by Richard Zwicker
When thirty-year-old Brandon Hemmings lost his advertising job and his fiancé in the same month, something tightened, or maybe loosened, in his brain. He’d always been solitary and impulsive, but he interpreted these two most recent failures as proof he should kick out the jams. He rounded up his relatives and only friend into his cabin in western Massachusetts and announced his intention to move to Mars.
“Aren’t you going to miss online shopping?” his sister asked.
“As Henry David Thoreau might have said, it is enough for me to pretend that I bought something and imagine what I’d do with it. That way my fingers don’t get soiled by credit card debt.”
“Aren’t you going to miss the latest video games?” asked his 13-year-old nephew.
Hemmings looked sadly at the boy, whose pale skin, baggy eyes, and fidgeting fingers all betrayed evidence of eighteen-hour days playing Dragon Mutilation 3000.
“Aren’t you going to miss the pathetic contradictions of human life?” Ethan, his friend since high school, asked.
Hemmings screwed up his face. “Huh?”
Ethan often had his nose in golden age science fiction books and his head in the clouds, so he was used to people responding to him with “uh,” “what,” and the occasional “eat me.”
“Even Thoreau didn’t totally isolate himself on Walden Pond,” Ethan said. “After studying nature all day, he spent his evenings in downtown Concord shooting the breeze with Emerson, Fuller, and the rest of the Transcendental gang.”
Hemmings took a deep breath and smiled patiently. “I believe Thoreau’s biggest mistake was he didn’t go far enough. Indicative of this is one of his most famous quotes, ‘Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.’ If he really believed this, why did he say the same word three times?”
“But there’s no nature on Mars!”
“It’s limited, but ultimately, Thoreau was distracted by nature. He studied it to know himself. By going to Mars, I will cut out the middle man.”
Seeing he would not be dissuaded, and somewhat relieved, Hemmings’ relatives bade him good-bye.
After everyone else left, Ethan shook his head and said, “Permission to speak freely.”
“I just think whenever you encounter a setback, instead of trying again, your tendency is to pretend you never wanted it in the first place. Then you do something totally off the wall. For instance, you could interpret Sonia’s breaking off the engagement as a sign that she wasn’t right for you, but someone else might be. As for your job, when a boss asks ‘You don’t think much of me, do you?’ you might want to disagree with him, rather saying, ‘You are an idiot. Let me count the ways.’”
“I disagree. My failures are a sign that I need to take my life in a new, uncompromised direction.”
“At least take a robot. You never know. It can perform survival tasks that might otherwise distract you from your focus. It’s like what Nietzche said. ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger. But that which does kill us—that doesn’t help at all.’”
Hemmings looked at him quizzically. “Nietzche said that?”
“It might have been his ex-wife. Brandon, why Mars?”
Hemmings put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Ethan, I have to do this. I don’t want to end up on my deathbed thinking, ‘I should have got on a spaceship, traveled forty million miles, and lived the last forty years of my life on a cold, desolate planet.’”
“You’re really worried about that?” Ethan asked.
“Terrified. And a life of fear? What’s the point of it?”
Ethan was too afraid to answer.
“Listen,” Hemmings continued. “There is a chance I will not return. I believe I have all my affairs in order, but if I get this robot, it’ll pretty much clean me out. If any unforeseen debts do come up, use the proceeds from the sale of my house.”
Ethan looked doubtfully at the Spartan interior of the box-like cabin. “That ought to get me about 25 bucks. Benson told me his golden retriever was looking for a larger house.”
Two weeks later, accompanied by a deactivated robot, Hemmings left Earth, a passenger in a supply ship bound for a Mars mining community. He planned to avoid the community, however, viewing it as the epitome of crass capitalism.
The only other human on board was the pilot, a bearded lump of a man who averaged about five spoken words a day, most of them in his sleep. After several fruitless attempts at small talk—“Nice day,” in particular, fell flat—Hemmings consoled himself that perhaps having booked passage with Captain Stone Face was good preparation for the isolation of Mars.
Three long months passed like an intergalactic gallstone. Hemmings wrote dutifully in his journal but found little inspiration in the enclosed synthetic environment. The novelty of weightlessness had become an irritant. He hoped regular exercise and the stimulant pills would prevent his losing what limited muscle tone he’d started with.
His optimism returned when the ship finally attained an orbit around Mars. He watched spellbound as the gray, desolate planet appeared on the viewer.
“You sure you don’t want to stick around until we get to Transtar?” the pilot asked as Hemmings loaded supplies into the soon-to-be-decommissioned landing pod he and the robot would use as a base.
“Thanks, but I’m sure,” Hemmings gasped, setting down a crate of oatmeal. “The whole point of me coming here is so I can avoid distractions. My plan is to set down about 200 kilometers from the mining community. That’s close enough so my robot can go there every four months or so for supplies, but far enough so I won’t be tempted to visit.”
