Part 1. My adventure begins.
As soon as the cabin pod door closed behind me, I knew that I'd made a terrible mistake. Up until that moment, I was as excited as any first-timer. There were some members of the crew and some business-class passengers who'd made the journey to Mars and back before, some of them even several times. It's a nine month journey to Mars, travelling at 25,000 mph. Mars is 35 million miles away at its closest approach to Earth. It's possible to arrive on Mars, stay for three months and then return to Earth. The whole round trip takes 21 months, but if you miss the flight, you'll need to wait two years till the planets get close enough again to make the journey.
Most of the business people coming and going were in the mining and prospecting business, or in property development.. terraforming, as it was called, which made it sound glamorous and exciting. Of course, it was exciting. It is exciting and even glamorous - especially for the first class, 'Prime' passengers as they were called.. the ones paying top dollar for the trip of a lifetime. At a minimum of $900 million for a place on the Prime deck, no expense was spared. They have their spacious cabins with wide, tall windows, where they can sip tall Martinis and gaze into the depths of infinite space to their heart's content. If that gets too boring, there's plenty of entertainment on board for the first class passengers.. a low gravity swimming pool, bars and nightclubs, restaurants, a park with real trees, gym, health and beauty spa, casino.. you name it, the Spaceship X has got it on board.
For the likes of me and other 'auxiliary crew' passengers, as we were called, it was to be a different kind of experience, the journey to Mars. The reason we were called 'auxiliary crew' was that we had to work on board to cover the cost of the ticket, which we got on loan from the company. The pay was pretty good - $1,000 a day for a ten hour shift. If we got to work in one of the bars, clubs or casino, there was also the opportunity for picking up hefty tips and maybe even making some useful connections. Mars was a whole new frontier. A new world to be conquered and colonised. Over the course of nine months, if all went well, it should be possible to arrive on Mars with more money than you left with. That had been the main motivating factor for me.
My life on Earth had been at a dead end for so long, I didn't know which way to turn. So of course, when I saw the advert for job opportunities on Mars I jumped at the chance. Really, what did I have to stay for? 39 years old, no job, no girlfriend, living in a crummy flat, too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, always late on the rent and bills.. junkies in the street, shops all closed down, rubbish everywhere you went, gangs taking over the neighbourhood.. what did I have to keep me on Earth? It was all I could do to drag myself out of bed in the morning and face another day. I'd vowed that if things didn't change by the time I was forty, I'd kill myself. I'd be doing the world a favour, I told myself. One less mouth to feed. One less consumer.
So you can imagine my joy and excitement when I got accepted on the Spaceship X flight to Mars as an Auxiliary Crew Passenger. It turned out that I was actually perfectly suited for the position. I was generally fit and healthy. I didn't smoke. I'd worked just about every job you can think of at some point or other. Preparation for the journey took three months. There were training days, a fitness regime which had to be practiced, a series of vaccinations, as well as thorough screening of blood samples to make sure I wasn't carrying anything contagious on board.
We were briefed on what to expect from being in a low gravity environment, how confinement might affect our state of mind, how space travel could change our metabolism. To me it wasn't scary at all. It was the most exciting thing of my life. I walked around as if in a dream. I'd go out in the dreary streets, full of dreary people living dreary lives, with a huge smile on my face. Three months and I'd be out of this shit hole, leaving all these losers behind. I was going to be a spaceman. What child never wanted to be a spaceman? I felt like the luckiest person alive, to be given this opportunity. I signed every paper they gave me, without so much as a glance at the small print..
In the words of the great Bob Dylan, 'When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.' I felt like those words could have been written just for me.
In the shuttle to the spaceport, I joined the hundreds of other Auxiliary Crew passengers for the check in. I was humming to myself 'How does it feel, to be out there on your own, like a complete unknown, with no direction home, like a rolling stone..' It felt great. No one had any luggage. We weren't allowed to take anything from Earth - partly to keep weight down, also to avoid any contamination. We would each be issued with new clothes and other accessories once we went through to boarding.
It was like being born again. Leaving everything behind. Starting a new life. Goodbye austerity, rising prices, pollution, global warming, freak weather, unemployment, pandemic.. We were going to Mars and we were going to make a shit load of money. What could be better than that?
Everyone was talking excitedly in the shuttle on the way to the launch site, but we all fell silent when the rocket came into view. Even though everyone had seen pictures of it, nothing can really prepare you for the enormity of it when you see it in real life for the first time. It towered above the terminal as high as a hundred story skyscraper, gleaming white with hundreds of mirrored windows reflecting the golden light of the sun, setting over the dry, flat expanse of the great salt lake.
Did I pause to consider this might be the last golden sunset I might ever see? The last natural air I might ever breath? The last time I might ever have the blue sky of Earth above me? Maybe for a moment, but anyway, by this point is was too late to turn back.. not that I wanted to, but if I did, I'd still have to pay back the $250,000 the company had loaned me for the ticket, plus another $100,000 for the training and administration, etc. Space travel doesn't come cheap and at the end of the day, someone's got to pay.
