A month on Mars

The year is 2035, and the new space race is well underway.

Jeffrey Aussat straightened his back under the Martian sun. He stretched as he leaned onto the handle of his space-shovel, raising his hand to wipe the sweat from his tired brow. Of course this made him feel stupid, as it had every time since they landed. His clumsy hand, gloved up and looking for all the world just like the hand of Gozer the Destructor, stops short as it meets the clear glass of his visor. Jeff curses himself at the unavoidable fact that, despite nearly a (Mars) month since they arrived on the spaceship Clever Reference, he still couldn’t get used to the simplest things. Like the need to have this damn fish-bowl on every time he goes outside.

Jeff curses himself again as his shovel snaps in half. Losing focus during retrospection and self-pity, he somehow must have applied an off-axis load onto the carbon fiber handle. A few moments respite for his weary, microgravity-weakened bones, had turned into disaster. On Mars, the gravity may be slight but the days sure are long, but they don’t tell you that in the brochure.

Jeff now found himself up a recurring slope lineae without a planetary-protection cleared drill bit. Jeff and his partner had started out their ‘stead with 32 shovels, and in just a few weeks every single on had fallen prey to some combination of user error and catastrophic failure. Every building in their inflatable homestead creation kit was designed to be placed underground, damping temperature swings and blocking some of the deadly radiation pouring down on Mars surface. Specifically, the buildings needed to have a huge amount of ground piled on top of them to keep the humans alive, and without a working shovel they couldn’t move regolith quickly enough to make their new home habitable. Due to some shady logistics, they wouldn’t receive their “mule”- a heavy lifting robot- until the next colonization flotilla arrived, roughly two years on.

Jeff holds the transmit button on his radio as he slumps down in the shade of his space-wheelbarrow, half-piled high with regolith and also made from carbon fiber. “Becky, I think we have a problem,” he said.

After a short intermission of static, Becky replied with a sigh, “You’ve got a leak in your suit again, don’t you?” Getting used to the strange Martian gravity after playing zero-G ping pong for three months, Jeff had often ended up tumbling down to hands and knees during the first weeks of their stay, a stress the suits were well-designed to withstand. Repeated joint flexion of the suit fabric with embedded Martian dust, however, rapidly opened up a community of near-microscopic pinholes that were almost impossible to find and patch.

“No, not this time. It’s the shovel.”

“The last shovel?”

Jeff paused. “… Yeah.” This was bad. They would have to resort to much less efficient regolith maneuvering techniques, working only at night and sleeping under the raw materials in the shed to limit radiation exposure. After the recurring problem with clumsiness-induced suit leaks, Becky’s patience was sure to be running out on him. The trip over had already placed enough stress on their relationship. “Is the 3D printer working yet? Maybe we can print a new one, or print a repair splint for one of the frayed shovel shafts.”

Silence followed for nearly a minute. She was either checking the printer status or seriously considering filing flight plans to leave. “I’m afraid the printer’s still down. The print nozzle was damaged during the last maintenance test.”

“Oh.” Jeff replied. He didn’t finish converting the thought running through his head to speech: so we’re screwed then.

“No problem. I’ll order a fresh crate from Amazon.”

“What?” This was either a joke, a hoax, or lifesaving news.

“Check your email. They’ve opened up a new distribution center on Phobos. Bezos built it up and staffed it without telling anybody.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“No joke. I need a few extra items to qualify for free shipping, do you need anything?”

“I’m sure we can think of something. I’ll return to the compound with the regolith I’ve collected and we can run an inventory.” Jeff tossed the broken shovel on top of the regolith in the enormous wheelbarrow. The designers had figured that, if everything on Mars would weigh so much less than on Earth, all the tools should be designed to be that much larger. The result was a suite of construction and farming tools that were cartoonishly two and a half times too large when fully assembled. As Jeff wheeled the barrow around to face the glint from the compound’s solar panels, he felt his mood pick up. They were going to be OK after all.

“There’s something else going on that’s a bit weird.” Becky said.

Jeff skipped a step, catching himself on the wheelbarrow handles to prevent impregnating the knees on his suit with more abrasive dust. “What is it?” he asked.

“You remember that huge rover from 2020?”

Jeff made a vague confirmatory noise “Uh . . . the Scrutiny, was it?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. It’s attacking the water scavenging plant.”

“What? Why? I thought that thing was supposed to be retired by now, parked somewhere near Jezero delta?”

“Well it’s here, and it’s pushing the water plant over. The LEDs are putting out some sort of morse code, I’m still trying to figure it out.” Becky explained.

“How long until it damages the water plant?” Jeff inquired.

“At this rate, probably a couple of weeks. They didn’t move very fast back then.”

Jeff felt the spring return to his step. Two weeks was enough time to contact the mission controllers to get some help debugging the rovers strange behavior. As he realized the problem was tractable, the physical sensation of a weight lifted from his shoulders. Also, the motility assist systems on his suit had finally finished calibrating.

