Short story: Fired Up
Sat 26 Sep 2015
In the final instalment of our trilogy of weekend short science-fiction stories focusing on the possible consequences of current technological trends, an upcoming presidential election provides the stage for a historic landing on Mars…
It was a stunned nation that watched Crump get elected as US President that November night. Most diplomats pondered the best response, given the scorched earth policy the candidate had adopted throughout the campaign. Newspapers dubbed the wittiest response to come from Rasputin, the Russian premier, who permitted himself a smile and said: “You’re Fried!” Researchers dubbed it the ‘Crump Effect’ — the phenomenon where everyone plays the most unlikely outcome as a joke, extremely sure that it could never happen and assuming that others would act sensibly, only to find out that everyone else had reacted the same way, thus turning a near impossibility into a certainty.
No one knew who the vice president elect was since Crump had fired the person on the ticket just before election day — constitutional scholars consulted opined that just because it had never been done before did not mean that it could not be done. In short, when the new year rolled around, Crump was installed in the Oval Office, a name out of character for the newly redesigned office shaped like a diamond. In another constitutional first, the First Lady was deputized as the vice president with the fond hope that there would not be a Second Lady during the term. An irreverent newspaper suggested using the term ‘First First Lady’ to accommodate future entries.
Matters thus stood for a couple of weeks when the presidential team of advisors (unceremoniously termed ‘Crumpled Sox’ by the newspaper above) was suddenly summoned into the diamond. “Guys, honey (the VP),” said Crump, “how much time do I have?”. The guys looked blankly at him. “Four Years,” said the VP, perfectly in tune with the president. “How can I leave my mark?” asked Crump. The Sox wondered how many more marks he wished to leave, given that there were enough Crump landmarks strewn across the globe (most entries in the thesaurus for any kind of edifice now had a Crump prefixed). One Crumpled Sock, quicker than the others, replied, “You’ll need a moonshot, Mr. President!” “Yes, that’s a great idea — let’s send people to the moon!” “Honey,” said the VP, “we landed there when you were a baby.” “What’s the next planet after the moon then? Let’s send people there! The scientific Sock in their midst grew ecstatic and lost caution: “Mr. President, we’re thrilled — it’ll give a boost to our plans for our 2038 trip to Mars.” “2038? You’re fired!” thundered Crump. When the 30-year NASA veteran left the diamond, the young Sock who had proposed the moon shot and whose scientific expertise amounted to a science project in high school was now installed as the presidential scientific advisor,. The ‘Red Plan’ to figure out a way to land people on the Red Planet before the mid-term elections (little less than two years away) was now under way.
The Red group at NASA got together trying to deal with this ten-fold acceleration to their plans. The walls of the room were emblazoned with charts of previous planning sessions — the 20 year plan, the search for habitable sites, the studies to be launched about extended space travel and weightlessness on the human body, the astronaut training, the design of the right kind of spaceship to support life, and so on. The question “Any ideas?” drew a blank. The meeting with the advisor was tomorrow. Just when the meeting was to end on this hopeless note, the team heard one of the members say, “Why don’t we send Mutou to meet him — he’s always claimed our plan’s too slow?” The other heads turned toward him in admiration — a scapegoat, why didn’t they think of that! Two birds with one stone — if Dr. Mutou (the scientific oddball) convinced the advisor somehow, they were saved, otherwise, knowing the inevitable, he would get booted out, thus ridding themselves of a persistent heckling problem. The road to Mars was thus getting paved with ill intentions.
The scientific advisor ushered Mutou into the diamond. “What kind of a name is Mutou?” asked Crump, curious, since birthright was something of a fascination. “Of Indian origin.” “Apache?” “Columbus did extend our connections to the Americas. So did the British when they brought my ancestors to the Caribbean through indenture.” “Gave you bad teeth too?” The advisor’s eyes implored Mutou not to respond and interjected, “Dr. Mutou, the President is eager to hear your ideas.”
NASA put Mutou’s plans into motion quickly — they had no choice now, Mutou had the President’s ear. On a cool and beautiful morning late in the summer, a refurbished space shuttle blasted off on a long journey. ‘Operation Fired Up’ was in full swing.
