Prose Header

Happiness Is a Place Out There

by Roman Wolujewicz

Ralc didn’t know what people saw in Mars. It was a uniquely harsh and uncompromising place at the best of times, even when one was hidden under the safety of the Terradome. Even the Martian sun was oppressive, not beaming quite so much as beating down on the living things that scurried over the dusty surface.

Yes, of course, Mars could be beautiful. Like whenever a solar flare drew near enough that it would smother the sky in shades of emerald shading into gold. Or when the young grubs would dance in perfect unison on the day of the Third Finality.

But these few glorious moments didn’t outweigh the meteorological harshness or the general mundanity of Ralc’s days, days he spent toiling until exhaustion on underground fields, waiting impatiently for his time to Ascend, all the while suspecting that the day might never actually come.

Amongst a pile of scorched rocks, Ralc gazed up at a blue, mischievously twinkling planet that hung overhead, suspended against an endless sea of stars and dark and cold. He had come to his favourite spot to watch it. He would sit and imagine what it might be like to go there, to drink in its alien air and experience its exotic wonders all for himself. Ralc imagined a planet of awe-inspiring creatures, a utopia where petty squabbles and violence had been replaced by wisdom and harmony. His six globulous eyes were brought to tears to think how much better that planet must be than his.

A whooping sound slipped past his ear, startling him. ‘Stupid wingthing,’ he said to the howling desert.

Ralc looked down at his wrist to see the time: 25th phase of 7. He couldn’t easily tell, but he knew it would soon become properly late. He took a last, reluctant sip from his canteen and began the journey back along the wastes. Ralc should, by moving rapidly, make it back before the worst beasts emerged from their daily slumber. However, as many formerly overconfident Martians had discovered, safety was hardly ever guaranteed.

Ralc’s journey back turned out to be mostly uneventful after all. At one point, on a barren stretch beneath a cliff shaped like a humongous mandible, the ground began rumbling in a way that was too rhythmic to be anything but alive. At this, Ralc’s antennae spiked, his pulse quickened slightly to several thousand beats per minute, and he prepared for his demise.

But then, silence.

After a while, it became clear the indecisive rumbler wasn’t coming. Clearly, a Ralc meal wasn’t quite worth the effort of the beast’s bursting from its hidey hole deep under the red sand. Mildly offended but irrefutably alive, Ralc continued the rest of his trip that evening with an air typical of the stubbornly delicious.

* * *

Weeks passed and, each day, Ralc spent labouring, perspiring during the hard days and then blue-planet gazing come shift-end. The whole time, morning and night, he spent fantasising about it, constantly spinning the idea of another life around in his mind. He did this so much that it eventually became at least as real as his own life, and certainly more meaningful.

This cycle repeated, over and over, until one day, when Ralc was trudging along the Threshold on his way to begin a shift, he heard two Elders talking in hushed voices just ahead.

‘Indeed, we must all cleanse ourselves beforehand. It is the only way to ensure our Ascendance once it is over,’ said the first, younger Elder.

‘Never fear, brother. Where we are going, Ascendance is a certainty. You could spend every waking moment covered in the stink of excess and it would not matter. We have been chosen to bring the Light to a new world. And when that work is done, we will return to claim a hero’s reward.’

‘If we get back in one piece, you mean?’

‘Of course we will!’

‘If you say so.’

‘Anyway, what’s that fine one you always melt over after Ritual?’


‘The one joined to your brother.’

‘Oh, Narqa.’

‘Yes, well, once we return, she can hardly remain joined to someone so lowly as the military, can she?’

‘My brother’s always had his pick,’ said the first Elder, his tone more thoughtful now. The two turned off the Threshold, down the narrow Martian alley, and away.

Ralc watched them go. A slight frown fixed across his face but he trudged on, for lateness was not abided. The Martian system of employment was one of the most efficient in existence; employees took no breaks and never missed a single day of service. However this was due in no small part to the Elders’ enthusiasm for scrutiny, which was typically conveyed using sharp, pointy things in dark rooms.

Later that night, Ralc lay in his tiny, solo-pod and dreamed of the blue planet. In his dream, one of the local females approached him, with her elongated talons pointing coquettishly outward, and asked if he, yes, he — Ralc — wanted to dance.

‘But, but, I don’t know how!’ he protested, quivering with anxiety.

The creature smiled, showing row after row of dazzlingly white fangs. Then she whispered, somehow in his own language, ‘Give it a go. It’s easy, I promise.’

And from that instant, he twirled around with her at the summit of a gargantuan cloud castle. With Ralc contentedly dwarfed by her magnificent stature, the two danced and laughed and sang and, when all was done, curled up in a pod just the right size for the two of them to fit.