The Business and Prime passengers boarded from a different building than the Auxiliary Crew passengers. No doubt they had plushly carpeted lounges and sparkling champagne to ease them onto the journey of a lifetime. For those of us in the cheap seats, there was a maze of concrete tunnels, security checks, and brightly lit holding areas. Finally we were separated into men and women and sent to large communal showers, where the water was too hot and smelled of chlorine. After that, we were issued with new, lightweight clothes - a pale blue shirt, pale blue trousers and a pair of 'space socks', which were made of some special material, both hard and soft at the same time, also pale blue. We were issued with a small parcel which we were told contained changes of clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste and soap. Lastly, we were issued with a smartwatch which would monitor our vital signs and all our movements. We were told not to take it off under any circumstances.. not that we'd be able to since it was fastened with an irreversible clasp. It was about that moment, when the clasp clicked closed onto my wrist, that I began to get a sinking feeling.. that maybe I was making a big mistake..
Stewards and stewardesses dressed in orange were there at the entrance to the ship to welcome us aboard and point us in the direction of our cabin capsules, which were located deep within the bowels of the immense spacecraft, far from any windows.
Despite their welcoming manner, there seemed to be something unsavoury and unhealthy looking about this crew. Their faces were gaunt and they had dark rings under their eyes. Their skin was grey and blotchy. These were people who spent most of their lives in space. Nine months to Mars, three months there, nine months back again. How many times had these guys made the journey, I wondered. The Mars colonies had been going for fifteen years now. It was ten years since the first hotel had been built there and the first commercial passenger flights had begun. Some of these people may have been to Mars and back three or four times already.. traveled hundreds of millions of miles across the solar system.
Turning away from the uneasy sense of emptiness that filled me when I looked into the steward's eyes, I tried to comfort myself by calculating how much money I stood to make from this trip. I'd been through the sums already, of course, with the recruitment representative of the company. If I worked hard and didn't spend too much while I was away, I could hope to come back to Earth with half a million dollars in my account, even after I'd paid for the flights there and back.. and that was even if I didn't get lucky and find some investment opportunity while I was out there. By all accounts, Mars was a goldmine. Limitless, untapped wealth and resources just waiting to be exploited, a mere 35 million miles from home..
Yet, somehow, even this thought didn't comfort me, as I let my watch direct me towards my cabin pod through miles of narrow passageways, cold steel gangways with pipes and wires of different colours snaking all over the walls and ceiling. Other first time passengers filled the passageways, all dressed in pale blue, all following directions from their watches. It was eerily quiet as our space-socks made no sound on the metal floor.
The interior of Spaceship X was arranged with the business-class cabins around the outside, so they had windows. The first class 'Prime' suites with their exclusive facilities were at the very top, in the long glass cone. The crew and auxiliary crew cabin-pods were situated towards the core. I soon discovered that there were several different levels of seniority among the crew. Each level was dressed in a different colour. The red were the most senior, then the orange, then the green. Finally, there were the light blue auxiliary crew, or 'Orks' as we were called. We were the lowest of the low.
The most senior members of the crew, such as the Captain, wore white suits and important looking hats, but I never got to see any of them in real life.. only when they appeared on my screen to make some announcement or other. The security officers wore black padded outfits and proper boots rather than space socks. They also wore a utility belt with handcuffs and some kind of space-gun. It was almost like being on the Starship Enterprise, except I got the feeling that the guards weren't really on my side.
Below the business deck was the 'Earth Deck', with shops, cafes, gym, spa, conference rooms, a park with real grass and real trees. It was arranged like a kind of village square, with a nostalgic theme. The ceiling was very high and the lighting was cleverly controlled to give the illusion of the sun as it appears on Earth, starting out as a reddish glow in the 'morning', getting brighter during the 'day' and at the end of the day, shifting to a blueish 'moonlight'. Of course, there were never any of those things in real life on Spaceship X. There was only night, but the illusion was quite convincing. You could quite forget you weren't still on Earth and not millions of miles away from there, if you let yourself. But I didn't get to spend much time on Earth deck.. it was only for Business-class and Prime passengers. I'd seen it in the brochures and heard about it from other crew members, but it was three months before I got to see it for myself, apart from a glimpse through the elevator door on that first day as I was on my way down to my quarters on Level M.
Below Earth deck were the kitchens, sorting stations, maintainence rooms, store rooms and the red-ranking crew cafeteria and bar, furnished with a pool table, widescreen TV and comfortable lounge area. Red crew could choose from a selection of cooked dishes at mealtimes. Each level had its own area for members of the crew to eat, drink and relax in between shifts. By the time you got to Level M, the mess area resembled something out of a prison. Long metallic tables with fixed backless benches, bolted to the metal floor. The 'bar' and 'cafeteria' such as it was, was a row of vending machines. Level M was the lowest of all the passenger and crew decks.. that is, it was furthest from the outside. The 'leisure facilities' on Level M consisted of some metal exercise machines in a permanently floodlit enclosure with a low ceiling.
