Ralph stared her down from the other end of the bar, all three-hundred and fifty unblinking pounds of him as still as a boulder. Sweat beaded on his upper lip, brows trembled, but his hand was steady when downed his shot. He raised his chin with a gleam in his eyes like a conquering champion… and belched.
Behind Ralph, on the bar’s tiny television, a BFR was being prepared for a Mars launch. A supply run with only a few colonists. The aerospace equivalent of farming equipment, drilling rigs and foundries.
“Don’t you think it’s time to quit? A little thing like you wasn’t meant to-” the bar’s resident Creep had been nay-saying her for the past hour but this time she interrupted him.
“Shuddup!” Mari roared.
Life had taught her many lessons. One of which was: The most important thing to do when someone tells you that something is impossible is to go ahead and keep doing it anyway.
On the television, the countdown clock had the launch at time minus five minutes.
“I just care about you is all, I don’t want good people to die. But go ahead if you’re that dumb,” the Creep continued.
Another lesson was to use negativity against her and her objectives as a source of spiteful motivation.
Mari downed the contents of her shot glass.
“I candoanything!” she yelled, slapping a hand on the bar. Pushing herself up to her feet, staggering. “Twomoreshots. Fuckyeah.”
On the television, the image of the rocket cut to a slightly overweight man in a too-small polo-shirt and a fifty’ish woman in an aught style gamer hoodie. They were were quietly reading out rocket specs in front of some truly dazzling infographics explaining Hohmann Transfer Orbits. The kind of stuff Mari had taught herself in middle school.
She held two fingers in the air, the universal sign for peace and two more. The next thing she knew she was on the ground, holding onto the bar stool to stop from falling over. Her legs trembled and she felt not unlike a newborn fawn.
During the first Colony launch, the bar had been packed like the Super Bowl. Even people who didn’t know the difference between astrology and astronomy had shown up. For just that moment at least, all of mankind had truly been one. There had been a smaller crowd for the second, an even smaller for the third, and now on the fourth there might as well have been nobody.
“Okay, you’re done. Lady, I don’t know you from Adam, but if you think you’re drinking that buffalo-headed motherfucker under the table you’ve got another think coming,” this time it was the bartender who was doing the nay-saying, Mari realized. The very wise and worldly bartender. Whose old dark eyes seemed to contain precisely calibrated Blood Alcohol detectors in their pupils and whose pupils had decided another drink would kill her.
Another lesson: remind oneself that your antagonist probably told you that your objective is impossible because it basically is, and the only way to actually do it is to get incredibly fucking tirelessly creative when figuring out how to actually do it.
Why was it always the third step that got away from her?
“I ever tell you I had an invention once?” Ralph said, belching again.
“Yeah,” Mari mumbled, finally pulling herself back into her seat.
“Well, you bet your sweet ass I did,” said Ralph who was now wiping a tear out of his eye for no reason.
“Want me to Fleet you two a car? I think it’s time you called it a night. I’ll have to get you two taken to the hospital if you keep it up, or to the police station,” said the ever more unhappy bartender.
“Uh huh,” said Mari.
“You ever seen the lightning storms in the oil fields? That’s where I got my idea. I spent fifteen years as a derrick-man in the oil fields, tossing pipe around like… like pipes… before fuckin’ Solar killed the shit out of everything. And I’ve seen lightning out there from Thor’s own fucking hammer,” said Ralph.
“Not this crazy horseshit again,” groaned the bartender.
“Nothing… isuhpossible,” said Mari.
Although maybe on her list of “Steps to Accomplish the Impossible” she ought to put the last step first? It occurred to her that actually figuring out how to do something was vital to actually doing it. Essential even. How had she not seen it before? The actual figuring out of how to do something was critical to actually accomplishing it. So obvious!
Ralph stood up, apparently having decided that the entire bar needed to hear about his invention. Which other than the bartender, herself and Ralph was just the Creep who had been trying to talk to them all night. Ralph was facing none of them.
“You have any idea how much ‘lectricity is in a bolt of lightning? Any goddamn idea? There’s whole jiggawatts of ‘lectricity or whatever you call ’em in there!” Ralph yelled.
“Are you going home with him?” the Creep asked.
Mari closed her eyes tight.
“He’s my uncle,” said Mari.
“So?” said the Creep with a leer.
Holding a dainty and dignified hand to the hollow of her throat, she hiccuped and barfed a tiny amount at the same time and her esophagus felt like it was on fire and she almost threw up all the way. Then she swallowed it down, which was a more intense agony. As the physical pain was a much easier pain to bear than mental anguish of contemplating the various materials, geometries and funding sources she’d been considering for the last three years, not to mention the horrible incest joke of the Creep, it was a relief. A pure relief.
The two announcers on the television were now showing the graphics of the capsules that would eventually drop the colonists into Mars’ thin atmosphere. There were only fifty colonists arriving on Mars in this two year window. They kept stressing that, and that the rest of the BFR’s payload was supplies to help them build an outpost to support another thousand during the following launch window in two years.
“So you and him are related? How’d that happen?” the Creep pressed, coughing and trying to recover from his flop.
“Usual way. S’Brother fucked m’mom,” said Mari.
“Oh, that’s so interesting,” said the Creep.
The Creep got a bit too close so Mari let loose her vomit breath in his face and he turned away. Didn’t run away, though which spoke of a level of desperation she could scarcely fathom.
