Mars On The Discount Plan
by Michael Gold
forum: Mars On The Discount Plan
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Mars On The Discount Plan


        I spent the morning chasing a large cockroach around my Brooklyn apartment until my back gave out.

        Breakfast is the only time during the day I can settle with my food and the newspaper. The Times op-ed page hums like background music as I crunch my organic cereal and soy milk. The back pain seems to get on a bus to Tulsa and leaves me to take a deep breath. After breakfast, I usually light a Yellow Song cigarette over the empty bowl.

        I get my Yellow Songs, laced with anti-depressant and anti-anxiety chemicals and unfiltered, from a furtive reservation store north of the Arctic Circle, because otherwise I can’t afford them. Yellow Songs are the highest-grade anti-D’s on the market and they’re not covered by Medicare Part D. Only UrLux cigarettes are covered by Medicare Part D (thank you, cigarette lobby), but UrLux has much less of anything worth ingesting. Yellow Songs usually leave me in a nice wallow of Buddhist-like calm, although lately I’ve found myself more and more irritated right after smoking one.

        My apartment, one of the last rent-controlled buildings in the borough, suffers from a more-or-less complete lack of attention from the landlord, understandably. The walls are tinged with harvest gold paint, flaking at the edges. The floor is an industrial black tile super-glued to a concrete surface. The hallway is tastefully splashed with burnt orange carpeting. My bedroom is a converted closet. I’ve got a single bed in there and not much else. A set of cardboard boxes stacked on top of one another serve as my dresser drawer. The television hovers lonely in what passes for the living room. An old dentist’s chair my landlord found on the street, my version of a Lazy-Boy recliner, is nailed into the tile in front of the TV. It does provide a little relief for my back though.

        So, I’m eating my breakfast and the Times is decorated with anti-Administration stories, which helps get my cereal down with ease. I’m slopping up the remains of a few corn nuggets and the sugary soy milk and I’m feeling good. A Yellow Song is laid out on the wood grain of the kitchen slab, glowing with promise.

        A large brown head peers out at from behind the bowl, under twitching antennae. The thing has got to be at least a half-inch long. He doesn’t skitter off. He just looks at me. I’m so shocked I just bring my hand down at him, with my cereal spoon still in my hand. The bowl goes bouncing off the table and the roach spills onto the floor. I’ve missed him completely.

        But now there he is, exposed on the bare floor. Of course he’s hard to see against the blackness of the tile. But the fluorescent light above the refrigerator helps. I put my foot down. I hear a little squish. I bring up my foot. I got one of his front legs, but not much else.

        He skitters away. I figure he’s old. If he’s that big, he’s got to be old. I stomp down again. I hear the sound of my heel slamming into the floor. I’ve missed him completely. The old man is running off to the tight, dark space between the wall and the oven. That’s when the pain hits me. My back lights up like a Christmas tree and the shock runs down both my legs.

        I collapse on the floor, grabbing my back and heaving. The fire comes in waves from deep inside. It bends my stomach in two, takes my lungs away. Where is my Yellow Song?

        I draw my knees into my stomach on the black tile. My spine burns. My legs burn. My face is buried in the floor, like a baby in his crib. The old man’s antennae are twitching right in front of me. The son of a bitch is staring at me, from six inches away. Despite the leg I took from him, he’s not afraid at all. I don’t even have the strength to swat at him.

        We look at each other. He’s incredibly fat, and he’s standing on only how many legs? I’m in too much pain to count. I imagine him soaking up all the grease behind the stove, built up over 80 years of tenement living in this crumbling old building in the middle of Brooklyn. His shell looks like tank armor. The only thing I can’t really make out are his eyes. They seem to blend in with the rest of his head.

        Then he starts moving toward my face. I don’t know why, but I let him climb on my nose. Sometimes with back pain you become insensitive to everything else. He starts at the tip and moves right up to my forehead. I see the legs inch up between my eyes. A millimeter drop of roach blood from the smashed front leg falls on my skin above the eyebrow, sliding down as gently as rain. I’m horrified, but I don’t try to kill him. He gets into my hair. I can feel the tank move up there. The old man’s legs itch and burn my scalp. Where is my Yellow Song?

