YOUR DEBTS WILL FOLLOW YOU TO THE STARS

The opportunity was once in a lifetime so he e-signatured his name on the dotted line without reading the contractual niceties. He told his life coach that afternoon, slumped in the beanbag chair. “Mr. Husk is sending 10,000 people to live on Mars.” He clasped and unclasped his hands. “I’m going to be one of them.” Mr. Husk was to announce the lottery winners at summer’s edge, at about the same time Mr. Husk’s flying car company, APEP, was scheduled to go public. 

His life coach cleared her throat. “I want to pedal back a bit. Let’s talk about your father.” 

For the next twelve months he trained like an astronaut. He quit life coaching, missed every one of his son’s baseball games, gave up on 15-case Montuckys—settling for the sixers—and watched 8760 hours of space-related YouTube videos, just shy of the ten thousand hour mark denoting expertise. His sacrifice and determination stewed together to cook a spell that was sure to favor his name. 

Sitting in his APEP in the Culver’s parking lot, he salivated over the livestream beaming from the car’s touchscreen display. “These 10,000 brave souls,” Mr. Husk said, “will be remembered for as long as there are stars in the night sky.” Journalists asked questions about water and radiation and cosmic debris but he was too absorbed eating cheese curds and scanning the names scrolling across the screen, A to Z. Winners alphabetized by first name. He chewed his nails to the joint before the scroll unrolled to Z. 

Then he drove home in a stoned daze—driving because APEP’s flying would unlock with a future software update, TBA. Smooth-riding the freeways of concrete and grease shined trash, past the two-story business complexes, 24/7 diners that sold dutches to minors, the yards of containers and trains buckling under the weight of MAERSK containers in the heart of swampland. Goodbye to all that. Zachary Arble owned a one-way ticket to Mars. 

“Goodbye job.”

“Goodbye home.”

“Goodbye APEP,” he kissed the hood. 

“Goodbye son. Goodbye daughter. Goodbye wife. Goodbye dog. Destiny parts us but now I do what I do for humanity. When you feel my absence, look up towards heaven and I’ll be there looking back.”

A bus of tinted windows picked him up from Home Depot. Inside, all of the men were just as gray as he was. All of the women were about half his age, leaning towards the heroin-chic fad of the nineties when Mr. Husk minted his first billion. He sat in the only open seat, next to a man of bulk shaped like a pear. “Howdy, I’m Ernie Canatlupo.” Ernie was a prison guard, a former powerlifter, and an Aries who felt Martian gravity lifting him upward since his diaper days. “You ready to make history?”

The launch site was a field of rockets like sunburnt wheat, enormous obelisks of jet black, starward erect in an undisclosed Everglades location. Attendants gave each winner a spacesuit blazoned with Mr. Husk’s various company logos. The stitching across the back of the suits read, “Anabasis,” in papyrus font. Then they crowded into the elevator and ascended the umbilical tower into the loading bay. He was strapped into a sleek white chair and then massage clamps latched their jaws around his legs as a technician twisted an IV into his suit. The door closed and spun airtight. The needle stung.

Silence. 

“10. 9. 8…”

“See you in the stars, partner,” Ernie winked.

A rumbling shivered through the ship’s frame, what he assumed was the ignition booster, but Rocket #4, ahead of them in the queue, had exploded on the launch pad. Mission control was frenzied and so they jump started the launch of the remaining rockets. He gripped his straps and for a brief moment he would never admit, tasted the bitterness of regret, but then G-force squished him against his seat and shot regret out the back of his skull. In his periphery, Ernie’s visor was all vomit. Something cold gushed into his veins through the IV, just as the ship shook off the shackles of Earth’s gravity. He lost consciousness. 

Six months blinked away. He awoke to the ship wedged lopsided on the surface of Mars. 

***

He didn’t regain self-awareness until he was already standing up, dressed in an itchy gray jumpsuit, filed through a brightly lit, dome-shaped hall in a line shaped like a constellation zipping from one star to the next. The first sense to return was sound: the squeaking of footsteps across glaring tiles. The others were just as groggy as he was. Around his neck hung a lanyard with an ID number and a QR code.

“Next!” A shrill shout. He was led to a sunburnt CRT monitor. “Just answer the questions,” the tight-faced woman said. “It’s a fitness test.”

Green text appeared on screen. “Answer this question with abecedarian sentences only: what is your favorite letter of the alphabet and why?” The computer’s voice was a stilted Microsoft Sally. Sixty seconds tickered towards zero on the top right hand side of the screen.  

“Miss, excuse me?” He called out. “I don’t understand. I can’t answer this.” 

“You prefer the voice of Microsoft Sam?” She towered over him, hands clasped in the swell of her back. 

“No. I don’t understand the question.”

She smugged her gaze. “There are no right or wrong answers. Answer to the best of your abilities.”

He wrote, “I don’t know.” 

