I wrote this short story for the 48-hour-contest of Sci-Fi-London. I’m still proud of it and hope you enjoy!
The light beneath the crinkled ‘No Smoking’ sign was crusted with a patina of dust, gluten dew, and broken dreams. It matched the sticky counter and the ratty stools and benches, even the nicotine vapor filled air in the tiny, run-down backstreet bar. Here, nobody asked for a V-1 pass. Here, everyone was welcome. Almost everyone.
Nicolas gazed at the entrance between sips of soymilk, clenching his arms against his body in an effort to keep the stench of his body odor trapped beneath his waxed coat. Water was too expensive to waste for things like showers, at least until he found a supplier willing to sell to drifters for a reasonable price, but no amount of logical arguments would erase the subtle feeling of shame about the state of his apparel. The grimy surroundings didn’t help, either; they just reminded him of how deep he had fallen. Rubbing a thumb against the cool glass in his hands, he sneaked another look at the fat, grumpy bartender, then back to the door. A half dozen of local drunks filled the background with just enough murmur to drown out the music and intermittent commercials from the comm system, but aside from a few dirty looks when he had first come in, nobody paid much attention to anything. It was the perfect place for what Nicolas had set out to do.
Unfortunately, time was running out.
When the door hissed and spit a tense, well-dressed man into the dilapidated pub, Nicolas almost jumped from his stool with relief. “Teral,” he called, waved him closer and licked a few drops of spilled soymilk from his hand as he watched his youth friend’s wrinkled face run through a series of all too well-known emotions. Shock, then fear, then anger, and finally shame and forced friendliness.
“Nic,” he greeted as he sat down, keeping a careful distance between them. His eyes flitted over Nicolas’ ragged apparel, then drifted off to the side. “You look good.”
Nicolas held back a sneer. A decade or two ago, words like that had been a compliment, but that had been before the outbreak, before the virus. Now, compliments about youth and looks painted a target on the backs of those unlucky enough to look overtly healthy. “If that’s your way to ask for my V-pass, I don’t have one.”
Teral paused, but his gaze stayed glued to the faux-wood bar surface. “Not even a V-3? Shit, Nic… I’m sorry.” Then, after a short pause, “How did you even get a drink without a V-pass? Aren’t those obligatory by now?”
“Nobody asks to see identification for a glass of soymilk.” The words came unthinkingly. Nicolas took in his old school friend, the grey streaks in his sandy hair, the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes, the pouch on his belly. Teral had to be in his fifties by now, just like himself, but next to him, Nicolas looked like a son or nephew, half his age at most.
The bartender lumbered over, let his eyes jump over Nicolas and fixed his gaze on Teral. “What can I bring you?”
This time, the smile on Teral’s face was real. “A goetja with ice, please,” he said and put his shiny, silver V-1 pass on the counter. It was an thoughtless gesture, something he probably did multiple times each day, but Nicolas still tensed and clenched his jaw. So many people had V-1 passes nowadays, rumors were already mentioning eugenics. As far as Nicolas knew, they weren’t far off. On the contrary, the truth was even worse than a little human breeding project. Much worse.
The little green drink almost disappeared in Teral’s paw as he took a sip. “So… what do you want, Nic? You know I can’t get you a V-pass, they’ve been upgraded to scan your cells for antibodies. No way around that that I know of.”
There were ways around that particular security measure that Nicolas knew of, enough to maybe get a valid V-3 or even a V-2, but it would be dumb to warn the authorities about that. He grabbed his cheap soymilk tighter, trying to force out the trembling in his fingers by sheer force. “Have you heard of the camps?”
“You mean the retirement centers for the afflicted? Sure. I’m local government, after all.” Another sip.
The music stopped and a commercial played. Nicolas chewed his lip. “People are being forced to go there. Rumor has it that nobody ever comes back out. They got one of my ship’s crew. I managed to follow them here, but that ‘retirement center’, as you call it, is too well guarded for me to break in.”
Teral frowned and shook his head, then took another sip of his goetja. His mouth was probably on fire by now, but that didn’t seem to slow him down. “You want me to break into a government facility? I’d lose my job, hell, maybe even my license!”
“I want you to break me in and keep quiet about it, nothing more.” It was hard to keep his voice even, but after weeks of fear, worry and searching, even Nicolas himself felt numb and jaded. “I tried to get in myself, but the doors are too well guarded. Please, Teral, I don’t know what else to do. I don’t want anything else from you, I’ll keep your name out of it if they catch me, but please, do this one thing for me. For old times’ sake.” And after a moment of cold silence, he added, “It’s my girlfriend. She’s pregnant, I can’t just leave her there. I have to get her out, I have got to get everyone out of that place.”
