by Nate Ragolia
For months, MONITOR had observed the settlers’ strange and escalating behaviors. First, they abandoned the potato fields, letting the fruits decay in their hydroponic tubes until the flesh protruded with eldritch limbs soaked in pungent alcohol. They would tamper with the Education projector, removing Control’s standard media cards and replacing them with wild rants, or sexual content they had created with their tablets. MONITOR observed a small faction collecting their daily meal rations inside their socks and competing to see how high upon the dome’s interior surface they could splatter the sock’s contents in a single throw. Then, many stopped wearing their uniforms–at least while inside the colony–opting to laze about naked, often atop one another, watching the Earth rotate. Colony efficiency was down to 68%. Control expressed unhappiness at the settlers’ quirks, and issued Command 1, by which MONITOR released the agent into the ventilation ducts.
In minutes, MONITOR observed the agent’s effects. The settlers demonstrated qualities of renewed focus and drive, returning to the potato fields, sitting contentedly and absorbing Control’s media card content, quietly eating their rations, and wearing their uniforms with professional aplomb.
Control sent a Golden Check for each of MONITOR’s transmissions. System operation was normal.
Then, on a particularly perplexing day, MONITOR recorded settler number K4129 enter the airlock without a suit and helmet. K4129’s hands shook as he puttered in circles within the cabin. Sweat could be observed bubbling up from his forehead like a canyon spring. K4129 looked around the airlock wildly, finally staring directly into MONITOR.
“It’s a hoax,” he shouted at one of MONITOR’s many eyes. “I can breathe it. I can breathe it.”
MONITOR issued Standard Warning 22: Atmosphere unfit for human life. But, K4129 didn’t heed it. Instead, he cranked the manual airlock wheel to the left until the pressure released.
For a moment, K4129 appeared overjoyed as he left the artificial gravity behind. He leapt into the air, swinging his arms. MONITOR’s audio files remember the way K4129’s oxygen-choked vocal cords uttered, “I can breathe it.”
K4129 stopped moving, fell lightly toward the airlock floor, his eyes open, his lungs choked.
MONITOR sent K4129’s incident report back to Control. Control requested that MONITOR continue to observe and report, and being that was all MONITOR could do, MONITOR complied.
For the next incident, A2343 abruptly got out of bed in the middle of Night Mode, walked into the bathroom and activated the shower. She stood beneath the water, fully-dressed, eyes open, letting the streams strike her cornea, still and quiet, for long enough that MONITOR had to allocate additional data to continue the recording.
Suddenly, A2343 shrieked in a frequency MONITOR processed to be beyond normal human ranges, and collapsed in a heap on the shower floor. The medical robots could not revive her. The water’s persistent streams had bored through her eyes, exposing the orbital bones and nerve endings behind them.
When MONITOR requested a status on the report review of A2343, Control only issued Command 2, so MONITOR released a new agent into the ventilation ducts. Control requested more data as the agent dispersed throughout the colony. MONITOR could only return to monitoring.
For several periods, the settlers seemed to revert to what MONITOR’s operating algorithm classified as Normal. They farmed. They constructed the structures mandated by Control on the timelines mandated by Control. They cooked. They ate in groups. They rejoiced over games and drink. They made love to each other’s assigned settler, some that arrived together, others matched for ideal colonial offspring. They rested during Night Mode. They danced during Calisthenic Mode. They quietly listened during Education Mode. Each new report MONITOR transmitted received a Golden Check from Control. The colony was operating at 96% efficiency. Well above all models incorporating human settlers.
Control issued Command 2 again, stating intention to increase settler efficiency to 98%.
MONITOR released the agent.
In the first week, efficiency rose to 99.2%. MONITOR, if it understood the concept of envy properly from the database, was somewhat envious of the settlers’ outputs.
A week later, on the Earth Date August 20, 2099, T7875 left his station in the rover maintenance garage with two High-Volt O2 Arc Welders. MONITOR watched T7875 exit the Industrial Zone taking the Tranquility Corridor toward Habitat Zone 4. Outside the Habitat, T7875 opened the supply access panel and activated both welders, turning them up to their highest setting.
T7875 looked into one of MONITOR’s eyes, raised a middle finger, and yelled, “It’s in the fucking air, isn’t it?”
Then T7875 turned the welders onto the oxygen supply lines for Habitat Zone 4, triggering an explosion, and a catastrophic wave of fire. MONITOR’s eyes within Habitat Zone 4 were damaged quickly, capturing only a brief moment of the humans inside catching fire like Roman Candles, many of them children.
Control was quick to act then. It repealed Command 2, and purged both Command 1 and Command 2 from the database. Control ordered MONITOR to lock down the remaining Habitat Zones and simulcast Stress Content Package 3, a suite of media formulated to interact directly with human brain waves to mitigate stress and grief responses. The Package performed well, and within hours MONITOR observed the surviving settlers reverting to earlier, low-efficiency behaviors that still fell well within the normal range.
For another two weeks, MONITOR observed the settlers, their stress and grief levels, and their interactions. The colony operated at 78%. Food was grown. Repairs to the dome were completed. Humans lazed about naked. Humans cried and laughed. Humans performed their tasks with reliable, if noticeably distant engagement.
Then, Control sent MONITOR notification of an inbound shuttle. The first shipment arrived on Earth Date September 22, 2099. A second shuttle, carrying replacement settlers for the nearly rebuilt Habitat Zone 4 would arrive the next week. Control issued Command 8, so MONITOR gathered the settlers into Cargo Zone 1, where the first shipment waited. MONITOR watched the humans take their assigned packages, each labeled with their ID Number. Then, MONITOR played the media file associated with Command 8 on the interior screen of Cargo Zone 1’s dome.
An image of the Control Chief, wearing her formal uniform jacket, performance medals and rank-marking epaulettes loomed larger over the gathered settlers. The Control Chief saluted, smiled a confident smile, and cleared her throat.
“Moon Madness, or Extra-planetary Lunacy, can strike anyone at anytime,” the Control Chief boomed. “You’ve all experienced the darkest impulses that this difficult to understand phenomenon can spur. But, don’t worry. We at Control have discovered a simple, and delicious remedy that will ensure both your safety and that of your fellow colonists. The medicinal mooncakes you find in the package in front of you are modeled after the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival dessert, known for reverence of the Moon. So, eat up. You’ll be inoculated against Moon Madness, and treated to a refreshed sense of purpose.”
The settlers each eagerly opened their packages, retrieved the mooncake inside and gobbled them down hungrily. MONITOR observed their changes almost immediately, as if a jolt of electricity zipped through them, damming the tears of the crying, upturning the frowns of the stressed. When MONITOR attempted to save video for the record, the function had been temporarily disabled under Control Override 1.
The Control Chief, projected inside the dome, continued, “We expect that you’ll be pleased with the effects of inoculation, including increased energy and virility. Now is not the time to mourn those taken by Moon Madness, but the time to overcome. Your new assignments have been issued to your tablets. Let’s continue our good work. Now, I will sign off with an appropriate Chinese saying: Dàn yuàn rén chángjiǔ, qiānlǐ gòng chánjuān… Which roughly translates to ‘Wishing us a long life to share the graceful moonlight, though thousands of miles apart.’”
Nate Ragolia is the author of The Retroactivist; a novel, and There You Feel Free; a novella. He has created webcomics, and occasionally chatters about music, film, &c. He edits Boned. And co-founded Spaceboy Books LLC.