The Rafting of Jorge Santa Cruz

Adelehin Ijasan

Illustration by Sumit Roy

‘¿Dónde está mi hija?’ Jorge asked his mother on the little screen in the cramped communications booth. Outside, a long queue of miners washed their faces with tiny, 0.05 oz water sachets. Most wanted to speak to their wives or girlfriends, having been mining the pale blue promethium salt in the moon’s subsurface for months. Jorge wanted to talk to María, his little girl.

‘Ven… con… padre,’ his mother said, her image freezing on the dull screen.

‘¡Pinche conexión!’ Jorge cried, slapping the monitor. At the third smack, his daughter appeared, rubbing her eyes and clutching Sophie, the giraffe doll he’d bought for her three birthdays ago.

‘¿Volverás para mi cumpleaños, Papá?’ she asked, grinning as she climbed up on her abuela’s knees.

‘I will, mija,’ Jorge said. ‘I will not miss your birthday for the world.’

‘I am going to be six,’ she said proudly, rocking Sophie.

‘Seis,’ Abuela told her. ‘Voy a cumplir seis años. Muestrale a tu padre lo mucho que has aprendido.’

‘Seis,’ María said, beaming. ‘Uno, dos, tres, cuantro, cinco, SEIS!’

‘No money for cake, Jorge.’ Abuela said, covering María’s ears.

‘I’ve paid up most of the debt, Mamá.’ He glanced at the timer. Only fifteen seconds left. ‘I will have a little leftover for a cake, I promise.’

‘You don’t have to buy a cake if we can’t afford it,’ María said, pulling abuela’s hands down from her ears. ‘It’s okay, Papá. If you can make it, then it’s okay. That’s all I want.’

‘I will make it, mija,’ Jorge said, suddenly breathless, but the connection had dropped again, María’s smile frozen on the screen, and she didn’t hear it. His timer ran to zero, and the message: ‘You have exhausted your credits’ popped up in nauseating green.

‘¡Puta madre!’ He cursed, slapping the side of the monitor before getting out of the booth. María’s birthday was in four days. The next shuttle was leaving for earth the next lunar day. If he got on it, he’d be just in time to make it after a three-day journey to earth. He had to get on that shuttle. Surely, his manager would understand.

It was his little girl’s birthday.

‘No,’ his manager said flatly.

Jorge’s heart sank. She printed a ledger of his collection over the past nine months, snatched it from the machine, and showed it to him. ‘I cannot let you leave until you’ve paid your debt in full, George.’

Jorge adjusted his baseball hat, wiped his sweaty palms on his blue overalls, and took the printout from her. Karen was a stringy, no-nonsense woman who ran a tight crew. She was unmarried, had one estranged young-adult son from some distant period of indiscretion, and was known around these parts as the Iron Lady. Her no’s were usually final. She unscrewed the top of the bottle that contained her anti-radiation pills and tossed two into her mouth like peanuts. She chewed, and Jorge frowned. Only psychopaths chewed such bitter medication.

‘It… It says my total is 480 grams, here.’ Jorge stammered. ‘That was my agreement with the company, Karen. 480 grams covers my debt and then some.’

‘Nine months ago, George.’

It had stopped irritating him that she called him George.

She typed again on her computer, and the printer came to life. ‘Your debt has accrued interest in the nine months since you’ve been here at 2.4% representative APR.’

Jorge picked up the paper, tears in his eyes.

It said, ‘Updated Loan Commitment’ at the top, and after a page of legal jargon, ended with ‘Recalculated repayment amount in Promethium: 481 grams.’

‘1 gram?’


‘It’s just 1 gram, Karen.’ He felt the urge to fall to his knees and beg, but he restrained himself. Karen was the sort of psychopath who would like that.

‘You want me to overlook 1 gram, George?’ she spat.

‘Please, it’s my daughter’s birthday. I have done my time.’

‘There are 400 miners here on the moon’s subsurface. Most, if not all, are gamblers in over their heads with debt. If I overlooked 1g from everyone’s quota, that’s 400 grams of promethium!’

Jorge looked at the document again, hoping to find a new total. The number 481 glared back at him.

‘You still have time,’ Karen said, looking at the launch schedule on the whiteboard behind her. ‘Launch is not for another eight hours.’

‘Dios mio,’ Jorge wailed and dashed out of her office.

Promethium 147, a lanthanide, was discovered on the moon in the late century by explorer probes mapping the elaborate network of hollow space beneath the Moon’s surface formed during the eruption of basaltic lava flows in the moon’s early formation. Prior, promethium was produced only by the bombardment of uranium and was not found naturally on the earth’s crust. It was the main ingredient for atomic batteries, also known as perpetual batteries. Two thousand grams of promethium could power an entire city for hundreds of years. It was the new coltan, the new gold. Every single electronic device ran on promethium-powered batteries. The lava tubes beneath the moon’s Mares Serenitatis were deep, connected caverns and the miners lived and worked in human habitats protected from cosmic radiation, meteors, and extreme temperatures.

Jorge broke into the miner’s quarters and began to don the suit that protected him from the gamma decay of the rare mineral. He grabbed his shovel and black light and swallowed two anti-radiation pills – 130mg of potassium iodide, which blocked radioactive material from being absorbed by the thyroid gland. The lunar-day miners were back from their shift, lounging in the dormitories, playing whots on double bunks, and returning from the chemical showers.

