by P. R. O’Leary
On the ground floor, 192 stories down, Stig covered his head and face with the rainsuit hood and walked out into the street. The driving rain and heavy smog obscured his view, so the smell hit him first. He could never get used to it. Take every bad smell that comes out of a person’s body, multiply it by a billion, and sprinkle some landfills and industrial waste on top. That was the smell of the city. It was almost visible.
Even through the rain and smog and smell, Stig could see that the street was crowded with people, packed end-to-end as usual, bodies moving in every direction, pushing and jostling each other for space. Cars had long since become impractical, and the public Tubes were always out of commission, so they had no choice but to walk, especially in this area, characterized by people who had no other means besides their own two legs—and sometimes not even that.
Stig pushed through the crowd as the rain pounded the top of his head. There was no telling what anyone looked like below their rainsuits. People were making every effort to cover their skin, including him.
Most of Stig’s rainsuit had eroded down to the red warning layer, and in some places, the rain had eaten all the way through. His hands, arms, back, and face were covered in white scars where the water had seared his flesh. Stig couldn’t afford to patch the rainsuit anymore; good acid-blocking material was out of his price range. The adequate kind was, too.
If you caught a look at Stig’s face, you would instantly be able to tell what caste of society he belonged to. Those white scars, starting on his hairless scalp and running down his face like tears, showed that he couldn’t protect himself from the rain. The black pupils in the center of red, smog-damaged eyes showed that he couldn’t afford eye-whitening. The dirt and grease in the lines of his face spoke of a hard life without access to more than the standard ration of dirty water.
But at least he wasn’t a Faceless, one of those who couldn’t even afford what Stig had. They lived on the streets, faces scarred into obscurity from exposure, lips and eyes gone, mouths permanently open, always wanting.
The thought that he still had a face almost made Stig smile. He forced his perpetual grimace into a smirk, but still looked like he was ready to kill someone. That look was probably the only thing Stig had going for him, a look that said, “Don’t mess with me. I may be covered in rain-scars but that won’t stop this towering beast, full of 40 years of rage, from crushing you to death with his massive hands.”
That look was what kept him safe, and it was also what earned him his job. The job and the silver at the end were the only things that could convince him to brave the streets.
The streets had more people on them every day. The population was exploding; rural areas turned into towns; towns turned into cities; cities built inward, and when there was no room, everything began to build up toward the sky. After that, to save even more space, things started getting smaller: Cube housing, rations, personal space. With no end in sight, governments began to look elsewhere for places where humanity could live.
Every few weeks, a ship was sent out into space with a frozen crew on board, aimed at some likely candidate planet in a faraway galaxy, like Sagittarius, Andromeda, or Ursa Minor. But those journeys took centuries; they weren’t going to help anyone alive today.
More importantly, they were starting to take advantage of Mars, which was being terraformed. It now had oxygen, water, plants, animals, farms, and miles of open space. Ships containing colonists and supplies were being sent there monthly. Stig would have loved to get a ticket on one of those ships, but they were only for the rich, and even they had to give up all of their Earthly possessions to raise the money to buy one.
So Stig was stuck where congestion, famine, and pollution reigned, where buildings were cramped honeycombs and the sky was always covered in dark, smelly clouds that poured out horrible, stinging rain.
Stig only had to walk one kilometer to get to work, but that still took an entire hour of pushing, glaring, and constantly readjusting his rainsuit so it covered his most sensitive areas. He reached Plastique just before his shift started.
In this part of town, every business needed some muscle around, especially a strip club. Stig’s job was to stand by the door, thankfully out of the rain, and make sure the customers didn’t get out of hand. In return, he got a measly paycheck and the opportunity to watch the ladies do their dances onstage.
It wasn’t as good as you might think. There was only so long that he could look at a naked woman and wonder if these white lines on her body were rain-scars, drugged veins, the remnants of some back-alley surgery, or just good old-fashioned stretch marks.
This was his last shift. Stig just needed to get to the end and collect his pay from the boss. That last fistful of grimy silver bills would put him over the top, and with it, Stig just might be able to get off of this stinking planet for good.
First, he needed to steel himself for one last 12-hour shift, a shift with no shortage of distractions. An old man, older than Stig’s father would have been if he were still alive, tried to climb on the stage and mount a woman. The man’s body was light and frail like a bag of sticks, but he screamed, cursed, and tried to scratch as Stig tossed him out into the street. Stig didn’t feel bad about throwing him out.
