For as much as the world sucked anymore, Matt really didn’t want to leave Earth.
He wanted to write the really in huge capital letters. In ink, right across his dad's forehead.
Matt shifted in his chair, searching the waiting room. There weren’t any stores in Space Port Nine that sold ink pens. Heck, they were hard to find online anymore. The closest store in the terminal had some cheap solar tablets for sale out front and some T-shirts, but not much else. He wished he'd kept all his art supplies with him, but they were all in their luggage. It could be getting loaded onto the ship by now.
All he had was his small sketch pad, the one with the rip in the cover, and a few regular pencils. Matt couldn't help but wonder if his dad had put everything else in one of his own briefcases to make sure he got on the ship. All of his prize drawings were packed away, including his first ones, the ones of his Aunt Cecily's greenhouse. Maybe he shouldn't have said he hated the whole crappy idea of spending the rest of his life on Mars.
He'd have his supplies for the two week journey, but what good would it do? He wouldn't have crap to draw on the ship. Walls, sinks and hallways. That was it. And then what? Dead, rolling hills and pink skies. He'd have some greenhouses to sketch at the colony, of course, but that would get old fast. The air outside on Earth could be hard to breathe sometimes, but at least here, he could go outside.
Matt sighed and added another line onto his drawing of their house. Home, where he could pretend he was sitting. Man, he missed it already. The weird patterns in his bedroom ceiling. The funny noise their heating system made that helped him fall asleep every night. He stared harder at the image, trying to melt away into it. It helped calm his nerves.
“Cheer up, Matt,” his father said, shifting and holding up his tablet. He scrolled through some text. Probably something about stocks or money. If it wasn't for his dad investing in some biochip company a few years ago, they wouldn't be moving in the first place. “You'll make new friends. This is the way of the future. Besides, I'll make us a lot of money on one of the terraforming projects.”
Matt gripped the sides of his chair. “Why are we trying to make Mars all nice when we could be fixing our own planet?” He glanced outside at the smog that hung over the buildings. It looked green in the setting sun. A bunch of noxious stuff from the old mines had to be leaking out. Some methane or ammonia or whatever they said it was. Why didn't anybody try to stop that? Matt wondered sometimes if the government was polluting on purpose to force everybody to leave Earth. They probably made money that way.
“Why are you so serious at your age?” His father smiled at him. “You should be worried about girls and sports at this time in your life.”
“And there's lots of girls here.” Sports, he could care less about. “There aren't a lot of teenagers over in the colonies. You said so yourself. And why doesn't anyone ever come back from Mars?" He'd never heard of it happening. He hadn't seen any arrivals today in the spaceport. Only departures.
His father sat back in his chair. Matt had made a good point, and they both knew it.
“Dad, there's still time for us to go back home,” Matt continued. He had to keep the momentum up. “It'll be easy. Just grab our luggage, and we go.” His heart pounded. This was his last chance to convince his dad. The rest of his life depended on this.
His father coughed. “Matt, you don't understand. We are going home. They have nice quarters set up there for us already.”
He still didn't get the point. Why did his dad want to go to Mars so bad? He could make money here. If Matt didn't know any better, it seemed like his dad was nervous, too.
Matt returned to his drawing. His chest tightened. Even the familiar lines, shadows, and cracks of his house couldn't comfort him now. He slapped the sketchbook shut and sat back in his chair.
He was leaving Earth for good.
The waiting room had filled now. Almost every chair was taken up by a nervous body. He studied the faces around him. Lots of adults, most in business clothes. One baby and two couples. A few employees milled around in their blue uniforms and high collars that looked suffocating. A blond employee rolled a cart around and asked everyone if they wanted coffee. She sounded like a robot. The guy watching the T-shirt store stood there like a statue, hands behind his back. Everyone was ignoring them. No one talked. No one laughed.
Two female employees walked by, pulling a cart full of potted saplings towards the loading area. Behind them came a man pushing a bird cage on wheels. Sparrows skittered around inside, trying to escape. Matt knew how they felt.
“Bathroom, Matt,” his father said, getting out of his chair and heading towards the food court. “I'll be right back.”
He'd left his tablet on his seat. Yeah. Those were sweat marks on the glass, evaporating fast. His father was just as nervous as he was.
Matt watched him go. The back of his father's suit grew smaller down the hall an disappeared around a small group of Space Port Nine employees.
