Stowaway by John Visclosky
One hundred and fifty-three days. That was how long it took to get from high Earth orbit to Venus.
It was a long time to be shut up inside a starship, even for those few on the Aeneas who had purchased first-class cabins—the kind that came with their own bathroom and even a tiny porthole, the view of the stars constantly shifting as the massive habitat rings spun slowly.
Fatima’s cabin had no porthole. Just twelve identical bunks, each with a single small cubby in which she had stuffed her spare change of clothes. If she wanted to look out at the stars, she had to go elsewhere.
Every morning, after breakfast, she went to the Observation Deck, where she sat on the same bench, looking through the large wall of clear plex as the small, scorched planet grew larger and larger. At first, the spinning of the ship’s habitat rings had made her dizzy, but now, halfway through her trip, Fatima was used to it.
“It’s beautiful. Isn’t it?” a voice asked.
Fatima looked up. A young man with light-brown skin stood on the deck next to her. He was tall and thin, with sharp features.
She looked back at the porthole and nodded.
“Hard to believe it’s still another eighty days before we get there,” the boy said. “It already looks so big.”
Fatima said nothing.
“Is this your first trip off-world?”
“Me, too. Actually, I’ve never even been on a plane. The first time I stepped foot off the ground was when I took the shuttle into orbit.”
“I’m sorry,” Fatima said, standing up from the bench. “I have to go.”
“Okay. See you later,” the youth said as she walked out through the hatch.
They had warned her not to speak to anyone. Not to tell anyone her name. Less chance of being found out that way.
Since the moment she’d stepped foot on the ship, she’d barely spoken to any of her bunkmates. She wondered how many of them were like her; how many were traveling under their real names.
The young man was there the next day when she got to the Observation Deck, sitting on her usual bench, staring out through the wall of plex. He nodded when he saw her. For a moment she thought about walking out. But she wanted to sit and look at the planet.
“It’s strange to think about it, isn’t it?” he said. “All those people living in floating cities. Never being able to go outside. I guess it’s sort of like living on a spaceship.”
Fatima said nothing.
“My name’s Marco, by the way.” He held out his hand to shake.
Fatima paused for a moment, then took it, his palm soft and warm. “Eshe,” she said.
The boy smiled. “Eshe. It’s nice to meet you.”
She had gone to stay with her uncle in Nairobi. That was how it had all started.
By then the drought was in its seventh year, the hills dry and cracked like plaster, the cows—where there were any left—thin and starving.
She’d gone to Nairobi to interview for a teaching position only to be told, once she’d gotten there, that the position had been eliminated. Not enough money. The woman who told her had seemed firm but apologetic. She took the bus to her uncle’s apartment, ready to give up.
“There may be something I can do,” he said, as they sat together at his kitchen table. “I know a man, someone who can get you to Venus.”
Fatima stared at him, not believing.
Venus. It had seemed so far. One hundred and sixty-two million miles from everyone and everything she had ever known.
She’d read about it, of course, like everyone else. The newsfeeds all called it ‘the paradise planet.’ It had just overtaken Mars as the fastest growing settlement in the solar system. The people there lived in floating cities, mining the surface for precious metals.
She knew that Venus was not like Earth. On Venus, there was still work. It was a planet with a future, where even a girl from a dusty village could be whatever she wanted.
“How?” Fatima asked. “I thought the waiting period for citizenship was at least six years.”
“He has a few friends in Interplanetary Migration. They can get you a new implant with a new identity. Then, once you get there, they set you up with an apartment and a job.”
Fatima thought. It all sounded so risky; too many chances for her to get caught.
“How much does it cost?”
Her uncle looked down. “Fifty thousand credits. Half now, half when you arrive.”
It had taken her three years to save enough.
Now, as she lay in bed, listening to her bunkmates snore, Fatima traced the faint scar on her palm where they had injected the counterfeit implant.
She lay in Marco’s bunk, her hand on his bare stomach, listening to him talk. Over these last weeks she had learned that Marco liked to talk, which was good, since Fatima did not.
“—and after my mom died, my cousin messaged me and said he’d pay for me to come to Venus and work with him in one of the surface-mining factories. What are you going to do when we get there?”
“I don’t know,” Fatima said. “I’d like to be a teacher, if I can.”
“You’d be a great teacher,” Marco said. “You read more than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Fatima smiled, pulling him closer. Over these weeks she had also learned that Marco was good at giving her compliments.