“Well, you know what lightning loves? I’ll fucking tell you what lightning loves. I learned a lot about what lightning loves when I standing up there in the oil derricks! Like standing on top of a fucking lightning rod! Like kissing the clouds! Lightning loves the fuck out of iron!” Ralph took off his belt to accentuate this and threw it on the floor as if throwing down a gauntlet to an invisible challenger. Then he pointed his index fingers at both of his eyes and turned in a slow circle.
Ralph’s arc took in the entire section of the bar that was empty.
“He seems kind of upset. You, uh, maybe want to come to my place?” the Creep asked.
“Nuh uh,” said Mari.
Still, the request was as good a thing as any to send her thoughts back to the concept of accomplishing the impossible. In his own way, the Creep was also daring an impossible task. There was a need for another step to accomplish the impossible, she realized. A zeroth law, as in entropy. The one so obvious you forgot to state it until you’d made all of your other laws.
“Why not?” the Creep asked.
“You,” she said, too tired to explain any further, but she gestured with her hand to show that her response was meant to encompass his entire being, and the way she said it without animosity made her point clear.
“Oh, yeah. I can see that,” said the Creep, frowning, in what was probably a rare moment of self-realization.
Only a few minutes left on the launch, or so the television said. It made her smile every time they launched a rocket, although she had trouble even saying why. It was just… right somehow. Fulfilling. It made her sad that it was so hard to describe why she loved it so much and that it was the loving of it that made it difficult.
“I’ll tell you another goddamn thing! They may say ol’ Ralph is stupid but he knows that wicker doesn’t conduct ‘lectricity! I mean, it’s so obvious! Think about it for five fucking seconds! Wicker. Doesn’t. Conduct. ‘lectricity!” Ralph was struggling to pull off his pants and the bartender had finally decided to intervene.
“Come on, bud, you can’t be doing that in here,” said the bartender.
“What if-” started the Creep.
“Prollynot. But sorry for the g’netics or nurture or whatever, y’know?” said Mari, who meant it sincerely, as even drunk she knew being hit on by a bar creep could never be as bad as being a bar creep. She wasn’t ugly by any means but she wasn’t a knock-out either. How pathetic must it be to profess overt attraction to a woman simply because she was there?
A thought clicked into place.
The Zeroth law went: When attempting the impossible it was also important not to get panicked, wonder what the point of the whole universe was really, if anything actually mattered when you thought about it, and get blindingly drunk with your dysfunctional uncle because you were scared shitless by the idea of everything blowing up in your face. Which Mari acknowledged she had been doing for the last three days, more or less. But that was okay as she hadn’t formalized the law till now and it was scientific to make errors.
Satisfied she was finally making progress, she ate the remainder of the bar nuts. Roughly two thirds of them fell out of her mouth and onto her chest. It might not have been the best choice following such a realization, but if it was scientific to make a single mistake it was downright academic to make hundreds.
“Are you against it too? You too, huh? You think I’m lying? I knew you never loved me and I loved you like a brother! Like my own fucking son!”
“I don’ think we’ve seen him a’fore, Ralph,” Mari mumbled as she chewed the bar nuts.
“Hey, it seems we got off on the wrong foot. Can I get another chance? Maybe you’ll be in here again sometime?” asked the Creep.
“I’m goingta Mars,” said Mari, pointing at the television as the rocket flames began to plume, “Notsurewhen. ‘Ventually, though. ‘Ventually as poshible. Very ‘ventually”
“Well, you just put some iron in a wicker basket and you put it out in the oilfields and you get lightning to strike it and you’d have a battery powerful enough to… to… power the whole fuckin’ world! Whole fuckin’ world on my wicker-iron battery!”
Ralph was too clumsy drunk to fight the bartender and had given up trying to take off his pants. Now he was just crying about how he’d walked away from a trillion dollar idea, and that the Big Solar companies would never let him make a Wicker-Iron battery now. The same goddamn Big Solar companies that had killed his job in the oil fields.
In that way that always seemed somewhat fake to her, surreal and somehow appearing to be cheaply animated despite being ludicrously real, the rocket lifted off the ground and shot into the sky. She stood up. Felt that flush of victory, felt the heat of being alive, felt… life pure and joyous surge through her. She pumped her fists and yelled. And then the rocket was gone and the launch pad was empty.
A sudden realization took Mari by surprise. Hadn’t she had all these same thoughts about the impossible on day one? These exact thoughts? Right from the start? The thought was so disturbing that she needed another drink immediately. There was another victory to take, even if it was only for a drinking contest.
“Gimme another one, not ‘ficial till I drink one more.”
Ralph was crying on the ground and the bartender made his way back to his assigned post, agitated and cursing.
“If I give you one more will you go quietly?” he asked.
“Uh huh,” said Mari.
“You’ll take the giant with you?”
“Yeah,” she said.
Drinking hadn’t taken away her concerns over the project. Even the rocket launch had only eased her worries for a few moments before bringing them into even tighter focus. Drinking was also getting expensive considering, especially since she was paying for Ralph who usually drank four times as much as she did. Not for the first time she damned her pride. However, drinking with Ralph did kill time while the final render completed and it gave her something to do other than fret over mistakes that it was too late to correct.
Waiting was the hardest thing.
Not having anything to do while waiting was agony.
Plus, she had a tower of shot-glasses in front of her and she needed one more shot-glass to bring it to a point and defeat Ralph at a drinking contest for the first time in her life. Granted, he’d been drinking all day before coming out with her so she had a handicap. She supposed the compulsive need to finish the tower and win was but the latest manifestation of that insane inner demon that had driven her to be an engineer.
The bartender slid a glass in front of her.