The mid term election fever was high. And Election Day was a week away. The White House announced that the President was going to make a truly big announcement. Previous big announcements had outlined the big border wall to the South to be built that could be seen from space (an announcement considerably dimmed when China released pictures from space of the existing wall built for a similar reason), the Miss USA pageant to be held on the WH lawn, and rehashing other big promises made during the campaign. NASA got into the press act as well separately about news from the Red Planet. But NASA had cried wolf so often with big announcements about black holes, brown dwarfs and sometimes white ones, wormholes, exoplanets and such that the general public failed to get excited about them anymore — the human element was missing. The presidential announcement was as follows: “This is going to be big for America, much bigger than what the other guy did.” “And by the other guy — who do you mean, Mr. President?” “The Kennedy guy.” With that cryptic remark, the press briefing ended. It curiously whetted the public’s appetite for more. The press placed bets on the unveiling of part of a really big wall, since the Berlin Wall had gone up during the short Kennedy years. The same irreverent newspaper remarking on who the “other guy did” suggested the possibility of a Second First Lady.
The excitement grew over the next few days and the public was requested to tune in for a really big event (a gigantic event, said Crump in his daily video address, and it started trending on Twitter, Facebook and other social sites non-stop) on Saturday before Election Day around 11:15 AM Eastern Time (16:15 UTC) — taking special care to note that it was still standard time before November. Now the fever spread around the world. Billions tuned in through all modes of digital access, making it the the most anticipated event in history. At 11:15 AM Eastern Standard Time viewers on screens big and small around the world saw their screen turn into a flying camera and suddenly veer off from a larger object that they soon recognized as a massive space shuttle flying low on what appeared to be a massive plain. (“Looks like he’s just announcing our new big space shuttle,” thought the press gloomily.)
No one watching could deny how indescribable the moment was when text appearing at the bottom of the screen suddenly read — “Live from Mars. Hello, Earthlings! We are about to land on Mars!” — and watched with wonder as the shuttle made a dramatic and beautiful landing on a relatively long flat stretch. The wheels touched down exactly at 11:20 AM EST or 16:20 UTC — the landing sounds quickly muted by the extremely thin Martian air were picked up by the Kite, the flying camera drone. “We have landed on Mars!” read the screen text, “Sol 0 on Denali (Day 0 on Denali)”. The Kite flew dramatically around the shuttle, executing aerobatic maneuvers through the dust raised by the landing. The screens being watched then flew up to observe a dramatic panorama of the surrounding Marscape. The Kite now messaged, “The Crew will disembark the Iolana in +1 hour:59 min (Martian Time).” Few knew what that meant in terms of timing on Earth, when the Kite thankfully messaged again on the screens, “+1 hour:56 min on Earth, Earthlings”.
At 16:21 UTC, social media exploded, the likes of which had never been seen before. (The #Sol 0 on Mars hashtag was incorrectly retweeted by some as “#Solo on Mars” and then by others by adding #Hope Solo on Mars along with her picture in jest.) While the Constitution did not prescribe it, the VP can be pardoned for kissing the President at this moment. People who could do math in their heads realized the disembarkation would happen at 1:16 PM EST (18:16 UTC). Others (who were annoyingly right) said that this must have already happened on Mars because of the time needed for data transfer to Earth. A determined faction was convinced that this was a really big hoax but admitted that this was a downright enjoyable one — it was pointed out to them that unlike the moon landings there are orbiters from other countries that could confirm this within no time. The most amount of alcohol and food collectively consumed on Earth happened in the next hour and 56 minutes (others who missed the point of such trivia pointed out that in many parts of the world it was dinner time anyway). The election events were of course forgotten, and the candidates themselves forgot their plans. No one could tear themselves away from their screens for long. The Iolana (‘Soaring Bird’ in Hawaiian) sat on the Martian soil as the dust it had raised settled. The Kite perched itself on a vantage point nearby to give a bird’s eye view of the events about to transpire — as pointed out earlier, the extremely thin Martian atmosphere dampens sounds immediately but the Kite was optimized for that sort of thing. Every five minutes it would stir and show another point of view, present a factoid or two about Mars (“Atmosphere: 96% CO2”), make fun comments on that (“You’ll get there soon on Earth with global warming, earthlings”), and so on. It was clear that the Kite had mastered the art of building tension. It endeared itself to the children all over the world (and grown ups) watching by saying hello to them in different languages. The social media went wild when the Kite quipped that it was going to learn Martian.
