Welcome to Mars

The space race. I guess it all started at the end of the 21st century; at least that's what I can gather from the old archive files. Of course, mankind had blasted itself into the great unknown as early as the 1960's, but after we ran out of money, resources and, quite frankly, balls, it all seemed to peter out. A glorious achievement reduced to cutbacks, closed departments and museums filled with relics of that first great stretching of our limbs into nothingness.

And so it remained, the occasional foray into the outer atmosphere for a jolly on the space station, or a few laps of the globe in the name of science, but no real development; or so we all thought. It wasn't until it became apparent to even the most steadfast conspiracy denier that, as a race, we had once and for all finally outgrown our kindergarten. We had raped, plundered and looted anything of value from our precious planets soils, had choked its clean air with our vile pollution and had desecrated every last square inch of its surface with our presence. Something had to give. Something had to go. As it turned out, that something was us.

Who would have thought that, contrary to popular belief, NASA hadn't shut the doors for development after all? Highly secretive departments populated by highly secretive men and women had been beavering away in highly secretive underground lairs for the best part of the century and for why? Because the Americans knew all too well that the intrinsic greed born in every member of the developed world would one day cause our own downfall. Luckily for them that, by the time something had to give, they got their eureka moment.

And so, in the early 2110's the colonisation of Mars had begun. How well we all memorised the names of those valiant pioneers; Atkinson, Holloway, Grieg, Hajnovic, Collins and Larkson as they were flung into the great unknown. The brand new shuttle looked disappointingly like the old one, but the engines were the interesting bit. Thanks to the boffins in lab coats, the shuttle, named the Copernicus (I have no idea why, I can only assume all the cool names had been taken), could cover the 62 million kilometres in little under a month. Forget the reality TV shows and soap operas, still popular after all those years, it was the regular updates from Copernicus we all tuned into and discussed ad infinitum over the bar counters and water coolers up and down the country for that entire month, even though after the first euphoria of passing the moons orbit and becoming the furthest humans from earth, very little happened, at least nothing that the general public were made aware of, until the 29th April 2111 when Copernicus broke through Mars' atmosphere and gently lay itself down on the red soil, resting after so long a journey. I had been 5 years old.

When I look back on the intervening years it is with a sense of confusion. Memory mixes with TV reports and newspaper articles with hearsay and random conversations mixed in for good measure. The 6 solarnaughts, as they became known, began setting up the first colony, quickly followed by another mission from earth. The second shuttle of solarnaughts I can't quite remember the names of, mainly as the news of the time was full of the details of Collins' death. He had been operating a drill, searching for minerals, when the equipment failed and exploded, shattering his face plate. He choked on Mars' poisonous air, the first man to die on Mars.

However, Mission to Mars recovered quickly, and following half a dozen further shuttle missions, it was announced that Hajnovic was pregnant. Within 4 years a colony of 74 people called Mars their home, including Luna, the first human to be born on Mars. Of course, with technology moving ever forward, as it tends to, and necessity being the mother of invention, the drive to better space travel never slept. All looked peaceful on Mars, but on Earth it was another story. Frantic industry sprung up around the globe to keep up with the demand for colonists and the inevitable technology necessary for them to arrive and survive the hostile conditions. As if in sympathy for the panicked workload the earth had taken on itself, storms and tornadoes ravaged our planet, and earthquakes struck all too frequently. We all remember the day San Francisco was hit and destroyed. The religious nutters muttered that God was angry we had broken free of our Garden of Eden, but it sure didn't look like paradise to me.

I was lucky enough to find myself born and raised in England, Yorkshire to be precise, and thankfully those green dales were earthquake free, for the time being. It was pretty much the least developed area in Britain at the time which, now, seems like heaven, but to a sulky teenager watching the metropolis of London grow into an exciting space port and land of opportunity, seemed like a prison. I fled paradise and tried establishing myself as an adventurer in our capital city, although the only squalor I could afford to call home was a good 30 minute taxipod flight into the centre of the old Docklands area, now known as Zone 4. To a simple country boy it was overwhelming. Words cannot express how daunting it all was; from the bulk of the huge liners being constructed overhead, blotting out most of the sunlight with their vast bulk, to the taxi pods and private cruisers crisscrossing the sky, ducking between the power lines and support struts of the leviathans lurking in the sky. The smells were incredible and terrible at the same time. It was a mixture of burning, metalwork, and the chemical residue left in the contrails of the traffic overhead and on ground level.

