Friday, December 09, 2011

Countdown to Mars story

Countdown to Mars
Doug Stone
November 11, 2011

Tahar al-Handani stood up and cursed the Big Father when the screen went black, then immediately asked forgiveness of the air, the walls, his own father, and everything else in the universe for his being so disobedient.
“Ah, son, it's okay with me. Don't apologize for Assad,” Ahmed said, fumbling around for the kerosene lantern they kept for power cuts like this one. “Persevere, as that computer is teaching you about the world beyond Syria. And I think you've finally made a friend on it, no? It's all you do all day.”
With that his father lit the lamp, and not one to waste a match, also managed to light a home rolled cigarette, winning the race with the flame between burly and fingertips. Tahar watched blue smoke rings drift upwards, up out of the sphere of yellow light. Embarrassed, he stayed in the shadows. He knew his stomach did flips when teased by the hooligans in the streets. He had cursed them in French and wished them dead in English, having picked up a bit of both in his online journalism classes. People were just easier to take at a distance. He wished the computer would come back up.
The crash of a shattered plate brought him back to reality, along with the stench of cardamon and cumin in stale bokharat sauce. In the dark he had backed into the dinner table. He picked up as best he could and tossed the remnants into the sink on top of the even older dirty lunch plates, the two bachelors being what they were. He wiped gobs of sauce from his faded green pants, a drop from his scalp beneath his black unruly hair – how did it get up there? - then washed his large soft hands by feel in the cool water.
Ahmed ignored all of this, busy with his smoke.
“Maybe this is Assad's way of telling us it's bedtime,” he said, looking at Tahar. “It's too late to start my press, and I'm low on tobacco anyway.” Ahmed had a tiny offset press for a secret leafletting campaign he thought was working.
“I'm with you, Dad.”
The older man flicked the smoldering butt into the trash, then rose and stretched. He picked up the lamp and cast the light before them on their way to the back bedroom.
Door-kicking flunkies, not even bothering to mask their faces, arrived uninvited.


Tahar woke at dawn in a puddle of oil and blood. His nose was swollen. Touching it, he felt a tender bump. He struggled to get free of the soaked blanket, and when he did so, he slowly stood up. Looking down in the morning light, he saw the oil was from the wrecked press, and the blood from his nose. The goons sent by Raïs, the Big Father, had been very effective.
The rooms had been tossed, objects trampled, and his father gone. Thinking back to last night, all he could remember was two thugs that had come up from behind his dad in the dark and handcuffed his hands behind his back. The broken nose was from the blow he took when he tried to intervene.
In the strong light now coming in the east window, he picked up the place as best he could. The big old glass screen he had plugged into the laptop was smashed. The computer had been kicked under the bed in the fray, a terribly lucky stroke as their attackers had lost sight of it. He placed it back on its small table, and pulled up the rickety chair. It booted up on battery power but showed no connectivity. He decided to continue cleaning and come back to it later. His thoughts stayed focused on the task at hand until much later he sat down with some crackers and date paste at the cracked table. Suddenly his feelings for his father overcame him, and he slumped, weeping, onto the hard wooden surface. Helplessness, wonder, questioning, anger, and denial all blended together. He remained there for quite some time, until he heard bustling traffic in the street outside, and the call for morning prayers drove him to his knees.
After prayers, Tahar went outside with a screwdriver and walked around to the power service box. There was nothing obviously wrong with the incoming wires, but when he opened it, the damage was immediately apparent. Again he was in luck as the goons appeared to have simply pulled out one hot wire. Grasping it by the insulation, and taking care not to ground himself, he replaced it back on the connector where it belonged and tightened the attachment screw. The small box next to it with internet connectivity was badly cracked, but little damage was done internally. He reconnected all its wires and hoped for the best.
Back inside, he sat down in front of the computer, and clicked the networking icon. “Connection Established” it said, and he smiled. Tightening his jaw, he went to work.
First he posted what had happened to his father. Then he networked with his friends to get their mood and see if any others had been arrested. In hours, his posts were picked up by Al-Jazira and he made a name for himself. Over the next few weeks he took up digitally where his father's leaflets had left off, but that came to a halt when he heard from Abul.
“We have someone here Assad's people just released. He knew your dad,” Abul typed.
“Yes, yes, what does he know?” Tahar typed back.
“It's bad news. He had seen your dad brought to the courtyard. He'd been beaten and given electric shocks. His body was covered in sores.”