The one incident that did bother him, and something that happened far too often, was one of the Faceless trying to force his way into the club. At least, Stig thought it was a “he.”
It was a pale, scarred body covered in discarded rags, topped with a face like a melted candle. A black hole in the middle and two pools of what was left of eyes stared at him. Stig had to push it out and stand by the door, blocking the poor creature from the warm and dry sanctuary he desperately needed. Eventually, the thing moved on.
But that was the last Faceless he would subject to the pain of exposure just to get his hands on some silver. When the boss paid him out of the locked safe in the back room, Stig said goodbye and left, just like it was any other day. But in his mind he was also saying, “Good riddance.”
The idea first formed a year earlier, when Stig saved someone’s life. Well, “saved” was a strong word, but he did stop the guy from getting stabbed. It was nothing unusual, just an altercation at the club, possibly over a table or a drink or a woman. A knife was drawn, so Stig jumped in, broke it up, and threw out the offender. All in a day’s work.
The man he saved, Haggal Strom, bought him a drink later, as thanks. They got to talking, and it turned out that Haggal worked as a security guard at the airfield, the facility at the edge of the city that shot off rockets.
Was it then that the idea entered Stig’s head? Maybe. He dreamed of Mars soon after, and slowly, the idea germinated into a real plan.
Over the next few months, Stig kept in contact with Haggal. He asked about Haggal’s job, and about the airfield and the shuttle flights. He plied him for information, carefully, so Haggal wouldn’t know what Stig’s true motives were.
They had an easygoing rapport, but they weren’t quite friends, more like comrades who had drawn pretty much the same lot in life and respected one another for dealing with it. That respect was what Stig hoped would make Haggal accept his bargain.
When Stig felt like he had enough information and wasn’t just shooting for the moon, he finally asked Haggal: “Can you get me on a shuttle to Mars?”
Stig knew it was crazy. Even if he got on the shuttle unnoticed, he would have to find a way to survive undetected for two months before landing, and then somehow make it off the shuttle and past the authorities at the check-in.
But after that, Stig would be free. He could go find a nice private corner of the planet, build a shelter, and live off the land. He knew how. He was doing research from old books and magazines from the digital archives that showed the tools and the tricks. Stig hadn’t seen a tree since he was a child, but he know if he could get out there in the wild, green open, then he could do it. And if not, then at least he would die a happy man in fresh air and sunlight.
Haggal took some convincing, but Stig knew he understood. In the end, all Stig had to do was offer up all his worldly possessions, his Cube, and the large sum of silver that he had just finished saving.
It was time to find Haggal and plan his trip to Mars.
They met at the usual place: the back of the Bolted Arm, a somewhat less shady bar than most. The place was packed, as usual. The patrons were not spending enough money to earn personal space, so there were no tables. It was standing room only, but Haggal and Stig knew a corner that featured a small alcove. If they glared enough at people—Haggal could look almost as intimidating as Stig—the occupants would vacate and leave a good three square feet of space where Stig and Haggal could stand, drink and talk.
This time, though, Stig didn’t buy a drink. He couldn’t afford it; all his money was going directly to Haggal. It made Stig feel lighter somehow, as if he was no longer tethered to his Cube and his possessions. Once the deal was done, all Stig would own was the clothes he was wearing, including the worthless rainsuit.
Haggal was already in the bar, leaning up against the corner, cocky as ever. He was still wearing his work uniform: a padded blue outfit that made his already bulky frame even more bulky, big black boots, and a black thing on his head that was half hat, half helmet. Bits of stringy hair stuck out from under it, and a gray, curly beard and mustache were sprouting from his face. He was pushing 50 but looked like he could still move quickly.
In the past few weeks, Haggal had been hard to read. When Stig had first mentioned the plan, Haggal seemed trustworthy and practical, but as the moment drew closer, he seemed a bit off. Maybe Stig’s nervousness was clouding his thinking, but Haggal always seemed to avoid eye contact when speaking and was evasive about details.
As Stig walked up to him in their corner, shoving through the mass of fleshy drinkers, he caught a glimpse of Haggal. Was the man pensive? Nervous? Before Stig could draw any conclusions, Haggal noticed him coming and was suddenly all smiles.
“Hey, Stig! How’s it going, man?” He tipped his plastic cup toward him.
