Fictionista, Foodie, Feline-lover

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Stowaway--a short story inspired by Poe

This story was inspired by Bete Noire Magazine's call for submissions for their In Poe's Shadow anthology.


P. Ross Spero saw it coming. The economic collapse. The failure of the infrastructure. The extreme weather events due to global warming. The pandemics emerging from deforested land. The water wars.

He saw it all coming when everyone else turned their heads in denial.
While the pundits pontificated and the politicians waffled and the aid workers and the doctors and the military were overwhelmed by quantum disasters, P. Ross Spero analyzed and planned and took action.

When he began building the space ship, his escape vehicle from planet Earth, people called him paranoid and they laughed at him. People who had made fortunes investing in his companies—the robo-tech and bleeding-edge genetics and the nano-everything—wondered if Spero had lost his mind.

Two years into what he called “the Prospero Project,” people weren’t jeering any more. What had looked like eccentricity, even madness, now looked like prescience.

The space ark only had room for 1000 people and there was a waiting list of 8000, all of whom had put down a non-refundable payment of two million dollars to assure their place in the queue.

Spero had hand-picked 150 of the passengers—people he thought would be useful in establishing his new colony on Mars. There were male-female pairs of scientists and farmers and engineers and doctors, teachers and construction workers. He even had two attorneys, one a specialist in family law, the other with expertise in contracts.

Spero had selected another 50 people to propagate the arts—musicians and dancers, actors and novelists, poets and painters and artisans. They, like the other “experts,” got what amounted to a “golden ticket” for the ride.

The fee for their passage was minimal—a mere $1500. Three women, all of them beauty queens, none of them older than 21, were offered totally free passage in return for agreements granting Spero exclusive sexual rights for a period of ten years.

Spero was not an ugly man and he was known to be a generous lover, so the three women eagerly signed on, packing sexy underwear in the small duffel bags they were allowed to bring onboard.

None of these “economy class” passengers were gay. Spero only wanted colonists who would procreate and populate his new domain. He made a few exceptions for First Class passengers, but only for a price and only for a few.

The ship was mostly automated, run by an extremely complex computer program overseen by a flight crew of 10 recruited from the remnants of NASA and eight other decimated space programs.

The five-man security team was all ex-military and all had proven themselves under fire.

The crew members counted themselves lucky. Not only were they not being charged for their passage to Mars, they were being paid for their work.
Their jobs also came with a guarantee of their own homestead. The ship’s co-pilot had already made a connection with a cute history teacher and was happily planning her post-voyage life.

The paying passengers had all forked over a hefty price for their cramped berths and uncomfortable quarters. Used to luxury and excess, they now gladly shared tiny cabins and drank recycled water and ate food that was reclaimed from their body waste.

The journey to Mars was not a pleasure cruise. Although Spero had insisted on psychological as well as medical screens for all prospective passengers, there were inevitably some problems.

Most of the passengers suffered from a mild form of claustrophobia. The ship’s doctor prescribed drugs and sessions on the huge observation deck where the giant window offered a view that seemed to encompass the whole galaxy.

That worked for most people but halfway through the voyage, a software engineer from Bangalore had tried to break through the observation deck window with an explosive device cobbled together out of cleaning products and leftover electrical parts.

When security arrived, he fled to the maintenance bay, managed to open a garbage chute, and ejected himself into space.

Part of his boot lodged in the airlock as it hissed shut, amputating Sunil’s left foot above the ankle. The two men who witnessed his death--a former Navy SEAL and an ex-SAS officer—had seen much worse but were still unnerved.
They’d reported the incident in the driest possible military jargon and then sneaked a couple of hits of bootleg booze the ship’s doctor was brewing in sick bay.

Spero, loved jargon. Throwing it around made him feel manly. Almost from the start of the journey, he’d taken to wearing custom-fitted quasi-military garb that made him look like a Third World dictator.

Nobody told him that though. No one wanted to risk igniting his increasingly volatile temper.

Spero’s always larger-than-life personality had begun to decay into something more disturbing. He spent hours on his computer, designing and redesigning the cities he planned to build on Mars after his terra-forming machines had done their work so the atmosphere would support life on the surface of the planet.

He described his architectural style as “future Gothic,” and thought that was a good thing.

The architects he’d brought along to implement his plans soon agreed that his grandiose schemes were just one symptom of his growing mania and made comparisons to the monumental architectural monstrosities designed by Albert Speer for Adolf Hitler.

They were careful not to express these opinions out loud, or even in whispers. The ship was wired with audio and video devices and the feeds all came into Spero’s private quarters.

The Prospero used a high-transfer orbit, burning fuel recklessly to shorten the transit time from the Earth to Mars, cutting the voyage’s duration to 130 days, half the time a more conservative route would have taken.

Even so, two and a third months crammed together in such close quarters is a very, very long time for people who are not used to suffering silently; a long and stressful time. There were no servants aboard the Prospero, no under-class assigned to cater to the passengers’ whims and fancies.
Tempers flared.

There were suspicious accidents, falls in the artificial gravity that should have been survivable but weren’t, incidents with tools slipping and mechanical failures that looked more like sabotage.

When the first murder occurred, Spero and his security team dealt with it discreetly, drugging the killer before dumping him out like so much refuse. He’d still been alive.

But not for long.

When the second murder occurred, a fight over a woman, Spero took more forceful action. He told his security men to film the execution and beam it to every device aboard the ship.

He ordered them to make the punishment messy and memorable.
They obliged.

