From the author: With no chance of a future on a devastated Earth, Miller will do anything to get off-world.
"The Emigration Offices will be closing in 23 minutes."
The tinny speakers hissed out four alien languages before giving the message in English. Miller only recognized two of them and only understood a few words in either.
"If you have not had your number called by closing, you will have to return tomorrow. If you are not present when called, you will forfeit your meeting and rescheduling will be required."
Miller had already spent three days, from open to close, waiting for his number to be called. If he had to, he'd wait another three. Whatever it took.
The Xoninet that he had spent the better part of the day sitting next to nudged him, making a few gurgling noises. The dwarven, shark-skinned alien had tried to start up conversation earlier, but the mutual language barrier had proven far too inconvenient. Despite that, Miller responded, "You and me both, brother."
"Chre-ya-pou!" a human caseworker called out. Miller still had a chance. His number was chre-ya-qeay. Even if his alien language skills were poor, he could count in Coalition Standard. Only two to go.
The Xoninet pointed to Miller's ticket and gurgled some more.
"Yeah, I'm almost up," Miller said.
"Chre-ya-pou!" The caseworker looked around the room, coughing as she called out the numbers.
The Xoninet knocked Miller on the arm, which hurt like hell. Those little guys were strong. "Chre-ya-pou, keth fa!" he called out, pointing to Miller.
The caseworker came over. "You're chre-ya-pou?"
Miller held up his ticket. "Chre-ya-qeay."
She shook her head, tapping her bony finger on the ticket. "That's pou. Come on."
Miller grabbed his application pad and followed after her, cursing himself for looking at a pou for three days and thinking it was a qeay. At least it wasn't a fatal mistake. She led him to a cubicle in the back of the emigration offices complex, past several other people having translator-aided sessions with alien caseworkers. It was a minor blessing that he had managed to get a fellow human. Miller took this as a good sign.
"Let's see what we have," she said, taking his application pad and laying it on her desk. A display of his various documents appeared, which she cycled through with weary rapidity.
"Hmm, yes," she said. "You're looking for an X-Theta student visa to Carawkai?"
"That's correct," Miller said. "I've got a scholarship--"
"I see that," she cut him off. "Yes, that all seems to be in order, good." Of course everything was in order. After four failed visa applications, Miller made sure he'd jumped every hoop perfectly this time.
She scanned through more pages, her eyes never once making contact with him. "You grew up in San Antonio?"
"We spent a few years there when I was a kid," Miller said. Most of his childhood had been a blur of moving around, wherever his father had found work.
"Specifically, you were there in '54."
"I suppose," Miller said. "The year sounds right."
"In '54, San Antonio was reclassified an Orange zone."
That didn't sound right. He knew the jobs his father had gotten usually put them on the edge--there simply were more jobs near the hot zones--but even then, he knew they had never lived in an Orange. "No, it was Yellow. We never lived deeper than Yellow."
She nodded, face still buried in her pages. "I'm sure it was Yellow at the time. Unfortunately, everything south of the 30th parallel has been retroactively designated Orange from '54 on."
She finally looked at him, putting on a practiced expression of false sympathy. "I'm terribly sorry, but spending any time in an Orange Zone flags you as an unsuitable candidate for an exit visa."
"What?" Miller asked. He had never heard that before. "No, that can't be right. I have my medical records there, you can see, my rad levels are nominal, my viral counts are in tolerance..."
"I'm very sorry, sir," she said. "But that is the policy. Many species in the Coalition are far too sensitive to risk potential exposure."
"Exposure to what, exactly?" Miller asked. "I already went through nine rounds of immunization, not to mention--"
"I'm very sorry, sir," she repeated, pointedly. "There's nothing I can do about policy. Emigration is denied."
Power was in brown mode when Miller returned to his tenement. That meant waiting until the elevator was at capacity--seventy humans--before it would ascend to his block. It was midafternoon, and very few people were returning home. Those with jobs wouldn't be back until nightfall, and the rest either stayed in or were out in the thoroughfare shaking their hats.
Fifteen people sat in the elevator. Miller's blockmate, Emile, sat closest to the doors.
