Just beyond the stratosphere, there’s a rattle. It’s not so severe that cups of Oolong tea spill and slosh onto Venetian tile floors. It’s not an earthquake quiver or the shimmy of sandy pellets in a feed processing plant. But it’s distinctive, almost irreverent, like a shudder when you awaken from a nightmare. Which is exactly what I’ve just done.
I dig into my eyelids with rough, almost painful fingertips. What is that? Super glue? Epoxy? Paint? I shift my hand and use the backs of my knuckles to wrest the sleep crystals from my quivering skin shields.
“Owww…” My voice is hollow, like a reverberation in a fathoms-deep submarine. My throat feels like 150 grit sandpaper, and I gulp saliva down its corridors to staunch the billowing waves of nausea that swirl and threaten to boil over.
I fail. They say you know you’re in low atmosphere when everything around you seems to float weightless in the air. But I would argue that a brownish green stream of bile floating past your nose is an equally transparent indication of your current gravity-free situation.
I duck under the gelatinous flotsam and slide across the cabin to the other stark white bench. It feels strangely familiar. Like hours were spent in this same upright position pondering this very circumstance. What would it feel like? Would anybody else be up there with me? Would I be scared? Would anyone miss me?
But then I think back to how I got here, and my mind is blank. Like alien abduction, identity wiped off Google, post car crash amnesia blank. I run a quick, physical inventory. Minor bruising in the anterior sacrospinalis. Sacro—what? How did I know that? Light perturbation between the 4th and 5th vertebrae. Is that an injection site? Phllebitis or blued veins on right upper forearm. That is definitely an injection site.
Across the strangely vacant room, the bile hovers, mocking my memory loss with jiggling glee.
“Fuck you, bile.” I mutter. Strange, there’s some kind of accent there. British? I try it on... “good afternoon, my good sir.” No, not British. “g’day mate. Throw a shrimp on the barbie.” No, not Australian. “take off hoser...eh.” Not Canadian. Hmmm...not really important either. I mean, seriously, here I am worried about accent origins and I’m nearly weightless in some stark white capsule hurtling through the remnants of the atmosphere like a goddamn test pilot....
“Wait, is that it? Am I a test pilot? Am I…a space monkey?” I’m thinking out loud now. First sign of space madness...I think? “What the hell do you know anyway? Stupid human.” I shout at myself and then shudder with the implications. Time to keep the voices inside my head.
I tentatively put my booted foot down on the hull of whatever vessel I’m in. It doesn’t float up. It just kind of hovers like I’m standing on a skateboard or old pair of lace up roller skates. I lower the other foot and then stand up. I wobble back and forth before crashing back down to the bench.
Low gravity-1, Alexi-nil. “Wait, my name is Alexi?” Sounds right in the mouth. I murmur it out loud again... “A...lex...I” Must be right? Yes? I accept it for now, but focus again on baby’s first low gravity steps.
One foot down. Then the other. Then stand. My knees almost buckle again, but with effort and a tight grip on the overhead rail, I’m up. When I can finally get my waist to straighten, I find that I’m hovering nearly 4 inches off the corridor floor. Strange. I turn toward what appears to be a hatch on the far wall. I shuffle like an octogenarian in a crowded buffet across the stark white floor and grab the door with an iron clutch. I can see through a porthole into another corridor beyond. Empty.
My breathing is short, choppy. I feel my chest heaving. The atmosphere must be thin, or composed of something else, a vapor or maybe some new concoction, space gas? As I stand pondering the raspy breaths I’m choking down, I absently turn the lever and all hell breaks loose!
As a child, did you ever climb up atop one of those inflatable mattresses and pull the plug just to feel the sudden sensation of deflation and rushing air? Perhaps you climbed aboard a bouncy castle that was ripped to shreds in gale force winds like I did in southern Texas when I was 12? Regardless, you must remember the sensation of a restroom hair dryer, the blast of lukewarm air, and the sudden sensation of spatter. In this moment of genius, in fact, the very moment in which I turn the handle counter-clockwise and hear that inner door seal rip, I am suddenly able to recall a vast wealth of life lessons and warnings, all of which echo the same phrase in my head. “Oh, shit.”