“What do you think it’ll be like, living in the clouds?” he asked. “You think we’ll be able to feel the city moving around us?”
Fatima smiled as she pictured the floating cities in her mind.
The pressure and temperature on the surface of Venus were too high to support human life, so the original colonists had settled in the skies, where the pressure was only one atmosphere—the same as on Earth’s surface. They lived in floating cities that drifted along on the wind like zeppelins. Each of the massive spherical habitats was held up by a ring of silver solar balloons. In the pictures they had looked like pearls, shining in a sea of yellow clouds.
“I don’t think so,” Fatima said. “I think it’ll be like living on Earth. You can’t feel the planet moving because your body is moving at the same speed as the ground.”
“Oh yeah, of course,” Marco said.
“Don’t worry,” Fatima said, rolling on top of him. “After I become a teacher, you can take my ‘Physics For Idiots’ class.”
Marco laughed, pulling her face down to his.
Fatima sat on the Observation Deck, holding tight to Marco’s hand. The planet before them had grown larger and larger, until it had come to fill the entire window.
“You nervous?” he asked.
“A little,” she said.
“Me too.” She could feel his hand squeeze harder.
“At least we’ll both know one person.”
“That’s true,” Marco said, and smiled.
They took a shuttle down to the city, the trip brief and bumpy. Standing in line for Immigration, Fatima was suddenly nervous. What if the implant in her hand didn’t work? What if it triggered some kind of alarm?
She reached the end of the line and the man standing behind the counter told her to place her palm on the scanner. She laid her hand on the square panel, trying to keep her fingers from shaking.
After a moment, it chimed and turned green, and the customs officer waved her through.
She left Marco at the shuttle dock entrance, promising to meet him the next morning for breakfast. He kissed her and walked off, vanishing into the crowd of travelers.
There was a man waiting for her at the doors of the city. Fatima recognized him from the picture they had sent her. He was bald and stocky with pale skin, hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket.
He led her through the city without speaking, through a long maze of decks and hallways. At last, he stopped at a door, passing his palm over the square panel on the wall. The panel pinged and the door slid open. Fatima’s escort motioned her in.
She stepped into a large apartment with windows that looked out over the clouds. A gray-haired woman in her late fifties stood sipping coffee in the kitchen. Another man sat on a couch next to the window, bent over a metal tray filled with surgical instruments.
“What’s going on?” Fatima asked, taking a step back.
Her escort grabbed her by the arm, then pushed her roughly to sit on the couch. He held her still as the second man picked up a needle, injecting her arm with some kind of fluid.
Then Fatima sat and watched in horror as he cut the new implant out of her palm.
As Fatima sat, watching the man sew and clean the cut in her hand, the other man stood and explained what was happening.
The fifty thousand credits she’d paid was only enough to cover the cost of her implant. The trip itself would cost extra.
To pay off her debt, she would have to work for the older woman as a live-in domestic servant. Without an implant in her hand, she wouldn’t be able to leave the apartment.
Even if she somehow managed to get out, she would be stranded without an implant, unable to go anywhere in the city. It wouldn’t take long for her to be discovered and deported back to Earth.
She had to work for seven years. If she worked hard and didn’t cause any problems, she would be given a new implant and left to make her own way.
Seven years. Fatima would be nearly thirty-three.
She wondered if her uncle back home had known what these men were planning to do with her. Had he truly thought they were going to help her, or had he known all along what would happen? Were there other girls like her, others who had trusted him?
She wondered if he had been paid, wondered how much he had gotten.
How much had seven years of Fatima’s life been worth to him?
That night she lay in bed, looking out at the darkened clouds. She wished that Venus had a moon. She missed seeing one in the night sky.
Seven years. Two thousand five hundred and fifty-five days. It was a long time to be made a slave.
Fatima looked out the window and thought about Marco.
Would he wonder what had happened to her when she failed to appear the next morning? Would he try to find her? Or would he simply assume that she no longer wanted to see him?
Lying there in the dark—alone for her first night on a new planet—Fatima wished she had told him her real name. Then at least he would miss her and not Eshe.
John Visclosky is a writer and aspiring ex-lawyer living in Washington, D.C. His greatest accomplishment continues to be convincing his wife to marry him. He can be found on Twitter or his podcast’s Twitter (Not-So-True Crime).