A Way Out

by J.C. Piech

The corridor mimicked the Martian landscape; linoleum flecked with rusty reds and dusky pinks, and the color on the walls a dull yellow like the alien sky. Mikhail’s boots, gray like the studded metal doors flanking him on either side, sent echoes ahead of him as he marched.

Tiny green lights blinked at him from the security cameras in the ceiling, and his breathing shuddered loud in his ears. Beneath a wool jacket and nylon shirt, his back prickled with sweat. Not because of the ever-watchful green-eyed guardians; he was used to those. It was the uncertainty of whether or not they’d believe his performance.

A door clanked to the left of him, jolting his bowels. Yet the cameras saw only the slightest twitch from one corner of his mouth as he strode on. The sound of castor wheels hit the lino behind him, followed by the whirring of a cluster of vacuum bots. A cleaning lady hummed a patriotic tune as she crossed the corridor and opened the door opposite. The vacuum bots whooshed into the office, followed by the squeak of castors, and the door closed, bringing silence once more. Mikhail quickened his pace. He entered Room 24 with a swipe of his ID card and a fingerprint check.

Every room in every home and office block in the Martian settlement looked the same, more or less. Even Mikhail’s dreams played out in red, pink, and yellow. Memories from his life on Earth were now colored by a Martian tint; the greens and blues of his homeland permanently faded into desert hues.

He surveyed the office. The only extravagant item was the atmosphere-controlled aquarium in which lived a creature designed from DNA found in one of the planets frozen oceans. Mikhail walked over to the drinks machine next to it, swiped his card and ordered a coffee. As a dribble of brown liquid filled a polystyrene cup, he clasped his hands behind his back and stooped to study the small reptilian being.  They were akin to Earth chameleons, with mitten-like hands and feet, and beady eyes, each swivelling independently. They also stood upright on two legs and walked around in their cages in the same way a prisoner might pace around their cell. Mikhail had observed enough pacing humans to recognize the gait of a captive. The restlessness. The hopelessness. Yet many of the officers enjoyed keeping them as pets and proclaimed they each had unique personalities—“Like chickens do.” The creature studied Mikhail in return, its eyes melancholy as they stopped pivoting, their gaze settling onto his. Mikhail looked away, straightening up and turning his attention instead to the cold Martian desert beyond the window.

Communism had flourished here. Faced with creating a new society on an alien planet, the people were willing to be told what to do and how to do it. As advanced as Western civilization liked to think itself to be, Mikhail had witnessed just how little persuading most people needed to inform on their neighbors and friends when their own safety was believed to be at stake. There was a security in knowing that bad behavior was not permitted. Mikhail assured himself of this each morning—an assurance which gave him the strength to leave the comfort of his bed. And yet …

He glanced back at the creature briefly. It was still staring at him.

Through the window, Mikhail watched as the desert wind whipped around the complex of office buildings, sweeping dust into twirling columns which rattled the wire fences, cascading red sands across the coiled barbed wire on top, and then dissipating into nothing again. In a communications cubicle, a young man in Martian camouflage combats stood with a telephone receiver to his ear, his eyes fixed on the office window. Mikhail knew the cubicle had been out of order for some time. A fresh sweat oozed against his shirt.

Sipping his coffee, he walked over to a gray filing cabinet on the other side of the room, outwardly calm for his ever-observing audience of tiny green eyes. The Party had switched from digital records to hardcopies when it had become clear the risk of hacking was too great; it was impossible for a civilian to gain access to paper records. The compound was surrounded by guards twenty-four hours a day, and hacker intelligence was no match for bullets.

Mikhail opened the second drawer from the top and pulled out a file labelled The Spring Project—Authorized Evacuees. Taking the file to the desk, he started to leaf through the papers as if he were searching for a name. That was what the cameras would be expecting him to do. Interrogation Officers were only authorized to delete names from the list, so to cover his tracks he would have to cross someone out before writing the two names he wanted to add. For a moment his pen hesitated over the lined paper. Then, choosing a name at random, he cut through it with a line of ink—straight via practice—and was surprised by how little guilt he felt in condemning an innocent stranger to being left behind.

Now that he was here, faced with his true task of adding the names, he realized how unlikely it was that no one would notice what he was doing. The air around him began to buzz a thin whine. This act of disobedience, the anxiety he felt, shot a burst of bile along his throat. It burnt up into his nasal cavity. Swallowing it down, he scrawled the names of his teenage sweetheart and her husband, instantly raising their chances of survival from 0 to 99%. As long as he didn’t get caught, they now had a guaranteed place on the evacuation ship.

He closed the file, stood up, and walked back to the cabinet to replace it. Yet his faith in his chances of not being discovered was dwindling fast, and the thought he might have failed in saving the only person he had ever loved filled him with a self-loathing which trembled his hands. Pushing the cabinet drawer with more force than he ought, it slammed shut, the noise causing a jolt within him.