        He circumnavigates my head, explores the neck and tentatively crawls under my shirt, like a furtive lover. Despite the fire burning in my back and legs, I am finally moved to destroy the thing. I fall back from the fetal position onto the black tile. I don’t feel any kind of satisfying smush, though.

        I haul myself up and I see the roach scrambling for the gap between the baseboard and the kitchen tile. Unbelievable.

        Somewhat nauseated, I have to wash the roach off me. A hot shower is in order, then a Yellow Song. The back calms down a little under the water, as hot as I can stand it. Outside the shower, the pain shoots back to life and my knees crumple like paper down onto the bathroom floor as I put on my terry-cloth robe.

        I crawl to the kitchen to retrieve my cigarette, but it’s gone. What the hell? I crawl to my room and get one from the pack by the bed. I crawl to the dentist’s chair and climb up into the metal vinyl beast. I’ve got my cigarette and the television remote. Except for these things I feel hollowed-out.

        I light the cigarette. The vapors flood my brain. I click the remote. I decide I’m not going to work today, guaranteed. I’ll call in sick later.

        To say that the television shows are dull is far too obvious a point to make for a faithful reader of The New York Times. I change from the talk show channel to the world news satellite service. There is a commercial for Yellow Song cigarettes. They feature falling water and gentle Tibetan music, often with no voice-over except for the tagline at the end: “This is so Yellow Song.” A tagline from another commercial is: “Be so Yellow Song.”

        After the commercial segment, the news comes rapid-fire.

        Phoenix reports record heat, even though it’s the middle of February. Four dozen senior citizens and a score of babies are dead.

        There’s a food riot in Detroit. People are throwing bricks at a local supermarket. It’s not the supermarket’s fault. There’s some sort of food emergency in the Midwest. Luckily, I get my food from organic farms in northern New York. The new weather has been good for upstate New York. The Detroit supermarket’s windows shatter.

        Somebody has tried to blow up a chlorine plant near Dallas. The IEDs planted around the factory failed to ignite, but the suspects are still at large. Anxiety’s knife cuts my skin of Yellow Song.

        I smoke more with great speed. My back settles into a gently throbbing ache. The news breaks for another commercial.

        “Suffer from back pain no more,” the announcer, a former kicker for the local football team decades ago, declares softly, his gray hair waving gently against the backdrop of the rocky red plains we’d just colonized five years ago. “The gentle gravity of Mars will make you weigh only one-third of what you are on Earth. My wife and I purchased the resort package and we went for two weeks. It was so comfortable and relaxing. Due to Department of Commerce advertising rules, I’m not allowed to tell you how much it helped ease the pain in my back. Visit the sales office and talk to our counselors now about how the healing atmosphere of the Red Planet can help you.”

        So, I figure, what the hell, I’m sick of Earth right now. I could use a couple of weeks away from the heavy gravity and the warming and the lying politicians who grace the television set every day. And it’s not like my career is going anywhere. I booked a flight over the phone.

        That’s how I ended up on a Mars Express flight with a few light bags at three the next morning, departing out of the Sonoran-Mex desert spaceport, a discount alternative to the Northern California astraplex, which offers the place-kicker’s ultra-luxe package. I called in to work from the spaceport and told them I was taking my unused vacation time. I packed a separate bag for my Yellow Song cigarettes. The anti-D cigarettes on Mars are very expensive, as you can imagine.

        Escaping Earth’s gravity played hell on my back. I was packed in the back of the rocket and the thrust of the engines pressed on my sciatic nerve with a fevered pitch. The guy sitting in the next seat to me told me I was screaming during the take-off, which I don’t remember, because I had passed out.

        When I woke up, a sea of black outside our pod hummed with a positive buzz. Soft little bunny rabbits swam by me. A baby duck sighed and nestled in my arms. I looked out the window as a chimpanzee in a space suit waved, then showed me his rump. “Moonlight Sonata” played in my ear phones over and over. My back felt like a gentle blanket. Pink cocktail glasses danced on a piano bar at the front of the pod.