The pilot shook his head. “If you want a job without distractions, you might look into being a supply ship pilot.”
Hemmings smiled. “I’ll consider that if this doesn’t work out.”
Between the impact and the onset of 0.4 gravity, the landing on Mars hit Hemmings and the planet hard. Summoning his depleted strength, he crawled to the robot and activated him. It immediately hummed and flashed. Despite its sleek humanoid build and under-defined facial features, its voice sounded more like a New York truck driver.
“I’m Clank, robot assistant. Where am I?”
“Mars,” Hemmings announced, his voice weak but proud.
“Jesus Christ! What are we doing on Mars?”
“We’re here to distill the human experience to its essence.”
Clank clunked. “Oh, shit…”
“While I’m doing some muscle-building exercises, why don’t you review the writings of the Transcendentalists. Soon we’ll have lots of work to do.”
Even with Hemmings’s diligence in exercising, it took him the better part of a week before he felt strong enough to don his spacesuit and venture outside. He gazed in awe at the red, dusty expanse. “It’s perfect,” he said via his radio hookup to Clank, who stood stoically next to him.
“A perfect what?” Clank asked.
“There’s nothing but sky, dust, and silence. Nothing to distract me from my work. On Mars I will be able to attain a level of focus impossible on Earth. I mean, look at that pink sky.”
Clank looked. “Wouldn’t it be easier just to take LSD?”
Hemmings bristled. “I’m not into easier.”
“According to my data, Transtar has a mining operation on Mars. How far are we from them?”
“Far enough so that I can pretend I have this planet to myself. I have cut the umbilical cord.”
Clank clicked. “There’s a reason babies don’t cut their own umbilical cords.”
Hemmings’s days fell into a pattern. After a breakfast of a multivitamin and food substitute, he put on his spacesuit and went for a walk. For safety purposes he took Clank with him but forbade him to communicate via their radios, except in emergency. Lasting between one and two hours, these walks served primarily for exercise and to clear his mind for thinking. After returning, he sat down to write on his computer. At first he just typed whatever came into his head but abandoned this approach after a few days when inane advertising jingles and lyrics of rebellious rock songs from his youth dominated the megabytes. He wanted to escape this kind of noise, not preserve it. Moreover, he had no desire to spend countless hours editing stream-of-consciousness writing. Searching for an appropriate structure for his writing, he decided to organize his work into the same chapters Thoreau did with Walden. Hence, Hemmings titled his first chapter “Economy.” In it, he totaled his expenses and applied some of Thoreau’s more famous maxims to his own situation. He would call his book Walden Planet. On completion of the first chapter, he sent a copy for Clank to proofread.
“Economy? Thoreau’s cabin cost $28.12 and the landing pod cost almost a half million credits,” Clank said before scanning the document.
“Just read it, will you? I don’t anticipate having any more big expenses.”
Clank began his scan. “What’s this? ‘Man has no time to be anything but a machine.’ What’s wrong with being a machine?”
“It’s a metaphor. Why do you have to be so literal? If I wanted that I could have stuck to my computer editing tools.”
“I guess it’s all right,” Clank said begrudgingly. “As long as robots aren’t intended to be your target audience.”
“Posterity is my target audience.”
“Can I make another observation?”
“‘To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge’ sounds dangerously close to something an asshole would say.”
“Confucius said it.”
“Right. That’s something that I know that I know. How come you’re quoting all this stuff? I thought this was supposed to be your work.”
“Most of it is my work. The original Walden was full of quotes. Some sayings can’t be improved upon. Just read it for meaning, will you? Don’t worry about authorship.”
Clank scanned the entire chapter in two minutes, then handed it back to Hemmings. “I couldn’t put it down,” the robot said.
After lunch Hemmings usually worked in his journal, which he e-mailed to Ethan each night. As for incoming e-mails, he had instructed his relatives and Ethan to refrain from mentioning current events or pop culture. This proved to be an unnecessary restriction. No one else in his family had any writing ability whatsoever, and after a few brief messages littered with ‘what’s up?’ and indiscriminate substitutions of lower case i’s for “I” and “u” for “you,” their e-mails petered out.
Ethan, who possessed some writing ability, initially maintained a correspondence. Like Hemmings, he kept a journal and adapted it for his lengthy and regularly sent e-mails. In them Ethan chronicled his solitary life as a systems analyst and geeky science fiction fan. In a typical e-mail he wrote the following:
“In some ways I see in you a kindred spirit in that both of us have gone our solitary ways. I have not married or started a family because, frankly, I would rather read my books than socialize and make small talk. To do otherwise would involve a compromise that I suspect would be disastrous. That said, I could never do what you’re doing. I am not willing to surrender the slight possibility that I will find someone who shares or would at least encourage my interests. Unless I totally misunderstand you, I think you also need that possibility, even though you’ve done everything you can to liberate yourself from it. If ever you reach a point where you decide you screwed up, that living on Mars and cutting almost all your ties to Earth was a mistake, I will do what I can to help you return.”
