Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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Level 49

by Lee Gimenez

John and Susan Taylor lived on Level 50 and were bidding on a cube on Level 49. Only 100 people could move up to a higher level a year, so their bid was crucial.

"Do you think we bid high enough?" Susan asked, a worried look on her face.

John looked at his wife of five years. She seemed tired and older than her age of 30; her brown hair was already showing signs of gray. "I don't know. We bid almost all the Credits we have"

They had lived in the bleak Mars colony during their married life, and had bid to move up every year. Known as the Hive, the colony had 200 cramped underground Levels. Each Level contained thousands of 15' x 15' size apartments called cubes. The grim, tiny cubes got slightly bigger as they got closer to the Surface. On Level 49 and above you could have children, but not on 50 and below. You could move up only by bidding on a higher Level cube.

"Don't worry," he said, trying to reassure her. "I'm sure we'll get it."

Susan chewed her lip. She had just found out this morning she was pregnant; she hadn't told him yet.

"Well, let's get ready for work," he said, as he finished his breakfast. "We'll find out tonight if we got it."

They dressed in their blue, one piece jumpsuits and took the tubes to the Surface.


The Mars colony resembled a grimy mining town; metals and minerals were mined here and shipped back to Earth. Most of the people in the Hive worked in that industry. The Taylors worked as computer programmers for the Mars mining company, MarsEx.

"You're late," his boss barked at John when he reached his console.

"Sorry, Mr. Stark," John said. "We were putting our bid in this morning..."

"Save it. I don't care why you're late. Just don't let it happen again."

"Yes sir, Mr. Stark."

Since the Martian environment was so harsh, jobs inside the Mars domes on the Surface were highly prized. John's job was programming the giant robot mining machines, while scanning the surface maps and density tables. Stark was a hardass, but he was the boss; and working inside the domes was a hell of lot better than outside.

John and Susan were halfway through serving their 10 year Mars draft. When the Mars colony was set up in 2051, not many people had volunteered to go. Since the mineral deposits on the planet were so valuable, a draft was set up, and Earth residents -- at least those without the wealth and influence to buy their way out -- were forced into service.

Life on Mars was dangerous in theory -- on the surface, a malfunctioning suit or vehicle could kill you, and even in the domes or underground, things could go wrong. But in practice, it was mostly uncomfortable, with too-small living quarters and controlled supplies of food, water, and energy. It was, John had often thought, like being sentenced to a lengthy term in a somewhat-humane prison -- without being convicted of (or even committing) a crime.


That night over dinner, the couple watched the hologram news programs and waited for the bid results. The news reporter, a perky blonde, had just finished the Earth news.

"And here on Mars," she said, "the Level bidding for this year is now complete." She read off the winning names and Levels, while the list scrolled in the background. After going through the list, she smiled. "We'll that's it folks. Those are the winners! For anyone else who bid, better luck next year!"

John shut off the holo. "Damn, I was sure we'd get into 49 this year."

Susan bowed her head and started crying. John came over and gave her a hug. "Don't worry, hon. We'll get in next year."

"It's worse than you think," Susan said. "I'm pregnant."

"What? How's that possible?"

"I don't know...the birth control meds are supposed to be foolproof...but I guess they aren't..."

John held her in his arms. "I know we wanted to start a family, but the timing is all wrong. We're in trouble now. We didn't get into Level 49 and we can't have children on 50."

Susan looked up at him, wiping the tears from her eyes. "Maybe they'll let us stay here, and have our baby here..."

"No, they won't. Those bastards at MarsEx won't allow it. They set up the rules so that people don't have many children here on Mars. Children are too expensive and aren't productive to the mining effort."

What'll happen to us now?" she asked.

"From what I've heard, people are forced to put their babies up for adoption to an Earth couple."

"That's horrible...I want this child...it's not fair..." Susan said, starting to cry again.

"I know, I want it too. We'll file for an exception, maybe MarsEx will let us keep the baby."

"Do you think that'll work?"

"Not really, but it'll buy us some time until we can figure out what to do..."


The next day John went to the MarsEx corporate dome and filed the papers. The office supervisor there wasn't sympathetic, but let him know they'd get back to him by the end of the day. That evening, the couple was having dinner while watching the holo news cast. Suddenly, the MarsEx logo came on the holo, blocking out the news. The logo dissolved and a stern faced, silver haired man appeared from the screen.

"I'm Director Stanton," the man said. "I'm the Health commissioner for MarsEx. We've reviewed your application for having a baby on Level 50. As you know, the rules are very clear. Children are allowed only on Levels 1 through 49. You have one week from today to sign over your parental rights to the child, once it's born. The baby will be put up for adoption. You have no recourse, since abortion is illegal."

"But wait," John said. "Don't we have any other options?"

Stanton's voice dropped to a cold whisper. "No. You will give up your child, or return to Earth and go to prison there. And, in prison, you'd have to give up the child anyway."

"It's just not fair! Please help us," Susan pleaded.

"I'm sorry. The decision has been made. You'll have to wait 5 years until your Mars draft is up -- then you can have all the children you want, back on Earth." With that, Stanton turned off his holo and the regular news cast came back on.

Susan started crying, and John came over and held her.

"What are we going to do?" she asked, tears flowing.

"It looks like we only have a couple of options, none of them good. We give up the baby, or go to prison."