Below Level M was the cargo hold and below that were the engines, so there was a permanent dullish roar and vibration on level M. Aside from the sparse recreational facilities, most of Level M was taken up with row upon row of cabin-pods for us 'Orks'. Following the directions from my watch, I eventually found my way to my pod. The last part I had to climb up a tall ladder, as the pods were stacked seven high, one on top of the other. Mine was on the top row. If I fell out of bed, I'd have a ten meter drop. It was a nerve-wracking climb, clutching my little parcel under one arm, trying not to lose my footing, but also not look down. If I'd thought about my fear of heights before signing up for this journey, I probably would have thought it over more carefully and decided to stay on Earth. I was after all about to travel 35 million miles above the surface of the Earth, but somehow I'd never thought of it in terms of a great height.. only a great adventure.
When I finally reached my cabin-pod, my arms and legs were shaking. I leaned across and pressed the large, green lit button with my forehead, almost losing my balance on the narrow steel ladder. The dull grey aluminium door slid open and, with a mixture of relief and dread, I tumbled into the little cabin-pod which would be my only home and sanctuary for the next nine months. It was at that moment, I remembered what I had somehow forgotten in my eagerness to leave Earth.. that as well as vertigo, I also suffer from claustrophobia. I hate being cooped up in confined spaces.
The cabin was smaller than I'd expected. Narrow and not very long. It consisted of a thin mattress with a television screen at one end and a small cabinet with a built in light on the other. The nylon sheets of the bed were tightly tucked in under the mattress. I soon discovered that the sheets were spring loaded to compensate for the weaker artificial gravity on the lower decks. The Spaceship X was designed to spin in order to create artificial gravity. On the outermost decks, the 'gravity' was about the same as on Earth, but because the innermost decks spin less quickly, the gravity is about half as strong. The height of the cabin was designed to be just about tall enough for an average sized person to sit up in, but I'm a bit taller than the average person so I had to bend my head down if I wanted to sit up.
I laid back on the bed and closed my eyes, trying to calm myself. The length of the bed (the whole length of the cabin) was also about right for an average sized person, but just a bit too short for me, so I had to put my feet up on the wall, either side of the tv screen if I wanted to stretch them out. I later discovered this wasn't possible when you were being held down by spring loaded sheets. My back, neck and shoulder pain began almost immediately and have not stopped since.
Early in the trip I went to see the ship's doctor, who I thought looked a lot sicker than me. He was a young doctor, probably only in his thirties, but he had that grey pallor, blotchy skin and dark rings around his eyes that made him look like an old man.This was his third trip to Mars, he told me. He hoped he could make it his last. 'Maybe the'll give you a bigger pod on the way back. It's always full on the way there”, he said as he tapped away at his computer. 'Full on the way there.. half empty on the way back.' and he gave me a darkly meaningful, somehow pitiful look.
The visit to the doctor, I later found out, cost me $500, deducted from my wages. The limited healthcare package I got with my auxiliary crew ticket didn't really cover anything at all, I soon discovered. The pain killers also cost $100 for a box of twelve and I quickly found them to be highly addictive. I wouldn't have been able to function at all on this trip without them.
After three and a half hours, which felt more like three and a half weeks, with nothing to eat and nothing to drink and no information as to when we might expect to take off, the Captain appeared on the screen, dressed in white, wearing an important looking Captain's hat. He welcomed everybody on board and informed us that the countdown was at five minutes, so we should prepare for take off. For Prime passengers, this meant taking their front row seats on the Stardeck, buckled into huge, soft spaceship seats in front of a massive curved window with almost 360 degree view. For those of us in the cabin-pods, it meant getting into bed and being held down by the spring loaded sheets and watching the launch on the little TV a the foot of the bed. The footage was interspersed with shots of the rich and famous passengers on the Stardeck enjoying their trip of a lifetime. This was also being broadcast to the wider public, of course, so such footage was very much in the public interest, it was good publicity for the company and made good ratings.
The countdown began. It didn't seem real, but at the same time, too real. I tried to remind myself where I was and what I was doing.. that I was going to space.. that I was going to be a real astronaut.. a Spaceman! Could I really be that lucky? Could it really be happening to me? That in nine short months I would be setting foot on the Red Planet itself.. Mars! It was almost beyond belief. Beyond comprehension for my ape-descended brain.. but beyond the awe and wonder of the great adventure I was embarked upon, a sense of dread, a sinking feeling, the sense that I'd made the biggest mistake of my life and it was too late to go back....
