The ship descended like an executioner’s axe, swift and inevitable. It’s parabolic descent, wreathed in fire, could only possibly terminate with the death of the ship’s inhabitants. It descended on Mars like the swing of a hammer, a bullet, a meteor… an unstoppable force that no natural power in the universe could have turn aside…
Save the human mind.
An abrupt and precise burn of the ship’s rocket engines brought it to a hover mere meters above the Martian surface. The executioner’s blade stopped, at the last moment a hair’s breadth from the neck. The ground shook and Martian sands billowed in clouds as tall as skyscrapers. In that thin atmosphere, less than a hundredth of Earth’s, the dust clouds heralded the ship’s arrival.
Landing legs dropped abruptly.
The fire in the rocket engines disappeared.
A cargo door near the bottom of the rocket blew open. Air and dust vented into the near-vacuum of Mars. A rover, covered in solar panels and the mechanical equivalent of duct tape, drove straight out of the ship at the awesome speed of ten kilometers an hour.
The rover plummeted over twelve meters before several small Flat Folds on the bottom exploded and softened the impact. The rover shook from the impact, and teetered to one side, almost falling.
A single human life teetered on that precipice.
An achingly long minute passed as the Flat Folds deflated. Finally, the rover righted itself, then lay where it had landed, completely still. Several minutes passed before the rover lights turned on and it drove away at the speed of a brisk walk to the west, toward Newer York and the Space Mormons.
Al tried not to push away the field medics who were helping him to the transport rovers -because he rationally understood they were performing a vital job- but he kept doing it anyway. As bewildered as he was to see his own arms shoving other human beings, Al also found he was not at liberty to cease this action.
He could see the city! The city he had been trying to reach for… how long had it been? His whole life, probably. Even the part of his life before the city had existed. The city glowed yellow, blue, green and white against a red horizon.
Mars Base One, a city of five thousand souls.
Unum, as it was coming to be called.
One. The First. Yī. Odin. Wahid.
Hell, he could walk to it if they would just let him… Al’s legs gave out.
The smart glass on his visor flashed orange warning lights in the periphery, and a protective cushion of Flat-Folds primed itself to erupt. Then those hands finally caught him. Willie’s hands and someone else’s.
One of the medics he’d been shoving, probably.
“Love, we appreciate the enthusiasm but you’ve been out of a gravity well for three months. I know Mars doesn’t have much of a gravity well, but you’ll need rehab time the same as everyone else. She is beautiful, though, I admit.”
Al wasn’t sure if the new speaker was a man or a woman, or if it was even an appropriate question to ask, or if on Mars it even meant anything. They were human. In contrast to the starry dark of the sky, the barren wasteland, and distance to the rest of the biosphere, human was the only descriptor that mattered. Maybe not even that.
Sapient. Conscious. Language-Using.
Robotic citizens seemed like a stupid, far-flung idea, but on Mars they felt close and important to consider.
It was all so… big.
“She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” said Al, pointing to the city as if he could grab hold of it on the horizon. As if he could cradle it, and rock it, and tell it that it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen. He had never meant anything so much as he meant those words. It was not only beautiful but it was somehow beauty itself.
“I’ve- my whole life… people said no, it couldn’t be, and maybe a little bit of me believed until right-”
Al’s vision blurred, as though he were looking underwater. Confused, Al wondered how it had begun to rain inside the helmet of his pressure suit. His jaw quivered and his breath came in ragged gasps.
“It’s even better on the inside, love. I’m Kiley, what’s your name?”
“Ah goddamnit, I thought I was going to be able to stay strong for everyone,” Willie blubbered, and blubbered harder as he tried to make jokes to save face, “I know you all look to me for strength.”
Now it was Al’s turn to hold up Willie.
“I know it’s overwhelming, loves. And you never quite get used to it,” Kiley said.
“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” whispered Al.
“Best news of my goddamn life,” Willie blubbered.
Al found his way to the rover, which was open-topped. He’d known that from training, of course. These rovers had to pull double duty as mining carts. Everything on Mars pulled double or triple duty. Even the people. Al brushed some dust off a makeshift seat in the rover and checked his oxygen gauge. He’d never done an EVA before. The ride to Mars Base One was well within the the limitations of the pressure suits, but now that Al suddenly remembered there was no air around him he appreciated the protective suit more than before.
“Shouldn’t take more than half an hour, loves. You’re both going to the construction team, right? Working on the drowning sprawl?” Kiley brought out a strap from somewhere in the cart and tied it around both Al and Willie’s waists.
“Yeah, I’m a structural engineer,” said Al, “We’ll both be working on the new hab complex. In fact, Willie here is a part of project Micro.”
