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The Plot by Mark Frankel

© Mark Frankel

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Dekker glanced at the threatening Martian sky. That deeper shade of pink meant a dust storm was on its way. Time to get under cover. He parked the excavator and headed for home. The wind had become fierce and despite his bulky strength he struggled to reach the shelter of the storm porch. Once inside, he removed his heavy surface suit before re-pressurising to Earth gravity.

The savoury smell of cooking greeted his nostrils as he opened the inner door. Two of Mahler’s bulls had been badly injured in a rutting fight some weeks before and had to be slaughtered. His neighbour had given Dekker one of the carcasses. The meat had little flavour but casseroled with rice and vegetables made a welcome change from his normal diet. He had programmed the cooker when he had left the house that morning.

The gift had puzzled him. His neighbour, though a generous, wasn’t in the habit of bestowing casual gifts. Dekker, suspecting an ulterior motive, was on his guard for the next few days, but several months were to pass before his suspicions were confirmed.

His home was a typical Elysia duplex cabin; the living and leisure space at ground level under the dome - sleeping quarters and washing facilities below. It was a bit cramped for a man of his size but replacing it had always been a low priority even though larger ones were readily available. Some of the family dwellings went down five levels and even Mahler, a slightly built man, had three all to himself.

Afterwards, he spent the rest of the evening copying out Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso’. The cabin was littered with book pods and the walls covered with picto-images and examples of his painstaking calligraphy. The first time Mahler visited, he’d been astonished to discover this unexpected cultural side to Dekker’s character.

It was four days before the wind dropped and he was able to get back to work. That evening the message screen flagged a dinner invitation from his neighbour. He flew over in his hover-disk as soon as he had showered and changed.

Mahler was a slim, scholarly-looking man. With his bright eyes and straight white hair reaching down to his shoulders, you could imagine him effortlessly holding the attention of a roomful of restless students. In fact, unlike Dekker, he’d never attended college and it was his sharp business brain that had been responsible for his success in life.
Dekker eased into a comfortable leather chair and looked enviously around the spacious living area. He was totally familiar with the house. Mahler was often away at the Utopia sulphur springs and had given Dekker his entrance code. In his neighbour’s absence, he spent hours eagerly exploring the rooms. One day it would all be his. Mahler planned to retire to Earth. The price had been agreed and the agreement drawn up. It awaited only Mahler’s signature.

The farmer lived well. He was an electronics enthusiast and the room was packed with all the latest gadgets, purchased as soon as they appeared on the tele-screen and some still in their original packaging. In contrast to the sparse furnishings in Dekker’s home, he had surrounded himself with the best of everything. Tonight’s meal had been prepared by the Savoy Hotel chef in London, England. Mahler kept a selection of such delicacies in his cold-store for the dinner guests who regularly enjoyed his hospitality.

Dekker, on the other hand, preferred to go into town for socialising. What he lacked in personality, he made up for by spending lavishly. He was known as a generous drinking companion and occasionally rented a suite in the hotel and spent an entire weekend closeted with some of the girls.

“Try this,” Mahler said, handing Dekker a glass of amber-coloured liquid. “It’s a Tokay wine – supposed to be the perfect companion for tonight’s meal.”

Dekker sipped cautiously. “Good,” he said and took a long swallow before carefully putting his glass down on the lace table-mat. The Tokay was too sweet for his taste but he knew Mahler was a wine connoisseur and he had no wish to upset him. He glanced at the EarthLink screen on the far wall as a series of small explosions broke the silence. Fireworks illuminated the night sky over New York. He recognised the Freedom Tower, built towards the end of the twenty-fifth century.

“What are they celebrating?”

“Fourth of July.” Mahler was originally from Oregon in the United States of America. He lifted something off one of the low tables. “Take a look at this?”

