Duno Tweili looked up at the space craft that would take him off this planet. It was a giant, the gaping maw of its cargo bay dwarfing the surrounding buildings. From his perspective, the legs of its hydraulic landing gear were on scale with the towers of the nearby city. He had arrived late in the day, and the harsh afternoon sun cast long shadows across the sandy ground. Passengers were still straggling in, moving alone or in pairs up the great stairway of the cargo ramp. They carried their worldly possessions in hand luggage. They were leaving this place, likely never to return. A collection of them was visible in silhouette at the top. He sensed himself becoming one of those people, a nameless, faceless figure swallowed up by this mighty ship. A part of him resisted this homogenization. A man passed him, lugging an antique suitcase stuffed to bursting. His shadow stretched out behind him like a reluctant specter. Duno, realizing the time, snapped out of his reverie and began the climb himself.
Inside there was a vast open staging area. People clustered together, not in families, but congregating by a subconscious compulsion that dated back to the caves. There was safety in numbers. They stood agape, heads turning this way and that, engaging in meaningless speculative chatter.
A few crew members were to be seen dotted here and there among the crowd, recognizable by their uniforms. Blue, medical attendants, just making sure no one was physically unable to enter the ship. A sort of lazy triage, looking for only the very worst cases. There was a brief scuffle as an elderly man resisted the aid of a crew member, allowed himself to be calmed by a friend. From far away the tinny voice of a recorded announcement directed everyone toward the back of the hangar. There, several stories above the deck, the windows of the hangar control room were busy with passing workers. Some sat at consoles, facing out, their disinterest in the throng below apparent even from that height.
Duno set down his bag and looked around. They were supposed to be forming into columns and entering the interior of the ship through one the four designated sally ports. That tinny voice was barely more than an annoying drone in the background, but the way was clearly marked with huge yellow arrows which led up to and outlined the ports. He chose one and made as straight a line for it as possible, detouring constantly around piles of luggage and people throwing fits and others who were as determined as he and oblivious individuals standing there doing nothing at all. He reached the sally port, thanking himself for waiting so long to get here so that he didn't have to shuffle along in line for an hour. The people ahead of him were pulling out their hand consoles, flashing their tickets, and moving through the transparent outer door one by one. His turn. He had his ticket out and ready, displaying the red stamp icon which meant he had received a medical examination within the last twenty four hours. The scanner beeped. The door buzzed, and slid open soundlessly. He stepped in, it closed behind him. Ahead through the plas he could see facilities and green and something like civilization. The inner door opened and he stepped out and walked into the ship.
His ticket led him through a labyrinthine network of passages to his quarters. Duno was sure that if he lost his hand console he would die of dehydration before he found his way out again. A white metal door, exactly like the one before and after it. This one had the designation 06-B-225 stenciled on it in faded black characters. He scanned his ticket and a light on the knob lit up green.
The room was...exactly what he had expected. A coffin, really. A bunk and a bathroom, with enough space to walk alongside the bed to reach the combination shower/toilet. This was to be his home for the next thirty-seven days. He sighed, closed the door, sat down on the bunk. The thin mattress offered little resistance. He stared at the bleak gray wall. After a moment he reached into his bag and took out a picture. It was a flimsy scrap torn from a paper magazine, the kind that were printed by the millions by work-for-travel companies seeking to advertise to poor folks who can't afford hand consoles. It was a picture of a city, seen from low orbit, a sprawling hypocenter of clean colonial science. A white tower, a ring of symmetrical buildings at its base, segmented lakes, gardens. He licked the back of the paper and stuck it to the wall. Then he went outside in search of something to eat.
The commissary closest to his living block was alive with folk, had real plants and served the best food he'd eaten in years. Fried chicken and fresh bread. Synthetic milk, and he could feel the grit of the protein on his teeth, but he didn't care. Compared to the squalid mining camp, this was paradise. Duno had consumed so many soy products that even the thought of certain flavors and textures made his gorge rise.
He was finishing the scraps when the lights dimmed slightly, and a soft strobe began to throb from a corner of the room. He realized this was the launch warning, and they were not being called to quarters. This ship was such a colossal lumbering behemoth that it did not require its passengers to secure themselves before they launched. Amazing. But then, he had not been on an interplanetary ship in a long time. Maybe this was the way it was done now.
The walls and floor began to rumble; a vibration he felt in his bones. Duno watched the other people in the commissary casually walking around, going back for seconds at the chow line or, satisfied, depositing their trays in a stack for collection. He decided to play along and rose, unsure as to whether or not he was still hungry, headed uncertainly for the chow line. He wasn't looking where he was going and on the way he collided with a fast walking man who was cutting across his path, tray dangling from one hand.
