[This is the second installment of Moon Monogamy (And Other Things That Are Bound to Go Wrong) by Savannah Mandel. The first installment is here.]
You would think that someone would have learned from America’s futile attempt at prohibition, or even the disastrous European Proscription Event of 2072, but somehow nobody passed the information along. Thus, the Harlem Cotton Club speakeasy was born. Named after the prohibition era New York night club and speakeasy, the Cotton Club has been carved out under the roots of Agri-Ring 5’s largest Kapok tree (the dendrologists put up a fight and almost turned us in but we worked things out pretty quickly with a persuasive dendros-drink-free policy).
It’s not that alcohol is illegal. Ellis Island has a great bar in the Savanna, and the drinks don’t cost a dime there (not that we have dimes anymore), but for safety purposes Solomon’s Mine has a two drink limit. If I’ve learned anything about the anthropology of human space exploration it’s that humans don’t like limits; in fact, we’ll do anything in our power to try and surpass them (even when it’s extremely irrational). Take, for instance, some of the first outer space anthropologists; Drs. Debbora Battaglia, David Valentine, Valerie Olson, and Stefan Helmreich and their collaborative efforts combining an anthropology of extremes and expanding horizons with the prospect of human space exploration. Or maybe a better and far more recent example… the catastrophic Mars Walkabout mission of 2048. Don’t remember? Jeez… you been living under a rock or what? Anyways, the Commercial Space Federation said to their Isidis Planitia colony on Mars, “MISSION ABORT. MALFUNCTION INDICATORS SUGGESTING SHIT WILL GO DOWN IN APROXIMATELY 42 HOURS. HEAD TOWARDS THE CURIOSITY MEMORIAL SITE TO RENDEZVOUS WITH THE FOLKS FROM TERRA CIMMERIA.” (I’m abridging this okay? I’m not a rocket scientist, I have no idea what exactly went wrong. No one does.) And the astronauts, in all their advanced logic and above-average sentience, wisely said, “Yes, but in 46 hours we’ll beat the record for longest residency on Mars.” (There had been a long-standing competition between the Isidians and the Cimmerians to see who would beat the first Martian colony’s long-standing residency record. Rumor has it that the losing team had to get a tattoo stating “[winning colony] is the best” somewhere on their person). Of course, this was ill-advised even though a 20-miles-after-empty hypothesis was argued and proven feasible. But CSF saying “no” led to an all-out strike which everyone thought would be temporary (and even after the 3-day long International Space Station strike of 1973, there were still no preventative protocols for this).
When communications never came back online, the Cimmerians sent a rover to investigate and, discovered that the Isidians had indeed broken the residency record at hour 46, but at hour 46.67 had passed out and died from Carbon Monoxide poisoning. This resulted in not just the Cimmerian colony members getting tattoos reading “Isidis Plantia is the best”, but several employees of CSF, as well as a large population of Hipster-Americans who thought it was a cool idea. (Hipster as in the ethnicity originating after the post-trump millennial-driven liberalist movement in the 2020s.)
So, what’s the moral of the story?
As soon as I reach the Kapok tree, I tap a quick foxtrot on a section of false tree root and it slides over. A chorus of “Azzy!” Rings out. They can see me before I can see them. The Cotton Club is the one place on the ship where (almost) everyone likes me. Admittedly, it’s probably because I have a habit of removing items of clothing and buying everyone rounds when I get drunk. And yes, this is the one place on Ellis where everything has a price- because everything on tap is homemade. Thank Dionysus for the alcoholic ingenuity of agricultural specialists. The Cotton Club’s got everything you can possibly brew in a bucket in your closet. Mead. IPAs. Pale Ales. Stouts. Porters. Wine. Moonshine. Rubbing Alcohol labeled as moonshine. Potato Vodka. And my specialty, whiskey distilled from wheat and barley mash (and you thought I spent all that time in the wheat fields just to hide from my responsibilities). What’s really interesting though is that a sort of Trobriand Kula Ring has sprung up. This is mainly because all any of us have to trade is the supplies to make alcohol and all we have to buy is alcohol, which results in what some refer to as a cycle of self-deprecation but what I like to think of as a synergetic culturally-relevant relationship. Alcohol supplies for alcohol. Alcohol for alcohol supplies. And by the end of the night everyone is so drunk that nobody remembers who traded what and why. Not unlike the Trobriand shell-disk necklaces traded for shell-disk armbands, which generations later nobody could quite remember why they were trading back and forth. That being said, I sometimes have difficulty keeping the reciprocity… uh…balanced.