The accused killer was locked inside an airlock while the oxygen was replaced by a vacuum. The result was viscerally impressive.

The lawyers had argued for a trial but Spero had already decided that his new colony would be a monarchy and the operative legal system would be the Napoleonic Code.

In other words, guilty until proven innocent.

Not everyone was happy with this decision, but since the only weapons aboard the ship were in the hands of Spero’s loyal security team, there were few objections to the policy.

Some of the passengers briefly considered rebellion, but they were of a class that had always paid others to fight their wars for them and they had no idea how to go about it themselves.

It was almost as if they had had violence bred out of them.
Still, resentment simmered just below the surface.

When the red planet first appeared in the observation window, visible to the naked eye, a palpable sense of relief spread through the ship.
What the passengers didn’t know, and what Spero hadn’t told them, was that there was no margin for error on landing. They’d sacrificed so much fuel for speed that if they missed their landing, there would be no go-around.
Fortunately, the landing was textbook. There was a jolt and a shudder and that was it. It was almost an anti-climax.

In celebration of their arrival, Spero threw a party. He produced a secret stash of liquor and freeze-dried meats and fruits, candies and confections, and all manner of delicacies for the new colonists to feast upon.
He encouraged the passengers to dress up for the fĂȘte, which was held on the observation deck.

The shutters on the window were wide open, providing all a fine view of the Martian landscape.

Spero even opened up his own suite of apartments, including his inner sanctum, a black-draped bedroom that had a window overlooking the red rocks of their new home. As the sun set on the rocks, it cast a bloody light into the room, giving everything a macabre glow.

While the other passengers had been granted limited luggage, Spero had furnished his suite lavishly with antiques and treasures. All of the furniture, including an exquisite 19th century clock, was made of a black hardwood that was long-since extinct.

His bedroom was luxurious in the extreme but not many wanted to spend more than a few minutes there.

There was something…vaguely repellant…about the over-the-top opulence of Spero’s quarters. Something just a little…sick. Spero’s guests took a quick tour and then retreated to the festivities on the observation deck
The party was a welcome relief for the passengers after so much austerity.
One of the musicians wrote a piece to commemorate the landing and dubbed it “Spero’s Symphony.” Artists endeared themselves to the celebrants by improvising masks both fantastical and grotesque for the party.

The wine and liquor flowed freely and inhibitions were shed just as freely. One of the wealthier passengers, an entrepreneur who’d made a fortune as an electronics recycler in Korea, hooked up with the flight engineer and retired to the ship’s library, which had been painted a soothing blue.

A performance artist and a computer programmer joined forces to produce a holographic puppet show of such stunning invention that they set it on a loop so everyone in the room could have a chance to experience it.

There was dancing and singing and all manner of unrestrained revelry.
In fact, everyone was having such a good time that when two security men dragged in the tall gaunt figure wearing the oxygen mask, at first no one even noticed.

“Stowaway,” the security men reported to Spero, who was more amused than annoyed.

He strolled up to the figure and smiled.

“Welcome to Mars,” he said. “You owe me $50 million for your ticket.”
A few of Spero’s sycophants laughed.
The security men did not.

“Don’t get too close,” the ex-SEAL warned but Spero had been drinking for hours and had lost all sense of situational awareness.

It came as a total surprise to him when the Stowaway suddenly lunged and plunged a small knife into his belly.

Spero fell to the deck, blood pumping from the wound.

The two security men fell on the Stowaway, wrenching off the oxygen mask to get a look at his face.

What they saw made them recoil.

Blood covered his face in Rorschach-like patches.

“Oh my God,” said one of the First Class passengers. “What is that?”
“Looks like some sort of Zaire-Ebola-Marburg strain,” said the ship’s doctor who’d had a whole lot of champagne too. “Nasty stuff. You bleed out of pores.”
She finished off her champagne in one swallow.
“Is it contagious?” the passenger asked.

“Oh yes,” said the doctor, caught in a drunken space between fatalism and dark humor, “close personal contact is one way it spreads.”
She peered at the Stowaway blearily, watching closely as he struggled to shake off his captors.

“It has a one-hundred percent mortality rate,” the doctor added helpfully.
The horrified passenger backed away from the doctor, turned around and ran for the door.

The Stowaway spat in the faces of the men who held him and they let him loose and didn’t follow as he began a circuit of the huge room. It was almost as if he were herding everyone to the exits, like a rancher urging cattle into a chute leading to the slaughter house.

The exodus was not orderly; it was more like a battlefield rout.
One of the lawyers was trampled by the panicked passengers when he fell against a door. The only person who turned back to help him was an agronomist who had successfully concealed his sexual preference.

The first colonists died within two hours, bleeding from every orifice in their bodies.

A media magnate attempted to leave the ship in an environmental suit but with no shelter from the extremes of heat and cold and the too-thin atmosphere, he was dead before sunrise.

He died bloody, his face a mask of red.

The fatalistic doctor was the last to die. She had stayed on the observation deck, toasting her impending doom with the last of Spero’s very good champagne.

When the electricity went out she was glad because it meant she wouldn’t have to look at her own blood leaking out of her pores.
She didn’t notice when the heating grid failed and it began to get cold. Her body was already beginning to shut down.

Hearing is the last sense to fade and so the doctor heard Spero’s ebony clock strike twelve. It took her a moment to realize the clock was still working because it was an analogue timepiece and not digital. Soon after that, the doctor was no longer capable of rational thought.

And soon after that she died in the cold and the dark with nothing but death as her companion.

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