A twitch rose up through Matt's legs. He let his gaze follow another caravan of living things—this time a tank of butterflies and trembling flowers. It reminded him of his Aunt Cecily's garden, the one she kept in her private greenhouse.
It was there that Matt had learned how to draw. She'd bought him his first colored pencils for his tenth birthday, four years ago.
Matt stood before he even realized he was doing it. He clutched his sketchbook tight, aware that it didn't belong in here.
He made for the exit.
He had to go get on a monorail before his father could find him. If he was lucky, one would leave in five minutes. He just had to make it to the front of the station. His dad wouldn't leave without him. They'd both miss the flight, and it would give Matt more time to convince him to stay. And if his dad still wanted to drag him to Mars, he could stay with his Aunt Cecily for a while. She'd take him in, and they'd both have no choice but to stay.
Matt broke into a jog. He hurried past the solar tablets. The T-shirts. The cheesy cardboard stand you could stick your face through and have your picture taken as Marvin the Martian. Thankfully, no one was in it to watch him run past. None of these business people cared about five hundred year old cartoon characters.
The exit into the Main Hall loomed larger in front of Matt. An employee stood there in his blue uniform, sliding a pass card into the lock near the door. Great. Matt didn't need anyone getting in his way.
“Excuse me,” Matt said, reaching for the door. “I need to go.”
The man faced him just as the door made a click. “I am sorry, sir. I've just locked up. Everyone on the boarding list is here.” He smiled. Something about it looked off. Fake. Why did all the workers here act like machines?
“But--” Matt sputtered. He glanced back at the two empty seats he and his father had left. His dad would return from the bathroom any second. Was there another way out of the waiting area? His mind spun. He hadn't seen one besides the boarding gate to the ship, and there was no way he was taking that. “Sorry, but I'm not going to Mars. Just unlock this and let me out. Please.”
“I cannot do that.” The man kept his expression blank. Emotionless.
“What?” Matt's stomach turned over. He had to hurry. If his dad came back, he'd lose his courage. “Sure you can. Just put your pass card back in. I won't tell anyone or get you in trouble. Did my dad pay you to do this?”
“No one paid me to lock the door, sir. You are going. You must. Go ahead and have a seat,” the man said, waving to the empty chair. “Boarding begins in twenty minutes.” The employee turned away and walked towards the loading area, leaving Matt standing near the door.
This had to be a joke. Matt tried to push the door open, but it wouldn't move. Matt cursed under his breath. “Really?” The guy was serious. He'd locked all of them in the waiting area. Panic raced up his spine, tingling and screaming. He raised his voice. Somebody here had to listen. “Man, you can't force us to go. It's against the law. We're locked in here!”
The employee stopped and looked back at Matt, giving that fake smile again. “You don't know the truth yet, do you?” He started walking again.
“Okay. This is not cool. What truth?” Matt looked around the room to see if anyone had heard him. A woman nearby kept reading on her tablet. A man farther down the row of seats nodded, listening to a something on his audio chip. Only a few people bothered to look at him, but no one got up. It was like everyone was resigned to the trip. “What truth? Why are they keeping us in here?”
The woman held her tablet closer to her face, trying to shut him out. Someone sighed. No one opened up. The guy with the pass card neared the corner and the faceless Marvin, ready to turn down the hallway to the bathrooms.
This couldn't be good. Was it really horrible on Mars? Was the government actually forcing people to go? Nobody here looked happy, that was for sure.
Matt had to do something, and fast, even if it got him in major trouble.
He ran. Caught up with the guy. Grabbed the back of his collar, yanking it down.
It worked. The employee grunted and stumbled back, dropping the pass card. It landed near Marvin's cardboard feet.
Then something else caught Matt's eye.
The man had something sticking on the back of his neck.
An ugly purple blob pulsed on his skin like an oversize slug. Reddish tendrils snaked their way into his skin and towards his brain.
Matt let go of the guy's shirt collar in disgust. He dropped his sketchbook and pencils. Matt had to stop a gag from rising up.
The employee turned to face him. “Please, have a seat,” he repeated in a calm voice. He adjusted his collar, flipping it back up.
“But...there's...there's something on your neck!”
“Kid, sit down,” said the woman with the tablet. “There's no point in arguing.”
“Didn't you see?” Matt turned to face everyone. The woman met his gaze, rolled her eyes, and looked down again. He turned to face the rest of the room, and--
The pass card.