"You have a day?" Emile asked when he saw Miller.
Miller joined him on the elevator floor. "The day had me."
"I told you, brother, I told you. They don't let you off the rock for nothing."
"It's not right," Miller said. "I've got the scholarship. I did everything right this time."
"What was the hustle they gave you?"
"Time in an Orange Zone."
"You lived in an Orange Zone?"
"No!" Miller said. "That's the guff of it!"
"That's what I told you. They'll always spin some hustle at you. What did you have? Bug? Crab?"
"Not even. She was human!" The whole business wouldn't have stung as bad if it had come from an alien.
"Traitor," Emile said, his voice weary with contempt. "The whole business with that office is a joke, I told you. You see that now?"
"Yeah," Miller said. He had tried the right way. He had done everything like he should have, and it did him no damn good. He glanced about at the rest of the folks in the elevator; the usual crowd of shiftless blanks, just like him and Emile. No one to be worried about. He leaned in close to Emile. "So, let's do it your way."
Emile nodded. "You wanna Jump the Black?"
"No work, no schools, and staying here will kill us, one way or another." Dad died at thirty-eight. Mom only a couple of years older. Every blank in the elevator had the same story. "Gotta get off the damned Earth. A better life isn't gonna start here, you know?"
"I know," Emile said.
"And there's no other way, is there?"
"Nope. But that ain't much of a way, either." Emile had gone to Jump the Black three times--so he said. Miller always wondered how far he had really gotten.
"It's a way." A few more people wandered into the elevator and slumped to the floor. They were all used to brown mode. "Worst case, get caught, end up back here again, right? Like you?"
Emile looked at him sideways. "That ain't the worst."
"But you're gonna try again, right?"
"Gotta try," Emile said. "Or die trying." Emile's wife and brother had both gone and Jumped the Black. They were working--actual, honest work--on some ship, or station, or something.
"So," Miller said. "I'm in."
"It's your legs and lungs," Emile said, getting to his feet. "All right, then. Let's go."
Emile gave a nod to the whole elevator. "You got something better to do?"
Miller knew full well the answer to that one. "So, what's the plan?"
"We're gonna go see a bug."
Hj'x was a Lestari—an insectoid alien, like a praying mantis, were it bright red and the size of a tiger. Something about him gave Miller the sense that the bug was old, not that he had any idea how Lestari aged. But Hj'x moved as if his exoskeleton hurt, giving Miller thoughts of arthritis.
"Space exists for my next run," Hj'x chirped. The translator around his thorax seemed to be top of the line, a strong contrast to the seedy shipping office on the outskirts of town. Reeking of sickly sweet steam, the whole place made Miller's skin crawl. Maybe it was just being this close to a Lestari. "How are you fleshlings riding? For twenty, or forty?"
Emile put a hand up before Miller could speak. "We've got thirty-eight for the two of us."
This wasn't true. At most, Miller had fifteen. "Not much." Hj'x said. "But I can fit you, so it is fine. You get something, I get something, better than we both get nothing. Hj'x is reasonable."
"Glad to hear it," Emile said.
Hj'x pointed his antennae at Emile. "It is because I know you, fleshling. You keep trying. I like that. Will. And since you know how we do this, you tell your friend. Save me time. Worth the discount."
"So, are we set?" Miller asked.
"Deal, it is made," H'jx said. He tossed a hand pad to Emile. "You'll be sent a location at hge-ix-na tomorrow. Be there in twenty minutes or miss your ride." Hge-ix-na. About three in the morning. Hour of the wolf, as dad liked to call it.
Nothing was packed. Nothing could be packed. They were riding the twenty-fare, with a discount at that, so that meant only five kilos in a small satchel. Emile told Miller not to bring anything more than extra clothes.
"And sell your reader," Emile had said.
"Why?" It was Miller's only possession of even the slightest value. He was the only one on his floorblock with one.
"You can get at least twenty for it," Emile said. "We need that for our fares."
And there it was. Miller didn't argue the point further.
"Not like you want to carry a lot for the jump."
