Edition 1: No Free Parking at Journey’s End by Louis Baum
“No Free Parking at Journey’s End” was second place prize winner of the 2011 Story Quest Short Story Contest. Louis Baum paints a bleak far-future universe, with twists and turns that are well crafted, and a masterful sense of irony. GH
Forty-one years, and now it was at an end. It was hard for Leo to believe. It was like a beautiful dream that once awake you try and hold on to, but whose ghostly substance disappears in the morning light like an evaporating mirage. Only strangely this dream was not fading with sober wakefulness. Instead, every day now, his cherished vision was being made more real, emerging from out of the realm of wishes and growing more solid in its yet opaque flesh.
He was on the cusp.
He was on the cusp of achieving the lifelong ambition of his deceased father, and in turn, the goal around which his entire life had centered. For the last few weeks he had been giddy and had done each hour’s tedious tasks with a big idiotic grin on his face. And yet his patience, which had been eternal his whole life, seemed to expire all at once in the last couple of days. He could not wait. After all, it was not much of a life to live one’s entire existence in space.
The planet was on the monitor screen. It seemed the most gorgeous thing he ever saw. Even without the instruments, it was easy to tell it had water, atmosphere, and land, which was neither frozen tundra nor burnt to a crisp. When he looked at the readings coming off it though, that was when his heart almost started palpitating. It was perfection, better than they had hoped. Honestly, what were the odds that the air would be breathable without any device? Even with Mission Control’s most careful selection of this place, the chances were still a hundred to one that their destination would be this friendly to humans. Everything looked fit to support life. The radiation levels, the temperature, the gravity; all were remarkably well within human tolerance.
As he watched the planet roll beneath them, he knew he could not wait to get to that surface, to see it with his own hungry eyes. A sailor adrift at sea in the void his entire life, to see at long last that oasis of land was overwhelming his restraint. He felt nauseous with the want inside of him to make his footfalls amid its alien majesty, combined with a lift of joy remembering the many successes they’d had in order to bring them to this point. Indeed, the odds of this place being so perfect were akin to the odds of them making it here at all.
He hated his father at first, when he was old enough to be able to grasp his situation and his father’s role in it. He hated any father who would take his six week old infant on a starship to live out its next forty-one years. As for his mother, she had died in child birth having him from a rare complication. He had never known Earth, except via stories and virtual reality sims. The direction of his life was decided for him at birth without his say, and he spent that life imprisoned in a hunk of metal in space as surely as if behind bars. There were thirty-three other kids and forty-two adults on board their craft. Most of the kids were born in space, and the rest, like Leo, were too young even to have a memory of their home world.
They were all headed on a forty-one year mission to explore the planet closet to Earth most likely to be capable of supporting human life. They would set up a forward base for the others who would follow behind them. From kindergarten through college the kids, Leo’s peers, were all taught about the importance of their “great mission,” which on the ship took on an import and reverence of a religion. They were told they were the new pioneers, like the pioneers of old Earth who once mapped out the uncharted wild regions so that future civilization could take root. They were leaders of humanity, they were the trailblazers, they were society’s great heroes.
He got in as much trouble as a teen on a ship with less than eighty people, who all knew each other, could. They, the kids born on the spaceship and those who arrived as infants, were meant to be the generation that reached the revered destination in the flesh. Many of their parents were not so lucky, including his own father who to his great regret he had never fully reconciled with. Communication with home was impractical as well. By the time they had reached their destination, it would take 20 years to send a communication to Earth or back. After exploring the planet, they were to send first word.
Unfortunately as well for them, all those touted technologies in Sci-Fi stories about suspended animation and cryogenic freezing did not pan out well in real life. By 2212, the time the ship left, even though speed somewhat nearing the speed of light was possible with a solar sail and fusion generators, the people aboard those ships still had to twiddle their thumbs, play virtual reality games, and try not to strangle each other.
Thinking of strangling, his saw one of his ex-lovers pass by. They hated each other now, another one of the ship’s petty dramas when just about everyone has slept with everyone else out of sheer mind-numbing boredom. Usually, they would just glare at each other and walk on, but today it was not worth it. They were in fact both beaming, the objective of both of their lives about to reach fruition. Overcome with the emotion of it, he embraced his ex. She expressed her fears, and like in the old days he told her it would be all right.
Those were not mountains, they were cities! They had to be! There, on the horizon as their ship made its descent, gleaming in the glow of the sun. It was unbelievable, stunning! Mankind was not alone in the great abyss. This would be a turning point in human history, and THEY were to be the first ambassadors. As they descended, they saw that the world was not only habitable, but surely inhabited.
