He hadn’t read about the five-mile high cliff faces
skirting the base of the volcano, though, and the sight of the walls of rock
blocking out the sun as the train hurtled toward them was awe-inspiring enough.
It was hard to imagine that there was still a mountain on the top of that
There were few people on the train. New Lisbon
wasn’t a large city, only a few thousand, mostly terraformers or support
providers. Train service was limited to one run per day.
The man in line behind him all but sneered at Dan.
“The maglev doesn’t even use a tenth of the power a flight would use. And it
moves faster than this line does.”
The train was six cars, including the main
engine and two cargo cars. Of the three passenger cars, one was empty,
one was somewhat crowded (everyone seemed to know one another), and the only
passenger in the third car was the grumpy. Dan was about to
head for the empty car when the man, who was reading, said, “They’ll uncouple that car before we leave."
They were in the back of the train. If Dan went back
toward the other, more crowded passenger car, the man would have known Dan was
deliberately choosing to sit as far away as possible. He slid into a seat a
couple rows behind the man, about the same time he heard the maglocks clang
into place and the end car started rolling backwards. A low hum ran through the
floor, and then the platform receded.
“You’ll want to take a look out the windows on your side in
about thirty seconds,” the man said, still without looking up.
In less than half a minute the blank,
black walls of the tunnel dropped away, and it looked as if the train was soaring
through the air. In reality, it was elevated about a hundred meters off the
ground, leisurely descending toward the surface on the track it didn’t even
touch, that the magnets suspended it above, so really, it was kind of like flying. Stretched out in
front of Dan was the vast, high desert-looking terrain of Tharsis.
“Wow,” Dan said.
The man laughed. “That’s pretty much what everyone
says the first time they see it.”
“What gave it away that this was my first time
here?” Dan asked, trying not to bristle at the suggestion that he was a
greenhorn. Mainly because that’s exactly what he was.
Finally, the man set his tablet on the seat next to
him and turned back to look at Dan. “This train only makes one stop, and New
Lisbon’s a pretty small town. Everyone knows everyone else. Newcomers tend to stand
“And what made you think this is my first time on
Mars? Not that it isn’t; it is. First time on Mars, I mean."
“The thing at the spaceport about flying to New
Lisbon. Takes too much fuel. The train hardly has to do anything to get us
there at about the same speed a light flyer would. It’s just something that
gets in your head when you live here, conserving everything you possibly can.
You never know when you’re going to need it.”
“How long have you lived here?”
The man smiled. “My whole life. I was born on Mars.”
“You’ve lived your whole life here?”
“Yep. Born in Cydonia City, been in New Lisbon
ever since I finished school."
"And before you ask, no, I’ve never been to Earth.”
“It wasn’t going to be my next question, actually,” Dan
said, even though it was what he’d
been thinking of asking. “But, since you brought it up, how come?”
He shrugged, and Dan realized he didn’t even know
the man’s name yet. “What’s the hurry? Earth has been there for billions of
years. It’s not like it’s going to vanish any time soon. Besides, how many
Earthlings have been to Mars?”
“Point taken,” Dan said. “My name’s Dan, by the
He extended his hand, and the man took it. His
handshake was brief but strong, the skin of his fingers and palm rough. “Nathan.
Pleased to meet you. What brings you to New Lisbon?”
“Sadness, I’m afraid. My grandmother died a few
Nathan’s eyes lit up at that. “You’re Catherine Smith’s
grandson?” Dan noticed for the first time they were pale green, a stark contrast
to his jet black hair. Why did he usually not notice the color of people’s
eyes? He couldn’t have said what color his gran’s eyes were.
“That’s me,” Dan said. “Did you know her?”
“Everyone knew her. Small town, like I said.
Everyone knows everyone else. She was our best horticulturist. She could make
“It’s been a long time since I last saw her. Twenty
years, I guess.” Where had the time gone? His grandmother had helped transform
the face of a planet. What did he have to show for the years?
"I'm just a stranger on a train," Dan said.
Nathan opened his mouth to respond, but it looked as if a thought crossed his mind before he could actually speak. He closed his mouth, looked puzzled, then smiled. “I have no idea, to be honest. Have you ever been married?”
Dan shook his head. “Never met the right guy, I guess.” This was true and not quite true at the same time. He met the right guy, but unfortunately, Dan was the only one who thought so. Reese had claimed he was trying to let Dan down easy, but too often that can seem like stringing someone along.
Their conversation trailed out after that. Nathan
went back to reading his tablet while Dan felt into an uncomfortable, restless
sleep. He dreamed of standing outside on the flat volcanic plain, only this
time it was no longer dormant, and he was no longer himself. A fierce, hot wind
lashed at him, whipping his hair into a blonde halo—only it
wasn’t his hair, any more than the bare, slender arms he crossed below his chest