‘Going back out?’ Gbenga asked, drying his hair. He was a Nigerian who owed 6000 grams to a cartel and had been on the moon for twelve years. No one knew how much he’d paid, but it seemed he was never getting out. He was cheerful about it, in any case. Always smiling.

‘Thought you were all paid up,’ Gbenga said, lathering his skin with the recommended anti-radiation cream that left a whitish residue like sunscreen.

‘1g more in interest,’ Jorge muttered, zipping up the yellow suit, his breath fogging the visor.

‘Hmm,’ Gbenga said knowingly.

Jorge brushed past him and hurried towards the mines. The lava tubes had been fortified to prevent collapse, and metal rods ran the walls of the caverns turning this way and that to fit the erratic directions of the caves. Closer, he could hear the pick-ax chipping of rock as the lunar-night group worked. Two hundred men beneath the moon’s surface in little clusters, breaking up rock and examining debris with purple UV-A light in search of the pale glow of promethium.

Jorge joined them, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. No one wanted an extra man searching for the scarce mineral in their group. He found a free spot, got on his knees, and began to dig. He turned up moon rocks, broke clumps with his gloved hands, and ran the black light across the debris. The Geiger counter used by the team’s foreman beeped continuously, letting them know they were in the right place.

He worked for three hours, sweating under the suit. Nothing.

In his first month on the moon, he had picked only 0.5 grams, but three months in, his group stumbled upon a find, and in the mad scramble, he’d been able to collect 50 grams in one day. Promethium mining was unpredictable. There were whole months where he found nothing.

In desperation and against regulations, Jorge pulled off his gloves and started clawing at the rocks. The salt was radioactive, sure, but nothing a good chemical wash couldn’t get rid of. He turned his back on the foreman and his incessant Geiger counter and clawed, finding nothing but moon dirt.

He had been digging in the same spot for hours without success. Jorge stood, his back and neck popping. He grabbed his tools and shuffled deeper into the warrens of the moon, feeling his way with the guide ropes and metal that ran along the walls. He had only one hour left.

He saw dark silhouettes of men pour crumbs of the blue stuff they’d found into lead-lined tubes, their heads darting furtively around. In the innermost part of the mine, at the mouth of a small cave, Jorge found a man who had fallen asleep at his dig, curled up like a child. His black light was still on, and Jorge knew he had slept out of exhaustion. In the mines, the black light was a precious resource you turned off when not in use. The man’s left fist clutched a vial like a lifeline.

Jorge crept up to him. ‘Hey, man.’

No reply.

Jorge could see his face through his visor, illuminated by the purple glow of the black light. He was an older man in his late sixties with a salt-and-pepper walrus beard. Jorge turned away and began to dig, burying the thought rising in his mind. He worked for thirty minutes and still found nothing.


He crept to the sleeping man again and shook him. Jorge glanced around him. There was no one close by. He pulled the vial from the man’s clenched fist and opened it. There was a small rock – black and specked with blue-green. Perhaps two grams worth of promethium.


María’s face flashed across his mind.

Jorge dumped the rock into his own vial and returned the man’s empty vial. He crept back out of the hole, feeling like shit. He was not a thief; he had never stolen a thing in his life, and he knew the guilt of what he had done would haunt him for the rest of his life. He ran out of the mines, climbing over oxygen cylinders, mining tractors, pick axes, and men hunched over dirt.

Home! He was going home.

Karen was closing her door when he arrived at her trailer office. ‘Oh, you,’ she said with mild irritation.

He offered the blue salt as if to a god. She snatched it and quickly opened her door, keys jangling. The lights came on automatically, fluorescent bulbs clinking as they blinked awake. A centrifuge and a weighing scale were on her desk, each on either side of her computer. She emptied the rock into a ceramic bowl, crushed it with a small pestle, opened a sachet of ammonia, and poured it into the bowl before decanting the mixture into one of the tubes of the centrifuge.

Jorge looked at the clocks on the far wall: moon, mars, and earth time.

After spinning, she held the tube to the light, and blue promethium floated at the top, separated from moon rock by clear ammonia. Delicately, and with a spoon, she scooped the precious salt onto the scale.

1.06 grams.

Jorge heaved a sigh of relief.

‘Congratulations, George,’ Karen said, packaging the salt in a small capsule and depositing it into a chute. ‘You have paid your debt in full.’

‘Gracias, gracias,’ Jorge said, pushing the face of the older man he’d robbed from his mind.

‘You will be going home with the Aries Space Shuttle next week Friday, 8 a.m. Lunar time.’


Karen ushered him out of the office and locked the door. ‘Yes, I know I said you still had time, but the shuttle leaves in thirty minutes. The manifest has been sent to earth and confirmed. There’s no way you can get on it now. If only you’d brought it an hour or so earlier….’

It took all but the will of God and his desire to see his daughter and mother again to stop him from wrapping his hands around her neck.

‘No, Karen, please.’ And this time, he fell to his knees. ‘Mi-ijaI cannot miss her birthday. I promised.’

‘Get a grip on yourself, George,’ Karen said, disappearing down the irregular corridor in moon leaps. ‘It’s unbecoming for men to beg.’

