always maintain a safe distance from the dome itself and its panes, never throw things at them, and if you see something say something,” Marcie replied in near monotone.
“It’s fun,” I said. Because it was. Patriam was regimented and that made it fun to sneak out in the middle of the night to play stickball. And to leave a handprint where a handprint shouldn’t ever be.
“What happens when you get caught?” Marcie responded. “Do you know what they do when they catch someone?”
“I don’t,” I answered. The more I’d thought about it, the more I realized I had never seen a patroller before. They were supposed to be horrifying machines. Round on top with an under carriage of spidery appendages. Mr. Ikashi had shown us pictures of them. But I’d never seen one before.
“You don’t know that,” Marcie shot back.
“I don’t know what?” I challenged.
“You don’t understand do you?” Marcie was furious.
“We’ll see,” I said to Marcie before sprinting towards the inner perimeter fence.
“They’ve already seen you!” Marcie called out.
That wasn’t going to stop me from dropping down low and squeezing underneath the chain link.
“What happens when you get caught,” I thought to myself. Was this what I’d come all the way from Earth for? Without a doubt. Sprinting across No Man’s Land with my own personal Mars Cyber Involved Environment – MarCIE – nagging me in my brain was exactly where I wanted to be.
The dome’s base was taller than I expected. Easily five or six feet. Solid concrete too. It took several tries to climb on top of it and to finally stand face to face with the dome itself.
For a moment I expected to see hovering patrollers buzzing towards me with their appendages of razor blades and sensing devices. They’d surround me. They’d shoot needles attached to wires into me. They’d surge electricity through my body over and over again until Lisa arrived to take me to Central Council.
Except there were no patrollers anywhere around. Not a one. The night was still and quiet.
Panel 00883-C. I placed my palm against it and felt a surge of power course through my body. The translucent triangle was warm and dark. And springy. Like a sponge. Just like Tommy said.
I pushed harder and harder, watching the panel extend outward under my hand and then spring back when I let it go. Extending outward into the poisonous Martian atmosphere and back again into our carefully maintained Earth-like 14.69 pounds per square inch atmosphere.
Tommy took a balloon once. He filled it as full as he could with deep breaths. Then he took a strip of clear tape and placed it on the balloon. He pierced the balloon through the tape with a needle and nothing happened. Then he pulled the pin out of the balloon. We all watched as the balloon collapsed, shriveled, and then dangled limp in his hand.
We all knew that if Patriam’s dome was ever pierced, the whole place would collapse and shrivel right there on the Tharsis plain after it exhaled us and everything else that wasn’t firmly rooted down.
Lisa had said that sometimes all you really needed to do was go off the grid for a little while. When you did, it all would come back to you. I didn’t know what she meant. What would come back to me?
I placed both hands on panel 00883-C, braced myself, and then pushed as hard as I could. Then again. And again. And still again, until panel 00883-C blew out of Patriam and into the world beyond.
Crouching down on the concrete, I waited to be blown out on to the Tharsis plain where my fingers would dig hard into the red soil and I’d take in short gulps of Martian air that hurt at first and then made me numb. That’s what I wanted to be. Numb.
Instead, panel 00883-C clattered on the desert floor outside the dome as a gentle, warm breeze drifted inside Patriam. It smelled of dust and something sweet.
“Dude,” a voice said as arms reached in and heaved me out of Patriam and into a warehouse on the south side of town, “you totally lost the game.”
“Game?” It took me a few minutes to think. To remember.
“Yeah dude,” the guy laughed, “pretty intense right?”
“Yeah.” It was. Tommy had been right. He’d said Stickball on Mars was one of the best games around. “Where’s Tommy and Eric?”
“Still in there,” the guy said, “but you can go chill over there for a minute and when Sandy finishes her smoke she’ll numb you up and pull the MarCIE chip out of your neck.”
It was illegal to play Stickball on Mars. On any of the other Cyber Involved Environment games. They had all been banned because they didn’t have the safeguards of other virtual reality games. None of the games had a staff of psychologists and medical personnel on hand to help players come back to normal again after especially intense gameplay.
According to the thirty second infomercial, playing in Cyber Involved Environment games over time could be a hazard to one’s health. For some people, even one especially intense game might be all it took to break one’s psychological connection with the real world.
As I waited for Sandy to finish her smoke and pry MarCIE from my neck, I tried to remember whether Tommy had ever taken a balloon once and filled it as full as he could with deep breaths. Or had he done that inside the game? Or in neither but rather someplace else I couldn’t connect with.
Why couldn’t I connect anymore?
The warehouse seemed small. Dark. Confined. I would have said it hadn’t felt that way when Tommy brought me and Eric inside but I couldn’t remember ever walking inside the warehouse before.
How could I be sure I was actually out of the game, or that it had just started. That I hadn’t been heaved out of a simulated Martian colony into a warehouse, but instead had been pulled from the real world into a new game. Or another phase of the game we were supposed to be playing. Stickball on Mars.
I heaved in a deep gulp of air and held it inside, waiting to see if it hurt. Or if it made me numb inside. Then I jumped to my feet and sprinted through one of the large open bay doors into the night.
Whenever I saw headlights I hid for cover. There was something about moving in the shadows, and darting rapid fire through the brush alongside a worn out two lane road. My short-term memory of the warehouse collapsing, shriveling, and dangling in my imagination.
Stickball on Mars was intense. No matter what, I’d never get caught.