Launching into space was exhilarating, in a sickening kind of way, like a fairground ride with a sadist at the helm. Nothing can really prepare you for the sensation of accelerating from 0 – 26,000 mph and then suddenly becoming weightless. It's like being catapaulted very high into the air, but when you reach the top, you don't fall down.. but still, you have the sensation of falling, which just goes on and on. It was so sudden and strange and sickening that just as we went from gut-wrenching G-force to zero gravity, I threw up.
My first experience of the wonders of space travel was being tied to a bed by spring loaded sheets, in a coffin-like compartment, the roar of the engines filling my head and then suddenly falling silent. On my little television screen, planet Earth falling away into the distance with blackness all around. Vomit floating around my tiny cabin, sticking to everything it touches.
After a few minutes, the artificial gravity kicked in. What had not stuck to the walls of the cabin came falling slowly down in the half gravity, like snow.. lumpy, yellow, warm snow.. and settled on the bed and on my face.
And so began my journey to Mars...
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Part 2. Life on board the Spaceship X
My first three months on board the Spaceship X passed by in a state of boredom, drudgery, homesickness, regret and ill health. After the initial excitement of low gravity wore off, it became painfully clear that the human body is not really built for such an environment. The complete lack of daylight also played havoc with my body clock. Most nights, or days.. whatever it was.. I'd wake up from fevered nightmares, not knowing where I was, covered in sweat, my heart racing. I'd be late for my shift and have money deducted from my pay.
On top of the pain killers, I also began taking pills to regulate my heart rate and other pills to counteract the anxiety and panic attacks brought on by the confined living conditions, ever present danger, sleeplessness and stress. The fact that water and food were tightly rationed for low ranking crew didn't help my state of health either. It didn't take me long to understand that, in the scheme of things, 'Orks' such as myself were expendable. Our primary role on board the Spaceship X was to be exploited, neglected and mistreated.
The way things worked on the ship was that the red and orange ranking crew primarily catered to the Business and Prime passengers.. preparing and serving delicious food, staffing the nightclub, casino, health spa, shops and bars of the magnificent space hotel. The green and blue ranks stayed below deck, in the half gravity of the interior, where the air was thin and stale and where any semblance of luxury was absent. There was only stark functionality on the lower decks.. and even then, nothing really functioned as well as it was supposed to.
Although most of the most menial jobs were automated and done by robots,they didn't always work as well as they were supposed to. Things were always going wrong and malfunctioning, so it was up to us Orks (under the supervision of the green ranking crew, who were invariably tyrannical in their limited authority) to do the most menial or dangerous jobs necessary to keep the Spaceship X afloat. Whether it was crawling through freezing air ducts to chip away at a buildup of ice, wading through a septic tank to clear a blockage, or putting on a radiation suit to tighten a loose bolt on the fusion reactor.. that was my job as an Ork.
At the end of a long shift, I'd come back to M Deck, eat a bowl or rehydrated noodles in unrecognisable goo from the vending machine, climb up to my cabin pod, exhausted. If I couldn't get to sleep, I'd watch some nature documentary on the TV, remembering the mountains, the forests, the oceans, the clouds, the blue sky, all the animals, all the life.. all the things I'd taken for granted and which were now millions of miles away, across the freezing vacuum of space.
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It was on the day of my 40th birthday, three months into the trip, that I was in my cabin pod, counting out my pills, wondering if I had enough to take an overdose, that an announcement via my TV caused me to postpone my plan. A virus outbreak on decks F and G meant that all of the red and orange ranking crew were in quarantine. It was up to the greens and the Orks to fill in for them.
I'd done a bit of bar work back on Earth, so they sent me to the Earth deck to tend the bar. Aside from the fleeting glimpse I'd had of Earth deck on my first day, this was the first time I'd been above the lower decks since I'd been on board the Spaceship X. It was the best birthday present I could have wished for.
The gravity on Earthdeck was almost the same as on Earth. After three months at half gravity, my body felt heavy and the pint glasses of beer (real glass, not thin paper cups, as I'd got used to) were difficult to lift, but the air was fresher on Earth deck than it was down below.. higher in oxygen content, thicker, richer and more wholesome to breath, which made me feel energised and light headed. I soon got back in to the swing of working the bar and before long, I completely forgot that I was in a metal tube hurtling through space and not back on Earth.. the illusion was so convincing.
My shift started at six o'clock in the evening. The light from the 'sky', which was a ceiling 20m above the deck with sky projected onto it, was a perfect summer evening sky.. a few clouds dotted about, lit up in shades of pink and orange and gold against a brilliant blue. The bar itself was an actual English pub dating back to the 17th century, which had been taken apart brick by brick and perfectly reconstructed in the area of Earth deck which was called 'The Village Square'. The actual bricks had been hollowed out and filled with some lightweight material, but on the surface it was exactly the same.
