By Bob Mumby
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 3rd contest was Utopia.
Alice had to admit, she couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. She had been drawn to the stars by the stories which had leaped out at her from those colourful magazines her father had bought her when she was only a little girl. She remembered his conspiratorial wink as he folded the comic inside his newspaper, a silent agreement between the two of them that her mother must never learn of. She has spent hours inside the pages of those magazines, drinking in strange alien worlds, feeling the rough texture of their pages and fancying she could feel an air not that of Earth fill her lungs. The stories depicted a solar system full of life, every gas giant being a sun in miniature, the moons that revolved around them playing host to countless civilisations. Ancient empires crumbled into dust on Mars while the youthful tribes of Venus had only just begun erecting their equivalent of the pyramids.
To be confronted with the reality was rather disheartening. Mars was a dry dustball and if it had ever played host to life, it would have been microbial at best. Venus was a planet almost comically hostile to life, and beyond that everything was simply too chilly for the extraterrestrial civilisations she had dreamt of to emerge. The gas giants remained cold and impassive, their trailing rings of lunar children being either eternally frozen or continually crushed under enormous gravitational force. There was only one planet in the solar system which had managed to provide a hospitable environment for complex life to emerge.
But if all those planets and moons had been the warm worlds she had promised, each one a unique biome teeming with life, then her chosen career would have been very short-lived indeed. Building the new outposts of humanity would have been simplicity itself, an act of letting humans do what they had always done, go forth and multiply. But the harsh environments of Earth’s counterparts were utterly inimical to human life, so it took careful planning and forethought before any settlers placed a foot on another world’s soil. The fact the solar system was a disappointment to her childhood self, was a boon to her adult extraterrestrial architect self.
She had got her big break designed the hydroponics gardens for Luna-5. She had immediately caught the attention of the right people because what she drew weren’t the utilitarian modules and dull claustrophic tubes that characterised the older bases. She knew these were spaces that people were not only expected to survive in, but to live in. To be born in and eventually die in. Much of what had gone before felt temporary, as if no-one expected it to last. That wasn’t the world she had been born into, and she believed that it wasn’t what the new generation of human pioneers should be born into either.
She occasionally had pangs of anxiety, that she wasn’t supposed to be here, that she was a disappointment – particularly to her mother. Her mother had been a homemaker, when that was a word that carried weight, and there was a reason that Alice and her father had hidden the comics from her. She felt it wasn’t appropriate for a young girl to read such things, that it would put off boys and distract her from what girls were meant to learn. How to sew, cook and clean, how to master a home and ensure that it reflected the respectability of those who lived in it. The fact that her only daughter had shown not an inkling of interest in any of those things, but had instead devoted her time to devouring everything she could about the fabled final frontier had been a cause of near constant arguments in her teenage years. But when those thoughts came to the surface, she remembered the day of her graduation with a major in Physics and a minor in Architecture, she saw her mother’s eyes shining with pride and the idea that she would be disappointed at all in what she did was shattered. After all, in a roundabout way, she was a homemaker too, albeit in a very different sense.
One constant was that she knew her father had never been disappointed in her. She had always made him proud, no matter what she did. He had been into a very different world, almost as alien to her as an airless rock like the Moon. He had fought in the Second World War, the Last War, he had marched through the ashen ruins of Berlin and seen Old Glory raised above the burned out wreckage of the Reichstag, and he had shaken hands with Red Army soldiers in Posen. He had returned to America, with the image of a new world emerging burned onto his retinas. But it could have stayed that way, just an image, a dream of what might be. If different men had sat in the White House and the Kremlin, then the hopes of his generation may have come to nothing as great powers scrabbled in the muck of battlefields, grasping for treasure, as they always had since time immemorial. He told her about the world held its breath in 1946, hoping that the peace which had been forged would hold but not expecting much as Roosevelt, Churchill and Zhukov had sat awkwardly for what was now one of the most famous photos in the world.