“Will they release him, to recover?”
“No, it's too late for that. He's certain his was the body they moved out late at night past their cellblock. I'm sorry, Tahar.”
Tahar slammed the laptop closed, his tears washing over the plastic casing.


Lots of traffic in the theatre district tonight. He went straight at the intersection, deciding not to chase the slant of B-way uptown, but to stay north and cut back west to his fare's destination.
“Where we going, Cabby?” asked his fare, a large man with a red face stuffed into his suit. This isn't Broadway.”
“We're just avoiding the traffic. It'll be quicker to head up and over,” Tahar said.
“Is this costing me more?” snapped Redface.
“The extra distance will be made up in savings in time,” he replied as his stomach did a nervous cringe.
The fare went back to his cell conversation. Cabby started thinking about the coming weekend. This was a busy Wednesday, enough to get him money to enjoy himself and not have to work either day. Wednesday, the day atonement for last weekend wore off, and hormones were starting to rise again. He turned west as promised, to the satisfied grunt of his fare.
A few blocks, and they arrived at the theatre. His fare tossed him what he owed and a little more. Good riddance he thought. The growl of his dispatcher came over the radio.
“Got a call from George Washington Port Authority. A fare wants you to pick her up and drive her to Hudson hotel, near Central Park. She'll tip well. Got it?”
“On my way. Will be a while in this traffic.”
It was quiet when he arrived at the small bus station near the GW bridge. A slim Asian woman was standing alone in front and he figured it was her. He pulled to the curb and she opened the door.
“This is the City cab company, right?” she asked.
“Yes it is. You're going to the Hudson,” he replied.
She ducked her head, tossed in a tiny overnight case, and slid her silk covered thighs along the cheap plastic seat. “Let's go.”
The cab pulled into the light traffic and took a quick right turn south towards the park. He glanced in the rear-view mirror while she was looking away. Her dress clung tightly to her trim body, revealing the shape of small tight breasts. And the way she moved her legs was fantastic. She turned and met his eyes in the mirror, and he quickly brought his eyes back to the road, feeling his stomach tighten.
Her cell chimed, and she answered it curtly in Mandarin. After speaking another few harsh words, she hung up, shutting the phone off and tossing it into her oversized purse. She sighed and looked up, catching him looking at her again.
“What's your name?” she asked, peering forward in the flickering light for his id.
“It doesn't matter. Just call me Cabby, ma'am.”
“Cabby it is. Ha ha.”
Silence while her jaw worked and he could see her lost in thought.
“How can you see to drive with those sunglasses? It's night time for goodness sake.”
“I'm okay. They cut the glare from the headlights.”
“They give you a jaunty air.”
“Thanks ma'am.”
He was never without his sunglasses. From the harsh light of the Middle East to the dark artificial canyons of New York, he wore them. Made life much more comfortable, a buffer against the world.
The skies that had wanted to rain all day began at dark with a cool mist. The tires now swished against the pavement, interrupted with regular clangs on the temporary steel plates street maintenance loved. In the rearview, Cabby could see sadness in her eyes when the streetlights washed across the cab from front to back. She slumped in the corner of the seat.
“Cabby? Do you know the Hudson?” she asked softly. “It's my refuge when I simply no longer can stand my life anymore.”
Oh dear, was this one going to over-share? But then she was so attractive. But no, no. No entanglements he swore.
“It's all the rage with the, how you say, 'up and comers',” he joked.
“Good. I've had enough of being dragged to trade shows.”
More quiet moments passed between them. Cars rushed by, wafts of steam rose up ahead carrying urban aromas through the car vents.
“ they're making the monthly fare quotas higher and the payouts lower? I have a family to support! Where did you hear this?” came from the radio. “Oh shit, quick, go to the private channel...”
“What was that?” asked Elly.
“Nothing. Just fleet gossip. We'll be there soon,” he replied.
Elly leaned forward, nearly touching the plexiglass barrier. Cabby pushed the slide fully open. Her face now filled the gap, and she began looking around at the ornaments on his dashboard, at his clothes, at his world.
“Tell me more about yourself,” she said, sinking back into the cheap bench seat.
Cabby told her about leaving his patch of urban Damascus landscape, his schooling, his online presence, his hopes and his loss. She listened closely, making supportive sounds at the right times. Then things shifted over to her, how she was born in Shanghai, her father was a trade delegate at the consulate in New York, how she came with him and her mother as a toddler and went through school all the way to a bachelor's at Columbia.