The fact that all of the customers were wearing different clothes also added to the make-believe effect of the scene. For three months, almost everyone I'd seen had been wearing either pale blue or green uniforms. Business class passengers were allowed to bring several suitcases each on board. Some wore business suits, others were in more casual dress. People were also wearing proper Earth shoes.. something I'd almost completely forgotten existed, after so long in space-socks.
The best part of the scene was that just outside the pub was a little park with real grass and real trees. There was even a real stream running through it with a stone footbridge crossing over a point where the water was cascading over smooth, time and water-worn rocks. These were hollowed out too, of course, but it didn't really matter. In fact, that particular part of stream, including the bridge had been taken from a national park in Scotland, stone for stone and was recreated here. That was the thing about Earth deck. Everything told a story. Across from the pub was a French Bistro Cafe. The building itself was actually one of the oldest houses in France, built five hundred years ago from wooden beams, wattle and daub. That too had been taken apart, hollowed out, reassembled, and was now on its way to Mars. Mind-boggling really, but I soon forgot about it and allowed myself to get immersed in the illusion.
Pretty soon after my shift began, the pub started to fill up with business people, in for a drink after a day's work and meetings. They didn't stop working just because they were in space. After all, the markets didn't stop just because a few people happened to leave the planet. Men in expensive suits, women in heels, talking, laughing, clinking glasses, making deals, making jokes.. it could have been London, New York, Paris. By midnight, most of them had drifted off, either to the nightclub or back to their cabins, alone or in pairs, or up to the stardeck to gaze at the stars and wait for the morning that would never come.
One man remained at the bar after everyone else had gone their separate ways. He was red in the face and overweight, looking uncomfortable in a tightly fitting grey business suit, his tie hanging loose and shirt unbuttoned at the top. He looked to be somewhere in his fifties and had been drinking steadily since he came in at around seven.
'First time is it?' he said to me as I filled him another glass.
'No, I used to work in a pub for a while, back home.. on Earth', I replied.
'I mean', he said, leaning drunkenly across the bar, 'Is this your first time on this f.. this f.. f.fff...' he twirled his finger in circles in the air, looking for the word.. 'Fucking.. Space ship!' he said at last, looking pleased with himself for remembering the word, then finding it hilariously funny, he burst out laughing.
'Oh yes!' I said, also laughing, finding his laughter contagious. It had been so long since I'd heard any. Also it was funny.. quite absurd.. that we were in an English pub, in space. “Yes, it's my first time. How about you?'
'This is my third time.' he said with a scowl. 'I fucking hate this trip. I can't believe we've still got six fucking months to go till we get there. And I'll tell you something else.. Mars.. It's a fucking shithole! What? You look shocked. What are you expecting to find there? A land of milk and honey? I'll tell you something about Mars.. and this is from someone who's been there.. TWICE!.. It's the worst place you can imagine. I don't know if you can even imagine it, till you go there.. till you SEE it.. till you FEEL it.. It's a dead planet.. a dead... planet! Do you know what that means? No life. Nothing. Nada. No water. Just endless desert. Not a bird, not a tree. Not even a fly or an ant.' He shuddered and his eyes darted this way and that. 'It's a dead.. planet. A whole planet.. dead. No life. And I'll tell you what else.. the weather is shit! Worse than anywhere on Earth, even with all that climate change. Christ, on Mars you can't even breath the air. If you go outside you'll freeze to death..' he clutched his chest and his eyes bulged red. It looked like he couldn't breath.
'Are you ok?' I said.
He nodded his head. 'Fine, fine', he coughed and took out two pills from his pocket and knocked them back with the last of his pint and then let out a loud burp. 'Just a bit of heartburn, that's all. Same again barman', he said when at last he got his breath back, pushing his empty glass across the bar. 'Have one for yourself too.'
'Thanks', I said and poured myself a pint. 'Cheers! So, if you don't mind me asking, why are you going to Mars if it's so bad?'
He rolled his eyes, smiled in a world-weary way and rubbed his fingers with his thumb. 'Why does anyone go? Money of course. Why are you going? Same reason, I bet.'
I nodded my head. I didn't have to say anything, it was obviously true.
'And how's that working out for you?' he asked, raising his eyebrows and looking me up and down.
I felt self-conscious and rather undignified in my pale blue Ork suit, but not such a complete failure as I'd felt earlier, when I'd been contemplating suicide. I was, after all on a spaceship bound for Mars and the good air, the quality of the illusion and the beer were making me feel altogether more positive about my prospects. 'I think it's working out ok', I said. 'I mean I think it will... It's a lot of work and harder than I expected in a lot of ways.. but by the time I get back to Earth I'll hopefully have enough money for the down payment on a little house.. maybe even a big house.. you never know..'
He nodded appreciatively, looking at me with a new-found respect, as if he recognised in me some noble quality. 'Good for you!' he said and clinked his glass against mine, causing some of his beer to spill over into my glass. 'That's the way! You'll go far with that attitude. Don't let anyone tell you anything can't be done. How much are they paying you? Do you mind me asking?'
