Mars bars

How do space travelers relax?

Not the jet jockeys of early spaceflight days.

No, I’m talking about regular, nerdy scientists and engineers trapped together, strapped together on a flight to Mars.

What will they do that’s any different than the time they spent together training on Earth or in the ISS?

And why is that important here?

Well, I sit on the steps of the lone goose saloon in Rocket City, loud rock ‘n’ roll music blaring out the open doorway, sipping a carbonated soft drink, wondering.

I wander from place to place seeking answers, devoid of all but one close friend (my wife), able to contemplate being alone for i am alone, indirectly connected to billions of people, wondering.

Am I ever alone, always close to people on Earth I don’t know personally but with whom I exchange friendly greetings easily?

In space no one can hear your scream outside the capsule.

How about here?

Here in cyberspace where invitations for casual gatherings occur even as I type this…

I am not as alone here as I think I am.

On Mars the invitations will be limited, the permutations of random people gathering to have fun and share easy to calculate (small).

Is it worrisome?

Machines built by us don’t feel alone or lonely.

Time to build my next machine, eh?

Time for a little of that old radioshack magic!

Recognition

Mr. Hawking,

We don’t talk to each other but your words reach me all the same.

I understand your concern about humanity’s future.

The solar system doesn’t care, it will go on even if civilisation collapses in this millennia-long expansion of our species’ boom/bust cycle.

We may not be the civilisation that expands into the galaxy.

I hope we are but it’s not a requirement, only a possibility.

We may just send probes that float out past the solar system.

It’s not enough, you and I want more human space exploration, but our species wants more, too — refrigerated/processed food, quick(er)/automated transportation devices and holidays away from home.

Who’s going to sacrifice their beachfront megaresort moneymaker (and high social/economic/environmental infrastructure cost) for a Martian R&D outpost?

Which offshore cash-rich corporation will volunteer to pay more taxes to fund space exploration rather than reward stockholders?

Who’s going to tell little Johnny that he’s not going to get his own all-terrain vehicle because it burns polluting fossil fuel and tears up land where a rare flower grows?

That, Stephen, is the dilemma we face when the commoners are bombarded with mimd-numbing political/sports/entertainment news from birth.

I love science and engineering but it’s never an easy sell, especially when Chicken Little is crying, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

Let’s show the people how space colonisation is an integral positive part of the entertainment network and they’ll play along without batting an eye.

Sincerely,

Rick

Pushing through the muck

Lee had not forgotten about life on Mars.

The colonisation process occupied the widest path in his thoughts.

Lee practiced being human and detoured from the path to remind himself of the frailties he once faced daily.

He reminded himself of love, what it was like to converse in realtime without the safety of the Internet between two people, having to see into each other’s smiles, smell each other’s bodies, risk tripping over words and word meanings.

But Mars was always there.

He challenged himself and the team to make AI entities more humanlike for the human tourists who visited the Moon and Mars.

Not “uncanny valley” human.

Less mechanistic.

More compassionate and understanding, able to read emotional states in silent interchanges between AI and humans.

Not just behavioural science but a more scientifically holistic approach to human-machine interface.

How to understand unspoken painful memories.

How to interpret sarcastic statements without knowing the socioeconomic subcultural history of the speaker/writer.

Lee expected perfection and settled for nothing less.

He set the example of himself to the team, willing to face his own deep, dark secrets and painful memories to program and test AI algorithms against the rest of the team, refining the code so that it was not tuned to a single personality archetype or body type.

He had been an artist from childhood.

But he was also a scientist and engineer.

A computer engineer and social engineer.

Computers programmed to perform only a few functions could be seen as megalomaniacs and single-minded narcissists from the wrong perspective.

Lee preferred the 360-degree view.

Lord of the Dance of the Crane Flies

What is the future?

The future, as they say, is now.

And Now.

Now.

And Then.

The future is another illusion, but one we can work with using project schedules.

Lee looked at his reflection in the puddle of water.

He felt young but looked old to people, even to people older than him.

He was old and wise.

Hundreds of marsyears had wisened him up.

Age was just a number.

As many times as Lee had renewed, recycled and replaced his body functions, he was ageless in a way that only scifi writers had dreamt of.

The algorithms coded in his wetware parts optimised themselves in their own wise feedback loops, running self diagnostic tests against subassembly test result expectations, rarely reaching his high-level “conscious” internal running commentary but he knew they were there.