It lay on the floor, face-up. The guy with the thing on his neck bent down to retrieve it.
Panic took over. Matt lunged and pushed Slug Man out of the way. The guy grunted and toppled to the floor. Matt snatched the pass card and bolted.
Heads rose. People stared after him. Matt didn't even care that he'd left his sketchbook. He had to get out. Away from all this and that thing that had attached itself to the guy's brain.
“Matt!” his father called after him. He'd come back from the bathroom.
But he couldn't go back now. Feet thudded. Slug Man must be right behind him.
“Matt! Come back,” his father called.
It was too late for that. Matt shoved the pass card into the slot and the door made another click. He shoved it open and spilled out into the Main Hall right when a hand scraped the back of his shirt.
“Sir, there is no need to run.” Slug Man was close.
Matt didn't slow. The Main Hall was barren now. Dead. The departure schedule glowed in the middle, and closed doors lined the room. Others were locked into their own waiting rooms. How many realized they were trapped?
“Sir.” Shoes squeaked on the floor, but farther behind him.
Matt pushed through the rotating glass doors to the monorail station. Coughed on the thick, gross air of the outside. He'd left his mask in the waiting area, but he couldn't go back for it now. He'd just have to deal with it. A thud sounded behind him, followed by another and another. Slug Man was still giving chase, and he'd brought others.
Matt looked up and down the station. “Are you kidding?”
Empty tracks. No transport cars. Orange lights cast the whole tunnel in a sick glow. The office nearby stood empty. They'd sent all the trains away.
The rotating doors turned. They were pushing through. Matt caught a glimpse of three blue-uniformed bodies on the other side. He had to think fast.
Matt turned a trash can onto its side and shoved it into the doors. Garbage spewed everywhere, adding to the smell. The can scraped against concrete and lodged between the doors and the wall. They came to a stop. On the other side of the glass, Slug Man stopped pushing and stared at Matt. Crammed in next to him were two women in blue employee uniforms, one of them the robotic coffee girl. They exchanged looks, blank and patient. Were they possessed by those slimy things, too?
Matt wasn't going to stick around to find out. He ran towards the office. There was nowhere else to go. The tracks were electrified. He'd get fried if he jumped down on them. Maybe he could barricade himself in the office and call for help. Someone had to come.
The ticket booth still had a half-open window. Matt climbed up and squeezed himself through, toppling to the floor. Something beeped and he pushed himself up. The office waited across from him, lit and empty. Everyone had gone for the day.
Something scraped from outside. His pursuers had gotten the trash can loose.
Matt closed the ticket window. They'd know he came in here. He wedged a chair up under the office door handle. It might stall them for a bit. But the two women must still have pass cards. They could unlock it easy.
Could he fight them? Matt searched around for a weapon. A broom in the corner, another chair next to him. He seized the broom. Footfalls drew closer. What hope did he have? This was going to suck.
They'd attach one of those slug things to his neck and it would hijack his brain like with these people. Had those creatures come back from Mars? It didn't make sense. All they'd ever found on Mars were some four billion year old bacteria, back from when the planet wasn't dry and dead. Man, this was just like one of those horror stories people used to make about the Red Planet hundreds of years ago, the ones he'd learned about in history class.
“Sir, can you open the door?”
Maybe those stories were right.
Matt braced himself. One of the women muttered something, and the door clicked. Yeah, they had a pass card.
The chair moved aside and the door swung open, shoving his useless barricade out of the way. The coffee woman stood there, eyeing him with patience. Behind her stood Slug Man and a second woman.
“No.” Matt held the broom handle in front of him. “You're not putting one of those things on me or my dad. Is that what you do to everyone before you send them to your planet?” He tried to sound tough, but his words came out young and scared.
The three of them exchanged glances. The woman eyed him again. “Our planet? But--”
“Move!” He swung, and the woman jumped back.
“--you are mistaken,” the woman finished, calmer than ever. “Very mistaken. Put the broom down and come with us. Please, do not make us use the gas. We do not like to have to knock people out.”
The woman drew a plastic face mask out of her pocket. She unfolded it and slipped it on over her nose. The others did the same. These weren't the fabric masks everyone wore outside. These were the kind you put on in a war.
They meant it.
“I repeat, do not make us use the gas,” she said through the mask. Her voice sounded muffled.
“What gas?” Matt backed towards the ticket booth. If he could climb back out, he might escape. “What gas?”
