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Spirit of Home

A close look at the life of a migrant family who will prepare Mars for habitation.

Simply put, this is just about as potent a story about the migrant experience as any I've ever read. It just so happens to take place on Mars. -the Ed


You can't get rum on Mars. Sugarcane is a water hog and an environmental catastrophe. We learned that much on Earth. No sugar, no rum. And you can't get Earth rum because of the embargo.

I figure one of the quirky shops in Elysium District might have a bottle from before we broke ties, so I steel myself for a bout of agoraphobia-induced anxiety and make my way up to the areodesic dome. It's a popular destination with the more recent settlers, but I usually stay away. Some combination of the sky overhead and the gentle but insistent slope of Elysium Mons against the horizon make me feel like I could fly right off the planet. I barely remember Earth. As far as I'm concerned, people aren't meant to see so much sky.

As if the agoraphobia wasn't enough, I strike out in shop after shop. By late afternoon, I'm ready to admit defeat. As soon as I check one last place.

I don't hear the familiar chime of a merchbot when I step through the open threshold. The kind of purchase I'm hoping to make wouldn't be in any shop's publicly searchable inventory, so I take this as a good sign. Until I notice the human proprietor's gaze traveling appraisingly up and down my body.

"Honey, you don't want rum," he says after I make my inquiry. He puts an arm on my shoulder and walks me past an assortment of first wave knick-knacks, toward a shelf in the back of the store. "If you want something special, I've been holding onto a nice single-malt since the Rift."

Right. I'd bet a week's pay it's local whiskey with a forged label. I slip out from under his arm. "I'm not looking for Scotch."

His lips press into a line and he glances toward the front of the shop. "Nobody has rum."

I turn to go. "Sorry to waste your time."

"Wait!"

I look back expectantly.

He sags a bit. "I might know somebody who can help you."

***

I had my goggles plugged in when Papi barged into my bedroom.

"¡Felicidades!"

I jumped, sending my VR viewer flying slowly through the air. The rumble and vibration of the tunnel borer that had been running for the past week, creating space for the next wave of colonists, returned now that I no longer had a distraction. "Huh? What are we celebrating?"

"El Día de los Reyes Magos."

"Three Kings' Day?"

He nodded, handing me a box with a green ribbon and a sticker that said "Valentina." Not Tina, which he knew was what I wanted people to call me now. Why couldn't he get that I wasn't a little kid anymore?

I pulled the ribbon off and peered inside. A dress. Completely impractical here, where the gravity would have me smoothing the hem down with every step.

"Papi, it's January sixth on Earth. Their orbit doesn't mean anything here."

He shrugged. "You were born on Earth."

"Yeah, but I live here now. So do you."

***

The proprietor rips a corner off a piece of honest-to-goodness paper and scrawls an address on it. "Tell her Grego sent you. She won't let you in otherwise."

More like she won't give him his commission. I reach for the paper but he snatches it away.

"Ten lowells," he says.

I make a face. "For what?"

"Paper's not free."

I roll my eyes, but I'm curious enough that I slide my wrist over so he can scan my chip.

A half hour's walk brings me to what looks like a private residence. When I swipe the door-chime and give Grego's name, however, a tiny elderly woman, all corners and wrinkles, opens up and hurries me into a shop like none I've seen before.

This isn't so much a store as a museum, or a shrine to Earth. There aren't shelves or racks, just chaos. Framed art, "humorous" posters, and other memorabilia line the walls, while mugs, toys, blankets, and so forth take up space on counters, the coffee table, and even the seats themselves. I'm a bit baffled—is there truly a market for all this?

Then I consider how many people like my father there must be. People who were shipped out as labor for construction or the ongoing terraforming, or who fled one oppressive regime or another. People who found themselves stuck here but never stopped thinking of another world as home.

The air is thick with the sort of perfume I associate with settlers of my father's generation, who never got accustomed to the mildly sulfuric scent. I don't want to give any offense, but I surreptitiously mask my nose as much as possible, because the alternative is gagging or sneezing.

The shopkeeper disappears into a back room when I tell her what I want, abandoning me for several minutes. I eye the sofa, wondering if I can sit without dislodging something. I've just about talked myself into braving it when she returns and places a golden-brown bottle in my hands.

