The First Woman on Mars
In the briefing room, where there was a Thermos of coffee, a box of donuts, and a basket of fruit, Peg took a tube of lemon meringue pie from the thigh pocket of her Air Force issue fatigue pants and she squeezed pie into her mouth as they sat together at the conference table.
Captain Nick, the co-pilot, said, “I’m supposed to be honest with you about this rocket.”
Peg said, “At Findability we called them Vultures: Vulture XI, Vulture XII. What do you want to tell me?”
“When we launch, you will feel like you are dying. From inside the capsule we can’t be trusted to know anything. We won’t be able to see or read any of the instrument panels.”
“I’m aware of the dangers.”
“There’s another civilian astronaut named Dr. Connery on the mission, a linguist. You do know what a linguist is?”
She nodded and he said, “How did you get on this project?”
“I won the contest,” Peg said. “To join company founder Maxim Brez on the first crewed flight to the surface of Mars.”
Findability had a subsidiary space venture called Launchability, and Maxim Brez had announced a joint Mars mission with NASA.
“I’m supposed to talk to you about the flight: the take-off, the cruise, the landing. It’s straightforward and we will rehearse. The rest I’m leaving to the others.”
“There are Martians?”
Peg was driven in a jeep through one of many Area 51 underground tunnels to a dojo where the linguist, in yoga pants, in the lotus position, was wearing one of Peg’s red ‘First woman on Mars’ t-shirts, which meant he’d followed her media campaign and was a fan. Findability was notorious among tech companies, with only 4 per cent women employees. They hired Peg during an intentional influx of women at the company. Jobs were created on the spot. They asked Peg what she was good at and she said she liked to surf the web, so Monday through Friday she occupied a cubicle to surf the web. A co-worker printed up the t-shirts and handed them out to needle the issue and one day Brez’s supermodel girlfriend was photographed wearing one. Then Brez. Then Drew Barrymore. And that was the day Peg knew she was going to Mars.
In the dojo, Connery stood up and bowed toward Peg.
He said, “How high can you kick?”
“I don’t like to be called Connery,” he said. “That co-pilot calls me Connery. Everyone here calls me Lex.”
He was short and had a low center of gravity. Peg didn’t think she could knock him over.
“A symbol is what stands in for something,” Dr. Lex said. “It can be markings on paper, or language formed by a body in three-dimensional space.
He said, “A high kick is ‘yes’.”
“A high kick?” Peg said and she kicked.
He kicked his foot wheeling back and he said, “This is ‘no’.”
“I have to kick ‘Yes’ and ‘No’?” she said and Peg kicked ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Dr. Lex kicked.
“You said, ‘Yes’?”
He kicked a kick.
“Is this why there are midgets who eat with us in the commissary?” Peg said.
“Did you think they were UFO test pilots?” he said. “They’re your sparring partners. And they want to be called little people.”
“But you’ve worked with the real ones? The Martian ones?”
Dr. Lex kicked ‘Yes.’
“Who are they?”
“Trafalmadorans,” he said and he shrugged. He demonstrated a three-kick combo for ‘Trafalmadoran.’
He said, “We wanted to use the Vonnegut but it was copyrighted.”
Peg practiced her kicks. “Can I try this in the spacesuit?”
Dr. Lex kicked an emphatic kick.
Out in the Nevada desert, at night, with large portions of the old bombing range lit up with fluorescent spots, Major Tom drove the Launchability Mars Buggy with Findability founder Maxim Brez next to him in the shotgun seat and Peg in the back. In space suits they drove through paths of lit-up desert. They drove over a sandbank where there were cameras on rigs around a landed saucer craft preceded by a group of midgets in space costumes mulling about in the landing zone. Major Tom waited for radioed orders to approach. They all three decided to stay in the buggy and they were soon surrounded, the little people crowding the moon buggy like beggars.
Peg realized that in order to speak Trafalmadoran she was going to have to climb out of the buggy to stand on solid ground. There were too many little people in front of her. She backed up and stepped out of the buggy. She couldn’t see the famous film director because of spotlights, but she heard his voice on the speakers in her helmet, in stereo, and he shouted, “Cut!”
Someone came to fix Peg’s oxygen hose that had popped loose. She was helped into the buggy, and the director shouted, “Take two!”
This time the Trafalmadorans gave her space, and she performed a series of kicks, punches, and poses. She had to really concentrate to remember what she was saying. “We come in peace,” of course, but in Trafalmadoran it didn’t appear to have that meaning.
The Trafalmadorans danced their own series of kicks, punches, and poses, but to anyone watching, it looked fake. The midgets, bogged down in costumes, made sloppy moves. The Trafalmadorans were hairless, with black eyes and small mouths. They didn’t wear spacesuits but wore Mylar loincloths and shiny silver moon boots. When they high-kicked, make-up lines were revealed. There was a zipper in the back of the headpieces, and the Trafalmadorans were told to always face camera.
“Should I speak it?” Peg asked.
“Your communications will be narrated back to Earth by Lex from the Vulcan capsule. What did you want to say?”
“I want to say it as I kick.”
John Minichillo wrote the series “How to be a Better Teacher-Person Through Apathy” at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His dystopian novel EOB is out now on Kindle Press. “The First Woman on Mars” was excerpted from an unpublished novel of the same name.
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