Sleep had been impossible, at least for Miller. He paced and fretted. Emile had dozed on the block floor, the rest of the blockmates pointedly pretending not to know their plans. Several said "good night" with a sense of finality, but beyond that, no acknowledgement. Around two in the morning, they went to the street to wait. The message came, just when it was supposed to. A junkyard a few blocks from them.
There were several dozen humans milling about in the yard when they arrived. Miller thought the whole thing smelled ripe for a raid. A bunch of people hanging around in the middle of the night? Easy pickings. Though, maybe, Emigration Patrol didn't bother with anyone who hadn't gotten out of the gravity well.
A large vehicle quietly landed, no running lights. Two aliens--Miller didn't recognize the species--came out and opened the back doors. A few waves of their graspers and all the humans climbed in. Doors shut again, and they were in the dark.
Minutes of bumpy ride passed. No one talked to each other. Miller didn't even talk to Emile. The vehicle came to rest, and the doors opened.
Hj'x and the two other aliens stood there. "All right fleshlings, come out. Quickly."
Humans pressed their way out into a dim warehouse. The place was filled with shipping containers. The most prominent were the six in the middle of the floor--large clamshell cases, hard plasticate.
"Here is the run of things," Hj'x announced. "My associates will go around the lot of you. You will give them the money. They will give you an injection. You will strip off your garments--all of them--and give them to my associates. Then pick a container and get in. Eight to a container, so do not be shy. And do not waste time. Your muscles will stop working shortly after the injection. No one will put you in a container if you do not get in yourself."
"Muscles will what?" Miller whispered to Emile.
"Strip, quickly," Emile said. "The injection works very quickly."
Miller took off his clothing. "But what--"
"It's Para. For beating the scans," Emile said, already naked. "Life signs would trigger a search. Scan blockers would trigger a search. But, for a produce shipper like Hj'x, non-living biomatter usually gets waved by. Usually."
An alien came up to them. "Money?"
"This is for both of us," Miller said, giving the coins to the creature.
"Hj'x and us made a deal," Emile said.
The alien turned to Hj'x and barked something out. Hj'x hissed something back that wasn't translated. The alien shrugged and pushed his hypo into Miller's arm, and then into Emile's.
Miller shoved his clothes into his satchel and handed it to the alien.
"Get in now."
Miller's legs were already jelly, so he scrambled over to the nearest clamshell, Emile right behind. It already had six people in it, shivering and shuddering. Eight people in this thing were a very tight fit, Miller quite aware his flesh was pressed against several strangers. He tried to shift his arm, be a little more comfortable, but his body was limp.
"It's almost like stasis, they say," someone muttered. "Sleep the whole way."
Miller couldn't even make his lips move.
"It ain't," Emile said.
Then the clamshell shut.
Miller didn't breathe. He didn't feel his heartbeat. He couldn't move a muscle. His body was dead.
Except every sense was exploding. Someone's knee was crushing his groin. Another body part was jammed into his back. They were pressed into the clamshell, tighter than a fist, skin smashing skin. There was some jostling of the container as it was moved about, probably loaded onto the ships. Miller hoped that's what it was.
If it hadn't been for Emile, Miller would have been convinced this was some elaborate prank. A tease aliens played on humans. Like a kid catching frogs.
There was no sleep.
There was no time.
Nothing but blackness, silence, pressure of flesh and the stink of fear.
It might have been eight hours or eight days. Felt like eight lifetimes.
Light came like a nightmare.
Alien pincers plucked Miller out of the clamshell and dropped him, limply, on cold ceramisteel floor. Another light flashed in front of him, soft violet. Vibrations knocked his bones. Then everything came on. Heart pounding. Lungs spasming. His stomach spun and dropped down. He puked, pissed, and shat all at once, unable to resist his body's need to let everything flow out of him.
The light shifted, a hint of yellow in the violet. Then liquid--clear, light liquid, like water--bursting out from every direction in a heavy mist. Miller got some in his mouth. It wasn't water. It wasn't bad, a sort of salty-sweetness, but nothing he'd want to swallow. In a moment, the spraying stopped, and Miller lay still, clean of puke, piss, or shit.
