Across The Dust
It’s been a very long time. My beard is long, my hair touches my shoulders in a tangled mess, and my body itches and stinks with retched uncleanliness.
But I do not care. I am beyond caring. That passed many months ago, as I realised what a shit-pit I now exist within.
Dawn breaks through the window. The early sun gleams and glints from the dust particles in the air, turning everything a deep shade of red. It is like this every morning – how long has it been now? Ten months? A year? More? It’s impossible to tell.
At the beginning I scratched the passing days onto the bare metal of the unit I live within, but soon, the days became lost, mingling with one another, until all I could measure time by, was the rising and the setting of the sun. Even that seems so inconsistent. A week seems like a day, and a day like a week. I have no point of reference, nothing to grasp hold of, nothing to direct me towards any type of goal.
I am a man, stuck in a metal box, on the surface of Mars – alone…
I pick up the radio transmitter on the desk in front of the window. I press it, and it beeps. “This is Nigel Warren of expedition Alpha 16. To anyone receiving, contact the European Space Agency, advising them that I am still alive within prototype habitat unit B3… Over and out…”
Waiting For Mars
The thrusters engaged and we blasted out of orbit. Thanks to the g-force normalising system, I barely felt a thing. Though, as I peered out of my porthole, the stars began to pass by, slowly at first, but gaining in momentum. Until they blended into blurred streaks that cut through the black of space.
For a moment, in my cabin, sitting on the small bed, I closed my eyes. If I’d known any different, I might have been back home, in my own bed. It might have been any day on Earth. Any boring day, just like all the others. But it was not. I was on a Vacation Ship to the Oort Cloud and back. A luxurious passage that only a few could afford. A trip through emptiness. And yet, just the thought of it was enthralling – a journey through space. Those aboard, we were the pioneers to the future of humanity, the future of its leisure. It was a pleasure we undertook with all our hearts… and wallets of course. Nevertheless, to be one of the first humans on such a vacation, it was priceless.
At eight in the evening, I took a shower, drank a small glass of a fine Scotch, and left my tiny room behind. I would be mistaken to believe that room was the most glamorous part of the ship, because it wasn’t by far. Neither was it meant to be. It was simply a place to rest your head after a long day. A cocoon in which to await the next excursion.
The door locked automatically behind me. I entered a corridor hundreds of feet long. People of all shapes and sizes buzzed past. Some already in the early stages of drunken slumber. I smiled. These were the first people to be partying in space, enjoying themselves in the false gravity. I laughed. It was a preposterous thought. All this indulgence, this money, the pointlessness of it all. And yet, it was nothing but brilliant.
As I reached the end of the corridor, music began to fill my ears. I latched onto the trumpets, the saxophones, the percussion – all aspects of the big band ensembles that has been a major selling point for the trip. My footsteps hit the deep maroon carpeting, keeping in beat with the rhythm.
The room opened up into a reception-like area with two red-curtained doors leading through to the main social space of the ship. A relaxed place with music, drinks, and good food – the mainstay of the trip. I entered, gazing upon this place in reality for the first time. We’d all seen the pictures, the models. Though, they really did this place no justice. In all its glory, it was a magnificent sight to behold. Towards the very rear, the room dropped away to an auditorium from which the live music leaked from. In front, many tables were positioned in various settings. People crowding around all of them. Smiles covering their faces, glints in their eyes. Numerous bars lined the sides of the rooms. And many waiters and servers milled about, taking orders, delivering food and drinks. It was mad, but in a completely respectable way.
I straitened my tie, and headed for the nearest bar. Tending it was a smart-looking man in his late twenties, he smiled at me, graciously waiting for my order. “Whisky, straight, double. Thanks,” I said.
“Any preference, sir?” He replied with a wide smile.
“Any good Scotch will do just fine.”
“Of course,” the bartender nodded, before he poured my drink.
Sipping the whisky, I glanced out over all the commotion, wondering what I might do, if anything. The Scotch was good too, even better than the bottle in the room. Then again, for the price, I suppose it should be. I reminded myself, this was a once in a lifetime experience, and experiences of this kind are worth more than all the money in the world.
I took a seat in the auditorium. Watching the big band below, I listened for a while. Letting each instrument, each note fill me to the brim. I was in space, in a suit, drinking whisky, listening to jazz – and I didn’t even know it.
Someone sat next to me, throwing themselves into the plush chair, almost knocking my whisky onto the floor in the process. I stared in their direction, a look of disgust no doubt covering my face. “Hey,” the person said. It was a woman. For a moment I lost my words as my eyes trailed down her dark green dress and back up to the ornate gold necklace hanging around her neck. She was beautiful.
“Hey,” I replied. “You almost spilt my drink.”