The speculation as to how the aliens would appear ran rampant, as did the fears, doubts, exhilarations and wonderings. How should they approach them? Should they go to them first, or wait for them to make the first contact? How could they show them that they meant no harm? Meanwhile, the scouting parties found the planet met their wildest dreams for habitability. The air was breathable, and there were rivers that tested clean for drinkability, though there was no flora or fauna to be seen. The ground was hard and rocky and had a gold-like tinge. All the while, the strange spires of a city gleamed far in the distance temptingly.
Leo spent this time in a wondrous, almost ecstatic daze. He walked, looking at the earth, the sky, the alien sun, and sucked in deep the foreign air, finding it kind to his lungs. He wondered about the nature of the planet’s history. Most of all he thought about the inhabitants of the metropolis. It was decided to organize an expedition. But the next morning, it was the inhabitants that came to them.
At least they could have had exotic names. Why couldn’t they have had exotic names? His mind thought idiotically. Come on: Frank, Carl, Stephen!? Boring, ordinary names with boring, ordinary, and all too human faces. Questions, oh yes he had questions for them, and though they spoke English, they insisted on not answering anything until they met someone who they called “The Chairman.” All would be explained then they said. They took them in a floating craft to “the city.”
Leo drank in the sights as he passed by. There were shining, tall, metallic spires with no windows, looking as if constructed of liquid silver. There were flying craft of odd, oblong design making traffic in the sky. Steel domes were present below the spires with many doors which had ordinary-looking people dressed in dull brown uniforms filing in and out. No one took any notice of them. Copper-colored hover rails were ferrying people to more spires in the distance. Everywhere were the silver spires and domes. The part of the city which they passed through contained little else. He saw one large sign which said “Administration.” Everything looked functional, yet lacking in creativity or imagination. They were brought to the peak of the tallest spire.
The Chairman looked at them with his light blue eyes from behind the desk. They sparkled with a strange light. His face was broadly smiling, a smile which seemed forced and too wide. He had on a gaudy, brightly colored suit and a blaringly loud tie. He wore a large insignia pinned on his breast pocket which looked like two black circles connected to the top of a larger half circle. His colorfulness was in contrast to the other twenty people here who also wore the brown uniforms he had seen outside. That uniform, were they soldiers? Leo’s party, the crew of the ship, numbered only forty-three when they arrived on the planet, and all but ten were here. They were in a large circular room made of steel and unadorned except for holo-monitors flashing streams of information.
“Welcome to Journeys End!” said the Chairman enthusiastically, smiling like he was going to crack open.
Chin, the appointed, some say self-appointed, speaker for their group said, “Journey’s End? Is that the name of your city?”
“No. It’s the name of the planet. I am sorry to say,” said the Chairman, his smile fading, “you’re not the first.”
Chin, bursting with questions, ignored this statement. “What we want to know is how come you appear human? Did you evolve here independently from us? Or were humans, indeed an ancient space-faring race that colonized the earth? Or perhaps you are just appearing human through telepathy or technology in order to better facilitate communication with us? How, Chairman, is all this possible?”
“The answer is far more simple I’m afraid,” said the Chairman. “We are all here from Earth. You are not the first ones to arrive here.”
“What!?” said Chin, aghast. “Was there another ship, in secret, that went before us!?”
“No, after you,” said the Chairman casually. “As you know, for every year you spent in space at near light-speed, five years passed by on earth. That was over 200 years that had passed back home during your little trip. There have been a lot of changes during that time. One of which is that the two missions sent after you, due to better technology, actually arrived before you did.”
This revelation was like stepping from the buoyancy of water to dry land and suddenly feeling gravity’s full heavy grasp upon you again. Leo realized he had been sailing in the clouds, light with hopes and dreams, when all of a sudden he was brought down to the crushing earth like a stone. He could barely believe it. The goal his entire life had centered around, had been dedicated to, was all for nothing. All the people who had died on the journey deaths were for nothing. His father’s life task was for nothing. He felt like sinking down into the floor, into the rocky crust of this alien world and never coming back up. The great dream had suddenly morphed into a nightmare with a few simple words.
Chin’s voice was shaking when he spoke next, “When? When were the missions?”
The Chairman said cheerfully, ignoring the obvious impact of what he had said on them, “One was in 2254 and another other in 2340. I was one of the ones that came in 2340. We got here before the ship that came in 2254, but they got here before you did.”