María would understand, Jorge thought sadly. It was only another year before her next birthday. He thought of the man whose promethium he had stolen. All for nothing. He had become a thief and lost his honor. He was not the sort of man his daughter deserved. How could he live with what he had done? It all had to be for something, he thought. He could live with his crime if the end justified it. Jorge found himself at the fork of branching lava tubes. One led back to the dormitories, to another week of Gbenga and the men playing whots; tochemical baths, and dehydrated food in sachets.

The other led to the skylights, the one the Aries docked on, allowing astronauts in and out of the substructure of the moon.

Jorge took the latter.

The skylight was unguarded. Jorge seized the moment and climbed up the ladder into the belly of the Aries, expecting to be seized by the throat at any moment. No one was in the ante-room, even though he could hear voices ahead and some coming up behind him. He removed his baseball cap and ran across the all-white floor, feeling like a dirty rat running across a pristine kitchen.

Where could a stowaway hide safely on a passenger spaceship?

Jorge made his way to the cargo hold, navigating the ship with a miner’s intuition. He found a baggage conveyor belt and crawled into its rectangular opening, brushing away draft curtains. When he emerged on the other side, his worst fear came true.

A hand seized him and hauled him off the belt.


Jorge spun to see a familiar face glistening with radiation cream. ‘G-benga?’

‘I’ve told you several times, Jorge, the G is silent,’ Gbenga whispered, still clutching him. His broad smile of perfect white teeth shone in the dim illumination.

‘¡Jesús!’ Jorge whispered, his heart beating out of his chest.

‘You șef?’ Gbenga asked in Nigerian pidgin, letting go of him.

‘Me what?’

‘You’re escaping too.’


‘Come, quick.’

Gbenga led him down a series of narrow pathways into the underbelly of the ship. They crept into a small enclosure where Jorge saw that Gbenga had a stash of frozen food, waste disposal bags, and even a small iPad for entertainment. Gbenga saw Jorge’s incredulous look and chuckled.

‘Where are your supplies?’ He asked

Jorge wrung his cap.

‘You can share mine, brother. We’d ration it to make it last.’ Gbenga said, kneeling to pass what looked like a seat belt into gaps in the metal floor. ‘Strap in. You would not survive the high Gs of take-of standing like that.’

Jorge lay on the floor and allowed the muscular Nigerian to strap him in, grateful for his luck. What were the odds of finding another stowaway…and a competent one at that?

Thank you, ‘benga,’ Jorge said, tears in his eyes.

‘Good man,’ Gbenga said, smiling. ‘Good man.’

‘MARS!?’ Jorge shrieked, wrapping his hands around Gbenga’s throat. Gbenga grabbed his wrists and twisted them before flinging him across the small space.

‘Why didn’t you tell me, G-benga!’

‘The G is silent!’

‘Why didn’t you tell me.’ Jorge wept, holding his head in both hands. The hum of the ship as it flew at incredible speed away from earth, from his daughter, filled him with horror.

‘How was I to know you wanted to escape to earth!’ Gbenga said, opening a food pack and biting into 3D-printed beef suya. ‘Why would I want to go to earth? I would be dead in minutes if I stepped foot on that blasted planet.’

‘We have to turn the ship around,’ Jorge said, wiping his red eyes. He tried to crawl out, but Gbenga hauled him back.

‘We will be jettisoned into space if we’re discovered,’ Gbenga growled, his bushy eyebrows narrowing.

Jorge looked at the stacks of food. He should have known. No one would stack this much food for a three-day journey.

‘How many months?’ Jorge asked.


Jorge collapsed in a heap and hung his elbow over his face.

‘This is not the Aries, brother,’ Gbenga said. ‘This is a Mars supplies ship. It stopped to get final supplies on the moon before its journey to the red planet and the colony there. I have a contact on this ship and one on Mars. One of my brothers. The colony is thriving. Two hundred thousand strong. I hear it’s a beautiful place. A place a man like me can start a new life, away from my old problems. It could be a new start for you too.’

Jorge howled, clawing his face till it bled.

He sat up and stared, knuckle between his teeth, thinking of María and her abuela. What would they think when he didn’t show up for her birthday and they didn’t hear from him? They would think he was dead! He imagined abuela sitting in the company offices with María in tow, a handkerchief in her hand, waiting for answers. He imagined his daughter crying herself to sleep, Sophie, the giraffe, in the crook of her neck.

It was all too much. Why didnt he wait the week? WHY? Stowing away was a fucking stupid idea! Maldito idiota!

Gbenga tossed him a food pack. It struck his chest and landed on his knees.

‘I know you’re blaming yourself,’ Gbenga said. ‘But don’t. You did what you did with the information you had at the time.’ After a pause, he added, ‘Why do you want to go to earth so badly anyway?’

‘Mija. My daughter, María. It is her birthday in three days.’ Jorge wiped his tears. ‘I promised her I would make it.’

‘And your debt?’

‘All paid up.’

‘Oh,’ Gbenga said, one cheek bulging with half-chewed food. ‘You could have just….’ He trailed away, seeing Jorge’s look of self-reproach.

‘How old is your baby girl?’


Gbenga counted on his fingers. ‘Seven months to Mars. A couple more months to settle and figure out how to get on another ship back. I don’t know how frequently these ships take supplies or people to the red planet. Another seven months back, give or take. All hope is not lost. You could be back before her tenth birthday.’

‘Four years,’ Jorge gasped.

‘A rough and optimistic estimate,’ Gbenga said and took another bite of printed beef.

