Ergodic Literature

Normally when you read a book, the author is your guide. You watch as the narrative unfolds around you, unable to warn the protagonist of impending danger or otherwise change the narrative. You are entirely captive to the story, on a roller coaster without controls. But what if you weren’t? What if you could steer the narrative; could choose to go left instead of right?

You are no longer just a passive audience member. You are now the player, the protagonist, and a gambler. The story is in your hands now. Are you ready?

 

Ergodic literature, from the Greek roots ergon and hodos, is a variant of storytelling in which you, the reader, can control the story. Espen Aarseth describes this as cybertext, from the Greek word kyber, or helmsman. Cybertext, although far older than the digital systems that share the same root, has been re-popularized with the advent of computers. The affordances of computers easily allow for an interactive reader experience. One of the earliest examples of digital interactive fiction is Colossal Cave Adventure, which popularized the labyrinthine game style common in early forms of this genre. In this style, you play though a complex web of opportunities as you explore the environment. This new world of interactive narratives birthed the genre that we now readily recognize as video games. Egrodic literature also encompasses nonlinear literary works, in which both the fabula and sujzet are subject to the reader’s whimsical discretion. The variable nature of these stories offers each reader a unique story experience unmatched in any other literature form.

 

Ergodic literature has direct parallels to real life. As the steersmen of your story, you’ll face many choices, dangers, and paths. You’ll never know the exact outcomes of the paths you didn’t take. You’re not safe anymore – you can’t hide behind the author. Are you ready?

“I don’t know how” : Constraints and Affordances of Ergodic Literature

In the Introduction to Ergodic Literature, Aarseth defines Ergodic literature as literature requiring nontrivial effort. The type of nontrivial effort he refers to is the nontrivial effort of the physical sense rather than of the mental sense. Ergodic literature requires readers to do more than simply turn a page. Readers must actively type commands into a terminal or even physically rearrange chunks of story plots as we saw in the novel in a box. The very term evolves from the Greek words ergon which means work and hodos which means path. This implies that this type of literature necessitates that readers work to follow the story line, the path if you will, of the literature.

Aarseth argues that in ergodic literature, the reader is not merely a reader, but a player. And the narrative is not simply a text but instead also a game. The reader of a regular novel is simply a spectator, powerless to influence the impending plot in any way. They are safe from the final outcome of the story. The reader of the cybertext however, is a character in the story. They are absorbed into the story and can get lost, die or succeed. Essentially, players do the steering of the narrative. They directly influence the plot, making decisions that send the plot down winding roads. Aarseth compares this choosing directions to travel in when trying to escape a labyrinth. Each decision made sends the reader into a unique version of the plot.

In text-based adventure games such as the Colossal Cave Adventure, both the affordances and constraints of cybertext are explored. Starting the game, the options for plot development are vast and branch out in many different directions. As the player makes choices however, the possibilities of an alternate ending continually diminish until the player finally gets to the end. In the Colossal Cave Adventure, I found that being able to influence my own story was exciting and engaging. I initially wanted to choose the most daring options. Once I read that there was a stream, I decided to follow it. Then when I got to another part of the stream, I wanted to cross it so I typed “swim”. Unfortunately, this command was not recognized by the program and it replied “I don’t know how”. I consider this to be a constraint of this type of literature, which I understand is a realistic constraint. The program of the narrative must have some limitations because of its finite capacity. But when the program doesn’t understand certain phrases like “step on rock”, the reader may get frustrated, as I did when I wanted to try to cross the river at the shallow part by walking on the river bed. Another constraint I found was that the plot of the story is limited to the imagination of the player. If the player can’t figure out what to do next and gives up, the story abruptly ends without closure.

Regardless, ‘Choose Your Own Adventure” games are unique as they offer an engaging alternatives to traditional narrative reading. It allows readers to experience the story more than once as they replay the game to find alternate endings and recover missed details. While some people re-read books, they read to experience the same story while readers of cybertext read to experience new plots of the same familiar story.