“Nabokov! Pour me something strong.”
I lean across the gnarled root they’ve repurposed as a bar top and give the young cosmonaut my best let’s-forget-my-outstanding-debts smile.
He mirrors me, “Not until I see some payment, Asimov.”
“I gave Aurore my last round of supplies. She says a batch will be ready in a week.” I straighten the little handkerchief in his vest pocket like the sweet, honest, good-hearted girl I am.
He calls my bluff (as any human with half a brain probably would), “Oh really? Because I heard you and Aurore got into a fight because you haven’t paid her either.”
Cue mock horror. Jaw drop. Hand pressed to ample bosom, “My word! Where on Ellis did you hear that?”
“Az. Everyone heard it. You pushed her into the bayou next to the general store down in Ring 7. It’s not exactly a secret.” He can’t fully conceal a smile of admiration. Usually we’re partners in crime. He’s the Clyde to my Bonnie, the Thelma to my Louise, the Bateson to my Mead…. wait… maybe not that last one. But friends or not, I guess the guy has to prioritize his black market business, and I can appreciate that.
“But hey, I heard about the demotion. So, here’s one on me until you figure things out, and I’ll bring some of my personal batch over to your place sometime soon. We can hangout, watch old cartoons or something.” I wonder if there’s an insinuation hidden somewhere in there, but Nabokov knows better than to ask.
But with that admission of information there was no more mock anything, “How the hell did that news get around?”
Quietly, slowly, I slip my hand into the pocket of my coveralls and roll the 10-sided die between my fingers. It’s made of metal and feels heavier than a normal die.
I look behind me and realize all seventeen bar guests are unabashedly staring as us; maximum occupancy 21 (this is what we get for letting the fire marshal in) but by 20:00 that’s usually surpassed anyways. The speakeasy isn’t big. It has three alcoves tucked under root systems on the west, north, and east sides. The north alcove is dedicated to alcohol and everything a bar needs to be… well a bar. The other two can usually squeeze in four or five people. And the only other seating options are benches lining the walls and one six person round table in the center of the room usually solely dedicated to a never-ending game of Dutch’s Fantastical World (a strange combination of a little-known Pennsylvania Dutch card game from the early 2000s called Dutch Blitz, Role Player type games like dungeons and dragons, and the fictional card game of Tall Card from science fiction TV show Firefly- took them long enough to bring it back but who isn’t glad they did?)
It was the main reason why I was here. Guess you could say I was getting a head start on research, because what does it take to play a game of Dutch? You guessed it, a hell of a lot of imagination, two decks of cars, and… one 10-sided die. Most of which had been 3D printed once on board.
“A little privacy?” I say to our audience.
My request goes ignored.
“Seriously, how’d you find out, I barely heard about it an hour ago.”
“Oh well, I think Council Member Markham told Council Member Halliday, who told his wife, who told… well you know Mrs. Halliday, she told everyone.”
I’m doomed to be the public scandal of the ship. My conscience says that’s my fault. But what does she know?
“Does this have anything to do with what happened in Ring 1?”
I feign innocence, which is an unnatural reaction for me. Usually as an anthropologist (and general badass) I remain pretty up front with the people I talk to, but I think I’m caught off guard by the new information. Markham hadn’t filled me in on everything yet. If the robot committed suicide in the Tundra, that would explain why news hadn’t spread around yet. A robot suicide looked bad. A robot suicide facing the only political building on board looked worse. No wonder the council members have been trying to cover things up. (I should tell you, there are quite a few councils on board the ship. 76 to be exact. Each council provides representation and expertise for various important sectors of the ship, but the council I keep referencing is the representatives of these representative councils. Forming what is ultimately the pluralistic council that has the final vote in most issues. Even I’m part of councils, although admittedly it’s the Science-Fiction Advisory Council, Aurora’s Council for Brewing Science, and the Xuannü Council of Sexual Mediation.)