The sculpture was in the shape of a curved animal horn, black and gleaming. It was about ten inches long and mounted upright at the wide end, on a block of rough stone. It was heavy, cool and smooth to the touch. Dekker examined it curiously. Multi-coloured specks of embedded mica – green, red and yellow - flashed brilliantly as the light caught them. He knew Mahler was clever with his hands and often made sculptures out of the red, Martian rock but he couldn’t see anything particularly interesting in this one.

“What’s it made of?” he said.

“Cow horn.”

“But it seems solid; aren’t cow horns hollow?”

“Not these. Happened to be looking at a pile of them recently, thinking it was the only part of my animals that wasn’t useful. Tried the buffer on one of them – and that’s the result. What do you think?”

“Pretty,” said Dekker, handing it back.

Mahler slapped his knee and chuckled. “Got orders for a regular supply – at a hundred duros each,” he said, triumphantly. “Some of the smart boutiques in New York are snapping them up.”

Dekker shook his head admiringly. You had to hand it to Mahler. Whatever he touched turned to money. “What’s the market news?”

His host obligingly switched channels. “Marble up fifty – wool a hundred and fifty. Looks like we’re both doing all right.”

Dekker studied the screen, thoughtfully. It constantly surprised him that even in the twenty-sixth century, wool was still such a sought-after commodity. Ever since the virus had decimated Earth’s sheep flocks, prices continued to rise at an unprecedented rate. It seemed there would always be a sentimental nostalgia for clothes made from natural substances and people were prepared to pay high prices for the privilege of wearing them.

On Earth, in England, he’d grown-up on his foster parents’ sheep farm. He’d been a lab-child, purchased by Tom and Sarah Marshall. They had given him their name and treated him like one of their own, but he grew up with a burning sense of injustice and felt that their two biological children resented his presence.

He grew to be a mountain of a man with a vicious, uncontrollable temper. Even at the age of fifteen, most of their neigbours lived in fear of him and when he nearly killed a rival in a dispute over a girl, he was only saved from prison by his father promising to keep him within the farm boundaries.

When the will was read out, he found he had been left with only a small sum of money and a permanent sense of injustice. Despite their vehement denials, he accused his brothers of having turned their parents against him, and although they assured him he would always enjoy the same benefits as before, he left the farm swearing vengeance.

His first act had been to legally change his name. Twenty years ago, the government was still offering free passage and grants for people to colonise the inner planets and he had seized the opportunity.

He turned towards his host. “Thought any more about retirement?” he said.

Mahler laughed and stood up. “All in good time. Let’s eat.”

The food was delicious but Dekker was relieved when they finished the Tokay wine and switched to red. Afterwards they watched a documentary about the new space station on Titan. When it was time to leave, Mahler pointed to a large box by the door.

“That’s for you. Watch your back; it’s heavy.”

Once again, Dekker felt that twitch of suspicion. “What is it?”

“Cow horns. You’ve got a buffer, haven’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Well - something to do in your spare time. No hurry; got a year's contract for as many as I can supply. Watch out for the points, though. They’re needle sharp. You’ll need to smooth them down before you handle them. There’s a pot of adhesive in the box and you provide the mounts, of course. I’ll give you fifty duros for each one that’s up to standard.”

The scream of the drill split the stillness of the Martian air. The planet’s harsh, red rock was fashionable for terraces back on Earth where it was compressed, polished to a high sheen and marketed under the name of MarsMarble. People seemed to like the idea of walking on the surface of another planet without actually having to leave their own.

Every six months a freighter arrived with supplies from Earth and departed loaded with Elysian produce. The next ship was due in just over two months and Dekker was behind schedule. Dust storms had been particularly troublesome lately and he had been forced to miss his weekend excursions into town, in an effort to catch up. Unlike Mahler, he employed no other help, but his powerful physique could handle the work of any three men. As a result, after twenty years of hard labour and a buoyant market, Dekker was already a comparatively wealthy man.

The population of Mars was mainly male. Some came to get away from family life; others to escape from life itself. And there were some who had taken advantage of the fact that there was no extradition treaty with Earth. It was known as the planet of lonely men. Dekker liked the tranquillity of solitude. Mahler, on the other hand, kept in regular touch with his son.