Willie looked eagerly all around them, his head never stopping on one spot for more than a second. It was surreal. Al could barely stop himself from doing likewise. They were on an alien world. They were on a completely different planet. They were on Mars.
“Micro? Like the robot? Wasn’t that named after some old reality television host?” Kiley was three carts down, strapping in more new citizens, but her comm system was still synced with Al and Willie.
“I feel like I’m on an amusement park ride,” Willie muttered, trying to sniff in tears, and he touched his face-plate twice before he remembered he couldn’t brush away his tears.
“Yeah, I actually learned to weld because of him. In high school… hey, why did you call the new complex project the drowning sprawl?”
A few more people, thankfully, had also resisted getting into the carts so Al didn’t have to live with the embarrassment of holding up the entire group. It took perhaps another fifteen minutes to load up everyone without shipboard responsibilities onto the carts. Al could feel a vibration coming from beneath the cart as its electric motors stirred to life.
“It’s a joke among the ecologists. Nothing to worry about, loves.”
“I don’t understand,” mumbled Willie, struggling to assert rational thought again. The cart lurched forward, accelerating slowly. “The hab complex won’t be anywhere near the water reservoir.”
Kiley’s voice turned the slightest bit sad, the only sadness Al could ever imagine in that happy soul.
“Unum is a perfect place for the Mars of today. It’s close to water-ice, the land is stable and the perchlorate concentration is low. But if we ever change Mars? If we melt the ice caps? Then Unum will be underwater.
“We wanted to build a tower, something that would last even in an ocean. It would be a symbol of our intention to change Mars. To transform mankind into a species of life-givers.
“The UN vetoed the motion.”
Al thought of the city on the horizon, of beauty incarnate. The only thought sadder than the city being underwater was the thought that humanity would make no difference to Mars at all. It felt unbearable.
Mars Base One was divided into two sections:
1. The Up Top: Which at present was approximately two hundred metal cylinders that housed various laboratories and factories, and three large geodesic domes for agriculture, leisure and air recycling.
2. the Down Below: Which had been built out from hollow lava tubes and other tunneling equipment to form the radiation-proof living areas, water reservoir and power generation for the base.
Al’s first impression of the Up Top from the mining cart was that it was the most futuristic thing he had ever imagined. He could not believe that it existed in his lifetime, and he felt that human potential was limitless. He further decided that whatever bureaucratic nightmares there were about terra-forming, that they would be defeated in short order. His boundless optimism lasted until he and twenty other of his ship mates made it through the airlock, entered the environmental envelope of the Up Top, descended to the Down Below, and Al took off his helmet.
There, Al smelled Mars for the first time.
The odor was a combination of o-zone, talcum powder, ass and feet. It smelled like a chalkboard had farted while getting struck by lightning during a marathon that incinerated an old pair of sneakers. It was the smell of a real world where the future was undecided and where life could still go very, very wrong.
It was by the barest margin that Al avoided vomiting. At least, he avoided it until some other newly-minted Martian citizen broke the ice for everyone else. Then, at least a third of those entering the pressurized environment did the same. Somehow, Al violated the conservation of matter and vomited at least four times his own body weight.
The smell when combined with the vomit?
The smell was hell itself.
“It’s all right, loves. Let it out. You’re on a new world. It takes some getting used to.” Kiley smiled at them, unperturbed by the puking.
“It smells like a used diaper factory fucked an old gym sock,” said Willie, bent at the knees, his back quivering like a cat as everything he had ever eaten came back out of his mouth.
On his own second vomiting, Al realized the floor was grated, that there was a hose on the wall, and that there was some kind of outflow pipe at the far end of the room.
Al was impressed by the planning as he bent over for a third time.
“We’re aware of the issue. We had our botanist come up with an anti-nausea cocktail to get you through the rough patch. All of us long-timers did the same when we lost the air filtering plants in the botanical garden. It used to smell like mint and other succulents, believe it or not. If we ever find who brought in that untreated soil, well, be glad we still follow Earth laws here. It used to be like breathing an air-freshener all the time.
“Sewage reclamation also got a little over-full. Good news is that your ship brought in new succulents and air-scrubbers for us to grow, and we’ve got four new sanitation engineers to get the sewage situation sorted. Shouldn’t be more than a month before the smell clears up. Maybe three or four on the outside. I promise everyone is deeply aware and focused on resolving the situation.”
Kiley walked down the line and presented each new Martian with a cup of green sludge. It tasted like grass clippings but Al forced it down, if only to cover the taste of bile in his throat. It took a few minutes to kick in, but the smell did somehow become more tolerable.