"Whoa!" The man stopped short, stepped back, appraised the situation. No damage. He smiled. Duno smiled back, reflexively. "Sorry," he said, his camp-conditioned manners so used to close quarters contact. “That was my fault.” He went to move on, but the man engaged him, amiably. “You look a bit lost.” He was a little shorter than Duno, had a small face, wide lips, a narrow brow. Black hair stuck out from under a round cap. His style of clothing and accent were unfamiliar. Duno grinned sheepishly. “Well…” The man cut in. “Well, you don’t want to be in here during launch. Some people get sick, this is the perfect place to get puked on. First time on a big one like this?” He waved around at the ceiling. Duno nodded.
“Where ya goin’?”
The man approved. “Well, c’mon,” he said, taking Duno’s arm and marching him out of the room. “Let’s go find a pub.”
There was, actually, a pub. The ship’s directory had it listed as “Entertainment Deck 5.” It was dark, smoky, smelled greatly of sweat and just a bit of blood. Raucous men and women sat about nursing drinks, pointedly ignoring everyone or eyeballing each other in the first stages of a fight. Duno and his new friend found a table, scrolled through the menu on the table console. “This one’s on me,” the man said, and ordered two of something. Duno thanked him. “My name’s Hinkl by the way.” They shook hands. “Duno.” They settled into a conversation while they waited for their drinks to arrive.
“So, Duno, what takes you off-planet?”
Duno considered this. There was the obvious answer, of course. The mine he had worked in was a form of living hell, at first a great job opportunity for those who found themselves destitute on a foreign world, but soon becoming a monotonous drudgery that dimmed any spark of individuality. The pay was practically imaginary but he had scraped together every extra credit, bought a cheap hand console and a ticket, sold or given away anything he couldn’t fit in his duffel bag. Monitors around the room began displaying a live feed of the planet they were leaving, a tan orb with few signs of organic life. It grew smaller and smaller in the background of space. A feeling of great relief washed over him. Their drinks arrived. They looked equal parts gross and intimidating and he decided to answer instead of trying it. “I was going crazy down there.” He scoffed at his own statement. But Hinkl seemed to understand. “How many planets have you been on?”
“Three. I was born on Mura. My parents died in an industrial accident when I was eight. I was adopted by IDC and shipped off to Temerun.”
“Interplanetary Development Corporation.” Hinkl made a face. “Is it as bad as people say?”
Duno shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose so. The first few years were really tough. And there were…incidents. But you learn some good skills. By the time I was eighteen I was able to get a job on Nusovistra.” He pointed to the screen, at the planet receding there.
“What was your job?”
“Sweating, and breathing in chemical fumes.” Duno gave a wry grin and sipped his drink. “How about you?”
Hinkl held up a hand, palm open, fingers spread. “Five.” Duno raised his eyebrows. “Wow. That’s impressive. What do you do?”
“I’m a consultant for a machinery company. Something breaks somewhere, I go there and tell them how to fix it.” Duno felt slightly intimidated. This was a Real Person, not the disposable flesh turned out in troves by the copulating masses at the camps. Obviously this man Hinkl’s ticket had been paid for by his employer. Several tickets a year, maybe. He thought about the effort he had put out to buy his, and in an office somewhere they were just handing them out. He took a slug off his drink. “Ever fix anything on Nuso?”
Hinkl nodded with a sort of professional boredom. “Yeah, sure. Equipment breaks down there all the time, I’m sure you know that.”
Duno was nodding with him now. “Oh yeah. So is that where you’re coming from?” He tried to place Hinkl’s face among the passengers he had seen boarding that day, realized that was statistically beyond improbable. But Hinkl was shaking his head.
“No. That was just a layover for me. I haven’t been there in years.” He was going after his drink like it had done something wrong to him personally. ‘I haven’t been there in years.’ Duno was thinking that one day he would be able to say that too. How good it felt to have escaped from that horrible place. He was considering saying something to that effect, just to keep the conversation going, when he noticed that several of the people around them were taking out their hand consoles, chimes and buzzers going off almost in unison. Hinkl’s started to ring too, but he just reached down and squeezed his pocket and silenced it. He resumed his assault on his drink. Duno however wanted to see what was going on. He pulled his out, thinking that maybe he had accidentally silenced it completely when moving through the checkpoint, but saw that he had not received any message. ‘Piece of crap,’ he thought bitterly. That thing had cost him two months’ wages, and it had been the lowest shelf model he could find. ‘Maybe I should have saved up an extra month.’ Duno was embarrassed to ask Hinkl to see his, but he was already taking it out, laying it on the table. It was a passenger notification. He swiped the alert, read the message. “We’re skipping the Orema stop.”