As for sounds, I honestly thought it would send me mad. Constant horns and klaxons from the construction, the smaller whine of the vehicles propulsion drives and the occasional roar of a cruiser or a juggernaut firing into life and climbing ever slowly up and up until it disappeared into the atmosphere, to the accompaniment of cheering from those of us left behind; partly to celebrate its monumental journey but mainly because for a few short weeks there would be clear sky over that particular part of London, at least until another monster would be grown from its metal skeleton, fleshed out into another fully grown beast. It really was like a scene out of hell, as along with the barely concealed panic that humanity was actually on the brink, there was danger lurking around every corner. With the sudden rush of construction overhead, the global health and safety laws had been universally abolished, and so things like safety lines became an optional extra. I vividly remember one of the first days of my arrival into our fair capital, while desperately searching for employment, the strange noise that rose gradually, overpowering even the background roar of drive engines being tested a mile above. The scream didn't last long however, culminating in the sickening crunch of a construction worker hitting the middle of the road not 30 feet away from me. I don't know what was the more shocking; the unrecognisable mess that had been someone's son, or the fact that people recovered in an instant and got on with their daily missions. I was to learn that this was a regular occurrence, and it didn't end with bodies. On some days it seemed that it had begun to rain tools and materials. Every day you ran the gauntlet of falling spanners, rivets girders and the like. And it didn't stop there. I for one will never forget the news footage of the Titan, the largest freighter being built at the time, anti-grav failing as it slipped gracefully into the middle of downtown Rio. The death toll there was in the hundreds of thousands, but within a week another freighter had been begun, casting its shadow over the still smoking remains of the city.

With such a high fatality rate amongst the construction industry, work was easily obtained if you were desperate. I never quite scraped the bottom of that particular barrel, and instead found myself flying a taxipod. These were deceptively easy to operate, consisting of a simple anti-grav unit and propulsion drive. The hard part was weaving in and out of the other traffic, avoiding having my screen shattered by a falling hammer or body, and staying awake as to make my rent I found myself working almost constantly. The irony of it was I worked so long hours; I rarely made it home, sleeping on a filthy mattress in the corner of the office.

Nearly every day we lost people. Mainly through mid-air collisions, or being hit by falling flotsam, but more than a few took their own lives. I remembered learning about the Battle of Britain all those years before and how the pilots didn't want to get to know the new recruits as they wouldn't be around for long. Thankfully though I survived the new recruit phase and moved into grizzled survivor phase.

Meanwhile, over on Mars, while the Earth was busy tearing itself apart, moves had been made to renovate the red planet. The first oxygen plant was running, and although it would take nearly a century to make the atmosphere anything approaching breathable, it was a step forward. Work on hundreds more had been approved and begun. The steady flow of traffic to and from Mars had seen the first settlers joined by upwards of a hundred thousand colonists, and that number was rising every day. They beavered on accommodation blocks, processing plants, factories and docks. Even a few schools were up and running, along with churches of every denomination and shops, cinemas and theatres. It was all basic stuff at the start, but just like time lapse photos, you could almost see it swelling and growing. And with the increase of Martian population came an increase in demand for food, clothing, supplies and equipment. By now, progress had given us a propulsion drive that could make the journey in 2 weeks, halving the time originally set by the Copernicus. You could feel the Earth take on the mantle of a frontier town in the old American Midwest, so I decided to get the fuck out of Dodge.

With the increased flow of traffic to Mars came a demand for pilots to take it. You might think you'd need to qualify as an astronaut before they'd even look at you for this job, but it was pretty remedial stuff really. Most of the course correction was handled by computer; they just needed a human to operate the take-off and landing procedures and be on hand should anything occur. Having said that, it was quite a well-paid job, the risks being so high. This was the dawn of a new age of space travel; the private light goods age.

