Ask the Next Question: stories + images inspired by Theodore Sturgeon - Joseph Gregor
I have always wanted to write science fiction. When I was young, I would find Sturgeon's writings (along with many others from the golden age of science fiction) rifling through boxes at the weekend flea market; looking for old .25 and .50 cent novels, and copies of Astounding, Analog, Amazing Stories, Galaxy...
The “Man Who Lost the Sea” was published the year I was born. Sturgeon did a masterful job of putting us into the shoes of a man who's life was literally passing before his eyes as he comes to grips with his situation, his mortality, and his accomplishments; ending the story with a powerful and perfectly timed reveal.
At the risk of running aground on the shores of a perfect ending, I thought to write a short extension to address one of the important themes he left hanging: “We, not I.” I decided to help sick man complete his mission, which required letting his fellow humans know that they had, in fact, succeeded - if only for a short time - in placing a living, breathing person onto the surface of Mars.
The Man Who Found the Sea
by Joseph Gregor
“We” made it; the sick man shudders with the force of obligation. There is one more task left to complete. But he is unsure how to begin. His ship lay smashed. His brain shutting down. Even the supreme force of human will cannot overcome entropy, in the end. He could use some help here! His eyes trace that line of footsteps in the sand. Only one set on the entire planet; coming from, not to, the rocky shore that stopped his ship from disappearing across the sea of sand. So, where is that kid now, anyway? He could be making himself useful for once.
Say you're that kid. The one running around earlier trying, with limited success, not to make a nuisance of yourself. You hear the sick man’s call for help. And being the trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, and kind young fellow you are, you naturally rush to his aid. You know his need, understand his fleeting capacity. But, how to bridge the gap?
The sick man spots the kid wandering about the wreckage, stumbling across the remains of the once-graceful Gamma. The kid pauses before a cone-shaped module that lies in the clutches of a giant, dead jellyfish composed of long thin cables and a crown of wilted fabric; the emergency pack from Gamma. It must have deployed when everything went pear-shaped there at the end. Inside, besides food and oxygen and other things now unimportant, is a 54 MHz repeater designed to link the suit comms with Beta, which wasn't really discarded - but rather launched after separation into stable orbit around the planet. He tries to tell the kid not to go mucking with that thing, he could get a shock. Besides, it's government property. But he's not sure he can make himself heard over the increasingly loud sound of the surf.
You try to tell the sick man that you understand him just fine; and that you know what you are doing. See, you built your very first station from modified war-surplus radios, all by yourself, at the age of twelve. Then you passed the amateur Extra class test - theory and code - on the very first try. So you certainly know what you are doing. And here's how the sick man could use what's in this beat-up box at the end of the parachute. But the sick man's not listening, or refuses to listen, or simply can't understand; you're not quite sure which. So you try showing him, instead.
The sick man watches the kid follow the tracks in the sand over to him, holding out an object. If he wants me to do anything but stare, he's in for a disappointment; the sick man can barely move his fingers now. Pretty much all he's got left are fingers and a brain. The kid lies the object by his hand and the sick man catches the glimpse of an old telegraph key. Curious. He had a straight key just like this, once. When he was a kid. Back then you had to start out a Novice. You could only do CW for that first year, no voice. Only then could you move on to greater things. Which he did, by God. But code was always his favorite mode. You could cover the world with 100 watts, using nothing but your fingers and your brain. Let me show you, kid. The sick man dropped his fingers to the knob.
Buried in the sand, only a helmet and one arm exposed, lay the first man on Mars. For two hours, his thumb and forefinger coming together and going apart. In his helmet, the surf would ebb and crescendo in staccato bursts…dah-dah, di-dah, dah-dit, dah-dah-di-dah, dah, di-di-di-di, dah-dah, di-dah, di-dah-dit, di-di-dit… During those two hours, an artificial satellite made one full orbit. The weakening electromagnetic carrier wave emanating from his helmet, relayed and amplified a thousandfold by the thermoelectric generators powering Beta, now propagates for infinity: weakening but never dying, sailing through the sea of stars for all time, the triumphant call of a species.
JOE GREGOR grew up wandering the woods of rural Maryland until coming of age. After college, he started his first career as a pilot; joining the Air Force to see the world. He spent the better part of a decade flying way high over the world, landing on occasion to see bunkers here and there and everywhere. After separating from active duty he embarked on career #2, going back to school full time to earn a PhD in electro-physics. Joe went on to work in communications and microelectronics and other fields not electro-physics for the next couple of decades; while continuing to do stuff part time for Air Force Reserve. Now it's approaching time for one final career; perhaps fulfilling a bucket list item from the ‘70s - authoring a science fiction novel. Maybe he'll hit the mark this time.