“But what's wrong? I could see you snapped your phone off,” Cabby asked.
“Things are a little too structured right now,” she replied, then laughed to lighten things up. “My boyfriend is great and all, but he expects me to do his bidding. He thinks he's a big shot, has a string of dry-cleaners throughout the city already at the age of 30.” A box truck roaring by distracted both of them for the moment. “I say fuck him. He's not the boss of me. It's so cliché to say this, but I need some space for awhile. I told him we were on break. Hence this trip into the city.”
Cabby felt his stomach muscles relax. He played with the radio, letting the last statement linger, listening for anything more from her. He could see her now calm face in the mirror, watched her tongue wet her lips, saw her poke at her hair when she didn't think he was looking.
“We're here, Miss,” he said as he smoothly pulled into the narrow drive. The cab dove under the Hudson lobby beneath street level and banked right, landing in a parking spot. Clutching her essentials bag in the dark back seat, she sat still, and caught his eye in the mirror.
“Do you want to help me with my bag?”
“Don't they have bell staff for that, Miss?”
“Call me Elly, silly. And maybe they do, but you can still help me. Don't make me have to ask you up for coffee like everyone else does.”
“Never mind.”
So they both exited the cab, she heading towards the lobby steps and he following along behind holding the case like a football.
In the stairway she kissed him, and stole his sunglasses. He laughed and tried to grab them back but she reached the lobby and he had to give up for the time being. Express check-in for a regular customer went quickly, just a signature in exchange for a key, and they were done and heading for the room. Brass elevator doors closed on their frisky frottage, and she pulled away, giggling. At the room, the card key actually worked first swipe. Inside she dropped it on the floor along with her clothes.
Cabby hung back against the closed door, watching.
“What's wrong? Haven't you had a girl play with you before?” she said twisting her handsome neck around to see him. “Come and get your glasses.”
“Oh my. Oh my. Allah be praised.”
Elly giggled. “Don't tell me this is your first time.”
“No, no. Well, the first time not paying for it,” he murmured.
She slid up to him, grabbed his shirt and pulled it off. Quickly he was naked with her on the bed, in spite of her insistence on disrobing him with her tongue in his mouth the whole time. His hand swept down to her chest.
“Ouch, no, those aren't stress balls! Gentle there.”
He quickly let go of her breast, then more softly brushed his fingertips across the thick Asian nipple.
“Okay, let's see what you can do with this.” With that she latched her hand onto his shaft while twisting her compact rear towards him.
And suddenly he was behind her, in her, thrusting, watching her dark Asian hair sweep across her back, with the ends perfectly aligned. And when they were done, they rolled and laughed and cried and hugged, until he thought nothing could be better than this, his new crush.


Cabby drove slowly back to the garage at the end of his shift. The car bounced on worn shocks as it burrowed down underground in the near dark, then leveled out at the entrance to the service garage level. He got out under the glare of unshielded vapor lights, another good reason to never be without his now smudged shades, clutching his id and fare log. Across the lot he could see his boss on the radio. When he reached the dispatcher's window he dropped off the log as his boss nodded, using his neck folds to click off his headset.
“Handani! Good to see you,” Bossman said, picking up and flipping through the log.
“Good evening to you, sir,” Tahar replied.
“Lucrative evening for us both. Plenty of fares here. Looks like you will be doing ever better for us, better soon.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You don't say much, do you?”
“No, sir. Is there something you need from me?”
“I like you, son. In spite of you pulling over five times a day to pray, or refusing to pick up JFK passengers with their duty-free liquor. You keep making money for us with long shifts and I'll keep giving you cabs.”
“Thank you sir,” Tahar replied. How was he to reconcile Bossman's bright future with higher quotas and less money to keep like he had heard? he thought. Let him sit behind his glass until his fat chokes him one day. No, no, can't think like that. Bossman had to make money too. He dropped his gaze, turned and walked away as the dispatcher got another radio call.
The garage was a short walk from his small room in the Village. The neighborhood was not great but not terrible either, although it was not wise to linger at this hour. Cabby dropped his id and stripped off his shirt on the way to the tiny kitchen. He spread some hummus on a few crackers, opened a bottle of cool seltzer water, and sat down on his couch. Cablevision had a talk show with Charlie Sheen. Amazing to get a high grade celeb on the show this late, if you could call him high grade. Charlie was telling the host, “I don't pay the girls to do it with me. I pay them to leave after.” Everyone laughed. Cabby knew there was a grain of truth in that. He sure felt relief when they left. But maybe life was about to change for him. The food and carbon dioxide gurgled in his stomach.