Like the tattered remnants of that bouncy castle, I am sucked furiously into the sterile corridor, my legs leading, my arms flailing, the breath immediately squelched from my lungs. I am hovering and flying like superman in reverse as I watched the corridor spill past and my once-safe cubicle retreats rapidly into the distance. I try to press my arms to either side to slow my momentum, but the slick, icy sluice keeps me sliding, arms flapping, legs askew as it ushers me towards something I can’t quite make out at the end of the tunnel.
I start to find my groove about halfway down the corridor. I swim through the air like an Olympic champion, wholly ignorant of the impending terminus or its composition. With my head stabilized by some anterior forces, I can vaguely glimpse the many doors and portholes that flit by my careening form. At every third or fourth bulkhead, I can’t be sure of the count, I recognize a long vertical stanchion that seems to support the frame of the narrow, horizontal tube.
As I continue to rocket ahead unabated, I suddenly have the sense of something closing in quickly, like a vision of a grizzly hundreds of yards away that, in its rage, decides to charge across the meadow. This large, brownish form seems to loom in the distance, an amorphous blob that twists and writhes in my hazy, vertigo vision.
I look left and right, the air rushing by as I feel my eyelids flutter. The walls are smooth but for the central stanchions at each juncture, and I test their durability and my strength of will by reaching. I feel my fingers grab on momentarily and then slip free from each knobby arc. Beyond my toes, the brown blob is shifting, almost clarifying in form as I hurtle closer, my toes pointing towards impact. I stretch out again for any type of handhold, feel the hard thump of metal against my right hand, and then feel my body slip away. I am still falling, or sliding, or whatever happens in low gravity sluices, but the movement is slightly slower now.
As the next stanchion looms, I reach out both arms and feel thumps against each hand. My movement slows significantly, and I can see lines and colors in the form beyond my legs. I squint my eyes, just making out a flowing crop of light brown hair, thick bushy eyebrows, a pale, Nordic face, and blue collared shirt. I am still moving, but much slower now, and I feel pressure on my shoulders, as though an invisible force is weighing me down, forcing me toward the figure in the distance. As I grow closer, the colors and lines clarify even more, and now I can see the hazy span of words, a bright white logo, and on that blue shirt, a well-known brand.
“Oh my god!” I exclaim to no one as my toes reach the end of the corridor and I stand upright on the ghostly face below me. This is not just some guy, some advertisement or random product placement. This is him. This is the whole reason I am here.
And as if struck by jolts of electricity, my mind flares and recognition seethes within.
“It’s fucking Elon Musk!” I shout. And then I shudder. My flesh pebbles over, the hairs on my neck stand on end. I stare back up the long corridor unable to discern whether I am looking up or down.
I know where I am. And as exciting as the knowing might be, the implications are far too disastrous to allow me any time to embrace the significance.
“I’m on the train! OMG, I’m on the goddamn train!” I squint down and look at the Tesla logo splayed across the collar of the magnate’s blue shirt. Then I look at the tagline plastered over his head
“Welcome to the Mars Express.”
This is actually it, THE Mars Express. “Unbelievable.” I whisper. Then I slap myself a couple of times just to be sure, but in my gut, I know for certain that this is not a dream. I am, in fact, slowly being pressed down into the full color portrait of humanity’s presiding lord and savior, the Musk, himself! The first waking image I have after suddenly coming to in this low-gravity nightmare is of the man who put me here? “Are you serious,” I shout into the emptiness.
What a Dick!
The fog that was swirling just inside my cranium seems to lift, like pressing your face hard against a frosted over window in February and seeing the warmth melt away the ice crystals. I suddenly remember the online application. It was simple, just two questions:
Question 1: Do you want to get away?
My Answer: Um, hell yes!
Question 2: Would anybody miss you?
My Answer: Nope.
