Prakt Means Splendor

David Ebenbach

This is how I find out Jenny is pregnant on Mars.

“Do you want to go outside?” Jenny says. It’s just after lunch, which was freeze-dried Reubens. She doesn’t say anything more specific than “outside,” even though now we have names for this red ridge and that red valley and red-orange Mount Nearby over there and the various piles of red rocks and even the various scattered dead landers and rovers from old missions—landmarks which we call by the names of the missions, even though some of them had silly names like Undertaking and Beagle and Optimism. But Jenny just says “outside.” In some sense, even after more than two years, we still think of it that way: there’s inside, which is where everybody is, and there’s outside, which is where nobody is.

“Sure,” I eventually say.

Jenny nods. It doesn’t bother her that it has taken me a while to answer. We have two speeds here: Slow and Slooooooooooow. Well, three speeds if you count Something is on Fire, but that’s rare.

We put on the suits—one leg, two legs, etc. Roger and Nicole look up from their tablets and watch us get suited up, because our putting on the suits is the big game in town at the moment. Trixie is sleeping. I think Stefan is on the toilet. Anyway, we put the suits on, including Jenny tucking her brown curls into her helmet, then the audience goes back to its tablets, and we go to the airlocks and out.

You know how they call Mars the red planet? Well, that’s because it’s red there. Like, you go outside and you see red. Red to the east, red to the west. Red north, red south. In fact, the dust gets everywhere, so inside is red, too. Though actually, we have a sort of simmering debate among us about just how red versus just how orange the planet is, but we try to keep it simmering rather than boiling over. You wouldn’t believe how likely it is that someone gets his ass kicked for arguing one side or the other. And then there was the night that Roger made mild fun of the orange crowd by saying, “You can’t even rhyme anything with orange,” and Stefan squeezed and twisted two of his fingers until they broke—one and then the other. They weren’t his most important fingers—but still. So we just keep our opinions to ourselves, even though it’s obviously red out here. Aside from the mountain, which is more complicated.

Anyway, I say to Jenny, through our radio system, “So.”

We start walking, which is a bouncier thing than it was on Earth because of the lower gravity, and it makes it a little hard to have a serious conversation while walking. It makes you feel like everyone is partly balloon animal. You wouldn’t want to tell people they had cancer, for example, while walking on Mars. But there aren’t that many places to have conversations—inside and outside are the two main ones—so we do have some important conversations out here, and also some boring ones, and also there’s a lot of not-talking, too.

Mars is a planet where the question “What’s new?” doesn’t come in very handy. It’s great.

So we start bounce-walking under the old, basically familiar sun. Jenny is taking us in the general direction of the Prakt, a big piece of not-working space equipment sent here by a consortium of Scandinavian corporations. It’s about one o’clock, in Mars hours, which are technically only a little longer than Earth hours.

About halfway between Home Sweet and the Prakt, Jenny says, “Let’s go to our channel.” I hear the click that says that she’s changed to channel 947, which is where we go when we don’t want to be overheard. I change my own radio to channel 947. It’s romantic.

After a few moments, she says, “Hey, Josh.”

I think about the fact that we all call each other by our first names. I guess I expected that we’d wind up with cool nicknames, like Ace and Ratchet and Doc, or at least that we’d do last names, like baseball players. But no.

“Hey, Jenny,” I say.

I can hear through the radio, a long, long sigh. There’s something about what we breathe here, maybe, and so sighs are longer on Mars. Then Jenny says, “And hey, plus-one.”

I take two more bounce-steps and then bounce-stop. “Wait,” I say. I can’t see her face and she can’t see mine, because the suits have these gold, mirrory, sunglass-fronts on them where our faces are. “What?”

She sighs again, like the sound of the tide going all the way out, if there were an ocean. “I’m pregnant,” she says.

I’m not sure how long we stand there thinking about that. I know I should be saying something, but mostly my mind is suddenly kind of shorting out, and the things I can think of are not worth putting into words. I don’t ask her if the baby’s mine, for example, because the baby is mine. I don’t express disbelief in the fundamental premise of pregnancy based on the fact that she had an operation before coming here, because I’m realizing right now that those operations sometimes don’t work, which is something I should have considered before this. Because, statistically, Jenny and I have had a large amount of sex by now. I don’t even ask what we’re going to do, because I’m sure that we have no idea what we’re going to do. The whole point was that pregnancy on Mars is supposed to be a bad idea a hundred different ways. That’s why the people in charge told all of us not to have sex here, even with the operations.