-Tiffany Ramcharan

FOMO (fear of missing out)

I’m the type of gamer that obsessive compulsively has to pick up all the coins and the special items, go through all the different passages, and complete all the quests. So you can imagine how much anxiety interactive fiction and cybertext gives me.

I’m only joking, but there is a shred of truth in that. Cybertext, as Espen J. Aarseth defines in his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, is different from traditional narrative text in that when “you read from a cybertext, you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard… you may never know the exact results of your choices.” Cybertext and interactive fiction is so fascinating in that it mirrors life; unlike traditional, linear bodies of texts in which the reader is more like a “passenger on a train,” IF requires a nontrivial effort from the reader in order to explore and invest him or herself in the narrative, as well as make (somewhat) irreversible decisions with consequences. I think that that is one of the main advantages of cybertext — the allure of the possibility of failure and the option to take control can really immerse the reader.

Interactive fiction as a potential narrative also offers the chance for the reader/user to become the author. Nick Montfort, in his article “Riddle Machines: The History and Nature of Interactive Fiction,” writes that the “literary spaces and possibilities” are different for each interactor according to the what choices he/she makes and in what order. I definitely saw this with Colossal Cave Adventure as there were so many different combinations of choices you could make.

It’s interesting to note the variety that exists within the category of cybertext. For instance, Colossal Cave Adventure was not the strongest in terms of “literary merit” — aka the narrative and storyline itself. The objective was really just to make it through the cave, not form a cohesive plot with all the elements of “the perfect scene” (as we learned last week) or develop a character. However, many other text adventures and MUD’s, as well as hypertext literature such as Shelley Jackson’s “My Body – a Wunderkammer,” create a literary experience similar to traditional novels, just with more control in the hands of the user.

Although text adventures and ergodic literature are not quite as popular today and most definitely have not replaced traditional linear texts, they definitely have made their mark and altered the way people think about narratives.

Labyrinth, matrix, same thing basically

 

The significance of choice and the consequences of our choices were talked about a lot this week. Josh Hall’s DCC capstone project, Antiflanerie, featured one video where the story ended abruptly before it even really began if the viewer chose a certain option. Since there was no way to rewind, the short film emphasized the permanence of choice and the many unknown possibilities that disappear once a decision has been made (of course, in Jeremy and Carter’s case, you could just reload the web page). This preoccupation with choice can also be seen in many aspects of popular science fiction media, like The Matrix. The movie famously asks, “red pill or blue pill?”, setting the stage for a massive divergence of stories. If Neo chooses the red pill, the movie unfolds. If he chooses the blue pill, he’ll never know what could have been. The idea of making the “right” decisions as ubiquitous in interactive fiction as it is in anything else. As Aarseth says in his article, readers of ergodic fiction or cybertexts are no longer “safe” because they must participate in the narrative and take choices into their own hands. In the text adventure documentary  we watched in class, one man mentioned that the “smart person” feel of Infocom’s interactive fiction games was a main strength of the company. It was implied that intelligent decisions (made by an intelligent person, naturally) were necessary to win. I found that comment incredibly interesting – it raised the question of how ego affects one’s investment in a game. The “non-trivial effort” described by Aarseth in his article requires “readers” of interactive fiction to interact with their surroundings to propel their way through the story, and in games like Colossal Cave Adventure, this isn’t easy. The way that creators motivate the discovery process, therefore, is by creating obstacles that are difficult enough to slow down users but not difficult enough to stop them. I mean, guys at MIT were making breakthroughs in computing that eventually lead to the Internet, and they stopped working for a week just to figure out a game in which you need to catch a bird while not holding a black rod (which scares it) just so you can throw the bird at a snake later in the game. It’s really not rocket science – it’s just arbitrary rules made up by someone with a prolific imagination. Yet, work in the programming world ground to a halt just so that people could outsmart it by making the right choices. It’s a powerful testament to the power of immersion in interactive fiction and a person’s desire to prove their intelligence.

 

 

What if I went left?