“Fine, Haggal.” Stig tried to catch him off guard. “But cut the crap. I have your money; I just finished collecting it today. We need to go over the details of my trip.”
Haggal’s smile shrank, but didn’t drop. “Okay, okay. I was just asking how you were, man. Don’t freak out. Anyway, I’ve been figuring out the details for a month now.”
Stig couldn’t tell if Haagal was being genuine or not. For a second, he thought about giving up on this crazy idea, but then he remembered the Faceless he shoved out of the club earlier, and its eyes, or lack thereof. The molten face had shown nothing but need. Eventually, everyone on Earth would become Faceless.
“Okay,” Stig said. “Let’s hear these details.”
The plan was simple. There was a launch scheduled in a week, and Haggal would be working during the correct shift. Stig would enter the airbase through a specified delivery gate at a specified time and walk quickly but casually to the second building on the left. He would take the gray door, walk down the hallway, and enter the last door on the right, which would be ajar. The door would lock behind him automatically.
In that room, there were stacks of metal cases scheduled to be loaded onto the shuttle. There would be one extra that Haggal had managed to sneak onto the manifest, and it would be empty. It was numbered 146-53a. Stig would climb in, close the lid, wait 14 hours, and hang on for the ride of his life. If he survived the takeoff and two months of space travel—which was questionable—he would make it to Mars.
After Stig got on the shuttle and the shuttle took off, Haggal would have earned his payment. If the plan worked, they would never see each other again. On the other hand, if it didn’t work, Stig would go to jail. And if you thought normal public places were overcrowded, you should have seen the prisons.
Haggal would get paid up front, so it worked out for him either way. Stig could only trust in the man’s human decency and hope that he was telling the truth.
Stig spent the next few agonizingly slow days repeating the plan in his head.
Delivery Gate. 1:15 a.m. Second building on the left. Gray door. Hallway. Last door on the right. Metal Case. 146-53a.
Gate. 1:15. Building. Gray door. Right. 146-53a.
Haggal got his payment the day before the launch. It was anticlimactic; Stig literally just dropped off the payment, a bound pile of silver the size of a loaf of bread, at Haagel’s Cube. Stig’s Cube was transferred over to Haggal at the building’s office. He gave Haggal his entry bracelet, and that was that. Stig felt no sense of loss.
He spent that night walking around the fenced-off perimeter of the airfield. Nighttime lightened the load of people on the street, but not by much, so it still took a while to get there.
Luckily, it was only drizzling, and the rainsuit had enough life left in it to keep Stig dry. Maybe it was an omen, or maybe the Earth knew it was Stig’s last night here and was trying to entice him to stay. But lessening the relentless acid downpour that had dropped on Stig’s head nearly every day of his life was too little, too late.
Stig arrived at the delivery gate two hours before schedule and found a safe place to wait, leaning against a building with a good view of his target. It was a small gate in a chain-link fence, and the whole thing was topped with barbwire. Behind it, he could see the complex: a mass of buildings huddled together. The space between the buildings, although narrow, was empty.
Not a single person was behind the gate. Stig couldn’t see why the gate would be unlocked, but he waited until his watch said 1:14am and then walked toward it. Squeezing through the unending crowd, Stig knew this would be the first test of Haggal’s trustworthiness.
One minute later, Stig got through the stream of people and reached the gate, pushing it open without hesitation. It gave easily. He let it fall back into place and kept moving as quickly and casually as possible before the crowd could follow him in.
For a moment, the sensation of open space around him was overwhelming. It had been a long time since Stig had been out in the open. Usually, there were people pushing him from all sides, or too-close walls limiting his movements, or too-short ceilings holding him down. He fought the urge to stop and instead just reached out his arms and tried to stretch his body in all directions while he kept moving.
There still weren’t any people in the complex, which was a good sign, and there was a gray door on the second building on the left, which was an even better sign.
Stig walked right up and pulled it open. Straight ahead was a long hallway lit by stark bright lights on the ceiling. The walls were unadorned, and everything was rimmed in industrial metal and plastic. There were several doors along either side.
Stig’s eyes searched quickly for the last one on the right. Was it closed? He couldn’t tell. He started walking toward it as quickly and silently as his bulky body would allow.
His breathing was so loud that anyone in the building would have been able to hear him. Halfway down the hallway, he heard a click behind him as one of the doors opened up. Stig froze for a split second and then continued walking as casually as possible. He had no choice but to look like he belonged there. He just kept moving, without running or turning. There was silence for a few seconds, then a click as the door behind him closed. Nothing else.