I say, “Wow.” I’m feeling a lot of things, but “Wow” is all I manage.

“Yeah.” I can’t tell what Jenny is feeling.

“I guess this is why they told us not to have sex here,” I add.

“Yes,” she says. “It is.”

“I guess they’re going to be mad at us.” There’s supposed to be a call home tonight. “They’re going to say that we promised not to.”

“Yup,” she says.

A few minutes go by. We stare at each other’s sunglass-faces. I feel like my blood is buzzing, like it has a small electrical current in it.

She adds, “And yet there’s a whole drawer in the med closet that’s full of pregnancy tests.”

“Huh,” I say.

The Prakt glints off in the distance from under its coating of red dust.

When we get back to Home Sweet, there’s a party, because there’s no such thing as a private radio channel on a planet this boring. You can just scan all the channels until you find the conversation. So there’s a party. We don’t have any disco ball on Mars, or streamers, but everybody has written CONGRATULATIONS or MAZEL TOV on their tablets—the mazel tovs are for me—and they’re holding their tablets up to show us. Someone has broken out the freeze-dried cake.

“You guys,” Jenny says.

 

That night we get the communication request that we’ve been expecting. Earth wants to talk to us. We all hate talking to Earth, because it takes a radio signal about eleven minutes to travel from one planet to the other and then eleven more for a response to get back, which means that a call is like,

Them: “Hello!”

[eleven minutes plus eleven minutes]

Us: “Hello! How are you?”

[eleven minutes plus eleven minutes]

Them: “Fine.”

Even for us that’s too slow.

Plus, we don’t even really get to talk to Earth. We get to talk to some communications person at the Destination Mars! corporation. A couple of times we’ve gotten a hearty virtual handshake from one world leader or another, and there was the one time that they put us on with the Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders for some reason, but mostly it’s corporate. We’re not talking to a representative sample of the Earth population is what I’m saying.

Still, it’s necessary. We have to arrange for supplies to get sent, and we have to tell them about our discoveries, even though we haven’t had any discoveries for a long time. Most of us haven’t even been trying. We were sent here for science, one-way tickets to Mars for a lifetime of Mars research, but it turns out that after a while even scientists can get bored of science. Especially here. Mars, I can tell you, is pretty much rocks, rocks, rocks.

“Do you think we should tell them?” I say. In the old days, when we first got here, the Destination Mars! people would already know, because they were filming everything for reality TV back then, but that show got canceled a while ago. Now we’d have to actually tell them.

Jenny considers the question. We’re sitting in the common room, because that’s where we sit. On low, reddish vinyl-ish couches and chaise lounges next to basically IKEA coffee tables. Orange tables. And here I can see her face now, of course. It’s a round face on the sides, and a little pointy in the chin area. It’s a nice face. “Well, they’ll be mad,” she says after a while.

I nod. “But they can’t actually do anything about it,” I say. “Can they?”

Long exhalation. “I guess not.” Then, after a minute, “Well, they could leave something out of the next supply rocket. The freeze-dried, cookie-dough ice cream or something.” Outside the common-room window I can see the sun going down. Sunsets are the one not-red thing about Mars. They’re more in the gray family.

“They would totally kibosh the cookie-dough ice cream,” I say. I wonder if they’d even go further than that. Every once in a while, I get the idea that the head people of the Destination Mars! corporation are getting a little fed up with us in general.

I can hear Roger in the workroom saying hello to someone back on Earth. Hello and then waiting. “Still, though,” I say. “Like, how pregnant are you?”

She raises an eyebrow at me, which makes the gray of her eyes a little steely.

“I mean, how long?” I say.

“Oh,” she says. She picks up her tea from the coffee table. “I think almost two months.”

“Oh,” I say. Jenny is really, truly pregnant. The buzzing in my blood has become an itching.

After quite a few minutes I hear someone on Earth say hello back to Roger. Hello and a question about what’s new.

“Are we really doing this?” she says.

I open my mouth to answer, but Jenny, faster than typical Mars-time, speaks first.

“We’d better tell them what’s going on,” she says.