Something bleak and alien flitted through Teral’s eyes, then he looked away again, rolling his shoulders against the tense poise of his straight back. The background music started again, this time playing a song they had danced to often in their youth.
“If I said no, you’d probably do something stupid to get in anyway,” Teral said, sighing as he took the last sip from his glass. “If I were a better friend, I’d stop you from going through with this, but I am not. If I help you get in, you’re on your own after that, you hear me?”
Nicolas closed his eyes against the rush of relief flooding him, nodded and let go of his soymilk. Even the odorous cloud of his own stink pluming out of the collar of his shirt couldn’t ruin this moment.
The building complex containing the ‘retirement center’ lay towards the center of the space station, easily overlooked by the uninitiated eye between all the luxury and bustle. No sign or plaque gave away its purpose, the only tell-tale sign of something going on being the high-level security pass-locks. Teral’s presence had gotten Nicolas through the busiest decks, but his old friend had gotten twitchier and more nervous by the minute, looking around wide-eyed and throwing worried glances back at his hackly, youthful shadow. Nicolas couldn’t quite remember if Teral had always been this high-strung back in the day, but this was too important to waste time with suspicion. Too much was at stake to hesitate now, this close to his goal.
They stood side by side, eying the security door. Teral shifted, leaning backward as if to get as much distance as possible between himself and the door standing between Nicolas and his family. “Please reconsider this,” he whispered with a voice more strangled than hoarse. “Even if you get in, how do you plan to get out again? The lock works both ways and I definitely won’t go inside with you.” Hesitantly, he added, “I may be V-1 immune to the virus, but bullets will still kill me. Can’t you just let it go and disappear?”
Nicolas shook his head, tightening his fists to the point of pain. “You don’t have to come inside with me, you just have to give me a way out again. I need your key card to open the door… is there a code?” At Teral’s gasp, he threw him a hard look. “You can simply say I robbed you at gunpoint, don’t back out now.”
Teral swallowed dryly. Most of the color had left his face, making room for a slight sheen of sweat matching the look of terror in his eyes, which still dodged Nicolas’ boring gaze in wild, white-showing rolls. “I really wish you wouldn’t do this,” he muttered, fists opening and closing as if grasping at straws that didn’t offer any hold. Then, as if in pain, he carefully, slowly, reached into the inner breast pocket of his fine coat, pulled out the shiny metal key card and offered it to Nicolas.
He had to tug it out of Teral’s white-knuckled grip. “And I really wish you would realize how wrong it is to jail people just because they are sick,” Nicolas sneered, pocketing the card. “What’s the code, Teral?”
There was a forlorn look on his aged friend’s pale face. “Three Seven Alpha Five Theta Nine Nine Gamma,” he whispered tonelessly.
Teral’s expression drove a spike of icy hot fear through Nicolas’ heart, sending a spasm through his hand that made him tighten his fingers until the sharp edge of the key card cut into his flesh. Drops of blood splattered onto the ground, activating the environmental alarms. The soft, bell-like sounds were almost pleasant.
“This is the right thing to do, Teral. I need to go now,” Nicolas repeated, more to convince himself than for the sake of his friend.
The elderly man straightened, tensed his shoulders and nodded, but he didn’t move away. The silent plead was still all too present in his panicked eyes.
Nicolas walked forward, unable to face that expression of distress any longer. The lock looked even bigger up close, clean and fancy and alight with warnings and UI information tabs on the blueish screen. He raised the card to pass it across the surface.
The key code prompt appeared, and he typed in the combination, almost fearing that Teral might have tricked him.
“Please don’t do this.”
Shrugging off the quavering, breaking voice behind him, he watched the big sliding doors hiss open. Only then did he look back at the tear-streaked face of the man he had spent all of his youth with and smiled. “Thank you,” he said. Then he stepped through the doors and into the air lock behind.
As the doors started to close, he turned around one last time, smiling until he caught sight of the look of mourning on Teral’s face. There was death in his eyes. With a jolt, Nicolas tried to slip through the closing doors and back out, but it was too late.
“It’s for the best,” Teral yelled, sobbing through tears. “I never was a brave man, please forgive me!”
Then the door closed, hissed and a standard venting alarm blared through the tiny, claustrophobic space, counting down mere seconds.
The key card still cut into his hand, but the pain seemed irrelevant now. He had gotten to where he wanted to go. He would see his girl again.
The blast doors behind him hissed open and the rush of air dragged his body out into space and into the softly wavering sea of frozen corpses dotting the inner ring of the station.
He was home.