That is it? Really? Those two questions decided my fate and put me on this one-way train to Mars? Then I think about the How and the When and the Why…and things start to get a little clearer.
The How: I remember a black vehicle like an Escalade or a Suburban pulling up in front of my three square acres of bliss just outside of Houston, Texas. I remember a goon squad of black-clad clones leaping out of the doors, stomping across the gravel, and pounding on my door. Then I remember opening said door with shotgun in hand and declaring my rights as a sovereign citizen of the goddamn US of A. Then I remember the prick to the back of my neck. Like a mosquito, sharp and quick. Then blackness.
The When: Long after Covid and just before the global famine, I remember watching a special on TokClock, the newest social media spinoff with 30-second “News Before You Snooze” segments. It featured a svelte young female reporter in a thin, vinyl skinsuit with a long boom microphone that stuck through the privacy cage outside of the Musk Imperial Palace and Compound for Peace. His royal emperor himself was on the other side of the steel dressed in his ceremonial whites: White suit, white tie, white shoes, opaque white monocle. What a douche.
“Esteemed Emperor Musk, can you tell us about your latest plan to save the planet?”
“Thank you X71F45, we started with rockets and the hyperloop, now we are combining them to form the Hypertunnel, a single-car, self-unravelling tube from Earth to Mars.”
“Self-unravelling? What does that mean?”
“Imagine a flat hose rolled up on a spool. Now hold down on one end and add water. That spool begins to unravel. If we calculate the distance appropriately, then we have a massive spool with a circumference larger than the Burj Dubai that has the linear potential to reach from our facility here in Texas all the way to Mars.”
“Couldn’t you just use rockets.”
“Seriously? Who is this idiot? Jackson583, please escort X71F45 off of the premises and get me someone with some intelligent questions.”
The Why: After the interview, there was widespread interest in the idea. I remember several lively debates before the Supreme Council of National Unions, not to be confused with the United Nations. Different assholes. Musk’s position was one of dire simplicity:
Musk: “We need this.”
The Council, on the other hand, did not agree.
Council: “No, we do not. We need food.”
Musk: “Then we need this.”
Argument over. When you hold 98% of the world’s wealth and all of its energy producing means, there is not a lot of room for argument. So, quickly after, there was the press release:
“Now Hiring Intrepid Voyagers for Exciting Travel Opportunity.”
And my application.
And then the goon squad.
And then…what? My head is still fuzzy, and I feel like I am dangerously close to losing consciousness. There is a tremendous pressure on my body, like a weight is pressing inward from the back of the train, an artificial gravity of sorts. I am still weightless, I can feel it when I raise each arm and let them hover before they are crushed back down to my sides. But there is something else, like a heavy blanket that keeps tightening over my chest, pressing me into the internal atmosphere of the pod. I need to get off of this grandiose advertisement to His Royal Sepulcher and figure out what’s next.
I find that if I position one foot against the outermost bulkhead, there is sufficient purchase to create forward momentum. Then, reaching out with my right arm, I can grab ahold of each of the sweeping stanchions as they pass alongside me, creating a pulling motion that is akin to slow cross-country skiing or swimming in thick swampy sludge. Ahead, there is one door rimmed with a bright red oval. Red means emergency, right? Or at least utility, and that would give me an idea of what I’m working with.
Moving along the corridor, I am confronted with a sudden wave of vertigo and a rush of nausea bubbles along my lower intestines, threatening to unleash another surge of gelatinous bile into the atmosphere. I reach up and clench my lips closed, holding tight to the smooth upper and lower surfaces. “Strange,” I mutter out loud, “Didn’t I have a beard?” I did have a beard. A full, glorious beard that glistened like amber resin in the setting Texas sun. I turn my head to glare down at Musk’s smug portrait.
“You took that from me too? You asshole!!” No sooner are the words out than a long putrid stream exhausts from deep inside my esophagus and winds its way down along the tunnel before splattering across the face of my newly minted nemesis. “Ha ha!” I exclaim. “How’s that for perfection, you pretentious prick!” He must be, right? Even though I’ve never met the man, who else but an arrogant narcissist would secret a sovereign citizen away from his stately three acres in central Texas, shove him into a white monkey suit and blast him off across millions of miles to Mars? Who else but Musk?
