Doctor Kravitz reminded me of Freud, and I was pretty sure that the resemblance was deliberate. His face seemed upside-down, with the short white hair that should have been on his head occupying his chin, and round glasses almost level with his nose. “Are you sure there’s nothing more we can get you?” he asked.
“Only my freedom.”
His mouth shrugged in sympathy. “You know why you’re being confined here.”
“Because I’ve stumbled on the truth.”
“Hmm.” He looked at his notes, as if he was not fully familiar with the reasons for my imprisonment. “I tend to view beliefs as viruses, jumping from mind to mind, looking for a weakened mental system to infect. Some of these beliefs are harmless; others probably necessary. But beliefs such as yours—” He looked up at me. “This is a small colony. We occupy a limited space, come into contact with each other every day. An outbreak of a belief such as yours could be deadlier than smallpox.”
“What you call my belief, Doctor, is an observable fact. Mars has a breathable atmosphere. And I think you know it.”
“Hmm,” he said again, and went back to his notes. “All our readings have confirmed what we knew before we got here; the atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide. No one could breathe it.”
“You forget, Doctor. I’ve seen them do it.”
“Yes. Tell me about these people.”
I remembered my first sightings. I had spent days searching for them, straining my eyes at the observation windows, poring over my blown-up photos with a magnifier. And then, the elation when I finally found them, and saw that the theory was correct. “They don’t come near. Their lives would be in danger if they did—there are powerful people who don’t want us to know about them. They stay at the limits of vision. But I’ve got all the proof I need now. Pictures of anomalies that only have one explanation—human beings on the surface of Mars, without suits or helmets.”
“You do know that the satellite pictures have never confirmed them?”
“How convenient.” I was under no illusions. This planet was our birthright, but it was being kept from us. Whoever was doing so had tampered with all the satellite data and the readings from our instruments. I was willing to bet that this had been going on since Lowell’s observations of the canal system were discredited by a sinister group of interested persons. These people had power and wealth that I could scarcely imagine. “What’s out there, Doctor? A playground for the rich? And why are we here—to generate their energy, grow their food, convinced that we’ll die if we leave the dome?”
“What do you propose to do with this knowledge?”
“Throw open the airlock doors. Gather outside without our helmets, fill our lungs with oxygen and show them that we’ve seen through their trick. We’ll take back our planet.”
“That would be suicide.” He took off his glasses and rubbed them with a handkerchief, although I was sure there was no problem with them. “Would it surprise you to learn that people have already tried to leave the dome without suits?”
“I knew it!”
“They all died. None would turn back; they just seemed to think that their lungs needed a few minutes to get used to the atmosphere.”
“That may be the official story. But they’re out there, Doctor. The resistance. The vanguard. The first few who will free us from our slavery and our confinement.”
He sighed, and gathered up his notes. “This is why you’re being kept here. Beliefs are contagious; there’s no telling how many people will die if they catch yours. We can’t inoculate the colony against belief, so we have to put you in isolation.”
“I understand. That’s what they do to you when you get too near the truth.” I had a sudden intuition. “I think you actually believe it. I don’t think you’re in on it at all.”
He stood up. “Think what you must. Again, is there anything I can do for you?”
I gestured to the smooth metallic walls. “I don’t have much of a view. Perhaps you could let me look out the window?”
It took him a few seconds to decide, as if he was worried I might try to jump through it. “I can give you that,” he said at last.
I followed him into the corridor. I knew there was no point trying to escape; all the doors were locked and guarded, and the transparent amalgam that formed the window at the far end was stronger than the metal in the walls of the dome. But he still seemed wary as he escorted me.
My heart soared at the view; the rusty plains that spread before us seemed endless, and symbolised the freedom that I could only dream of.
“Nothing there,” he said. “Just dust and rocks, all the way to the horizon, and….”
“And what, Doctor?”
He squinted, frowned, adjusted his glasses.
“Nothing. You should go back.”
“Well. You know what you saw.”
And as I lay back on my bunk, I knew that I had played my part. If my belief was a virus, as he said, I had infected him. It would not be I who led this colony to its liberation; it would be Doctor Kravitz. Our people would respect his authority, would believe him when he told them of the conspiracy to keep us here. It would be he who led the army that tore down the walls of the dome, ripped the airlock doors from their sockets and threw off the helmets and suits that were the symbol of our oppression. He would lead the march to our secret masters, and reclaim our world.
I slept well that night, knowing that my work was done, and that one day I would breathe the fragrant air of our stolen planet.
I wrote “The Airs of Mars” after considering some of the anxieties present in our Earth society. One such anxiety concerns social media and some of the content that spreads on it – I wrote this piece shortly after Instagram banned images of self-harm and suicide. I was also interested in what Quassim Cassam has dubbed “epistemic insouciance”, which might be better put as “not giving a toss about the facts” [Cassam 2018]. Belief has become a lifestyle choice. It spreads like a virus, with social media as its vector.
Barring the occasional suicide bomber, what people believe never seems to matter much on Earth; their daily lives trundle on regardless. In a much more fragile society, such as a domed colony on Mars, wayward beliefs could become far more dangerous. Might we have to put limits on what people believe? How would we enforce it?
Cassam, Q. (2018) “Epistemic Insouciance” [Internet]. Available from https://blog.apaonline.org/2018/03/23/epistemic-insouciance/ [Accessed 28 February 2019].
Neil James Hudson has published over 40 science fiction and fantasy stories and was recently shortlisted for a WSFA Small Press Award. He lives in a remote part of the North York Moors and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at York St John.