Sapiens Plurum Honorable Mention
“You know what I think?” Ryan said. “I think the Voyager probes were a terrified scream in the dark. There’s nothing we hate more than being alone.”
“Is that so?” Lex said, still squinting into the optical piece connected to the powerful telescope. “Or maybe we want to find out…” She straightened up from her task to face him. “What special little snowflakes we are among trillions of snowflakes.”
“Have you found Santa’s sleigh among all those snowflakes yet?”
Lex snorted and rubbed her eyes as she walked over to her workstation. Picking up a plain plastic mug, she sipped it and grimaced. “Yuck. Cold tea on freezing cold nights is so un-inspiring.”
On a nearby shelf, Ryan picked up a little origami car. “Dried Royal-Silk leaves. Clever. Did you make this?”
“No, Demi did.”
He gently set the leaf-car on the shelf, and realized that their grandson, Demi, had never touched tree-paper, and probably never would. “Wonder how things are doing out there.”
She followed his gaze up to the bright stars through the polymer-glass dome. On a clear night, the sky here was powdered with crushed diamonds and streaks of flashing silver.
“Not great, but better, I last heard.” She straightened up. “Well, we shouldn’t be up here too long. I don’t like using the shield, but if I get any more cancerous cells the nano-docs will go on strike.”
“I don’t think they can repair mummified tissue.” Ryan smiled and dodged her playful swat.
Laughing with her partner and co-researcher of thirty-seven years, she took his hand, and they left the observatory to descend underground. After initial construction and setbacks, it was remarkably easy living here in the domes and caves. Laughter and high spirits rode easily on the ventilated air. Blue moods were not unheard of, but a mutual sense of heroic purpose and outright survival left little room for depression or idleness.
The warning came from their grandson Demi and his friend Arlo as they came hurtling past, chasing invisible foes down the narrow hall. Lex and Ryan plastered themselves against the curved wall, and a splash of nettle-mint tea followed in the wake of the rampaging teenagers.
“No games in the halls!” Lex yelled, but the boys and their virtual visions were long gone.
Lex didn’t have anything against augmented or virtual reality as it was vital to everyone’s welfare and sanity. She acknowledged that it was more an old woman’s envy of their youthful energy.
“Let the bot get it,” Ryan said, pulling Lex away from stepping in the puddle.
There was no wasted space nor resource in their growing city. The hallways of their cylindrical world were lined with medicinal and edible plants while also designed to collect moisture. Even the humidity from their sweat and exhalations were absorbed by the wall’s nanotube membrane. Drinking water was processed from the air and ground, but crop-water was a recycled breath, a splash of tea, or ‘human-processed’ tea. Not even waste was wasted.
On cue, a small robot resembling a saucer hummed up the smooth walkway, hovered over the liquid, beeped happily and whirred past their feet on another important mission. Lex liked the cute, little scrub-bots. Out of bored curiosity once, she had lain on the floor after a shower and placed a bot on her damp hair. Much to her amusement, it evaporated the moisture, beeped happily, and attempted to whir away until it got tangled in her long hair. After twenty minutes of painful untangling, she decided to stick with air-drying. Her PhD-inspired, stupid-human discovery would forever remain a secret.
Dropping her hands from absent-mindedly running them through her hair, she said, “I’m gonna go to the Jungle.”
The word fell from Ying Yue’s lips with a soft, sad thump along with the thousands of dead bodies falling around her boots. Another hive was dead. Years and years of research and cloning, failures and triumphs, only culminated into frustration. The bees seemed to flourish, for a while, and then after a few months, a year, there was a mass die-out, and her work began all over again.
“Again?” said a voice behind her.
She turned to find a lithe, white haired woman grimacing over her shoulder. “Hi, Lex.”
“Was that the last working hive?” Lex said, gesturing at the carnage.
Ying Yue sighed and nodded. “Yeah. My team’s working on more clones already, but it seems like we find one problem only to discover another. At first, I thought it was their solar ephemeris, but the sun wasn’t it. Then I thought maybe it was a magnetic issue, but after they installed the mini-magneticspheres the bees finally started dancing and didn’t get lost as much—but they still died.” Her arm swept around the lush, flowering gardens, teeming with beneficial insects, both real and artificial. “I don’t know. We’ve poured over their genome again and again. I’m thinking it’s some disease, or native toxin we’ve overlooked.” She sighed. “At least we have the bee-drones. They might be easier to make, but they don’t reproduce.”
“And they’re not as cute,” Lex said.
“To you.” Ying Yue pulled off her gloves, wiped the sweat from her brow, and motioned for Lex to follow her on her rounds.
The diverse plants were slashed with sharp shadows from the illuminated path. It was always soothingly warm, humid, and perfumed with life in the Jungle. Lex fell in step behind the younger woman. The dirt path through the vegetation was well-trodden but the fertile soil bordering it looked like velvety cherry-chocolate.