We get up and go into the work room, where Roger is alone in front of the screen. He’s here by default; nobody else has enough patience to have these drawn-out Earth conversations. Sometimes others among us go pop our heads in or say something off-camera, but we don’t tend to stick around. Roger, though—he’s a botanist and a geologist, so he’s used to waiting for things. Also he has trouble saying no. Either way, the end result is he ends up doing the calls. Right now he’s starting into a longish update on our rock analysis work, saying it all in one stream for convenience, while the Earth person, Barbara—a woman with rectangular glasses—sits passively, having not yet heard any of what he’s saying. In twenty-two minutes her face will show a reaction to the beginning of his update, though by then he’ll already be done. It’s surreal stuff.

“The deeper samples are still under analysis,” Roger is saying. “Though so far they seem pretty similar to the not-as-deep samples. We’re also filling out more of the topographical map at a good pace,” he adds, “and—”

But then we lean in. “Also,” Jenny says, “I’m pregnant.”

At which point Roger lapses into indecision about whether to continue with the map-talk, scratching at his thinning hair with his left hand, which is his hand where the fingers got broken and are still at a slightly uneasy angle from the rest of his hand. I definitely expected an astronaut with the name Roger to be more dashing and confident than our Roger has turned out to be. I guess that’s because of Buck Rogers, which I have never actually seen, but which I have heard about.

“It’s true,” I add into the screen.

Barbara, of course, shows no reaction. She can’t, not for another twenty-two minutes. So, we stand there and we wait. We wait, and I try to not think about anything at all.

Well, after about twenty minutes we see her nodding dutifully—she’s taking note of Roger’s report—and then abruptly her face registers shock. “Wait—what?” she says. And then, not about to wait twenty-two minutes for our confirmation, which I already gave anyway, she sputters on. “This is why we told you not to have sex,” she says.

Jenny rolls her eyes at me, which will probably irritate Barbara in about eleven minutes. In the meantime, we wait for her to continue. But she doesn’t. She waits for us to continue. Oh, boy.

“Um,” I finally say, “but we already did have sex.”

Twenty-two minutes later we get Barbara glaring at the eye roll and then leaning forward toward the camera. “You are not allowed to do this,” she says.

Jenny and I glance at each other. Because what does that even mean?

This time there’s only a brief pause before Barbara keeps going. “You sat through the abstinence films. I know you did because I have your signatures.” She shakes a sheaf of papers that are probably not the specific ones we signed about the abstinence films, but for the sake of drama. “I mean,” she says, slipping into an actual rant, “a baby on Mars? How would that even work? Do people lactate the same in low gravity? Do fetuses in the womb get all their bones in the right places? What about radiation? What if the baby wants to come out feet first or head first or however they’re not supposed to come out? And then when they’re out, do you do sleep training, or co-sleeping, or whatever all that stuff is? Do they sleep on their backs or fronts? I mean, wow. And how the hell do you raise a child on Mars? You don’t even have the right size clothes! I just—I don’t even know what to say to you. You two are idiots. Why do we even bother with these idiots?”

I feel myself sweating a little as Barbara turns off camera to say something to someone nearby. Our communication is probably attracting more than the usual amount of attention.

Barbara turns back and faces us squarely. She says, “You’re going to have to terminate the pregnancy.”

Jenny and I stand up straight and look at each other. Somehow this idea had not even occurred to me, though I’m thinking about it now, and I can see that Jenny has already thought about it. The moment stretches on a little bit. Mars seconds. I still don’t know exactly what Jenny is thinking, but the feeling I’m feeling, considering this idea—you’d have to call it gratitude. You’d have to call it relief. But I look at Jenny’s face and don’t say anything. Neither of us says anything. We just look back at the screen and wait.

“Seriously?” Barbara says, after she’s had enough time to see that we’re not responding. “Nothing?” She leans forward again, almost confidential. “Do you realize who’s in charge here? Do you realize,” she asks, “that you don’t even get to eat unless we send you food?”

Whoa. That’s a whoa comment right there. I look at Jenny again.

“You have to terminate the pregnancy,” Barbara says. “It’s not like we can come get you so that you can get reasonable medical care.”

It’s true. That was part of the deal: one-way. They had the technology to get us here, but they don’t have the technology to bring us back.

“You have to terminate,” Barbara says again.

Jenny searches my eyes for a minute. It might be an actual full minute. I almost say something about how ending the pregnancy does sound like the easier thing, especially with food threats flying around. Even without them, though—what about all the risks? To the baby? To Jenny? The risks in general? But then Jenny says, not to Barbara but to me, “We should decide this ourselves.”