Perhaps none of those men truly knew the shape of the world they had acted as midwives to at the time. By the time she was at school though, it was having its impact. Soviet-American Friendship went in both directions, and just as Zhukov stood aside in 1964 for the USSR’s first somewhat open elections, so in the United States traditional expectations for the role of women began to loosen. She wasn’t forced into interminable hours of domestic science, and instead followed the path of actual science. Her dream of exploring space, at that point seemingly the preserve of Air Force Pilots, became a concrete ambition. One of the high points of her youth was the first manned landing on the Moon in 1967, Valentina Tereshkova stepping out of the Falcon capsule and making ‘one small step for man’ under the auspices of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. The site of that landing became Luna-1, the centre of United Nations administration on the Moon, establishing with certainty the joint government of Earth’s closest neighbour.
It had been some fifteen years since she had designed those gardens for the Moon, and in that time her career had grown in leaps and bounds. She had worked under O’Neill, helping to make his dream into a reality and communities from all nations had sprouted up in the orbit around earth, solar panels unfurling from them like petals on a flower, drinking in the raw light of the sun and passing clean energy down to the teeming billions on the surface of the planet below. She had designed tenements for Roosevelt Station, the enormous artificial station that sat at the Lagrange point Earth-Moon L4 and acted as far more ambitious version of those orbiting cylinders and as a key transport hub between the Earth and the Moon. Then she had been asked to be involved in the construction of Ares-1.
Ares-1 was more than just a base. Like Luna-1, it was intended to be the centre of United Nation administration on the planet, the de facto capital of Mars. It needed a transport hub that was prepared to be connected with every other station on the planet. It needed gardens to feed its population and comfortable tenements where those people could live and raise their families. But more than anything it needed to be a symbol of all the struggle and innovation that had taken place since America’s entry into the Second World War in 1942 and Stalin’s arrest later that same year.
The shuttle she was on finally stopped shaking as it broke through the worst of Mars’ atmosphere and made its descent toward the runway of Ares-1’s spaceport. Today was the grand opening of her greatest accomplishment. It was a little odd that she’d never seen it ‘in the flesh’, only on delayed video links and photographs transmitted by the robotic construction crew and their human foremen. Now, she looked out of the window and watched as the city came into view.
It was made mostly of a highly durable steel alloy, but the exteriors, constantly buffeted by harsh Martian winds and sandstorms, were made of pearlescent white ceramic which shone in the cold, distant light of the sun. The city was formed by a central ‘spine’ from which emerged two ‘wings’. The wings contained the residencies, gardens, and other facilities intended for local use, connected to the spine by trams which linked into the central rail hub. The spaceport and rail hub were located in the ‘spine’ of the city the purpose of which was for facilities intended for connection to the wider planet and solar system, or for the use of the entire city, such as heavy industry and the organs of government. Rising boldly from the white gleaming structure of the spine were four tall towers, formed of scarlet Martian basalt. Each functioned as the centre for the numerous ministries and United Nations bodies and member states which would necessarily be involved in governing the city and wider Mars.
As the shuttle came into land, the iron sheets of flags remained stiff and untroubled by the great gust of thermal exhaust. Five flags stood higher than all the others, instantly recognisable, those of the founding member of the United Nations. The Star and Stripes and the Union Jack. The Hammer and Sickle and the Blue Sky and White Sun. But proudest of all was the flag of the United Nations itself, the Flag of Four Freedoms, four stark red vertical bars on a banner of shining white. She had designed the city to embody the flag itself, ensuring Ares-1’s position as the latest achievement of a united humanity. Any sense of disappointment that she may have harboured that the city that greeted them wasn’t populated by elven folk with golden skin, and that the planet she laid her feet upon wasn’t crisscrossed by canals built when man was erecting the pyramids, evaporated as quickly as liquid water under the pale yellow disc of the Sun. She felt nothing but pride in what she, her team and her species had accomplished in little over half a century since the end of the Second World War.