Nabokov raises an eyebrow in my direction, “You mean you don’t know?”
And I just shake my head because I can’t lie for shit.
“One of the humanoids committed suicide.”
A humanoid? Which one? Maybe I should have asked more questions… maybe I should check on… But still, my anthro-instincts kick in and I decide to turn on my “active listening ears”. Damn I can feel it already, that undeniable curiosity. The same sort of curiosity that led Malinowski to the Trobriand Islands and Mead to Samoa… in other words, I’ve given into Markham.
Nabokov continues, “I just figured you would know because of your relationships with…”
I clear my throat and give him a very convincing evil eye, then decide to ask, “But, that’s not normal right?”
He looks at me with a confused blank stare, so I add, “Inanimate suicide.”
What a concept; there was more to think about here than I originally thought. Anthropomorphism was one thing, and artificial intelligence another, but this… If something could die, it could live, right? And suicide is not just a normal death, nor is it a normal robotic decommissioning. Suicide is death for the sake of death. Suddenly, I’m reminded of the massive funeral procession that followed the “death” of the Curiosity Rover in 2021 (and it wasn’t even artificially intelligent. This is what they get for giving it its own TV show.)
Time to start asking questions.
Malfunction, murder or suicide?
If a robot does everything with purpose, what purpose did they see in suicide?
If a creature can die does that automatically mean it lives? Are the two inseparable facts of existence? Do robots live half-lives? What is a half life?
How do those who perceive themselves as inanimate distinguish life from death?
Our conversation ends, and I’m left to find the meaning of life somewhere at the bottom of my whiskey on the rocks. When that depresses me too much, I stare at my wrist band hesitating before I take myself outside and dial the one person who might give me real insight.
Root word. Sol, meaning solar. Alternatively, Sol, meaning alone. Alternatively, shit out of luck, but I guess that applies to my current situation than to SOL. Alternatively, SOL, the only letters in his 7-digit serial code. Alternatively, probably the second reason why I Markham assigned me this doomsday project.
“Asimov Jones. How may I be of assistance?”
Breath returns. Heartbeat slows.
“Shit, Tin Man. You scared me.”
“That was not my intention. How did I cause you alarm?”
I didn’t know how many ways a person could roll their eyes until I met SOL. And now I catch him trying to figure out how to do it whenever I’m not looking.
“I was being metaphorical… never mind. How long will you be at the Garten?”
“Until 24:00.” There’s a small delay between the syllables of the word twen_ty and it’s the only thing that would give him away.
“Good. Can you come to the farmhouse after?”
There’s a long pause and I sigh and rub my forehead.
“WILL you come to the farmhouse after.”
“If you would like.”
“I would like. I will also probably be drunk, just so you know. I’ve had a bad day.”
“I do not advise-“
I cut him off, “See you later, SOL.”
Shorter pause. Is he running the scenarios of the various results my intoxication will/can have on me, the biomes, the other residents of Ellis? Probably. But he doesn’t lecture me any further and instead says goodbye.
One “donated” drink, and two “borrowed” shots of moonshine later and I’ve stuck true to my promise. Here I am, babbling on to Jun Liu and Saad Wahid from the mechanical engineering cohort of Aqua-Ring 8 about Clifford Geertz’s euphemistic study on Balinese cock fights and hyper-masculinity when Wilson “Tank” Thibault comes along. Geertz is my main man, my idol, my anthropological daydream… Tank is not. Tank is an imbecile. If I’m not proof that anyone can end up on Ellis then Tank sure is. And he makes sure to re-enforce our lack of friendship every time we’re in a ten-foot proximity of each other (something that, after many failed attempts at joint counseling, the therapists have learned to prevent at all costs.)
He’s not shy, and he starts in immediately, “What? Not gonna join the game tonight, Az?”
The last thing I want to do is join a game right now. 5 years was plenty of time to build up debt and there probably wasn’t enough Kula Ring esque resources on this ship to cover the balance I owed. I was, however, hoping that by spending my evening at the Harlem Cotton Club, I would jog my memory and remember playing Dutch with a robot.