“This is for you. You give it to him and I take it away and you still pay. Okay? Smart thing to do would be to call it quits if you ask me.”
Mari shooed the man away with a flopping hand.
“I nevergiveup,” she said, “Notinme.”
Ralph was crying on the floor. Crying about how he was sorry. About how his whole life had gone wrong. How he just wished the oil fields would come back because the work had been hard but he’d understood it. Crying about how he didn’t understand solar panels. Didn’t understand electricity. Also, strangely, about how he felt his arms and legs were disproportionately short in comparison to the rest of his body. Which they were. And most of all crying about how he missed the rumbling of iron and the scent of drilling mud.
“You gonna freak out if I change the channel now that the rocket’s up?” asked the bartender.
“Nah, seen lotsa stage ‘coveries,” she said as she folded a bar napkin into a swan.
“That origami?” the bartender asked, but it was obvious he was just killing time until the Fleet vehicle arrived to keep her from trying to order another drink.
“It’s topolology. Anna tent, canyousee? I’m trynna make an origamil tent. That growsrealbig, weighsnothing, inshulates, acts as uh pressurevessel. And doesn’t ripallapart. And how tofundit. And how to getiton a rocket. And howtogetit to Mars. You see, I wanna find a way toprovideas mush habitable shurface aswecan shend people to… inhabit?”
She batted her eyelashes in the most flattering manner she knew how.
“Whatever you say, lady,” said the bartender.
“Wow, that’s so interesting-” said the Creep, having recovered from his brief bout with self-reflection, but Marih barely noticed him anymore.
“We can learnta bring deadplanetsh to life! Learnta make ecosyshtems! Help usbackhere. Fix the Erf. We can bebetter! Humans are worth it! Erf is worth it! Erf!” Mari yelled.
“The Fleet car will be here in three minutes,” said the bartender.
Nodding, Mari knocked down the tower when she tried to set the glass in place. Undeterred she began picking up the pieces and re-stacking.
It didn’t bother her.
She’d been picking up the pieces for her whole life. Never giving up. Never letting things be. She put the swan on top, lord over all it surveyed.
“Thanks for remembering me, kid. Thought you’d forget where you came from. All of us so proud when you went off… never thought we’d see you again,” said Ralph, half asleep on the floor.
With that, she sighed and suddenly more sober than she had a right to be, finished the tower.
“You tookmein. Raished me. Never forget that.”
It was time to leave. Time to get back to work. She grabbed all the little pieces of origami next to her tower. Tetrahedrons from late in the night when she’d been very drunk and could only do simple things. Icosahedrons from earlier in the evening when she’d only had a drink or two. None of them were useful, but they helped her think. She needed a shape that could collapse and expand. She needed a lump of fabric the size of a kitchen stove that could become a football stadium.
The origami was just something that could fit in her hands.
Maybe that was the real zeroth law of the impossible? To catch a piece of the impossible small enough to hold in your hands and keep working at it until your hands were smart enough to hold the whole thing. So you could remember what it was you were working toward.
She shoved the pieces of origami in her pockets, crushing them.
Oh God what if it all went wrong? What if it finished and didn’t work? What if she had yet another failure?
“I’ll be here tomorrow night!” the Creep called after her.
“That’s sad,” she replied.
When she walked out of the bar she stared into space toward the BFR’s final destination and it gave even her drunk mind a steady resolve.
If she failed she’d have to try again.
There was no other choice.
Not everyone tried to create a whole new type of engineering, she reminded herself. Failures were the price of progress. Humiliation was the price of true pride.
She called her work “Flat-Folding” and was determined that it would change the world.
It’s always too bizarre to be a nightmare. Too strange to be a normal dream. Too real to be real. Like the rocket launches, and the people on their way to Mars, immediate and important but also somehow belonging to some place else. It was a common emotion for her, yet not easy for being common. Disbelief in the real.
She’s standing in a conference room, right in the blinding blue beams of an old overhead projector. The kind that was used in her grade school. Behind her is the same slide show she’s shown a thousand times. All twenty-three slides as familiar as an old and much loved children’s book. To her front, barely visible through the projector light, sits a group of mostly male velociraptors who watch her in identical black suits. All the investors who had rejected her. The few female velociraptors wear blue dresses, representing the investors she hadn’t even been able to get meetings with.
A triceratops sits in the power seat facing the door, staring at her silently with huge wet golden eyes full of sorrow. The triceratops is covered in feathers that give it the appearance of wearing a suit. It seems both kind and desperate to see her do well.
She clears her throat.
“Flat-Folding is an effort to utilize three-dimensional tessellation in order to break the tyranny of the rocket radius and provide viable growing and living areas on the Martian surface. Consider it rapid infrastructure. Think ‘tents for space. How do you fit something bigger than a rocket inside of a rocket? The answer is packing!’”
She selects the first slide. Its an animation of a hexagonal cylinder roughly the size of an oven inflating into a volume equal to that of a football stadium. An accordion like structure, with the bottom half buried underground and filled with dirt to allow for farming. The next slide shows people in pressure-suits digging a trench and inflating the Flat-Fold inside of it.
She’d had to do the concept drawings herself, and they were truly awful. In her dreams they were children’s scrawls done in crayon. Embarrassing beyond belief. None of it makes any sense. She doesn’t know any of the material science that makes this possible.
The velociraptors groan in their suits. The female velociraptors cover their eyes with their claws as if the sight of her is offensive and whisper. The triceratops is chewing on what appears to be a piece of bamboo.
Her mother is there, suddenly beside her, shuffling as a zombie.
