This story is by Zhihui Zou and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Standing in the middle of this boundless world, he opened his arms wide to feel the Martian wind touching his face and the small particles in the air brushing his skin. His long, auburn hair danced behind his head like the flag of a castle. As he looked around, waves and waves of dunes stretched endlessly toward the horizon. This was the place for him; the place where he could be simple and the distractions were wiped clean; the place where his mind was set free.
This was his sixth month staying on Mars, alone and isolated. Since the day he arrived, he had encountered no life, no noise, no distractions. No one could mess his mind with annoying chats about baseball and the stock market or loud motor engines that masked his thoughts. Everything was quiet and simple.
As he sauntered across the vast land, the only company he wanted were the bright sun above and the countless dunes before him.
He turned around. About half a mile behind him was his cylinder-shaped Martian Habitation Base. Half a dozen solar panels lay on the ground twenty yards away, enjoying themselves in the shower of sunlight. On the roof, three satellite dishes pointed at the sky, searching blindly for connections.
The air here was 95% carbon dioxide. Without pollution, without the disgusting smell of the emissions, he could taste the flavor of the air of this faraway planet. It tasted a bit like a newly burnt charcoal stored in a confined room. But he didn’t care.
His life finally became simple.
Simplicity is the base of everything, Esteban said to himself. People these days are overthinking things too much, and they don’t even know they’re overthinking them.
Maybe he still had to thank Earth for giving him those two artificial lungs to breathe on Mars.
He came to Mars in search of simplicity. In New York City, the skyscrapers trapped him in an unsolvable maze. Friends guessing each others’ true meanings behind their words gave him a headache every hour. The fact that he could encounter more screens and technology than people in a day almost made him vomit at night.
Where did all those ill-mannered ideas like money and technology come from? Life on Earth has gone through millions of years depending on nothing but natural selection, and what rights do those coins, phones, and all of that nonsense have to corrupt the human brain?
Esteban liked to be alone with pure and pristine nature, rather than a world consisting of people hiding their intentions behind flattering words. Most people loved wealth, but a simple lifestyle was a glowing diamond to Esteban, something that he had been addicted to since his carefree childhood in Brooklyn.
Mars was ladened with brown rocks and dirt that looked just like any unimportant and abandoned land in most people’s perspectives. Still, in Estevan’s eyes, they were emeralds, gold, and sapphires that vibrated their brilliant light under the sun.
He turned around and headed back to his base. As he walked past the solar panels, his MIR, or Martian Integrated Rover, was parked behind the sixth panel.
He just drove to the bottom of Elysium Mons three days ago, the longest drive he had since he arrived here.
People these days think their ancestors lived a boring life of collecting nuts or hunting for meat every day and without some sort of entertainment or change, Esteban thought. But those ignorant people know nothing about the value of a clear and straightforward mind.
He would take a walk on the first day, take a short drive to a tall dune and sit on the tip of it while watching the mountains, ancient riverbeds, and planitia spread out beneath him on the second day. On the third day, he would retake a short walk. On the fourth day, he would drive out to visit each of the landscapes that adorned this beautiful world.
Repeating this routine for six months would turn the most patient person into a triggered tiger, but Esteban enjoyed every cycle as if it was the first one.
“Because my mind is clear and simple,” was his explanation.
When he entered his base, the only computer in his base beeped as the screen lit up. He had to avert his vision at first and do a half a minute mental preparation before looking at it.
He walked over to the computer, seeing a name called “Brian” popped up with a green and a red button beneath it.
He sighed before clicking on the green button.
“Yo Est!” Brian boomed through the speaker with his heavy western accent. “Just wan’ ta check in. ‘Opefully everythin‘s well!”
“Brian, you don’t have to yell at me. I can hear you,” Esteban replied, looking at the inside of his base.
People always picture a Martian base with wires, computers, antennas, but Esteban’s looked more like the room of a monk who had been living in the mountains; a chair, a table, a small bed, and a small closet were all he needed. Esteban covered all the technology that kept him alive and the base running behind a giant curtain, so he didn’t have to see them.
A three-by-three Rubik’s cube sat on the table. It was the only object in the room that stood out.
“ ‘orry abou’ that!” Brian blared. “Seriously, how’s everythin’?”
That was the question Brian asked at the beginning of each of his monthly calls.
“Simple,” Esteban answered.
That was the reply he gave every time.
He looked at the Rubik’s cube in the middle of his table. His table was dull, and that colorful cube was the only decoration it needed.
“Don’t ye think it’s a bit… boring?” Brian asked again carefully.
“Not at all. I’m happy.”
There was a pause.
“I just read’a book…”
“Just give me a one-sentence summary,” Esteban interrupted, walking around in the room with his eyes closed, totally depending on his consciousness to guide him around.
“Okay… so the Earth’s abou’ four billion ‘ears old, be grateful tha’ you were born at this time.”
“Why?” Esteban asked, still wandering with his eyes closed.
“This’s the time tha’ we can brin’ people te Mars.”
“So ye getta be there!”
“Yeah, I’m grateful for that.”
“When’ll ye come back?”
“When people there can live simply.”
“Som’ people live simply.”
“People live simply only when everyone has a simple heart, but distractions change that.”
“Do ye wan’ them te be simple?”
“Then come back an’ change them!”
Esteban stopped walking. “It’ll be hard.”
“Now ye’re just worryin’ and not bein’ simple,” Brian jeered. “How does isolating yeself make ye simple?”
“So I can clear my mind, and there are no distractions.”
“But… if ye actually can clear ye mind, then why can’t ye do it on Earth.”
“Too many distractions.”
“But tha’ isn’t a problem, right? Ye just keep clearing until nothin’ comes in!”
Esteban opened his eyes. He stopped wandering right before the table with that colorful Rubik’s cube on it.
“I think ye aren’t tha’ simple,” Brian added.
“Ye brought tha’ Rubik’s cube te entertain, but if ye’re really simple, then bein’ simple is fun enough. Ye don’t need an ou’side thin’ te… I dunno, numb yeself?”
“Which book did you read?
“Ye come bac’ an’ I’ll tell ye.”
“Just make things simple and tell me the book’s title!”
“Relax!” Brian paused. “Tha’ cube was the only thin’ ye have tha’ isn’t so borin’.”
“Yes.” Esteban reached out for his Rubik’s cube. The cool plastic was smooth under his fingers.
“Isn’t tha’ hard te solve?”
“Ye know wha’ I think? Ye can never be simple.”
Esteban raised his eyebrows.
“A real simple person never thinks abou’ bein’ simple,” Brian explained. “Cuz thinkin’ abou’ bein’ simple is complex.”
“If ye really wan’ to be simple, ye need te do it, not think abou’ it, and ye can do it anywhere, like on Earth.”
“I’m not going back.”
“Yes ye are. That’s why ye still have tha’ cube. Ye still miss Earth. Ye’re in a dilemma, and cuz of tha’, ye can’t truly be simple.”
“That’ll be all, Brian. Goodbye.”
“Bye,” Brian said after a pause.
Their conversations always sounded like two broken voice recordings playing at the same time, but it was totally fine to Esteban.
They are simple conversations.
He turned the upper layer of the Rubik’s cube clockwise once. He remembered that when he was a kid, a girl next door told him that the Rubik’s cube was the most complicated thing in the world.
Esteban believed it.
Solving a complex thing makes it simple, but it doesn’t deserve to be.
He put it carefully back on the table, where it had been picked up and turned once for six times.
He had told himself not to pick it up for six times as well, but none of them worked.