Ethos shuffled into the food lounge groggily, barely daring to glance at the stony faces of mother and father. He began to eat his kalaj, a type of super rice; aware he was already late for school. He peered nervously towards his dad, but could see nothing of his expression for he was buried nose deep in the electronic paper. His eyes moved restlessly to his mother; but as they did, she turned away, rushing her plate over to the sink. Then she grabbed her purse and handheld robotic assistant (HRA) from the counter and hurried out the back door, murmuring absentmindedly about errands.
Ethos pushed away from the table roughly; young face wrinkled in disdain, making him appear older than he was. He shuffled into the bathroom, then returned to grab his backpack from where he’d tossed it on the couch Friday. His homework had lain there untouched the entire weekend. He rushed out the back door much as his mom had, neither he nor his father bothering to say a word. Their relationship was less than stellar. Ethos looked around; trying to get his mind off his parents, but what he saw only made him angrier. He hated Mars, hated every inch of it. Ever since they’d moved here when he was ten he had despised this stupid place.
They called it the “red planet” but it was actually more of a reddish-orange hue. He thought of the many varied surfaces of this planet, marred often by huge pock marks and rust colored volcanoes. Fights and civil riots had erupted over water shortages, and strange diseases had begun to run rampant, thanks to the new earth arrivals. The place was a cursed desert, a wasteland. They had been promised an oasis from wars that had scarred and nearly destroyed their home planet, but all Mars had given them was a whole new set of problems. Here everything was fake, even the looks of contentment on people’s faces; and that’s what bothered Ethos most of all. All the “blue collar workers” were robotic, every last one. All the materials used in every building and piece of furniture were new synthetics; known to cause cancer in the very old and young. These plastics were in everything, even shampoos, facial cleansers, and medicines; worming their way insidiously into every pore of their existence, every fiber of every being.
When Ethos closed his eyes in bed at night he could almost swear that he was tasting the plastic, way in the back of his mouth, under his tongue. It was a chemical flavor, the bitter tang of emptiness and disappointment. He could feel the synthetic material worming its way from organ to organ. One day it would reach his core and consume him whole. It was an unwelcome reminder of just where he found himself. But there was virtually no viable plant life here they could use for medicine, building, or anything else. Importing such materials was far too expensive and time consuming. They were trapped out here, destined to rot away on this scorched rock with what little resources they had left. Trapped with their disappointment, frustration, and anger.
Every day they were closer to death and eternal boredom, Ethos thought. He barely managed to stifle a yawn as he rolled blue-gray eyes and continued towards the high school. The only thing he ever looked forward to was band practice, which was after school in the music room. Music was his saving grace, and he had been in love with it since he first heard his father’s old recordings from their home planet. Earth was a warm and distant memory that now seemed far out of reach, but he still felt a deep connection to it; a longing for better, simpler times.
So when 3:00 pm rolled around he rushed out of his Advanced Calculus class and went to the music room. He was five minutes early, and his heart was pounding in the closest thing to excitement he’d felt in a long while. Blood rushed through his veins like wildfire and a light appeared from deep within his eyes. He removed his horn lovingly from its case as if it were a fragile living thing. He turned the instrument over in his hands, noticing how rusted it was becoming.
He played a few notes, and they came out slowly, reluctantly; a forlorn echo of their former beauty. Gently he coaxed a somewhat eerie tune from the belly of the sleeping beast. The depth and longing of the haunted melody filled the room and bounced back at him as if they were in an echo chamber, filling his ears with song. He relaxed and let the music take over his whole being, and he began to feel content for the first time in a long while.
The cerulean-white rust was soft like velvet in his mouth and almost powdery to the touch. This “Blue Rust”, as it had come to be known, was caused by harsh elements of Mars’ unique atmosphere that had a corrosive effect on all metal objects. The corrosion affected cars, musical instruments, and a host of other objects once deemed vital to human life. Ethos had watched with dismay as the caustic atmosphere of this most hated place slowly ate away at his deepest dreams, causing them to disappear right before his eyes.
Just then Mr. Hendrix, came in. He was a tall, quiet and very serious instructor; known to be a stickler for rules. He nodded and smiled at different students as they began to filter slowly into the room. Then he went to a large cabinet in the far corner. Frowning silently, he opened the doors with a special touch sensor and began to pull brown velvet bags from the cabinet. He came over to the nearby wall and began to remove pastel colored objects from the bags, placing them on a row of shelves neatly.
Several students came forward to see what was going on and some gasped audibly. Ethos jumped up and went over to the shelving system. The items appeared to be some sort of strange musical instruments. They almost looked like flutes or recorders, but the end of each instrument curled upward in a vine or flower like shape. They came in an assortment of hideously pale colors, from green to blue to yellow and pink. Ethos frowned deeply; big, stormy eyes peppering the teacher with unasked questions. The teacher returned his frown and his stare.
“Please turn in your instruments. They have been commissioned for research by the Technology Institute of Earth Majora. Please pile them in the corner near the cabinet. Thank you,” Mr. Hendrix mumbled, looking rather disgruntled.
“These are our new instruments. All made of plasticine, as you can tell. This is the newest version of the plastic hybrid, rumored to be stronger than steel,” the teacher added; but his tone was bored, expression unconvinced. He sighed and turned away, scurrying over to his desk like an unhappy rat; shoulders slumped in defeat.
That night Ethos tossed and turned. Sleep was an elusive thing he simply could not catch. He thought with disgust of the new plastic instruments, and his hands itched to hold his old metal horn and hear its forbidden magic one last time. Just then he thought he heard a creaking sound. He ran a hand through silvery hair with a sigh and got up. He opened his bedroom door, but heard nothing. He looked around the room, noting how chaotic it looked, right down to the cracks in the wall and smelly piles of rumpled clothes. He heard the sound again, only louder this time. His eyes widened slightly in surprise. The small crack in the wall over his bathroom door looked different, somehow larger. He strained to see into the crack, but all his eyes found were impenetrable darkness.
