The Golden Hour

This short story was written for SS&P’s The Future: Powered by Fiction competition.

Oliver adjusted his heavy earmuffs against the screech and grind of machinery as he stepped onto the factory floor. The massive complex was dimly lit. Past towering smokestacks and silos lay a single row of grimy glass windows; through those windows was barely visible the yellow-white Mars sky.

Oliver shouldered his way through crowds of men wearing tattered blue uniforms and reflective orange vests, shouting orders and wheeling trolleys, and found his post near the west wing’s thermochemical heat engine. As the morning bell sounded and the last of the stragglers fell into rank, Oliver nodded to his supervisor and poured a fresh batch of metal-oxide catalyst solution into a massive reaction vessel. He glanced at the clock. “Four hours until lunch,” he muttered, and realized that, perhaps for the first time in his 12-year stint at Arboretum, the thought of his lunch break produced in him a feeling of dread rather than anticipation.

Arboretum Industries was Mars’s largest industrial carbon dioxide processing establishment. In a chemical process similar to photosynthesis, solar energy is used to convert CO2, the most prevalent gas in Mars’s thin atmosphere, into two necessities: Oxygen and hydrocarbon fuels. Oliver was a factory hand at the Athabasca location. Athabasca, one of Mars’s most populous colonies, was virtually dependent on the plant for its energy and oxygen needs.

The lunch bell jolted Oliver out of a sort of reverie. He had recently replaced the catalyst and had at least 20 minutes until the next batch was due; he hadn’t expected the interruption. As the supervisor threw a large lever, the rapid whir of the West Wing heat engine gradually slowed to a sputter and stop. “See y’all in 30 minutes,” he projected with a contemptuous grin. As Oliver took off his earmuffs and set off towards toward the cafeteria, he was met with the familiar feeling of foreboding.

He found his sister at the same table-for-two they had met at every day for the past few years. “Hardly any sun today,” she said with a weak smile. “All panels active; still barely enough energy to keep the engines running.” Oliver nodded, and then looked down. “Listen, Liz,” he said with effort. “We’ve gotta move out of Skyline.”

“And move where?” asked Liz, shifting uncomfortably in her seat.

“The fact is, Arboretum doesn’t need us,” said Oliver, ignoring her question. “We can’t afford Skyline anymore, and Arboretum doesn’t care. I dump liquid A into liquid B. You replace panel A with panel B. They would just replace us with drones—but we’re cheaper! And if we quit, there’s plenty of people willing to replace us. Athabasca’s population is exploding. Mars’s population is exploding. Doesn’t help that Earth is pretty much uninhabitable now—more people came on the last mission than ever before. More inhabitants means less demand for labor.

“And more people means higher demand for housing. These new arrivals need to live somewhere. But there’s nowhere to go. Athabasca’s full to the brim; so is every other colony these days. And nothing new is being built anymore. Development on Mars has hit its inflection point. The rate of new construction is decreasing now; it has been for a while; and it’ll only decrease further. In ten years, the surface of Mars will be completely developed. Nothing new will be built at all. But the people will keep coming. Skyline can charge whatever they want for rent—and there’s no way we can keep paying it!”

“I know,” said Liz suddenly. Oliver looked surprised. “I know we have to move. But where? We’re not going back to Earth…” she trailed off.

“We’re not going back to Earth,” Oliver broke in. “We’re moving underground.”

Athabasca, like all other Mars colonies, was surrounded by a massive polycarbonate dome that blocked out harmful radiation and allowed for the creation of an artificial atmosphere. The Department of Atmosphere and Environment, a branch of the Athabasca government, supplied the infrastructure. Athabasca offered a year-round temperature of 20 degrees Celsius, an Earth-like atmospheric pressure, and, of course, adequate oxygen levels, provided entirely by Arboretum under government contract.

Underground settlements existed within the confines of the Athabasca dome, but they may as well have been out on the undeveloped surface. Slums and ghettos, filthy and crime-ridden, these underground networks of tunnels and cells were outside the reach of government altogether. While most Athabascians lived in the residential districts, entrances to the Athabascian Underground could be found among the factories and industry, close even to the Arboretum plant, as rumor had it. Indeed, little was known about the underground at all; information came mostly from whispers and hearsay.

The bell sounded. “I’ll see you after work, Liz. We’re moving tonight.”

_____________________________________________________

Oliver and Liz each carried one suitcase. Between the two suitcases was the entirety of their possessions. They walked past the entrance to the Arboretum factory in the dead of night; the scene was oddly quiet without the usual bustle of crowds and machinery.

“This is the place, I think,” said Oliver, knocking quietly on a rusted iron door several blocks away from the factory. The door was answered by a stocky, thick-set man, wearing flannel, overalls and a grizzled grey beard. He shook Oliver’s hand and introduced himself to Liz. “Walt,” he said. “I work with Oliver. He changes a mean catalyst.” Walt had offered to host the siblings until they found a spot of their own. He led them down a flight of stairs.

“Landlord and his thugs come around for rent about once a week,” said Walt. “He doesn’t really deserve it, but hey, paying is better than getting beaten up,” he laughed. “And, you know, at least he keeps the power running. Not legal, of course, but whatever lights the room.”

They walked down the stairs, through several winding corridors, down some more stairs, and into a larger, open chamber, from which a few more corridors led into darkness. The whole network was lit by a series of sparsely-placed bare bulbs. The sound of running water could be heard in the distance, as could a few arguing voices.

“This way,” said Walt, leading them down one of the corridors. His place was a low-ceilinged alcove on the left of the path, lit at one end by a floodlight, which cast strange shadows over the collapsible metal chairs and wooden table at the center of the room. He plugged in his electric stove and began to boil a pot of water.

“It’s not much,” said Walt, “but I get by.”

“It’s not much, today,” he added as he sat down. “But tomorrow?”

“Listen, Oliver,” he said gruffly. “You, Liz—you listen too. There are, what, 20 billion people on Mars today? And 10 billion poor souls left on Earth? Well, those 10 billion aren’t gonna stay for long. They’ve just about cut down their last tree! And on Mars? Well, the population’s only going to keep growing. Where’s everyone gonna go? The surface of Mars is full. The future? It’s underground!

“I’ve got a vision,” said Walt. Oliver furrowed his brow and glanced at Liz. “I’ve got a vision,” he continued, growing excited. “More and more people are going to end up just like us. They’ll end up underground. And you, and me, and everyone here, we deserve better! We’ll band together. We’ll beat the crime; we’ll beat the drugs; we’ll beat the landlord! We’ll rebuild this place! We’ll get light, and heat, and running water. Legally! Everyone will want to live down here; and we’ve got room for more! Mars’s surface is malleable. We’ll drill, baby, we’ll drill! Mars is done growing upward; it’s time to grow inward! We’re, what, a hundred meters below the ground? We could go ten thousand! A shaft, all the way down to the core; an elevator the size of the building; each stop is a new city! It’ll be as warm as Earth’s tropics; as light as day! There’ll be green everywhere—entire forests down here—bigger than Stokelby Park, and anything else they’ve got over in the residential district! People will want to live down here; the surface will become a ghost town! We can do it. You, me, Liz, everyone down here in the underground; we can do it. We will! The future of Mars is just beginning—and it’s ours!”

Oliver managed a grin and looked to Liz. She smiled too. “Why not?” said Oliver. “I’m in.”

“Tea?” asked Walt, taking the steaming pot off the stove. He pulled a few grimy glasses and a metallic tin from below the table, and prepared Liz’s glass, then Oliver’s, and then his own. “To our new future,” smiled Oliver, raising his glass.

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