Kiley motioned for them to follow to another room, and they did. Al followed through a narrow corridor, where he had to duck below the cables and pipes running overhead.
“I’ll be showing you to your quarters now, loves. I’ll have you know I helped dig them out of the rock myself. Each of them has its own light-bulb and the best no-longer airtight plastic canvas that we had laying around for a door. Mattresses and other furniture will be coming off the cargo ships, so should be brought in within a few hours. These quarters will be your homes from now until you either take the free trip home, die, or hopefully help us build something better.”
Al stumbled along, feeling dizzy for no reason he could explain, and then Kiley began speaking again.
“We’ll be leaving you in your rooms for a bit after your mattresses arrive from the ship. Should only be a few minutes. Almost all of you will experience a sort of acclimation sickness that comes from your body’s confusion about the conditions of Mars. We’re not sure if it’s the dust, the gravity, the higher radiation, or the recycled air but it takes a few days to get used to and then you’ll be fine. A nap is the best remedy, whatever the cause.”
Al found his feet getting heavy, and it took a concerted effort to keep his balance.
“You’ll all be scheduled for calisthenics in one of the botanical gardens on the morning of the third day to help you acclimate. Your afternoons will be spent with me, you lucky devils. I’ll be your guide during your transition and help familiarize you with the base. I was a yoga instructor in a past life. We’re still small enough that you can know everyone, at least a bit, and it will be important for most of your teams that you make those kinds of connections. Orientation will take two weeks, and then all you type-A’s can spend the rest of your waking hours on the god-like task of trying to make a new world.”
“Aren’t you here for the same thing?” someone in the back asked.
“Oh no, love. I’m mostly a psychologist. I’m much more important than a god. I’m here to MAKE the gods.”
A great humming filled the air, and Al thought for a second that the whole world was going to fall open and vent him into the unforgiving dead atmosphere of Mars.
“Oh good! It looks like your mattresses are coming down the elevators. Wouldn’t you know it, Ken was kind enough to put some vomiting bowls in there too. We’ll get you desks, chairs and computers tomorrow. Desks and chairs are courtesy of Mars, by the way. Everyone line up and grab a mattress and a blanket. Your name is above your quarters.”
Willie bumped into Al, his eyes wide and red.
“Jesus, I feel like we’re getting sent off to our cells in a prison,” the cowboy mumbled.
“How come they didn’t tell us about acclimation sickness in Launch School?” Al slurred, amazed at the rapid the onset of the illness.
“Would you have come if you knew about the ass air?”
“Fuck. Me too. I was just trying to sound like I figured a normal person would sound.”
Kiley pressed the corner of a mattress into Al’s shoulder, and another into Willie’s. Al was about to express surprise that she could lift both so easily, then remembered the gravity here was a third of Earth’s. He could feel it in his very bones. Nothing felt heavy here.
“You’re on Mars, loves. It’s time to adjust your sense of normal to what a Martian would find normal. And Martians are anything but normal to Terrans.”
A man, who Al presumed was Ken, threw a blanket over Al’s other shoulder and tucked a pillow under Al’s other arm. Al took both without thought, like a robot.
“Welcome to Mars Base One, gentlemen,” Ken said.
Al dragged his mattress to his quarters, pushed aside the sheet of plastic, and beheld a barren rectangle twelve feet by ten feet. It was eight feet tall, but Al supposed that was because that was how tall all the tunnels were. By the miracle of alphabetical order, Willie was next door.
“Al!” Willie called, “still worth it?”
Al gagged on a sudden smell of ass.
“You’re goddamn right. Now, let’s go to sleep, Willie.”
“I can’t,” said Willie, “I think someone farted.”
“You can thank the miners, loves. Time to get heavy again. Remember, it’s good for you.”
A great weight fell on Al’s chest. He was familiar with these. They’d been part his training at launch school.
At the cost of several billion dollars and the suicides of at least eleven geniuses, the United States and China had spent two weary decades searching for a viable long-term solution to the gravity and radiation problems of Mars. They had contemplated everything from genetic engineering and rotating habitats to ultra-powerful magnetic fields. Entire new fields of science had been proposed and created.
All of the programs failed.
Then Ivana Illinovich, a back-alley Muay Thai fighter turned physicist, with approximately thirty thousand rubles she stole from the Roscosmos cash catering budget, and a rumored five liters of home-brewed vodka, had broken in to a scuba supply store in Moscow and then a dentist’s office. The next day, with help from a prostitute she frequented who had spent her youth as a seamstress, Ivana developed Martian Heavies. Lead-lined clothing that not only solved the gravity problem by making its wearers heavy at their approximately Earth weight, but also helped shield against the increased radiation of Mars.