Hemmings found Ethan’s e-mails unsettling. What if he was right? With its television, bureaucracy, and corruption, Earth contained many things Hemmings felt superior to. He had hoped the absence of those things on Mars would inspire him. Sometimes it did, but other times it made it easier for him to hear the small voice deep down inside him that said, ‘Brandon Hemmings, you are a fucking idiot.” He tried to counter that voice with an e-mail to Ethan that brimmed with false confidence.
“Don’t worry about me,” Hemmings wrote. “There’s no ‘I’ in eternity.” Then he deleted that, thinking, dammit, there is an ‘I.’ He needed another word. ‘Infinite’ was even worse. He wrote, “There’s no capital ‘I’ in eternity. I am unimportant. My only footsteps are my thoughts, and I am blessed to be able to devote myself to them without distraction. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d prefer that you limit your e-mails to important matters and not talk about the possibility of failure. I must go full speed ahead.” Eventually, with the exception of some occasional spam about erectile dysfunction, all the incoming e-mail stopped.
During the first month Hemmings and Clank set up a shelter that tripled their indoor area. Though the hostile conditions of Mars forced him to stay inside to a degree that Thoreau never would have tolerated, Hemmings activated a 360-degree viewer through which he could see the exterior area at any time.
For nutritional purposes Hemmings and Clank had set up a small garden in the makeshift shelter. Though it grew quickly, the results were mixed. The strawberries never got larger than marbles, the spinach looked pale, and the carrots were small and tasteless. As he stared at a gnarled carrot, he wondered if the less-than-optimal conditions would in time similarly affect his body.
During a silent walk, Hemmings and Clank climbed up a hill of dust and rocks. The top gave them a panoramic view of craggy hills, enormous craters, and a sea of regolith. Feeling like a necktie accidentally dropped onto a pile of Philips head screwdrivers, Hemmings thought about what it meant to be alive and sentient. The stars, the planets, the comets, the red dust did not worry about their identity. Mars did not fret at being the second smallest planet in an insignificant solar system. When it lost its water billions of years ago, it did not mount a hopeless fight and eternally sulk thereafter. It did not worry about its inevitable demise when the sun bloats into a red giant and swallows it. Was he better off for fearing his mortality? Or, as he might someday be part of the Martian dust, would he be wiser to adopt its stoic attitude? He shivered at the thought of an eternal future without him.
Two months passed. Though Hemmings had never been very good with his hands, with the help of Clank he’d repaired the water recycler and reinforced some weaknesses in the shelter walls. He’d also started talking to his misshapen plants, at times preferring their company to the robot’s. Clank had started following him around, standing in a corner, humming.
Hemmings brushed the dirt off some small potatoes he’d dug up. “Are you keeping an eye on me?”
“I’m able to do many things at once. I find if I don’t multitask, it’s hardly worth turning myself on.”
“What are some of the other tasks you’re doing?”
“Actually, I’m writing a journal just like you.”
“Really? Can I read it?”
“No, it’s personal.”
Hemmings guffawed. “You’re not a person. How can it be personal?”
When Clank replied that it was synthetically personal, Hemmings let it go. It was just his luck to get a robot with secrets, but he’d come to realize he couldn’t know everything, and maybe he didn’t want to.
Time passed uneventfully until one day the sensors detected a powerful sandstorm headed in their direction. At Clank’s behest, the two of them retreated to the landing pod. For a week the pod shook violently. Feeling oppressed by the closed quarters, Hemmings couldn’t concentrate on his writing. Instead, he played game after losing game of computer chess. When Clank noticed him developing a program where he could water board his captured pieces, the robot intervened.
“I’m worried about your mental health.”
As if wrenched from a daze, Hemmings abruptly turned off the chess game. “I’ll be fine once this storm passes.”
“Ethan has resumed sending you e-mails. I suggest you read them.”
Hemmings’s eyes lit up. “I thought he’d given up on me. Wait a minute. Did you hack into my e-mail?”
“I figured you weren’t going to read it. Go ahead.”
Hemmings waved his hand dismissively. “Maybe later.”
“Suggestion number two: after the sandstorm we should take a field trip to the mining community.”
“No.” Hemmings stiffened. “Transtar is a last resort. If we run out of supplies, you go there. Is that clear?”
“Totally. Just one more question. Did you ever notice how Walden ends?”
“I’ve read it many times.”
“I quote: ‘I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.’”
“Yeah, I’m working on a new ending.”
“You ain’t kiddin’.”