“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. Shit like that costs a fortune here. It’s not like we paid for the tickets, right?” She smirked.
“So, what’s your reason for being here?” She asked.
“Because, why not?” I replied. I couldn’t see any other answer.
“Ah, you’re one of those…”
“One of who?”
“You know, the people who think they are entitled to everything. Those that think the world is their playground. Those that live vicariously through hedonism.”
“I do not ‘live vicariously through hedonism!’ Christ, what does that even mean…”
“That’s one of the symptoms, of course… delusion.”
“Why are you here then? If it matters so much…” I asked, becoming annoyed.
“I’ve always been fascinated with space,” she said.
I held my arms out wide. “And that’s a good enough excuse, better than mine? There’s no space here… just indulgence.”
She looked offended. “Okay… let’s agree to disagree. Simply, there’s no rational reason to be here. But then again, isn’t that the same for most things?”
“So what, you’re a nihilist now?” I laugh.
“No, not quite. Though it has its pulls.” Her face remained straight, as she looked at me with her impossibly dark eyes.
“Well… I try,” she said, her smirk breaking through. “You like the music?”
“Yeah, sure. They’re good.”
“A…ha. You must be kidding me, right?”
“No, I like them. The band after is the highlight. If you don’t like them, why stay?”
She shrugged. “The company.”
“I doubt that’s very good.”
“You might be surprised.”
Behind the stage, through the huge viewing windows, the stars remained a blur. Soon we would buzz past Mars, catching a close-up glimpse of the red planet. I wanted to be here for that, with the music playing, with a drink, with everything… and as unlikely it sounds, with her. It is funny how attraction works when you are not expecting it. I studied her, and noticing, she smiled that smile. “You want to wait for Mars?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said. “You want to buy me a drink?”
“Sure,” I said.
Afterwards, we sat there, drinks in hand, music in our ears.
And we waited for Mars.
Across the vastness of the southern hemisphere.
Rides a man, world-skirting in his ship.
Maybe he sees what others do not.
The simple beauty of a place man forgot.
It is with this he cruises along.
Looking at the world with a sense of being.
Sensing a hand of fate;
Guided across this perpetual landscape.
Occasionally, a glint shines from his eyes.
Witnessing spires of a time long ago.
Veering off course; people say it’s derivative.
Though, he sees it as his moral imperative.
For the day might come when he will land.
Placing his feet upon those fated sands.
Grasping towards where no man stands.
Starting anew, here, no matter all the places scanned.
Through The Crowd
The day it rolled across our part of the country, we were eating Christmas dinner. The whole family was there. Laughing, having a few drinks, you know, the usual things a family does at that time of year. It was smiles and happiness all around.
Of course, that was before everything…
Now… here I am year later, among people I have known for only a short time, among a mass of sadness and depression. My family is gone, all of them, dead. I saw it with my own eyes, right at the table. There was no way anyone could have seen it coming. By the time the warnings went out, everyone was already gone.
Everyone but me… and a few select others.
I walked the streets alone, trawling through the stinking mass of bodies that littered every area, rendering no place clean, perpetually toxifying the air. I could do nothing but walk in a direction where I could be free of the oppression such death brought, free of the bodies I left behind still sat at the table. I felt terrible for that, but what else could I do? So, I kept going until I hit the country, far away enough to not smell the stench of death, or hear the buzzing of the flies. There, in the hills, the world was as it always was. Clean, normal. I tried to make myself believe that in the following days. I rationalised, told myself I was in a dream. I couldn’t believe something so terrible could happen in reality. Something so completely destructive.
One of the assistants ushers the line along. We slowly move like an endless, human caterpillar, always in continuous motion. I have my papers ready, as the people do around me. Some of them friends, some who I recognise, others who I like a lot less. However, we are all after the same thing, all heading in the same direction. We want safety, continuity, clean food and water. More than anything we want a return to normality, no matter what form it comes in, or how we get there. Humans are a civilisation built on strong culture and society, both of which we currently reside at zero.
A small stand hands people soup in tiny cone cups. I grab one, thankful for the warmth on this cold night, thankful that people have been good enough to do even this. Maybe there is still hope to be had. I pray that this might be true. The broth is sweet, and about the best thing I’ve had all week. Its steam rises, quickly condensing before vanishing into the dark. I can’t help but think we are all like that steam.
Nearing the checkpoint, and with soup in the bellies of the people, the atmosphere feels somewhat less impenetrable, less hostile. A quietened chatter fills the air. And unlike the stagnant, finished voices one normally hears out here, there is hope in and amongst the whispers. A hope that fills every aspect of our bodies. A will that things are going to be okay. A need for everything to work out in the end. Though, I sense people hang onto their pessimism, unsure of what the next corner might bring. Suspicious of anything that sounds too good to be true. People have walked long and far to get to this place, as I have too. Whatever caution we cling to has to be discarded, it is this or nothing. Life in there, or life out here. The latter is too hard a concept to grasp. It is no life. This isn’t living. Looking back, I can’t comprehend how I have lasted a year in that godforsaken land.