His eyes started to focus as alien paws dressed him, put his satchel on his back, and put him on his feet. His head was still whirling before he realized he was standing, fully dressed, and in a line with all the other humans. Emile was to his right. Were they in space now? Leaving Sol system? How long were they in there?
Hj'x strutted out in front of the line, carrying a large case. He gave a small regard to the assembled line of humans, as if he was making a headcount. "All right, fleshlings," he called out. "It's time to Jump the Black."
Right now? Miller thought. He actually tried to say it, but his mouth wasn't being compliant.
Hj'x dropped the case on the floor and opened it up, revealing few dozen facemasks. "Get ready."
Humans scrambled over to the case for masks. Emile grabbed two and tossed one over to Miller. "This is the hard part."
The mask bounced off Miller's chest and dropped on the ground. Arms were still like jelly, not responding like they should have. "Sorry, what?" he tried to say, but it sounded like mumbles.
"Hurry up!" Hj'x said. "The doors open in two minutes!"
Emile, already masked, picked Miller's mask up and put it over his face. "You don't want to get this wrong."
"I'm still..." Words themselves were hard.
"Christ, you're bad off," Emile said, slapping Miller. "Most people come out of the Para pretty clean, but a few..." He gestured over to another person who seemed in as bad shape as Miller, stumbling and grasping at his gear and mask. He had no one to help him. "Can you walk?"
"I think," Miller said. Emile had gotten his mask on him now.
Emile guided him near the bay doors. "We want to be as close as we can."
Jump the Black. The reality of what that meant was hitting Miller in the gut. "How far?"
"It's a few hundred meters. Blowout will do most of the work for you."
Blowout? Everyone else in the hold stumbled towards the bay doors, save Hj'x, who skittered to the far exit. "Jump well!"
Emile held onto Miller's elbow. "You're gonna see some lights, and what looks kind of like a spider web, all right? You'll want to--"
Blaring klaxons deadened out any further advice. Emile's grip tightened on Miller's arm, as he pulled him further forward, through the pressing throng.
The bay doors sprang open, and in an instant, Miller and several dozen other humans flew out into the vacuum of space.
It wasn't dark or empty at all. Miller was expecting blackness. Instead, the bright blue star blazed in his field of vision. He expected to be hot, even. There was no heat, though. Only creeping chill on his fingers, frost forming on the mask.
What had Emile said? Lights. Spiderweb. Focus. They were hurling towards something larger and looming and covered in flashing lights. Something monstrous. Ship? Space station?
Below the lights, there was a mesh of some sort. Miller thought it looked like jellyfish tendrils. Most of the humans were hurling towards it. The idea crossed Miller's mind to try and grab a tendril as they passed.
Panic gripped Miller. Emile had said "spiderweb" after all. Last thing you'd want to do was get caught in the spiderweb. Maybe not catching it was how it worked.
If he didn't catch it, what else was there? Beyond the mesh there seemed to be sun and open space.
Miss the web, it's just floating into the black.
They were all almost at it. How long had it been? Only a few seconds?
The mesh was retracting back into the station. Miller didn't know what to do.
He tried to grope at the mesh as they approached it, but it was finer than he first thought. His right arm wasn't obeying him at all, and his left hand flailed uselessly.
Then his shoulder wrenched. He stopped hurling through space.
Emile still had his arm, and he had grabbed onto the mesh with his other hand.
Most of the other people had gotten hold of it as they past. Some didn't.
They flew off into the black.
The mesh pulled inside completely, and then there was a great clang. Darkness.
Miller was dragged to his feet. Emile, and many others, were scattering out of whatever hold they were in.
"Run, come on!"
Miller followed blindly down a nondescript corridor. Green and white lights flashed all around; sirens blared.
"There!" Emile pointed to a compartment panel at the base of the wall. He dropped to his knees and opened it up. Miller stood dumbfounded. Some people were still running. Where were they? What system has a blue star?
Emile yanked Miller by his shirt and pulled him down into the compartment, and then squeezed in behind, pulling the panel shut behind him.
"Emile, where--" Miller started. He wasn't even sure what his questions should be.
"Shh!" Emile whispered.
"Are we safe?" Miller whispered.