“Why?” Suddenly Duno’s chimed as it caught up with the ship’s network. He accessed some news feeds, browsed through a few sites. “There’s been a worker’s revolt. They’ve seized the Unil Omer space port.” He sat back, staring at Hinkl to see if he shared his amazement, but the businessman seemed not to be impressed. “That happens fairly often on Orema. One less layover for us.” He tossed back the rest of his drink, extended his hand. They shook. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Duno.” He rose, pointed himself in the direction of the bar, and departed.
He was back in the mines, a dwarf in a giant shaft of raw stone gouged deep into the planet’s crust. Lights so bright they hurt to look at from far away did not fully illuminate the darkness between them. A double row of these marched away into the distance. Monstrous excavating vehicles chugged and beeped loudly around him. He gasp for breath in a powered respirator that barely filtered the noxious gases filling the air.
Duno woke with a start, unsure of where he was, head turning this way and that in the dark. The smell hit him, cold metal, condensation, the chemical toilet. ‘The ship,’ he thought, forcing himself to calm his breathing. ‘I’m in the ship, this is my bunk, I’m in my room alone.’ He had been dreaming of the mines. The last seven years of Duno’s life had been mostly spent underground, and that experience was hard to shake. ‘Dammit. I never dreamed about the mines when I worked there. I can’t get away from them even though I left the damn planet.’ He sat up, groped to his hand console, activated it and let its soft light play around the room. All he saw was the same walls that were there when he went to sleep. ‘I’m moving through space right now. On the way to Vyamer.’ He noticed that the picture had fallen to the floor. He picked it up and slapped it back in place. No need to lick it again; the walls were slick with sweat.
Duno sat alone at a table in the observation lounge, watching his home planet grow larger in the monitors. Mura, deceptively green and blue, hiding titanic strips of industrial zonage under puffy white clouds on its peninsular continents. He tried to remember what happened down there. So much of himself was tied up with those vague bruises. One day his parents had gone to work and not come home. Third grade, and his class had been learning about dinosaurs that day. The differences and similarities between the fossils found on each of the planets in the solar system. A knock at the door. The principal, looking severe in a black and white suit. Being called out of class. The other children staring at him as he walked outside. The quiet talk in the hallway. Sympathy. He had never been told the exact conditions of the accident. Something about a malfunction in the air conditioning system. It had seemed an impossible way to die.
The next few days he spent by himself, going through the motions of ship living. Occasionally he saw Hinkl but decided not to approach him. Then after the Mura stop he didn’t see him at all and wished he had. Duno watched the planet of his birth dropping away into space, feeling things he hadn’t felt since he was a boy. He had become an orphan down there. He remembered the cold waiting room at the civic crematorium, reclaiming the ashes of his parents in a little plastic box. The zero credit urn was the kind allotted to those who couldn’t pay. It had the names of his mother and father printed on the top. IDC hadn’t let him bring it with him. It was discovered in his bag during a last-minute inspection and discarded as contraband. Urns were not on the list of approved and required items. He had watched it drop into a trash bin, heard his own screaming voice as if it were coming from another person. An impatient crew member had grabbed his arm and marched him up the loading ramp into the transport ship. That was the day he left his home and began ten years of indentured servitude. Mura shrank into perceptual nonexistence and the monitor now showed only the star-flecked void. Duno and the other passengers settled down for the long haul to Vyamer.
About halfway through the last leg of the trip Duno met a man at the bar who was showing off pictures on his hand console to a group of people. He had been trying to enjoy his drink in peace, but had gotten drawn into the group’s social gravity. The man was an off-planet engineer of some sort, and was immensely enthusiastic about his work. The ship was just now passing Iacleme, the gas giant on the outskirts of the solar system. It had several moons suitable for terraforming and colonization. Three of them could be seen on the ship’s monitors, rough gray spots superimposed over the swirling clouds that made the body of Iacleme into a godlike apparition. People were passing around his hand console as he talked. Curious, Duno leaned in for a closer look.