In the distance, the dusty wind ruffled the leaves of the carbon-dioxide-eating hybrid trees surrounding the government hemp fields. They marked the edge of his land and the beginning of Mahler’s farm, one of several around the Elysium Sea. It had taken over two centuries to create the thin atmosphere on Mars and presumably another two would pass before humans could exist on its surface without a bulky survival suit. Fortunately the low gravity meant it was not too uncomfortable to work in. He stepped away from the drill and pressed the button on his water tank, sucking the tube inserted in his mouth.

There were vast areas of water-ice on the planet, of course, and the conversion engineers had already started work on an irrigation network – but it would take time. Dekker hoped his mining days would have ended long before it was completed. Scientists claimed that the next phase - converting Phobos into an artificial sun - would complete the hydrological cycle; raising the surface temperature of Mars. The more extravagant forecasts spoke of turning the planet into a tropical paradise.

Dekker had arrived on Mars to find the farming concessions long gone. His hopes that he might find sufficient water to cultivate an area of land on his barren plot were short-lived. Although underground volcanic activity had melted the subterranean ice, most of it had flowed into the huge Elysium crater – subsequently renamed the Elysium sea.

Sunlight glinted off the yellow water and Dekker gazed enviously at the dark cattle-sheep scattered on the coarse green pastures. Even from this distance he could see they were heavy with wool. The animals were the first to be bred on Mars and appeared to be thriving in the hostile environment. He wondered how they would be affected by the air enrichment process. Hybrid trees were gradually replacing the carbon dioxide with oxygen while seeding stations generated the nitrogen that made up the bulk of Earth’s atmosphere.

His neighbour had been lucky, Dekker reflected. True, in the forty years he had spent on the planet, Mahler had prospered through his own hard work and initiative; but it was the recent virus that had decimated Earth’s sheep farms that had substantially increased the value of his property. The strange thing was that he took no pleasure from this and his sympathies were with the farmers who had lost their livelihood. Dekker, on the other hand, could scarcely conceal his delight when the news had reached them.

Phobos was rising in the west when Dekker had left his house that morning and it was disappearing below the eastern horizon now. That meant he’d worked an eight-hour shift. Descending the ramp to the shower room, he stripped and stood in front of the mirrored wall. The reflection showed a large, heavily muscled man with some grey starting to show in his thick black hair and heavy beard. Years of scowling had joined his eyebrows together so that they ran in a straight line, dividing the top third of his face from the rest. The hot steam room eased out the tiredness and sharpened his hunger. This would be the last meal based on Mahler’s cow meat.

Several months passed before he saw his neighbour again. The weather had improved and by working long hours, seven days a week, Dekker had been able to meet his quota. Mahler had invited him over to see the Earth Ice Hockey final. It was after the game that Dekker’s world fell apart. Pictures of a smiling family appeared on the screen; a fair-haired man in his fifties who bore a strong resemblance to Mahler, and a young man and woman.

“Sorry,”said Mahler casually. “Forgot to wipe then.”

“Who are they?”

“That’s my son, Paul. The young fellow’s my grandson Roddie with his wife Suzie. She’s expecting a baby.” He chuckled. “Looks like I’m going to be a great grandfather.”

Roddie waved. “Looking forward to seeing you, Grandpa,” he said, before the pictures faded.

“What did he mean?” said Dekker, barely able to conceal his excitement.

“They’re coming out for a visit on the next ship. Thinking of settling here. Their farm’s had it; the virus wiped out most of the flock. Nothing to keep them there, now.”

A cold knot of fear had tightened in Dekker’s stomach. He felt the blood draining from his cheeks. “What will they do?”

Mahler was carefully topping up their glasses. He turned and handed one to Dekker, looking him full in the face. “They want to take over my farm.”

“What!” Dekker slammed his glass down, spilling half the contents on the side-table. “You told them about our agreement of course?”