The creature in the aquarium still stared at him. Standing like an old man with its knees bent, its hunched arms dangled before it. Its mitten hands flexed uselessly; in this sterile tank there was nothing for them to do but scratch and raise food to its mouth. Its eyes begged Mikhail for something.

For a moment Mikhail forgot his own predicament and felt overwhelming sympathy for the animal; to be locked in, never allowed out of its confinement because the pressure would crush its lungs, never to feel the touch of another living being for the entirety of its existence. His mind flashed with vague thoughts; an intuition he rarely humored. Suddenly he knew why he had never liked the things: they mirrored his own life too neatly. What the creature was asking for was the same thing Mikhail had always wanted: a way out. It all became so clear to him—he wondered how he could have spent so many years not seeing it.

His ears still ringing, Mikhail grabbed a spherical metallic paper weight from the desk—a useless object in a building of sealed windows. There were so many useless objects here; items meant to make the alien settlement seem like home. To remind them all of blues and greens. But they offered little more comfort than a picture of fire to a freezing man. Like plastic fruit and cardboard cut-out silhouettes on a theatre stage, Mikhail’s surroundings seemed at once hollow and ridiculous. His audience of flashing green eyes from the ceiling demanded an act he felt incapable of reciting any longer.

The ringing in his ears stopped. In its place grew silent rage. At this system. At his part in it. The creature looked up at him as if giving its permission and Mikhail smashed the glass, devastating the controlled pressure inside. Letting the paper weight roll from his hand, Mikhail knelt beside the tank, his knees crunching into glass fragments on the carpet, and watched as the creature slumped onto its front. With a jittering hand he reached out to the creature, and the creature stretched out an arm in return, clamping its mitten hand onto Mikhail’s finger. With its final breath it made a squeaking noise; it seemed to Mikhail to have the rhythm of a ‘thank you’. A pang of envy filled him as the creature’s body became still. What bliss to be still.

The door burst open. Three officers stormed the room. Mikhail’s superior stared at the shattered glass and the paper weight, and then at the dead reptile clutching his colleague’s index finger. A range of miniscule twitches hinting anger and confusion flickered across his face before he opened his mouth.

“What the hell have you done, comrade?” he bellowed.

“I …”

“Golovanov will want your head for this!”

Images of Sapphire filled Mikhail’s mind. The only woman he had ever kissed; although she hadn’t been a woman then—just a girl. Just as he’d been only a boy; before they’d come to this place, before he’d become such a coward. In a town along the Volga River, where her name had matched the sky that day, she had kissed him, and for the briefest of moments he had felt like a whole person. He had known even then—as no more than a child—that he couldn’t hope to keep her. Yet he loved her all the same. The thought of her being left behind, of her starving to death whilst the Party members and their families flew off to join other settlements on other planets, weighed on him with a heaviness that made the air buzz again. His eyes stung with the first show of tears since his childhood.

“I …”

“What did that thing ever do to you?”

Mikhail followed his superior’s pointing finger with his eyes, and found himself looking at the creature, suddenly realizing it was the only reason the officers were here. If he hadn’t been so well trained to repress his emotions, he might’ve laughed. He might have punched the air. He might have allowed himself to swim in that same giddy joy he’d felt when Sapphire’s lips had first pressed against his.

“Nothing, comrade,” said Mikhail. “It didn’t do anything. I just wanted to set it free.”

The superior officer’s jaw slackened, but no words came. Frowning instead, he motioned to the others. They hauled Mikhail to his feet, glass shards falling from his trousers as he rose, and marched him from the office.

Tiny green lights blinked at them as they travelled along the corridor. Mikhail wasn’t afraid any more.

“I don’t understand what’s happened here,” the superior officer said as he followed behind them. “Golovanov adored that creature. You won’t survive this, Mikhail. You do realize that, don’t you?”

A bubble of pure joy rose from Mikhail’s middle, pushing its way up through his chest. At first it simply spread his lips in a smile. Then it cracked open his mouth, bursting out into a laugh, and he hung his head so that the cameras couldn’t see. His shoulders shook as laughter rippled through him.

“Mikhail,” said the officer from behind him. “There’s no use in crying. I can’t do anything about it now …”

Tears rolled down Mikhail’s nose, dripping onto the floor as he fought the unfamiliar feeling. His blurry vision cast over the linoleum. The Martian tones blended into one wretched color. Yet when he realized this may be the last time he would ever see these hateful hues—that a heaven of green and sapphire awaited him—he finally let his head fall back and he roared with laughter.

Notes …

J.C. Piech lives in southeast England with her husband and cat. Her debut novel, Don’t Be Afraid, has been likened to works by Richard Bach and Paulo Coelho. She likes to write about those unguarded moments in which the range of our humanity shines through.

When she’s not writing she enjoys learning German, playing Age of Conan, eating most foods, and reading about WW2 and Cold War history.

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