I dreamed of being given the keys, or access codes to be more accurate, to a huge sleek craft full up with essential medical supplies and scientific equipment, touching down on red soil in a fortnight to rapturous applause and soaking up the mind boggling experience of standing on another planet so far from home. However, to work in any of the big three companies specialising in this kind of trade you had to have a degree in computer science and know someone on the board of directors. Instead I touted myself a little more down market.

How far downmarket I had to settle surprised even me. This was not in the league of the passage of medical supplies. The offices of the company I settled on occupied the ground floor and basement area of a block known as Mandela House, a crumbling tower block showing very occasional hints of its previous grandeur. The Mars Courier Company, MCC, was a low level operation consisting of an office of 4 operatives, including the owner, a surly secretary and a 'fleet' of 5 craft maintained by an old man called Huck, and his idiot son, known as the Kid. I was shown to my ship on my first day, and had to summon my skills as an actor not to show my disappointment. Far from the gleaming league long cruiser I had dreamed about, this was a squat hulk you could easily throw a tennis ball over. The metal had dulled to a muddy brown in places and somewhere along the line a previous pilot had daubed the words 'The Hopper' on the side in dripping red paint. The cockpit sat in a bubble built into the top of a boxy structure. The vast proportion of it was given over to the cargo bay, leaving a small passage from the cockpit to the living quarters. It must have been about 20 years old, and looked as if it had been worked hard every day of that time. The drive was one of the older models and would take an easy 4 weeks to reach its target but, nevertheless, I took the job and found myself behind the controls 2 dizzying days later, being raised up to ground level on a platform, trying to convince myself the shaking in my hands was due to the rumbling mechanics of the lift. Once the computer had configured my course, I ran over the checklist twice, almost jumping out of my skin when the radio barked with the sound of the owner's voice, demanding to know what was taking so long and didn't I know time was money. Impatiently, I hit the final run of switches and felt the trembling of the drive increase until Mandela House fell gradually away from me and I was pressed back into my seat as the Hopper twisted upwards to point at the heavens.

The ascent was surprisingly smooth and surprisingly quiet for such an old craft. The cockpit was a bubble perched on top of the bulk of the freighter, and that afforded me quiet an open view of the city dropping away from me on all sides. Once or twice a taxipod nipped around or over my flight path until the cloud cover enveloped me and blocked my view. It was almost a relief, as all I could see of London was a sprawling landscape of run-down buildings, frantic building of spacecraft and pollution. Once I broke through the cloud, I was looking at the first bit of blue sky I had seen since moving south. Soon enough the blue darkened until stars could be made out, and then faded to black. A glance either side showed the earth's contour as it slipped from view to be replaced by the void on all visible sides. All the while during take-off, my seat had been pointing skywards, pushing me back against it. After a short time the ships gravity field fired up and with a sensation of travel sickness, I could stand on the floor again. It took a long time for me to summon up the courage to actually stand up, not that I could stand fully without my head touching the top of the bubble.

The bubble itself was about 10 feet across, set into the ship so I had about 230 degrees visibility from side to side and, thanks to a bank of switches overhead, no visibility straight up. The control console was obviously banked in front and you could just about squeeze around the chair to take your position. I double and triple checked the logs and made sure my course was true maybe a dozen times. It sounds silly now, but it was only then in that moment that I realised this was to be my home for the next month. For want of anything better to do, I slid around the chair and pushed my head, then shoulders into the tube that led to the living quarters. It was a short tunnel, about 12 feet, and opened out into a room which was to be my home for the next few weeks. I tried to think of it as a home then, not as a prison.

It had everything I needed; a small round table was set into an alcove would serve, opposite that; a phone box sized cubicle was my bathroom. All my food was dispensed via a hatch and a bed would be conjured up by the press of a button. I had a videscreen to provide my entertainment and Huck had referred me to the technical library where I could familiarise myself with the intricacies of the workings of 'The Hopper'. Rungs of a ladder were set into the wall in one corner which led up to the computer banks and at the foot of the ladder, a hatch under which was the internal workings. The only other discernible feature was the main hatch/airlock opposite the access tube.

