Greetings From Mars
There’s a little voice in the back of my brain — it has a physical space, right at the base of my head, where my skull meets my neck, just a bit behind and below my ears. That voice was the first thing I heard this morning. Well, maybe the second — I heard my alarm first. Then the voice.
“Come on, don’t do this. Open ’em — do it already! Don’t shutter those eyes. Don’t do this to me — and to you: yourself. ”
That little, dumb voice. I call it “Responsibility”. It is the closest thing I have to a rational brain. I hate it! It sits right there — at the tip of my shoulders — like an imp! An imp! It reminds me of things like “Don’t skip work”, “brush your teeth”, “wear shoes outside”, “don’t call yourself ‘a slave to capital & greed’ in public when someone asks what you do for a living”. And it’s always right! This is why I hate it the most. It is foolish…. A total fool. And despite that I can’t even bother to argue with it — just because its right. Alack!
I really am a hostage to the damn thing. But hostages comply.
“So”, I think — in my voice, the voice that represents me more than any of my impulses or impish reminders or intrusive thoughts (or maybe this voice is just the compendium of all of those, each one pulled together with each other like strings of twine twisted together to form a giant, multi-colored rope) — “I guess I must. It is Friday, after all.”
I throw my blankets off me and sit on the side of the bed. The sheets are grey — made of a cheap plastic, designed to imitate Earth-grown cotton. It does so poorly; it’s coarse. And it burns in the drier. There’s a singe mark and a hole from that near my right leg, which is next to my left leg, and both of the legs are off the side of the bed while my feet are on the miserably burnt-orange shag carpet that lines the floor of my room.
My room shakes; I hear a small creak from something as my walls groan. Another stupid quake… I’ve lived on Mars for 5 years now — five! five years! — and I normally don’t notice these stupid, little constant quakes caused by decades of failed terraforming and poorly maintained of terraforming equipment. I don’t, just like how everyone else who has been here for more than two or three years doesn’t notice them. No idea why this one slipped by my senses.
I look down at my feet. I am still in my body, which is good. A lot of times I’m not. That happens when I’m in my dreams. Seeing my feet means I’m awake. Marvelous! Dreaming constantly is a bad way to be living, at least for me. I have night terrors about 5 or 6 nights a week. They always have me waking up in a cold sweat, just because I’m trapped in the prison that I’ve made for myself — my own damn mind, my gnarled subconscious. Again: terrible! Alack!
I shook my head and stopped thinking about the dreams. Hell isn’t other people, you know. People say that all the time and they are wrong. The real, ugly hell is something we make for ourselves. But you can’t say that. Makes people feel bad about the whole “free will” thing. Anyway: Woe betide the man wretched enough to be his own punishment. Woe betide me.
I look over at my blankets, the ones I just threw off of me. Three of them, to be precise. Each is thick. One is also fuzzy. I love the feeling of that one. I sleep directly under it.
You know, I pay extra for the electricity to be able to do that? I pump the AC in this room every night. It gets down to 40 in here, no matter the temperature outside. And I sleep under all three of my blankets to stay warm. Senseless consumption! And of course: of a senseless luxury! Man has been on mars for three generations, we have made plants grow, then die, we have created typhoons on the icecaps here, we can send people like me — me! a neurotic fool, from the earth! — to this planet in a weeks time, and what do those people do when they get here? What do I do? Sleep under fuzzy blankets, apparently. That’s anti-climatic, isn’t it? But I love it none the less.
Lately, to get to sleep, I’ve been imagining myself as an ancient, one-celled organism in a warm, tiny pond of primordial soup. The warmth under the blankets is the pond proper. I wiggle about it in it, free from concerns of man: no worrying about broken relationships, semi-estranged friends, my miserable and grinding job, nothing! Just me, in my one-celled glory, existing before the time of man, unbothered by vertebrae or organs or this so-called “cognition” I am plagued by! To repeat: Alack! Alack!
There’s none of that there, just me, my organelles, and the primordial soup.