“Been meaning to talk to you about that; suppose I should have said something sooner…”

Dekker abruptly stood up, towering over the smaller man; hands clenched into giant fists and his body vibrating with fury. “We had a deal. We shook hands on it. You promised the farm to me when you retired. You can’t go back on a promise.”

Mahler gaped at the contorted face and backed away in alarm. “Now calm down, Dekker; let’s be civilised about this. Circumstances have changed. I don’t like to let you down but this is family. Surely you can see that? I know it’s a big disappointment for you but family comes first."

Dekker crashed a heavy fist down on the small table which promptly disintegrated, splattering wine over the pristine floor. “But it’s not fair; you can’t take away what’s rightfully mine.”

Mahler’s face was suddenly hard. “I’m sorry you won’t see reason – but that’s the way it is.”

Dekker sat up all night until the blood had stopped pounding in his head and he could think clearly. No - he wasn’t prepared to accept it. This wasn’t going to happen to him again. For some time now, mining had been only a means to an end. The one thing that had kept him going this last year had been the prospect of owning his own farm. It was his by right and nothing was going to be allowed to snatch it away from him at the last moment.

He went through to his work room and picked up one of the cow horns, testing the point against his thumb. Mahler was right. It was sharp – very sharp.

A few days later it was on the news screen. Mahler’s body had been found out on the pasture by his farm manager. It appeared that he had been attacked by one of his own cows and his surface suit ripped open. He had frozen to death.

The call from the mayor’s office finally came. The registration documents were awaiting his signature and bank details. Examination of Mahler’s papers had confirmed Dekker’s claim. When he had visited his neighbour’s farm that night, it hadn’t taken him long to copy Mahler’s signature onto the agreement.

It proved difficult to find a quick buyer for his mine, however, and Dekker was forced to sell it back to Land Registry for a modest price. He would have preferred to wait until the market improved but you had to be resident on Mars for twenty-five years before you were allowed to own two plots simultaneously.

He awaited the next ship from Earth with some trepidation but instead of the dead man’s family it brought a team of nuclear engineers. They were ready to begin work on converting Phobos to an artificial sun. Within a few days, mining ships were landing on Mars’ main satellite.

Five years of bliss passed for Dekker – and there was more to come. For some time he had been paying an agency to monitor his Earth family. Despite his success, he still craved revenge against the Marshall brothers for his perceived injustice. The agency sent him regular reports on their welfare. The day finally came when he received the news he had eagerly awaited, that the virus had finally reached their farm and devastated their flock. The Marshalls financial situation was grim and the brothers were desperately trying to sell the freehold, but since most food was grown hydroponically underground, the market was overloaded with unwanted land.

Through an agent, Dekker offered a derisory sum which in due course was accepted. Once the agent had completed the transaction, he was surprised to learn that his client intended making the trip to Earth so that he could personally take possession of the farm from the previous owners. He had no way of knowing that Dekker’s sole reason for buying the property was to see the expressions on the faces of his erstwhile family when he revealed himself as the purchaser.

When he had taken over Mahler's farm, his first act had been to dismiss the farmhands. He didn’t want people spying on him. He was proud of his brute strength and was confident he could handle all the work himself. The second had been signing up to EarthLink. Switching channels one day in his fifth year on the farm, he found himself halfway through a report of the effect on industry if the Phobos conversion turned Mars sub-tropical. Wool-cattle were mentioned and his blood chilled as he caught the word ‘doomed’. It had never occurred to him that the dramatic change of climate might adversely affect farmers like himself. He wondered how soon it would be before he was forced to consider a different crop. Now, he monitored every news bulletin, anxiously watching the steady progress of the work on Phobos. The talk was no longer about industry; it was about holiday resorts and hotels.

In due course, he received details of a proposal for a leisure complex to be built on his old mining plot. The prospect of hordes of inquisitive bio-kids invading his privacy appalled him. He flew into town early the following morning and lodged an objection. A week later, when he learned his objection had been overruled, he knew what he must do.