“You know none of this is real, don’t you?” her mother whispers, “It might be happening but that doesn’t make it real. So few things in life are real. I tried to teach you that. I’m dead and that’s real. You’ll die and that’s real. Mars is already dead and humans will never bring it to life. Give up. Death is the final reality. Everything along the way is just killing time. Why fight that?”
Mari can feel maggots wriggling on her arm when he mother reaches out to give her a consoling squeeze. Her mother had always been so kind. Always so willing to let her children fail.
“So, like origami?” says one of the velociraptors, distinguished from the others by a goatee.
“I like the direction Keith is going with origami. I think there’s a branding problem. You seem Asian, or mostly at least. So hard to tell these days. We could play that angle. What about calling it Growigami?” says a younger velociraptor, who is also somehow a jackass of an internet millionaire she’d met early in her funding efforts, who had been happy to give her as much money as she wanted as long as she turned the project over to his incompetent hands. She’d hated him and even in her dream he sounded like he was doing voice-over for a toothpaste commercial.
“I can do this,” she whimpers except now she is three years old and the triceratops is standing directly in front of her, whether to protect or crush her she cannot say. The projector light is now a stage light and she’s all alone in a great big auditorium except for the triceratops until…
Her father is behind her, stern and implacable, his Slavic brow hooding his eyes and making him imposing as he had ever been in life. He’s got none of the good humor of her uncle Ralph. He shoves her toward the triceratops.
“Have you done the work? You were always so lazy. If I had half your brains, I would be president,” her father whispers in her ear.
Her knees are trembling.
She’s suddenly holding her first prototype of the Flat-Fold. The smallest one. She knows what will happen but she attempts to detonate the inflation mechanism anyway. Perhaps it will scare away the triceratops…
The Flat-Fold explodes dangerously, scarring her. Fire. Melted plastic like napalm. The viral video of this first experiment had scared everyone away.
Why had she let that video go public? God, she was so awful at fund-raising. Just terrible.
All the pieces of the Flat-Fold had fused together in the 3D Printer. Why hadn’t she foreseen that? There hadn’t been enough time left for cooling. There hadn’t been the ceramic plate to stop the printer head from gluing the layers together. There had been too many things she hadn’t counted on in the first model.
The triceratops is crying great big sad tears and now all of its feathers are black.
The auditorium is gone.
She’s in what used to be her front yard. Not from when she was young but the big house she’d bought after getting her first decent job at an aerospace firm. She’d sold this house to pay for the second prototype. At least she’s her own age again, strong and capable.
“You didn’t do the work this time either, did you?” says her father.
“Oh honey, why do you keep doing these things? You’ll kill yourself one day. I wish you would be more realistic,” says her mother.
“I never give up,” she says.
The second prototype is there. She detonates it. This one rips into a thousand pieces, like plastic confetti. A problem with how she’d joined the pieces of laminate together. Not near strong enough.
The confetti falls to the ground and the old house is gone.
She’s standing in a parking lot selling her car to a Fleet representative. They like to buy classic cars and convert them to AV’s. People pay extra to be driven in classics. The Fleet pays good money but she doesn’t need much for the third prototype. She’s worked out all the bugs. She holds a fistful of bills.
“I think repeated failure is the universe telling you to quit,” says one of her old work colleagues, a boy of twenty-five who had never even tried anything to give up on.
“Failure is learning. It’s only insane if you don’t adapt,” she says.
The third prototype is right next to her and she detonates the inflation mechanism.
This time the structure inflates but it does so underwhelmingly and the inside is tarnished black. It looks like a lumpy garbage bag. It’s limp and gives no indication of its true size. Her prospective investors aren’t smart enough to see the potential. Why hadn’t she been able to get better people? Why wasn’t she good at talking her way into meetings?
She’s still an adult, still herself but now that’s an awful thing to be.
She’s sold everything she has.
She has nothing left.
The wind blows the Flat Fold over her like a flourishing cape and then she’s…
Living in her present day shit hole apartment and she’s only got so much money before she runs out. The last of the money from selling her car. The anxiety is killing her. It’s got to work. It’s got to work.
“Your uncle Ralph didn’t teach you any sense either, did he?” says her mother, who had always felt sense was staying small and unseen and not daring to disturb so much as a grain of sand in the universe.
“Potential, always potential. Never doing,” her father scolds.
The triceratops is breathing in her face, fierce and intense. Its breath smells like lawn clippings. And as crazy and absurd as it seems, the triceratops speaks:
“You make movies about us. You make toys. You look at our bones without ever accepting. We were real. That is truth. Once, you were a dream and we were the truth. I’m the realest thing in this dream. If death is the realest thing of all, then I am the voice of death and truth. All of my kind died. A race of noble lizards, giant and proud. Who knows what might have become of us? A rock came from the sky and killed us as if we were nothing. One day, a rock will come from the sky and kill all of you. Or a volcano will explode. Or your climate will change. Unless you try. Unless you choose the right goals. Unless you make the changes you need to make. Unless you succeed. Will you let all life die? Will you give up? Will you let life die on this world?”
There’s a flash of light in the sky. She can see it through the shit hole apartment’s single filthy window. A bollide the size of nations. The world is on fire.
The triceratops is on fire and it’s screaming but somehow she can still understand what it’s saying.
“They tried four times. Four is the number of Mars. When they thought with an Earth mind, they thought three tries would be enough to send their rocket to space. They succeeded on the fourth and became the first Martians. The Martian must always find a way for a fourth attempt. And the next. And the next. And the next.”