Lex pursed her lips. Funny, she thought, the random things I never thought I’d miss: bees and chocolate.“I remember when the bees went extinct,” she said aloud. “Right before I came here. It was surreal to have them just”—she snapped her fingers—“gone. You never realized how quiet a park, or a garden, or field was without them, or how many things would be affected, like, chocolate.” She scoffed. “When chocolate and coffee prices soared theneveryone suddenly cared. No one expected the bees to disappear almost overnight.”
“Oh, the scientists and bioengineers expected it,” Ying Yue said as she paused, squatted, and examined a dark green tree sapling. “It was everyone else in the public and government that didn’t want to face it. Finding out you have a terminal disease is a hard-enough reality, much less finding out the worldis dying in the bed next to you.” Her unlined face looked up into Lex’s. “Who wants to face an eternity of uncertainty, or take their share of the blame, when the present is so much easier to unwrap? People can barely plan their day much less the next few hundred years.”
“And yet, here we are.”
The two women smiled at each other. Though they were of different generations, ancestral nationalities and, in a way, different worlds they shared one important purpose. Ying Yue dug her fingers into the soft soil and lifted up a handful. Something struggled between her fingers.
“Look at that,” she said.
“Is that a real one?” Lex asked, pointing at one of the three squirming worms. “When did you introduce earthworms?”
“A couple of weeks ago on the last shipment.” Ying Yue’s face lit up. “At least the worms are flourishing.”
“What’re you going to do with the Sherpa-worms?”
“Well, our brave exploring Subterranean Heuristic Reasoning Proto-Annelida…”
“You just like saying that ‘cause it makes you sound smart.” Lex grinned and poked Ying Yue’s shoulder.
“Yes, well, I don’t begrudge you your Active Galactic Nucleus and Space Telescope Imaging Spectographs.”
“Us sesquipedalianists need to stick together.”
“Indubitably.” Ying Yue bent over and carefully deposited the biorobotic and home-grown earthworms. “As I was saying, our brave explorers did their duty, teaching us while turning the dirt into arable land. They still help soak up excess water and record data.”
Lex flung up her hands, swatting like a spitting cat as a drone-bee buzzed past her face in the artificial moonlight. “They’re even scarier at night.”
“Please don’t destroy my drones,” Ying Yue said with an edge of humor. “They’re easier to repair than real bees, but it’s still rocket science.”
“Teeny-tiny rocket science,” Lex said as she mimed a tiny rocket launching into space.
Ying Yue shook her head with a wide smile.
“So, what’s the news you mentioned this morning?” Lex said, crossing her arms.
“Moby. He’s gone.”
Lex didn’t flinch as another insect drone whirred past her face.
Ying Yue’s heart wrenched at the sorrow on her friend’s face. “If you hadn’t fought so hard back then, whales would’ve gone extinct decades ago and our job would be that much more difficult.”
Lex stood and began walking down the shadowed path in lieu of anything else to do. “Apparently a few years, or even decades, doesn’t make a difference.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Ying Yue’s voice rose with the question. “Look at what we did here in less than a century!” Lex didn’t reply, so she forged on. “The more DNA and eggs we harvest before a species is wiped out, the better chance of diversity, of bringing them back. The less time has passed, the better the odds. We can bring them back. We willbring them back.”
“Perhaps.” Lex threw a smirk over her shoulder. “Sometimes it feels so futile.”
“Futile?” Ying Yue said. “Hey.” She grabbed Lex’s shoulder and turned her around. “None of that. Not to the crazy-bee lady. Now, quit your bitchin’ and come with me.”
She strode away with a determination that pulled Lex along in her wake.
“What do you think the artistic crew unveiled in the galleria?” Lex asked while they continued on along the membrane encased sulfur-concrete passage.
Ying Yue shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope it’s a giant bottle of wine… filled with wine.”
Ying Yue’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Alas. I’ve only tried it once. One of these days I’m just going to sneak some rice and ferment it in my closet. I mean, alcohol turns into urine and urine into water, and that waters the rice. Reprocessing at its finest.”
“Genius,” Lex said. “We’ll help save the world with piss-sake.”
Laughing, they began ascending a flight of stairs hewn into the rock walls. Lex glanced at the sign.
“The algae rooms? Why are you taking me there?”
Raising an eyebrow, Lex climbed the four flights of stairs to the ready-room.
“Put on a suit.” Ying Yue gestured at the wall of hanging helmets and suits. “If this and the worms doesn’t renew your hope,” she said as she took one down, “I don’t know what will.”
When they were suited up, the computer checked their seals, disinfected them, and then led them through a series of doors and more rooms until they were standing outside on a raised walkway. A clear geodesic dome arced over their heads. As it was still early in the night, a few people were working with portable lights. Under this sealed atmosphere was a lake of black algae. They stood, observing the workers for a moment, then Lex followed Ying Yue along the platform to a connecting dome. Each dome was sealed off from the other since each housed its own microclimate experiment. The doors shut and opened on their own after pressurizing the space to match the next biosphere they entered.
“How are the extremophiles doing?” Lex said into her helmet.
“That’s what I wanted to show you,” replied the slightly digitized voice of her guide.
Ying Yue was right. The Ex-Domes, as they were called, were certainly inspiring. If these cyanobacterium, algae, lichens, and other modified plants could tough it out, so could she. So could humanity.
