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.

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.

A quiet day at work

Yesterday, while driving to pick up from a bloodmobile, the ’15 Toyota Prius set at a cruising speed of 65 mph, my thought set filled with memories of the last car ride I had with my father.

At this point in his declining health (symptoms of bulbar option ALS), Dad could no longer speak, but he could walk with a helping hand, lift his arms and point with his fingers and make head nods/shakes.

I put Dad in the front passenger seat of my ’95 BMW 325i, Mom in the back, and drove around the northeast Tennessee countryside, taking Dad by his former job as an assistant professor at East Tennessee State University.

I wanted to drive and drive and drive but eventually, in agreement with Mom, after a few hours of driving around, I took Dad to the emergency entrance of our local hospital.

When we arrived, Dad shook his head and made a circle motion with his right index finger, indicating that he wanted me to keep driving.

I wish I had ignored my mother’s plea to take Dad on inside because it was the last time Dad and I had that car guy bonding experience we’d shared through the years, going to the local dirt track on Friday nights and flying out to Long Beach for the Toyota Grand Prix amongst many car-related trips we made together. 

Those are all memories now.

My mother spends most days on her own, assisting her church when she can.

She certainly wants Dad in her daily life more than I ever will.

But, after Dad died, I lost interest in car shows, NASCAR races and Indycar/F1 motoring news…too painful of a reminder of that last day with Dad away from the medical industry.

Dad was known as a good dancer, according to Mom.

So now I dance because there are no painful memories that can pop up unexpectedly while dancing.

I can be like Dad, a man’s man, holding a woman’s hand.

And I do.

And will continue to do so until I can’t.

It’s who I am.

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!”