When Ralc eventually woke, he knew the misery of someone realising their happiness had only ever existed inside his own head. He knew he had no way of truly knowing what the blue planet’s females would be like. But something in his bones told him that his dream version was pretty close. I bet they are nice and agreeable, and loving too, he thought foolishly to himself, clinging to the fantasy just a few seconds longer.

An alarm, one loud enough to be heard in the next Martian city, sounded. To Ralc, it seemed like the sad, yet persistent, bleat of a Martian cow. Needless to say, Ralc had no time for Martian cows. When they weren’t ‘not waking you up’ in alarm form, they would otherwise stare as you shuffled past them, rubbing it in your face that you had to spend a day in the pits while they got to eat roadside fuzz and ponder what it all meant. But enough on cows, their time will come, Ralc thought to himself. He sighed, slid into his work sheets and met the working day.

* * *

Sometime later, Ralc’s sandpoke clawed at the coarse red earth for the thousandth time since morning. Scrape, Scrape, Scrape. He wiped tiredness from his brow and jabbed again. And again. Then, he noticed a strange sound rising over the field like a cloud. It continued to grow louder until, suddenly, he realised what it was — conversation! This was particularly odd because everyone knew speech was prohibited on the fields until day’s end. Something exceptional must have broken out nearby. In the distance, an Elder paced the monitoring platform, clearly seething at the noise.

‘Quiet!’ screamed the Elder. The hall quietened, though a bold few murmured something like the Martian word for tosser. ‘Put down your instruments, workers,’ continued the Elder. ‘We have an announcement.’ Now the field grew truly silent. ‘As you may have heard, great strides have been achieved by our countrymen in the Lightbearers. Tonight, they depart on a great pilgrimage to the blue planet, to bring them the Light!’

Whispering permeated the air once again. But, this time, it crackled and whizzed around like static electricity. This type of hubbub was totally unprecedented for any of the million or so Martians present. It was something genuinely new. Ralc looked around and saw the excited expressions on his fellow workers’ faces. It made him feel quite nauseous and more than a little bit scared.

‘Finally, in light of the recent achievement by your noble brothers, you are to have the rest of the day off.’ A cheer rippled around the enormous field.

Everyone was smiling.

Everyone except Ralc.

* * *

Ralc raced across along an endless Martian highway in the direction of Crescent Canyon. It was a common rumor that a team there had been working on a way to bridge a gap between worlds. Some said they had used their genius to tear a hole in space and time, a hole that could be used to travel impossibly long distances. Others said they were building a literal bridge. Ralc suspected those latter brothers may not be that bright. Naturally, no one ever expected that the scientists might do something so radical as to actually pull it off.

It was selfish, sure, but Ralc thought of the tiny blue planet as his own. They were his utopian cloud cities. His magnificently towering females; his world, devoid of rejection and loneliness and hard labour; his private getaway from an existence he loathed.

After several tense hours, Ralc could see the mouth to the canyon opening up. To his dismay, a large crowd of onlookers had assembled. He supposed they’d come for similar reasons as he, but he felt his need in this moment was greater than all of theirs combined.

He pushed through the throng, shoving aside males and females alike in his surge to the front. On the way, he received more than his fair share of six-eyed side-eyes. Luckily for Ralc, they bounced harmlessly off, and he was able to get ahead largely unscathed. He reached the end where a large Martian stood, clearly exasperated, in front of a gigantic metal door. The door itself was sealed, looking like it could withstand the crowd and then some.

‘You can’t come any further,’ said the exasperated Martian, seeing Ralc’s face.

‘Will you tell me what’s happening?’

‘Don’t you know?’

‘Something to do with the blue planet?’

‘You fool, why are you even here if you don’t know?’

‘I just knew something big was happening,’ Ralc said.

‘You can say that again.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘We’re going,’

‘Where?’ asked Ralc. The exasperated Martian answered by pointing one of his bony digits up to the sky. Ralc’s gaze followed it upwards until he was left staring at the blue planet.’

‘Okay, but how?’

‘A ship. One like no other ever built,’

‘I must go on that ship. Can you let me inside? Please? I’ll do anything!’ Ralc’s mandibles strained, making his voice pitch and crack. The Martian facing him looked incredulous.

‘Let you inside? Are you mad?’

‘A little. So, can you?’

‘Absolutely not!’ At this, the Martian turned from Ralc and proceeded to ignore him.

Ralc visibly wilted, staring at the high walls of the facility. There must be another way, he thought. His eyes scoured the length of the wall. Past the edge of the crowd, it led down along the rock face until it turned at the very end and disappeared into pointed shadows. Ralc stuck to the dark and made his way along. He did his best to make his movements look relaxed, slinking back his shoulders and taking smooth, broad steps with his scaled toes. Most of the other onlookers were chanting and cooing each other, having a good time. Far too good a time to pay attention to Ralc.