The Fleet car blared all of its sirens to wake her up when it pulled up in front of her shit-hole apartment. She usually used the drive to think, look at the stars and contemplate the universe, but she must have passed out after dropping Ralph at his trailer. Though she often regretted selling her own car, missed shifting gears and working on the engine, she had to admit being driven while drunk was one of the true luxuries of the modern age.
Except for the alarms.
She remembered Ralph crying all the way home, talking about the past and the terrible things in his life. When he left, sleep had been the only way to clear her head. Except of course her dreams were awful lately. Now that she was fully awake, not only were there alarms and flashing lights, but there was a holographic projection of a Fleet attendant on the front window.
Mari sighed, there was a twenty-dollar minimum fee for a Fleet attendant to stream in. That was about her entire bank balance after drinking. Stupid. Or, at least, she should have let Ralph pay. Stupid damn fool pride of hers.
The projection had the immaculate side-part, clean teeth and square jaw of someone using a face filter. He also looked like the picture of a judgmental teetotaler.
“Are you in need of assistance, passenger? We at Fleet headquarters are dedicated to your safety. If you unable to respond to this message we will dispatch this vehicle to the nearest hospital in thirty seconds.”
Mari sat up and barely fought down the vomit. It seemed the alarms got louder when her head elevated. Nearer the speakers or something.
“Oh shut up,” she murmured.
“Passenger, please be advised that hostile action will cause all doors on this vehicle to auto-lock and dispatch to the nearest law enforcement center.”
“Is being drunk while being driven a crime?” she slurred.
“The Fleet assumes all legal responsibility for accidents that have occurred while driving, and does not require the sobriety of its Passengers, although according to the Fleet Act of-” even the face filter couldn’t hide the annoyance at reading the legal verbatim.
“I’m getting out now,” she said.
The door opened of its own accord. She was somewhat shocked to see it was a gull-wing, instead of the typical slider. Which meant the car was probably a converted Model X or something like that. She hadn’t noticed before and when she staggered out she promptly threw up all over the sidewalk and the car took off before she could look.
Her phone hummed, signifying a text.
She opened the text.
“Damage to the interior of a Fleet vehicle is strictly the responsibility of the Passenger. Damage to the interior of the vehicle will be documented and fined to your Fleet account. Disputes can be filed by calling, emailing or texting the following address…”
Mari texted her dispute, knowing that when she went to sleep again that she’d stay that way for a long while and it was better to get ahead of things.
However, the dispute meant she wouldn’t have any money for the next few days. At least, until the dispute was resolved. Then she’d probably have to send something in to get a refund for the overdraft charges.
The attendant probably just wanted to get even with her for telling him to shut up.
It was tricky getting up the stairs to her apartment, something akin to climbing Everest in her current state, but the reassuring clicking and whirr of the 3D printer made her smile and lent her courage. When she opened her door, the printer head was laying down a layer of what looked like shrink-wrap on a smooth ceramic plate. She’d come just in time to watch the plate slide out and lay down the most recent layer on the stack below. Then the plate was back and the printer head was back to work.
A display at the top declared:
“Time for Final Render: 84:32:19”
Mari lay down, watching the printer head sweeping back and forth, secreting materials all but invisible to the naked eye, a few atoms at a time. She’d designed the laminate, the structure, and even the printer herself. The layer of plastic, the layer of insulation, the structural support, the additional insulation and the sealing layer of plastic. All of it thinner than a sheet of paper which had been the real work. The hardest breakthrough. Add internal atmosphere and the pile of plastic would inflate to something roughly the size of a football stadium.
Something bigger than a rocket that could fit inside of a rocket.
A grin found its way on her face as she drifted off.
She’d worked so hard. She’d been so terribly clever. It would work, wouldn’t it? This time?
The next three’ish days felt a practice of religious fasting.
She was thankful for her hangover on the first day because it made her want to do nothing but drink water and sleep all day. The idea of a food was repulsive, which was a blessing.
All she had to eat was a box of Raisin Bran, a can of pineapple she had moved from the fridge in her house and which she was reasonably certain she had never actually bought and had just appeared there one day. Every refrigerator spontaneously generated a few bizarre items.
She ate the Raisin Bran dry until it was gone. The pineapple, she ate with some cream cheese she was able to buy after selling some of her old textbooks to a used bookstore.
When she realized the pineapple was fermented she became very upset and wished she had her textbooks back. She was starving and not only from lack of food. She needed success so bad it was giving her scurvy of the spirit. In contradiction to that felt she also felt awake, alert and open. Clear in a way she had rarely ever been clear.
It was tempting to sit and ponder on her whole life to see what this new clarity might teach her.
Then she decided fuck that and went for a run to burn up all the energy she didn’t have.
If you wanted to be a person who got shit done you couldn’t get in the habit of reflecting.
At least not all the time.
If you weren’t a bar creep or something.
All of her potential investors had wanted her to “show them.” Or wanted equity so great that even if everything worked the way she wanted she’d never be able to do what she wanted, which was go to Mars and… well, she’d figure it out when she got there. She knew that she’d need every penny to get it done though.
The frustrating thing about investors had been knowing she was always working with the second or third tier. There were a million other people in the world like her, all working in their own small ways to solve the problems humanity would face on the Red Planet, a lot of them even had money. They also had almost no time and she hadn’t been able to get a meeting with any of them. Mari was incredible at material science. She was quite bad at boardroom presentations.
Very, very bad.
But there was a convention of the Mars Society in a few days. And it was next to an empty field. The top tier of Martian investors would be there. And to everyone who had ever demanded that she just “show them” she was planning one hell of a demonstration.
