the freelancer

Why am I on Mars? Here’s a good story, if by good you mean a horrible, stupid, stupid, dumb mistake. People think they’re so smart. “Go to Mars, you’ll make a lot of money”. Right mom, sure dad. Ok, friends, buddies, pals. Listening to them, as they were all in agreement, I went. They didn’t, ‘cause as it turns out terra-forming Mars was a lot more difficult than the space agency led everyone to believe. I had the benefit of being on one of the first transports to go. So when the news hit about how difficult it really was, everyone had a change of heart. “Sorry Thad, we won’t be making the trip after all. Hope for the best. See you around, bye!” The words of my friends felt hollowed dismissive, as it did for all the people who made the trip with me. Which left me and about thirty thousand others on a bleak red planet and a lot of work to do to make it habitable for everyone else. Nice.

Thanks to Mars’ low gravity it can’t hold on to an atmosphere. Sure, there’s air, but the pressure is so low it’s best to have a suit on, or just stay indoors, a luxury we didn’t have. We practically lived in those suits as we dug craters and tunnels all over the place, taking them off only to eat and sleep in the pressurized barracks. 

We dug out even larger craters to build towns and work areas, lining the floor with a synthetic concrete that was sturdy and flexible to account for the severe temperature changes. Then, some smart ass thought, “Hey, what if we dug out certain areas and designate them for tourism? It’ll make a lot of money!” Well, something had to be done before this venture turned into a big flop. They weren’t sending more workers, mostly because when the word got out about how difficult this was most people who saw this as a new frontier suddenly “caught the flu”. And because of that interest was waning for this “Bold New Venture”. So more digging was done, another company provided the domes, just flew them in, still another built the parks and hotels, all pre-fab of course, and also flown in. They never even had to leave their ships because it all just clicked together. The engineers pressurized everything everywhere. And then the tourists came, and worse of all, the rich tourists came. Great.

Then, someone had the great idea of making this bleak, hole infested planet a haven for the rich. “With the right marketing, we can make this place seem like a place only the rich can afford! They’ll love it!” Which meant more digging. You’d think that with the tourism there’d be more people coming to help with that. Nope. The majority of workers that came to Mars came to work the tourist traps and the homes of the wealthy. So, with not a lot of fresh help, we dug some more. As we dug huge lucite domes were put in so that the rich could see the stars un-obstructed by lateral beams like in the other domes.  As we built and dug they began to move in. And complained that we weren’t working fast enough. They had these opulent homes and were upset that they had to look at these “seemly looking people digging holes”. They got to live in luxury while we had to live in these trailers stacked on top of each other and embedded in the crater walls. Bastards.

Then it happened. All of the tunnels and holes were dug. The job was done, leaving me in a hovel with no job and no money to get back to Earth. Yes, we made good money out here, but it’s like being rich on a desert island, with no place to spend it. Besides, the majority of our money was locked into a big-interest, long-term trust, a very secure way of keeping our money safe, but for the most part not good on Mars. All of these funds won’t mature for another fifteen years, and drawing from it comes with substantial, severe penalties. And you’d think there’d be a return trip policy, but when the terra team developed this program it wasn’t with the idea of a return trip. We were not only the first people to work this planet, we were also supposed to be the first people to inhabit it. We couldn’t get a ride back on a supply ship, because they would have to add seats, and then ship them, and then make modifications to attach the seats, way too much trouble and costly. We couldn’t even get a ride back with the tourists because there wasn’t room for us. Every tourist ship arrived full of tourists, which meant it had to leave full of tourists. There was a mining operation going, but all they could find was iron, basalt, and salt. Not enough to make money on, but enough to continue building on this god forsaken planet, and all of it was run by machines. And as the building was dwindling, so were the mines. The scientists were maintaining the air and power, and the developers ran out of usable land to convert to either living or tourist space. 

So here I am, worked to death, short on cash, living in a three-room shelf of a home, no way to get back to Earth, can’t and won’t hang with the tourists, can’t even look at the rich side of town, and a fridge filled with more liquor than food that we get from the commissary. We diggers just hang out, playing cards on the outside decks, or just talking crap to each other. And drinking, lots of drinking. I had the good fortune to be on deck ten, high enough to not be under what ever trash and Mars dust is being shoved off of the higher decks. Nothing left to do but become a freelancer.