When subtracting the damage to the dentist’s office and scuba supply, and the prostitute’s time, the prototype cost of Russian Heavies had been something like $59.
Al put them on, stumbling alone in his cell. He’d been napping the last few days and asking questions of random passersby, and dragging himself to the bathroom. With the Heavies put on, he felt like his whole body was being strangled.
“They’re not even at full weight yet, are they?” he asked no one.
“Oh heavens, no. You would never be able to withstand that,” said Kiley. “But on the upside, as you get used to gravity again, the more you wear the heavies the more you’ll effectively have super powers when you take them off. I have a six foot vertical leap.”
“Holy shit,” said Willie.
Al pushed himself out of his room. If he looked half as bad as Willie, then he understood why they hadn’t asked them to do anything at all for the last few days. Willie looked white and red, like he’d been on the wrong end of a Vampire’s fang several times.
“You look like I feel,” said Al.
“Sexcellent?” asked Willie.
In short order, Kiley had them lined up and making a slow walk through yet another series of corridors. Al could still occasionally smell something extremely unpleasant, but it was much less profound than it had been the last few days. He tried to limit his breathing, but the Heavies had him puffing as he made his way up another flight of stairs. Even Willie could only manage to breathe enough to keep going and didn’t find breath for so much as a single off the wall comment.
After what seemed like eternity, Al gasped and he smelled… grass clippings. They emerged into a garden. It was housed under a geodesic dome perhaps 200 yards in diameter. It was the first place that smelled truly clean. Contrasted against the Martian sky it also felt… like what they were supposed to be doing.
“Love, if you pick a flower, we will have to cut off your fingers. We have lots of fingers here, but very few flowers,” Kiley said this to Mathilde who had been bent over a bed of tulips. They were unusually long and thin tulips, with petals as wide as a cow’s tongue, and Al could only barely identify them. Mathilde withdrew her hands like she had been about to put them in a fire.
“I”m mostly joking, love,” Kiley said, apologetically.
“We have to ration time in the gardens. It’s important to make sure everything here has space to grow. Hopefully, as we get better at cultivating the soil more of the base will look like this and it won’t be so scarce.”
“You will have all the soil you can work,” Mathilde whispered, but Al didn’t think anyone else heard.
“Lucky for you, these gardens exist and you’ll get to do your physical training here. The first of us to come here were not so lucky. You may have noticed that gravity is different on Mars, so we need to cover the difference between Light Work and Heavy Work. Anyone want to guess the difference?”
Willie raised his hand and Kiley nodded at him.
“I’m guessing it’s the exact opposite meaning of what it sounds like, and that’s why you asked what appears to be a simple question,” he said.
Kiley laughed, as did several others.
“Yes, that’s right. Light Work is work you’re scheduled to do without Heavies. Your bone density and muscle mass is a resource we try to preserve very carefully. Light work is difficult and you’ll need your Terran super powers to get it done. If you do a lot of heavy lifting and need speed, you take off your Heavies and that’s Light Work because you’re light. Heavy Work requires you to wear your Heavies, so you don’t turn into one of those spidery gray aliens from 90’s science fiction shows. If you’re sweeping or cleaning, make sure you have them on. Your bones will deteriorate fast, loves. Your skeleton and bones are anti-fragile. Make sure to beat up on them every now and again so they don’t decay.”
Then Kiley jumped six feet into the air, spun, and landed on one hand with perfect balance.
“If you take care of yourself, this will be as easy as a push-up. But for now, drop and give me ten.”
Al realized he was gaping at some point.
Then he got down on his knees and struggled to do ten push-ups.
His confidence was high. He could do a hundred push-ups, no problem.
With all his might, he forced his arms to push him up from the ground. Somewhere around push-up number three, it turned out that the trip to Mars had been harder on his body than he thought.
Al accepted a bowl of high nutrient gruel from the cafeteria line, made sure to thank the servers on duty for collectively spending the dozens of years necessary to get the eleven PhD’s they shared that had allowed them to come to Mars and do cafeteria work, and made his way to his usual table. Yesterday, he had been on janitorial duty with one of humanity’s most brilliant mathematicians. The day before, he’d scrubbed floors with a pioneer in Quantum computing.
His normal table had only one other inhabitant that day.
“When will we have meat again, Dhanishta?” Al asked, as he did every day.
“Give it about three months. I need to make sure we build up the germ-lines before we start extracting for consumption,” Dhanistha said, as she shoveled the gruel into her mouth. She didn’t even have the social grace to seem disgusted by her food. Al had been asking for two weeks, and the figure had never moved from three months to two and a half months.