When she got home from her run the render was completed. The Flat-Fold was ready.
She knelt down before it and let herself awash in awe like a supplicant before her god.
But only for a moment.
There was shit to do.
No one paid any attention to her, as all of the important things were happening in the convention center. Even the security guards who might have been concerned with her hopping the fence at the adjacent field and then opening the inner gate so that uncle Ralph could drive in with the Flat-Fold didn’t pay her any mind. The Martian upper class were as good as A-List celebrities, or heads of state, and everybody was too focused on their immediate security to pay any mind to her hauling several thousand kilograms of explosive gases into the neighboring field.
Which really said something about the mindset of security guards.
Ralph’s car alone should have drawn every eye. The truck was a sixty year old manual-driven diesel truck with unmatched doors. It grumbled like a mountain troll. No one said anything about that either. Which made her nervous as there is nothing so unsettling to an engineer as a plan unfolding exactly as predicted.
Mari pointed Ralph to the direct center of the field, having measured long in advance the exact spot where the device would have be positioned to allow room for inflation. Mari had spent most of the previous night in the field, burning up all the resources she’d put aside for this day, prepping for the Flat-Fold to arrive. There were hoses everywhere, all kinds of timers, not to mention all the gas canisters. The inflation device in the center of the Flat-Fold would only get her so far. On Mars, it would be slower and less dramatic but she had to make a statement here.
An explosive statement.
“How much this thing weigh, kid?” Ralph grunted as he jumped into the back of his truck and pushed on the device.
“The Flat-Fold itself is only a few hundred kilograms, it’s the gases that we have to inflate it with that weigh so damn much. The inflation device in the center is really just a series of low powered explosives. Just be grateful I thought to put wheels on the bottom of the printer.”
“Whatever you say, kid,” Ralph said, continuing to grunt as he lowered the Flat-Fold to the ground from the back of his truck with some chain and a few come-alongs.
While Ralph may not have had the first idea of what was involved in battery science, he could do things with chains and come-alongs that were inexplicable to modern science.
“You get ten-percent, don’t forget,” she said.
“Do I got to take ten-percent of the jail if they arrest you?”
“Hey, this is America. No risk, no reward.”
That had Ralph laughing all the way until the Flat Fold reached the ground.
It had been a miracle of foresight that they had been able to load the device in Ralph’s truck at all. The sole reason Mari had taken her shit-hole apartment over a different shit hole apartment was because there was a place in back that would allow her to perfectly slide the Flat Fold into the bed of a truck without lifting it up.
“I wish your mom and dad could see you,” said Ralph.
“Let’s hurry up and get this done before someone sees us,” Mari replied, swallowing hard.
Her mother and father would never have come out to the middle of a vacant lot with her to illegally set off an explosion next to a professional convention. Ralph would. As far as she was concerned, that made him a fitting replacement for both her father and her mother.
She was again surprised when no one bothered to ask her what she was doing when she carted out all those tanks of gas. She’d saved the perimeter tanks for last as they were the most conspicuous and there’ been too many of them to do with help. Still, she figured at least one person would show up and demand to know what the high-powered fans were for.
Those fans were too obvious, she thought. Giant and looming and ready to cut off a limb if you weren’t careful. Still, an object as big as a football stadium had to have hundreds of thousands of kilograms of air, and she could hardly put all of that in the Flat-Fold without help from the exterior.
Surely, someone must have noticed?
She kept working, waiting for it to go wrong.
Maybe the security had determined that she was too far away? Too distant. You’d have to drop a whole building next to the convention for anyone to take notice. After an uninterrupted hour, she was ready to do just that.
“So, interesting story. I couldn’t afford a remote trigger for this as crazy as that sounds. The whole process is automated from this point and there’s a three minute timer.” Mari removed a few red clips from the center of the Flat-Fold. She held the clips in her hand. There had been so many nightmares about someone pulling these while the Flat Fold was still in her apartment.
It probably would have pushed her against a wall and crushed her to death.
“What’s that mean?” asked Ralph.
“Run like hell,” said Mari.
She turned and ran.
As impressive as the size of the Flat Fold would be when it was fully expanded, it didn’t take that long to cover the distance. After all, you could walk across a football field in a couple minutes without breathing hard. She was almost outside the fence when she heard Ralph grunt. Stopping, Mari turned around and saw him kneeling in the middle of the field nursing his ankle.
“Hey… you okay?” she called.
Ralph tried to stand and fell down.
At first it sounded like pop-rocks and that’s how she knew she’d made an error. Another mistake. It shouldn’t have mattered but now it did. It was only a few seconds off but the charges were detonating. Ralph was less than a third of the way out. Big men weren’t made to move fast.
The Flat-Fold unfurled rapidly. Flat and low to the ground. Striking out in a radial pattern like a snake. Of course it was working exactly as designed. Of course.
“Ralph, give it everything you’ve got!” she screamed.
He struggled to his feet and started to limp toward her.
If the Flat-Fold overtook him he could suffocate. Smothered by the laminate. He could cut through the laminate if he tried hard, but that would only get him inside and there wouldn’t be a breathable atmosphere in it for probably a good fifteen minutes, just a lot of smoke and nitrogen rich gases. To have any chance, Ralph would have to both get inside and find the outer walls and then cut through that to have any hope. In that kind of confused mess, he’d probably just get lost and suffocate instead.
With one hand, Mari reached into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the sharp razor knife there. Sweat came to every pore she had. Well, she’d always wanted to pay Ralph back for raising her. Now was as good a time as any.