“Shove off, Tank. Can’t you see, we’re in the middle of a very engaging conversation about Clifford Geertz’s…”
He pulls on a strand of artificially dyed blue hair and pretends to inspect it closely, “How’d you get your hair this color anyway… looks like you slept in something radioactive…”
Evidently, the alcohol had instilled a newfound patience in me and I try to think, what would Geertz do, what would Geertz do, “Lab-grade bleach and algae.”
“Waste of resources.”
“You’reawasteofresources.” I narrow my eyes, and maintain all dignity as I noticeably slur my words together.
Jun and Saad tense because we know he’s not actually talking about my hair. He’s referring to me. I can feel Nabokov’s protective gaze. He’s ready to step in at any moment. But not to protect me from Tank, oh no, from experience he’s learned to protect Tank from me.
“You know…” Tank leans towards me, “I’ve always wandered… does the carpet match the drapes?”
Talk about hypermasculinity. But I take a couple deep breaths. What would Geertz do… Hiccup once… and tell myself, patience, Az. Patience. Don’t fall for his tricks. Think of Darwin. Survival of the fittest, right? Mother Nature’s got your back. Surely, she won’t let his genes make it to the next generation.
I plaster a big smile on my face and slur out a, “Yep. Absolutelydoes. Nowshoveoff.”
“Come on Azzy, play a game with me. For old times sake, right?”
Hiccup. I rolled the die between my fingers. Hiccup.
“What? Not your type?”
Wait for it. Wait for it.
“Guess, I don’t have enough nuts and bolts for the job, do I?”
Who the hell am I kidding? I’m not patient. And if Geertz would run from a police raid for the sake of anthropology then he would probably join a bar fight too.
All 5 foot 5 of me launches across the table towards all 6 foot 5 of him, swearing like a sailor on a starship. What was one more misdemeanor on my very lengthy record? Plus, didn’t Evans-Pritchard write a whole book on how peace is negotiated through warfare in South Sudan (now part of the Northeast African Republic)? Releasing something between a hiccup and a roar I send both of us into the round table, spraying cards, and dice, and drinks in all directions. And from all sides of the room fellow starship residents and drunkards attempt to prevent Ellis’s first murder.
I may be small but weight ain’t got nothin’ on the skills you learn in the Sanfrandiego foster care.
“Judgementalasshole!” I scream from where I end up hanging over Nabokov’s shoulder.
And guess who arrives just in time to untie the knot that was the Harlem Cotton Club? The one, the only, Sheriff Beau Tame (it should be noted that he probably arrived so quickly because he was on his way to the Cotton Club for an after-shift drink himself. .)
Beau growls at me when Nabokov finally sets me down but can tell by the look on his face that he knows it’s not my fault. He cuffs me anyways. Which is probably for the best, because I was about to win that fight. Really. I swear. Don’t underestimate the mighty strength of the anthropologist!
Tank resists the Sheriff more than I do.
“She’s a menace to our society! A damn parasite. What right does she have to get approved and then screw machines. You know how many people get denied!”
Well that’s gonna’ earn him about twenty extra hours of counseling. Have fun with that Tank. He goes on for a while with the same old spiel, so Beau tells me to wait outside.
I look up at him unapologetically, “I’mafastrunner.”
“Az, not now. And also, no you’re not. And also, where are you gonna run to? Huh, kid?”
“Yeesh, Iwasjustjoking.” I take myself outside. He’s right. Where would I go? Space? I shuffle up to his hovering ATV (all-terrain-vehicle! Including air!) take my usual spot in the passenger seat and recall how drunk I am. What will SOL say?
Probably something along the lines of “Asimov, please take your medication to prevent sickness related to your inappropriate consumption of alcohol.”
Out of habit, I try to deactivate the magnetic sensor on my cuffs. I wiggle. I squirm. I slam them into the corner of the ATV. And then I give up pretty quickly and sit with my chin on the dashboard instead. One look at the vast canopy network above us sends me spinning, but I look anyways, because even in the dark of night, it’s kind of beautiful. Actually, I think it’s better at night. You see, it’s always pretty dark in the rainforest. The artificial sunlight barely makes it through the canopy (as it would be in the wild), but at night… the bioluminescent trail indicators come on to help guide hovercraft, and the whole forest glows a sort of mystical cobalt blue from the mag-paths. Lines stretch and flow like tributaries in a spiderweb of guidelines.