Also, just so you know: if I was one of those one celled organisms, or one of the fish that was around when marine life was starting to leave the cozy and toasty warmed seas of the long-ago past for the cold, dark world of dry land? Things would have been different. No way in hell I’d evolve a second cell. And shit, if you think that if I was a fish, that I’d get out of the fucking seas? To go on to LAND? And start all this bullshit that is “conscious life”? No way, Jose! No-sir-not-ever! I’d have stayed in my little ocean or soup. And I would have been content. Very content! But that time has passed, and my opportunity to make a difference is long since gone. C’est la vie!
I stand up and walk to my dresser. It’s pretty dark in here because I have black-out curtains. I have to have them, you see, because I live next to a massive LED billboard that rotates between offering the services of personal injury attorneys, armed guards, personal injury attorneys specializing in suing armed guards, “male enhancement injections”, used car dealerships, and guns. I hate that this is next to my little hovel, the dumb fucking apartment I live in, but here it is! All because Mars has no — none! — zoning laws. None on the entire planet. Libertarian shithole. Earth might basically just be a place to retire, slowly die, or raise kids (if you’re a rich asshole nowadays), but Christ, at least they don’t have these gaudy fucking billboards everywhere.
I open the top draw of my dresser and squint at the underwear and socks in there; I can barely see them in the dimness. I see one long, red sock…. that would be comfy…. where is the other one though? Why don’t I pair them when I put them in — why do I just dump all of them in here, each by itself, leaving every individual stocking alone and always getting myself caught up in a time-consuming search for my chosen sock’s soulmate?
Too much thinking for this hour. I’m doing way, way too much thinking. Need to focus on finding the other sock.
I squint my eyes harder and crane my neck further over the opened, imitation-wood drawer that’s sticking out of the shitty imitation wood cabinet that’s in this furnished apartment I’ve lived in since arriving on mars and seeing a ad for “CHEAP LODGINGS FOR PLANETARY NEWCOMERS! $7K/MONTH, NO LEASE, NO ALCHOL, NO SMOKING, NO GUNS, NO COUPLES, NO DOGS, CATS MAYBE ACCEPTABLE DEPENDING ON SIZE”. 5 years I’ve been here, still no furniture of my own. Just bedding, clothes, a computer, and my shoes. But hey, 7,000 is a steal. Most people I know are paying 15k, easy.
I furrow my brow and scan the sock draw further, before running my hands through my hair. If someone saw that, they’d say it conveyed confusion and exasperation.
Wait — it’s long? Why is my hair long?
Oh, right. It’s because I haven’t got a haircut in 8 months. Forgot about that for a second. Again: C’est la vie. This is all typical and to be expected, I suppose. God, I have no ambition. Can’t even get the energy up to get a haircut scheduled for myself.
I wish I was still in the fucking primordial soup.
I see the second red sock, grab it, grab a pair of blue underwear, and then start scanning the ground… Friday, Friday — that means jeans at the office. There must be jeans — my jeans — on the ground somewhere, in fact if memory serves they’re the only bit of clothes that are on the ground because I did the laundry last night……
“JEANS? FRIDAY? THAT MEANS IT IS PARTY-TIME, BOZO, LET’S GET EXCITED FOR A CHANGE? LISTEN TO SOME PUMP UP MUSIC DURING YOUR MORNING SHOWER MAYBE, BRING SOME MANIC, FOCUSED, FIRED UP ENERGY TO WORK, PERHAPS? IT’LL MAKE PEOPLE LIKE YOU, BIG DOG!”
That’s from the voice that sits right on the top of my head. “Energy and Hype”, I call it. It is always ready to party. I used to listen to it a lot, you know. Then I got an alcohol addiction, had to quit drinking, and that was that. Life, man. Crazy mistress.
My eyes found the jeans on the floor. I walked over to them and picked ’em up.
You know, nothing wrong with a little excitement. Maybe I will listen to something that gets folks moving in the shower.