‘Tell me about your daughter,’ The Nigerian asked, trying to cheer him up. Jorge had folded himself into a ball in the corner for hours, and now he unfurled like a millipede. He felt cold inside, icy, still trying to accept his harsh reality. He pulled one of Gbenga’s blankets and covered himself. Perhaps talking would help.

‘María? Very good girl. Even as a baby. Never cried except when she was hungry, thirsty, or needed a diaper change. Very smart, just like her madre – not like me. Learned to speak early. Could count to ten before she was one. Lots of questions. Curious about everything, about life. Also, a good soul, inside, y’know. Her teachers loved her at nursery because she cared for the other babies. They called her Santa María—’

‘Holy Mary.’

‘Yes, like the Saint. Good, perfect child.’

‘How much did you owe?’ Gbenga asked.

‘480g…481 with interest. You?’

‘12,000g of promethium,’ Gbenga replied, almost with pride.

‘What does a man have to do to owe that much?’

‘Gambling. I had a family like you. A wife…two kids. But I couldn’t stop myself. I was also a surgeon. Orthopedics. My life was great. I lived on Banana island – its the place the richest people in Lagos live – but I lost it all…and more. I borrowed from the wrong people, and the interest quadrupled when I couldn’t pay.’ He looked into the past, smiling his characteristic smile. ‘Twelve years in the moon mines, and I’d only shaved off 2000g.’

‘You were never going to pay it all.’

‘The interest was at 16.5%.’ Gbenga shuddered. ‘Bastards.’

‘Mine was 2.4% APR.’

‘Loan company.’


‘Why did you go borrowing?’

‘My wife, María’s mother. Physics teacher at the university. Only thirty-two. We found a lump in her breast. Stage 4 at diagnosis: bone, lungs, liver. We needed money for treatment. I borrowed, but still, she did not survive.’


Life as a stowaway became routine quickly. They slept in the cramped space and did numbers one and two in the disposable waste bags they left for Gbenga’s-man-on-the-ship once a week to dispose of. His name was Manvi, a short and stocky Indian space host with male-pattern baldness and a brisk, businesslike manner. Gbenga informed Jorge that he’d paid Manvi 10g of promethium for his service, and Manvi restocked their stash whenever it ran low: canned fruits, 3D printed beef, baked beans, sardines, waste bags, anti-radiation pills, and 0.02 oz strips of water and milk. They shared the iPad, taking turns to watch old endless reruns of TV shows. They talked about their past lives: Gbenga, wistfully, about the beauty of the land around his grandparents’ old home by the emerald-green lake in Eti-Osa, the jokes and food he had shared with friends in the bars and restaurants of Lagos, and about pulsing rhythms of the Gẹlẹdẹ festival, and Ẹsọ l’ayé, a way of seeing the world Gbenga had only started to fully appreciate after years beneath lunar regolith. All now practically aeons from their cold stowage. He would never see any of it again. And Jorge talked about his little girl – her shining eyes, her kindness, her laugh – and how much it hurt not knowing how she fared.

Occasionally, the little Indian man would join them, and they would play whotstogether. Gbenga always won, screaming, ‘Last card…check up!’ Before throwing his card down and laughing raucously. The Nigerian had a quality Jorge admired: an equanimity and the capacity for joy even in their dire situation. Gbenga explained it was a Nigerian thing.

‘We are the happiest people on earth,’ Gbenga said proudly. ‘Nothing can break us.’

Some days, Jorge almost forgot he was in a spaceship, laughing at Gbenga’s armpit fart noises and anecdotes about Nigeria. Gbenga taught him to speak pidgin. To say ‘How you dey?’ and ‘How bodi?’

‘You should consider staying on Mars with me and my bros,’ Gbenga said once. ‘My brother tells me he has acres of land to farm. wild horses under crimson skies. A real paradise.’

‘My dad left us when we were kids, ‘benga. I couldn’t do the same to María.’

‘He just upped and left?’

‘He said he was going for milk and never returned.’

Jorge closed his eyes as the spaceship slowed. His weight doubled then tripled as G forces compressed him to the floor. His vision went blank for a minute before returning. Gbenga’s makeshift seat belt held him fast. He turned to see the large man hyperventilating, and he held out a hand. Gbenga grabbed it like a man rescued from the open oceanand held on. Apart from take-off, they’d felt no other movement until now.

‘Ah, Ah!’ Gbenga gasped in the seconds before losing consciousness, his grip on Jorge’s hand loosening.

Then it felt like plunging from the top of a rollercoaster for another fifteen minutes, and Jorge held on to the holes in the metal floor with his free hand, his eyes shut. The ship shuddered and groaned, sounds like banging cymbals reverberating around them. Then it was all over. Gbenga had regained consciousness, and the two men looked at each other, tears streaming from their eyes.

‘Brother, we made it!’ Gbenga said as they floated slightly off the ground before the ship’s artificial gravity kicked in. ‘Mars, baby!’

The feeling was bittersweet for Jorge. He was glad to be able to finally leave their enclosure, but all he could think about was what María was doing at the moment. Perhaps she’d be at school. He imagined her sitting alone in a school cafeteria, eating and reading from a book. She loved to tell him the stories she had read. He was looking forward to seeing her, the elation they would both feel, when he walked back into their home. Oh, how she’d scream! He imagined that first hug and her voice and it filled him with hope. He was determined to return to her. How tight he would hold her and never let go

‘I think we’re in orbit over Mars,’ Gbenga said excitedly, looking into the holes in the floor as if he could see the planet through it. He couldn’t. Only more metal. More ship.

