By Matthew James Seidel.
Nathan almost forgot the sky wasn’t real until the ad started.
Actors stepped from behind clouds, reciting lines Nathan had heard so often he could recite them himself. He had gotten better at blocking out the noise, but there was no way to avoid looking at the actors or the pair of pants looming above alongside the special spring sale price that would only last one more day so hurry now and order yours today.
It was inevitable once the Mars colony’s engineers figured out how to make the dome’s interior display clouds and stars that someone would think to transform the sky into a gigantic, inescapable ad. And once one ad went up, it wasn’t long before they never stopped. People couldn’t sleep. The darkness would be punctured by ads with blinding white backgrounds. Still the ads didn’t stop. They didn’t even stop when the most sleep deprived workers fell below quotas set by their department’s algorithms. They were fired and instantly replaced until the cycle repeated itself.
What did stop the endless bombardment was when someone realized that people preferred ads that were incorporated into a natural day or night sky. Everyone remembered the day the sun rose for the first time in almost a year. People cheered until an executive appeared. Certain the dawn would be ripped away, they listened in petrified silence as the executive explained that here at Fresh Start we know life can get so busy that we forget the little things, like starting the day right. Start your day off right with Right Start Coffee. Because the little things matter.
At this point a family Nathan had seen in a dozen other ads materialized, talking and laughing and eating breakfast near the rising sun without blocking it.
The ad was a sensation. Everyone followed suit.
So as awful as this pants ad was, Nathan thought as he turned towards the museum, he knew it could be worse. At least he could believe the sky was real between ads.
Not that he had ever seen a real sky. No one had for ninety years.
The Golden Age Corporation Victor Zife Art Museum Zenith Colony Branch looked exactly the way Nathan remembered it. Spotless wood floors, pristine white walls, no right angles and a few other touches to give it what Seth had called an early 20th century modernist aesthetic. Even the paintings were the same. Most people had no idea the place hadn’t changed for sixty years. It was so expensive that most people only went once. Those wealthy enough to go more often typically claimed it was to expose their children to high culture or impress a date instead of wanting to brag about having money without bragging about having money.
Even the drivel coming out of the tour guide was undoubtedly the same. The guide was new, though, young, in her early twenties, wearing a robin’s egg blue uniform as immaculate as everything else in the museum. Her exaggerated smile, even by this place’s standards, the way she fidgeted, and the fact she silently mouthed the next lines of her script to practice whenever there was a pause suggested she’d gotten the job recently. The biggest giveaway was how she kept glancing behind her now and then. Veteran guides could walk backwards through the entire tour blindfolded. She was palpably eager to please. It made Nick want to vomit.
“We’ll now examine one of our most prized artworks in the entire collection. This is the latest donation from the Mardo Family Foundation. I want to take a moment to thank them for their generous and invaluable support over the years. This painting was only recently installed, so you’ll be one of the very first public tour groups to see it!”
Nathan resisted the urge to scoff as they walked towards a painting he’d first seen thirteen years ago.
On the way he scrutinized the rest of the tour group. It was obvious who was a worker, and not just from their clothes. In fact one of the four workers was dressed in finer clothes than others present who might own the companies they worked for. But nothing could hide the telltale wonder in the workers’ eyes, the desperation to savor everything. If taking notes was allowed they’d be scribbling from beginning to end. Even the Z-links around their wrists, earpieces, and contact lenses that connected them to the Zenith network had been deactivated. It helped give the museum an aura of mystery, enticing workers to spend decades saving up enough metacoins to visit. How long, Nathan wondered, had the workers with him now slaved away by identifying objects on screens, speaking random words, describing childhood memories, explaining how to build a chair in a VR simulation, or a million other microtasks? How much had they deprived themselves along the way to save just a little more?
The higher-ups, as the workers called anyone employed by the Golden Age Corporation, were as bored as the workers were entranced. Two teenagers were practically seething, aching to be anywhere else doing anything else. They kept reflexively checking their GoldenPhones, though their connection to the Zenith network had been cut off, too. GoldenPhones were getting very popular among teenagers and adults. There was no functional difference between them and the standard wristlink-earpiece-contact lens device. But it was an easy way to immediately establish your status, of asserting that you didn’t need to be connected to the network constantly because you weren’t desperate for job notifications. Sure enough, every time someone took out a GoldenPhone, a few workers glanced at it enviously. Nathan had noticed a worker gawking at his own GoldenPhone when he’d taken it out to have someone at the entrance deactivate his connection.