Once upon a time, when it had been a state of the art spacecraft, the interior had been a gleaming white, offset by the deep marble effect floor. Nowadays the sparking white had taken on a decidedly grubby shade tinged with the red dust of the planet I was now heading towards. Every surface showed the wear and tear of daily use and I could tell which of the operational buttons were most frequently used by the amount of grime on them. On the wall next to the drive hatch was an oily patch, and I could just see Huck emerging from the bowels of the ship, wiping his hands clean on my wall. There was no view port back here, just the rudimentary requirements of basic living and if I was to spend my time here, I resolved one of the first things I would do would be to give it a damn good clean.

I punched in the code for coffee, milk and two sugars; just the way I like it, and carried it carefully back through the tunnel into the cockpit where at least I could see outside. Earth was no longer visible from the bubble, but I could bring up a view of it on the screen, already shrunk considerably. Try as I might, I couldn't make out any continents or oceans, just a small muddy blur of swirling cloud cover and that's when it hit me. Aside from a constant underlying drone from the drive, the silence was all consuming. I had been in London for just over a year, flying taxipods mainly alongside whatever else I could do to make ends meet, and the rhythm of London had entered my bloodstream. The noise had almost sent me crazy in those first few weeks, now I feared the silence would do the same. Not that I wasn't grateful for it of course; I pitied those fools who were still trapped on that doomed planet and I was looking forward to spending a night without arguing neighbours and videscreens intruding through the cardboard thin walls, not to mention the constant construction noise that never slept. Having something become a part of your life, whether you want it or not, to suddenly have it removed can be a shock to the system and a lot of things hit me for the first time in my first piece of solitude for over a year.

The coffee was terrible. I don't know why I was surprised but I persevered as I pondered my next move. There were files to be read about my mission and the upkeep of the space craft, emergency procedures touched on in my induction. My training had been rushed and almost exclusively on a simulator, so finding myself behind the controls of an actual space freighter was quite a thrill, tempered by the knowledge that I had little or no input on the mission. My skills as a taxipod pilot would see me through the landing procedure and any course corrections to be made, but until then I was very much a passenger. I grew bored of the endless stars and shuffled back through the tube to the living quarters.

I tried everything to pass the time, but the ships clock ground ever slowly up through the numbers. I was determined not to sleep before 10pm at the earliest, but by 7:45 I could feel my willpower fading. I had watched the emergency protocols on my tablet, although to be honest, without an escape pod they pretty much amounted to recording my last will and testament and kissing my ass goodbye. I had had the chance to talk to a couple of the other pilots at Mandela House and they had filled my head with niggling doubts although one rough man known as Slim had told me that if something were to go wrong, I probably would have no time to be aware of it.

And so I called up the bed. This was something else that would have to be cleaned. I never found out what happened to the pilot of the Hopper before me, but by the scene that greeted me as the bed slid out of the side wall, I could only assume he died a messy death in that bed. It very nearly put me off sleeping in it, and it was only when I stripped the bedding and fed it into the laundry chute that I collapsed onto its deceptively comfortable softness and called for the lights to dim. However, sleep didn't come easy that first night, or the next few either. Maybe it was the silence, or the sensation of being a helpless passenger on a computer aided rocket hurtling through space. Whatever the reason, the first few days passed in a surreal wave of boredom and intrigue. It wasn't until the 5th night I started to wonder exactly what my cargo was. I know it sounds strange but that was never mentioned at the time, and I had no access to the cargo bay from my quarters. Even poking around in the workings of the drive presented no hatch through to the belly of the ship. All I knew was people were willing to pay a lot of money to get things shipped across space, and where there was money there were usually ruthless people willing to do whatever to get the job done. And also suckers like me willing to do it for a good pay check. There had been quite a few rumours from the other pilots I encountered at Mandela House. Apparently we were everything from drug runners to human traffickers, to smugglers and black marketeers. I supposed I would just have to wait until I arrived at my destination.