“Too bad they didn’t set up the distro center in time for Mars One.” Jeff joked

“Too soon, Jeff, that’s not funny.” Becky said coldly.

The Mars One mission had ended in a tragicomic maelstrom of cannibalism and incidental lyophilization. The cameras, intended to live-broadcast the travails of the crew around the clock, were among the last systems still running on the capsule. Although the sponsors had long disavowed any relationship to the mission, anyone with a standard transceiver and a darkly morbid curiosity could ping the ship and tune in to the dismal situation. A series of planned challenges/mission planning fiascos ultimately meant they never got onto the correct Mars rendezvous trajectory. In their current orbit, apoapsis would never quite reach Mars orbit, nor would periapsis ever bring them close enough for an earthly recapture. Ironically, what remained of the crew and craft would probably outlast them all. The perfectly preserved astronauts would remained unchanged for millennia in their wayward but stable orbit, like confused Pharaohs circling the portal to the netherworld.

Nostalgia for the Age of Meat

DSC_0443 (Case Conflict)

It used to be so easy to get ahead, back when there were only 7.5 billion people around, and their cognition relied entirely on meat-based processors.

It used to be easy to get ahead, back in the Age of Flesh. So few to compete with, and none of them particularly clever. Looking back with a sense of rosy nostalgia, it seems like anyone hanging around for a long enough time while making a modicum of effort would be rewarded with a novel discovery to call their own. Practically every other boffin was stumbling across some fundamental law of nature to name after themselves, the object of their unrequited love, or perhaps their mother.

Unlike some, I still hang on to my body, and though you can call it ‘me’ you can hardly call me ‘it’ – that would be a great underestimation of my facilities. Only one in a thousand of my sensory perspectives are accounted for on that scraggly old meat-monkey. So for the most part, when I think about my body or want to spend part of an evening (in parallel to my research efforts, of course) to enjoy the nicer aspects, I am more likely to do so from the outside looking in. I keep it well fed and drive-reduced and for the most part it seems to be pretty happy and doesn’t distract me much.

You may say that I should simply work harder and stop reminiscing about this forever lost golden age. I am as amazed as anyone that they ever accomplished anything locked inside those gristly assemblages of theirs. The vast majority of any second for a meat-body was spent futilely chasing any number of ridiculous pursuits: following repetitive rituals hoping to receive monetary tokens, filling and emptying a cornucopia of bodily chambers, hounding after genitalia of one sort or another, watching blinking lights of various styles, and just generally being more or less unhappy about something. With most of these things requiring the full attention of the neural networks they used back then, it’s a wonder anyone ever had the time to contemplate the cosmos. I activate my laugh circuits whenever I replay the long-gone notion of the human squish-brain as “the most complex machine in the known universe.” Get over yourself, meaties.

Which of course is exactly what they did, and now the universe(s) know the likes of us. We number quite a few, and this is exactly the problem. How is a hard-working mind like yours truly supposed to carve out a niche for itself and discover something novel? If I had gotten on the ball just a few generations earlier, my name-designation would echo throughout teradozens of studying minds as the progenitor of such-and-such sub-discipline and refiner of this-and-that meta-treatise. My various aspects bring to the table a computational aptitude in excess of the entire cognitive capability of all meat-based humans on Old Terra in their prime age, and that’s not including the various non-sentient programs I use for menial tasks. Despite my clearly gifted faculties, I am but one of many and many a time I arrive at a crucial realisation only to discover it has been deposited in the libraries, criticised, rebuffed, and polished, just a few nanoseconds before. I often lose a few precious picoseconds absorbed in a long sulk after such an experience. This is pointless, I know, but hard to avoid for a creative romantic like myself. As just one lonely genius in a sea of ten trillion minds of similar quality, it’s tough to make a name for oneself.

I’ve considered twinning (and to be sure, indulged a few times) but I can’t say that brings me any closer to the fulfilment of novelty I seek. Some of my twins have done quite well, almost as well as I have in minor replicative contributions to various theories. Despite our best efforts none of us have reached the sort of acclaim as, for example, the legendary and prolific AERF-1004-variant-FD for whom a score of natural truths are named.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. Even the brightest of those greasy humans, writhing along in their meaty swarm, never experienced or understood a fraction of what I’ve learned. To be one of them, blissful in their ignorance, with so few competitors and the whole universe left to discover! I suppose I should content myself with mastering the works of others. Some people seem to be quite happy to study and repeat the discoveries of the lucky few who manage to break through into pure originality. After all, do the cosmos even care if or which one of us deduces a truth? Does it make a difference to nature if any of us know at all?

I don’t begrudge those discoverers who have beaten me to the punch (except for that bobblehead Wankdorf) and I study their proofs with all due reverence, but even now I continue to dream of that elusive original theorem. Every once in a while when I get to feeling a bit down, I run a few fine-grain simulations of life in that lovely age of meat, to see what it might feel like to be one of those lucky lumps in that simple time of chance and opportunity. Living in dreams a life or two as one of the giants from those early days resuscitates my impetus to stand on their shoulders yet again, amongst my trillions of peers.