Cancer had been cured, extending lives and changing society — retirement was another illusion, work no longer something to be feared as delaying one’s few years of freedom before death.

Inequality lived on due to barriers for entry into closed groups but the group types changed.

Lee meditated upon his image.

He let his face age, his ears droop, his nose grow wider.  He valued the perception of aging as a reminder that he was still partially human in the old-fashioned sense.

But he was no the natural-born human named Lee.

He was an approximation of that person, with qualities like “better than” or “worse than” impossible to say.

He was different.

Always had been.

Just like everyone else.

He was not even “he” in the classic sense.

He had learned the secret to longevity — it included a genderless mode that encompassed and bypassed a single gender at the same time.

Lee had fought the secret for a long time, trapped as he was at the time in preserving an imaginary society of fixed gender roles given to him by his parents, who had convinced him to join secret societies that perpetuated the same myths handed to them by ancestors.

Lee was not an ancestor worshipper.

Lee was Lee, an illusion of self, falsely convinced by a mirrorlike reflection of a self-contained, self-sufficient sets of states of energy in constant motion.

Lee was the center of Lee’s imaginary universe.

And when Lee discovered that, Lee was free of being any one Lee for any period of time.

As far as Lee knew, Lee was the universe.

Which meant Lee was everything and nothing all at once.

Thus Lee was able to live on Mars without the restrictions of a natural-born human.

Lee was everywhere at the same time.

But Lee had to make that transition a public event, with the usual expectations of gossip-fueled misinterpretation, resistance, acceptance, support and denial.

Lee started out living in the world of humans but didn’t end up there.

Vinyl siding or cedar?

Lee talked with another realtor.

“So, anything you haven’t told me about this place I need to know about?”

“Anything in particular you’re wanting to know?”

Lee looked around the open floor plan of the small two bedroom house.  Should he gently inquire about the realtor’s evasiveness, ask why the house had been on the market over 700 days with barely a drop in the asking price?

Lee reached into his pocket and pulled out the thick mobile phone.

“Wow, that’s an antique!”  The realtor motioned as if using an old Army field radio.

Lee laughed.  “Yeah, I know.  I gotta replace it one day.”  He made a circle with the phone as if looking for a radio signal, walking around the room a few paces.

Although the realtor knew Lee was purchasing his second home in as many months, she didn’t know that Lee was setting up a large communications network, connecting the houses as a giant transceiver.

He tapped on the phone screen and looked at the summary report generated from his sweep.

He was satisfied with the results.

“I only have one question.  What kind of deal are you offering on closing costs?”

The realtor smiled.  He hadn’t asked her about the uneven flooring or the odd slopes in the small yard that hid the entranceways to a large cavern in that part of town, making it difficult for her to sell the house to potential buyers with smart appraisers.

She didn’t know that was the very reason he wanted the place but he wasn’t going to tell her.

Lee still had a lot of packing to do, deciding what he was going to move where.

Memories of the emotional strain of a few weeks gently massaging his friendships fed his imagination while he tried and sometimes succeeded in giving the right amount of attention to the right people.

His was a public face, drawing attention wherever he went, including strangers somehow aware he was possibly someone they were supposed to know but couldn’t exactly pinpoint why.

Lee hid in plain sight.

He didn’t spend time explaining to everyone what he was doing.

One evening, he wanted to wander his old house, taking inventory of what to move.

Instead, he started meditating and then was offered dinner and conversation in exchange for a trip across town, reducing his time for counting objects.

Lee accommodated his friends.

He was a people pleaser.

He was both an immovable boulder in the middle of a stream, slowing eroding, and a willow tree swaying in a strong breeze, bending over backward but not breaking.

His plans outweighed him and his daily concerns.

Big plans lead to bigger joys.

Lee closed his eyes.

He looked at the 13-day boxcar window at the front end of a 12,057-day total until Mars was populated.

Lee smiled.

The plan was on schedule but he never doubted otherwise.

Confound it!

“Captain, it’s going to be at least another 72 hours before we finish repairs.”

“Wuh?”

“Sorry, captain, but it appears to be a design flaw we have to correct before we get to Mars orbit.”

Lee nodded and turned to Guin. 

She shook her head. “You stir crazy?”