Mari and Mathilde were gone doing other things. They’d finally been given permission to try out Mathilde’s snot sludge. Mari was detonating a Flat-Fold, filling it with soil, and pressurizing it for the next three days. They’d test the soil after a week. They’d be scarce until the project was underway. Willie was setting up the relay hub for Project Micro and had also vanished. Al had found himself waiting for approvals before he was allowed to lay so much as a single glassed-brick. Dhanishta was usually less than friendly company, but Al had known her long enough to know it wasn’t personal.
“Did you hear about the designs for the Hab complex?” he asked.
“Yes. I wouldn’t worry. Something will be approved eventually. Unum will be like other cities, in the end. It will be built up and destroyed a thousand times,” Dhanishta was doing double duty on a personal Data Pad, no doubt checking on her precious germ lines.
“I mean the UN resolution against terraforming. Unum needs to be built upward if it’s going to survive an ocean. They can rebuild a tower a million times for all I care, but at least there will still be people here,” Al said.
“It’ll happen. If not for you, then someone else. How long do you think what the UN says will matter?” Dhanishta asked it with such nonchalance that it took Al a moment to understand.
“What do you mean?” he stuttered.
“Well, we all abetted a ‘terrorist’ a few minutes after arriving here. I haven’t heard anything about that yet. Have you?”
Al shook his head. Other than putting Ford in “prison” no had mentioned it at all.
“People think we’re crazy tourists, out of sight and out of mind. What are they going to do if we don’t obey? How will they even know if we’re obeying or not unless we tell them? You could build for a decade before they’d notice. All the satellites with that kind of resolution belong to the Base.”
She said it so matter-of-factly that Al found himself stunned.
“But… but they’re the government.”
“They’re standing in the way of humankind’s fundamental purpose. No government can do that for long and hope to come out on top.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Dhanishta put down her Data Pad and sighed. She pushed it toward him. Apparently, she’d been preparing some kind of presentation on this very topic. A single bacteria wiggled on the screen.
“Draw a circle around any living thing. Start with a cell. It has a system that eats. It has a system that senses the environment. It has a system that reproduces. That’s the pattern of all life. Now draw a circle around a multi-cellular organism, and you’ll see the same pattern. It will have a mouth and a colon, neurons, and sex organs. Draw the circle around a species, and it gets a bit more complex but you’ll see that even ants break down their roles in those same patterns. Food gatherers, sentries, and a queen to reproduce.”
“I don’t follow,” said Al.
Dhanishta touched the pad and Al could see a cartoon of the Earth, with a spaceship in orbit.
“Draw the circle around the Earth, Al. Look at the planet like it’s one living being, and each species is an organ. Volcanoes replenish the atmosphere with minerals and its absorbed into the biosphere by plant-life. You can see the entire biosphere reacting to the change of the seasons as the environment changes. The sense of the environment is distributed among all living organisms. But what helps the Earth reproduce?”
The cartoon spaceship left Earth and started heading toward Mars.
“All life reproduces.”
Dhanishta shook her head.
“On the planetary scale, what on Earth reproduces other Earths?”
Al stood up straighter as he realized the answer.
“It’s us, isn’t it? Humans. We’re the reproductive system of the Earth. We’re… we’re the only thing that can purposefully make it through space and bring life to other planets.”
Dhanistha nodded and went back to her Data Pad.
Al was so moved he could barely speak.
“When do you start work on the new hab complex?” she asked.
But Al was already looking for Ford.
“We’re building the Tower,” announced a voice on the other side of the plastic sheet.
Ford sat up in his “prison cell” which was just a normal cell in a lesser used part of the Base. No one had really wanted to bother making a better cell, and it wasn’t like there were many places he could run. There certainly wasn’t anything he could break that wouldn’t hurt him as much as everyone else. After the first week, his annoyed guards had found better things to do. The only inhuman part had been the smell.
“Puh-pardon me?” Ford asked.
“The one from your painting. We’re going to build it. I need your help.”
Ford put down his Data Pad on which he’d been painting for the last several days. No one had heard from Ali, but Ford had never doubted his friend was alive. Ali was in some kind of narrative being actively written by God. Ford’s path had temporarily diverged from that path, but he knew that Ali would not die until the moment of maximum narrative impact. Ford was not particularly religious, but he believed that without question.
A hand brushed the plastic sheet to one side, and Ford noticed Al standing there. He had the same look in his eye that Ford had grown accustomed to over the last several years. The feverish look that Ali infected people with, like a zombie virus. The “get shit done” look.
“Okay,” said Ford.
He stood up.
“I wuh-was looking for something to duh-do, anyway.”