It wasn't easy, but eventually I entered the final approach pattern which would see me take up an orbit ready for my alignment with my chosen dock; in Zone 45, docking platform 55-b5. I spent more time in the cockpit watching a solid ball of light directly ahead become ever brighter, ever more red and clearly defined until I could establish radio contact finally and await my slot. By now I must have looked a sight; I hadn't shaved since blasting off from earth and my month long beard was far from well groomed. It stuck out in all directions, but it suited the wild look in my eyes from being alone in that confined space for one month.

Looking out of the bubble I could see with my own eyes the expansion that had taken place on the red planet. It had come a long way from those early pioneers. Huge domes dotted the surface, housing the inhabitants along with their labs, shops, schools and churches. These were linked by a network of reinforced tubes large enough to take the shuttles that aided the passage of workers and commuters alike. A large number of oxygen factories also dotted the landscape, pouring out their payload into the sky, although they were still a long way off achieving a breathable atmosphere. The graphics danced across the screen of the bubble as the flight path guided me down. I took over the controls and navigated myself in. It was an easy enough task; all I had to do was to watch the other traffic, which was light, and keep myself within the graphic boxes which led down to the planet. I could see where they originated, and it looked to be one of the more remote docks. No matter; it would be good to stretch my legs and to actually talk to other people for a change.

I proceeded with caution, this was no time to rush and make a fatal mistake. It had been known before and many lives had been lost by careless pilots crashing into a habitat dome and rupturing the hulls. The closer I got the more detail I could see; even the criss-cross tyre tracks that wound all around the domes, relics of their construction. The landscape was just how I imagined it. The red soil lay all around with mountains and valleys sporadically thrown in. You could tell the age of the buildings by the amount of red tarnish they had picked up from the Mars winds, but even so, they twinkled with lights from within. I was coming to rest at what was dusk in this particular settlement, although my ships clock said 1pm. Glancing down I could see the guidance lights concentrating on my platform and I swung my ship around and over it. I feathered the controls and eventually made contact with the landing platform, causing a gentle jolt to roll through the ship. I had read and reread the procedure for shutting down the engines on the way here, so I went through the motions and listened to the drive whine grow lower and quieter until even the faint shake through the floor subsided and I was sitting in perfect peace.

Until the radio barked at me. Far from being a hero's welcome, it was the voice of a gruff man demanding to know why it had taken me so frigging long to touch down. I mumbled an explanation but he cut me off, demanding I meet his associates at the main hatch. Once the pressure had equalised, an urgent knocking echoed on the airlock door, and upon punching in the code, I was physically escorted out and down a long ramp by two goons in grey boiler suits. I tried to look back at the Hopper but they bundled me through another airlock door and down a short corridor into a plain grey room furnished with one tired looking table and two plastic chairs.

Once I recovered from the shock of physical contact again, and once my head had stopped spinning quite so violently, I demanded to know what was going on, only for the two goons to glance at each other and frown. One gibbered something that sounded like Spanish, only for the other to guffaw momentarily before regaining his composure and gesturing me into one of the seats, commanding me in broken English to sit. That was all I could get out of them for the best part of 4 hours. Then there was a knock at the door, which was swiftly opened to a man in an identical grey boiler suit but with a far more defined air about him. His hair was immaculate, his hands looked as if they had never done an honest day's work in their lives, and he was clean shaven and smelled of cologne, rather than the three days growth the two goons had. God only knows what I looked like with my raggedy beard and unkempt hair. He greeted me by my first name and hesitantly held out a hand for me to shake. He even had the professionalism to look mildly disappointed when I refused. He went on to explain the protocol on landing was to get me to safety immediately in case of leaks in the dome's integrity or contamination from the dust covering the hull of the Hopper. I didn't believe a word of it, but at least someone was talking to me in my own language. The upshot was I was reloaded, refuelled and supplied and ready to return to Earth.