A faint pop sounded through the office, followed by a low hissing sound.
He swore and dropped the broom. Matt shoved open the ticket booth window. A whitish fog swirled in the office behind him, spewing from the air vents and rising higher and higher. He scrambled through the opening and back onto the platform, falling onto his hands. Pain burned his palms. He ignored it and scrambled to his feet.
Matt's heart sank. It was no use running.
More white smoke swirled out of every vent in the monorail station. The air thickened around him, and a strange, sweet smell invaded his nostrils. Matt pulled his shirt over his nose, even though he knew it wouldn't be any use. They had him. The chase was over.
He had to lie down.
Matt's limbs turned to lead. He dropped his hand away from his nose and staggered, catching himself on the wall. Sleep. That was all he wanted right now. He didn't care about anything else.
He fell to the floor.
Closed his eyes.
He stirred. His arm brushed the fabric of a chair.
“Matt. Wake up.”
He opened his eyes. He sat in a chair in what looked like a small sick room. A cot with paper lining sat nearby, along with a monitor on the wall. It was turned off.
And his father stood next to him, hands clasped together.
“Dad.” Matt felt too groggy and weak to get up and hug him.
“Relax,” his father said. “You'll feel better soon. It'll wear out of your system in no time. Don't get up yet, or you'll fall.”
The gas. He remembered the fog swirling around him, and nothing else until now. His father must have found him. Brought him here.
But was he--
Matt's heart leaped and he ran his hands down the back of his neck. Smooth skin. No alien slug. He breathed a sigh of relief. He had to tell his father what he'd seen. “Dad, I--”
“Sir, I would like to give you back your sketchbook.”
Matt twitched in shock and turned his head.
Slug Man sat there in another chair right on the other side of his father. He held out Matt's sketchbook and bag of pencils, smiling. “You draw very well.”
“Stay away,” he managed. He looked up at his father. “He's being controlled by--”
His father raised a hand to shush him. “I'll take that,” he said, grabbing the sketchbook. “Thanks. Yes, he's an artist, all right.” He faced Matt. “Don't worry. I'm not mad at you.”
“This guy's got some alien attached to him! Just pull down his collar and you'll see.” Matt went to stand, but the room spun and he fell back into his chair. There was no way he could walk yet.
“Yes. I know what's going on.” His father faced him. “Calm down. Nobody here is going to hurt you. If the employees wanted to, they would have while you were knocked out. We'll explain everything to you.”
Matt blinked. He scanned the back of his father's neck. No slug. It seemed like only the Space Port Nine employees had them. “Dad, what is going on?”
“May I answer his questions?” Slug Man asked.
His father raised his hand to his chin. He thought for a while. “You might as well,” he said. He faced Matt. “Ask away. You have to know sooner or later.”
Matt balked. His dad had known about this all along and had kept it from him. The answers should come from him. A flare of anger rose up inside and he turned away from his father.
He managed to sit up all the way and face Slug Man. “What are you? I mean the thing on your neck. Or the thing that's controlling this guy. Well, you know what I mean.”
His father laughed. Matt didn't miss the nerves in it.
Slug Man turned and pulled down his collar to show the blob again. It looked really disgusting in this light—slimier, darker. It wasn't a slug at all. It looked more like congealed jelly with red fibers coming out of it. “Yes, you are right that I am this creature, controlling this man's body. There are a lot of us. We have taken over the bodies of everyone who works in space ports around the world. We have also taken over all your government members and many of your scientists. However, you do not have to worry. We have all the bodies we need for our plan.”
“What?” Matt leaned forward in his chair and grabbed on. The room spun again. “You mean you're like, Martian invaders here to take over Earth? Are you kidding me? That's like War of the Worlds or something. You know, that super old story they told us about in school.”
“Matt, calm down,” his father said, taking his shoulder. “Let him finish.”
Slug Man let his collar flip back up. He faced Matt again. “My kind began right here on Earth soon after the planet formed over four billion years ago. We have always been here. So you are wrong about us being Martian invaders.”
Matt blinked. Waited. His father shifted.
Slug Man continued. “We are not the Martians here. You are.”
His words felt like a punch to Matt's stomach. “You're lying,” he said. “That's stupid. That doesn't even make any sense.”