At 18:15 UTC, the tension was unbearable. As the second hand ticked (digitally) toward 18:16 UTC, the hatch of the Iolana slid open and a young woman emerged, not in a heavy spacesuit as expected by many, given the conditions on Mars, but wearing a very comfortable and clinging suit, and descended to the Martian plain using a hover board. She hovered on a spot to steady herself for a few seconds, and precisely at 18:16 UTC stepped off the board on to the Martian soil and said, “Our journey into the future has begun with this step. We come in peace from Earth to this next frontier. My name is Dakota.” (Dakota, the Kite and the Iolana were linked and thus unaffected by the atmosphere for communication.) The Kite focused on flags sewn into her clothing, the US, the UN, and a third, a beautiful flag that showed a kind of graceful curvy swoosh of triangles floating up connecting two circles — the smaller circle to the bottom left in blue and the large one to the top right in red. (#Red Hope started trending instantly. In response the #Hope Solo on Mars hashtag got going again.) As the world watched, the hatch opened again, and this time a man, who looked like a Marine sergeant, “hovered” down to the Martian soil. And the hatch opened again.
At this time, it is best to follow snippets from newspaper accounts that came out later that day to highlight what went on — words were inadequate to capture the true excitement of the landing but journalists tried (from an excited ‘OMG! People on Mars!’ to a sober ‘Humans Reach the Next Frontier!’). ‘The Iolana has landed.’ ’A beautiful figure floated down from the spaceship to stamp the Martian soil with the footprints of humanity. Viewers worldwide saw eight explorers emerge from the beautiful spacecraft, the Iolana, to step into the new world, now no longer out of our reach. Their names — Dakota, James, Tia, Joan, Ming, Cam, William & Jose — are now etched into history. Very little is known about them.’ ‘She looked like a surfer!’
The Kite soared and the glided into the Iolana through the hatch and re-emerged with the flags. Dakota, who first stepped on to the Martian plain, planted the flag called Red Hope on Martian soil with the words — “This is for hope.” James, who followed her next from the spaceship planting the US flag, quoted a little known line from the national anthem — “And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave!” Tia, who emerged next from the ship, planted the UN flag with the words, “This is for peace worldwide!”’ ‘Denali, the “high point’ of human endeavor, is now on Mars.’ ‘Indian and Russian orbiters establish contact with the Iolana.’’ (The fact that the orbiters had made contact disappointed many who were hoping that this would turn out to be a really big hoax.) And so on.
Mutou’s press briefing at NASA was mobbed by a very hungry press, eager for answers and details. It was very long and I’ll give you snippets from that session to try to convey what went on. “The challenges of a human mission to Mars are obvious,” said Mutou. “The enormous costs (especially when we factor in the return to earth as well as a potential rescue mission, not just the onward journey), the significant health & psychological impact of both the journey and stay there, the several unknowns about the environmental conditions on Mars and their effects on humans, and all the challenges that we could encounter regarding the space infrastructure that will be needed. My opposition to previous plans are known — mainly the 25-year timeframe and the sequential nature of the plans. This would have been the equivalent of wanting Polynesians to build aircraft carriers before setting out on the most amazing voyage of humans on earth. We landed on the moon in 1969, Mars should have been our next frontier. The spirit of innovation and adventure that carried us there should have led us further. You can see that the amazing probes like Voyager 1 which is deep in interstellar space or the New Horizons probe that made contact with Pluto show our potential. But by far, space programs have failed to excite the public by leaving out the human element or educate them in any significant way by not including their participation.”
“How did you then pull it off?”
“By shifting the point of view,” said Mutou, “and learning from natural evolution.” This was understandably still obscure to the press. “What I mean by that,” said Mutou, “is that the entire emphasis previously was on the physical presence of humans and the creation of human friendly conditions on Mars. This bias creates barriers that seem insuperable and shifts timelines into the distant future. The spread of life on Earth teaches us something else, particularly strawberries.”