        A ticket posted on the back of the seat in front of me stated that the ship’s steward had injected me with the pharmaceutical version of Yellow Song to calm me down. The hallucinations were a sometime side effect of the pharmaceutical version of the drug. The cost was $20. My credit card had already been charged. On top of the remains of the last Yellow Song I had smoked at the spaceport, I didn’t mind.

        “I love everybody,” I told the steward who had given me the injection.

        “That is so Yellow Song,” he said, smiling with approval.

        I settled into a long, pleasant haze. But at one point, bored with seeing spotted dachshunds running upside down on the ceiling, I turned on the satellite news service. The Chinese had just purchased the biggest U.S. bank. The President seemed unfazed. “That’s capitalism, get used to it,” he said to the satellite news service. Inner Somalia exploded an atomic bomb in a desert test. The Iranian government welcomed them to the nuclear club. The President said he was upset about the Inner Somalis and threatened economic sanctions. The Inner Somalis were defiant.

        The knife sliced again. I felt it scour out a piece of my chest. I punched the steward’s button and demanded a booster shot of Yellow Song, which was administered with no complaints.

        We sailed on. I don’t remember much more of the trip, except for continued injections of Yellow Song from the steward. Somebody told me the trip takes one week. I can’t confirm that.

        Our group traveled to a hotel off the main strip, the glittery part of town near the base of Olympus Mons, a 15-mile high extinct volcano, the highest known in the solar system. It was nightfall by the time we had landed and gotten out of the pod and into the group’s rover. The lower reaches of the huge dark mountain was freckled with electronic posters for the main street hotels. The casinos were rocking full-out as we drove past them to the off-strip streets, their blue and white light bubbles calling to us, the sounds of the casino floor, complete with slot winnings, poker and blackjack games piped outside for the benefit of the rovers scrambling by like pebbles in a stream. The hotel I had booked was packed in a row of discount suit places and liquor stores on a back street with bad lighting. My room was in a special wing with low oxygen (for anti-D smokers, and their need to use lighters—thank God for the cigarette companies), had orange shag carpets, yellow towels and pressurized bubble beds. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

        Before hitting the desert vista side of the hotel, I put on a pressurized suit and helmet to go outside. The suit weighed about 60 pounds on Earth. On Mars, of course, it felt like 20 pounds, but that’s still too much for a man with a bad back. I hadn’t considered this, but then again, the old place-kicker hadn’t had the presence of mind to mention it either in his little commercial.

        I lugged myself down to the elevator, with a Yellow Song in my mouth. Obviously, one can’t smoke with the suit on. I chewed the grains in the cigarette like gum as I walked through the lobby. A poster board directed the tour group to a small room for learning techniques for healing our backs for the next morning. I walked right by it and hit the series of doors leading to the desert.

        A lamp from high above the hotel’s tower strayed over the landscape. The red sands shifted quietly under the Martian wind. The rocks stood still like great old turtles. I chewed my cigarette. Little quantum flashes sprayed around inside my head, building a comfy sofa to keep out all bad thoughts.

        A guy in a blue plastic suit, one of the newer, lighter numbers, stepped out of the shadow of the hotel’s awning. He was a little taller than me, and heavier, about five foot, 11 inches. I wanted his suit. “You here for the Software Study Group?” he asked me.

        “No, I’m with the bad back tour,” I said.

        “You’re in the wrong suit for that.”

        A wave of anxiety threatened to pull me down to the ground. The Yellow Song fled. I should have said something sarcastic to him, but I didn’t.

        “Where are you from?” I asked him.

        “Dallas. It’s not so bad. It’s not what you see on the news.”

        “Nothing ever is.”

        As I stood there, I saw something move quickly out of the hotel light. I had heard there were rats on Mars, but they generally stayed inside the casinos and the hotels. If they somehow found their way outside, their blood would boil in the Martian atmosphere, as would that of any human.

        “The maintenance staff picks those up pretty fast,” the software guy said.

        “Eh, what’s that?”

        “The rats explode out here.”

        “Yeah, I read about that.”

        “The maintenance people come out in the morning and sweep 'em up. The desert is clean. Sterile.”

        “That’s one of the reasons I came.”

        “I thought you came for your bad back.”

        “Sciatica, actually. But I also wanted the whole Mars experience. A pure thing.”