“I am not,” Slug Man said. “All life that you know, Matt—plants, animals, germs, people—came from Mars. Billions of years ago, an asteroid hit Mars and sent chunks of it flying into space. Some of those chunks had microbes—your ancestors—inside them, and many of those rocks made it here to Earth. Even though my kind was already here, you took over, and soon our world was overrun with Martian life. That is your true history. We have done the research. We know it is true.”
Matt's throat dried out. He swallowed. The whole room seemed to close in.
It couldn't be.
“Over time, you made it impossible for us Earthlings to survive on the surface,” Slug Man continued. “You filled our atmosphere with toxic oxygen. You covered our land with poisonous plants. We Earth creatures had to go far underground to survive. Your deep mining projects freed us a few hundred years ago, and we learned how to take over your bodies. Now we can take back our world. We are putting Earth's atmosphere back to what it was before you arrived. To you, it's pollution, but it is what we are used to. We are also sending you back to your home planet, one group and species at a time.”
“It's not true!” Matt stood and staggered. He balled his fists. “You're making this crap up. You've got to be.” He faced his father. He needed backup. His dad would join in and tell Slug Man to shut up.
But his father took his arm, steadied him, and gave him a sad look. “It is the truth. You're going to have to accept that.”
“No. It's not,” Matt said. His words fell to the floor and withered. There was no lie on his father's face. No joke.
“Matt,” Slug Man said. “You have to understand. If aliens took over your world, wouldn't you want to send them back? To have your world again? We are only trying to make things right for all of us. We fix our planet, and you fix yours.”
“But Mars is all dead,” Matt said. His voice was shaking. “And cold. And creepy.”
“Indeed. You are lucky you left when you did,” Slug Man said. “It looks like we both have planets to fix. We all have thousands of years of work to do.”
Matt couldn't speak. A deep chill spread under his skin. He trembled.
Slug Man walked towards the door, opened it, and stepped out. He waved. “Your cabin is down this hallway, last door on the left. I have set the sick room door to unlock fifteen minutes after takeoff. Enjoy your flight home.”
Terror exploded in Matt's chest.
They were already on the ship.
“No!” Matt broke his father's grip and lunged for the closing door, but his legs weren't working right yet. He stumbled and fell on his face. Yellow spots flared in his vision.
Slug Man had locked them in.
Matt pushed himself off the tile. Pounded on the door. “Let us out! I'm not a Martian! Come on! Please!”
He kept pounding and pounding and pounding until his father wrapped his arms around him and pulled him into a hug.
Matt couldn't fight anymore. He sagged into his father's embrace. A muffled announcement came on. Something about takeoff.
A faint hum started.
“There's no fighting it, Matt,” he said. “They're controlling everything now. They're sending the business people like me first, so we had no choice but to go. But I promise we will make the best of it. Your Aunt Cecily and most of your friends will join us in a few years.”
“This isn't fair,” Matt said. Was that all he could manage? To whine like a little kid?
His father breathed out slow. “I don't know. Maybe it is.”
* * * * *
Matt sat alone in the cabin he and his father shared. He flipped through the blank pages of his sketchbook, sprawled out on the bed. His father had gone down to the lounge for a while, giving Matt some quiet time. But he hadn't had the heart to draw anything in two weeks.
What could he draw, when everything he'd ever known was a lie?
“Attention, passengers.” The smooth voice of the ship's captain rang through the halls. Matt had no doubt that he'd been taken over by one of the slugs, too. “You will arrive at your destination in two hours' time. Please gather your luggage and prepare to depart. Have a wonderful day.”
His father walked into the room and to the window, sighing in relief. “You ready to be off this ship?”
“The colonies aren't as bad as you think. And we're making them better all the time.”
Matt flipped through his sketchbook, to the picture he'd drawn of his house. He tried to sink into it, to pretend he was back there and in his room. But it was millions of miles away now. He'd never see it again.
“At least look at where we're going.”
Matt faced the window, if only to please his dad.
At first he only spotted the inky void of space. But then he sat up and a reddish expanse appeared in the window, surrounded by a thin, glowing atmosphere. An enormous canyon spread across its surface, along with several dark smudges that had to be the colonies.
They had arrived.
“I know it's not much,” his father said, “but we will make it better. It'll just take some time.”
His father walked away, hands behind his back, and started rummaging through a briefcase.
But Matt couldn't look away. It was an amazing sight.
He turned to a new page in his sketchbook, lifted a pencil, and started to draw.