‘How do we get off?’

‘When we dock, Manvi will let us know how best.’

Gbenga started packing their things. He folded the blankets, picked up the waste papers and leftover food, and stuffed them into a knapsack. Even though he had managed a few push-ups in their cramped space, Jorge noticed that his muscles sagged, and he looked smaller than when they had set out. His friend looked gaunt, tired.

‘Maybe I should stay here when you get off,’ Jorge said.

‘Why? What nonsense?’

‘What if I’m unable to stow away on another ship?’

Gbenga held his shoulder. ‘One step at a time, brother. You don’t know how long this ship will be docked for? It could be months; it could be years. Stick to the plan. We get off, survive for a couple of months and then re-strategize. We have Manvi, a space host. He would get you on board his next trip.’

‘You’re right, you’re right,’ Jorge said, grateful for the reassurance.

‘I think Manvi’s coming,’ Gbenga said, looking up to the sound of approaching footsteps. But Jorge noticed that there were more than a pair of feet.

‘Search over there,’ a gruff voice said. And the footsteps split into two.

Gbenga’s eyes widened.

‘This is the commander speaking.’ The voice said out loud. ‘We are armed, and we know there are stowaways here. Come out peacefully, and you will not be harmed. Any sign of aggression will be met with deadly force.’

This was followed by the click-click of a gun.

‘Shit!’ Jorge whispered.

‘I am not going back!’ Gbenga cried out. He clenched his fists, readying to fight.

‘Neither are we.’ The voice replied.

Jorge put a hand on Gbenga’s forearm, ‘We have no choice; we have to surrender. We can’t fight this.’

‘Listen to your comrade,’ another man said. ‘You have not committed a crime. Yet.’

‘We’re coming out,’ Jorge said, crawling out of their hideout and raising his hands. ‘Please don’t shoot.’

The light of a bright torch dazzled him, and cold handcuffs clamped his wrists together as he covered his eyes. There was a brief scuffle as Gbenga resisted the cuffs.

‘Don’t struggle, ‘benga!’ Jorge said.

‘Get the torch off my face!’ Gbenga said.

They led them up the ship through an engine room and a narrow corridor of wires and circuits before climbing a spiral staircase into a cabin. Unfamiliar faces stared at them, a few passengers, colonists. Manvi had told them they were transporting supplies and new colonists whose occupations were needed on Mars: eye surgeons, engineers, and priests.

‘Hello,’ Jorge muttered respectfully. They did not reply. He imagined how dirty he and Gbenga must look, like two mangy animals found in the ship’s underbelly.

The commander led them through the cabin toward a vast, expansive control room with a wide viewport. Outside, the red planet loomed, pockmarked with deep and long craters like a battle-scarred warrior. Jorge stared, raptured, at the magnificent red ball and its thin wispy atmosphere.

Activity stopped in the cockpit, and all attention turned to them. Three men and three women.

‘Are the handcuffs necessary?’ one of the women asked.

‘I am Commander Mdovle Mana,’ the commander said, offering them a plastic cup each. He retrieved a bottle of whiskey from a cabinet beneath his control desk. The control desk was littered with spiral-bound notebooks with mathematical calculations and drawings.

‘Are you drinking men?’

Jorge and Gbenga nodded. He poured drinks into their cups, and Jorge noticed that his liver-spotted hand trembled slightly.

‘This is my first security officer, Mr. Finn Bryne.’ He said, referring to the tall, middle-aged Irishman who had cuffed them. Mr. Finn kept his pistol trained on them.

‘Hannah Zeiss, my flight engineer.’

A small woman with deep-set eyes gave a limp salute.

‘Li Zhang, my command module pilot. Sigrún Isleifsdóttir, mission specialist.’

‘Hello,’ Jorge said. They raised their hands.

‘And Folake Ajirebi, our medical officer.’

‘Folake?’ Gbenga said, perking up. ‘You’re Nigerian.’

‘Yes,’ the medical officer said, brushing her braided hair away from her face.

Jorge felt Gbenga visibly relax. ‘Ejo e ma je kin wan da mi pada si ilu.’ He said in rapid-fire Yoruba.

‘My Yoruba isn’t that good,’ Folake said curtly. ‘But I hear you.’

‘What are your names?’ Hannah, the flight engineer, asked, coming around from behind a control desk.

‘I’m Jorge Santa Cruz. And he is ‘Benga. We are moon miners.’

‘Moon miners?’ A voice from the speakers.

‘That is Mission Control.’ The commander said, gesturing to the control board where the voice had come from.

‘This is Dr. James Murray, Mars Mission Control, Valles Marineris. We understand you are undocumented aliens on the Pars Planaris requesting to dock on Mars. We thought you stowed away on earth?’

‘We stopped briefly for fuel and supplies on the moon,’ Folake said. ‘A few hours. We did not expect stowaways.’

‘How did you survive all this time?’ The security man asked.

‘They obviously have a man on my ship.’ The commander said, sitting on a rotating chair and pouring himself a cup of whisky.

‘What is your motive for coming to Mars?’ Dr. James Murray, from mission control, asked over the comms.

‘To start a new life,’ Gbenga replied. ‘I’m not going back.’

