“Stowaway to Mars” by H.S. Donnelly
International Space Station. Low Earth Orbit.
Ibrahim stands, confidently looking at the older officer behind the desk, the one with epaulets on his gray uniform and a dark blue patch with “Cdr. Twillinger” in white letters. Finally, Twillinger finishes reading the transcript, looks up and says, “Young man… you are a — a…freshman at Florida State?”
“Do you have any other qualifications? Some other degree, or something?”
“I have been doing well in my studies.”
“Noooo, I wouldn’t put it that way.” Twillinger looks over to the other man standing next to Ibrahim, the shorter one with wavy blond hair; happy hair, thinks Ibrahim, like the team of volleyball players he saw on the beach in Florida. “Lee,” he says, “what’s his embarkation papers say?”
Ibrahim interrupts. “No papers, sir. Stowaway.”
“What?” Twillinger’s voice rises in tandem with his eyebrows. “Do you have any idea what sort of risk — ”
“No risk. Rocket had extra fuel allowance. And I took stuff off, too.” The cylinder he cleaned out also made a nice air-tight compartment for the trip on the cargo rocket to the station.
“Sir, I don’t know how — ” Lee begins.
“Just fix it, Lee. And, by God, figure out what he dumped.”
“Mr. Lee,” Ibrahim catches Lee’s sleeve as they enter the corridor, “I wish to make a request.”
Mr. Lee glares at him.
“I want to go to Mars.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Then maybe I tell CNN? Or Fox? About how I was a NASA stowaway, yes?”
Lee’s expression freezes. “Do you know how much trouble — ” Then he stops.
Mars Colonization Ship, Outward Bound.
Life. Routine. Life.
Twelve of them. Captain. Assistant Captain. Engineer-Slash-Navigator. Two Scientists. Six colonists. And Ibrahim.
Two families. One has two kids who run around the space ship. Anlyn is a pretty girl, ten years old, with brownish-blonde hair and freckles. Anderson has black hair and pale skin and is two years younger. She teases him when she is bored.
The other couple is in their twenties and have no kids. But they have Bibles and don’t talk very much, as if they want to conserve their breathing for their new life on Mars.
Marse is a geologist. But also an astronomer. She is tall and pale, with black hair and wide, luminous brown eyes. She sits with Ibrahim in the forward lounge conversing with him, almost as if she can’t bear not having someone to talk to.
“Your name is Marse?” Ibrahim inquires.
“Yeah.” she smiles. “My parents called me Mimi. But I never liked it. So I became Marse. Maybe,” she stretches, cat-like, “even then I wanted to go to Mars.”
She changes the subject. “I finished high school at sixteen and did my undergrad in two years, then jumped into the PhD program. I couldn’t decide between Astronomy and Geology, so I decided to do both. And when this project came up, it was a perfect fit for my theses. So I applied.”
“You are a geologist and an astronomer,” echoes Ibrahim.
“My project,” she continues, “is to drill cores in the Hellas Basin to find out if rivers were the result of catastrophic events, or continuous water flows. It is the deepest place on the planet. But no one has checked there yet.”
Mars, she explains, is old. But she isn’t interested in the old Mars of ancient craters and cliffs, pencil thin atmosphere, dry gulch valleys, water-carbon-dioxide glaciers and barren rock-strewn deserts that stretch to the horizon and then all the way around the planet.
No, she wants to see the young Mars of warmth, of flowing rivers, thick atmosphere, maybe even puffy white clouds and the Northern Hemispheric Sea. The Mars where, maybe, something once lived.
“What about you?” she shifts the conversation again.
“I am well.”
“No.” Her words come out playfully. “Why are you going to Mars?”
Ibrahim swallows. This is a new question, one that goes inside of him. “Many years ago I was a young boy in Ghana. I was on the internet looking at those pictures of Mars sent by the first orbiter. The internet was not fast, so pictures came up slowly. Mostly I saw were craters, river valleys, and dunes. But there was one that started with a sheet of white and dark specks. I did not understand what I was looking at. However when it finally finished, I saw it was a glacier in the Martian Antarctic with black boulders stuck in it. It was so, so wonderful, I decide I would go to Mars to see it.”
“No, I mean what will your assignment be on Mars?”
Ibrahim swallows once more. “I shall set up an aqua farm,” he declares. He pauses, hoping she is impressed.
“That’s a great idea!” Marse leans forward. “Will this just be aquatic plants, or will it also include fish?”
“Yes, yes,” he replies, slightly unnerved at how interested she is. For now that the conversation has started, there isn’t an easy way to sidestep her questions. “Fish,” he continues, “All kinds. Yes.”