I take that in. I take my time taking that in. There are follow-up questions called for here but not in front of Barbara. I nod. “OK.”

Jenny turns back to Barbara and leans in. “We’re going to decide for ourselves.” And then she takes my hand, and we walk out of there.

Trixie is in the common room, tapping something on her tablet. Very likely Sudoku. Also she is listening to everything. Trixie isn’t even actually looking at her tablet. She’s looking at us.

Trixie and Nicole are the people most likely to get the nickname “Doc,” because everyone else is just PhD doctors, whereas these two are MD doctors in addition to Trixie also being a PhD doctor and Nicole being an Air Force captain. But we call them Trixie and Nicole. And I guess we might be needing them soon, one way or another.

Jenny and I sit together, both chewing on what Barbara said and on the situation overall, listening to Roger for a while as he somehow restarts his cartography monologue, and then he talks about some of the astronomical research we’ve been doing, just for a few minutes. And then we listen as he falls into silence, and as he waits. I notice that my foot is tapping a little frenetically.

“Well, that was some food for thought,” I say.

Jenny doesn’t have anything to say to that. She’s squinting thoughtfully off into the distance. Looking through the window at Mars, such as it is.

“Are we in way over our heads?” I eventually ask.

She stops the thoughtful distance-squinting and says, “Well, however deep in we are, that’s where we are.” She turns in Trixie’s direction. “Right?”

Trixie nods from across the room. “I don’t think I’d be too keen on trying to terminate a pregnancy here.” She gestures around generally at Mars.

Jenny turns back. “So here we are.”

Here we are.

From the next room, Barbara eventually says, twenty-two minutes after we’ve walked off the set, “Are you serious? Unbelievable. Completely unbelievable.” And then, probably to someone else off-camera, “Can they just do that? Can they?” And a brief pause before, “OK. You know what? I’m going to have to check into this,” she says. “I’m going to have to check into it.”

“Do you want to go outside?” I say to Jenny.

 

Mars at night is also like you’d expect it. Very dark, with lots of stars, of course, and they’re almost the stars that we’re used to. The moons Phobos and Deimos are both up. They’re both pretty small, though, and actually not much to look at. Deimos is practically just like another star. And Earth isn’t up there tonight. You can see it from Mars, just like you can see Mars from Earth, but it’s not in our particular night sky right now. If it were there, it would just be a little point of light, of course.

Our helmet lights pointing the way, we bounce-walk in a different direction this time. We go toward a crater that we call the Soup Hole. It was Roger who decided we should name it that—“I have my reasons,” he said, his reasons being that he’s really into soup—and he used it so consistently that it stuck. I had wanted to call it the Hot Tub. Even though there’s obviously not any water in there, it’s just deep enough that you can sit in it and lean back and put your elbows up on the crater wall like in a hot tub. It would be a good place to have a beer, except that there’s no beer on Mars—the bubbles wouldn’t work right—and you couldn’t drink a bottle of anything while you’re in your space suit anyway. It would have to come through the helmet’s food/beverage tube.

We sit in the crater. Two people relaxing in a night-time soak. Or two lentils in a soup.

I look at Jenny’s face, or at the sunglass visor in front of it. Now I wish I hadn’t asked her to come out here, because I’d like to see her face. I like Jenny’s face. Her eyes are actually more silver than gray, somehow.

“I like your face,” I say.

I can kind of hear her smiling, but I imagine it’s a tense smile. “Do you want to go to our channel?” she says. “Why bother, right?”

“Right,” I say. I mean, I’d actually like a private conversation this time, but that just isn’t a thing. I watch Phobos, which moves faster than Deimos. You can pretty much see it move. Go Phobos, go.

“I like your face, too,” she says.

I take my elbows off the crater wall. “So,” I say, “you’re pregnant. That’s what we’re talking about,” I say. “As in, we made a baby, inside of you—” I point, for reference—“and it’s some kind of mix of genetic material from you and from me, and we’re talking about you growing that baby, and then you would have that baby, and it would come out of you, and, when it came out, it would be on Mars. Our baby. That’s what we’re talking about.” I try to keep my voice even.

There’s only a brief pause before she answers. “Yeah,” she says. “I’ve been developing an awareness of all that.”

“The first Martian baby,” I say. From buzzing to itching to, now, a kind of full-on scouring feeling.

“My first baby anywhere,” she says.

“Mine, too.” I pause. There’s a lump in my throat. There’s no other way to describe it. Then: “I always assumed Mars was going to be a dead-end planet.”

