Martian Holiday

(1100 words)

You could not reasonably say of Charles and Elizabeth Soulby that they had the characteristics of inveterate treasure hunters, but you could say that the curious force of money, the promise of it, had an unpredictable influence on their lives.
Charles was a fair young man with a tireless commercial imagination and an evangelical credence in the romance of business success, and although he held an obscure job with a bicycle manufacturer, this never seemed to him anything more than a point of departure.
“Y’know, Liz,” said Charles one evening, “there’s a guy at work, he’s got a sure-fire idea to make one helluva lotta big-time dough!”
Elizabeth Soulby raised her eyebrows.
“Yeah, his name is Stanley, got an uncle by the name of Matthias Dale, a big shot in the aircraft business. Anyway, seems this Mr. Dale is offering shares in the first flight to Mars!”
Elizabeth Soulby raised her eyebrows even higher.
“Honestly sweetheart, this Dale guy knows what he’s talking about, got contacts in the air defence business.”
Elizabeth squared her shoulders and put her hands on her hips. “Well, what the hell does this guy know that NASA doesn’t know then!”
Charles sighed, “Simply this, he doesn’t have a million and one regulations holding him back. And he has Fan Evans on his team.”
“Who the hell is Fan Evans?”
“Only one of the top Mars experts on the planet!”
“Never heard of him.”
Charles gave an exasperated look. “Her. Short for Fanny. Anyway, the fact you’ve never heard of her means jack squat.”
“Sorry, pardon my language, just look her up.”
“So, who’s paying for all this and how exactly do we cash in?”
“Well, look, Mr. Dale will sell us a franchise for a hundred dollars. We put adverts in shop windows, magazines and so on for people to invest a hundred bucks. For every thousand bucks we rake in, they’ll do a raffle and one of the ten will go on to the final draw. And listen to this, we get ten per cent commission, and we get a free raffle entry every ten thousand bucks. We can’t lose!”
Elizabeth made a noise like a donkey farting. “Sounds like we start off losing a hundred bucks!” She poured herself a large measure of gin and added some ice cubes. “And how many will be in this final list then, for Christ’s sake?”
Charles pushed a glass forward. “Fill me up, Liz, look, I dunno, just that the guy at work says some billionaire Saudi Arabian donor is going to increase the amount raised ten times!”
“Pfft. Probably won’t even notice it, the amount those Arab sheikh types are sitting on.”
“Maybe he’ll have to cut back on the handmaidens for a couple of weeks. Look, there’s just one little snag.”
Elizabeth snorted. “Oh, just the one?”
“Yeah, look, we’ve got to put our phone number. The idea is to weed out the weirdos.”
Elizabeth clinked her glass against Charles’s. “Well, here’s to all the non-weirdos who want to spend their life on Mars, cheers!”
“Hi, I’m calling about your ad,” said a woman’s voice.
Charles couldn’t believe his luck; he’d put the first card in a shop window just that afternoon. “Hi, so you wanna go to Mars then?”
“Well, not me, I’d like to send my husband.”
“Well, that’s OK, give me your address and I’ll send you the papers. Send them back with a cheque for a hundred dollars and you’ll be in the draw, as well as supporting a great adventure for mankind!”
“My name’s Tabatha, Tabby for short, but look, if I send two hundred bucks do I get two shots at the raffle?”
Charles felt excited. Two hundred bucks! “Well, yes, but you’d have to send two separate cheques and they’d each go towards a separate thousand, if you see what I mean.”
“Oh, sure, sure, I see. Look, what’s the odds of my husband, Kenneth, well, I call him Kenny, Ken sometimes. What’s the odds of him going to Mars then?”
Charles felt his hand sweaty on the phone handset. “Well, Tabatha—”
“You can call me Tabby.”
“Ah, well, Tabby, it all depends how many are interested. It could be thou— er, quite a lot. But all the finances will be made public so you can get an idea. One in ten will go onto the final list, then four from that list will go on the first mission.”
“Huh, it doesn’t seem that likely Kenneth will go then!”
He heard Tabatha coughing at the end of the line. It sounded like she was a heavy smoker. “No, wait a minute. Don’t forget there’ll be a second mission and a third ….”
“Yeah, but just how many lists are there gonna be, for Chrissakes?”
Almost exactly one year later, the Soulbys had signed up no fewer than five hundred would-be astronauts, netting a cool five thousand dollars commission, not to mention five raffle entries. Soon franchises were offered all over the world, where equally industrious salespeople had recruited tens of thousands of hopefuls and the Saudi Billionaire, much to his chagrin, had been required to increase oil production to keep his part of the bargain.
The rockets had been built and, thanks to Fanny Evans, plans had been made to set six astronauts down on the planet Mars forthwith, four raffle winners and two ‘proper’ astronauts.
“What’s up, Liz?” Charles asked one morning, seeing Elizabeth’s white face and shaking hands after she had just opened a long white envelope.
“Charlie, I don’t believe it. You’ve been selected to go to Mars! My Charlie, a world-famous astronaut. I don’t believe it!”
Charles snatched the letter out of his wife’s hand and stared, disbelieving. “Good god, you’re right, I’m going to Mars.” He began to dance around the room. “We’re all going on a Martian holiday ….”
When he’d calmed down, he re-read the letter. “It says the priority of the first mission will be to search for life.”
Elizabeth came over and placed one of his hands on her belly. “Charles, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. A new life is starting right here.”
Charles stood electrified. “What, you mean ….”
“Then if I go to Mars, I won’t see my son – or daughter, of course.”
Elizabeth smiled. “I’ve just had an idea. There’s nothing in the rules says you can’t sell your ticket. It must be worth a fortune!”
Charles sighed. “Jesus, that must’ve been the shortest astronaut career in history!”

Taken from the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth, 146 pp. Dec 2021

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