“Yes, yes. Bass perhaps. Or Tilapia. Yellowfish maybe…” His voice trails off as he shoots a glance out the window, to the silent diamond-white pattern of stars. “But I am still planning, yes.”
“You realize the subsurface water deposits on Mars are extremely brackish. So you will certainly need the top-of-the-line desalinization equipment to extract the water.” Marse launches into a monologue that, fortunately, only requires the occasional, “Yes, yes,” or “I see,” from Ibrahim, since he only half understands what she is talking about.
Ibrahim looks up from his e-book. It is Anlyn. She peeks into his cubicle.
“Do you have an Exit Visa?”
He puts down the e-book. “Exit Visa?” These are a new set of words.
“I don’t wanna stay on Mars. But you only get to go home if you have an Exit Visa. Everybody else stays forever. So do you have one?” She expels this last sentence quickly, as if it was one word.
“I do not have one,” he answers. Exit visa, he thinks. Yes, he will certainly need one when he has finished looking about.
“Oh,” Anlyn looks disappointed. “So you’re a Stay Forever?”
“Like you?” He pokes her playfully with his reply.
“No,” she glares at him, “I’m getting an Exit Visa.” No play. Just seriousness.
“Me too.” Ibrahim smiles.
Anlyn doesn’t return the smile.
There in big lounge viewing port hangs Mars. Red, pockmarked with the Antarctic ice cap tilted towards them.
Everyone stands, silently looking at the view.
Ibrahim sneaks a glance at Marse. She stares transfixed at the new planet.
The above-ground central square is covered by a thick reinforced plastic bubble. Three spokes fan out, disappearing underground. The Chinese one is called Long March Boulevard, the American Freedom Way, and the Russian Petrograd Street.
Far off on the horizon is the wall of a crater rim. Between the rim and the station is a flat plain covered with fine red sand and boulders. Overhead, a tiny sun is halfway to the horizon. It hovers in a clear, slightly pinkish sky.
“There are,” their guide informs them, “automatic air-tight doors that can shut in five seconds if a meteorite ever pierces the bubble. So the dome provides both a welcoming window on the surface and full protection for the rest of the colony.”
And so they are given a tour of the living quarters, the above ground greenhouses, the machine shops that produce everything from spare bolts to spacesuit arms, the U.N. Administrative offices, the four airlocks to the surface, and all manner of other things.
Mars Colony, Administrative Offices.
Desk Woman scowls. “Four half course credits from a U.S. state college? How can you be qualified to do anything here?”
Suddenly Ibrahim feels the sand slipping away beneath his feet. Still, he smiles.
“I plan to set up an aqua farm,” he begins. “First item to consider is the fish: they need a stable environment. One that nurtures them, but also keeps out pathogens.” He remembers that much from one of his half-courses. The one that had that deadly dry professor; the one he found almost impossible to listen to. “Nutrients for the plants and fish, that may be a problem.” He goes on speculating about the fish and plants he would like to put into his aqua farm, all the while surprised at how Desk Woman just keeps looking at him. “So,” he concludes, “that is my purpose.”
Her lips press together into a line. “Do you know how expensive it is to mine and desalinate water? There is no way we’re wasting it on some exotic fish farm.”
Ibrahim deflates. Made-up though his plans are, it is still disappointing to see them squashed so quickly.
Desk Woman touches her screen and a page flows out of the printer behind her. “Here.” She hands it to him. “Fill it out.”
Ibrahim stares at the paper. It contains a slew of alien words like “Agronomy,” “Mechanical Engineering,” and “Biosphere Engineering.” After all those is the word “Other” and then a big blank space. He begins writing, Skills: aquaculture, ocean fishing, game hunting, swimming, currency conversion, discussing the affairs of Man…
Desk Woman drops the page onto her desk and looks at him. “So you have no skills.”
“No — ” Ibrahim gestures towards the “Other” section.
Desk Woman glares at him. “No, you have NO skills!”
Ibrahim begins to reply, but stops as he abruptly realizes he has nothing to say.
Desk Woman makes a few clicks more on her computer. A fresh page zips out of her printer. She scribbles her signature on the bottom. “Here, take this to the Administrative Centre upstairs on the main floor. They’ll get you set up. But damn well find something to do!”
Ibrahim glances down the form. Martian Colony Resident Permit is at the top. Next is his name, the date he arrived and an ID number. After that, everything is blank, including Current Assignment.