I threw the pants into the bundle of cloth pressed between the crook of my arm and my chest, along with the socks and underwear. I trudged over to the miserable, tiny closet my shirts live in. They’re the only neatly ordered set of things I own: each air dries, each is hung up, and each is on a hanger which faces the same way to I can take them off the rack without even thinking…. the way they live is wonderful. I envy it.
I gently pulled the the closet door open. Each of my 26 laundered shirts was looking at me tenderly; I felt bad for waking them from their slumber. I ran my hand along the air just above their shoulders before stopping above one of the six identical white shirts I own. It would be perfect for today….. that and the jeans? Wonderful. Not too formal, not too casual. Perfectly unnoticeable, unremarkable, and right for the stage I would be strutting on.
Plus, it made me look rich. This is basically what rich guys wear. Wouldn’t want to look poor at my job. Can’t let them know that I live like a fucking street urchin, in this stupid little cube of a 57th floor apartment — which has a window that offers nothing but a view of a billboard! — so I can pay off that stupid debt.
Stupid fucking debt. Why does it cost so much to get to Mars anyway? Why, why — why? Cost of the fuel for the ships hasn’t gone up, basically ever, because of the subsidies by the Earth-governments. Labor is at least 70% indentured service, always has been…. but the price has crept up, what? 6000% in the 40 years since my dad came here, 4000% since he left to go back to the shores of the Atlantic with all the cash he made to start a family with my mom — when was that, 26 years ago? This shit sucks, man. Hate it. Whatever.
All of this bitching is rich coming from a man who works at a spaceport, for the spacers. I dock their ships, take their calls, negotiate with the unions to unload the ships in the right order…. I just bicker and barter with ship captains all day who want to get their goods off loaded earlier so they get paid earlier, then haggle with shop stewards. All for a salary! I’m still a slave to capital at the end of the day.
“Ohhhhhhhh, come on. You know you love it”, whispers a quiet and assuring voice that lives slightly below the exact center of my head, “you were born to haggle. You get a thrill from it, making things up on the fly to get everything done. You love the pay too”. That’s “Honesty”, or “Self Awareness” speaking. It’s name changes depending on whether or not the truth it’s telling me is nice or not. Ugly ones are from “Self Awareness”.
Me, the shirt (still on it’s hanger), and the clump of clothes in my arm began to walk past my bed, away from the closet, to one of the two doors in my room. I flung it open easily: it was, like the dresser, made of cheap imitation wood. Thus is life on Mars — a planet where everyone goes to get rich, and where they just try to pretend that plastic is wood so it feels like Earth, the place most of us left! Bullshit. I hate it here.
I waltzed into my too-small bathroom; the sun was shining on to the sink & mirror through the tiny, blurred glass of the window over the toilet, which itself next was next to the cramped stall shower I wash in. It’s all claustrophobic. I can’t think about the size of this whole deal too much… makes me think of the debt. The Debt. Christ.
My whole body shuddered when I thought of it… Nope, nope. No more of this thoughts. I pushed it out of my head, then dropped my clothes on top of the closed toilet seat. Then I reached into my pants pocket, pulled out a black square the size of my thumb, flicked my wrist while holding it so a little black panel came out of the side. I held the panel to my mouth and said “Phone, play the hype playlist”. It beeped at me then dance music began blaring from it.
Christ, I just thought of the debt again. Fuck. Jesus, I can’t be doing this. Not this early in the morning. My shoulders are all tense now, and the chest is tight. Fuck. Fuck!
I turned on the shower, then focused on the running water shooting out of the showerhead. I tried to just keep my eye on it and think of nothing else…. needed to center myself, be in the present like the shrink says…. can’t get lost in my own thoughts — thoughts about the d — NOPE!
I stop my chain of thought there, close my eyes, shake my head, and resume looking at the water. Gotta stay focused.