Aaserth describes ergotic literature by comparing it to labyrinths in which “the reader can explore at will, get lost, discover secret paths, play around, follow the rules, and so on.” In Colossal Cave Adventure, a text-based interactive fiction game, the reader does exactly that. They explore at will, get lost, discover secret paths, play around, follow the rules, and so on. As a matter of fact, when I first played, I continuously wandered the forest because I did not know that I had to enter the building. If Porter did not show us to “enter building” during class, I never would have made it past the forest.

Even after getting into the cave, I never made it to the end of the game. I continued roaming in circles and getting lost. Sometimes, if there is a crossroad, I would move in one direction, check it out, and return to the crossroad to try the other direction. However, in many cases, going in the opposite direction would not take me to where I once started, and I would not get to see what would have happened if I had chosen the other direction. This connects to Aeserth’s other point that with cybertexts, “you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken.” Maybe if I went left instead of right, I would have made it to the end of the game.

In a way, this is both an affordance and a constraint of cybertext. The inability to see the outcome of the other option makes the text more similar to reality in which we cannot turn back time and see what would have happened if I, for example, decided to join University Honors instead of DCC. Would I have met the same friends? At the same time, it is a constraint of cybertext because the reader cannot experience everything the text has to offer. An example is “My Body – a Wunderkammer” by Shelly Jackson. I liked how everybody could start at a different part of the body and click different hyperlinks in each text to read in a different sequence, and knowing that there were probably parts that I missed, I kept clicking hyperlinks. The thought of missing out can engage the reader and persuade them to keep reading. However, April was upset because she never knew if she had checked every option and gotten the full experience.

IFs and Me

When Interactive Fiction (IF) was introduced with Adventure in 1977, the community that received it was awestruck. According to many programmers at the time, work stalled for about two weeks. The ability of the computer allow communication back and forth in such a way was astounding. However, I am experiencing IFs at a time where such interactions are common place. My first interaction of obtaining a narrative through a game was from Runescape. Originally named DeviousMUD, this multiplayer game was inspired by on text adventure games. It was supposed to be a textual IF MUD. However, the creator of Runescape decided to scrap this idea and turn to a graphical interface. Why? Because he thought the textual MUD market was flooded and that his game would not make an impact. This gives context to the world I entered. IFs are no longer met with awe.

With this context, I am interested to see how my experience and reaction to IFs compares to how IFs are perceived by the public. While playing Colossal Cave Adventure, I did not know what I was going into. I was able to understand most of the commands easily enough and most of the game seemed intuitive. However, I ran into some roadblocks. The first thing I struggled with was getting to the cave. I had not read many of the hints or instructions and had assumed you moved to places my calling their names. This was not always the case. I had to go back and read instructions to figure out that I needed to call South to continue the game. From there on, my difficulties came from trying to figure out how to get past each obstacle. I was definitely annoyed that some simple tasks did not yield any meaningful response. Despite all this trouble, I was interested in the puzzles presented to me. The challenge  of the game makes me want to work to complete it despite its seemingly primitive nature. In comparison to the world at large, my evaluation seems to coincide quite well. According to Dark Crow’s blog from Gamasutra, IFs are criticized for not having natural and meaningful responses to seemingly intuitive answers. However, the form is not planning on dying yet. There is still a dedicated group making IFs on Twine. With this in mind, I might decide to enter into this niche community to experience some more Interactive Fiction.

Problems of modern interactive fiction and text adventures games development. (2016). Gamasutra.com. Retrieved 30 September 2016, from http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarkCrow/20160901/280026/Problems_of_modern_interactive_fiction_and_text_adventures_games_development.php

Affordances of interactive fiction

Some important concepts to remember when thinking about story telling are the affordances and constraints that the medium permits. Contemporary forms of storytelling were limited to print and text forms. As technology developed, however, new forms of ergodic literature and storytelling became an option. One of the early forms of digital ergodic literature came in the form of interactive fiction. This medium provided an interactive way for the user to follow a story, and have their choices influence the outcome of the narrative. This format of storytelling implemented a new array of affordances authors had while creating a story.

One important affordance provided by interactive fiction gave the user an interactive interface where they could almost “talk to the computer”. Prior to these text based adventures, typing to the computer and having it return a logical response was unknown. This affordance allows the audience to see and do what they want in the order they want. This is closely related to the notion, prevalent in ergodic literature, of nonlinear storylines, where a narrative isn’t always told in the same order. In interactive fiction, the user controls what happens, which may cause parts of the narrative to be missed or done out of order.

