As the sun sets, the line where the sky meets the distant Martian ridges turns chameleon, shifting from red to lavender to royal blue and finally black. Old starlight makes its presence known like sugar crystals spilled across diner linoleum. Not to be outdone by nature’s display, the crawling toward sprawling metropolis of New Bradbury winks on in the glow of yellow street lights and neon blur of downtown bar and restaurant signs.
Outside New Bradbury, just off the main road a campfire crackles to life and the women and men huddled around pull food envelopes and cigarette packs from their coat pockets. They smoke until the fire yields coals, and then they place their envelopes around its edge. Coaxed by the coal’s heat, the envelopes expand until they’re as big cracker boxes, and only then do their owners retrieve them with calloused fingers. The women and men tear the seals on their envelopes and clouds of steam carrying the rich scent of potatoes, carrots, onions, and synthetic meat fills the air. They take turns sharing stories of the day around mouthfuls of the stew: who got laid off; who found new work; which bosses were honest and which were crooked; rumors of bigger and more lucrative job opportunities; and most importantly the which portals lead to better opportunities.
The sound of heavy footsteps crunching on the dry, red soil causes the women and men to freeze like deer back on Earth facing slaughter by automobile. A stranger steps into the firelight, and those seated around the fire, who’d been around long enough to recognize one of their own–a fellow poho, or portal hopper–relax and resume their meals.
The young man finds an empty seat by the fire and sets down his bag. He has high, skeletal cheek bones, and the coat he holds closed over his frame looks as though it would wrap around twice were he to give it a go. He watches the people around him spooning stew into their mouths, taking drags from cigarettes, nipping from bottles of wine, and he wipes a hand across his mouth which has begun to water.
“Excuse me,” he says, “would any of you have an extra food envelope?”
“Do you have any extra money?” the man next to him says.
The stranger shakes his head. “I thought I’d have some. I put in a full day’s worth today, but the boss said he wouldn’t pay me because I allegedly stole an apple.”
A woman sitting across the fire clears her throat, and in a low, raspy voice suited for sad jazz ballads, asks, “Did you steal an apple?”
“No, I didn’t steal an apple,” the young man says. “It was a pear.”
This gathers a chuckle from around the fire, and the woman who’d asked about the apple moves to sit next to the young man. She pulls an extra envelope from her pocket and sets it in the coals.
“What’s your name, fella?” she asks.
“Aaron Demers,” he says. “What’s yours?”
Before she can answer, one of the fireside diners who’s chosen a strictly liquid dinner lurches upward and yells, “Yadonknow who this is? This ish poho royaldy. Oneofda best to leap through the blue rings. You–“
And then he’s gone rushing away from the fire to empty his stomach into the scrub brush outside the firelight’s circle.
“Don’t mind Gibby. That rotgut hits his system and he gets a little excited.” She holds out her hand. “I’m Husky Adams. Pleasure to meet you Aaron.”
He shakes her hand, then pulls his food from the coals.
“What did that guy mean about you being poho royalty?”
“Like I said he gets excited, exaggerates, but truthfully I have been known to find my way into most of the portals on both planets.
“I wish I could say the same,” Aaron says right before spooning tremendous bites of stew into his mouth.
Husky, long-finished with her own dinner, lights a cigarette and leans forward.
“Because I need to get back home and I don’t have any money.”
“And why do you need to St. Louis?”
Aaron tosses his empty envelope in the fire, then wipes his hands on his pants.
“I wasn’t supposed to go to Mars in the first place. My old man, he kind of forbade it, said it would only lead to trouble. But I had to see for myself.
“But I can’t seem to get anything going here, no matter how hard I try. I reached out to my dad, asked him for money, and he said no, but if I could find a way home, I would be welcomed back.”
“And you’re sure that’s what you want?”
“I’ve been over it and over it for the past couple days, days my belly grew emptier and emptier. This was the first meal I’ve had since Monday. Maybe I’m being a coward, but I just really want to go home.”