I took off my t-shirt and sleep pants before stepping confidently into the steam. I focused on the task of soaping myself, of shampooing my hair, and of watching the water… I have to you know…. gotta stay centered. Or snap myself out of the place where I’m focused on the debt — oooooohhhh, I know how to do that…. I can just get breakfast. A good breakfast. like a breakfast sandwich.
My stomach grumbled as the hot water hit my back. I do love me some breakfast sandwiches — — I’m really a simple man. God, food does it for me. I’m just a fucking glutton. I felt my muscles relax as I started thinking about the sandwich…. you know, going back to the primordial soup thing? And the being a fish in the warm seas? I’d grow a second cell for a breakfast sandwich. Hell, I’d leave the seas for shore if it got me the sandwich… Ah fuck, no — that is why those ancient creatures did all this, isn’t it? For food?
Christ, maybe I’m not cut out to be the kind of brainless ur-creature I want to be….. how embarrassing… maybe I should consider being a sea slug instead, you know? They seem to have a good deal, all things considered. They just float around, with no brain, and focus on eating because (if I recall right), the main organ they have is a combination of a stomach and an asshole. Plus some feelers and stingers to help ’em eat. God, what a life — what’d I’d give to do nothing but eat food, then pass it through me so I can eat more later…. Maybe there is a place for me after all…..
I realized at this point I was totally zoned out. And also adequately soaped/shampooed. My hands turned off the shower as I tried to shake off thoughts of the sandwich, just so I could focus on getting changed, getting my (long) hair combed and gelled so I looked like a respectable white collar Martian professional instead of a louse living in a shoebox who dreams of being a peaceful little sea-slug…. there’s no room for men like that at the ports, you know? The places print money. It’s fast moving and big earning. No time to do anything but do things that get you paid when you’re there. It would be a bad place for a sea slug.
The jeans were over my (new, fresh) underwear and my hands were buttoning the shirt, which had already been stretched over the arms I applied deodorant on to while I was lost thinking about my new goal in life (becoming a sea slug). Honestly, I don’t even remember putting on the deodorant or really any of my clothes: I was half on auto-pilot, half lost in thought.
Sea Slugs are really pretty, you know. They come in a lot of colors. Apparently it scares off predators…. how great would that be? Being brightly colored, eating a lot, no brain, no predators bothering you…..
I grabbed my clear, plastic respirator suit and walked out of my room into the common dining/kitchen area that my room, like 6 others, is clustered around. Only need the respirator because there’s a dust storm today, at least according to my phone. I’ll need the fresh air and clean clothes you get from wearing it on the commute. Wouldn’t want to be coughing up red dust for a fucking week, again, like the last time I forgot it. That was in February — I think, at least? Or was it….
“Hey, Eric, you see the news?”
Christ. Oh no. This wasn’t one of my voices. This was Rahtul, who lived in the apartment next to mine. He was wearing a grey suit and eating cereal out of a green bowl on our communal (imitation wood) dining table that the leasing company generously provided us. God, fuck! Just my luck thought. This man is a pox… he follows the news too closely, always wants to talk about it… and oddly it seems like he always wants the worse outcome. Like, he has some loose sense of justice but to fulfill it someone always needs to get “fucked up”, so that’s what he always wants to happen. Pretty concerning, if only because he’s a lawyer. Good one, too, apparently. But like me he’s in the hole and skimping out on living accommodations to pick away at his — NOPE! Almost mentioned it.
‘No, Big R — what is it?’
Rahtul smiled; his teeth showed. He has a pretty fucked up smile — his parents were too broke to get him braces or a good dentist when he was a kid, so his teeth looked like little, half-bleached, shelled peanuts. His beady eyes — which were fine in actuality, but he had these thick, black-rimmed glasses that made them look like tiny black dots — squinted as his smile expanded.
“HobbyLobby is going to war with Con-Agra!”
“Yeah, it’s all over some wreckage of a prisoner ship apparently. Crashed pretty close to here. Con-Agra’s gonna fuck those little bible fuckers up, man — it’ll be so cool, and like you know, they deserve it so much — I mean, do you know what their monetary policy is like?”