While nonlinear storylines can be seen as a benefit of the medium, Nick Montfort notes that it also is a constraint on creative control from the writer’s side. Instead of telling the story in the way the author envisions, the user can receive the information through the way in which they explore the world.

Along a similar line, interactive fiction (and all ergodic literature) has the affordance of making the user a “player” instead of a spectator. When reading a text, the audience is confined to watching events unfold, whereas interactive fiction places the reader directly in the story and gives their decisions weight on the outcome. Another affordance that is less thought of is the ability for interactive fiction to be experienced several times. While texts follow a linear narrative always ending in the same way, interactive fiction provides branching story routes leading to new encounters and experiences for the player. In some interactive fiction writers and developers put Easter eggs, hidden object or place that is not essential to the completion of the game, in the game which began in Adventure by Warren Robinett who left the first Easter egg in the form of a secret room containing the message “Created by Warren Robinett”. This game, inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure introduced the notion of experiencing components of a game in a different way to find trophies or collectables, giving the audience another experience of the game transitioning far away from linear narratives. Ultimately the numerous affordances provided by interactive fiction became so different from contemporary forms of storytelling that the line between game and story became blurred.

Fall of the Text

At one point in the 80’s, people were convinced that text adventures were going to be the future. Unfortunately, and to many’s dismay, this entire concept became almost completely obsolete in less than a decade. In current times, the text adventure primarily exists as a novelty, similar to silent films or even horse-ran carriages. The question though, is why didn’t these or text adventures, or the more prestigiously phrased “Interactive Fiction” keep up with the times? I believe the fall of these text adventures is traced to two chronic flaws: the emergence of new entertainment systems and the limitations of text for a commercial and accessible game.

The fall of text adventures in the mid 80’s is aligned with the release of many popular and powerful game consoles. Nintendo’s NES was released in 1985, and provided much more for the typical consumer to enjoy. This also reached a much more dominant audience. Montfort in his article Riddle Machines: The History and Nature of Interactive Fiction comments that interactive fiction proved difficult for even literary and electronic readers. These text adventures were successful in their time, but were most likely serving to a niche market. Nintendo and other companies took electronic games to the masses, abandoning any literary component.

Text adventures also had little room to grow. The benchmark adventure Zork expanded the amount of text and allowed full sentences for input, but maxed out the capabilities of the medium. Text is not a progressive medium, and it failed to provide new experiences to its consumers. This is not to disparage the grandeur of the text adventure nor discredit its claims of innovation, but when juxtaposed to graphical games, the limitations seem clear.

Although text adventures have fallen into irrelevance, this was not the death of interactive fiction. I could argue that there has been a reemergence of player involvement in narrative in game in the past decade. Series developed by Telltale Games and Bioware have been exploring how the player can lead the story of a game by giving dialog and decision options. Time will tell if we reach a fully interactive narrative, the next benchmark for interactive fiction.

So I Got Lost Before the Game Began

The game “Cave Adventure” by William Crowther widely accepted as a form of interactive fiction, this one in particular as the original interactive fiction game, but, as seen in the Aarseth reading, people debate on how it applies or fits into the idea of ergodic literature and cybertexts.

A lot of the debate falls on the word “nonlinear” that Aarseth uses as the defining characteristic of ergodic literature. In my opinion, I think that “Cave Adventure” is the premiere example of this idea of nonlinearity. Aarseth describes the conflict as in how people define the word nonlinear. In his view, most of society “focused on what was being read” while he “focused on what was being read from.” The way that I view this is that pieces of ergodic literature are databases of information, events, people, etc. Whilst traversing the text, one reads events in a linear manner, in that events happen one after another. However, in the grand scheme of the entire database, these events can come from anywhere within the database.