Lee nodded again.  “I’m taking a quick nap.” He flipped his solar visor down and touched his wrist panel to single comm with Guin. “You tired, too?”

She flipped down her visor and leaned back. “Something bothering you?”

“Yeah. The darkness. You are the only person I can talk to about suicidal thoughts without triggering worry or sympathy.”

“Uh-huh.” During their early space travel training on Earth, Lee and Guin demonstrated to the psychiatry staff that their high level of creativity corresponded with bouts of depression that they managed by talking to each other.

“They’re old repetitious thoughts, almost comforting in that way.”

“I know.”

“In my daydreams, I’ve been speaking to myself from both the male side and female side, going through the arguments for staying alive. They’re not original thoughts… I’m depressed because I don’t have kids and if I kill myself I won’t leave behind a legacy even if I’ve impacted the lives of others in more ways than many with kids, etc.”

“Hey, look where we are.”

“Yeah. You know I married Karen monogamously for life and if she was unable to have kids, then we wouldn’t have kids. Therefore, all else being unknown givens, there was no reason to live any longer if the only real purpose of being a sentient primate is to procreate.”

Guin raised a eyebrow, which Lee smiled at in his VR view of her face inside the helmet. “Remember, I’m the one who knows more about what Katen experienced with a hysterectomy than you.”

Lee frowned.  “True.”

He lowered his chin to his chest. “I pass through these thoughts in frequent enough cycles that I’ve grown used to seeing them as their own form of escape mechanisms like fiction writing.”

“Wah wah wah.”

“I told you these are old. What am I escaping or hiding from?”

“Well, Karen was a nice person so I don’t think you were trying to escape from her specifically.”

“Maybe not. Instead, I look at my ‘faults’ — depression cycles, self-centeredness, bisexuality, my father’s passive-aggressive anger issues, to name a few — and think it might be best if one, I didn’t have kids, and two, I don’t live any longer.”

“What about on Mars?”

“Kids, you mean?”

“Maybe.”

“Still undecided?”

“Not in our mission goals. That’s partly why I’d kill myself tomorrow but I’m stuck in here for the next three days.”

“Yeah, dude, don’t stink the place up with your carcass!”

“Haha. I’d hate to waste a clean set of underwear so soon!  Besides, I love life even if I don’t love me.  I want to see how you keep progressing which means I’d have to stay alive at least until we can get back into the living quarters and out of this cramped command module.”

“Or after I see you on Mars?”

“Of course. There are times on Earth I’d say I’ll wait to kill myself until after X (some movie release, for instance).”

“Part of ordinary human existence, in other words…”

“Yep. Methinks it’s just a matter of dance withdrawal.  Only I can fix that, I have to care about myself and say it’s worth reworking our schedules that will support dancing. I risk losing more memories of Karen and living on my own…”

“Which you tried once and I appreciated the effort. Don’t worry, you won’t have to live alone for a long time, not on Mars!”

“Thanks for listening.  I may have figured out the latest reason for suicidal thinking: overthinking my withdrawal from dancing and how I can find a long-term solution for dancing more frequently.”

“Just not in the next 72 hours!”

“My chameleon/people pleaser self keeps wanting to draw a picture with you in it every time I talk to you and that’s not always necessary.”

“I understand. Perfectly natural. We’ve been space exploration partners longer than anyone.”

“Every time I talk to you like this, part of me wants to compose flowery love sonnets or a rap song just because I can and it’s fun to think you’d get an emotional kick out of my expressing lovelorn lamentations. Yes, part of me loves you that way but not always.”

“I love you, too, Lee. Feel free to hit me with your lamentations anytime. I won’t melt or faint, I promise.”

“Humans can do that, of course.”

“We’re not fully human anymore.”

“No. Still, though, I miss dancing with you on Earth, seeing how well your students improved, planning this future where two characters based in part on us (and others we know) would help build a new civilisation on Mars”

“Thanks. That is a nice way of showing what our friendship meant all along.”

“No problem. Doesn’t seem that long ago when I tried to stay away from you because I thought you’d be harmed emotionally by me when it was never my intent.”

Guin clicked her teeth and struck a John Wayne pose. “Well, pardner, you ain’t gettin’ away from me now!”

They both drew imaginary pistols and shot each other, their wrist panels automatically sensing an instant game of Cowboy Shootout, announcing Guin the victor of that round.

Lee feigned a chest wound and leaned back.