“Ralph!” she screamed, “when I knock you down, stay down!”
Legs pumping, lungs pumping, heart pumping, Flat-Fold fans also pumping more powerfully than she could, she ran faster than she had ever run in her life. There was no time to do anything else.
In what could kindly be called a spear-tackle she threw Ralph to the ground and laid flat over him as the Flat-Fold shot over them like a heavy wave and she was so crazy with adrenaline and the sense of victory she didn’t scream out in fear as Ralph did.
Rather, she yelled, “It works!” as the laminate poured over them. It wasn’t heavy, of course, but the whole point was that it wasn’t heavy. The real problem would be when it started cutting off their air and pushing them into the ground as it expanded. It was already buffeting against them.
“You okay, kid?” Ralph shouted but it was lost in the roar of the Flat-Fold’s expanse. The initial charges only provided enough volume to tear the laminate faces apart from one another so that they wouldn’t adhere too strongly and rip when the fans went to work.
Which, from the sound of it, they already were.
“Hold your breath when we get in! I have to cut before it gets too heavy or starts moving too much! Don’t breathe again until we’re outside!”
The knife made frantic cuts, striking at the seams between the triangular laminate plates of the Flat-Fold. Thinner than paper tougher than canvas. Cussing, slashing, almost wishing she hadn’t made it tough enough to withstand the needs of Martians. All the while the Flat Fold moved and fought with her, expanding and changing shape but every time it got bigger and the surface stiffer it was easier to cut even as it crushed her. Finally, she felt the knife penetrate.
Now that it was pierced the cutting was easier, though still difficult. She had to use both hands and all the cussing she had in her body to make it wider. And the cut ends of the Flat-Fold were sharp. Of course they were. Nothing that thin and that strong could fail to be sharp. The cut ends licked open red wounds on her arms.
Uncle Ralph moaned underneath her but finally she punched through, taking one last deep breath before entering the smoky windstorm of the interior.
200,000 cubic meters.
That was the full volume of the Flat-Fold.
It was already at about a tenth of that and expanding more and more by the moment. The only thing that stopped her from falling over was that fans were blowing from pretty much every direction.
If the situation hadn’t been so scary dangerous she would have taken more time to appreciate her creation. The walls were clear, pristine and already the final shape was visible. She reached down through the hole in the ground and pulled Ralph up and in. Somewhere in her frantic cutting a piece of the Flat Fold must have sliced his forehead. Blood streamed down his face and the giant man could barely see. She put his hands on her shoulders and raced toward the nearest wall. Ralph limped behind her, leaning on her.
The wall got farther away with every step.
The Flat Fold was still expanding.
She could feel her pulse in her ears. Her lungs burned. God only knew how Ralph felt.
Finally, the expansion slowed to the point she was making more progress than the Flat-Fold. Still, the wall was about seventy meters away…
They’d need to breathe long before they got there.
She had to think.
How do you something impossible?
The zeroth step. Catch a little piece of it in your mind until your hands could grab the rest. She had built the Flat-Fold. She knew it intimately. A model of it came alive in her mind, a simulation of it expanding.
Ralph slowed down against her, as if he was giving up. Well, she wouldn’t give up. She’d keep trying to live anyway. That was the first step after the zeroth.
The second step: Why was it basically impossible to find a place to breathe?
Her initial explosives were mostly dust. Incredibly fine dust left on the laminate by the 3D Printer. If you breathed it in it would shred your lungs. It was also heavier than air which was why it wasn’t a problem in a completed Flat Fold. The initial inflation worked on the same principle as a grain elevator explosion so that dust was everywhere. Then there were gas-rich nitrogen explosives after the initial volume was created and the laminar faces had separated. Those fumes would knock them out in seconds.
The third and hardest: What insanely fucking creative way could she find a clean column of air?
The answer was written in the dust already settling to the floor. The industrial fans. The ones she’d set up to make the inflation more spectacular. That was driving in thousands of cubic meters of fresh air every second. She just had to run into the wind.
Which was… admittedly still pretty close to the edge of her endurance but it was only half the distance to the fans that it was to the outside walls.
She changed direction running toward the farthest side of the Flat-Fold where the fans were set up. She pumped her legs as hard as she could, taking most of the weight of Ralph’s torso on her back.
Never give up.
Defeat wasn’t in her.
It never had been.
And she couldn’t die here because she had to bring the Flat Fold to Mars because it worked! It goddamn worked! It was brilliant and she had done it against all odds all by herself out of her own pocket and… she finally touched a place on the ground where the dust was parted by the wind blowing in her face and she inhaled.
The air was warm but sweet.
She stood him up and saw him with his lips still shut and his face bright red. Of course, he couldn’t hear her over the fan. She put her lips right next to his ears.
“Breathe! It’s safe here! Walk into the wind with me!”
The lips parted and Ralph gasped. She let him stand there for several moments to catch his breath. Then she yelled into his ear again.
“We need to walk toward the fan until the wind gets too strong. Then we can make a run for the wall.”
This time Ralph took the lead as he didn’t need to be able to see in order to walk into the cyclone of the fan. Every time part of Mari’s body left the wind break created by Ralph she felt it immediately as her arm or her leg would whipp backward and then she’d have to grit her teeth and bring it back behind her giant uncle. As she walked she also couldn’t help but look up in amazement at the Flat Fold’s continued expansion.
She’d made small prototypes. Even one the size of a house that had taken quite a long time to inflate. But she had never done anything on the scale of… this. It was as common emotion of late, but no less easy for that. Disbelief in the real.