Deprived of their connection to the Zenith network, the teenagers deliberately ignored the art out of spite. Their parents didn’t care and were probably just as eager to leave, though they were polite enough to pretend to be fascinated whenever their guide seemed to expect it and had enough common sense to seem mildly interested to their fellow higher-ups.
Nathan did notice one teenager who wasn’t bored at all. He had been glancing at the teenager now and then since the tour began. He walked with his hands clasped behind him, back straight, chin up, eyes surveying everything with smug satisfaction. He kept slightly apart from everyone else to mark himself out as special, someone who just happened to be walking alongside this mediocre group. This teenager was likely imagining what the art museum dedicated to him would look like one day. He was hungry for glory, admiring this shrine to Victor Zife but envying him much, much more.
Nathan knew the type. He had been the type. Until he met Seth.
When they reached the painting, the guide stood to the left while everyone else formed a semicircle three rows deep. Nathan stayed near the outside, trying not to look at the three peace officers suddenly approaching them. Their bulky rust and black colored uniforms looked more appropriate for a warzone than an art museum. Their ash gray masks were pulled taut over their faces. Black goggles covered their eyes. One of their radios crackled, followed by indecipherable speech. He or she put a finger to their ear to activate something beneath their masks before responding in guttural noises. Peace officers always wore devices over their mouths to garble their speech to any non-officers in hearing range. They were always heavily armed and these three were no exception. One already had a gun drawn.
The guide’s phony exuberance faded when she saw them, but only for a moment. She cleared her throat. “This uh…this was painted by Rene Corilu, first executive officer of the Golden Age Corporation Zenith Colony Art Institute. He painted it in 2101 to commemorate the fifth anniversary…”
The peace officers passed by. The mild anxiety left the guide’s voice but Nathan kept listening, waiting in case he heard them abruptly turn around and rush back. Only when he heard a far off door open and slam shut, silencing their heavy footsteps, did he breathe again and resume listening to the guide.
“…demonstrates Corilu’s tendency to contrast the smallness of his subjects with vast landscapes or objects. Does anyone know where the people here are?”
“Earth!” called out a worker as soon as he’d raised his hand. He lowered it, embarrassed, afraid he had broken some rule.
The guide smiled warmly. “That’s right, sir! The people you see on the bottom here are on Earth. They represent those who clung to a dying, forsaken place rather than believe in the Founder’s vision. But each of us is the grandchild or great-grandchild of someone who did follow Victor Zife to the first Mars colony. Corilu wanted to capture the sorrow those who stayed felt as they saw the amazing new world on Mars blossom.”
“What are those other planets?” another worker asked.
“Excellent question, ma’am. They represent the endless planets and moons the Golden Age Corporation will eventually reach. Some of you right now are performing work that is vital to the latest plans to send a ship to Europa, a moon orbiting Jupiter that may offer our first evidence of extraterrestrial life. We at the Golden Age Corporation Victor Zife Art Museum thank you for your indispensable work. Now we’ll move on to – ”
“What happened to them?”
Everyone turned towards the young child who had spoken. Nathan gasped, fortunately not loud enough for anyone to hear. The child was eight, maybe nine. He was standing in front of his mother and father, hidden between them by their coats. His parents had been so close together and far enough away that Nathan hadn’t even noticed the child with them. His throat went dry and, for the first time since he’d walked into the museum, he felt uncertain.
The guide, thrown off, rallied quickly. “What happened to who, sweetie?”
“The people. On Earth.”
The child’s father looked uncomfortable. The mother faked a laugh and said, “Let’s wait until after the tour to ask questions, okay?”
“It’s no problem at all, ma’am.” The guide was clearly out to prove to her bosses she could handle unexpected moments like this, if only because they were all being recorded by a dozen unseen cameras so her performance could be reviewed later.
“The truth is no one knows for sure. At least no one’s told me!”