'That's ok. I get about a thousand a day, before deductions, but mostly that goes towards paying for the flight over there.'
'What?! They make you work to pay for the flight? Sneaky bastards! That's really cheeky! Some Hutzpah they've got! Do you know how much I pay for a flight on this... flying party popper, or whatever the fuck it is.. business-class..? I'll tell you.. One hundred and fifty million dollars. Each way. Do you know how much they pay up there in Prime? They're looking at something like a billion dollars for the round trip. Per passenger. You'd think they could at least pay the staff. Bunch of tight fisted... Same story the world over, my friend. The rich get richer and the poor get royally shafted.' He shook his head sadly.
'You payed 150 million dollars for this flight? Wow. What do you do?'
'Well, I didn't pay. My company pays for it. I'll tell you the truth.. no one else wanted to go. No one senior anyway. So I said, ok, I'll go.. if they pay me seventy five million, plus expenses. That's what I'm getting for this dismal trip, which does make it a bit more bearable, I've got to admit. Quite honestly, I was glad to get away from the wife for a couple of years. Sometimes, having three hundred million miles between a man and his wife can do wonders for a marriage!' and he laughed so hard he almost fell of his chair. 'I'll tell you something though', he said seriously, once he'd composed himself. 'If you want to make money.. I mean REAL money, you need to invest. Hard work is good and everything, but it's never going to make you real money. How do you think I'm getting 75 million for this trip? Where does the money come from?'
'I don't know', I said. 'Where does it come from?'
'Minerals', he said, flashing a diamond ring. 'Cobalt, lithium, tungsten, niobium, molybdenum, gold.. What do you think all these people are doing here, nobbing around in space in their business suits..? I'l tell you what.. they're buying up land on Mars. Real estate. Do you know how much land costs on Mars? There's a whole planet out there and right now most of it doesn't belong to anyone. It's just there for the taking. How much do you think an acre of land on Mars costs? I'll tell you, you won't believe it. One dollar! One dollar for an acre of land on Mars. The price of this pint would get you a plot the size of a small town. Think about it. It's nothing. And you know what you get for that? Mineral rights. Water rights.. if there is any. Anyone wants to dig there or build there, they have to pay you. Till the end of time. The end of fucking time! And you know the mad part? Who do you think they buy the land from? They buy it from themselves! Think about it. It's mad. They can't lose.'
My head was spinning. The beer, the air, the illusion of being back on Earth, the talk of large sums of money.. the prospect of some of it coming my way. This is what I'd had in mind when I signed up. 'It's like the wild west', I said. 'The gold rush.'
'Exactomundo!' said the man, clapping his hand. 'The wild west.. on steroids! It's a fucking gold rush. Who dares wins, my friend. Fortune favours the brave and all that.'
My wristwatch beeped. New instructions..
*** Deliver one bottle of Dalmore 62 single highland malt whiskey to suite 5 on the Prime deck ***
A light flashed on the hatch behind the bar and the door slid open to reveal a bottle of whiskey, two crystal glasses and a bowl of ice on a silver tray.
My watch beeped again, more instructions..
*** IMMEDIATELY ***
Seeing the bottle, the man at the bar whistled. 'Oh ho! Someone's splashing out', he said. 'Do you know anything about whiskey? I do. What do you think that bottle's worth?'
'I don't know', I replied.
'I'll tell you.. on Earth it would probably get half a million, easily. Up here, with the mark up.. probably looking at a million, a million and a half. I suppose someone's got something to celebrate.. or money to burn..'
'Well, I'd better get it delivered. We're a bit short staffed tonight.. better not keep them waiting.'
'Sure thing. Listen, here's my card. You come and find me when we get to Mars. I've got a deal for you. An opportunity. Something big. Don't forget.'
'Thank you. I will. Definitely', I said, taking his card and shaking his hand. He smiled, a sort of grimace. His eyes were tired and sad, weary of wheeling and dealing and where it had got him.. drinking alone, millions of miles from home, in a fake, hollowed out pub, in space.
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The silver tray, with the bottle of whiskey, the bowl of ice and the crystal glasses, was very heavy to lift. I was tired at the end of my shift and the gravity was twice as strong as I'd become accustomed to. Thinking about the immense value of the bottle made me extremely nervous and I tried hard to keep my hands from shaking.
My watch gave me directions.. through the back door of the pub into a maze of steel tunnels which led me to a service elevator whose doors slid open as I approached. The next stop was Area P, the part of the ship exclusively reserved for Prime passengers. At the entrance to the lift were two burly security men, dressed in black and wearing dark glasses. They made no expression other than nodding very slightly in my direction, indicating that I was cleared to proceed. They made me feel nervous and somehow guilty, even though I knew I hadn't done anything. Of course, the thought may have crossed my mind that I could take the million dollar bottle of whiskey and run, but really, where could I run to in this place?