Susan squeezed John's hands. "I can't give up the baby...we've been talking about starting a family for a long time...I know the timing's horrible, but we've got to figure out a way..."

"There is one other way, but you won't like it either," he said.


"We go on the run...I've heard about people who evade the draft, go on the run on Earth and drop out of the Net."

Susan eyes widened, her voice quivered. "But, we'd have to get off Mars first..."

"Yeah, that'll be hard. MarsEx owns all of the space ports and most of the cargo ships."

"You think we could program one of the small automated cargo ships?" Susan said.

"Maybe. But there'd be no turning back. If we decided to do this, it would be permanent. We'd have to evade the law for the rest of our lives on Earth. You wouldn't be able to see your parents or sisters again. And if we get caught, we'd go to prison."

"I know, John."

John caressed Susan's face with his hand, and smiled. "Ok Let's go for it. I've always hated Mars anyway."


The next day they went to work and kept their normal routine His boss, Mr. Stark, was his usual bitchy self.

"John, pick up your pace. You're way behind your quota this month. I know you didn't get your bid on the new cube, but get over it. I've had enough of your excuses."

"Yes sir," John said pleasantly, not wanting to stir up trouble.

During his lunch break, he researched the cargo ship schedules into Mars. Since he was a programmer, he had access to many of the planet's computer systems. He found three automated ships that were offloading this week; two were owned by MarsEx, but the third was not. He focused on that one, a supply space craft named Mariner. From the records, it looked like Mariner brought medical supplies to Mars. It was scheduled to go back to Earth in two days.

John found a back door into Mariner's computer system He hacked into the system and wrote down its security codes. With those, they could get into the ship's hold and hide out on its return trip back to Earth. He finished quickly, and then went back to his regular work.


That evening John came home late, putting in overtime to satisfy his boss.

"I got the codes," he said. "Now we can get on that ship. We just need to get as many supplies as we can before we go. It's a long trip to Earth."

Susan hugged him and gave him a big kiss. "You did great! Let's celebrate."

She opened a bottle of synthetic vodka -- certified safe for pregnant women -- and mixed it with lime juice. They drank the whole bottle while eating dinner. Afterward, she walked up to him and unzipped her blue jumpsuit. She stepped out of it and unzipped his. "Now let's celebrate some more," she said, as she pulled him down onto their bed.


The Mariner left the space port during their off shift time two days later; their absence wouldn't be noticed for another day. They had used all of their Credits to buy as many supplies as they could, and with the maintenance supplies already on the ship, they thought they'd have enough to make it to Earth.

The trip was uneventful. The ship was fully automated, so no one else was on board. They passed the time reading and watching movie holograms. The only dangerous time came when they docked at the space port in Houston. They hid in the hold until the space port crews had gone home for the day, then sneaked out of the port in the middle of the night.


A month later, they were living in a small wood cabin in the mountains of northern Arizona. This part of the country was sparsely populated; the nearest town was 50 miles away, and they had no neighbors. John had taken a computer from the Mariner and had been able to hack into banking networks. From these he set up fake identities for himself and Susan, and stole Credits for them to live on. They stayed off the Net as much as possible, and didn't contact any of their relatives or old friends on Earth.

"It's been a month Susan," John said with a broad smile. "I think we've made it."

Susan smiled back, as she prepared dinner. "You're right. There's been nothing on the news about us, so I think we're safe. It's been great living here; I love the mountains."

"Me too. I know you miss your family, but pretty soon, we'll have a family of our own."

She patted her stomach, which was beginning to show. "I can't wait to have the baby...I'm the happiest I've ever been."

John came over to her and gave her a hug. "I know. Our lives are so much better now. I love you."

"I love you too," she said.

Suddenly, the dishes in the kitchen cabinets started to rattle. They heard a high pitched roar coming from above the cabin. John ran to the window and looked out. Jet hovercraft with MarsEx logos were circling above. Armed guards rappelled down to the ground and surrounded the cabin.

"Damn," he said. "They're here!"

"Who's here?" Susan asked.

The roar of the jet engines drowned out John's answer.

"This is MarsEx security," a loudspeaker boomed. "We have you surrounded. Come out, with your hands in the air."

"Oh, my God!" Susan screamed. "What are we going to do?"

John looked defeated. "We have no choice. There's over 20 armed men out there. We'll do as they say. We'll get a lawyer; maybe we can stay out of jail."

They walked out of the cabin, their hands over their heads. Two of the guards came up to them and patted them down. The guards walked back to their group and pointed their laser rifles at them

"Wait," John yelled over the roar of the jets. "We give up. We just want a lawyer."

The guards didn't say anything. They opened fire, the bright red lasers cutting into John and Susan. The lasers burned through their skin, cutting through bone and organs. The blasts from the lasers lasted several minutes, until their charred, bleeding bodies lay crumpled on the ground.


© 2008 Lee Gimenez

Bio: Lee Gimenez's stories have appeared in Skive Quarterly Magazine, Skiveflash Magazine, and Green Wave. More of his work is are scheduled to appear (or have appeared) this year in Escape Velocity Magazine, Cosmos Online Magazine, Afterburn SF Magazine, The Cynic Magazine, and Bewildering Stories. For additional information about Mr. Gimenez, visit his website Lee Gimenez

E-mail: Lee Gimenez

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