        “You could have found this in South Dakota.”

        “Too close to home. And you’ve got the heavy gravity.”

        “True.” He studied my helmet.

        My anxiety levels shot through the roof of my helmet. I longed for another Yellow Song. I looked away to the flat land.

        One of the rocks seemed to move. I felt my stomach heave.

        “There’s something out there,” I said.

        “Listen to it explode.”

        About ten seconds later, we heard a pop.

        “There it is,” Software Guy said.

        I didn’t trust his answer. I kept scanning the landscape.

        “I hear something over there,” I said.


        I pointed to the rock just outside the light about 50 feet away from us.

        “Whatever it is, it’ll be dead soon.”

        But even after a few minutes, there was no satisfying pop. The Yellow Song feeling was gone. My intestinal tract twisted around. I felt the urge to run.

        “I’ve got to go,” I told Software Guy.

        “My name’s Bob. Why don’t you meet us at the bar around 9?” Software guy called out to me as I trudged off, the back pain pinging down my legs. I didn’t answer as I went through the pressurized doors of the hotel and back up to my room.

        I had a smoke of Yellow Song on the bubble bed. That took the edge off the back problem. I clicked the television remote to the Geo channel. There were other temptations on the remote, but they were pretty costly. And I had spent a lot of money for the Yellow Song injections on the pod. The Geo channel was free.

        The show focused on explorers driving around the Martian North Pole, clouds of carbon dioxide surrounding their vehicle. There’s plenty of carbon dioxide on Earth and there’s nothing attractive about it.

        The shag carpeting started to sway slightly, like it was being cut by a lawn mower.

        A heavy cockroach the size of a fist scrambled on the carpet to the legs of the night stand. I stared at the thing. He looked up at me.

        “You got any more of those cigarettes?” he asked me in a hoarse whisper.

        I slowly opened the drawer on the night stand, pulled out a Gideon Bible and positioned it carefully as the beast stared at me. Anxiety pulled at my chest.

        “I could really use a cigarette right now,” the roach said. “The garbage here tastes awful.”

        “I thought you guys would eat anything.”

        “Well, not me.”

        I slammed the Bible down on the carpet as fast and as hard as I could. I looked at the floor. There was nothing there. I looked at the Bible. It too had no traces of roach blood or parts. He was huge and I had missed him. Anxiety shot through my veins like fire.

        A voice choked a sentence out from a corner of the room. “You’re not very nice.”

        “You’re probably right about that. But you’re not part of my vacation,” I choked back.

        “Is there any Scotch in the room?”

        “I don’t think so.”

        “You are a very boring man.”

        “You’re probably right about that. But I’ve got a bad back and I have to live my life in a very restricted way.”

        The roach climbed up on the chair facing the desk, and put his front legs on the panel where your back goes. “I think you’re full of crap,” he said.

        “Maybe so, but you’re just mad that I don’t have any cigarettes.”

        “You got 'em, buddy. You’re just not sharing them.”

        “Would you share your cigarettes with me?”

        “You bet your ass I would.”

        “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t have anything to give.”

        “I got a whole stash of stuff in here.”

        “What, in this room? That belongs to the hotel.”

        “You have a very puritanical vision of ownership.”

        “I’m not who you think I am,” I yelled.

        The roach shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody ever is.” I noticed that one of his front legs was a shortened stump.

        “How’d you lose your leg?” I asked, beginning to get a grip on the guy.

        “Got in a fight. Which I won.”

        “Likely story.”

        I reached inside the drawer of the night stand again. The cigarettes glowed in my hand.

        “You’re a real pig,” the roach declared.

        I slowly pulled a stick out of the pack, smelled it and lit up. The roach stared with hunger.

        “You’re competition,” I told him coolly. “You’ve got nothing I need.”

        “That’s a line from a movie, you pathetic phony.”

        “Most of my best lines are.” My words didn’t come out as icily as I would have liked. The cigarette felt very strong. I’d have to write a letter to the Yellow Song people about the uneven quality control of the product. My words were slurred.

        I passed out on the bed.

        A cannon exploded. The door to my room was moving back and forth like in an earthquake. I saw it, frozen on the bubble bed.

