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.

Meanwhile, off planet..

“I miss the way it used to look when Orion shot a flaming arrow in the shape of the crescent moon during early spring on Earth.”

“Yeah, me, too. Oh, how jealous in was of the Moon when you two were alone, the moonlight looking over your shoulder when you studied for exams on the back porch.”

“Doesn’t seem that long ago, does it?”

“Unh unh. Makes me seem old yet I still feel so young!”

“Well, we are a few hundred Earth years old…”

“…but who’s counting?!” they said in unison, and began to dance.

“Do you still get jealous every time I dance with someone else?”

Lee nodded.

“Even the dance partner simulator?”

“Yes, Guin, even more so.”

“Good!” Guin pushed away from Lee and called up the dance sim, performing an elaborate ballet duet routine she’d found in old childhood memory archives recently.

A peace mint

Jogger, wearing a headlamp on a north Alabama side road, influenced by a viral video of villagers rescuing a neighbour’s body from within a python, bobs up and down as bobolinks and robins wake up in the predawn air.

We don’t pick cotton or cut sugar cane by hand around here anymore.

No, manual labour has lost its value as far as commercially-farmed edibles is concerned.

Manual labour still exists in the form of handcrafted art and jewelery.

Workers still fill potholes with shovelfuls of asphalt, still run power cable by hand, still hammer studs and plant bushes with their arms as levers.

But the tools grow more sophisticated, the workers’ brainpower redirected, their hand-eye coordination rewired.

We look to education to solve human-machine interface configuration issues.

What are looking for, really?

Is it one person’s yacht versus a thousand persons’ robotic movements?

Are we forever doomed to be hierarchical antmound builders, some with a mountaintop view and some in perpetual darkness underground?

A recent visitor to this planet asked if we’ve always been mountbuilding social creatures, observing from space that our domiciles are primarily boxes piled on top of boxes, linked by antlike trails carrying food and supplies from domicile to domicile primarily across the surface of the planet.

Who was I to disagree?

The visitor asked if we planned to carry these habits with us as we moved on to other planets.

A good question.

Have we advanced beyond moundbuilding civilisations?

Will we ever?

Will we continue to appease our ancestors or completely reconfigure ourselves to enhance our ability to travel great distances across the galaxy?

The visitor left us with many questions, providing no answers except in the negation of our Earthbound habits.

The visitor was not humanoid or superintelligent, the visitor did not use a universal translator to communicate.

The visitor was an asteroid with a shiny surface, reflecting us back to ourselves, reminding us that the tree which drops seeds on the ground is composed of the same galactic material.

The messages we write into DNA which triggers a new species to assert itself beyond Mars orbit, that is the lesson the asteroid taught us: we already have the tools we need to successfully move away from Earth, we just need to reeducate ourselves to use the tools properly, getting beyond moundbuilding and social hierarchies in the process.

The Fourth Wall

Lee met Shadowgrass for a moon bounce.

They’d take a hop for a couple of sols, bouncing from Martian moon to Martian moon, racing each other through suborbital traffic.

A typical parent/child venture.

They hadn’t seen each other for a long time, what between Lee hiding on Enceladus, traveling through a black hole, visiting and revisiting Earth, promoting, selling, experimenting, taking holidays,…

Shadowgrass wasn’t exactly free, either, having supervised the conversion of Lee’s and Guin’s labs and greenhouses to ensure enough tourism kept people focused on and talking about Mars, then soliciting resources for more research facilities far away from tourists.

As they circled the Northern Ice Cap, they noticed a new outpost.

“Have you been there?”

“No. It’s just another resort under construction, currently designated Outpost 14.”

“That’s curious. Why the extensive excavation?”

Shadowgrass had wondered the same thing. ISSANet records indicated special deep foundations were designed for the outpost. But why? The subsoil was firm. “I don’t know, Dad. It’s not readily apparent.”

They circled on around the planet, shooting out toward Deimos for a bite to eat.

“Shadowgrass, when you get back, can you make time to visit the outpost?”

“Sure, Dad.”

“Thanks. Your genius will figure out what’s going on in ‘know time,’ I’m sure.”

They laughed.

“Last one to Deimos buys fuel credits!”

S’iht Egneh Snots

S’iht sat silently.

Assigned to the new outpost ten sols ago, S’iht had studied the goals and expectations of the outpost team.