I was horrified. I had assumed I would have some time to recuperate on Mars before attempting the long slog home, but the man in the boiler suit explained I didn't have the correct papers to set foot outside the loading bay. I started to get angry, and that was when he glanced at the two goons, who snapped to attention and grabbed me on either side, frog marching me back to the Hopper. I don't know what went wrong then; whether my outburst caused them to make their move earlier than anticipated or the loaders were just working too slow, but as I was marched back up the ramp to my airlock, I glanced down into the open doors of the cargo bay and saw, amongst boxes and crates, what I thought looked like body bags. Then I was slung back into the familiar surroundings of my living quarters and the door slid shut behind me. I was in total shock, and by the time I had regained what remained of my wits, the loading bay door was opening, the depressurisation complete, and my ship was ready to depart. I considered arguing, or staying put, but to be honest I felt I had already seen as much of Mars as I wanted to for now. I keyed up the launching programmes and the computer chirped as it downloaded my course for home. Staring up into the black void, I completed my pre-flight checks and felt the vibration and noise of the engines grow until the ship rose steadily upwards. Once I was clear of the docking bay doors, I could see the domiciles of Mars stretch out all around me. My first visit had not gone to plan, however, but as I put more and more distance between me and the red planet, I began to find myself looking forward to touching down on Earth again. The final course updates were sent through just before I found myself out of range, along with a personal message. When I opened it, I found myself looking at my bank balance. They had paid me for my mission. It wasn't as if I could go out and spend it at the moment, but it did open up a whole new world of possibilities.

I lapsed straight back into the rhythms I employed on the outward bound journey; cleaning, sleeping, eating, watching films and swatting up on the mechanics of the Hopper and other similar freighters. I didn't find it particularly hard to sleep this time, although I still got panic pangs occasionally, where I would wake up at 3 or 4am ships time convinced I had reached Earth's atmosphere and was plummeting out of control into the middle of London, Zone 1.

As the hours turned into days, into weeks, something very strange happened. I began to miss London. I missed its craziness; I missed the noise, the chaos, the danger, the vibrancy and the smells. The more I cleaned and tidied the more I craved dirt and pollution. By the time I neared the planet I had straightened myself out a little. Gone was the thick unkempt beard. I hadn't attempted to give myself a haircut, but I did slick it down to try to wrestle it under my control. The tiny blue/green marble grew agonisingly slowly in my cockpit window, and when the guidance computer beeped that I had achieved my holding orbit, I lurked in the pilot seat waiting for the pattern of ever decreasing squares which would lead me down to my docking platform, back in London, back to Mandela House.

Eventually the call of nature became too strong, and I raced to the bathroom and back, to find my course plotted, awaiting my descent. The time in London was 6:35am, but already it was a hive of industry. Once clear of the dirty clouds, I emerged into a groggy world of thin rain which washed the dust and dirt off the outside of the bubble in reddish brown rivulets. I had to bank several times to weave amongst the brand new freighters; leviathans compared to the Hopper. Once or twice taxipods came uncomfortably close to my landing pattern, and although I shouted impotent insults at them, I remembered it well from the other side of the coin. The quicker I could set down, the safer for all concerned, so I let myself drop until I was almost level with the top of Mandela House and gave the boosters a quick strong blast. This threw a cloud of steam up all around until I couldn't see the rotten brickwork alongside me and had to rely on the computer to tell me I was 4 feet, 3 feet, 2 feet and then 1 foot away. The contact came with a gentle bump and I automatically went into autopilot, shutting down the boosters, killing my landing lights, initiating the docking procedure and putting the hulking ship to sleep.

For a time, all I could hear was the patter of rain on the hull, and then with a tremble I could feel through the soles of my feet, I sensed the cargo doors were opening. I wondered whether I should remain inside or if anyone was coming to get me. As if reading my mind, the radio squawked to life with the owner's voice, telling me to get my arse in gear and report for debrief.

And so, after climbing down the ramp into the offices of the MCC, I was debriefed, and sent home, to await the next call to work. It was a strange feeling wandering the damp and rainy streets in the small hours of the morning, a pay check bigger than any I had ever received burning a hole in my imagination. I don't know if I expected a hero's welcome; maybe a decade earlier I would have been a big deal, but these days it wasn't uncommon to have travelled to Mars. Sure, most people hadn't done it, or ever would do it, but there were enough who had to make it not the big deal it once was.