"For now. Just keep still for a piece."
Another dark tight squeeze. At least he wasn't naked. Quiet and dark, Miller closed his eyes and waited.
Miller hadn't realized he was asleep. "What now?"
His eyes adjusted. It wasn't Emile waking him. Emile was nowhere to be seen. An alien of some sort was prodding him--he didn't know the species.
Yellow quadruped, scaly skin, smelling of pork and sulfur.
"I was just..." he started.
"Don't care," the alien said. Not through a translator. "Sweeps are coming through here. Catch you. Slap you back to Dirt."
"You mean Earth?"
"Deathplanet you call home, yes. You want back there? You want to stay in the sky?"
"Stay here," Miller said. "But my friend..." Had he been abandoned? Or had Emile been caught?
"You had friend? I see only you, sleeping in a poorly hidden compartment. Pressers left you behind.”
“Militia. They grabbed many humans, to crew their ships.” His hindquarters shuddered. “You’d be better off on your Deathplanet. Come."
"Who are you?" Miller asked.
"Call me Boss, is good enough," he said. "I have many humans work for me. Don't want to get slapped back to Dirt. You with me, or you slapped?"
"With you? But, my friend..."
"With or slap, human?"
"With!" Miller responded, immediately wanting to take it back.
"Good. I have work for humans. You work for me, have security. Sweeps come through station, say you are mine." Faster than Miller could blink, Boss produced a small device and pressed it against Miller's cheek. A sudden sting, slight burn.
"That is contract, human. You work, you stay safe. Earn some credit, in time. Go on your way."
"Wait, wait," Miller said. "What work? You haven't--"
"Did we not have conversation, human? You work, or slap to dirt."
"My name is Miller."
"I really could not care, human. Come."
Miller went where he was led. It was clear he was in a space station now, a massive complex. Boss led him through twists and turns to a large room, where there were about twenty other humans. All of them had some sort of tattoo on their face.
"Here is new friend," Boss announced to the room. "Get him settled. He starts work next shift."
Boss slapped Miller on the back and left.
One woman approached Miller. "You just Jump?"
"Yeah," Miller said. "I'm still confused."
"Come here," she said, leading him behind a partition to a bunk. "This rack's empty, so it's yours."
"Did someone have this before?" Miller asked.
"Contract up," she said. She pointed to her tattoo, which was a series of swirls, the top part blue, the bottom orange. "I've got about two months left."
"New contract is one of Boss's years. Around seventeen months."
Another woman came in carrying a bowl. "Thought he'd be hungry."
Miller realized his stomach was empty. He took the bowl happily and started eating. He had no idea what it was, but it was warm and tangy, and that was good enough. "What is the work, even?" he asked.
"We run the station's waste reclamators," the first woman said.
The second chuckled. "Fifty different aliens shit fifty different ways. It all comes here to us." Miller had read that alien stations recycle and resequence waste proteins, usually for low-grade food.
"Is that what I'm eating?" he asked. It really wasn't bad, though.
"It's what we do," the first said. "Get some rest. Shifts are seventeen hours long." She got up and left the partition.
"How bad is this?" Miller asked the remaining woman.
She shrugged. "The job is disgusting, but it's honest and safe. Boss is fair, fair as you could expect. It ain't fistwork or smutwork, so that’s something."
"Thanks." Miller took a few more spoonfuls. Other humans got grabbed for different jobs up here. Emile, maybe. “Boss said something about Pressers?”
She gave a sad nod. “They’re usually right on top of a new Jump, to ‘recruit’ some new crew, take them out to whatever front they’re fighting on. Were you with someone?”
“Jumped with a friend. You think he…” Miller let it hang.
“Some people make it back, I hear.” She took the bowl, staring at her boots. "See you before shift." With that, she left him alone.
Miller put his pack and shoes underneath the bunk before lying down. The mattress was hard, but he could take it. He'd slept on more than his share of concrete floors on Earth. Hell, this little partition might be the most private space he’d slept in for who knows how long.
He was off the damned Earth, and he had work. Honest work.
It wasn't much of a better life. But it was a start.
This story originally appeared in Rayguns Over Texas.