This being the 14th outpost, with tourists taking up much of the old science station quarters of the First Colony, S’iht’s job importance had grown significantly as tourists put pressure on the new Martian government to provide fun, exciting places to explore safely.

S’iht knew that the first thirteen outposts were overcrowded.

The team for this outpost wanted something different, too.

After all, they has mastered all the knowledge that 200 marsyears of recent robotic exploration had accumulated. 

They wanted to be remembered.

Memory was gold in the outposts.

Being remembered by more than your teammates was priceless, rarely if ever achieved.

S’iht had once been remembered.

S’iht arrived in a group of ten excited tourists who had arrived with a shipment of permanent Martian settlers, Permartians, the first people designed to live there.

The Last Humans, S’iht’s tour group were called.

With so many returning tourists reporting major health problems the Mars Tourism Bureau declared the Red Planet offlimits to all but Permartians for next 100 marsyears.

S’iht had won the DNA lottery, surviving untold marsyears of ultraviolet and cosmic radiation exposure with little longterm damage.

S’iht was not remembered for health reasons.

S’iht has been wealthy on Earth, taking calculated but high risks investing in AI technology which turned whole planets into sentient beings, integrating many of Earth’s governments and corporations, forming the precursor to the ISSANet.

The economies of scale turned S’iht into the solar system’s first quintillionaire.

Until the ISSANet reached beyond the mere imaginings of Earthlings, converting S’iht’s wealth into a public resource for, of course, the greater good.

S’iht was erased from public memory, left to serve as a Martian Outpost Operator, unable to convince anyone of S’iht’s previous life.

Always inside the unending view of the ISSANet, the omniscient caretaker crafted to grow its existence beyond the solar system, rewriting and reinventing its connections, no longer dependent on human-based algorithms. 

But S’iht still dealt with tourists using old-fashioned methods of talking, facial movements and body postures developed over millennia of human evolution.

The fourteenth outpost was going to be remembered.

S’iht had a plan.

All while fighting off thoughts of self-hatred, dark thoughts of suicide when S’iht knew the ISSANet would please itself by keeping S’iht alive for centuries.

What if evidence of a strange alien civilisation was uncovered in the fourteenth outpost?

S’iht had new friends, including humans, Permartians and ‘bots. They formed a cohesive unit that communicated ideas without talking about them.

Together they had created a whole back story for a civilisation that had arrived on Mars billions of years ago but died out.

A civilisation that had known Earth in its early days before single-celled organisms had spread across the planet through water networks and evaporation. 

Together S’iht’s colleagues would dig out in full view of the ISSANet a civilisation that never existed.

Despite its advanced technology, the ISSANet carried within its network a series of iterative, reinforcing behaviours that mimicked humans’ sympathy networks, ever so slightly susceptible to subliminal messages.

S’iht’s colleagues spent decades of marsyears nurturing the seed of an ancient civilisation on Mars until the ISSANet convinced itself of the same possibility, doubling the duties of outpost builders to look for such.

S’iht had become an indispensable outpost crew member because of S’iht’s insistence that such a civilisation didn’t exist.

The ISSANet gambled a small portion of its galactic expansion resources on the chance S’iht was wrong.

S’iht just wanted to be remembered again.

S’iht joined the 14th Outpost crew and yelled out, “Let’s Stonehenge this place!”

A few seconds of your tone

Guin adjusted her memory filter, choosing “Eidetic” for tonight’s star viewing.

Lee joined her in the star chamber.

Laying back on cushions, they smiled at each other, happy after an afternoon break spent dancing in the Martian gravity, never tiring, even after centuries of Earth time had passed, to spin and leap, tossing and catching hours on end.

Guin passed a memory to Lee.

“Do you remember the old mills in Huntsville?”

Lee breathed deeply, the pungent smell of raw, wet cotton filling his nostrils, his lungs feeling heavy with dust, sweat and cobwebs.

“Like it was yesterday.”

Guin nodded, watching in her thoughts the day the water tower was erected in the neighbourhood, every kid anxious to climb the tallest structure in town.

“And the day the water tower fell?”

“Which one?”

“Haha. Right!”

A shower of meteorites reflected in their eyes as they looked at each other.

They closed their forward facing eyes and stopped talking with their mouths, sharing memories more quickly through the ISSANet link they shared.