By Quentin Neroes
“Okay, lean back in the chair and relax,” says the technician, a man dressed in a white lab coat, though I could see the outline of a “Metallica” tee underneath. I guess he likes the oldies.
“So, Metallica, they were big in the late nineteen hundreds, right?” I ask, trying to be polite.
“Oh, the tee? Dude, my grandpa and I listened to them all the time! He gave this to me for my fifteenth birthday,” he says, removing his coat to give me a better view of the shirt with its black background and picture of Justice just below “Metallica” in that iconic font. He goes on and on with no end in sight about his favorite songs and how traces of them could be found in modern music even ninety years after their peak popularity. I stop paying attention almost immediately, though I keep smiling and nodding and putting in a comment that seems vaguely appropriate based on the last few words he says—I regret I’d ever opened my mouth. Leaning back, I notice the poster on the wall with a person in a chair like the one I’m in; it says, “live your dreams” in a font that I swear I saw on a poster of the latest Star Wars movie, celebrating its centennial with a huge budget film. Movie tickets are expensive as always, but still, I gotta see that.
What a cheesy poster, but here I am, trying to “live my dreams” artificially. I look into the bright white light above and feel my pupils contract at its astringency and I can’t help but wonder why the hell they need such a bright light; I’m gonna be sleeping after all. This is all too much like the goddamned dentist’s office—a pain in the ass for everyone since farming began.
I wish that I’d been born on Earth. The pictures I see on the internet make me want to try to earn enough money mining that green stuff that we get energy from, but that’ll take years—Mars years—because of the stupidly big cut the owners take of whatever we make, but that’s just how it is. We had to learn that little factoid real quick. No one will tell us what it is, just that it’s important and that it’s valuable—to be frank, I don’t give a damn; it’s easy to find, it’s pretty, and makes living here easier than it would be if we had to have energy sent here as light. We’d be shit out of luck if we did. I look out the window and see a sea of red, whirling and whirling as if there would be no end, though by the time I wake, it’ll be over. The forecast says it’ll be a whole hour till the next one, lucky me since it’ll only take me half to get home.
I often imagine what it’d be like to be swept away by a rusty maelstrom, never to return to that cramped pod.
I look up and notice that the technician has gone away somewhere, probably taking another shot of that whiskey he thinks he’s so clever hiding behind me. I’m a whiskey man, I know the smell of my malt. American corn whiskey. 2058. Aged fifteen years. Good stuff.
Damn, now I want some.
Oh, he’s back.
“Okay, now you need to drink this (don’t ask me what it is, I’m just the technician) and then count backwards from 100. This cap’ll monitor your brain so that nothing fishy happens,” he says with a tone that tells me he’s tired of doing this; it’s not my fault that I have to be in the mines from sunup to sundown, just like damn-near everyone else on this rock. As he speaks, malt flows from his breath—he didn’t mix water with his drink, the plebeian. That’s why people can’t appreciate a complex whiskey.
“Alright,” I say, and I take the somewhat largish glass of a clear substance that was thick as honey from his hand. It’s warm. Now there’s something that you just can’t seem to get often enough on this cold rock: warmth. The people are cold, the air is cold, the drinks are cold. If you’re born on the fourth rock, your body is colder too—I’ve had enough doctors examine and touch me with their hot hands to teach me that right-enough. First generation Martian here, damn straight. Ma always told me that Pa decided to fly out here when his bank failed, and his customers came for his head; he’d said once, according to her, that Mars would be the home of fools and the grave of losers; he changed his mind when it seemed he’d reach his own grave somewhat too early. Lucky for him, Mars was still pretty lawless in his time.
This stuff tastes like spit, sugar, and mud all in waves—what is this? My limbs fill with an uncomfortable warmth and my vision is becoming all pixelated and all the colors of everything seem as if a million little cones are just doing their job and my brain is making everything look as if I’ve zoomed in on some huge picture just to see a Metallica tee and a Star Wars poster in the bottom left-hand corner. Did I just piss myself? I look down to make sure I haven’t, and the technician laughs at me, saying something about that sensation being normal. Ugh.
I can’t help but think of that book Pa kept reading to me as a kid—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That book scared the shit out of me, and I don’t think it was an accident. I’m pretty sure he made Alice sound like a broken synth-tuner on purpose. I hated his voices. When I first went into those deep-down mines, I couldn’t help but compare it to going down the rabbit hole. But it always went quickly for me and nothing was strange. I guess I only made the comparison because it was darkish going down the shaft and it never seemed to end.
I saw on the internet one day, wondering what Earth was like before the Forests were erected, a tree. It was an oak, Quercus as it’s called by scientists, though why they find it worthwhile to call it something in a language that evolved into nonexistence almost 2,000 years ago is beyond me. But what do I know? I’m just a miner who only knows one book.
Apparently, before the Forests, there were large patches of Earth designated just for trees like the oak, but then they found the green stuff. My education may not have been the greatest, but I know that when new energy is found, the whole world goes bat-shit crazy. Wood, coal, oil, and then nuclear and wind and solar and waves. We—well, they—couldn’t get enough, and so, I learned, the trees were all torn up and the earth under them was mined like never before. Then, the Forests of mile-high buildings were built. King Coal looks more like a Jester now.