Stig realized he wasn’t breathing and rectified that. He could see the last door on the right now. Yes! It was open, barely. The door was resting against the frame, and a good tap would send it closed and probably locked. Stig’s big, clumsy hands were shaking as he opened it, and he almost knocked it shut. But he managed to open it, jump into the completely dark room, and close the door behind him. He heard the door lock and reached for the handle to check, but there wasn’t one.
He couldn’t see a thing in the blackness, so he started feeling for the knob or a light switch with his hands. Nothing. Stig was stuck in darkness, and he didn’t even know if he was in the right room. Even if he was, he somehow had to find a case with a very specific number on it and climb inside.
Stig had lots of time, so he tried to relax, slowing his breathing and heart rate. No use getting panicked. He rationalized that he was safe in there until it was closer to launch time. He just needed to let his eyes adjust, then find the case.
It took a bit longer than Stig would have liked, but soon he could see shapes, specifically large rectangular boxes stacked on top of one another. There were about 40 in this room. He also saw a dark square on the back wall, probably some sort of door for loading and unloading the boxes.
Stig walked slowly toward the closest case and stared at it. After what felt like hours, he started to see big, dark text on the front of it. Rubbing his fingers over the markings, he could feel where they were painted or burned on. Numbers and letters. 132-19c. That was good. Not the right number, but at least now he now knew how to find it.
He began checking each case, running his hands over their covers, climbing carefully over them in order to remain quiet, and only moving those he had to.
It wasn’t long before he found it, in the third stack from the end of the leftmost row. The one on the top was clearly labeled 146-53a. Stig stared at it to be sure, running his hand along the numbers. Yes! It was definitely the right one.
Stig snapped the magnetic latch open. It looked empty inside, just a metal case padded with foam. He probed the interior with his arm to verify that it was. He closed it again, and the magnetic latch caught automatically. Perfect. He was so happy he almost kissed it.
He popped it open again, squeezed himself down inside, and closed the lid behind him. It was cramped, and after a few minutes, it started to hurt, but Stig was too excited to care. Besides, he didn’t want to risk waiting outside the case. The next time Stig came out, he would be on his way to Mars. He just hoped he would be alive when it happened.
Inside the case, it was completely black. Stig’s nose was pressed up against his forearm, but he still couldn’t see his watch, so without knowing exactly how long to wait, he concentrated on other things. Shifting his body in the tight space, a millimeter at a time, he eventually found a position where the pressure was off of his tender bits and his joints were not twisted at such awkward angles.
His hand rested against the lid. He could feel some engravings in the corner and traced them with his fingertips. The writing was too tiny to feel the individual letters, but Stig spent some time imagining what the words were. He imagined that this case was his coffin and the writing was his epitaph: “Here lies Stig Vurlock. / He tried to make it to Mars, but instead / he perished in flight and lies here, dead.”
Eventually, that grew tiresome, so without anything in the physical space to occupy him, Stig turned to his other senses. His ears strained for sounds outside the case and outside the room. Once in a while, he heard distant noises like footsteps and the opening and closing of a door, but nothing nearby. The wait was interminable, and even though his positioning was fairly solid, he had a huge urge to open up the case to stand, stretch, and look at his watch.
Then, there was the loud sound of a power source turning on, an engine or motor or battery, and the deep rumble of something moving nearby. Maybe it was a vehicle outside? Or the loading door? Before Stig could determine what it was, the case began jostling slightly, then more forcefully as the sound of pneumatics filled his ears. The case was being moved!
It wasn’t so bad. Stig could brace himself so the jostling barely caused any discomfort, but suddenly, the world spun and gravity twisted as the case was violently lifted, and based on how it felt, tumbled down the side of a mountain.
Stig flexed every muscle in his body to try to fill up the space and keep from bouncing around, but it was too much and the movements were too unpredictable. He didn’t know what to prepare for next. His shoulders banged painfully against the sides. His fingers bent while trying to hold his body still. His head hit the top (or bottom or side) of the case, causing lumps and maybe even bleeding.
Then it stopped and there was only a steady hum. Was it from inside Stig’s head? A few more bumps jostled him again, like aftershocks, and then all was still and silent.