At the fourth level, the man leads Ibrahim down a dim hall. At end, he pulls out a fob and clicks open a door. A florescent light blinks on. “Here’s your sleeping quarters.”
It is a tiny two-by-three-meter room; just enough space for the single bed and dresser. “Please, where is the bathroom?” Ibrahim asks.
The man points to the left. “There’s a communal bathroom upstairs at the second level.” He sees Ibrahim’s expression. “Hey, this is pretty good for someone who isn’t contributing.”
Ibrahim swallows. “And my food?” Desperation is clawing at the insides of his stomach.
“See the Administrative Office. It opens at nine. And that’s nine Martian time. If you’ve got an Earth watch, throw it away because it is no good here. And curfew is 9 p.m. After that your key fob won’t let you in. And if you are locked out, see security up on street level in the next building.”
“And this is just temporary.”
“These are in-transit rooms for people between assignments. So you will probably be shifted to the Bunkhouse in a week or two. It is two levels down. Twenty-five beds on the Men’s side. You use the same bathroom upstairs. And they turn you out at 8 a.m. every morning.”
The man turns and heads back down the corridor.
Another job interview.
The fifth? Or is it the sixth? Ibrahim can’t recall. They’ve all come and gone so quickly. He glances down and makes sure his shirt is tucked in. Then he strides into the greenhouse room.
A woman in dungarees tending a row of vegetables straightens up. “So, you are the young Mr. Ibrahim?”
“And have you ever worked in hydroponics?”
“Yes,” he begins and then catches her expression. “No, I have not.”
“Well, we might give you a call when we get to harvesting. But thank you for dropping by.”
Ibrahim shakes her hand weakly.
He feels tired and useless.
“Yes?” Desk Woman asks.
Ibrahim smiles. “I have decided to apply for my Exit Visa.”
“Sure,” she smirks, “we give those out all the time. Meantime, why don’t you find something to do?”
Ibrahim swallows. It is time to play his big card. “Shall I tell them back on Earth how I was a stowaway?”
Desk Woman breaks out laughing. “Is that how you got here?”
“Yes,” Ibrahim feels offended.
“Well Mister, why don’t you just stowaway yourself back, then! And sure, tell everyone on Earth. I’m sure the jackass who didn’t catch you will be thrilled!”
She is still here.
“Marse,” he calls.
She turns. “Ibrahim, I was wondering if I would bump into you before I left.” She has some gear slung over her shoulder. “Has your aqua farm project started?”
“Yes, yes — ” He stops himself. “It is coming, but not yet. I am waiting for, you know, the right forms.”
Marse nods slowly. “Approvals, you mean?”
“Yes, yes. Then I start. But you…you are still planning to drill holes?
“Yeah. They’ve promised me an assistant as safety regulations say you don’t go off on your own. But the fellow still isn’t available. And I’m also still waiting for approvals for my gear, air, and food. Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m ever going to get started.” She looks downcast.
An opportunity, Ibrahim realizes. “What if,” Ibrahim hesitates, trying to not sound too eager, “I became your assistant?”
She looks at him. “But what about your project?”
“We are both waiting. But if we come together, one of us could accomplish something.”
Marse thinks for several seconds, then looks at him and smiles her white, white smile. “Well, if you are game. And maybe when my project is done, I can help you?”
“But I still need to get my other approvals.”
Ibrahim thinks for a moment. “I can help you out.”
Marse looks at him. “But…”
“No, no,” he assures her, “I have done these things a great many times.”
Desk Woman looks up from the application. “You want to go out as a ‘Science Research Assistant’? Given your background, I’m not sure — ”
“No, no,” Ibrahim insists, “everything has been arranged. I have already talked to the project leader, Marse, and she has agreed.”
She stares at him, unconvinced.
“Please, call her if you wish,” Ibrahim points towards her communicator.
The clerk behind the counter at the central depot looks at him. “Three weeks of supplies?”
“Yes, it is a very important scientific study. The desk woman at the administrative offices is very eager for me to start work. Please, call her if you wish. She will tell you how important it is for Ibrahim to start work.”
Mr. Clerk gives him a look and then shrugs and disappears through a door.
“Wonderful!” Marse is amazed. “I don’t know how you did it.”
“It is very easy if you know how to present yourself.”
“Okay, how about we start by going over the drilling equipment right now? It’s all outside. You did your spacesuit training, right?”
“Of course,” Ibrahim replies, careful to omit the word “not” that otherwise should have been at the end of the sentence. Stowaways, after all, don’t receive training in anything. Still, he has seen lots of videos of people in spacesuits. So it really shouldn’t be difficult.