Everything about the rainforest has a natural mysticism to it. There’s something raw to it. Something un-tamable, One hardly ever sees its residents, because the treehouses are so well-camouflaged into the canopy’s emergent and canopy layers. And those houses are basically invite-only because of weight-distribution limitations (another example of the innate human desire to surpass limitations would be the Rainforest Swiss Family Robinson Launch Party that resulted in Treehouse 6 ending up on the forest floor. Where it still remains as a sort of punishment to its residents.) Even when the rainforest residents come into other biomes for supplies or meetings they appear standoffish. So anti-social in fact, that it led to the new residential transfer law being instilled at the general meeting of Year 1 (this law basically forces everyone to move once every 5 years unless a very specific application is put in to stay put. Children are raised for the most part in the Kindergarten or “Garten” where SOL works so this doesn’t really affect them.)
As unsociable as the rainforest people can be, though, they might be my favorite group on the ship, and for one special reason. They’re just as crazy as me. As insane as it sounds, and as many times as the emergency personnel and council have told them not to, they land dive. Following the tradition of the Vanuatuans they practice a form of bungee jumping with vines instead of elastic material. They say they need to trust what they grow, and if they can’t, how will they survive? How will the starship survive? And as entirely metaphorical as that question actually is they’ve decided to re-invent a Vanuatuan island micro-culture anyways. I’m not sure what I’m more proud of; the fact that a fully-realized micro-culture has sprung up in only a year or that their vine-jumping ritual is the leading cause of accidents on Ellis. They’re absolutely nuts and entirely, irrationally, human, and I love them for it.
After a couple of minutes, Beau comes out and scoots me over.
“You’re not driving, dumbass.”
“No, you’re not.”
He laughs at me. I laugh at me. Then he shakes his head, “Az. How the hell did you even make it on this ship?”
“My witty charm and superior intelligence?”
He presses his hand to the start pad, it registers his fingerprint and the whole thing stutters to life, “MOONY is coming to retrieve Tank. We’re putting him in holding.”
“Holding? Real jail? Not fake jail?” (Fake jail is what I like to call Ellis’s “decompression zone”, something I’ll explain in further detail later.)
“Instigation is serious. You may be a wildcard but he’s a bully and that’s far more dangerous.”
He sets the ATV in the direction of the Temperate forest, “You on the other hand, are far too smart for this. You don’t need to fight.”
“I don’t care what he was calling you. You know better.”
“Sure, you’re not.”
“Everyone on Ellis is.”
He’s doing a great job of not taking his eyes off the road.
At least until I say, “I’m sooooo essential that I’m working with you now!”
And we hit a tree.
Ow. Good thing these things typically stick to 5 miles per hour.
“You’re what? Who said you’re working with me?”
He put his head in his hands before getting out to push us back on track. “Well, Markham conveniently forgot to tell me that…” He grunted a couple of times, shifting the ATV back onto the track.
“Youknow the dendrologists aregonna be real upset thatyouhittheir tree.”
Beau grits his teeth and gives the hovercraft one good shirt-ripping shove to get it back on track. He groans and looks up at me, “I’m doomed.”
Together we head through forests and meadows, onward toward my home away from home, Ellis Island’s “Decompression Zone”… not knowing much more about dice and robots than I did before.
About the Author
Savannah Mandel is a Space Anthropologist currently working with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. She finished her MSc at University College London finishing a degree in Social Anthropology. With fieldwork on the anthropology of human space exploration, conducted with Spaceport America. Savannah harbors a deep love for science-fiction and writing, a love inspired by the works of Kim Stanley Robinson, Issac Asimov, movies such as Alien, Blade Runner, and Interstellar. Her academic blog posts have been inspired by technoscapes, material culture, and futurism. She’s currently working on a speculative fiction novel with the support of her literary agent. Some of her other publications on related topics include; The Elysium Effect: Space Law and Commercial Space Disparities (2018), Ghosts in the Machine: On Losing Control to the Technoscape (2018), To Infinity: Cosmic Anthropology and Science Fiction in Ethnography (2018), and science fiction short story Children of God (2018). If you have any questions or comments you’re welcome to contact her at Savannah.firstname.lastname@example.org