I was leaning on the metal rail of my deck, a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. Looking down the deck, there’s nothing but more diggers just hanging out. We have an excellent view into the crater, but that’s it. Prime real estate is horizontal, not vertical, so the fortunate live on the floor and we live in the walls. These decks stretch for a quarter mile in every crater, so you’re never alone, I guess. My friends, the few I have, live on different decks in different craters. To visit them is a one hour tram ride, provided there are no tourists. If there are, it’s a two-hour ride. I tried to make friends here, but everyone is dealing with this place differently. My neighbor on the left is dealing with deep-seated depression. He only comes out of his home when he has a job. The one on the right is just way too happy. I think she’s in denial. Not the kind of friendly atmosphere one hopes for. I’m better off just being alone. Not that I’m bitter. Oh wait, I am.

Oh what luck, my comm is ringing. Now I’m considering not answering it. It could be someone just reaching out to me, wanting to talk, and I don’t want to talk. But if I don’t it could be a job and I could use the money. Well I could just see who it is before I answer. So with a sigh, another swig of beer and a puff on my smoke, I turn and enter my hovel.

My “hovel” is like everyone else’s. A living room/kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom. We were lucky to get these; the contract accounted for living space on the floor, but when they went in the tourist direction we were kind of put out, but with a bit of pressure from the union we got them, the bare minimum. And it didn’t matter if you were shacking up with someone, once yours it’s yours until the day you die. After that, who knows, maybe they’ll turn them into servants quarters. I call it a hovel because the whole set up resembles a junk yard, trailers piled on top of each other, with the outside decks and stairs are the only thing that makes it look like you could actually live there. Looks like an extended fire escape was hastily attached to a pile. Inside, there was room enough to move. But because it was made of tin it didn’t take too well to a paint job. So each and every one had the same slate grey walls, ceilings and floors. Even the tables, the chairs, cabinets, all made from aluminum and tin, all the same color. I had blinds on my windows, nothing else. Others got creative, adding drapes and rugs. I was too busy being bitter to bother with that stuff.

On the wall by the door was the comm. The display read it was the agency. That meant work, so I picked up the receiver and answered it. 

“Thad ole buddy, how ya doin’?” It was Rich, my rep. I never met him, only spoke to him through the comm, and only about work. Always friendly and happy, like we were long lost buds.

“Hey Rich, what’s up?” Straight to the point, that’s me. Like it ever works.

“Oh, nothing buddy, I’m just checking in, haven’t heard from you in a while”

“You heard from me three weeks ago.”

“Has it been three weeks? Boy how time flies. Hey remember that job you did in Theta Dome? They’re still talking about it, like if you hadn’t been there they’d be out of business. Remember?”

Way too conversational for my mood right now. This guy is either looking for friends or ran out of them ‘cause he’s so annoying.

“Yeah, yeah, good times. So what have you got for me?”

“Oh yeah, check this out. There’s a restaurant in your dome looking for a freelancer for the day. Can you swing it?” 

“A restaurant?” I said, already knowing what I was getting myself into.  Of all the jobs, being where the tourists are is never ideal. Freakin’ tourists. 

“No worries mate”. Yes, sometimes Rich takes on an Australian accent. And West-Indian, Indian, Asian, Mexican, and what ever else is in his repertoire. He thinks he’s being funny. Maybe to someone else he is. “You’ll be working in the back, away from the crowds. I know that’s what you like, right?”

That is what i like. Tourists are a constant reminder that I can’t go home. Living in the wall means you don’t always get a view through the dome. But on those rare occasions when I do, I see the ships rising and falling. Every day they come. But there’s never enough room for me because, to make these trips viable, they all come full. Which means they all leave full.

“Sure, send me the info. I’ll head out now.”

“Thanks buddy, I knew I could count on you. I’m sending the info to your phone now. And good luck. You know, you could call me more often, sometimes I have other jobs you can do…”

“Sure, sure, I’ll call, I have to get ready now. Bye.” And hung up. If you let him he will keep you on the phone forever, talking about nothing. If you ask me, he’s only good for one thing: getting me work. If he could just stick to that and not try so hard to be buddy’s, especially as I was not interested. 

Anyway, time to get ready. I finished my beer and my smoke. I was ready. I walk out the door, lock it, and head for the pole. There are two ways down from here, the stairs or the pole. Someone was a real genius when they put that in. Thanks to the low gravity a ten level pole ride made getting to the bottom quick and easy. Add to that the strap lift and getting up and down the decks is a snap. 

The info I need for the job is in my phone by the time I make it to the drab, dusty, dirty tram station. We’re not good enough to have our tram station cleaned regularly like the other stations. Seeing that it’s just to service us freelancers, I guess we don’t rate a regular cleaning. Whatever, at this point I don’t think it matters anymore. No one cares, in fact I think it works in our favor. Any tourists who find themselves on the wrong tram learn this very quickly. And they stay on it to return to whatever pointless diversion this place offers. The few that do get off usually get scared off by either the look of the place or the few freelancers they see. We’re not exactly a handsome or friendly bunch. 