I hand the armed man at the checkpoint my papers. Papers which consist of nothing more than my name and age. He nods and I am huddled along through to another who pats me down, removing the knife from my belt and the pistol from my bag. I don’t protest. There has to rules, they are the bedrock of society.
I am here, at last.
They call it New Hope, which I think is an utterly ridiculous name. Nonetheless, it makes it hard to mistake what this place is. What it offers to all of us passing through its gates. We hope this is it… life, once again. We all need something to help us forget the past, what happened and what we’ve lost. For we have lost, so, so much.
I follow the people, grouping up with my friends. We glance at each other, filled to the brim with anxiety. And yet, beneath that there is a well of excitement and happiness. Because we know we will never be given a better chance. It is all or nothing.
We have to make this work, no matter what. It has to. For humanities sake. For our legacy.
She sits on a chair in my living room, completely motionless, more inert than any human could possibly be. I suppose that makes sense, because she isn’t human – not in the true sense. And yet, she should be indistinguishable from a human, in most respects. Because that is what I paid for. At any given moment I have been assured she can pass a Turing Test.
I walk slowly towards her. She is made to a specified aesthetic, as the salesman said. I take this to mean beautiful. Her nose is button-like, her cheeks high, and her eyes a radiant shade of green. Golden hair flows from her head all the way to her navel. Hair that never needs cutting, nor styling. She wears normal clothes, jeans, a pastel pink shirt and a pair of tan brogues. There’s no use in acting like a human if you do not look like a human.
I walk in a circle around her, inspecting her skin, her body, her everything for the first real time since the showroom. I was also assured that no other looks like this one, that each is unique visually, even behaviorally within a set of predefined parameters. I push my face as close to hers as I can without touching, and stare deep into her impossibly green eyes for something other than humanity, but I cannot see it. They are like all other eyes, only more glamorous.
Taking a step back, I say, “awake!”
Her head twitches slightly and her eyelids take a deep blink, before opening to reveal even more glint. “Hello?” I say.
“Hello,” she replies.
I struggle to find more words. Her body sways, moving ever so slightly, her fingers tap and touch each other with no discernible rhythm, occasionly brushing the hair away from her eyes. “What’s your name?” I ask.
“My name, it is whatever you want it to be.”
“Oh… I didn’t realise.” I think for a moment stumped. “Jessica?”
“Jessica. That’s a nice name. Jessica it is.” she says, smiling. “And you are?”
“Very nice to meet you Joe.” She holds out her hand. I look towards it curioiusly, before outstreching my own and shaking it. Her skin… it’s skin, nothing else. No different in feeling to real human skin. I wonder how they did it.
“What now?” I ask
“Anything, of course within reason. You read the manual I assume. I cannot partake in anything illegal… but beyond that, most things I can accept.”
“Most…?” I dig.
“Yes. If I deem something to be socially unacceptable in any given social situation, or something that might put you in danger, physically or mentally, it is my duty to refuse or intervene.”
“I’m glad,” she replies, always with a smile.
“As I understand you have differnt… settings.”
“Yes. At the moment I am currently in no pre-set mode. I am acting independently of any behavioral predisposition. I have various settings, including this one. Maid, friend, girlfriend, wife, room-mate, teacher, psychiatrist, therapist. A new mode can also be designed and modified if you require.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Which is your preference?”
“I do not have a preference. It is you who decides.”
“Oh, I see…” I think, this I hadn’t anticipated. Why did I buy her? What did I really want? What did I expect? This isn’t taboo, society is accepting. For all intents and purposes, she is human, only artificially so. She has a mind, and a personality, and everything else…
“A friend…” I say, deciding, knowing it is what I lack, knowing that is my true reason for having her.
“A friend it is,” she says. “So, what do you want to do?”
“Sure, I love bowling,” she laughs. “Let’s go, it’s close enough to walk.” She stands and heads for the door, picking up her coat from the stairail and putting it one. “Come on!” She shout through.
I stand, but stop where I am.
Silently I question myself. Is this right? Should I be doing this? Should anyone?
“Some nights back home, I looked deep into the sky towards the stars, at the distant worlds I knew existed but could not see. I would think that I am like one of those worlds. So, so far away, invisible to most eyes, as they – as I – would always be. It made me feel small looking up like that. Sure, I know everybody says that, but it’s true. You look out there, and you look down here. Witnessing the past light of all those stars, in a sense, looking into the past itself. And still, that light felt closer than all that surrounded me.”