Then he heard the creaking sound again, three times in rapid succession. The tiny parallel crack in the wall appeared to be widening right before his eyes! He cautiously approached the closed bathroom door, opening it and peering inside, but seeing nothing. He went in and turned the light on. There was another crack in the bathroom wall above the corner of the door frame. This line ran nearly horizontal and then angled upwards. Ethos was shocked to see it too had grown slightly.
Then he heard a terrific groaning, as if the earth were contorting in tremendous pain. Suddenly the walls began to shake violently, sending everything on the counter and shelves onto the ground. Ethos tried to dart out of the way of falling objects but had no time to respond, grimacing as a can of shaving cream slammed into his shin. His eyes widened with horror as he watched the crack in the wall transform into a huge rift. Then the groaning noise grew, followed by a deafeningly loud tearing sound, as if the fabric of time and space were being ripped apart.
Suddenly the floor shifted beneath him and disappeared, leaving him falling through empty air, black as night. He closed his eyes in fright and tried to scream; but was so stunned nothing escaped but a child’s whimper. The sensation of falling was horrifying, as if he were trapped on an out of control roller coaster. His stomach dropped and then rose again; he felt cold air rushing past him as his descent continued. Never seeming to reach the bottom, his fear rose exponentially.
When Ethos opened his eyes he was stationary. He blinked in shocked when he recognized his surroundings. He was in his house, in the food lounge. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. He shook his head in a daze, running his fingers around his hairline and temple, checking for blood or bumps. But there was nothing; only a slight stain of sweat on his upper lip and the thundering of his racing heart in his ears.
He felt frantic and disoriented. He went through the whole house looking for his parents and younger sibling, but they were nowhere to be found. He returned to his bedroom, and the crack in the wall was gone, as if it had never existed! He raced outside, and as he did he was startled but how unnaturally bright it was for late afternoon. His limbs moved reluctantly, woodenly. He felt strange all over, heavy and light at the same time. Ethos looked down and was startled to see his legs pumping as he ran down the middle of the road; in the middle of their small neighborhood, where all houses looked the same. He began calling out his family members names, but there was no response.
The place had turned into a ghost town. There was not a soul to be seen, Ethos noticed with dawning trepidation. Then he realized that not only were there no people, there were no rusted, broken down cars, motorcycles, bikes, or trams. He came across a gold jetpack that was still running, lying on its side in the middle of the deserted road with a huge chip in it. He hesitated for a moment as he considered picking up the pack, but then decided not to. It was as if all the people and their vehicles had simply vanished. A strange, heavy silence filled the chilled air; blanketing and smothering the town like smog, muting its quaint, tired charm.
Ethos felt alarmed, yet somehow disconnected from everything. His lower limbs seemed impossibly far away; they looked smaller than before, and oddly shiny. They did not want to respond to his commands, nearly tripping him in their cumbersome flight. Something was very wrong. Ethos was overwhelmed by the urge to see himself reflected in a mirror. He had to know if this was real, or if there was something wrong with him. He struggled with a series of thoughts, each outcome more horrible than the next. By the time he burst into the nearest grocery store, he was wondering if he might be dead or unconscious.
The store was all lit up and eerily quiet. There was no one in sight, not a single worker or customer. Ethos froze, feeling queasy, heart beating in triple time now. Then he slowly made his way across the store to the public restroom; footfalls echoing noisily through quiet gloom of fluorescent lights and one day sales promotions. Ethos opened the door cautiously, eyes wide with fear. As he entered the restroom the smell of stale flesh, blood, and urine assaulted him.
Ethos frowned, face darkening perceptibly. He hated public restrooms. Hated weirdoes staring at him when he was trying to take a leak; and he hated cell phones being used in the restroom. But most of all he hated the smell. He reached up to pinch his nose shut with his right hand and was immediately puzzled. It seemed to take an hour for his hand to reach his face, as if he were in a dream. He watched the appendage approaching slowly like a landing plane, the shadow of his palm and fingers splashing across his face, obscuring vision.
He pinched the tip of his nose to block the scent, or at least he thought he had. His face felt numb. He could barely feel the cool pressure of his fingertips as they blocked off his nasal passages. He removed his hand, watching it slowly descend through the air in a blurry haze. He saw sinks all lined up neatly in a row; shapes distorted as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. Their dirt and grime was formidable; and the tall, oval mirrors were saturated with fingerprints and soap scum. They were so dirty it was as if a fog consumed them, giving them a grayish cast.
Ethos shuffled towards the first mirror and sink. The mirror began to contort itself to better capture and reflect his form. He felt cold, almost like a zombie. He snorted in derision at the thought, but no sound came out. Again he frowned, throat tightening until he could barely swallow. He came within full sight of the mirror just as it finished its shaping process, and instantly froze in shock.
He looked like himself and yet somehow different, far different. He reached out to touch the mirror. He tried to gasp but it was as if his face no longer worked. His hand touched the image in the mirror and began to rub at the reflection frantically, as if trying to erase it. He felt cold all over, colder than he had ever felt before. He felt seamless, shiny and new; yet empty and meaningless at the same time.
He reached up to touch his handsome young face and at last a sound emerged, a gasp that sounded garbled and distant. Slowly, with disbelief, the hard caress of his fingers found the cool rise of his cheek and traced its plastic curves slowly, lovingly. His hand froze in mid-stroke as his besieged mind struggled with disbelief. Finally Ethos opened his mouth wide to scream and the blue-black wail of a silver trumpet slowly emerged; echoing mournfully.