The Flat Fold now looked like a giant Greenhouse, light sparkling through every laminate plate like diamonds. Something much bigger than a rocket that you could still fit inside a rocket. Something you could take to a dead world, fill with dirt, fill with air and farm.
She’d dedicated her whole life to it but still the possibilities left her stunned. The same principles if not the same materials could easily be applied to spacecraft. Flat Folds could be nested inside one another to create stronger barriers and maybe even something like an airlock. Nested Flat Folds with increasing pressure could create a Slow-Lock, as she called it. She’d even drawn up plans for personal safety air-bags sewn into clothing when she’d first started this crazy endeavor.
It was all there, within reach.
They walked another thirty meters before the wind became too strong, at which point Ralph began to side shuffle toward the edge of the cyclone. They could make a quick run for the wall and she still had her knife, miracle of miracles except… they could also just sit there and wait. There was an outgas port on the other end of the Flat Fold. She tapped Ralph’s shoulders, telling him to stop.
“We’re safe now. We just need to stay here for another ten or so minutes.”
“Okay. Can you help me wipe this blood out of my eyes? I think the bleeding’s stopped,” Ralph pulled out a handkerchief from his back pocket and she felt a monster for not having thought of it earlier.
“Of course! Oh gosh, I’m so sorry! I just didn’t want us to get trapped under there and suffocate! I should have been more careful!” she used her own spit as a cleaner, avoiding the scabbed gash itself, and wiped the blood from Ralph’s eyes. He did the last little bit himself, scraping his eyelids clean and then blinked open his eyes.
“Oh…,” he said and then he smiled, eyes now full of tears. “Kid, you mean to tell me that that little thing in the back of my truck turned into all of… this!”
She was crying too.
“Of course it did. I told you what it was!”
“I always tune out when you start talking like that. Not simple like my battery idea but… wow, kid. You did this all by yourself, kid? Wow.” He wrapped one giant arm over her shoulder and hugged her closely.
“Is this real?” her uncle asked after another moment passed.
“Yes,” she said.
When everything was settled and the Flat-Fold complete, and the fans powered down to simply maintain rather than expand, they made their way out through the corridor Mari had originally designed for the exit. There was a little zipper there that was incredibly difficult to open as the pressure wasn’t quite equal and well… it had some design opportunities. It still worked remarkably well for having been printed a bit at a time.
They were met on the other side by several law enforcement officials, actual cops rather than security guards, who were too surprised to officially arrest them but not too surprised to detain them.
“You care to explain yourself?” asked the lead officer, but there was a sparkle of amusement in his gray eyes. She noticed a little Mars convention sticker on his uniform by his badge.
“It’s rather technical,” she said, clearing her throat.
“You don’t say? Well, I have time,” said the officer.
She answered questions as best she could. No, she wasn’t a terrorist. Yes, this was her creation. She had designed it to create easily pressurized habitats on Mars to provide growing areas. Probably not good for personal habitats. She wanted to make construction cheaper on Mars, and a similar technology could probably be used to pressure-seal underground dwellings.
Press was there, and she became aware of it by the sound of phone camera clicks and Mari stood up straighter and became more serious. The cop seemed to take it all in stride too. He even laughed several times.
“I figured what better way to attract investors than a practical demonstration?” she said at last, “I intend the Flat-Fold to revolutionize Mars colonization, space travel and hell even deep sea exploration if it comes to that.”
She improvised the last right then and there and also knowing that it was unlikely that such an application would be at all practical. People laughed, but joyously, triumphantly. More reporters, more Mars stickers. More smile and more laughing.
She was relatively sure she wasn’t in trouble.
“So wait, can you fold it up again?”
“Unfortunately not,” she admitted.
“So what are you going to do with this one?”
“I can melt it down again. Use the materials to print out another Flat Fold. I might need to cut this one up after I deflate it to haul it out of here though. Anyone want to help?”
Everyone laughed, but hands shot up.
She answered questions for another five minutes, explaining the materials she had used. Her inspirations. How it felt to be a woman in science, to which she answered “I’m an engineer. I work for a living.”
Uncle Ralph even got to answer a few questions, mostly about how proud he was of her, but got halfway through an explanation of the wicker-iron battery before the crowd hushed and parted.
The quiet and the parting of the crowd was, like her fasting, religious without being religious.
Mars conventions attracted people of a certain mechanical mind and mechanical minds respect technical ability and vision. The man who moved through them had… it could not even be put into words. He was perhaps the only person in all of history to have intentionally done something important enough to show up on the Tree of Life.
The silence was maintained for the entire minute it took him to walk to her. Even though she had seen VR’s of him and countless pictures it was still somehow surprisingly and surreal to find he looked exactly like she thought he would. Like the rocket launches were surreal. Like dinosaurs were surreal. It didn’t feel like they could exist, except they ddi. She gulped when he stood only a few feet away, using one hand as a visor as he inspected the Flat-Fold.
Disbelief in what was right there in front of you. Common these days, but no less easy.
Here, she thought, was everything she had ever hoped for. The opportunity to speak with this man who was more famous than presidents, more important than world leaders or mere CEO’s. Here was the one man who had dared to give mankind an entirely new world and succeeded.
“How did you test for thermal stresses? It’s nice but I need to know what it’s made of before I’ll have any idea if it would actually work,” he said..
“Uh huh…” she said, heart-pounding, too nervous to speak..
“Well, show it to me then.”
He walked inside the Flat-Fold.