This was still cryptic to the gathered press. And what on earth did strawberries have to do with humans on Mars? “And note,” continued Mutou, “sensory organs like our eyes are extensions of the brain situated remotely that receive light, process them, transmit them to the brain for further processing and actions prescribed by the brain are then sent back to the eyes and other parts of our body, some that we conscious of and some actions that are automatic.” “Our strategy for Mars,” said Mutou, “required us to rethink our presence bias, adopt what strawberries do and mimic our sense making in this world.”
“How are these things connected?” asked one member of the press, very perplexed about strawberries.
“Let me explain,” continued Mutou. “We adopted a mirroring strategy to extend the human presence to Mars, both in terms of the people and locations, providing an approach that can be potentially scaled to millions. The beauty is that Mars is a very earth-like planet for all its differences and that enabled us to quickly map like places on earth. The human mirrors that were part of the first crew to Mars have counterparts on Earth. Denali on Mars has a mirror on earth and so do the eight members of team Denali. We have extended the earth-bounded Dakota and team to have the augmented experience of Mars through their mirrors. These Martian mirrors safely extend our Earthly presence.”
“Are they robots?” somebody asked.
“Robots simply imply a piece of equipment, but these are true mirrors of the human self, part mechanized and also part biological to smartly allow for movement on Mars and to deal with Martian conditions, but projecting our consciousness. When the hatch opened, it was Dakota seeing the Martian plain spreading before her eyes, and her descent to the plain was real. The Martian mirror protected her from the hazards of the journey to Mars and now protects her now from the hazardous conditions on Mars. What these explorers on Mars feel physically is transmitted in a transformed form (we have sophisticated algorithms for that) to their earthbound counterparts. The biological parts in the mirrors are intended to exploit the Martian atmosphere (for example the abundance of CO2) as well as tell us more about the true nature of conditions on Mars. This would be no different from Dakota actually being on Mars, behind a really heavy suit. The earthly ‘Denali’ is nearly identical to the Martian one, and we have twenty other locations that are mirrors that our explorers will test out.”
“I mentioned strawberries for a reason,” added Mutou. “They adopt a complex reproductive strategy like the immobile rangeomorphs did 550 million years ago — the rangeomorphs would transmit their spores to a distant place that then produced runners that colonized the place. We have overcome our immobility from planet Earth in similar fashion. The crew reached Mars and we can see our flags flying there now. (And I use flying in the idiomatic sense.)”
“James, a former marine and war veteran, lost both his legs to an IED and has prosthetic limbs, but that has not affected his ability to participate in our program, and he says it makes his ability to learn to move on Mars all the more stronger. We have a terrific and diverse group as the first crew. Tia and Jose are our youngest participants, both are 20 now. William is the senior most at 50. Ming’s a former basketball player. Cam’s an actress. Dakota is the team lead and a very experienced scientist who has been studying Mars for years. Joan’s a pilot in the Navy. Their location will be a secret for at least one year as they truly immerse themselves in exploring Mars but you’ll get to interact with them on Mars. The simulation goes both ways and they live in mirrored conditions here that are constantly changed as we sense the surroundings.”
A member of the press still absorbing all the information that was presented asked, “Amazing all this! — what did you mean by an approach that scales to millions?”
“Just like a strawberry patch, this approach is intended to be scaled rapidly. Part of the Iolana is a 3-D printing facility to help make new mirrors of ourselves. It is very easy to send raw materials. You will see us add to the first crew shortly. The idea is to make it cost effective for anyone on earth in a few years to be able to create their mirror on Mars and utilize a mirror location to explore really — for all intents and purposes they will be on Mars. Imagine Denali becoming a small town on Mars in a few years. Importantly, with this approach, we are learning what the new frontier is like all the time.”
“What will they do when they encounter Martians?” joked a reporter.
“Remember to say — We Come In Pieces!” quipped Mutou, and ended the briefing.
The political stage provided the ideal beginning to bring a number of ideas together that were brewing in my head into the plausible tale that “Fired Up” presents about being in the Red. Politics, science, technology, history, the human element — all get mingled in this brew. Hope you enjoy this story.