‘Colonizing Mars’ has become a popular, even desperate imperative, especially among the Silicon Valley set—and thus it is one of our most persistent euphemisms for eluding the crises of our own making here on Earth. In this striking and poetic vignette, Keith Wagstaff grasps at what lies at the heart of such offworld endeavoring, and interrogates the tension between our desire to explore and make new and our need to build equitable and sustainable communities. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. -the Ed.
We’ve never met. But your sister was once my sister. If you’re still alive, don’t tell Beatriz I wrote you.
The last night I saw her, we were sitting on a roof, staring at the light on the Capitol.
“What do I care about blue sunsets?” she told me.
“Imagine if you died under that sun, you could have done nothing with your life and these days, people would call you a god.”
“I bet they didn’t give a shit, Rina,” she said. “I bet they wanted to go home after spending a few weeks on this planet.”
I was a little tipsy, too, and upset from what happened in the apartment below. I sat next to her, peeling the cracked paint at my feet. Her jacket was pulled tight. You know Beatriz. Even in the calm, she is bracing against the wind.
“I would be devastated,” she said, “after that blue sunset. Then it would be night. Like on Earth or any planet.”
The silhouette of a tanker breached the skyline. Below, on Saint Catherine Street, a straggling protester mumbled in the dusk, shuffling through the needles of a ghost pine.
“Have I gone too far?”
“No, no, no, don’t worry,” I said. “Nobody cares enough to come after you.”
She smiled. In the distance, the blue Century Beacon pulsed—one, two, three, and onto nine—and then paused before starting the sequence over again.
“I used to love these things. These guys. They have a few kids and suddenly they remember who their fathers are.”
The sanctioned chaos of the afternoon was over. In the distant past, that meant lockdowns and raids. Sometimes people died. But I had only known this, casually drinking in the aftermath. I’m not old enough to remember when police officers weren’t software engineers, and the men in charge even realized people were gathering in the streets. Now, it was the petty things that got you in trouble, making fun of the friend of a councilman’s son at a party littered with clever signs.
“If he files a complaint, his file will be flagged. He won’t risk it.”
She didn’t respond.
“You’ll be fine. Let’s get out here.”
I helped her up. We made our way down four flights and stepped into the heart of Tarshish, the famous “first city of Mars.” I gestured for a ride. The hills hummed with trams chasing signals, some empty, some with a person or two, maybe a bartender or lawyer half asleep on their way home.
Beatriz motioned for me to cancel.
“Let’s take a walk. I don’t feel like ending the night.”
We headed toward Percival Lowell Memorial Park. In the slight thaw of spring, stretching twice as long as winter, the people of this city gain a little courage. Signs of hope were everywhere. Ribbons on wrought-iron balustrades. Students in opposition blue joking outside of bars. Here and there, sympathetic descendants of the first families, tall and thick, buying people cocktails and saying the right, useless things.
We turned onto Córdoba Street, a patchwork of shuttered storefronts and glowing kiosks, walked past Broadway, and took a right on Nevsky Prospekt, past a little garden (a few rotting planters and rosemary, wild with flowers) where she used to tell me quiet jokes after school. I was young when I learned she was good at lying, that the “aunt” raising her was her mother, and that her father was back in Toronto, on Earth, raising you.
She asked it quietly, but firmly.
I didn’t need to answer. She could read my silence and I could sense her hurt.
“The research there is important,” I said. “My options are limited here. You know that.”
“You have a better job than most.”
A couple brushed past us. I assumed they were fulfilling their labor requirements. It was that time, when people appeared in alleys and empty streets, some with brooms, others with tool boxes and tablets. On Avenida Rizal, a woman watched a robot, painted the same color as her orange jumpsuit, patch a hole in the sidewalk.
“It’s a new world. Work to survive. Not to make people feel better about their fortunes. It sounds dramatic, but it’s the future. For me, for humanity.”
“There are humans, here, now.”
“That’s the problem.”
“What’s on Gliese? Explorers become settlers, who become heirs and petty dictators. I’m here. Your parents are here. There are people who need help, and they are here.”
“I can’t stand this city.”
“What other place have you known?”
In our friendship, there was always a reason to hold my breath. And yet, at one time, we were inseparable. Her questions were everything to me. When I was a child, my feelings were alive and clawing at the walls. She would suck the air out of my rage, ask me something I would tend in my mind for days, and then, the fire would burn out and there it was, some new and vital part of me.
Why did I want to leave? I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t know. It was the political situation, yes. But that wasn’t entirely the reason. Every person I embraced, every room I entered, they were estranged from me. Both new and not new, oppressive and ethereal, too familiar, and impossible. It seemed obvious they would swallow me.
“I need a change,” I told her. That’s the only way I could explain it.
We entered Old Tarshish. The streets narrowed. The buildings shrunk. The layers in the walls were hints of the machines that seeded this city. Finally, at the park, we found a quiet spot on a bench, across from the smilodon enclosure.
Beatriz drew close to my ear. “You’re making a mistake.”
“It could be better there.”
“It could be worse,” she said. “And when you land, everyone you know on this planet will be dead.”
She was right. I wish I had something to give her, an heirloom or a book. But I was told to bring only what could fit in a small locker. Everything else, I had thrown or given away.
“Don’t contact me once you’re gone.”
“Don’t be cruel. Beatriz.”
It was difficult to see her face. The dawn was reluctant. There was a terrible static in the air, I felt no breeze. We heard a scream. A man screamed. Cautiously, she stood and looked into the dark.
Another sound. It was not screaming. It was laughing. Some guy was laughing with his friends.
She sat back down.
“You could come with me.”
It felt true in the moment.
She put her hand on my arm.
“I’m going to do it,” she said, and I knew exactly what she meant. “And I’m going to need you and you won’t be here. Who knows where you’ll be?”
A friend once told me they can intercept these messages, if they try. That’s all I can say. I don’t want the children of people I love to be punished for a crime that may one day exist.
Just know that I saw her before I left, and she struggled with her decision, and that I hope it works and she will be allowed to see you again.
My next opportunity to write, you will be gone. She will too. Be vigilant. Be cruel.
Your new and distant friend,
Keith Wagstaff is the tech editor of Mashable, a short fiction writer, and extensively science fictional human.
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