I think it’s also important to establish “Cave Adventure” as a text here. I think the common first reaction is to label the game as common RPG and not a text because it is something that you play and there are things that you control. However, according to Aarseth, they are similar (not exactly the same but similar) to “other literary phenomena” because they “produce verbal structures.” What sets this form of interactive fiction apart from both printed books and role playing games is that it combines aspects of both worlds.

Essentially most of Aarseth’s argument comes from how we define these literary objects. The quote that stood out to me the most from Aarseth was the following; “When much energy is spent on showing that P is a perfectly deserving type of Q, the more fundamental question of what P is will often be neglected.” Basically, if we keep trying to say that, for example, interactive fiction such as “Cave Adventure” is perfectly like other types of literature, we miss the point that interactive fiction is a standalone type of literature and has interesting characteristics that make it unique.

In this case, I think that “Cave Adventure” is defined by its nonlinearity. In this case, more than other forms of ergodic literature, the reader can visually see the nonlinear breaks because you no doubt will get lost and have to backtrack. This also erases the idea that the events happen linearly as well, especially after you read the same scene 4 times in a span of 10 minutes. For example, while I was playing the game, I got “lost” before even reaching the cave, wandering about and reading the same 4 scenes, yet thinking I was taking a different path every time. So, as the title implies, the story that I experienced included a grueling trek to find the cave in what was physically, within the database of the game, a pretty small area.

Thus “Cave Adventure becomes a literal form of Aarseth’s idea that ergodic literature is much like a multicursal labyrinth. The text takes quite a bit of effort to traverse, it’s almost impossible unless you take notes and map out the cave while playing. While a cave resembles a labyrinth because both contain mazes, the more important part is that when you make a decision, that decision makes other parts of the story (or cave) less accessible. This came out in my own experiences within the game. I played the game twice, giving myself a day apart between. While I died multiple times both days, I ended up in completely different parts of the cave without even trying that hard. The second day I reached a cavern I didn’t know exist that brought me through a brand new storyline.

This is the defining characteristic of ergodic literature. Yes the events you read happen linearly in a sense because they create a storyline. However, that storyline changes based on your decisions, an effort you, the reader, put into the story, something you cannot do with a printed book.

Isolation

LOG ENTRY: SOL 115

It would only take 200 milligrams of morphine to end all of this right now.

I’m trying not think about that.

It’s been a couple weeks since I first started working on Pathfinder, and the antenna hasn’t budged. It’s been long enough that the Deep Space Network or SETI would likely have picked something up, so my guess is that Pathfinder is still super dead. I just have no idea what killed it.

On the bright side, if I die here, at least whatever future Mars archaeologists find me will probably have an easier time figuring out what killed me. And anyone who could feel guilt or grief over my death will be long gone.

I have enough food to last until Sol 900, and there’s not really any immediate danger, but I’m starting to wonder what the point of all my survival efforts is. If I can’t connect with NASA somehow, I’ll almost certainly still die before Sol 1412 when Ares 4 arrives.

I could attempt a road trip to the Ares 4 landing site to use the MAV’s comm system, but there would be little that NASA could do to help me once I got there. The more time that passes, the less probable it becomes that they could get any kind of supply or rescue probe to me in time.

If they were going to try to save me, they’d need to start working on it pretty damn soon, which is unlikely considering that they think I’m dead. With no chance of survival, all I could really hope to do is make my former crew feel guilty and everyone at home depressed.

But I have to do something. Other than banging my head against Pathfinder in frustration and subconsciously half wanting to die.

Sometimes I lie awake thinking about the fact that literally no one knows what happened to me. They’re probably trying to forget about what happened, the evacuation, the aftermath. Trying not to think about Mars. They can’t wallow in grief forever.

It’s not exactly the fact that I’m doomed if no one figures out the truth that bothers me, either. It’s more like the complete and total sense of loneliness…the knowledge that there is no one else in the universe who knows what you’re going through. I have around 700 sols left that I could potentially live through, but being alone makes them feel significantly less livable.

Tomorrow I’ll start mods on the rover so that it can make it to Schiaparelli. I’m going to get a message to Earth or die trying.

And if I actually get there and manage to send a message? I’ll be without the Hab and with essentially zero chance of rescue.

I’m bringing the morphine with me.