Everyone laughed with the guide except Nathan and the child.
“So he never went back?” the child asked.
“He…did go back once and um…” The guide cleared her throat and said, shaking off the hesitation in her voice, “The Founder made two trips. Those who trusted his vision from the start came on the first ship while others came when, in his mercy, he offered them a second chance.”
The guide averted her eyes from the workers who were averting their eyes from everyone else, including fellow workers.
“Anyway, let’s move on to – ”
“So he only went back the one time?”
The guide’s smile started to look more strained. “As I said, the Founder offered safe passage to Mars to everyone and even came back to offer a second chance. Many people still said no.”
“But maybe they changed their minds later.”
“You know, I love meeting young people on these tours. Some of the best questions I get are from kids just like you. It makes me so optimistic about the future of our colony and the Golden Age Corporation. You might be raising a future director, you know!”
The wealthy parents chuckled while the workers looked at the child with newfound respect.
The guide started talking and leading the group on before the child could finish his next question. Everyone followed her except Nathan. He remained, wondering why the child had been let in. Nathan thought you had to be at least sixteen to go on a tour of the art museum. Another part of the aura of mystery, turning the visit into a rite of passage. He was certain that had been the rule.
Nathan tried to focus on deciding what to do next. That was all that mattered. But he kept imagining Seth screaming How many times did you look me in the eye and promise me no there was no chance there’d be any kids? That’s the only reason I agreed to –
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“What?” Nathan turned towards a pale worker standing to his left. He was in his forties or fifties, though he may have been much younger. Workers tended to look at least ten years older than they were. Heavy bags made his small, glassy eyes made them look even smaller. Nathan suspected he was one of those who had to work sixteen or seventeen irregular hours a day, going from one dark cubicle after another, staring with bloodshot eyes into too bright screens, just to survive.
Nathan looked back at the painting. “Yeah…beautiful.”
“I wanted to stick around and look at some of the stuff a little longer, too,” he said in a confidential tone, “but figured I’d get in trouble.” The man looked Nathan over. “But you probably don’t have to worry about that.”
Nathan saw five peace officers standing far off behind them against a wall. He had no idea how long they’d been there. One of the officers was staring at him.
“We should head back,” Nathan said.
“Yeah,” the worker agreed. “If you don’t mind me asking, what did you think of the kid’s questions?”
“They were interesting. He seemed to feel sorry for the people left be…the ones who stayed.”
“I don’t,” the man replied with conviction. “The lady was right. It was their choice. Someone as great as Victor Zife offers you a ticket outta Hell and you say no? Those people deserved whatever happened to them. Don’t you think?”
Nathan heard his upper teeth grind against the bottom. “Absolutely,” he nodded. “The kid’ll understand when he’s older.”
They rejoined the group on the other side of a wall covered in more obsequious Corilu paintings. Almost every single painting had a bright gold plaque below it with embossed black letters that read “Generously donated by Claude Louis Mardo.” Most of the remaining ones were donated by the Mardo Family Foundation.
Everyone was milling about in front of a large doorway. The guide was gone.
“What’s going on?” asked the middle-aged worker.
“Something’s up with the next part of the tour,” someone answered. “The sound system or…” she trailed off.
Nathan drifted away from the middle-aged worker and looked around. He noticed the child had wandered off from his parents, who were absorbed in conversation with another couple.
Nathan felt a surge of hope. The combination of events nearly renewed his faith in God.
The child looked up at Nathan. “Me?”
“I work for the director. Wanna meet him?”
“Shh! He’s by the entrance right now. Go up to a peace officer and say, ‘To the founder.’ It’s a secret password. They’ll let you talk to him for five minutes.”
The kid backed away a few inches. “Why me?”
“He likes me to keep a lookout for young people interested in history. Most kids never say a word during these tours. He’d be happy to talk to you all about the paintings.”
“You’ve got to hurry.”
“I’ll just tell my mom and – ”
“No, no, you…if people find out the director’s here, they’ll all want to see him. Five minutes and you’ll be back. The peace officers will even bring you back if you like. But you have to go. Now.”
Nathan expected the boy would be naturally suspicious of strangers, but his parents had likely taught him that people who didn’t look like workers could be trusted.