By the time I arrived back at my bedsit, the thrum of industry was all but deafening. I had witnessed two workers falling to their deaths in the distance on the long walk back, and passed a few more obvious signs of impact on the way. Was it always this bad, or had the two month break made me soft again? As I lay on my lumpy mattress listening to the family below me having their customary morning argument, and catching up on the news from the videscreens in the flats either side of me a strange thing happened. I began to miss the peace and tranquillity of space travel. Many times on my voyage I had wondered if I had made a terrible mistake in signing up with the MCC. Now I found myself checking my messages, waiting for the call back.

In the meantime I moved up in the world, literally. I found a modest flat perched near the top of a housing block much closer to the centre. The rent was crippling, but I figured it'd be worth it. The lifts actually worked, although they still smelt of a urinal, and the walls were defiantly thicker. I could still hear the neighbours, but it took more for them to actually wake me up. The view was equally better and much worse. I could see the capital stretch away from me, the huge bulks of freighters casting eternal shadow on certain areas. Smoke billowed from factories, foundries and crash sites. I wondered if, years from now, someone would look out of a window onto Mars and see a similar scene.

The other thing I busied myself doing was to prepare myself for my next mission. I continued to read up on the principles of space travel as well as spending the rest of my pay check on things to make the time pass. I bought a Spanish language course, invested in more reading matter and films as well as what used to be called box sets, the entertainment industry having ground to a halt when the panic to flee set in. I even found an old banjo in a junk shop and bought it, having been fascinated by the sound as a child when a favourite uncle used to bring his round and thrill us for hours with his dexterity. And so, thus armed, I awaited the call.

It came soon enough, and within the hour I was unloading my bags from a taxipod outside Mandela House. The owner was his usual chatty self, and Huck grumpily informed me I was fuelled and ready to go. Stepping back inside the Hopper was an unusual experience. I still didn't know if I was looking forward to it or dreading it. As I stored my stuff I could see fresh oily hand prints next to the access hatch and launched a silent curse towards Huck or the Kid. Then I was settling back into the cockpit, punching buttons and finalising my launch procedure. Having done that, I felt the kick in the back as the craft struggled through gravity, watching Mandela House dropping away again and having to pass around a new freighter being constructed nearby. I even found myself humming a faintly remembered tune as the blue sky faded to black and the stars came out of hiding. I must have spent at least 5 hours sitting there in that cockpit watching the Earth fade away in the screens. It was only when my arse grew numb that I clambered unsteadily back through the tube into the living quarters and was hit with that familiar feeling of uselessness. When in doubt, brew up as my mother used to say. So I sat with a fresh cup of what passed as coffee and unpacked. I tried reading for a bit but couldn't settle into it. I tried picking out a tune on the banjo but the noise that greeted me sounded nothing like the magic my uncle could conjure from his instrument. No film or series interested me and sleep felt like a lifetime away. I resorted to pacing round and round the room, as I had on the previous mission, just to get the blood pumping and to burn off some of my nervous energy.

I settled back into it in the next day or so, but I still had the uneasy feeling that I missed being back on Earth with its noise and its chaotic liveliness. Maybe I was destined never to be satisfied; when I was on earth I craved the solitude of the Hopper, but when I was here, I wanted the craziness of Earth. Maybe it was my imagination, but this time, the journey seemed shorter and smoother. I kept on top of things this time, shaving every other day, showering twice daily, exercising and trying to eat a little healthier, although the choice from the canteen dispenser was limited to standard pilot fayre; mainly meat of some description and a large selection of fried and fatty items. And it wasn't a shock this time, having touched down in a different loading bay but a similar area, to find myself escorted to a small dirty room with uncomfortable dirty seats by two similar goons. When I tried out some of my rudimentary Spanish on them they looked disdainfully on me and muttered a few words of what sounded like German to each other. Great, I thought, another language course for next time. As before, I had no clue as to what I was transporting, but I had ceased to care, thinking only of the pay check waiting to be frittered away on my triumphant return to Earth.

And so it was; I began clocking up the missions with a steady inevitability. Somewhere along the way I made the transition from scared rookie to grizzled old timer, and even a couple of the other pilots begrudgingly gave me the time of day. It was when a new recruit asked me what the cargo we transported was that I realised I was on the other side of the fence. I think I told him it was weaponry to stage a coup on Mars. He left, looking a little paler than when he arrived.