He woke up to the ring of his cell, still on the couch. Unknown number calling at seven thirteen am, local to New York.
“Hello. Is this Tahar Handani?”
“I work for Al-Jazira at our office in New York near the U.N. My name is Ghandar. We have an interesting opportunity for you. It took us quite some effort to find you after you left Syria. Seems you made quite a name for yourself with your postings on Assad's prisons over there.”
“Thanks for the flattery but what is the purpose of your call?”
“I appreciate your concern with our contacting you, but please hear me out. NASA has begun publicity work for their Mars launch in the coming years. They have an international crew starting training, and want to embed some journalists to showcase the mission. When asked, we thought you would be someone with few entanglements who has shown the ability to resonate with the Muslim community and hopefully has assimilated into the global culture.
“It's a team of five or so journalists that will live closely with the mission members, eating their food, doing some of the same preparation, and reporting on the difficult decisions that must be made when leaving Earth for several years. Who knows, one of you may even be asked to go along to report on the mission if proven worthy.”
“I'll think about it.”
“Right, we understand you wouldn't want to make a hasty decision. Our center is in Houston, here's the address, and here's my phone number. Please keep this in confidence and we'd appreciate your thoughtful response soon. You can ask for more information or you can show up for a tour and orientation at any time, Mr. Handani.”
“I see. Thank you and good bye.”
Cabby took this new information and pondered it in his heart.
The day passed quickly and soon it was time for his shift. Cabby strolled quickly through the neighborhood, noting the much brighter day and the long shadows from the afternoon sun. He logged in, got his fare pad and the keys to the cab, and headed out.
A scruffy looking dude in a Army surplus style coat waved him down near Trinity church, The Memorial at Ground Zero rising across the way.
“Cloisters,” he said.
“Really? Let me put that into my GPS. I have to turn around and head north. Looks like the West Side Highway once we get out of the financial district.” Cabby questioned this guy's need to see the Cloisters museum, near the northern tip of Manhattan. But a fare was a fare.
Facing at a long ride in traffic, he called Elly on his headset. A few rings and she answered.
“Guess what?”
“What,” she replied.
“They asked me about joining some sort of Mars journalism experience in Houston. Confidential, at least until they announce the final team.”
“Really? That's wonderful! You can finally get some recognition.”
“I don't know. It will be challenging. And being cooped up with all those folks for all that time in training...” his voice trailed off.
“No, no, go on. I think it's great.”
Scruffy dude was getting restless, he could see in his rearview. But Elly's voice pulled him back to the matter at hand.
“Okay, I'll give it more thought. Hate to leave all this, ha ha,” he said.
Scruffy now was pretty nervous. He was wiggling around and pumping his leg.
“Let's talk more about it. Gotta go, room service is here.”
“Pampering ourselves are we, on our big adventure?” he teased.
“Yeah, only the best. See you.”
The cab was now passing near Morningside Heights. Streetlights were coming on.
“I've changed my mind, turn off here,” said Scruffy.
“Okay, whatever you say.”
The cab turned off the Henry Hudson parkway and onto a deserted side street. You could just make out Columbia University several blocks away.
“This is a stick up. Give me all your money,” the fare cried, brandishing a decrepit pistol through the slider in the plexiglass panel.
Thinking the pistol exploding more likely than being shot, Cabby stopped the car and pulled out what little he had.
“You're my first fare. I have a little change. I can't get into the fare box anyway.”
“Pass it through the slider.”
Cabby awkwardly handed him the money. Scruffy roughly snatched it away, and cut Cabby's hand against the plexiglass in the process.
“Ow, what was that for?”
But the robber didn't hear as he had opened the rear door and ran off.
Cabby wiped the blood from the side of his hand. Thinking of his activism days in Syria, he remembered that one of the group's web pages had posted Franklin's “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” In his attempts to shut out the world, the world kept barging in on him and he deserved it.
So it made sense to take this leap to Houston or maybe even to Mars. The next day he spoke with Elly, stopped at his apartment to pick up some clothes and some money, and parked the cab at the Metro Park train station in New Jersey after driving her to her house to pick up her things. Let Bossman find the cab eventually, he thought.
And so it came to pass with the two of them holding hands on the train platform, Tahar looking down the track through his lovingly smudged sunglasses to see the headlight of the Amtrak train.