Leisureland occupied the top floor of a gleaming black glass and steel tower. The building hadn’t been there last time he visited town. Clearly, a lot of new money was flowing into Elysia. The bearded Dekker was welcomed effusively by the soft-voiced manager.

“Simeon Spark – at your service, Mr Dekker. Delighted you’ve come to see us. Please forgive my appearance; I’ve just arrived from the home planet and haven’t had time to purchase suitable clothing. I understand you have a substantial property you’re thinking of selling?”

Dekker stared at the plump young man in wonder. Could this really be the way they dressed on Earth these days? Spark wore a tight black outer-suit with a bright red body-liner that matched his lips, and his hairless head was decorated with colourful, geometric patterns. The heels on his boots looked at least five inches high.

The manager walked towards his desk and selected a red and a green remote control from the selection on his desk. He handed the red one to Dekker and pointed his own at a large wall-map of Elysia. A green dot appeared on Dekker’s old mining plot and the area was immediately illuminated in green.

“That used to be my old quarry - the one you’re planning to develop,” said Dekker.

The manager let out a long, low whistle. “Wow! Hope you got a good price for it; it’s worth billions now.”

“My farm’s the double-sized spread right next to it.”

“Perhaps you’d like to indicate your property, Mr Dekker? Just point at it and push the button.”

Eagerly, he activated the control and his farm lit up in bright red, dwarfing the adjacent green plot.

“It’s by the Elysium sea?”

“That’s right.”

Simeon Spark shook his head. “Afraid that’s volcanic - extrusive igneous rock, according to the geologists. Unstable land as far as we’re concerned. The smallest hotels planned are a hundred storeys high. We’re talking five million tonnes of bauxite. Wouldn’t take the weight.” He shook his head sympathetically as he saw the look on Dekker’s face.

A month later, Dekker alighted at London Spaceport, amazed at the grandeur of the terminal. It was the first time he had been back to Earth since he had left, over twenty-five years before. The increased security took him by surprise. He was met by two uniformed guards and escorted through to a small room on one of the lower levels. A grim-faced police inspector was sitting at a table.

“Name?” he said when Dekker was seated opposite him.

“Karl Dekker.”

“Permanent residence?”

He gave his Mars address.

“Reason for visit?”

“I’ve bought a farm.”

“You’re planning to stay, then?”

“No - I’m just here to view the property.”

There was a knock at the door and a head appeared. “Mr Mahler’s here, sir.”

Dekker stiffened.

A slim, fair-haired man entered the room. Dekker recognised Paul Mahler. He got to his feet, glowering. “What’s going on?”

“Please sit down, sir,” said one of the officers. “We’d just like you to look at a document.”

Mahler seated himself in a corner of the room while another officer entered and stood with his back against the closed door.

Dekker sank uneasily into the chair and examined the paper slid in front of him. It was the purchase agreement for Mahler’s farm.

“Do you recognise this?”

“Of course. That’s my signature on it – underneath Mahler’s.”

“At Mr Paul Mahler’s request, we had this document examined by a graphologist. It appears that the Mahler signature is a forgery?”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“A computer has confirmed that both signatures are by the same person.”

Dekker jumped to his feet. “What is this? I refuse to answer any more questions until my lawyer is present.”

“Of course. You may contact her shortly. We’d like to show you something first, though.”

A screen rose from the table. Pictures of the farm appeared, in the sharp, mauve tint of night-vision. He saw himself slashing at a dark shape on the ground.

Dekker leapt to his feet and sent the table flying as he tried to reach the door.

A stun-gun knocked the wind out of him and he sank to the floor. Restraints were clipped over his wrists and ankles and he was hauled back into a chair. Paul Mahler stood over him.

“You didn’t know my father had installed external security monitors, Mr Dekker. I had the equipment removed and sent to me before you moved in. We finished examining the disks four years ago and have been hoping you’d travel to Earth one day. We have pictures of all your visits to the farm – including the one where you forged my father’s signature.”

The long silence was finally broken by the police inspector. “You may contact your lawyer, now,” he said.

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