Next question: “If a tyrannosaurus rex juggled scarves at Madison Square Garden, how many times would the audience exclaim ooh and aah?”

Next.

He finished the questionnaire. Then he and the others were filed through tight tubular hallways. Mars smelled like a ward during a pandemic, all metallic and ammonia. He visored his hand above his eyes. The colony was too brightly lit, the white light that makes the newborn cry for the womb. 

Eight “Adventurers,” as they were called, were assigned to a living space. “I call top bunk,” he said. His heels hung over the foot of the frame. They were squeezed tight but each was too dazzled and mud-brained to care. “Where are the windows?” He yawned. “I want to see what Mars looks like.” Somebody else murmured the same question. 

“There aren’t any windows,” a nasally voice from the bunk below him said. “No magnetosphere. The radiation’ll boil your guts.”

He squeezed his eyes and imagined the red glow of his lids mirrored the surface of Mars. Then his nose brushed the ceiling as he rolled over into the fetal position and sunk into a dreamless sleep. 

The following day the 10,000 (which was really 9,200) ate nutrient paste for breakfast in the cafeteria and then received their Martian assignments. “Each day’s wages will be paid in a reduction of your debts, after a percentage has been applied to your general cost of living—of course.” He didn’t know he had a debt. How much debt was he in? But the sound of his ID interrupted his curiosity. “Qx4r! Ditch digger!”

In Docking Bay 4 he was handed a spacesuit, a pickax, and the order, “Dig,” as he and his fellow trenchers boarded the incline elevator. Ten minutes of rising floor by floor to the surface. The kinetic springs of the bay door slammed onto the planet, throwing up a thick cloud of dust. He traipsed through the cloud and onto the dirt. They were some of the first humans to disturb Martian soil. “Get to work!” came the static shout through the helmet’s intercom. 

And so he went to war with the planet, swinging and ripping, filling the sky with pale clouds. The surface wasn’t red, more like butterscotch, with browns and oranges and dirty gold, the sky a persistent violet haze. Another space suit rolled up to him and filled a space-wheelbarrow with his dirt. He stopped to catch his breath and scanned the wastes. A lifeless rock, eerie and weird, stirred by alien invasion. A wind picked up as if to say, there is more to life than life.

“Is that Earth?” He shouted, pointing heavenward with an arm barely able to rise. 

“No, fool!” The digger to his right cracked a reply. “That’s Phobos! Earths over there somewhere! Looks like a star!” A gust roared through their swinging.

He hunted the horizon but all he saw were faint twinklings. Earth, if Earth was there, looked just the same as every other cold white light pockmarking the sky.

“Everybody back inside, now!” A gruff voice shouted. “On the double!” He hustled back to the bay doors, panting furious. Trooped in the four corners of the bay were armored astronauts with what looked like harpoon guns. He hadn’t noticed them before. “God damn it! Shut it now!” The pneumatic supports trembled and then the door retracted. A pair of gray gloved hands desperately reached for the safety of inside but they were cut off by the airtight seal. The elevator descended through darkness, back to the colony of the 10,000. 

He was paid one Huskcoin per hour, roughly $12.00, so long as his pick was swinging. He calculated his debt after a week’s work. He was down from $1.2 million to $1,199,760. But, due to another dust storm, by evening his debt stood at $1,200,146. The expense of maintaining his existence added up. But one advantage of working as a ditch digger was that he moved into Quarantine Quarters because, as one Project Manager put it, “We don’t know what kind of shits squirming beneath the surface.” QQ accommodations were much cheaper.

“When do we get to meet Elijah Husk?” He gulped down his Iodine-131 pills with the remainder of the day’s water allocation. 

“He’s not here yet.” The nasal voice replied. A squeak sounded. They all turned over in their bunks as a rat scurried between two panels in the wall.

They worked long days because a day on Mars was 24.6 hours, and a year was 687 days. Raises could be requested annually. So he had to work or be swallowed by his debts. Not complying meant being fired. Nobody wanted to find out what being fired meant. 

So he swung and he picked to the rhythm of the wind. At the end of his shift, as the ditchers descended, the farmers ascended. Environmental scientists whose only job was to find a way to feed the colony. When they failed, the trenchers were given a new order, “Find water.” 

But all he found was dirt. Wheelbarrows of his dirt descended to the colony and returned with meatloaf colored bricks and then masons began assembling a tower just outside the bay doors.

“Why are we digging?” 

Rumors spread, said there was gold buried in the soil. But the 10,000 soon realized that made no sense. Others said alien technology. That made more sense. He wanted to be the one to find the crashed UFO. If he did, Elijah Husk was sure to be his friend.

One day topside, longest day of the year (25 hours), another ditch digger raised his pickaxe and chucked it towards the wastes, not very far, considering the bulk of his gear. The ditch was about four meters deep, stretching away from its source in the Colony and into the wastes as if they dug to bring fertility to the wasted world. The ditch digger yelled out across all channels, “I’m not going to take it anymore.” The voice tearstruck. “This isn’t what I signed up for. We’re all thinking it. This is absurd!” The nasal choke of snot. 