The red-rimmed door is near, and I lurch forward once more, gripping the red outer handle with a quivering left hand as I prepare to twist and hurl myself inside. I bear down hard, wrenching at the fire-engine red steel. Nothing. It doesn’t budge an inch. I grab with both hands and put my feet against the door, twisting as I pull back straining against the centrifugal forces of the tube. As I twist and grunt, my body rotates a full 180-degrees, and I am staring back down at Musk’s spew-spattered face. An anger rises now, and I grip the handle with greater intention, turning relentlessly as I rotate around like a twisting Astro-top in mid-flight. It gives now, just a little, but it’s enough. The momentum creates the force I needed to shift the tide in my favor, and I feel the porthole shimmy as the pressures of the tube threaten the airlock beyond.
With a whoosh, the door opens, and I am sucked inside. It closes so quickly behind me that I have to check my fingers to make sure they are all still attached. The edges of my sleeve are frayed, and pieces of some space age fabric are stuck between the door and the circular jamb. But I’m inside and out of the tunnel.
I catch my breath and float around aimlessly for a minute, staring at all the knobs and buttons and schematics that blanket the domed walls and ceiling of the pod. It looks like the panels used at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, and I secretly hope that this is not a meltdown type of situation. I see a long thin tray that seems to be anchored to one side of the wall. Two wing flaps are secured in place by two heavy buckles. They release easily and as if magic, a pilot’s seat inflates and materializes before my eyes. It’s stark white, filled with air, and as I settle into its folds, comfy as hell! I pull two white straps over my shoulders and immediately embrace the stability and security of my new command center.
With a clear point of reference, I focus my vision and start inspecting the panels in front of me. There is a map of what looks to be a long, white, multi-compartment train. There is a red X near the front with a needless indicator of “You are Here” typed in Sans Serif font, of all things, underneath. You would think they could have at least used Comic Sans or something more formal like Baskerville or even, god forbid, Times New Roman? Come on space team!
My mind is fuzzy, but I can vaguely remember the advertisements now that had spewed across the TokClock news, the public service announcements, the great fanfare surrounding this evolution of Musk’s grossly inadequate Hyperloop. This new version involves a narrow central capsule that is launched along ahead of waves of compressed gravity through the vacuum of space, unfolding this massive, elongated tunnel as it targets the far-off reaches of Mars.
“But what the hell do you do when you get there?” I wonder. “And how long will it take?” I am growing concerned. I cannot see outside, but judging from the little white train-like form on the visual readout, I haven’t even reached the Moon. I have no idea how long I’ve been onboard or how much longer this trip is supposed to take. So, I do the only thing I can think of in a situation like this where the uncertain is far too palpable and frightening, I start pushing buttons.
Twenty minutes later, I’m still confused, but I’ve started to figure a few things out. First of all, the numbers counting down are some form of terminal clock. It’s like a doomsday counter with X’s and Y’s and upside-down numbers, something to be expected from His Royal Pain in My Ass, Musk. But, there is a clear sequence, and the digits are slowly reducing in size. There are several cupboards within the pod that I am currently in that hold variations of freeze-dried space food. There is also a waste collection station, so no more floating flotsam.
And there is a viewscreen. It is positioned at the front of the spool and looks downward at the rear of the train. It is a long, white tube. It is brilliant against the emptiness of space. In the distance, retreating far more slowly than I would expect, is Earth. It is large, round (sorry flat earthers), and absolutely stunning. There is a long, white tube jutting off of the surface that runs up behind this high-speed contraption upon which I am currently the sole resident.
I don’t know how long this journey is supposed to take. I also don’t know what to do when I arrive. But I do know that for now, I am still breathing, still in relatively good health, and still hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds as I forge a mission to save mankind from its own stupidity.
It is the first, and perhaps, the last Train to Mars.
And I am its unwilling passenger.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!