A man in full EVA gear stood posing for the camera on the surface of a moon. The cracked volcanic rock beneath his feet stood out in sharp contrast to the multicolored striations of the gas giant that filled the background. Above the man loomed some kind of drone exploration vehicle, its rear compartment housing a power source, its front nothing more than a thin pentagonal sensor dish from which sprouted a keen antenna. Four legs with multi-jointed mechanical elbows ended in wide metal mesh wheels taller than the man. “This is you?” Duno asked, even though he knew the answer, suddenly caught up by the man’s popular celebrity. He had noticed the IDC logo plainly displayed on both the vehicle and the EVA suit. The man was nodding, smiling at the faces turned toward him. “We’re surveying the moons of Iacleme. This is Dec Phardes. It’s totally uninhabitable right now. But in twenty years they’ll be kids playing right there.” He pointed to a patch of rock. The man was not quite ready to stop talking about himself. “My buddy took that shot for me. Beautiful, isn’t it?” They all agreed, yes, it was beautiful. He beamed. “That’s my job,” he concluded, retrieving his hand console and turning away to the bar. Duno felt a pang of shame, the unreasonable guilt of belonging to a lower class. He forced himself to concentrate the world ahead.
Docking day morning Duno woke up early and prepared to leave the ship. This was the simple matter of throwing his few belongings back into his duffel bag, but he wanted to eat one last good meal. Who knows when he’d be getting his next. Looking around his little room for the last time, he felt a strange affection for the walls that had been the only witness to his dreams for a month of his life. He held the picture of the city in his hand and looked at it for a moment, then crumpled it up and threw it into the toilet. It felt like an achievement.
At the commissary, Vyamer was in all the monitors. Duno found himself standing in the chow line, tray in hand, staring at it. Ten times the size of Mura. Last planet in the solar system to be terraformed; newest to be colonized. Its silverish atmosphere held pockets of gray clouds that looked solid and dangerous. He felt slightly disappointed. He’d never thought about it being cloudy on Vyamer. It was the subtlety of environmental forces; the will of a planet that was not yet completely tamed. Weather satellites maintained the terraformation project, but only were able to hold back nature around the single great population center, the one city on an otherwise dark continent. For a moment all he could see was ocean, then a great land mass appeared. Corolis came into view on the nightside as a circle of lights, and Duno wondered about all the people who lived down there. Everyone who was still on the ship was going there. People leaned in their seats to see the city revolve around again and again. So many hopes and dreams built on that one spot in the cosmos. Families, holding hands together, desperately hopeful. Outcasts and adventurers. The last pitiful pilgrims of a once great movement, heeding still the propaganda call. Come occupy utopia. Join us in this far outpost of civilization. Duno felt a queasiness in his stomach, yet stuffed breakfast down his neck and queued up for their arrival.
For hours he had to stand in line with hundreds of other passengers, creep forward for a few minutes, then stand and wait again as they all were squeezed through their designated rally points. Everyone’s faces were glued to their hand consoles as they shuffled along, Duno no exception. Advertisements for shops, hotels, and jobs had begun popping up as soon as they synced with the city’s network. He checked out some employment ads and marked a few for later, mostly as a way to pass the time. Lunch had gone by and it was mid afternoon when once again Duno found himself in that huge cargo bay. He saw not the open world but the black walls of an underground docking station. Spotlights framed the dock openings. Their ship’s cargo bay was much taller and wider than the spotlit gate; it could have been stowed one away safely in a corner. Now he could hold back a bit and get some breathing room between himself and the others. He waited for the general crush of passengers to disembark. The bay was mostly clear when he walked across it, one of the last people to be ushered out through the echoey metal cavern by an impatient crew. The dock connected to a subterranean transit station. He followed signs through a series of chambers, found the light rail, waited for a car. It arrived and he stepped inside, looking at the glowing map with its highlighted destinations. He selected one at random and sat down. A few minutes later the light rail came to a conjunction of elevator shafts rising up to street level. The one Duno chose arose and deposited him near a busy intersection.
A burst of motion hit his eyes, and he stood stunned for a moment, taking it all in. Pedestrians crisscrossed his path wearing every manner of garb, some with customized oxygen masks, some breathing the air of this world. Sleek personal vehicles of varying makes and models hummed and hovered at the curbs. The closest building to him on his right featured bulbous yellow windows behind which pretty girls cavorted to some unheard song. The far building took up the entire corner, housing a line of little shops that hawked their wares in languages Duno did not understand. Strange odors wafted about; exotic foods, fusion exhaust, garbage. Beyond this block the layers of architecture overlapped into the distance, creating a false horizon. Underneath it all was the smell, an acrid scent that clung to his nostrils, rising from the dull wet sheen on the sidewalks, the oily puddles in the streets. A dirty rain had passed through here, but sunlight was making its way down between the buildings. Hefting his bag, Duno started walking in no particular direction. A ragged transient man being hassled by the police lifted his head to watch him pass by.