Published in the November 1990 issue of New Pathways
Sprung! The bullet struck the side of the bus almost before the whoosh of the opening door had faded from his ears. Gavin Owen glanced up at the roof of the hardware store across the road. A rage that had been bubbling within him flared, focussing on the figure.
"That's enough of that!" He jumped down from the bus, pulled a 5mm Ruger pistol from his pocket and peppered the ledge above with the popping staccato of a full clip. The sniper had ducked out of sight, but the white puffs of pulverized brick where his shells struck gave him at least a hollow satisfaction.
A voice behind him intruded into his bad mood, "He'll keep his head down now."
Gavin looked back. Bento Gerret eased out of the bus door, giving him a smile. Behind his head, above the opening, there was a bare metal scar where the sniper's shell had struck. Inside, the bus driver was showing no interest at all. He knew better than to come out and check on it. Bus drivers were much more popular targets than mere passengers.
Bento patted him on the back as Gavin shifted the little pistol, as it grew hot, to his other hand. "I heard about your good fortune. I am proud for you. You will make our city proud. It will be a loss to the neighborhood when you emigrate. Remember us when you become a rich Martian landholder, eh?" Behind them, the bus closed its door and slid silently away on its rounds.
The scowl on Gavin's face deepened slightly, "What did you hear?"
Bento shrugged, "My wife -- you know Belinda. She talks with your wife. I have heard about it all, the tests and the doctors. You must be proud that your company recommended you."
He nodded slightly. "It has been an interesting week. Your pardon, Anna will have heard the shots...."
Bento frowned, "Yes. I had better get to the house, too." He smiled and shrugged. "Wives, they worry."
Gavin's house was two blocks over from the bus stop. He replaced the clip in his pistol absently as he walked. His mind wasn't on the sniper. This was a border town, after all. And by now, the sporadic protests by the country to the south were becoming less passionate, more pro forma. It was clear that the settlement rights to Mars were going to stay where they were. Some countries were left out -- so okay, they will get first crack at the next terraformed planet.
Gavin knew how slim was his little country's chances in the race to build a successful colony on Mars. The Premier had pulled many old debts to get the UA/CPI committee to give them enough of a quota to found a colony of their own.
But Bento's comment settled despair on his shoulders. Anna had spread the work. Everybody knew. Everyone expected them to go.
Anna's voice could be heard load and clear as he walked into the house. She was on the phone.
"...only one family. I was so proud of Gavin when he was selected. And of course it has been so exciting for us." She glanced up as he walked into the room. Her eyes dropped to the pocket in his coat where he had slipped his pistol. She turned back to the phone, "Judy, could I call you back? Gavin is just home." She listened intently, "Fine. Tomorrow then. Bye." She cancelled the call and turned a concerned eye to him, "Those shots? Was that you?"
He nodded, the frown still frozen on his face. "A sniper shot at the bus. I scared him off."
She reached for his coat and helped him out of it. Her eyes checked him over, to make sure he was unhurt. When he settled down into his chair, she glanced over at the phone, "Maybe I should call the store and tell Bart to take a cab home."
"Oh, give the phone a rest!" he snapped.
She put a hand on the back of his neck. "You have had a bad day?"
Gavin settled himself deeper into the chair, not looking at her.
Brightly, she said, "Well, we eat in fifteen minutes. I have it almost done. Food will make you feel better."
He watched her walk into the kitchen. Just around the wall, he could see her shadow on the floor and hear the clank of pots and smell the scent of cheese beginning to bubble.
How do I tell her? What do I tell her? He gritted his teeth in frustration. What do I do now?
The federal officer had looked at him like one of the statues at the courthouse in town. For days, Gavin had been riding a rush of excitement. He couldn't believe his luck at being one of the three families in the whole city chosen for emigration to the new national colony on Mars.
He had been right.
The man in the green uniform had not softened the news. "The Federal Colonization Board has rejected your application for emigration."
Gavin had been speechless for a moment. "What do you mean? I was told that my family had been accepted. We are part of the city's quota."
The man's eyes didn't meet his. "The city's quota will be respected. Another family will be found."
Gavin's teeth gritted in remembrance. He had begged. "I don't understand. Why are we not acceptable? We were selected!"
"You were not selected by the FCB. There are certain criteria that must be met. There are certain skills needed by our colonists. The nation must be represented by the best."
He had been angry, "I was selected on the basis of merit. This wasn't a lottery. I was the top man in my division."
The federal man nodded, listening, but still rock firm. "You are the top man, in your field. But Martian colonists need skills other than drafting and layout experience. This is a different job, one that you have not been trained in. We have tested you, and your native skills in these matters do not measure up to the qualifying score. I am sorry, but the nation must be served."
"Then train me! I can learn these skills. I am an intelligent man. We must be allowed to go."
The longing for the far lands in the sky caught his breath. It was a new desire, not more than two years old. But he remembered the shows put out by the FCB as they built support for this great national effort -- the scenes from the cool rugged mountains where new cities were being surveyed, the commentary on the type of agriculture the new farmers would be trying, sense of newness that came whenever he thought of his country's new colony.
He was stuck here, otherwise, in a marginally comfortable job, in a marginally pleasant neighborhood, where his boys would get a marginally adequate education and grow up to be just like him.
He hated his "okay" life. He wanted more -- more challenge for himself, more potential for his kids. And this was the only way out.
"Check again," he had begged the cold man. "Maybe there is a mistake in the records."
Calmly, the man had done so, calling up a long scrolling display on a screen that Gavin could just barely see. For more than a minute, the words had rolled upwards, vanishing into nothingness at the top of the screen. He could make out the headings as they went by.
"Application." "Education." "Work History."
His heartbeat had jumped as "Testing Results" passed up the screen. He had held his breath, hoping that something would catch the eye of the cold-faced man and make his stop -- make him review some little error in the testing results.
But the words moved on. He had felt his muscles turn to water. There was no error. He simply did not measure up. He was not good enough to be a colonist. Oh, he was good enough to make a living for his family -- just not good enough to make a future for them.
He had stopped trying to read the screen when the man's finger did jab at the keys and did stop the scrolling. The federal man had frowned at the text for a moment, then still frowning, he had turned to Gavin. "There is an option. But you may turn me down."
But when Gavin heard the explanation, he didn't turn him down. He didn't accept either. He simply got angry. He yelled, and called the federal man and his agency "cold-hearted pigs", among other things.
The man's reply had been simple and scientific. He gave Gavin a day to make his decision.
But how do I explain it to Anna?