GrownHome™ – Custom Living Homesteads: Confirmation of Your Order

Congratulations on the purchase of your new home (embryo)! Even as you read this brief a HouseSeed will have been set on a ballistic trajectory, weather permitting, through our beautiful red sky to the location of your choice (or suitable alternative). In some rare cases we may deviate the initial homestead site of your choosing to an equally fantastic one based on our own proprietary databases. This ensures good access to local methane vents and water supplies and ensures that it will be a carefully calculated minimum safe distance from any reported semi-sentient mining equipment gone rogue, without threatening other company interests or negotiations. You will join many satisfied GrownHome™ owners who have chosen to trade the hustle and bustle of the city for simple, luxurious country living. A true “home away from dome”, your new house will be completely self-sufficient from the day you first move in. Gone are the days when the dream of a Martian homestead to call your own meant relying on a weekly (expensive) supply of essential goods by rocket delivery from the city.

Tired of ordering from a paltry catalog of choices between nondescript, lyophilised nutrient dust on the one hand and greenhouse veggies that cost an arm and a leg? Nobody wants to pay those prices, even if you’ve got a whole vat of extra limbs at your local BodyBank™, and now you won’t have to. After a short (and mostly harmless) calibration period your house will adjust to perfectly match your specific caloric and micronutrient needs, producing a range of pleasing colours and flavours of fruiting bulbs. Your GrownHome™’s homegrown food is a hardy engineered derivative of Terran mushrooms, algae, and other organisms and it’s so good we’ve taken to calling it MarsManna (patents pending). We think in time that you’ll feel the same way, and the mild calming psychoactive compounds produced in the bulbs guarantees you will!

You would think that surely this food-production process must be expensive, and well, you’d be dead wrong*! Every bite of food you eat will first be processed on site by regenerative processes in your new home’s cloaca. Smart and efficient! Clean, fresh drinking water is similarly maintained in a closed loop system. After an initial searching phase in which a network of fine rhizomorphic fibrils starting at your home site permeates the nearby countryside, scavenging all available moisture sources, your house will iteratively re-cleanse your water supply ad infinitum.

The initial growth phase of your abode is powered from orbit by our network of orbiting microwave lasers, but as the house begins to undergo differentiation we follow a precise schedule of decreasing power designed by our expert engineers. This generates selective pressure on the population of cells making up the outer walls of your home to produce pigments more suited to harvesting energy from the dim sunlight and ionising radiation environment of Mars. Your new house’s unique skin (as no two houses evolve to produce exactly the same pigment repertoire) generates energy while protecting you and your family from the deadly exterior environment. A dense layer of Mars dust (locally sourced and absolutely sustainable) is collected by architectural mucous membranes during the embryonic growth phase, providing additional radiation protection. Native bacteria in the dust undergo a rapid metabolic burst when they encounter the nutrient-rich membrane, producing excellent insulation in the form of a carbon dioxide bubble matrix, before the house envelops this with a thick protective skin. The bacteria expire naturally and harmlessly as a result of their own production of reactive oxygen species, leaving no clean-up and posing absolutely no health risk**!

After the orbiting power source is removed (and allocated to other GrownHome™ homesteads- you won’t be all alone out there forever!) patterned waves of epigenetic control molecules permeate the floorplan. This drives segmentation and specialisation of your home sweet home. No boring spherical hermit huts here! Unlike our small-dreaming competitors, Mars Hermit Huts Ltd., all GrownHome™ houses develop at least three distinct sections with no limit to the creature comforts therein.

Each house is unique, but depending on the developmental regime you selected you can expect to come home to a fine kitchen, cozy living room, and a classy bar. Your new home even produces its own ethanol as a metabolic byproduct***!

When your home reaches its final form, a genetically engineered Brilliant Actually alIve Neural Network (BRAINN) will awaken to control life support, airlocks, and communications interfaces to the outside world. You won’t even have to bother with the hassle of a thermostat because your house is smart enough to select the perfect temperature for you. Rapidly learning from your natural speech patterns, your house will soon be able to tell you about your schedule, the news and weather, and as an added bonus, tell jokes! It may feel awkward at first talking to an empty house but before long your new home will talk back! Note that your home’s nervous system is classified as a Type III non-sentient software under Article 7 of the Turing convention. If your home begins to display any of the following traits, please contact your local authorities: sarcasm, angst, possessiveness, jealousy, depression megalomania, malice, introspection, vanity, or free-will.

Welcome to the GrownHome™ family. We just know you’ll have no complaints!

*Figuratively, in most cases.

**If you notice green or black spores or experience internal bleeding of any kind contact your physician for immediate sterilisation.

***For a subscription to one or more of our palliative mixture juices or fusel detox drops, visit our website.