‘I thought it was an earthbound ship,’ Jorge said. ‘I thought it was the Aries. I’ll be grateful if you can put me on the next earth ship.’

‘We have got confirmation from the Moon that they have two missing miners. Jorge Santa Cruz and G-benga Oshodi. Correct?’ Murray asked.

‘The G is silent,’ Jorge said, and Gbenga looked at him gratefully.

Jorge saw how Li Zhang and the other lady – something dottir – did not look at them directly. They pretended to focus on control panels, turning knobs and flicking switches.

‘What is the problem?’ Gbenga said brashly, his usual smile absent. ‘We are here. I can see the damn planet. Omugọ!’

Folake, the medical officer, raised an eyebrow in surprise, and Jorge picked up a mix of reproach and pity.

‘It is not that easy.’ The commander said.

‘We cannot let you dock with undocumented aliens,’ Murray said over the comms. ‘It is an incontrovertible rule of our Mars colony.’

‘Why?’ Jorge asked in a small voice.

‘There are strict protocols for new colonists. All colonists go through a rigorous selection process. They’re immunised against certain diseases and checked for certain genetic defects. There is a budding new generation here that has no immunity to certain infections. Some of our children will die if infected with the common flu. You will have to return to earth.’

‘What?’ Gbenga cried.

‘We do not have enough supplies or fuel for a return journey,’ Hannah said, speaking up for Murray’s benefit. She had a small lisp. ‘We are carrying thirty-two important colonists and twelve ship crew. We also have medical supplies for your precious colony.’

Jorge suddenly remembered the rigorous testing he had to do before shipping off to the Moon.

‘We have a medical chip.’ He said, raising his cuffed hands. ‘We were tested and immunized before we went to the moon. All miners are. ’

‘That’s true,’ Gbenga said.

Folake, the first medical officer, placed a scanner over Jorge’s left thumbnail where the medial chip was. Then Gbenga’s.

‘They’re right,’ she said as details appeared on the scanner. ‘Sending details to Mars Mission Control.’

‘Give us a minute to review this and confer,’ Murray said from the speakers. In the background, a female voice said, ‘Medical ID records received.’

They waited. Gbenga crossed himself thrice even though he was not religious. Jorge took a sip of whiskey, the burn warming his throat. No one spoke for the tense five minutes they waited. The speaker came back on.

‘I’m sorry,’ Murray began, and everyone visibly groaned. ‘The moon medical testing process is rigorous for miners but not near sufficient for colonist purposes. You were not tested for prion diseases, for example.’

Gbenga downed his whiskey, ‘So what’s the solution?’

‘You only have one option,’ Murray said. ‘The rafting protocol.’

And the speaker went off.

Jorge felt the hairs rising at the back of his neck. He did not know what the rafting protocol was, but the commander’s face told him it wasn’t good.

‘In our early seafaring days,’ Commander Mdvole explained, ‘ships wouldn’t be allowed to dock once stowaways were discovered on board. On land, stowaways could claim asylum, becoming the legal and financial responsibility of the state, so countries would refuse to dock ships at port, and sometimes a ship would be stranded on open seas…not unlike our situation here.’ He poured Jorge and Gbenga another round of whiskey and walked casually around the control room.

‘Anyway, because of this, the crew, discovering such uninvited guests, would set them adrift in the middle of the ocean and leave them to die. This was called rafting.’

‘You are going to jettison us,’ Gbenga screamed.

Jorge looked at the vast emptiness of space and saw nothing but death. Hot urine dribbled down his thighs.

‘No, no, no!’ The commander and the crew said together.

‘He’s just explaining the origins of the term “rafting”,’ Folake said.

‘So…what is the rafting protocol?’ Jorge asked, his breath shuddering.

‘Follow me.’ The commander said, pulling down a ladder that led up one deck on the vast ship. They climbed up.

The upper deck looked like a temple. Twelve glass coffins were arranged around a circle.

‘These are hibernation pods, rafts.’ The commander explained. ‘In the event of damage to the ship, crew members can get in these and be set adrift in space until a passing spaceship picks them up. We have never had to use them in all the history of space-faring, but they are a compulsory requirement on every ship, enforced by the association of space hosts.’

‘It’s the assurance space hosts needed to accept the inherent risk during the early days of space travelling.’ Li Zhang spoke for the first time, and they all jumped, unaware she had climbed up the deck with them.

‘Like a parachute for an airplane,’ Jorge said. The rafts had clear white jelly in them.

‘Exactly.’ The commander said. ‘It looks like glass, but it’s really a transparent metal. Aluminium oxynitride, a ceramic of polycrystalline. It is completely see-through and incredibly strong.’

‘You want us to get in these?’ Jorge asked. ‘And be set adrift in space!’

‘Only for a while. The raft is an autonomous hibernation pod powered by promethium. It will put you to sleep once you tell it to. It will slow down your body’s processes and supply your needs. In theory, you could survive five thousand years in one of these.’

Folake stepped forward and opened one. ‘We will set you adrift in the direction towards earth. With inertia and baring a collision with an asteroid belt, nothing should stop your trajectory.’

‘Of course, you’re not going all the way to earth in one of these.’ The commander added hurriedly. ‘We would only be setting you along the exact flight path as our spaceships to ensure you get picked up by the next available ship going to earth.

‘For Christ’s sake, how do we get picked up?’ Gbenga asked, squatting, weak at the knees. ‘Do these ships have a grasping arm or something?’