***

“It just feels like such bad luck,” Venkat said. “Everything on our end was ready to receive Pathfinder’s transmission. We were so close to letting him know that we know he’s alive.”

“Pathfinder failed in 1997. Anything could be wrong with it,” Bruce pointed out. “Obviously, it was something Watney couldn’t figure out how to fix.”

“I guess we had no reason to expect good luck at any point in this disaster,” Venkat mused, sighing. “How is the Iris presupply coming along? What are our chances of getting food and a comm system to the Hab before he starves?”

“Slim, but nonzero,” Bruce replied. “Everyone at JPL is working as hard as they can.”

“Any ideas on how to let Mark know to look for a probe?”

“Yeah, we’ve got a plan for that too. The probe will eject a series of green ribbons in the general vicinity of the Hab, about a thousand meters above the surface. We’ll have ‘MARK, TURN ON YOUR COMM’ on each of them so that he knows to connect either the EVA or rover comm system to the one in the probe.”

“I like it. Watney’s sure to notice a bright green ribbon.”

“Exactly. If the probe lands where we want it to, he should get our message.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 116

I want to get out of here as quickly as possible, so I’m taking as little with me as I can. There’s no getting around the oxygenator and the atmospheric regulator, but the water reclaimer can stay here. I have more than enough water to get me to the MAV, and it’ll save me space, power, and a whole lot of effort.

Still, fitting the oxygenator and the atmospheric regulator into the rover is going to require some major modifications. If I want to breathable air during this trip, I’m going to have to work for it, like everything else on this godforsaken planet.

A few days of extremely tedious drilling at the roof of the rover with a rock sample drill should open up the space needed. Then all I have to do is hook everything up and cover it with Hab canvas, figure out heat, strap on some solar panels…okay, it’s going to be awhile before I can leave.

I tried to forage something from my crewmates’ belongings to bring with me in a desperate attempt to keep myself sane in this void of literal radio silence. But besides making me feel like kind of a creep, most of their personal items were things like notes and gifts from loved ones. It’s depressing, but I couldn’t help but think that Commander Lewis has her husband, Martinez and Vogel have wives…Beck and Johanssen have each other. But even if Earth did know I was alive, there wouldn’t be anyone like that waiting for me.

Since I don’t plan on needing too many more of them, I haven’t been rationing my EVAs quite as strictly. It’s ludicrous, but I felt like going for a walk, so I did. Not that there’s much out there that I haven’t already seen. Certainly not anyone.

Still.

***

“I hate to be the one to say it, but there’s a lot of doubt across all departments as to whether this rescue mission is worth it,” Teddy said. “If we get there just a few weeks too late, all of our efforts will have been for nothing.”

“But we’ve already gone public with our plan to save him,” Annie protested. “There’s no way we can back out now. The entire world is watching us and rooting for Watney to survive.”

           “I’m not saying we shouldn’t try,” Teddy replied. “But this organization is about more than Mark Watney. For one thing, we have five astronauts aboard the Hermes who we need to worry about getting safely home. And then there’s the long term to think about —we can’t keep cannibalizing other projects and dedicating all of our time and resources to this.”

“So what do we do?” Mitch asked. “Half-ass the rescue mission? Only give it as much as we feel Mark’s life is worth? How much is that, exactly?”

The room fell silent.

Venkat took a breath, then spoke up. “The other projects can wait. I’m sure the EagleEye team will get over the loss of their booster. But we have only get once chance to save Mark.” He paused. “Besides, there might be more hope than you think. The psych team has pointed out that Watney’s incredibly resourceful and an excellent botanist. It’s possible that he’s found a way to grow something edible, which would give us a little more room for error. And he still does fairly regular EVAs. He doesn’t seem to have given up.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 117

It’s almost time for my second harvest—or at least, it would be if I still gave a shit. What do I gain by surviving until Sol 900? I’ll still die in the end.

On the other hand, it’s nice to have something to do with my hands that won’t explode, electrocute me, or give me radiation poisoning. Maybe I’ll harvest after all.