They reach the airlock area. “We’ll start with drilling equipment so you can help set it up and spell me on the controls.” Marse pulls a suit off the rack and lays it out on the ground.
Ibrahim watches her and then does what she does. Helmet, she flips the visor up and then fiddles around inside the suit.
Ibrahim does the same thing.
She opens and closes several of the outside pouches.
Finally, she picks up the suit and steps her legs into it and then pulls up the upper part and zips herself in. Ibrahim follows. “Ready?” she asks.
“Yes,” Ibrahim replies and then sees that she is still waiting. He checks the mirror that shows him the line of controls that are close to his chin. On one side is a red button labeled, ‘Comm’. He clicks it with his chin and tries again. “Yes.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Marse heads to the airlock.
The airlock door clunks shut and he can hear the air being pumped out.
“The drilling equipment is computer-controlled,” Marse’s radio voice continues, “so you’ll mostly be looking at the computer screen to ensure the drill bit is rotating at the right RPM.”
“Yes, yes,” Ibrahim replies. It seems simple enough. But he can’t quite concentrate on her words. Still, he forces himself to focus on what she is saying.
“And there is also the power consumption. You’ll need to watch for a power surge as that might indicate the drill has hit some sort of blockage.”
“Power surge…blockage,” Ibrahim repeats.
He is awake, but back in the station under the dome.
Marse is staring at him, looking frightened. And he has a breathing mask strapped to his face.
“What?” he asks.
“You passed out. You forgot to turn on your air.”
“Oh.” He feels slightly groggy.
“You told me you knew how to use a suit.” Her expression has changed to anger. “I would never have taken you out if I knew you hadn’t been trained. People get killed that way.”
“But I am fine.”
“No,” Marse answers. She looks at him with an expression he has not seen since he was a small boy living in the streets. Then, stealing food was just what you did. One day as he was reaching for a mango, the woman running the fruit stand turned and saw him.
Expecting her to shout, “Hey you little devil!” he withdrew his hand. But no, she said nothing and instead looked at him, eyes wide with pity. Embarrassed, he wanted to run away. But he was hungry. So he snatched the mango and ran, feeling tiny and worthless.
And that is Marse’s look.
Back in his room, he stretches out in his bed and looks up at the concrete ceiling. He wonders. Marse is not married. Maybe he could propose to her? If they are man and wife, surely they would give him an Exit Visa, wouldn’t they? He tries to imagine how he could nudge the conversation towards such a delicate subject.
Would she even do it? But he knows the answer.
How can he get away from here? He feels desperation building. Suddenly the light blinks off, leaving him in total darkness.
Darkness. Yes, in the darkness nothing else exists.
Or at least the red digits on the clock on the far wall show that it is morning. Then he hears a knock on the door. Ibrahim calls out, “Yes?”
The light blinks on.
He jumps up and slides open the door.
Marse is standing there. He stares at her for a moment, not sure why she has materialized.
“Come on,” she says, “I want to leave for Hellas in two days. So we’ve got two days to get you up to speed with the space suit. We’ll worry about the drilling equipment when we get there. Okay with you?”
“Great. One condition, though.” Her expression hardens. “No more lying.”
His mouth drops open. A retort wells up from inside him, one that will explain away his problem in the suit as a simple honest mistake and that, of course, he knows perfectly well how to use a suit —
Then all at once he stops.
“Yes, of course!” he distantly hears himself say in a subdued voice.
“Great. I’ll expect you to be at Airlock Four in an hour and a half.” The door slides shut.
He stops. What has just happened here, he wonders. Then he realizes.
She has been kind to him.
And he should have thanked her. However he has had so little practice since no one has ever been kind to him before.
But what about his mother?
Surely she must have been kind to him, though he really doesn’t know. He only has one memory of her: lying still on a cot looking thin and worn-out. It must have been after that she went away.
Still, she must have been kind to him.
He exhales, turns and looks at his room. He finally has an assignment. So he will stay on Mars until Marse is finished with him.
And the Exit Permit? Well, something will surely happen.
It always does, doesn’t it?
|H.S. Donnelly lives in Toronto with his supportive wife Anne and two affectionate (though rather demanding) cats. He has always enjoyed writing stories and over the last few years has concentrated on writing short stories. A good SF short story, as well as being entertaining, should leave you with a taste of the world it is describing. Along with “Stowaway to Mars,” he has had two other short SF stories published in On Spec Magazine (“Oh Most Cursed Addition Engine”) and Perfect Flaw, an anthology of Dystopian SF (First Head). For more information, please visit his Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/PeeringIntoTheFuture.|