Husky says, “Nothing cowardly about going home. It’d be worse to stick it out over something as small as pride.” She stands up and grabs her bag. “C’mon, Mr. Demers.”
“Where are we going?”
She looks at him like he’s stupid. “To find you a portal.”
The portal yard sits on the other side of New Bradbury, and it’d be quickest to walk straight through town, but Husky and most seasoned pohos knew from experience that the city’s permanent residents didn’t like seeing migrant workers strolling their Idyllic promenades. It only took one time being escorted out of town by local law enforcement and all thumps and bruises that entailed to not want a sequel to the experience. It takes Husky and Aaron the better part of an hour to walk around.
They see the blue glow of the portals long before they reach the chain link fence barrier. There’s a steady hum in the air, occasionally punctuated by loud claps and snaps.
Husky pauses in the shadow of a pipe stand and stays Aaron with a hand to his shoulder. On the other side of the fence, a line paired rings stretches out of sight. Husky holds a finger to her lips and points at the two rings mounted closest to them. Both are illuminated a dull blue, and each bears a sign at the crest of the circle. The one closest to the fence says Boise.
“We’ll look for one that’ll get you a little closer to home,” Husky whispers, “but this will be your backup plan.”
The pair cling to whatever shadows they can find as they move down the line, checking the destination placards. They get lucky on their eleventh pair of portal rings: Kansas City.
Husky checks her watch. Twenty seven past the hour.
“We have to watch out for the yard bulls. We didn’t see any yet, which means they must still be working this way. Usually takes them about thirty minutes to make a one-way walk. Once they pass, we’ll let them get a few rings down, then make our move.”
Aaron’s chest heaves and he feels like his heart will explode.
“What happens if they catch us?” he asks.
“You don’t want to be thinking about that right now. That train leads to hesitation, and we don’t need that right now. Just stay focused on the portal’s glow.”
Husky’s calculations prove true a few minutes later, as a boulder of a man pressed into a khaki uniform stalks into view. In one hand he holds a flashlight, in the other a club. The beam of his light passes just shy of Husky and Aaron’s hiding place.
When he’s gone, Husky waits until she can no longer hear the yard bulls boots on the ground, then dashes for the fence. She’s up and over in under five seconds, and half-expects she’ll need to motion the kid over, but he surprises her, as he’s nearly at the top when she turns around. His feet hit the ground, and Husky makes for the portal. She gets a hand on the edge and turns to check on the kid. He’s almost to the blue glow of the ring when a club sails through the air and cracks him in the shoulder. Aaron stumbles and goes to one knee. Husky sees the yard bull charging like his trousers are ablaze, his flashlight held aloft to bludgeon.
“Get up, kid,” Husky says as she beelines for the yard bull.
Aaron scrambles to his feet, spraying gravel in every direction, and barely misses having his head dented by the flashlight. He passes Husky while sprinting for the portal, and almost stops, confused over where she’s going, but fire in her eyes tells him he better keep moving.
Husky leaps and pistons both feet into the yard bulls chest, catches him off guard, and knocks him to the ground. She lands on her back and is up before he can react.
Aaron knows he should step through the portal; he can practically feel the heat of Kansas city. But he wants to help Husky. The yard bull’s twice her size.
Before Aaron can act, Husky decides to finish this fight. She finds the yard bull’s club, climbs on top of the man, and brings the bludgeon down.
There’s a crack similar to the sound of an old major leaguer sending a baseball toward the fences, and then Husky’s next to Aaron, and she takes him by the arm and shoves him through the portal. There’s a thunder clap and the smell of ozone hanging onto all the air in the area.
Husky’s about to step through herself, but then notices a trio of flashlights bobbing and weaving toward her. Hopefully the kid has the good sense to move away from the portal as soon as he gets to the other side, but Husky knows if she steps through now, the yard bulls would be able to follow right on her heels. She takes off back down the line, quickly outdistancing her pursuers. When she reaches the end, she doesn’t hesitate, but plunges through the portal marked Boise. The dull blue light flares and engulfs her, and she’s through.