Jenny doesn’t respond to that, exactly. Instead she says, in a wondering voice, “It happened,” and she tilts her sunglass-face up at the stars. She’s an astrophysicist. I know that when she looks up, to some extent, she sees data. But that’s not the only thing she sees.

Then, over the radio, I hear—we hear—Nicole’s voice. She says, “The first baby born in America—they named her Virginia Dare. Well, the first white baby. There were the indigenous babies, of course.”

And then Stefan’s voice, with its half-Danish, half-British accent: “Or you could go with Adam, if you’re thinking about firsts. Adam. There’s a first for you.”

Trixie: “There are older names than that. Gilgamesh, etc.”

“I’m talking about biblical time,” Stefan says, irritably. “You can’t get older than that.”

In nonemergency situations we are able to turn down the volume on people from Home Sweet, so we turn down the volume on people from Home Sweet.

I say, not knowing what to say, “I wonder what the oldest name in the world is.”

“Which world?” Jenny says.

I look up. My PhD is in psychology, strangely enough—the science I’m supposed to be doing here is the science of what people are like when just a few of them are thrown together on Mars—but anyway, one upshot of my particular education is that, when I look up, I don’t see any data, not even constellations, not even after all this time; I see a dark, dark sky but just speckled straight through with wild light.

It would be a good moment for a shooting star or a meteor shower. The sky, though, basically stands still. Well, except for Phobos. And except for the fact that everything out there actually is moving, whether we can see it or not. Moving at inconceivable speeds, in fact.

I’m about to say, “Jenny, I’m freaking out,” when first she says, “Josh, I know you’re freaking out.”

I turn toward Jenny, and it’s almost like I can see her face. She takes my hand. Holding hands in space suits is not very much like holding actual hands, but it’s something.

“I know you’re thinking of Lil,” Jenny says.

It takes me a very long time to respond, even by Mars standards. “I am,” I manage to say. Lil was my fiancée on Earth, before any of this, before I’d ever even thought about Mars at all, really. She was my fiancée. And then one night she was driving home and a very big car in one of the oncoming lanes lost control. It was raining.

We all have our particular reasons why we signed up for a one-way ticket to Mars.

“And I know you thought this would be a dead-end planet,” Jenny says. “That you hoped it.” She squeezes my hand. It’s not like she can see me crying, with my mirror-face, but she knows. “Believe me,” she says. “I hoped that, too.”

“I know,” I say. We all have our reasons.

We sit very quietly for a long time.

“Listen,” she eventually says.

“Yes.”

“I never had my tubes tied,” Jenny says.

Everything stops. I look over at her. “What? What do you mean?”

She shakes her head. She never had them tied.

“But that was required, wasn’t it? For all the women?”

“Not for me.” She’s still just looking up. “One of my earlier doctors said that my fallopian tubes were problematic. And then the Mars people checked them, and they told me my fallopian tubes were problematic.”

“What?” I say. “Are you serious?”

“Yes. I’m not supposed to be able to get pregnant at all.”

This is, in fact, staggering. I am staggered by it. Eventually, I say, “And yet, pregnancy. You’re pregnant.”

“Yes,” she says.

I say, “Wow.” I think I am feeling all the things that a person can feel. I say, “That’s pretty astounding.”

There is a moment or two of silence, and then Jenny issues a world-class, a Mars-class sigh. This sigh might last for a Mars minute and a half.

“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah,” she says again. “It really is.”

My voice cracks a little when I speak next. “Sometimes I don’t have any idea what’s going on.” A lot of me cracks a little. “How it all happens.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think that,” I say, thinking out loud, “in all the cause-and-effect chains of the universe, there’s maybe some chain, one thing leading to the next, that goes all the way from the big bang to this exact situation? That we must have been heading for everything—” I stop, and then continue—“that we must have been heading for everything that’s happened to us, and heading for this moment, for you and me, for this, exactly this, from the very beginning?”

Jenny thinks for a moment. “A lot of scientists question the theory of any kind of big bang anymore,” she says. “It’s possible that the universe has always been here. And always will be. Different, but here.”

Very abruptly I reach over and hug her, which also is not like regular hugging, and we sort of clonk our sunglass-faces against one another, but still we’re able to hold on, and it’s worth it.

I hold onto Jenny, who I can tell is also crying a little. I think about the fact that what she just said about the universe is obviously true.

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