They watched helplessly as the storm wrenched the shelter from its moorings and blew it away.
“How do you feel?” Clank asked four days later after the storm had finally died down.
“Like I’ve been sandbagged.”
“That’s not bad. I was thinking of something like, ‘Like sands over the regolith, so are the days of our lives.’”
Hemmings stared at the exterior monitor, which showed a lot of nothing. “I never thought I’d find a place that had worse weather than Massachusetts.” His body sagged. “I don’t know what to do next.”
“I have a suggestion: abandon ship.”
Hemmings stiffened. “Clank, we’ve been through this.”
“The storm damaged the air recycler. It’s currently operating at 80% capacity, and I don’t know how long I can keep it going. I estimate it will fail completely in two weeks. Request permission to send a distress signal to Transtar.”
“Request denied. Thoreau lasted two years on Walden Pond. I’m not going to throw in the towel after three months. Maybe we can fix the air recycler. This is my one chance at immortality.”
“Correction. This is your one of many chances at mortality.”
Stung by Clank’s bluntness, Hemmings lost his train of thought. When he did speak, his voice was flat. “Let me just read some of Ethan’s messages first, then I’ll make a decision.”
Hemmings was astonished to find that in the last month, Ethan had sent at least one e-mail a day. They were uncharacteristically brief, however, and didn’t even sound like his friend. One said, “We are the products of our environment. What kind of product do you think you’ll be if you spend too much time on a dead, cold planet?” Another went, “Mars, for Somalians who think life is too easy.” A third said, “I really miss you, buddy. A day without you is like a day without sunstroke. Just kidding. Come home soon.”
Hemmings recognized the acid wit of the robot. Clank had forged the e-mails, probably in an attempt to convince him to give up. He felt strangely touched, as well as a little sad that Ethan really had stopped writing. Hemmings mechanically checked each e-mail, until he finally came to the last one his friend had actually sent, two months earlier. To his astonishment, he learned that Ethan had met someone.
“I met Gina by accident at a used bookstore. I was looking at a new translation of The Brothers Karamazov that had gotten a good review, and she asked, ‘What makes a novel great?’ I figured she was talking about classic mainstream literature, so I said, ‘If I can read a novel and at no time think it would be improved by a flying saucer landing in someone’s back yard, then I know it’s great.’ She thought that was funny, and we ended up dating, and I think I’m going to ask her to marry me. I won’t have time to read all the science fiction that I want to, but what good is time if you’re not happy? With Gina, I can defy gravity. I just wish you were here so I could show you. You wrote to me that there’s no I in eternity. I have to disagree. As long as you’re alive, I is in everything, as it should be. And you know what? We is pretty important too.”
Hemmings, feeling very alone, realized Ethan was right. He wrote a long, rambling e-mail about the difficulties of living on Mars, among them the fact that his air recycler was going to malfunction and he might suffocate. Deciding it was a bit of a downer, he never sent it. Instead, he wrote a short note: “Ethan, I will always appreciate your care. Maybe coming to Mars was a mistake, but at least at one time in my life, I had the freedom and the confidence to make it. He closed the message with, “Friends forever, Brandon.”
The diminishing air and Clank’s daily suggestions that they leave merely hardened Hemmings’s resolve. He needed to see this through, even if it wasn’t worth seeing. He devoted the next few days to finishing his book. These were his last lines:
“I’ve never met the man who was totally awake. So, as I’m about to endeavor on the big sleep, this is not such a big change. I thought I could trust my heart, that everything vibrated from that string, but I ended up putting the string around my neck. The moral of the story: Don’t go gently into the dark night of your soul. Don’t be seduced by the call of the weird. When you want to suck the marrow out of life, just remember: life without marrow is a pretty flimsy enterprise.”
He then had Clank read it, which the robot did in less than three minutes. Clank asked if he could write the introduction. Surprised but touched, Hemmings said, “I would be honored.”
Clank wrote: “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
Two days later Hemmings didn’t have enough strength to get out of his cot. Clank stood beside him, like a fifth bedpost.
“Well, Clank,” Hemmings said weakly, “you have to admit, these last four months I’ve come as close as anyone to living the undistracted life.”
“Yeah. Get rid a few more distractions and you would have been me.”
Hemmings knew the end was near when he started hearing the voices of angels. It unnerved him only slightly that the voices sounded mostly male, in some cases whiskey-soaked, peppered with expletives. He found their handling of him equally rough, as they placed him on a stretcher.
“We got here as soon as we could,” said one of the rescuers from Transtar. “What were you doing out here anyway?”
“Distilling human experience to its essence,” Clank said. “It was an interesting attempt, but we never got past pride.”
Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. He has sold over sixty short stories, including to “Mythic,” “Zetetic,” and “Penumbra.” Two collections of his works are available on Amazon.