I turn the bottle and rub some dust off. Havana Club. Could the people that bottled it have imagined the hundred million mile trip it would take to wind up here in my hands?

Then I spot the handwritten price sticker. "Nine hundred lowells? Forget it."

It's a bluff. I'm sure she knows this, but she says, "I'll give it to you for eight fifty."

***

Papi opened the door less than a second after I buzzed. "Tina! Thanks for coming!"

"Thanks for inviting me," I said. "Now that I have a job, I should be taking you out." I'd spent the last two weeks monitoring carbon dioxide readouts from sensors throughout the surface, as a small cog in the orbital mirror program. Someday my work would help make it possible for people to walk outside the underground cities with little or no extra apparatus. For anybody crazy enough to want to do that. "I'm serious," I added. "Next time let me treat!"

He waved the suggestion off. "I made something special. Come in, try it!"

His unit was fragrant with spices I didn't recognize--enough to almost mask the artificial perfume. I sat at the table and he slid a plate in front of me. Yellow rice, peppers, peas, and tofu, from the looks of it. "Smells wonderful," I said, picking up a forkful.

"What I wish I could've gotten is a bottle of ron añejo, the good stuff, to celebrate you being all grown up. I looked, but I couldn't find any anywhere."

I bit down on something rubbery and firm. Something familiar and yet, wrong.

My stomach turned. "Is this… meat?"

He nodded, a grin cracking his face. "Arroz con pollo."

I spit the chicken out into my napkin. "Are you crazy? Who even eats meat anymore? And how much did this cost you?"

"¿Qué importa?" he asked, shrugging. "It's a special occasion!"

I glanced at my plate, my stomach churning.

"I thought you'd like a taste of home!" He grinned like this was some wonderful gift I was just too dense to appreciate.

I pushed the plate away and met his eyes. "Papi, this is my home."

***

The whole way back from Elysium District I can barely concentrate on anything but the contraband in my bag. I don't think I've ever broken the law before.

Transferring from a local slidewalk to an express, I lose my balance and crash into a stocky woman in blue. When she turns around, I catch sight of the seven-pointed peacekeeper badge on her chest and curse my luck.

"Careful!" she says.

My reply comes out as a croak. "Sorry," I finally manage, after a dry swallow.

She peers at me, the lines around her eyes coming together in concern or suspicion. I clutch the opaque plastic sack to my gut, as if I could make it disappear by the sheer force of my grip.

"Are you well?"

"Huh? Yes." I rub my jaw with my free hand. "I'm just tired. It's been a long shift."

She nods slowly. "Well, take care of yourself, citizen."

"I will," I reply, nodding. "Thank you."

***

"You can see him," the nurse said, "but he's not lucid right now. He probably won't know you're here."

I composed myself and strode into the hospital room. In the dimness, I barely recognized my father lying on the bed, his chest rising and falling in time to the beeping of the machine beside him. Tubes ran from his nose and wires from his chest.

When had the bronze giant I grew up with withered into this gray shell? I choked back a sob and sank into a cushioned chair.

I glanced up at the nurse, who had followed me in. "Is he . . . will he . . ."

She reached out and squeezed my shoulder. "He'll be fine. His body's just adapting to the cloned valves. Don't expect him to strap on an oxygen bottle and climb Olympus Mons any time soon, but he'll be up and about before you know it."

I focused on the bed and watched his chest rise and fall. Through the night, as he rested from his surgery, my thoughts turned to Earth. What was it like for my father, knowing he would never again step foot on his homeworld?

He'd spent all the years since we immigrated looking for connections to Earth. Food. Rituals. Tchotchkes. I'd never needed to. My connection to Earth was him.

***

I buzz the door, and a voice from inside calls out, "¡Entra!"

Inside, he sits in his favorite chair, ignoring the view out his window. The wall is set to a beach scene. I don't have to ask where.

"I brought something," I say, pulling the bottle from the sack.

He whistles softly. "Tina, you can't afford that!"

"Tonight is a special occasion." I set it in front of him. "Nochebuena. December twenty-fourth."

"On Earth, maybe," he murmurs.

I shake my head. "Everywhere, Papi."