She glanced up. Last time she’d been in here, a crack had appeared in one of the giant glass panels high above. The thriving atmosphere had created too much pressure and one of the balancing valves was not functioning. There was a loud crack, hiss, and then before anyone had time to react, smart-metal plates had uncurled and shot out from the dome’s triangular struts, sealing the cracked glass between them. The plates warmed up, applied pressure to the self-healing glass, and five minutes later, the four-story high window was repaired. It took much longer to repair the valve, but with the risk of meteors and accidents, the shielding plates and self-healing glass had saved them all countless times.
Finally, they emerged from a re-pressurizing room into the last dome, and Lex gasped; not because the soil was covered in black moss and various other dark-leaved plants, but because Ying Yue was releasing the clasps on her helmet.
She tucked it under her arm, inhaled, then said, “Take off your helmet.”
Lex reached up, hesitated, and then pressed the release bands. The cool, saturated air was potent, and she took a deep breath, her nostrils flaring.
“How did I not hear about this?” Lex said. Though her head swam with oxygen, she felt breathless.
“Because, no one’s supposed to know yet, but you seemed like you could use a breath of fresh air.”
Mostly left to their own devices, many of the experimental biospheres out-right failed. Some were either too oxygen rich, or not enough, too much nitrogen, or too much carbon dioxide, or revealed a host of other problems.
“Obviously, it still needs a little outside pressurizing,” Ying Yue said, “but otherwise, it’s its own self-sustaining atmosphere and non-toxic environment. From scratch. Just pure alien desert and CO2. The nutrient dense plants and Sherpa-worms did the rest. Only took a couple of years.”
“Thanks,” Lex said, her eyes stinging with gratitude. “I needed that.”
“I know.” Ying Yue’s eyes shone in the faint, blue light along the walkway and railing. “That’s what we’re all here for. To inspire each other.”
“To inspire all of humanity,” Lex amended.
“Exactly. If we can make it work here, we can make it anywhere. Now put your tin-foil hat back on. We get enough brain-frying-cosmic waves as it is.”
Lex laughed and did as she was told. “Let’s go to the galleria,” she said as they began their trek back to the main hub.
“If it’s not wine,” Ying Yue said, “I’m filing a morale complaint.”
The galleria was a main socializing center where anything from events, to art classes, to games, or just lounging around was the order of the day. This night, it was the creative team’s unveiling of one of their special, ‘morale-boosting’ conceptions.
Lex’s jaw dropped, and Ying Yue burst into laughter. It was certainly the artistic opus of the creative team. Life-size and 3D printed from the same self-healing polymer-glass, a bright red roadster reared up from the floor as if frozen in mid-launch.
“Okay,” Ying Yue said, wiping her eyes. “Okay, that’s almost better than wine.”
A young boy smashed a rock against the roadster, but before either of the women could react, he pressed his hands to the cracks. When he pulled them away the cracks were gone. White handprints were left in the red poly-glass until the thermochromic particles faded back to their original color. The other children shrieked with glee, each launching their own ‘meteor,’ and then rushing forward to heal the car.
“Did you read the plaque?” Ying Yue said, pointing at the car’s front bumper.
Lex read it then smiled. “It’s all worthwhile.”
She’d left Earth for Mars over seventy years ago in 2035. The last time she’d visited the blue jewel was a decade ago, and she never would again. Climate change was wreaking havoc on the beautiful world she was born on and loved. When she was a child, steps had been taken to mitigate rising temperatures, but they needed to be bounds in order to hurdle the cascading eco and societal systems. Coastal cities were drowning, nuclear plants were bleeding into an ever-growing toxic sea, plants, animals, and insects were dying at alarming rates. Famine and disease were lurking on the horizon.
It was that dire reality that finally united humanity. Despite the fear, apathy, and denial of the past, Lex had never seen humanity so determined to survive. Not just survive, but grow, change, and connect to the precious world previous generations had taken for granted. It didn’t matter whether people believed the fault was theirs or not, what mattered is that they saw what was happening and cared to make a difference. It’s what had led to the Martian Colony of thirty-nine thousand.
Funded by the Global-Unification project, the colony and research were completely supported from not only wealthy entrepreneurs but anyone who wished to donate as much as they could towards their efforts. Just as the public had laterally side-stepped the financial grid-lock of governments, so had scientific discovery. Lateral innovation on Mars had led to reducing CO2 emissions on Earth, CO2 sequestering, stronger crops, revived species, and many other life and world saving inventions. Humanity missed its chance to leap, so instead they were creating wings on which to soar.
The research on Mars was their work and passion, but Lex knew the true reason she was here, why they were all here on this cruel, unforgiving rock 140 million miles from home. It was the same reason their ancestors had struck out across land and sea hundreds and thousands of years ago.
Ryan came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders.
“You’re wrong, Ryan,” Lex said.
He looked at her from the corner of his eye. “About what?”
She grinned at his confused stare, then gestured with her eyes towards the infinite sky beyond the cavern’s ceiling.
“It was never a terrified scream in the dark… It was a bold shout to the stars.”