‘Uh, I don’t but I’m running a bit late for work — mind if we chat about it later?’
A spark left his eyes, and he quietly said “sure”, then turned to face his bowl of cereal. Poor guy, what a lonely son of a bitch. But man, I can’t talk about which things make something or another deserve to “get fucked up”. I just don’t have it in me today. I need that sandwich….
I popped on my suit and headed over to our elevator.
‘Hold the door, man?’ said a voice as I was walking in. Ooh: another voice that wasn’t one of my — Sepang! The coolest of my floormates…. he doesn’t like me much though. Shamefully, he’s identified me as a shut-in who just worries all the time, at least I think — but I’m trying to change it. I’m now being cool around Sepang.
I held the door open for him, then coolly nodded at him at he walked by me to get in. He nodded back…. We said nothing in the elevator. Coolly, you know? At least I hope he viewed it like that, instead of like an award silence. Fuck, who knows, man. I just want a cool friend. Sepang works for the Robotics League’s competitive basketball division, producing their broadcasts. That’s a cool gig. Much cooler than what I do! Christ, I’m a loser compared to anyone who works in pro-sports. Such a loser.
We got out at the first floor, booth suited -up, and walked out into the storm outside. He headed north, I headed south, to the deli near the train station. We said nothing as we parted — Coolly? Awkwardly? Who knows. Whatever.
As I walked to the Deli, I thought about what Rahtul said… a prisoner ship? How odd. Normally nothing worth fighting over on those. Who wants a bunch of dead convicts?
Then I thought for a bit. We launched one from out port not too long ago….. had no prisoners on it, as per the manifest. That was new to me... pretty odd. Just one item on the manifest actually. It was labeled “REDACTED”. Never seen that before.
Before I knew it I was at the walk-up window at the deli. I put in my order for the sandwich and waited for the robot at the counter to hand me the air-tight bag with it. While I was waiting, I listened to the music the deli’s sad, tinny-sounding speakers were playing. Boring classical music, then a bit of dance music came on.
Wait, Christ — is this? Oh god.
It was a song I used to listen to a lot in college, at parties. I had a flashback to one of them. I was there, with short and well kempt hair, wearing a plain black t-shirt, drinking a beer — and talking to a girl! — all while getting a complement about the playlist I made for the party as the flashing lights me and the guys put up in our basement shot rainbows around the room. I was cool. I was cool back then.
God… what was that, five years ago? Six? I can’t remember... Christ. How did I end up like this ? Waking up and wishing I was a sea slug? What went wrong?
“BEEP — BEEP — YOUR FOOD IS READY, SIR”, the robot said as it thrusted the warm sandwich bag towards me. I took it and put the reverie behind me. Hell really is your own mind.
I walked towards the train station I use to get to work and my mind jumped back to the prisoner ship — a few weeks before I was there when they unloaded all the prisoners, then launched it. But it was weird: they flew it sub-orbitally. It was headed to a part of the Polar Neutral Zone, right up on the icecaps. Odd, because not a bunch of people live there, save for in Brightlights. And there are definitely no prisons there.
I got to the train station, walked down into the tunnel leading to the tracks, bought a ticket, passed the turnstile, then sat on a (imitation wood) bench against the wall, all as I was lost in thought. Autopilot again, I suppose.
You know, a few weeks ago, we sent another suborbital ship up there, to the icecaps. Lot of people on it, manifest said it had a ton of drilling equipment — from Earth! — on it. Thing was going to a part of the Neutral Zone that was what, maybe 300 miles from Brightlights? Again, how bizarre — why were they drilling up there? They looked for oil & minerals when they landed here 150 years ago, then found nothing! Odd, odd.
At this point my train got to the platform: the doors opened, I saw a crowd of people, realized this was a standing room only train and thought for a moment, that maybe, just maybe, that those fish should never have came on to land. Even if it was for food.