The commander and his officers looked at one other, ‘Well, this is the first time we’re encountering this situation, and I will be honest with you I don’t know the pick-up protocol. Each glass raft has a beacon, and we will log our report to the space federation. Surely, you will be picked up.’

‘You don’t sound too sure about that,’ Gbenga said, holding his head in his hands. He turned to Jorge: ‘Brother, the association of space hosts will ensure the pick up of a group of space hosts stranded in space. I’m not so sure about a pair of stowaways! There is no association of stowaways.’

‘I know,’ The commander said. ‘But I give you my word. You will be picked up. Both of you.’

‘There has to be another way.’ Jorge cried. He wondered how many years it might take. How old would María be when they finally picked them up?

‘I give my word too,’ Folake, the medical officer, said, looking squarely at Gbenga, and to hear that from a fellow Nigerian seemed to calm him down.

A head popped up from the lower deck. ‘Murray is asking if the rafting protocol is complete.’

‘Give us a minute here,’ the commander barked. ‘These are the lives of men we’re talking about!’

‘I’m sorry, boss,’ the talking head said and vanished.

‘Come,’ the captain said to Jorge. ‘Let me show you how this works.’

Jorge went up to him.

‘There’s only one button,’ He said, showing him a small dot on the inner surface of the glass coffin. ‘You can press it whenever you’re ready to commence hibernation.’

Jorge felt suddenly claustrophobic. He stepped back from the rafts.

‘There’s an oxygen cylinder attached, but this would only last a day or two. This allows rafted space crew communicate with mission control before shutting down for the long sleep. I would suggest you commence hibernation as soon as possible.‘

‘Can you give us a minute?’ Gbenga said. ‘Please.’

‘Someone take the cuffs off these men.’ The commander said.

The Irishman hesitated, keys jangling in his hands.

‘What are they going to do? Leap off the starboard wings to Mars?’

‘Any attempt at violence…’ the Irishman warned as he removed their cuffs.

Jorge massaged his wrist. ‘How long do you think, sir…?’

‘I don’t know. It could be a year. Or more…’ The captain said. ‘You have to take off your clothes. All of it.’

Jorge removed his clothes and climbed into the whitish goo at the bottom of the raft. ‘It is cold.’

The commander gave a weak smile as he sealed the glass door.

The Pars Planaris shot Jorge out of the ship in (he hoped) earth’s direction. He shut his eyes, his stomach churning with vertiginous nausea. It felt like standing at the precipice of a mountain, except this was worse. The glass seemed to vanish, and it felt like he was floating naked in space, a kind of adult fetus in the womb of the cosmos. He summoned the courage to open his eyes. There was nothing below his feet and nothing above.

There was nothing but a great and dispassionate emptiness. He felt the saliva on his tongue bubble in the second before the raft pressurized to counter the vacuum of space. Jorge looked around, searching for Gbenga, and saw his friend’s raft shoot out of the circular rotating ship with a silent plume. The Pars Planaris looked like a giant iris, with multiple flaps quaking in a coordinated dance. Gbenga seemed to be going in a different direction.

Shouldnt they have been set on a similar course if they were both going toward Earth?

He didn’t think much of it, watching Gbenga’s glistening raft disappear into the void of darkness. ‘Sleep well, my friend. I hope I see you again.’

Jorge thought of the many men and women rafted in the seafaring days the captain spoke about. He imagined them on the open seas, tossed and turned by the waves before eventually dying of hunger, dehydration, drowning, or shark attacks. To be rafted on open seas or the vastness of space, both terrible fates and Jorge began to sob.

He remembered the man whose Promethium he had stolen and started apologising, ‘I’m sorry!’ He cried to the open universe. ‘Forgive me!’

Jorge searched the raft for the hibernate button, more to quench his grief than anything else.

Commencing hibernation,the raft said in a woman’s voice. The white goo warmed up, bubbled, increased in quantity, and filled up the narrow chamber. Jorge took one final deep breath before the wax-like substance covered him completely, sealing him in time.

His last thought was: María.

‘¡María, mija!

Jorge cried out as he came to life. He bobbed up and down and saw he was floating in open waters. He winced against the sun in the bright blue skies and the spray of seawater. Seagulls flew overhead, chirping, and a large ferry appeared close by. He had the odd sensation that much time had passed. A few seamen were standing on a smaller speed boat, and they hauled his vessel close with hooks.

‘It’s en man,’ one said.

‘Mel God!’ Another exclaimed.

Hibernation complete. His raft said.

He was on earth, Jorge thought with relief. He was finally home. He tried to sit up, and the men helped him, pulling him into their vessel.

‘Thank you,’ Jorge said, looking around for Gbenga. ‘Gracias.’

His legs collapsed under him, and he looked down to find that he had severe muscle wasting; his legs were two broomsticks with large bony kneecaps.

‘Gracias,’ he muttered, feeling the early pangs of hunger. His stomach burned suddenly, and he turned to the side and retched.

‘He’s en bones.’ One of the men said, covering him with a blanket. ‘Lighter than en baby.’

‘Santa María,’ Jorge gasped as his body came wildly alive. Pain shot up his spine, and his lungs felt like pins and needles in his chest. His heart picked up an arrhythmic pace.

‘en Catholic,’ one man explained to the other. ‘One en des old religions.’