LOG ENTRY: SOL 118

Began drilling. Ran into an annoying problem where I have to let the drill cool off every few minutes, but removing the cowling helped.

As I’ve been abusing this piece of geological equipment in order to tear a gaping hole in the roof of my vehicle, I couldn’t help but think back to my first few sols here, when Commander Lewis was using this drill for its intended purpose. I was working alongside her, collecting soil samples for my plant growth experiments.

That was back when I wasn’t the only person on Mars. Back when I was wide-eyed with curiosity (see what I did there? Like the Mars rover?) and awed by how far humanity has come. We all were.

I miss those nerds.

Maybe…Maybe if I make it to Schiaparelli and get the MAV’s comm system working, the geniuses at NASA will find a way to hack it so that it can get me to Hermes. There has to be something that can be done. I can’t die here.

But if this is going to be more than a suicide mission, I need to start thinking seriously about how I’m going to survive once I get there until they can come up with a plan to rescue me. I’m going to need the water reclaimer, for one. And I’ll need to bring my potato crop with me…maybe the whole farm, if I can manage it.

Need more time to think. I was going to leave for Schiaparelli as soon as I finished rover mods and a test drive, but I think I’ll stake out the Hab for awhile longer.

***

“This is the flight director. Begin launch status check.”

“Roger that, Houston.”

“Talker?”

“Go.”

“Timer.”

“Go.”

“QAM1.”

“Go.”

 

“…and liftoff of the Iris supply probe.”

“Trim?” Mitch asked.

“Trim’s good,” came the response.

“Safe-abort reached,” someone else called out.

“Slight shimmy, Flight,” said yet another voice.

“Excuse me?” Mitch asked the ascent flight director.

“A little shimmy. But onboard guidance is handling it.”

“Keep me updated,” Mitch said.

***

After the failure to establish communication via Pathfinder, NASA had rated the importance of making contact too high to risk a crash landing of the Iris probe. The comm systems could be damaged; besides, with no way to warn Watney that help was on the way, a crash lander in an unexpected location could go unnoticed. With this in mind, Iris was planned for a controlled, power descent. Iris’ onboard guidance was more sophisticated than any previous unmanned mission.

***

            “Automated course adjustment complete. No sign of damage from shimmy.” Moments later: “Pitch and roll complete. Ready for staging.”

The first stage fell away. A quarter-second later, the second-stage engines ignited. The craft reached orbit and pushed onward.

“Successfully escaped orbit. Iris is on course to reach her destination.”

The control room erupted into applause.

Mitch grinned and turned to Venkat. “We did it!”

“We really did,” Venkat replied, almost unbelieving. “Half the usual time to build a presupply, and we did it!”

In the VIP observation room behind Mission Control, Teddy smiled as he withdrew a blue folder containing a cheerful speech from his briefcase.

***

After months and months of unanticipated stress, sheet AL102 finally gave way, depressurizing Airlock 1 and rocketing Mark fifty meters across the surface of Mars. When he finally regained consciousness, the airlock was damaged and his suit was torn…

AUDIO LOG ENTRY: SOL 133

Fucking hell…what is it with me and getting injured but never dying? The Hab must be trying to kill me. First the antenna through my pelvis and now the airlock decides to hurl me across Mars…Fuck it, this entire planet is trying to kill me. Goddamn…my back hurts like hell…I think I hear a hissing. Air must be escaping from somewhere. It’s only a matter of time before I run out of breathable air. And you know what? I officially don’t give a shit. Everyone thinks I died on Sol 6. Everything I’ve done since then has been a waste of my time. No one knows or cares how many problems I’ve solved or how much I’ve suffered. I may as well let the air leak out and just die. Or…hang on…if I patch my suit and then fill it will pure nitrogen…there. The lungs can’t sense lack of oxygen. They say it’s just like falling aslee—

[[END AUDIO LOG ENTRY]]

Epilogue: Sol 402

Less than 40 kilometers away from the Hab, the landing of the probe has gone perfectly. A cascade of green ribbons flutters down from the sky, finally coming to rest in stark contrast with the red Martian terrain. They would have been impossible to miss.

            Too bad that no one is there to see them.