Greg is terrified and trying to escape to a safer planet, but can he make it out alive?
|1st place winner of the August 2019 Science Fiction Short Story Contest by Blackadder
“It’s not really a fly,” the drunk dignitary on the starway whispered to Greg, followed by a hiccup. “If you swat it, they’ll just fine you and send two more.” Greg smiled blankly and nodded his head as if he understood. The guy smelled like stale corn nuts and bourbon. Do you even know how long it takes corn nuts to go stale these days?
“Ah... Well, we definitely don’t want that, do we?” Greg replied, acting as if he had learned something interesting. The man took another deep pull of whatever he had in his fist-sized platinum flask. “I should really quit drinking…” Greg thought. Then he chuckled. “That’ll be the day. If it hasn’t happened in the past 34 years, it’s not happenin’ now.”
He had to get out of this interaction. He’d spent the last two days next to this guy, and he knew from experience this wasn’t going anywhere productive. His skin was starting to crawl. Fortunately, the train was fairly empty. He pretended to see something interesting out the window a few seats down. He sat down and turned to look out the window, acting as if he were gazing into the depths of space outside the train. He ended up just staring at the reflection of his own face - not his favorite activity. He had to squint and concentrate to ignore the streaks of light whizzing past the train at HalfLight speed. The stars strung together like Christmas lights, forming long, continuous streaks that looked like scattered white lines on black paper across the window. It had been a while since he’d seen his reflection. He saw it sometimes in base-level office windows and the polished metal walls around the skyway stations, but that was always a warped, distorted version of himself. Plus, he never really looked at his reflection. Not with any level of attention, anyway.
“Fuckin-A, kid…” he thought. “We gotta find you a razor.” He scratched at his...well, it couldn’t really be called “stubble” at this point. He turned his head from one side to the other, watching the skin slightly stretch over his high-def jawbones. “You still got it, though.” He grinned and threw a smooch at his reflection.
He eventually stopped trying to see the window and looked past it, settling down into the cushioned bench seat with a pillow under his stubble-pricked chin. The slingshot stars lulled him to sleep.
Greg was homeless, but not, like, homeless homeless. At least that’s what he told himself to keep his dopamine-deficient brain out of the Care Centers. “Care my ass,” he’d said when they first announced the program. Everyone knew what had really become of the mental health institutions over the last decade. “More like Carefully-Work-For-Free Centers.” They had gone the way of the old prison systems. Fat Pockets got fatter as they all sat around trying to figure out as many ways as possible to exploit the working class for profit. The idea for Care Centers was their golden goose. Work stressing you out? Blow up on a coworker or a customer? Looking a little worse-for-wear? Depressed? Suicidal? Lucky you! You’ve been referred to a Care Center! It’s mandatory of course, but let’s focus on what’s important here: your health and sense of purpose! You’re clearly just feeling down and unmotivated due to a lack of meaningful work and constant supervision. Come stay for a few months and we’ll take care of that. Don’t you worry! You don’t have to worry about what’s best for you when you’re with us! We know. By the time we’re done, you’ll be a whole new you! (Read: “shot full of drugs, forced into free labor, brainwashed and mentally beaten into a more pliable member of society.”)
That was the day Greg decided.
“Decided what?” you ask? Decided to shove whatever he could into a backpack and get the hell off this planet, that’s what. A handful of decades after the Unity Pact was passed, The Society eventually ran out of minorities to abuse and honed in on the mentally ill.
“Then they came for the sad saps,” he had said jokingly to a friend. “They’ll never run out of those.” But behind the jokes, Greg was scared. Like, actually scared. Scared shitless, even, which was just short of a church-legitimized miracle given his constant diet of whatever food he could dig out of the incinerators before the quick-eats torched it. He was infamous city-wide for being able to clear a room on command. But let’s get back to the important stuff.
His only problem (well, in this instance) was, you had to have a visa for interplanetary travel. Those were hard to come by. Usually, only Fat-Pockets and Society dignitaries could get them. The skyway tickets weren’t cheap either. He had been scraping together as much money as he could for years - running scams in the alleyways of Main Streeet and working the Love Booths. Those were the only places he knew of where someone with debilitating depression could walk among the living unnoticed. He lived on the bare minimum for what felt like an eternity, but eventually, he had enough for a decent counterfeit visa and a scalped skyway ticket to the closest inhab planet: Earth-2. When you live the street-life for as long as he had, you make a few connections that you’ll never regret having, regardless of what you had to do to earn them. He got his visa and the ticket on the same day, leaving just enough money left-over for a few real meals on the way. He’d have to ration it for the week-long trip. HalfLight was fast, but E-2 was hella light-days away.
Greg pulled down his ballcap to keep his eyes out of range of the scanners as he walked through the skyway boarding gates.
“VISA AND TICKET PLEASE,” bleated a metallic voice. A Care Officer stood at the entrance to the train with a verifier. Greg tried not to stare at the lethal taser at his hip. He’d seen first-hand what they were capable of, and the kind of people usually found at the business end of the “Peace-Makers”.
“OH, yeah, of course! I always forget,” Greg manufactured what he hoped was a light-hearted chuckle. He fumbled in his backpack and pulled the visa and ticket out of the side pocket, holding them out to the Care Officer. He inserted the visa into a slot on the side and held the verifier over the code-graph on Greg’s ticket. He pressed a series of buttons on the screen. One of several lights on the scanner lit up green and Greg tried to exhale without it being obvious he had been holding his breath.
“SAMPLE PLEASE,” continued the bio-bot, holding the scanner out towards him. It was a follicle deposit DNA scanner.
“Shit,” he thought. He hoped his contact had prepared for that when they coded the visa. Had he even given them a sample? He tried to keep a steady hand as he plucked a few hairs from the back of his head and placed them in the tray. It slid closed and the machine made several whirs and clicks. The seconds passed at an excruciatingly slow pace as Greg stared, unblinking, at the lights on the scanner. He could feel his blood pulsing in his neck, and he hoped it wasn’t visible. Could these things sense elevated heartrate?
The scanner made a high-pitched beeeep and the second light lit up green. A cold sweat slithered down Greg’s entire body and he fought the blackness threatening to cloud his vision.
“PROCEED.” The Care Officer stepped aside and turned to the person behind Greg. “VISA AND TICKET PLEASE.”
It took everything in Greg’s power not to sprint onto the train and hide in a luggage bay at the back. He walked as normally as he could to his designated seat, sat down, and tucked his backpack into the DNA locker beneath him. He gulped his first full breath in a while.
“The hard part’s over. You’re in the clear. Just get through this trip without incident, and we’re home-free.”
Greg was startled awake when a tin-can sounding voice murmured over the intercom.
“Now approaching Earth-2 landing site. Please gather your belongings and form a queue at the designated exits. Aggression or insolence of any kind among passengers will result in immediate deportation. Thank you for flying SkyWay Express. We care.”
“They’re gonna ‘care’ me into a black hole if I don’t get the hell off this train,” he thought. He placed his fingernail in the sensor and grabbed his backpack out of the DNA locker below his section of seating. He stared down at his hands until he stepped onto the surface of E-2, careful again not to make eye contact with anyone or anything. The fly he had swatted before buzzed past his ear into the open air. Greg followed suit. He picked a direction and started running, fast. He wasn’t entirely sure why, and he wasn’t sure where he was going, but he had a gut-clenching need to get as far away as possible from anything that was tied to Earth-Prime in any way. He still couldn't fully believe he was really free. His feet packed the pavement beneath each step as he sprinted into an alien city.