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Is There Life on Mars?

After a long hiatus, 2023 was the year I finally got back to NYC Midnight's writing challenges, starting with the "250-Word Microfiction Challenge." Within 48 hours, I had to produce an original 250-word story that fit an assigned genre and featured a specific action and word. My prompt for this story was Sci-Fi (genre) / Plucking Something (action) / "Accept" (word).

This piece was a learning experience in trusting my gut. You can't afford to spend too much time second-guessing your creative instincts when facing such a tight deadline -- you have to strike while the iron of that first viable idea is hot. This time, I had to find a concept that I could competently write about with minimal research. Science fiction is a vast genre, and there are hundreds of elements that can appear in a speculative story. Interplanetary travel, intergalactic travel, time travel, aliens, AI, robots, cloning, steampunk, cyberpunk...all of these and more were on the table. With so many options, I knew I had to stick with something I already understood fairly well. (I'm no Tony Stark, after all -- I can't become an expert on thermonuclear astrophysics overnight!) I also knew I needed a fun twist element to stimulate my creativity and hopefully grab the judges' attention in the final draft. And who's more fun, twisted, and out-of-this-world than David Bowie? Once those pieces clicked together, I knew this story was going to be special.

I'd like to thank my guitarist in residence, Adam, for helping me with this piece and for serenading me with said instrument as I wrote.


Is There Life on Mars?

The simulacrum plucks the strings too hard again, breaking two, and it takes all my self-control not to grab that guitar and smash it over its head. I won’t get paid unless this thing learns the chords, which it can’t do if its artificial intelligence is destroyed. Once society accepted that AI was here to stay, humanity had to find creative solutions to remain involved in the artistic process – namely, by managing the input data related to live performance and production. Now, Martian colonists are clamoring for “Old World” rock and roll concerts; they want walking, talking, singing, and dancing replicas of the superstars their great-great-grandparents grew up with. I feel like I’m teaching more fabricated students than flesh-and-blood musicians these days.

I strum the repaired strings to check the tune. The sim is distracted. “The stars look very different today,” it says. I follow its gaze and see Phobos and Deimos near the horizon. I want to correct its mistake, but my job is to input data about music, not astronomy. I pass back the guitar, manipulating mechanical fingers around the neck to get them into position for the G-chord, but the thing still won’t focus on its lesson.

“It’s the freakiest show,” it murmurs, transfixed by the shining moons.

I stare at the sim’s face, suddenly and keenly aware that I am observing an artificial being appreciate real, natural beauty for the first time.

“Yeah,” I reply. “It is…”

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