Ralc’s progress was slow; he took a while to squeeze his way back through the mass of scaly bodies as more and more Martians set upon the canyon to claim their slice of history.

Finally, separate from the crowd and bathed in just enough darkness, Ralc made a dart to the very end. A heavy-set Martian wearing a dark, carbon visor to protect his identity — the mark of the Elder Guardsmen — stood between Ralc and the edge. To Ralc’s relief, the guard appeared more than a little occupied by two revellers in the crowd who had just begun beating the living hell out of one another. They were just a few yards in front, each bludgeoning the other with their antennae as much as their talons. More and more of the onlookers began to notice the sluggers. The brawl provided just the distraction that Ralc needed; he slipped around the bend and away before the guard could turn back around.

Another entrance was carved into the rock ahead, tiny in comparison to the massive one on the other side. Ralc crept towards it.

Bleep. Bleep.

Ralc stopped, suddenly alarmed and realising that he was quite isolated.

At that moment, the door slid apart and two huge Martians dragged an odd-looking, bespectacled fellow out by his arms. He kicked uselessly against the two brutes, legs dangling in the air like a misbehaving grub. They threw him roughly onto the red dirt, turned and went back through the doorway, which closed behind them.

Ralc leant down to help him up. This was the only person who seemed to be having a worse day than himself.

The dishevelled creature dusted himself off and regarded Ralc before saying ‘Thank you, grub.’

‘What happened? Why did they throw you out? Are you a scientist?’ Ralc asked, not stopping to breathe.

‘A mere scientist? My grub, without me, these mindless pupae would never have achieved their objective!’

‘What was the objective?’ Ralc asked.

‘Why, to build a ship capable of reaching the blue planet of course! Gosh, you’re not the quickest grub on the plains now, are you?’

As if on cue, the ground rumbled in a way that none of the assembled Martians had ever experienced before. It rumbled greater than the greatest desert quake. Greater than the sound of a thousand sand crawlers. The crowd watched on in shocked silence as a giant, oval-tipped craft tore upwards into the heavens, a glittering blade cutting its way up through the skyline.

Cheers broke out and the gathered Martians hugged each other. That is, except for Ralc and the scientist. They just stood watching solemnly.

‘It’s not fair! I want to go with them! I want to know what it’s like! It’s all I’ve ever wanted, to go that is!’ said Ralc, starting to deflate.

The scientist looked sadly at Ralc and said, ‘You’re not alone, young grub. I, too, believed I would be on that ship. It was the entire reason I made it. To go to the blue planet was my dream.’

‘But why aren’t you on it if you built it? Why’d they throw you out? Surely you, of anyone, would get to go with them!’

‘My dear, dear, grub. They aren’t going to the blue planet to merely explore it.’

Ralc looked blankly back at his wrinkled old eyes, not understanding. ‘Did they say they are going to bring them the Light?’

‘Exactly! That is precisely the problem! The Light is our way of life, our culture, our very civilisation, young grub! We will absorb, consume, devour everything we find there until it becomes indistinguishable from ourselves. All uniqueness, all originality, everything there will be replaced by simply more of this. More of our flaws, our vanities, our politics, more of our petty jealousies and prejudices.’

‘No,’ said Ralc, his talons trembling now.

‘Have you ever thought about what will happen if they do not accept the Light? If they are unable or unwilling to receive it?’

‘No, what?’ said Ralc, a look of horror coming up to boil across his face.

‘We will bring our warfare. We will bring enough weapons and, worse, our willingness to use them, until all that remains is an ashen husk.’

‘We can’t let them,’ Ralc said through a grimace.

‘Then, in time, we will build a new, greater Terradome there for our future generations to start again. I protested this once I realised the inevitability of things. Tried to sabotage it myself, even. But they caught me and threw me out as you’ve just witnessed,’ the scientist hung his head at this and said no more.

Speechless, Ralc watched as the ship careered upwards into the stars and the blackness in between. It grew farther and farther, arcing slowly, deliberately, towards the only thing he’d ever loved despite knowing nothing whatsoever about it. Still, he thought, at least I’ll always have my blue planet. At least they can’t take that away. The ghost of a smile appeared momentarily on his lips until the wind blew it away just as quickly as it had appeared. Then, in the minutes that followed, a single tear froze in each of Ralc’s eyes as the Martians stood to watch the beginning of the end of a world.

Copyright © 2019 by Roman Wolujewicz

Proceed to Challenge 814...

Home Page