Stig waited, fearful of more. He hoped he was in the ship, but there was no way to find out. It was too dangerous to open the case, so he just stuck to the plan and waited. The throbbing pain all over his body felt like a physical presence in the box with him. Eventually, he fought it off.
Maybe he dozed, maybe not. It was hard to tell. There was silence for a long time and then, without warning, a sudden roar, a sound so loud that for a second, Stig thought his head was exploding. And when he thought he was hearing the loudest sound in the world, it just kept getting louder and wouldn’t stop. The roar grew and grew.
Stig couldn’t move his hands to cover his ears, so he pushed one side of his head against the wall of the case, but that didn’t help. Then there was a horrible weight, something pushing him down into the ground. The roar grew louder and the pushing became more and more intense.
Everything was being driven down into the ground. He couldn’t move his body, couldn’t even breathe. His lungs would not work. His face was pressed into the bottom of the case, and all of his blood felt like it was trying to push out of his eyeballs. White flashes of light began appearing everywhere and the last thing he thought before passing out was that they looked like stars.
Stig awoke floating in utter silence. He was no longer pressed into the ground, and instead felt light and airy like the gas inside a balloon. Then there was a click and his body regained weight, falling back into its original cramped position.
Stig didn’t know how injured he was. All of his bones felt broken and his organs felt mushy, but at least he was alive. He tentatively moved parts of his body. Fingers and toes. Arms, legs, neck. Eyelids. Everything was painful but in working order.
There was no sound outside the case, but Stig waited a few minutes just to be sure. Was it really this quiet, or did his ears just stop working? Either way, he needed to get outside of these confines. Luckily, he was still able to reach the latch and squeeze the contacts together. The magnetic clasp let go, allowing him to push open the lid.
Bright light streamed in, blinding him, but with it came fresh air and much needed space. Stig kept his eyes closed and stood up. His body stretched out luxuriously, and no part of it fell off. It was wobbly, but at least in one piece.
Slowly opening his eyes, he could see that he was in a small room filled with cases. It wasn’t really a room, though, more like a chamber bound by curved metal beams. There was one door leading out, a hatch with a white wheel in the center instead of a doorknob. There were about a dozen cases on the floor, each strapped down with a large black band attached to bolts in the floor. Stig was in the middle of them. Otherwise, the room was empty.
He stepped carefully out of the case. The artificial gravity was different from what Stig was used to. He felt slightly lighter. He was in space. Space! The plan was working so far. Haggal had come through, and Stig was now on his way to Mars.
The next phase was survival. He needed to find a store of food and water, as well as a place to hide while he made the trip. He needed to do it quickly, since he was unsure how many people were going to be walking around the ship.
Stig started climbing over the cases and opening them. The first contained some sort of electronic device, a black pane with buttons and a video screen. He closed it quickly. The second contained a pile of thick white fabric. Stig dug his hand through but found nothing. The third case contained exactly what he was looking for.
It was stacked full of high-energy food packs, protein bars, and vitamin powder—everything he needed except water. If he could steal a small amount of it each day, even every few days, he would be in great shape. He took two handfuls of sustenance and put them in his pockets.
The rest of the cases yielded no water. Stig had to risk leaving the room to find something to drink. Cautiously, he pressed his ear against the cold metal of the door and heard nothing but the quiet hum of the ship. He turned the wheel carefully and opened it.
Banks of computers covered the walls. Recessed into them were six large glass coffins, standing upright from floor to ceiling. Each one held a naked human being, with tubes in their mouths and nostrils, suspended in a blue liquid. Numbers and graphs drifted across screens below them showing heart rate, pulse, and blood pressure. There were nameplates above the vessels: Dr. Bridgett Fontaine, Dr. Mobeus Heimlitz, Captain Greg Reynolds.
Stig’s mouth dropped open. A frozen crew? For a two-month-long voyage? What about the passengers? He went to a computer terminal, frantically pressing buttons and touching the screen, but didn’t know the correct commands and got no information. Desperately, he looked around the room for anything that would give the ship’s destination, anything that said, “Mars.”
Then he remembered the case and the small writing on the inside, the words that occupied him for his long wait before launch time. He ran back into the room and found the case, the one he so willingly locked himself into: Case 146-53a.
Stig opened the lid, shaking. The markings were there, small black letters etched into the corner: “CONTENTS: 1 month solid rations, 6-member crew. DESTINATION: Planet 15025, System H-154, Andromeda.”
Copyright © 2014 P. R. O’Leary