After a few seconds the doubt in the boy’s eyes vanished. Grinning, he headed back towards the entrance.
Nathan closed his eyes and wiped away beads of sweat. He was glad the child hadn’t waited any longer. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could have kept his composure.
A minute later, the child’s parents noticed he was gone.
“Where’s Hashem?” asked his mother, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Nathan looked over to the child’s parents just as someone replied, “I saw him talking to that guy over there.”
The man and woman walked towards Nathan, ignoring the worker who’d pointed him out. The worker kept watching them, holding out hope that he had somehow ingratiated himself to these higher-ups, that he’d be rewarded if only by being remembered.
“Did you speak to my son?” asked the man. He spoke like a man used to giving orders.
“Yes. He wanted to know where the restroom was.”
“Restroom? It’s right over there,” the man said, pointing in the opposite direction.
“It is? I saw one down the hall that way.”
“I didn’t see it.”
“It was where that hallway forked, behind the wall with all the donors’ names. Honestly, the way they organize this place I feel like I find somewhere new every time I visit.”
The man looked him over like the middle-aged worker had, judging the quality of his clothes. “You’ve come here before?”
“Oh, yes. Been around paintings most of my life. My family started collecting artworks about twenty years ago. Plus painting is something of a hobby of mine.”
The man looked reassured. The woman was still leery. “Maybe I should look for him.”
Nathan didn’t want to say much more. A stranger shouldn’t care this much.
Luckily, the man shook his head and said, “I don’t want us getting lost looking for him. Besides, he’s almost twelve. He can find his way back from the restroom on his own.”
The tour guide emerged from behind the door across from Nathan and the boy’s parents.
“Thanks for being so patient! We had a slight problem with the sound system but it’s working now so we can continue our tour into the artifacts room. Please follow me!”
Everyone followed her through the door. Nathan was the last to enter. He calculated that the child would be at the museum entrance by now, where a peace officer would stop to question him. It would take at least a minute for the child to explain everything, assuming they believed him. It was far more likely they’d bring him to one of the interrogation rooms, all of which were also by the entrance, three floors down.
Once inside the artifacts room, Nathan saw the middle-aged worker a few meters ahead of him jittery with anticipation. The other three workers were just as excited. As he kept watching them, his initial revulsion was tempered by the pity Seth had warned him to expect.
There shouldn’t be any workers there, Nathan had argued. There’s nothing for workers there.
Seth had listened and agreed but reminded him that workers had been conditioned to aspire to visit places like this museum. It was inevitable that there would be at least a few of them in any weekly tour group. Then Nathan recalled what the middle-aged worker had said and remembered how Seth had also warned him that, conditioning aside, there would always be workers who would side with their oppressors. Their reasons might be irrational, self-destructive, or whatever else he wanted to call it, but it was a grim reality that must be confronted.
Nathan knew Seth was right. Still, he pitied them, the self-destructive ones most of all.
The artifact room contained two dozen podiums bearing alleged artifacts from the earliest days of the colony or even from Earth. Each object was hermetically sealed within a transparent inch-thick bulletproof case. A monitor built into the podium kept precise control over the microenvironment around the artifacts, most of which were parts of old computers and rockets. There were exceptions, like the few newspapers scattered around.
Nathan glanced over at the newspaper closest to the entrance. The entire front was taken up by a photo of Victor Zife alone, gazing resolutely towards stars in the upper left corner, arms folded, standing atop a miniaturized Mars where you could barely see the outlines of a colony. The headline read “FIRST MARTIAN.”
“We have thirty minutes before we have to move on,” the guide called out. “You’re all free to examine whatever artifacts you like. And remember you can access audio from some of our experts in the museum’s history department.”
While everyone dispersed to examine the various artifacts, Nathan walked slowly toward the center of the room. He took a deep breath as he reached into the breast pocket of his suit and pressed a button. A moment later came a faint beep.
“…I’ll give everyone a ten minute and five minute warning before we have to regroup over by the – ”
At the sound of the third beep, Nathan screamed at the top of his lungs, “Seth Harin is watching!”
Everyone had just enough time to recognize those familiar, terrifying words before the flames engulfed them all.