The sudden jolt of the service elevator caught me by surprise as it whisked me up to Area P, the great glass nose-cone at the front end of the spaceship, almost causing me to drop the precious tray. When the doors opened, I was faced by a long corridor, thickly carpeted from wall to wall. The lighting was subtle and tasteful. Brightly coloured works of art with somewhat disturbing imagery (apparently on the theme of slavery) hung on the walls in between important looking doors, well spaced apart. The carpet was so thick and soft, I had to practically wade through it. The door to suite 5 was about 50m along the corridor. By the time I got to it I was quite out of breath and sweating.
My watch alerted the guest that their room service had arrived, so I didn't have to knock. This was just as well, as I was clutching the heavy tray as tight as I could with both hands, terrified of dropping it. I waited a long time. Three alerts were sent before the door finally swung open.
There was a woman, unbelievably glamorous, like people you don't ever see in real life.. or at least I don't. Like she'd just stepped out of a Hollywood movie or a fashion magazine cover. All her features looked airbrushed, so it was impossible to tell her age. I found myself staring at her, trying to understand if she was real or an illusion. She was wearing a long, flowing, golden robe, made from some silken material which glittered and sparkled with every slight movement. Behind her was a large, luxurious lounge with a marble floor, sparsely but expensively furnished. There was a white, grand piano, a bar lined with bottles, a long dining table. A few doors leading off to other rooms. At the end of the room was a huge window, covering the whole wall, from the floor to the 5m high ceiling. Beyond the window.. Space.. Deeper and more full of stars than I could have ever imagined. It was the first time that I'd seen it since I'd stepped on board. My mouth fell open. I was filled with wonder and awe. There was the Milky Way, brighter than I'd ever seen it before. All around it, stars, galaxies, supernova, nebula glittering in the blackness, like an infinite tapestry in every colour of light...
She clicked her fingers in front of my eyes. 'Hello-o-o?! Ground control to Major Tom?!'
'Oh sorry. I was miles away.'
'Yes, it looked like it', and she made a zombie face to show me what I looked like, and then laughed. 'I get that all the time.'
'Yes, I can imagine.'
'Tell me about it', she said, rolling her perfect eyes and shaking her golden mane of hair. 'I tell you, it's like having a skin disease, being rich and famous. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. You can't go anywhere. People are just like..' and she pulled the zombie face again. 'They just forget how to act. I thought I'd get away from it here, but it's the same shit, I tell you. Everyone wants something from you. Everyone thinks they own you. They think they really know you, just because they've seen your picture, or read something about you. What do they know? Nothing. No one knows anything.'
'Sorry', I said, not really sure what I was apologising for. 'It was the stars. I've just never.. seen them.. so close.. so many..'
'Oh, ok', she said, turning around. 'Come. You can put it down over there, near the window. There's a little table next to the chaise longue.'
I followed her across the marble expanse, clutching the tray. The floor was polished so smooth that my space socks slid as if on sheet ice. I did my best to glide gracefully, though I probably looked like a shuffling penguin.
'God, it's just going on and on, this interminable trip. It's so boring!' she said, sounding like a petulant child. I wasn't sure if she was talking to me or to herself, so I didn't say anything. 'No day, only night. You know, I never thought I'd miss the sky, or the moon. I never really thought about them.. they were always just.. there.. you know..? Birds. Cats and dogs. I don't even like cats or dogs, but I miss them. The sea. I miss the sea. And rain. And the sun. See how small it is out there? How far away?' She pointed to the sun.. it did indeed seem far away.. pale, cold and lonely, surrounded by blackness. 'The parties.. I don't care about the parties. We've got parties here, but it's always the same people. Everyone's sick of each other, I tell you. A bunch of bores. I came here with my husband. This was supposed to be our honeymoon. Well, what better way than being stuck on a fucking space rocket with someone to discover that you hate their guts? Where is he now? In the sodding casino. Night after night. The man's a billionaire for fuck's sake.. he's got more money than he could ever spend.. but he still wants more. It's like an addiction he's got. Something.. what's the word.. something.. pathological.. hey, watch out for the...'
There was a white bearskin rug. I hadn't noticed it as I was looking at the sun. It still had the bear's head.. open mouthed.. in an eternal, silent howl. My foot caught in its jaws. I tripped. The silver tray with the crystal glasses, bowl of ice and million dollar bottle of whiskey went flying through the air and came crashing down on the marble floor.. shattered into a million pieces. Broken glass and ice in a puddle of very expensive brown liquid.
She didn't react. She just stood there, stock still, as I picked myself up from the bearskin rug. After the great crash there was a very long silence. Then she shrugged her shoulders. 'Oh well', she said. 'No use crying over spilled milk is there? Or spilled Dalmore 62. Haha!'
'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry', I stammered. 'I'll clear it up. I'll bring another bottle.'