Chin buried his head in his hands. Through his fingers he said weakly, “How, how did you get here so quick?”
“Oh, in 2335 we developed limited wormhole technology. We can now fold space to this point. Travel from here to Earth is virtually instantaneous. Aids in doing exotic shopping let me tell you.”
It was all for naught. Their whole lives. They were not the first, or even the second. His crew was looking similarly crushed. One had tears in his eyes. “What happened to the others? The ship that came before us?” Leo asked hollowly.
“Oh, I am afraid they didn’t adjust that well. They needed extensive therapy. But I am sure you will do much better. After all, there is no need to be glum my chums! Many great changes have happened since you left. This place for instance. It’s just so wonderful.”
The Chairman’s too-broad a smile returned. “Come and look!”
The Chairman walked over to the side of the room and pushed a button. The steel slid back to reveal a huge window. They walked over and were dumbfounded by what they saw. There were things which appeared to be zero grav play chambers, gravity coasters, themed floating islands, robotic combat-sim arenas, and a hundred more structures of such types. The most prominent thing rising above it all however, towering thousands of feet high, was a great statue of an upright standing, white-gloved, and smiling mouse. Its iconic face was burned into Leo’s mind from school even before he saw the great neon logo burning underneath the leviathan, making the rodent’s visage glow crimson. It was an amusement park. An amusement park the size of a city. Their parents had died and they, their offspring, had wasted their whole lives to come to a goddamn theme park. Leo looked like he had been clocked with a brick. He was stunned, his mouth agape. His mind refused to believe the information that his eyes were registering.
“As I was saying, no reason for frowns my friends!” The Chairman spoke with sickening enthusiasm. “You’re on the happiest planet there is. We have only developed a little of it so far, but we have wonderful plans. Being outside with the perfectly breathable air I am sure you saw that we have already started terraforming this world. It was good for humans when we came, but terribly unprofitable you see. The whole planet will be one big amusement park and resort community. Better start reserving your condos now folks, because they are going to start selling like hotcakes.”
His ex spoke up. Her voice was one of deep despair, on the verge of hysteria. “What are we to do now? Everyone we have ever known is at least a hundred years dead. We have no money, and no jobs. Our job skills are in technology which has gone, obsolete 200 years ago. We are middle-aged, and some of us have children to support. We were supposed to be heroes, now we are an embarrassment. Just some cavemen arriving late to the grand show. What happens to us?!”
“Not my department,” the Chairman said coolly, adjusting his tie. “And the job situation has become a little worse since 200 years ago I’m afraid. There really aren’t any. You’re one of the few rich, or the many poor now. This place is a playground for the nobility. But hey, what am I saying, there are a few jobs for some industrious people like yourselves. The Park has a few openings for greeters, busboys and garbage cleaners. They are pretty competitive, but I could put in a good word. You are heroes after all. Maybe you can work your way up over the years, who knows?”
The crew chose to react to these revelations with varying degrees of control and misery. Leo heard his ex scream. Chin hit his head intentionally against the glass softly several times. Many people began to sob openly. One man sunk to the floor and put his hands over his head. Leo alone was very calm, like the eye of a hurricane.
The Chairman stared at them wearing an expression like they were some barbarian children he wanted to get rid of, “Okay, here is what I am going to do folks. This should cheer you right up. It is a bit unorthodox, but hey, you have come so far and have been through so much. It is in my power to grant you all free one-day tickets to the park! Yes folks, that is one for each of you!” He paused and seemed to be waiting for cheers from the crew and appeared genuinely surprised to hear none. The weeping and wailing instead intensified.
The Chairman continued, his tone waxing chillingly officious, “Of course, blackout dates do apply. They are not good on weekends, before 3PM, and don’t include any special shows. Also that hunk of junk you came in on, you will have to remove it in 24 hours or pay lot charges lest it be impounded and you are fined. For one thing to know about this place, my friends, and I cannot stress this enough, is there is absolutely no free parking.”
Louis is a freelance writer and editor, rumored to have be raised by wolves, living currently in the wilds of rural Florida near an alligator infested swamp. He has wild delusions of world domination involving some combination of the words “army”, “gator” and perhaps, “ninja”. His work has appeared most recently in the Indiana Horror Anthology and Eschatology Magazine, and will appear soon in the Techno-Goth Cthulhu Anthology and the premier issue of Buzzy speculative fiction magazine. If you are interested in the drivel that comes forth from his brain, check out his brand new Facebook page.