“Ninety-eight,” I say, and then it hits me like mother. It feels like a million little needles pricked my back all at once—no, not needles, grappling hooks. Hooks that are buried now in my skin and that are pulling with the force of a supermassive black hole; I feel that I’m falling and falling and falling into Wonderland. I don’t know when I’ll hit the bottom, I just keep falling and falling. Now I understand Alice’s impatience when she was falling. I hear a mocking voice as I gasp from the sensation.
“Don’t get lost!”
Screw that guy. I look into his eyes which are receding at the speed of light, like a screen in a dark room that I’m racing further and further away from, until all I see is darkness.
* * *
All I see is darkness.
Where am I? I can’t see! Oh. I should probably open my eyes.
“Woah,” I say. All that green. So that’s what trees look like up close. I’m surrounded by oh, so beautiful trees and grass and flowers—I never knew the grass could be beautiful! Where’s the river? I hear it, its constant rushing. There! I strip to my briefs—screw it, I’m stripping all the way down to nothing! The fresh wetness of the cold water prickles my skin and shocks my body awake, at least as awake as I can be when I’m in an induced dream. I’m shivering, so I get out and lay in the grass—softer than my bed! I empty my full lungs and look over towards the very conspicuously placed door that is supposed to by my exit back to “the real world”. More like back to hell.
I wonder what the journey here was like for the Old Bastard and Ma. Must have been terrifying. First the physical assessment that he barely passed. She did just fine. Then, the long wait, the hiding, the takeoff. A trip that lasts nearly a week and then a rough landing. Red everywhere. Red rocks, red dust, red baby. She loved me as I was, but he’d always said that I reminded him of pictures that he’d seen of some people called Indians. He was wrong, I looked them up; Indians are shades of brown, not red.
Screw it, I’m running! My long legs and flopping arms are brushed by a warm, sweet breeze that holds the pollen and scents of a thousand kinds of flowers that they somehow managed to cram into my brain, though I’d never seen or heard of them. I run, and run, and run, and run, and run and run and run. I run until I feel that I have no more breath and I near collapse on the ground. I don’t really know how far I’ve gone, just that my body took me far away from that door. I hated mining that crap anyway, why not stay here? Why not lose myself in this beautiful world without a care and without pain.
“Ouch!” Okay then, with pain—goddamned twigs.
At least it wasn’t a lash. It’s not my fault I was born on Mars. Not my fault that natural selection made its move with me and not two hundred generations later. I’m done running now. I’m free. Why should I need to run when I have this place? This vibrant place that vibrates beneath my feet; why am I just noticing that pulsation? It’s been here the whole time, hasn’t it? Badum badum—like a heartbeat. I guess I only noticed it when it changed—whatever. I collapse below a large tree that has a bunch of long thin leaves under it. These feel more comfortable than they look, and so, I sleep.
* * *
The pulsation is what wakes me. How long has it even been? Somehow the trees seem even larger than before—much larger. Let’s see… one hundred and sixty-two beats per minute—that’s odd. There’s also a sound on the air, almost… a voice? I can’t quite hear what it’s saying, but it sounds urgent and the wind is carrying it so quickly. It’s from the direction I came; I am not going back there. I run again.
There it is again, that voice. It’s closer somehow, or louder.
“Come back! You can’t stay this long, you’ll—” No! I don’t want to come back!
“Leave me alone!” I shout, looking up at the sky. I see the sun get brighter and brighter until I’m blind and feeling my way around the ground for a few seconds. Damned dentist light.
Why did I think they could hear me? Whatever. No more lash. No more mine. This is perfect. I touch the trunk of a particularly large Quercus. It’s so rough, so erect. How could wind bend a tree that’s so stiff? Amazing. I climb it. I’ll stay here for a while. The pulsation, even though it’s gotten faster now, is nearly constant, so it comforts me and lulls me to sleep.
* * *
Where is it? The Earth is still. What happened to the pulse? That’s strange. I leap from the tree and look around. Everything seems as if it’s frozen in time, as if time no longer exists. The air was still too—the grass and trees were waving in the breeze before; what happened? What the hell? Everything is so unnaturally quiet. If I speak aloud, my voice may not even reach my own ears, everything’s so still.
And then I see it. A wave of white that seems to be erasing all the beautiful trees and grass and flowers, even the river. I want to run, my legs’ muscles are tense, my ankles are ready to explode into motion, my Achilles tendons are ready, I can feel the adrenaline flooding my system, but I know it’s useless, not worth the energy, the effort, the pain. I must have stayed too long. Good. I lay down on the grass like I often did on my bed: with my hands behind my head, my mouth in a small smirk, and one leg planted and bent. I’m just waiting for the wave of white to take me too—to keep me in Wonderland forever. It’s fast. Won’t be long, but at least I’ll have understood what it is to be at ease, to be free, for once in my life.
Damn. I could really go for some good Scotch whisky right now.