        Bam, bam, bam went the door. I didn’t move.

        “Hey! Open up, it’s Bob!” The door kept on banging.

        I crawled off the bed and on the floor and opened the door to the room. There was Software Guy.

        Bob laughed when he saw me on the orange shag. “Whaddya doin’ down there?”

        “I’m loaded.”

        He smiled broadly. “Me, too.”

        Bob walked in. He didn’t even ask me if he could come in. I thought that was rude, but I didn’t say anything, even though my anxiety level shot through the roof and the old depression hit me like a sledgehammer.

        Bob walked to the same chair Mr. Roach had been in, turned it around and sat on it, very friendly and casual.

        “You didn’t show up at the bar.”

        “I fell asleep.”

        “There were some cute women there, pal. You should have come. I could have used your help”

        “Oh, I don’t know.”

        “You got any Scotch?”


        “What got you loaded?”

        I pulled out my pack of Yellow Songs. “This stuff.”

        “That’s not very strong.”

        “You’ve had 'em?”

        “Yeah, and it’s like candy.”

        My anxiety inched higher.

        “What can I say? I’m a lightweight.”

        “We need some Scotch. I’ll be right back.”

        I felt a little better after Bob left, but ten minutes later he was back.

        I let him in, with a pint bottle he flashed at me from under his sports jacket. He was snickering with delight. “I stole this from the bartender. God, I’m happy.”

        So we drank the Scotch. I tried to nurse mine, but Bob kept insisting I take a good shot. I was nervous about drinking because I already had so much Yellow Song in my system. You shouldn’t drink any alcohol when you’re smoking anti-D cigarettes. Within minutes, I felt like my eyes were bleeding out of my head.

        Bob started laughing as I tried to grab the bed for support, even though I was already on it. My arms and legs began to shake, which I was thankful for, in a way. The shaking kept me from thinking about how much Bob depressed me.

        After about a half hour, we had both settled down. Software Guy started talking about his troubles at work, like I’m his wife or something, which he already has by the way, back in always sunny and broiling-hot Dallas, no matter what he says about the quality of life there. My mood, pretty low to begin with, descended to the way you feel when you’re waiting to see a dentist who you know doesn’t like you.

        Bob sold software and he was very successful, he said. He didn’t know why he had been given this stupid assignment. Bob knew the product better than anyone else on the sales force. He needed to be out in the field, talking to clients, making money. Instead, he was sidelined with this crap. Plus, he had to write a report about what he had learned.

        I turned on the TV to the news channel to escape from Bob. The food riots in Detroit had spread to St. Louis. Phoenix announced a state of emergency and began an evacuation of people to local cooling centers. Fifteen more people had died in the February heat there. North Korea announced a military alliance with Inner Somalia. The President’s spokesperson raged at length about it, but announced a policy direction that amounted to very little.

        Bob began to laugh at every intonation of the news anchor. Glued to the bed, I laughed a little too, but my eyes were tearing up at the same time.

        By the time the news anchor moved onto the story about the Category 5 hurricane moving toward Haiti, Bob was roaring. This hurricane was making him happy as hell.

        “Those Haitians’ll be swimming in mud by tomorrow!” he yelled at the TV. Even in my jumbled-up state, I wanted to kick the crap out of him. I wanted to throw Bob out of the cockroach’s chair, twist him on his back and jump on his spine with my knees. But that would go against the Yellow Song ethic. So, like a good ape, I didn’t. Plus, my own back was just a deteriorating piece of skeletal junk, impervious to surgery. I wouldn’t last long in a fight.

        So I just switched the station back to the Geo Channel. I’m too polite. That’s my problem. The doctor says that’s one of the reasons I’m so down. Even though this thought goes against the Yellow Song ethic, doctor, I think you should kiss my ass. You’re right. I feel better already.

        The Geo Channel didn’t soothe me. A news announcer had broken into the programming on a rover’s trip to a huge canyon called Valles Marineris. An enormous dust storm was developing in the desert near us and was currently headed for the Olympus Mons district. The wind was blowing at 150 miles an hour and gathering speed. The dust might easily enter the electrical and life support systems of the hotels and casinos. Driving a rover in that weather would be out of the question.