The tram arrived, in the same condition as the station.The good news is that because of all the visitors they keep the trams running smoothly.  Lucky us that all of the trams are serviced in the rotation. Otherwise we would be a last thought, low priority. I got on and found a seat, which wasn’t hard. It’s usually empty; maybe one or two guys are on call at any given time. 

Several minutes later I was at the transfer station, which is where the nightmare begins. The freelancer trams connect with the tourist trams, ‘cause it’s easier than building a separate rail system. They used to be part of the worker’s network of rides, but with the tourists here they had to be up-graded. And the tourist trams are always loud and boisterous. I hesitated before stepping off, as I always do. The doors opened to a loud, brightly lit station of people laughing, calling out to each other, yelling, squealing cacophony that tried to blend with the music that’s always playing. There are just too many happy people here, all of the time.  

There’s another difference between our trams and theirs. Ours doesn’t have padded ceilings. Transferring onto the next tram made that painfully clear. Freakin’ tourists aren’t use to the gravity like we are, so they are constantly bouncing off of it. They think it’s so funny too. “Weeeeeee” they always say, laughing and grinning. It must be nice to smile and laugh and scream with wild abandon, like it’s all a big joke. I’m sure the corporate heads who had this built are laughing all the way to the bank. Meanwhile I’m stuck here like a…..

Enough. Sometimes my bitterness gets a hold of me, and I get a look on my face that’s downright evil. It scares the tourists, and then they complain. One of these tourists actually caught me with that look on my face and reported me, said I scared her kids. So management put out a bulletin about our appearance, and now we have to watch our expressions. We don’t have to smile, but we can’t look angry. So I try to find a seat at one end of the car in the hopes that I can keep to myself, and try to think about nothing. It usually works. Sometimes one of those tourists bounce my way. I just gently push them back.  

Being a freelancer has its ups and downs. One positive is we’re no longer living in our suits, although we still have them, and all properly maintained. Another is that machines that were made for Earth living don’t work so well on Mars. You’d think, “hey, what could go wrong?” Then something would. I don’t know if it’s the machines over-extending themselves due to the low gravity or the magnetic fields, or the Martian dust. Some folks say it’s the spirits of the ancient martians. I say whatever, you got work?

The downs are people who don’t want to pay. “This machine can do your job and more, why do I have to pay so much?” Then I point out how their machine isn’t working so you can either pay me or fix it yourself. Thanks to rich folks wanting what they want now with no excuses, and mechanics being stretched so thin they can’t keep up with the repairs, they usually pay, but every time it’s a fight. 

Another down is that I’m on Mars. We diggers have learned how to walk here, a low almost shuffling step. The tourists just bounce around, like it’s a game. I reached my stop, and it’s all I can do to not walk into them. They just bounce along, while I’m just trying to get to work.  This is where I keep to the sides of the paths, hands in my pockets, or run the risk of bumping into them. This is one reason I hate coming into town. The other is the contrast is too great. The decks are lit with bare LED bulbs, shining on a very monotone landscape. But here the lighting is more subtle and bright, with colors and sounds everywhere. Everything so bright and cheery. Music playing from different locations, screams and squeals and laughing everywhere. People just bubbling around, having a good time. Makes me sick. 

I arrived at the restaurant in the outer ring of the crater. Better this than the inner rings, with all of the rides and attractions. It was called The Martian Odyssey. What a name. I’m sure the tourists like it. All it really is is the same food you get on Earth with a Martian name. And looking at the menu posted outside, it was nothing more than Asian fusion, with martian sounding names. Whatever. I walked in, saw they were getting ready for the lunch crowd. One of the waitresses ran up to me.

“Excuse me, we’re not ready yet, can you come back in twenty minutes?” As she was speaking she was taking in my attire, a dirty grey coverall with dirty black boots to match. The look of disdain growing on her face was hard for her to hold back.

“Hey, I’m Thad Nivins, here to see your boss about a job. Is he here?” 

“Oh, of course, right this way” she replied. At least the look of disdain left her face, but not completely. She led me through the restaurant to the back offices, where she knocked on a door. “Someone here to see you boss.”

“Who?” was the muffled response. 

She turned to me, “I forget your name, what was it?” 

I spoke to the door, “You called the agency for a freelancer?”