They started the speedboat and drove to the larger ferry where reporters seemed to be waiting. Jorge covered his face with one weak arm as the cameras flashed and the journalists thrust forward with microphones. He needed help understanding their accent and their version of English. It sounded a little like Gbenga’s pidgin, but it could almost pass for another language if he didn’t listen closely enough.

‘Where am I?’ He begged.

‘en Earth!’ They replied. ‘Yer en earth!’

‘How long…how long was I in hibernation?’

They placed him gingerly on a bed, and doctors surrounded him, setting IVs and taking blood samples.

‘How long, please!’

‘2000 years.’ A reporter replied gleefully. ‘2000 years.’

Six weeks passed, and with physiotherapy, Jorge regained his ability to walk. The news reporters came to the hospital every day and then suddenly stopped coming, having moved on to the next sensational news item. On the holographic three-dimensional TV, they’d called him the 2000-year-old man. His physical therapist asked him where he wanted to go when he was discharged.

‘Home,’ Jorge said.

The hospital paid for his flight, and when he landed, he took a self-driving bus to Mexico City. A kind old lady paid his ticket with her thumbprint when she noticed him sobbing at the booth. Earth had changed in the time he was gone, and he could barely recognize it. The food was disturbingly unfamiliar, the language was confusing, and the architecture was different; buildings had unusual geometric shapes, and it felt like living in a protractor set. Robes were in fashion, and people seemed to go to offices and banks in what looked like bathroom robes. Vehicles were smaller and self-driving, and they zig-zagged at high speeds, tires making unnatural rotations when changing directions.

He got off at Avenida Juárez but could not find his old home. A series of high-rise apartment complexes shot to the skies where there once were small bungalows with large lawns. There was nothing left of his house, no memory or relics. He remembered the graveyard he’d buried his wife had been within walking distance from home. Surely the graves would tell him something.

But when he arrived, he saw that the cemetery had been relocated and replaced with a large shopping complex. There was nothing left of his family, no hint they’d ever existed.

María, Abuela, Jane.

Jorge roamed the city all night. He stopped to watch street boys on hoverboards play basketball for an hour, then he sat by a pond and fed holographic ducks breadcrumbs. The captain of the Pars Planaris had not kept his word or perhaps had tried unsuccessfully to. He had journeyed asleep from Mars to Earth, his raft executing a rudimentary protocol to land in open seas when he reached Earth’s orbit.

No one had come to save him…or his Nigerian friend.

Gbenga had been less lucky. No one knew or heard of him. He remembered Gbenga’s raft veering off in a different direction. He imagined his friend lost in a distant galaxy in a deep slumber he would never wake from – G-benga with the silent G.

He continued to wander around the city. A police vehicle stopped, and the officer recognised him from the news.

‘There’s en library zutas das korna, ‘ she said after he asked her about the cemetery, about how he could find where his family could have been buried. ‘Genealogy records.’

He found the library easily enough and soon was in front of a minimalist computer that projected its screen directly onto his retinas. Its interface was intuitive enough to use, and Jorge searched the internet, going as far back as possible.

He found nothing.

He searched for his family name, Santa Cruz, and scrolled through pictures of people who could have been his descendants. He wanted to know if María lived a full life, if she married, had kids…a family of her own.

He wanted to know if she was happy.

A picture struck him. Of a woman in her thirties, posing with her shoulders to the side, a defiant look on her face. She looked exactly like his wife, Jane, just before the cancer.

But it was not Jane.

His heart quickened.

There was no name but a date around 2000 years ago. He clicked the picture, leading him down a rabbit hole of photos, documents, newspaper clippings, and audio recordings. In one slide, he found a photograph of a letter in a girl’s handwriting next to what resembled a memory card. And peeking into the frame, Sophie, the giraffe, tattier than he remembered. The letter wasn’t addressed, and it wasn’t signed, but on the same slide Jorge saw, through tears, a hyperlink. Hand trembling, he tapped it, and after a heartbeat, across space and time, unmistakeable, clear and warm, a voice:

I know you tried to come home to me, Papá. I know you wanted nothing more than to be here. I remember you wore the same clothes every day for years because you couldn’t afford new ones, but you made sure I always had a new dress. I’ll never forget the sacrifices you made for me. I appreciate all the little things. You were there for me when we lost Mom. I’m grateful to have known you, Papá. I spent last year in a field of dandelions wishing on every single one that you came home by some miracle. You are the love of my life, Dad. You are the best father I ever had, and even though you have been gone for years now, I want you to know that I am not angry at you. I can never be. There is nothing to forgive. I know in my heart you tried to return to me. I know it, Papá. I hope you’re safe.
Te Amo.

Adelehin Ijasan is a Nigerian writer living in Scotland. He’s also an eye surgeon. His short stories have appeared in Fiyah and other venues. He was nominated for the Commonwealth short story award in 2014 and, more recently, was on the Nommos Award longlist for speculative fiction. Adelehin made the Locus recommended reading list in 2020 and is one of the co-creators of the Sauútiverse, a sci-fi fantasy shared project published by Android Press in November 2023. Links to his stories can be found at

Sumit Roy, a.k.a scorpy, is a self-taught freelance illustrator, graphic designer, and digital artist from Basirhat, India. Sumit’s work has also appeared in Weird Horror Magazine and other publications around the world. See more of Sumit’s work at his website.

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