I had the dual existence of all the interstellar pilots; not at home enough to form any friendships or romantic attachments, becoming happier in my own company. It was a gradual transition but I realised I missed Earth less and less when I was in the Hopper, and missed the Hopper more and more in my time on Earth. The money built up faster than I could spend it, so it languished in my account. I never planned for a rainy day, but it was nice to know I would have some provision should it start to piss down.

Even the missions began to blend into one another. It was always a different port in a different area of Mars, but never the larger docks, never the more upmarket zones. The goons employed a variety of languages, but even on the rare occasion I could converse with them in their language or mine, they never reciprocated.

And so it went on, until my last mission. It began as all the others did. I had honed my take off procedure to a fine tee, hopefully to the satisfaction of the owner, and it was about day 16 out from Earth when it happened. I had been spending my days much like the others; reading, learning Portuguese, as I was sure that was the language used in the last port I had docked with, and even working out as I had installed a small gym in one corner consisting of a running machine and a selection of weights. My routine had settled into a predictably dull cycle of rising at 7 and going to bed at 10. It was 3:42am by the glow of the clock set in the wall by my bed. That scarcely had time to register before the dread sensation that something was very wrong seized hold of me. Just like a flood, many thoughts began pouring into my mind, all at once not allowing me a chance to process them until they were done, then I leapt out of bed and focused my will into getting a hold of the situation.

That something was wrong was obvious. I had been wrenched from the deepest of sleeps by what had felt like a jolt. Was there a bang too or had I imagined it, the deepest part of my sleep drenched mind filling in terrible non-existent gaps. It took a second or two to process, but I finally realised the emergency lighting had come on. Usually, getting out of bed would trigger the ships lighting to spark and crackle into life, but now everything was bathed in the dull red glow of the emergency lights. There was no siren, which was good, but as this was a one man cruiser, there was no-one else to alert anyway. I listened intently, but could hear nothing untoward, but still that seemed wrong. Whatever had happened, the hull was obviously still intact, at least for now, as I could breathe and I wasn't currently being dragged backwards through a hole the size of a golf ball.

I ran to the main console but it was dead. Frantically pummelling the screen didn't resolve the situation so I plunged through the tunnel into the cockpit. The same backdrop of stars was waiting for me, but there was something wrong here. As I looked they were very gently spiralling. It was almost imperceptible, but the more I was aware of it, the more obvious it was; the ship was gently twisting. That's when I realised why the silence was so ominous; there was no sound at all, not even from the drive. Most of the computers in the cockpit were offline too, but the emergency power did run to one flight recorder which gave a clue as to my predicament. It recorded at 3:42am an impact in the rear quarter of the craft. Quite what had struck me wasn't known, nor was the extent of the damage, but what was obvious was I had lost power and had to do something about it.

Breaking down in space is no laughing matter, you see. Imagine trying to find a grain of salt amongst the sand grains of the Sahara. That is a 2 dimensional problem as well. I was a floating speck in the 3-D eternity of space drifting with no power. Craning around the sides of the bubble I could see my navigation lights were flashing, but still, you could have passed within 100 meters of me and still not been aware of my presence.

I scrambled back through the tunnel and tore the hatch to the engines open. I had access to the workable parts of the engine, but the main workings were buried deep under the cargo bay and therefore out of my reach. It didn't take me long to ascertain there was little point me being here. The components were silent, all the power lights were off and there was an eerie silence that made me feel immensely claustrophobic down there. It was the same story climbing the ladder to check out the computer banks up top. The 3 screens regarded me with blank faces. Button pressing, slapping the consoles and even colourful language didn't change the situation.

And that brings me up to date with the story of my life. The glow from the clock tells me it's now 6:55 but I'm out of ideas now. I could look up emergency plans, but they are all on computer file. The only thing of interest that happened about an hour ago was I was sure I could hear knocking coming from the cargo bay. Pressing my ear to the floor, I could swear I could hear voices too, raised in panic, although all is silent now. I guess that answers the question to what my cargo was after all.