“Oh right, of course, come in” was the reply. With that the waitress left and I walked into a small office. Behind the desk was a tall but thin man with a thin head and a thinner mustache. He motioned me to a chair in front of his desk as he was on the phone, sounded like he was talking to his wife. I paid it no mind and looked around. Nothing much to look at, a file cabinet, a calendar hanging on the wall, a cluttered desk. Finally he hung up and turned to me.

“Hey, George Finn, how do you do. What I need tonight is…”

“4500 credits” I interrupted. “And I’m Thad.”

Ole Georgie was taken aback by that. Good. I like to keep my clients on their heels. He said “Well yes, right to the point. Don’t you want to know what the job is first?”

“Doesn’t matter” I said. “I’ll do whatever job you got. And I’ll need the 4500 in advance.”

He was again taken aback. Must be new.

“Of course, yes, 4500.” He replied, looking a little concerned. His eyes narrowed as he inspected me. “That seems like a lot. Can we work some kind of deal? I’m sure that I could find someone who could do it for less, if I wasn’t in such a rush.”

I laughed. Looked at his face. “Oh, you’re serious.” And then I laughed again. This guy was new. 

“Ok, I can tell that you’re new here so let me explain something. There’s no one you can get cheaper, guaranteed.” That was something we worked out with the agency a long time ago. We go a long time without work so when we get it we have to charge big. This paycheck has to last me three months, or I could starve, or worse, have no liquor. “So if you’re done playing, I would like my creds, or would you rather open up and not have a machine working? I believe you have fifteen minutes to decide.” Then an after thought hit me. “And a steak dinner.” You always got to ask for something else, whatever you can get. And a free meal is the best thing.

George sat back, with his hands on the desk. Thought about it, and relented. “Fine, let me see your card.” I handed him my work card and he slipped it into his computer. He worked the keyboard for a few second, it went ding, and he handed it back to me. “There you go, now can I show you what you’ll be doing?”

“One sec” I said. I put the card in the slot on the bottom of my phone to make sure I got my creds. “What, don’t trust me?” he said. “Nope” I replied. He wouldn’t be the first client who tried to short change a freelancer. That’s why we get it up front. 

Satisfied, I said “Looks good. What would you have me do?” George got up from behind his desk and led me to another room in the back. Around a corner and we were there. 

“This machine has stopped processing.” He began. “We called a mechanic, but he won’t be here until tomorrow. Can you do the processing manually?”

“Sure, no prob. Just leave me alone and I’ll have everything processed for you real quick.” 

George sniffed. “I should hope so for what I’m paying. If you have any problems there’s an intercom on the wall.” He pointed to the box on the wall by the door. “Well, good luck. We do a lot of business, so try to keep up.” And with that he walked out. There was an apron hanging on a hook, so I put it on and prepared myself.

It’s the industry’s own fault that we charge so much. People here on Mars rely so much on their machines, to make everything so automatic, that when it does break down, and it will, they lose their minds. For what they’re paying me they could hire three people to do this job, probably would cost less too. But they got to have their machines, from the street sweepers to concierge desks to the ride operators. Even the boat trips are driven by computer. Imagine that breaking down in the middle of a trip, leaving patrons stranded in the middle of a “river”. You’ll never catch me on one of those.

The restaurant opened, and the work began. The more people came in, the more there was to process. I was on top of it, even being ahead of the game. So much so, I had time to sneak out back a few times to have a smoke. First came the lunch rush, then there was a slight lull before the dinner crush. I was processing so much, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. No one wanted for anything. I even got a few looks of admiration from the staff. I never faltered, kept my head down, and kept at it. My stay on Mars had a lot to do with it, something a lot of people don’t understand. When you’ve been a digger for as long as I have everything, anything else is easy. You would think that the low gravity made us soft, but no. A ton of rocks maybe less than half that on Mars, but it was still heavy, and still more tons than I would like to count.

The evening wound down, and the last of the customers had left. George came in to my workstation and asked me to follow him. He led me to a table where a beautiful steak dinner awaited me, with au gratin potatoes and asparagus tips, covered in a mushroom sauce. “Good work” he said. “You earned this.”

“Thank you” I replied, sat down and dug right in. The beef tasted fresh, like they just got it off of a supply ship. Yes, always ask for something extra. The ride back will be just as crowded, seeing as this place never really closes. But a full belly will make going back to the decks less like going back to prison. And this meal absolutely hit the spot. 

I finished my steak, burped, sat for a minute to let it settle, and then prepared to leave when George got my attention and motioned to my plates. Oh right, the last of it. Washing dishes all day wasn’t such a bad job, I’d like to get more work like this.

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