        Software Guy stopped laughing and put himself together pretty fast. “I gotta go. I’ll see you, dude. Get some Scotch next time.”

        I nodded as he rushed out, and fell asleep on the bed with the TV on.

        Some hours later, I heard a knock on the door. “We’re evacuating the hotel, please be ready in fifteen minutes,” the voice yelled.

        I looked at the Geo Channel. Pods were being readied to take the thousands of guests out of the casinos. The storm was too big to ride out. On the TV, I saw people lining up in their suits for the ride to the pod station, to go back to Earth. I looked for Software Guy, but of course, how could I pick him out from among the panicked crowds?

        I didn’t feel very good. So I picked up a Yellow Song from the night stand and lit up. The dust storm was still there. I smoked another and then three more. The sandstorm kept coming. I smoked four more cigarettes. I felt dull, so I smoked three more Yellow Songs in quick succession. The storm slowly turned into something else, a simple expression of the planet’s real personality, I understood.

        I heard people running out of their rooms for the rovers, for the drive to the pods to get off the planet. I smoked three more Yellow Songs in a row while studying the path of the storm. The news announcer said it looked like it was going to make a direct hit on the Olympus Mons district. His usual air of panic was pitched to an even higher level of seriousness. I liked him.

        Another news report focused on the evacuation. Only a few select people would stay on the planet until the dust storm ran its course. The governors of the four inhabited districts said they and their administrative staff people would stay in underground bunkers specially built for events like this, with food and provisions to last for three months.

        I walked down to the hotel restaurant kitchen. There was no one there. I opened the refrigerator and ate synthetic cereal and evaporated milk. It tasted pretty nasty, but I decided that I wouldn’t expect anything anymore. That way I would never be disappointed with the results.

        After that I went back to my room. No one had come to get me a second time. I felt quite alone, yet fortified with the Yellow Song, I felt I had achieved the ultimate level of feeling, just like in the product commercials. The ripples of peaceful dust tripped through my head. The wind had picked up outside, like a symphony. Red sand buffeted against the hotel like bullets of peace. The sound felt like chamber music. I felt very Yellow Song.

        I smoked another cigarette, and felt quite alone, happy. I lay on the bed and heard the dust announce itself, loudly. The shag carpet began to part by the television. My roach friend slowly burrowed through the carpet pile to the side of the bed and looked up at me.

        “You’ve grown quite a bit,” I said.

        The old boy’s antennae twitched. “I’m about three feet long now.”

        “How did you grow so fast?”

        “The hotel has been kind to me.”

        I laughed. “I’ll bet.”

        “You’ve decided to stay?” he asked.

        “Why not? If you’ve seen one planet, you’ve seen 'em all.”

        “A righteous attitude, dude.”

        “It’s a Yellow Song attitude. You want a cigarette?” I asked him.

        “Sure. Why not?”

        I leaned over to him, picked him up by his hard outer shell, like a little baby, and set him on the bed next to me.

        “You did steal a Yellow Song cigarette back in my apartment? I just want to be clear on that.”

        “You bet your ass I did. It was really, really good. You got a pillow?”

        I fluffed a pillow for him and he set himself against it. Pulling a cigarette out of my pack, I stuck it in his mouth and lit it for him.

        “Thanks,” he rasped at me. Balancing the cigarette between his amputated stump and his one good front leg, the old man, his brown shell greasy from years spent behind kitchen ovens and baseboards, took a long, thoughtful drag on the Yellow Song, and contemplated the ceiling.

        “You want to watch some TV?”

        “Sounds good,” the old man said.

        I turned on the TV. We watched red dust rip over the desert, filling the screen. The sound it made was one continuous shout, in monotone.

        The old man turned his head to me. “This is a pretty decent show.”

        “It’s so Yellow Song I can’t even stand it.”






copyright 2007 Michael Gold.

Michael Gold:

I live in Queens, NY, with my wife and baby daughter. I have a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oregon and an M.A. in Education from Adelphi University. I have worked as a public relations writer for industrial and technology companies, a reporter for small-town newspapers, a freelance writer and a teacher. I read books on astronomy and evolutionary psychology. Major influences include Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Miller and Kilgore Trout.

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