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stephen michael mcdowell — mars

Mars (an excerpt from a very early draft of the novel Planet)

“Excuse me,” Stephen would say to the steward. “Since the shuttle left so late, my connecting ship to Olympus is going to depart somewhere within twenty minutes after touchdown at the Moon portal. Is there any way I could move forward a few seats? Or just leave the ship first? Before the rush.”

“I’m sorry sir,” the steward would say, “but there is no way of designating preference to specific passengers, and you cannot move forward, only backward.”

“But there won’t be another flight to Mars for twenty hours at least.”
“I am very sorry, sir.”

For all I know, Stephen would think, it may very well feel “sorry”. The pervasive cognitive dissonance between whether or not semi-sentient silicorps have the capacity for empathy would wear on him. He would have studied the science of it, and it all would appear inconclusive at its base, even to its developers. Cognition, he would think, sarcastically.

About half an hour later, Stephen would hear the steward’s voice over the shuttle’s audio system. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now beginning our descent. Due to the delay there may be passengers with limited time to reach connecting shuttles, so please allow them to depart from the craft first, if at all possible.” Stephen would smile. He’d think about the depth of complexity in the Steward’s brain. I wonder what emotions go with that level of empathy. Or maybe they just say that on all delayed flights.

Stephen would walk out of the shuttle into the terminal and run to the customer service station adjacent the gate. He would see a line of about fifteen people and only three functioning ports. He would look at his mobile. Fifteen minutes. I wonder how far away my gate is.

He would wander from the line to the departures screen. Gate E24, to Olympus Mons, Aries Int’ry, Mars. He’d look up and see a sign that says, Gate G14. Fuck.

When there is finally a port available he would tell it he is going to miss his flight and ask whether he can acquire a ride to the other side of the spaceport, or if he would get compensated for the delay somehow.

“I’m afraid that Terminal E is at least one-point-five miles from here, sir, which will take four minutes more time than you have, and departing flights leave here promptly. The next flight is in fourteen hours. We can get you a reduced price at a nearby hotel.”

“I only have twenty-five units on me. That’s not enough for a room and cab, is it?”

The port would make some humming noises followed by clicking noises.

“The reduced hotel price will be thirty-five units. But there is a free tram to the hotel.”

Stephen would look at the port with a neutral facial expression.

“I would like to speak with a human, please,” he would say.

“I can adequately assist you, sir.”

“Just give me my new ticket.”

“Of course sir. Would you be wanting the hotel room?”

“I can’t fucking afford it. Don’t you have arithmetic software? I only have twenty-five units,” he’d yell.

“Hey, guess where I am.”

“I don’t know,” Melissa would say over video transmission. “Mars?”

“The Moon. It’s my first time”

“Sweet. What part?”

“Pierre Catena. At Neal Armstrong spaceport.”

“Fuck Pierre,” she would say, with as authentic a twenty-first century French accent as she’d know how. “It’s probably the lamest biodome on the whole bright side.”

“Yeah, well I’m stuck here for fourteen hours. And I had to leave the secure sector because you can’t do sixblade inside the port.”

“Ha sucks. I can see you on my mobile and in the sky from here. This is so meta.”

Melissa would make a surprised facial expression that would then silently relax into what Stephen would perceive as resignation. “When will I see you again,” she’d ask.

“I don’t know. When I get back. A year. Maybe three.” Stephen would take a heavy hit of sixblade.

“Well at least it will be slightly less time from your point of view,” Melissa would say with what would seem like sarcasm. Stephen wouldn’t be able to tell from her facial expression, but he’d laugh, with genuine entertainment that would teeter off into a series of melancholic grunts.

“Good luck with everything,” he’d say.

“You too, ranger.”

Stephen would sit huddled in a chair near the southern entrance of the port, with his jacket covering his legs, and type some genetic configurations into his mobile. After a few minutes it would project the outcome, show a probable growth, nutrition and social habit model, then Stephen would shake his head and erase the sequence. I wonder what Lara’s doing right now.

As he’d walk through customs at Aries Interplanetary Spaceport, Stephen would see a man, standing two lines over, who would be dressed like Waldo from the twentieth Century “Where’s Waldo” book series he would have perused via history cortex only a month prior. He would see “Waldo” board the flight on Earth and would tell Lara about him over cloud-chat the day before, describing him as “hipster Waldo” to her. It’s a good thing I didn’t spend those units I had back on the Moon, he’d think as he’d transfer ten units to the customs agent as an entry fee to Olympus. “You need to get a new mobile,” the agent would say as Stephen would walk away. Stephen would look at it and notice the titanium wearing away on the edges, revealing the cracked glass on the front. He’d close the passport app, lock and store his mobile and walk towards the luggage circuit. Way to criticize overuse, literal “Third World”. A noise, projectile, and laser-proofed glass wall would separate the waiting area of the spaceport from where the luggage circuit would be and Stephen would scan the crowd of Martians—scanning the arrivals for their friends and family—for Lara. All of the Martians would be an almost magenta pink from years of taking supplements to prevent cosmic ray remnants from poisoning their skin. Lara’s only been here a few months so she should still be a relatively light complexion.

Stephen would find Lara easily and she’d wave excitedly causing Stephen to feel elated and confused. He would look for his luggage for about ten minutes, but nothing would circle out even vaguely resembling his deep orange storage case. He would walk up to the glass and type into his mobile, which he’d assume wouldn’t have messaging capabilities on Mars, but could type, at least: “How do you say ‘orange case’ in Martian?” and press it against the glass for Lara to see. She would write back on hers the words, which he wouldn’t know how to pronounce, but would type in his mobile. He’d show some of the attendants the question in Martian and they would look around confusedly, saying things apologetically, and pointing at other people to ask. Eventually the managing attendant, who would speak an English dialect, would escort Stephen out of the secure area to behind the glass wall where Stephen would hug Lara tightly and kiss her forcefully on the mouth.

“What’s up,” she would ask with a smile.

“Apparently they think my luggage came here without me.”

“That’s absurd,” she would say, still smiling, her eyes darting over Stephen’s body, never straying.

“Come with me,” he would say, take her hand, and walk quickly in pursuit of the attendant.

They would arrive at a gated storage unit adjacent to the ticket consoles, at the front of the spaceport. The attendant would trigger a device mounted on the wall that opens the unit. Sitting by itself, in the middle of the bottom shelf would be Stephen’s orange case.

“Good thing it didn’t get lost,” he would say, later, in the limousine gliding down a tubular causeway to Lara’s family compound.

“I’m glad you didn’t get lost,” Lara would say. “I was relieved when I saw hipster Waldo and knew you must’ve caught your shuttle.”

“Yeah. He missed the connecting thing too… You know, I’ve got two eggs and a pre-sequenced silicorps applicator in here. How would I have fought in the tourney without any Ökliée?”

“I would have found you some,” Lara would say, holding Stephen’s arm, resting her head on his shoulder. “We would have worked it out. Somehow.”

Stephen would look at the profile of the pink-skinned Martian driving the rover, then out at the blue-orange landscape, the iron plains stretching beneath the mountain as they would speed down it, and suddenly he’d feel a glimmer of doubt appear in his thoughts about the entire “living on Mars” adventure he would, by then, be irrevocably entrenched in; he would think of how, in a few months, he’d be pink too, and wish, just as quietly, to still be on Venus, eight years before, holding Oukimé instead of Lara.

But Oukimé would be dead by then, and time would still be unidirectional: moving everyone, Stephen would know, toward death.

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