One of the armed armored astronauts strutted over to the protestor, lifted the butt of his harpoon rifle, and smashed the protestor’s spine. A gasp and a wheeze pained across all frequencies. Then, silence.

He felt uneasy until the smasher greeted him heartily. “Hey! It’s me, Ernie!” Features were hard to tell through the breath fogged visors. “Get a load of this,” he held up the rifle like a trophy. “Who knew I’d get the same job on Mars that I had on Earth? What luck, huh?” A dust storm brewed on the horizon, charging fast. They were summoned back to the safety of the underground. He asked Ernie what they should do about the prostrate protestor. “Leave him. That’s how they learn their lesson. Trust me.” Ernie grinned. 

That Martian night, the bunk below him was empty. Through the paned glass surrounding their quarantined room, stood two lab coats studying his exhaustion, scribbling notes on a clipboard. He stretched the stiffness of his legs out and into the open space beyond his bunk. He was cramped up. He smacked his arm. Was he losing muscle? He searched the room. Half the beds were empty. Where were all the women? 

Sometimes, trenchers wandered off into the violet wastes, their pickaxes left behind like gravestones. Something on the horizon snared them. Something he couldn’t see. One day, if it could be called day, a trencher stopped swinging, just like that, drove his pick into the dirt so that the picks’ shadow melted into the ditches’ shadow. 

He dropped his own pick and shook the man’s suit, forcing him to turn around. But when he saw the face he stumbled back. The eyes wet and wide, unblinking, and a grin stretched across the face, wide and taut, glassy, about to break. The face of madness. 

“Leave him be.” A guard said. “They’re no good to us when they stop digging. Not enough water to go around anyway.” The guard leaned his head back and admired the cap of the tower. “They signed the contract just like the rest of us. If you can’t work you’re free to starve.” He considered what he had said. “Or suffocate.”

He brushed his suit off. The tower was tall enough to wear sunlight for a coat, illuminating the runes of Husk’s history.

The tower grew as the pickaxes sank, casting a spiraling shadow that swung around the trenchers like the minute hand of a clock. The smooth face of the tower was finished. Now, the artists ascended, hung from ropes, they chiseled into the fire baked brick all the triumphs of Mr. Husk: the merger of his payment processing company, the time he gave the middle finger to the chair of the SEC, the bomb he developed to wipe out the nation no one remembered, the date he acquired APEP and legally made himself “Founder” through a lawsuit. Husk’s Column, guaranteed to last ten thousand years, a tower to impress life’s awakening on a dead rock.

News spread through the colony the following day, far faster than the violent cough that seemed poised to infect everyone. “Elijah Husk is coming!” His heart fluttered. The billionaire entrepreneur was scheduled to arrive that afternoon in the only craft capable of both landing and taking off from Mars, APEP IV.

 He dug extra hard that day, despite the diarrhea that plagued his bowels. Too full of adrenaline to care, excitement swung his ax six inches deeper than anyone else. Nobody wandered off into the wastes that day. 

Exhausted and pale, the remains of the 10,000 gathered in the cafeteria and waited with sunken stares. Two hours passed before the shuttlebay doors groaned open. They all stood. 

From the loudspeakers echoed the words, “All rise for the first of his kind, Savior of Science, Emperor of Mars, Technobaron of the Stars, and Keeper of the Future, Elijah Husk.” A hunched over, pale-skinned man with faded red hair and freckles on his forehead that a pen struck through would form the constellation Scorpius, shuffled into the cafeteria wearing two N95 masks. A hush descended and then the less-than-10,0000 erupted with so many violent cheers and hackney coughs that no greater sound had been heard on Mars since Olympus Mons last shivered.

Behold the man. 

Not knowing that he was mic’d to the comm systems, Mr. Husk asked, “Where’s the harem?” 

Feeling filled Zachary Arble like the wind, filled him full and then he popped. He shaped his tongue towards the sound between Huzzah and Hallelujah, but what erupted instead of a cheer was a deep-throated sob. Tears gushed forth thick and sweet as milk, splattered the rusty, grated floor. 

“You okay there?” Ernie patted him on the back but the tears flowed, so Ernie pulled him close, absorbed the wet into his kevlar. 

Elijah Husk left the cafeteria for chambers unknown. The crowd dispersed to their assigned stations. But he didn’t move. He couldn’t stop himself. Mucus bubbles popped on the tip of his nose. “Shhh. Shhh. It’s all going to be okay,” Ernie said. But tears weren’t enough to make the Martian soil grow.

— Sean M.F. Sullivan writes from Colorado. His fiction has appeared online and offline. His website is https://seanmfsullivan.com and he can be found on Twitter @seanmfsullivan.