She looked at me, not unkindly, and said, 'There isn't another bottle. That was the last one. The last bottle of Dalmore 62 in the whole fucking universe.'
“Oh my God! Really?'
'Yes, really. It doesn't matter. Actually, it's good. Don't clean it up. Leave it where it is.'
'What? Why? Are you sure?'
'Yes. Really. It's perfect. I don't even like whiskey. I just ordered it to annoy my stupid husband.'
'What.. what do you mean?'
'Oh never mind. It's stupid. It's all so stupid. This stupid trip. That stupid rug. People are always tripping on it. I almost broke my neck when I first got here because of that stupid rug. Do you even know what it is?'
'What? The rug?'
'Yes, the rug. It's the last polar bear. Can you believe that? The last fucking polar bear. Forget it. It doesn't matter, it's paid for. Are you ok? Did you hurt yourself?'
'I'm ok. Thanks', I said. 'I'm really sorry.'
'It's nothing', she said. 'Really, it's nothing.' She walked across to the window and looked out into the endless vacuum. Maybe she found some sort of comfort in it.. some sort of connection.
'Er.. is there anything else?' I said, after a long silence.
'No. You can go. I'll be all right', she said with a wave of her hand, without turning around.
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I arrived back at the pub on Earth deck just as my friend the businessman was being carried out on a stretcher. He'd had a heart attack and died, just like that. There'd been no one around, because of the short staff situation. His watch had alerted the computer system that his heart had stopped, but by the time the medics arrived, he was already dead.
At the end of my shift, I went back to my cabin-pod, the mad events of the night running through my tired mind. I tried to understand what it all meant, if anything at all. I was haunted by the vision of the sun, so far away, surrounded by blackness. I couldn't get to sleep, so I watched an old nature documentary about the frozen Arctic.. from the days when it was still frozen.. when penguins and polar bears roamed free across the vast, white wilderness. How I wished I could turn back the clock, but of course, no one can do that, even with all the money in the world.
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Part 3. Life on Mars
Well, what can I tell you? Eventually, six long months later, the Spaceship X pulled into Mars. It was a miracle of science and technology. By the time we got there, half of the ship's systems weren't functioning, half of the passengers were in quarantine, a sizeable number of people on board, from Orks to Oligarchs didn't make it at all. The stress of space travel was just too much for the human body in many cases.
The landing didn't go smoothly at all. A dust storm on the surface of the red planet meant we had to orbit for two weeks waiting for an opportunity to land. The atmosphere on board by the time we made the landing is hard to describe. Hysteria, madness, fighting. We all thought we were going to die. After nine months cooped up in this capsule, a lot of people had completely lost their mind. By some miracle, the Spaceship X touched down and the weary humans disembarked bravely onto the new world. I don't know what I, or anyone else was expecting to find there, but whatever it was, it wasn't there.
Life on Mars is every bit as dismal and dreary as the businessman had described. If anything, it's worse, because there really isn't much opportunity. At least for someone like me.
The billionaire gambler had refused to pay for the broken bottle of whiskey, on principle. The company charged me for it. There was nothing I could do. The small print on my contract was very clear about my liability in the case. I had no money and no chance of finding a lawyer on Mars who'd take my case for free, so I arrived on Mars much poorer than I'd left Earth, with considerable debts that I'll probably never be able to pay.
The climate, the weather, the radiation and the thin, poisonous atmosphere on Mars mean that all the people live underground almost all the time, only venturing out in sealed buggies if absolutely necessary. If the Mars dust gets into your mouth, nose and lungs, it's like choking on cinnamon powder.. dry, caustic and highly abrasive. Mostly it's only the robots which inhabit the surface of Mars.
The hotels on Mars are disappointing for most of the rich clients who make the long journey. The rooms are spacious enough and clean, but lack of windows, the poor quality of the air, water and food, the low gravity and shortage of luxury supplies make their three month stay at the Hilton Mars more like three months in a nuclear bunker after the end of the world. Mostly they spend their time complaining and can't wait to get back to Earth.
The business people do their business, as always. New mines, new hotels, new underground neighborhoods springing up all over the place. Everything is half built and works half the time, if that.. but it looks good enough for the brochures, so people keep on coming.
I'm hoping I can get back on the first return flight to Earth, even as an Ork, I don't care. If not, I'll have to wait two years till the next one. I don't know if I'll last that long. People here are dropping like flies and no one seems to care.
I found myself a place to rent. A little cabin-pod, ten stories underground. It's not half as nice as the one I had on the Spaceship X and I share it with two other people. We take it in turns to have eight hours of sleep, in between 12 hour shifts in the mines.
Half of my salary goes to the company to pay my debts and the rest goes on rent. Rent is really expensive on Mars. I pay more here than I did for my little flat on Earth. My little flat, with running water, windows, air, a door to the outside world I could go out of at any time... Sometimes you just don't know what you've got till it's gone.
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