It is December 3rd, 1999.
“Sometimes I think that clinging to the outside of the Mars Polar Lander was not the smartest idea,” says Emile.
“Oh?” says James.
“Well,” says Emile, “No matter how much I breathe, I can’t get enough oxygen. And no matter how much I shiver, I can’t get warm.”
“That’s just your bad karma at work!” says James. “You can’t blame space.”
Emile and James fly through space, clinging to the sides of the Mars Polar Lander.
“I guess,” says Emile.
Emile munches quietly on a tiny bit of space food. It’s a microorganism, that lived in space! But no matter how much of the microorganism he gnaws away Emile still feels hungry.
“It’s just a bit inhospitable,” Emile says.
“Rather,” admits James. He looks out at the vacuum. Then he smiles. “That’s why I calculated my sins for a rebirth as a hungry ghost, you know.”
“I figured, if I’m born as a human, then all I get is another chance to hear the teaching, and I might achieve enlightenment, but it’s pretty unlikely in these Latter Days of the Law. And if I become a god, then I’ll be too happy and powerful to escape the wheel of karma. But a hungry ghost—a hungry ghost can go into space.”
“That’s reasonable,” says Emile. “It is certainly prettier to starve and shiver and thirst in space than on Earth.”
Emile stares at the stars for a while.
“I didn’t plan to die yet,” Emile explains. “That’s why I wound up a hungry ghost! I thought that I would learn to control my desires and earn better karma later.”
“It turns out that it’s a bad idea to attend an event labeled ‘Assassins! Live in Concert.'”
“Ouch,” says James.
“They lived in concert, but the audience did not.” Emile sighs. “You?”
“Strapped to a giant laser. It wasn’t pretty.”
“Ah!” says Emile. “I’d wondered about the burns.”
“It was like the torments visited upon souls in Hell,” says James. “Except shorter and more cinematic. There is this moment when you’re shot by a giant laser when, I don’t know. When you’re probably already dead, right, because lasers hit you faster than your perception of lasers, but still you can see this brilliant light dashing towards you, and everything’s crystal, and you’re one with the cosmos. Then it hurts.”
They look down.
“Then it hurts a lot.” James laughs self-deprecatingly. “That’s why giant laser safety is so important.”
They watch the Red Planet for a while.
“Are you nervous?” Emile asks.
“What, about Mars?”
“Yeah. I mean, no hungry ghost has ever been there before. What if it’s worse? What if there’s nothing edible anywhere, and no water, and no air? Not even any Buddhists to make our lives better with prayers?”
“What?” Emile asks.
James leans in. “This is Mars,” he says. “Life isn’t characterized by universal suffering, desire, and attachment on Mars. That’s an Earth thing, like original sin.”
“I thought you knew,” says James. “11 months in space, and you’ve just been clinging to the side of the ship for lack of anything better to do?”
“You looked like you knew what you were doing,” Emile says, “during the launch. And afterwards, well. You’re better company than the vacuum mites and space bats.”
“Don’t knock the space bats,” grins James.
“I’m not knocking them,” says Emile. “I’m grateful that they put us back on course after that NASA navigation error, and their princess was ravishing. But they kept looking at me like they hoped I’d turn into an insect.”
“Space bats live on a diet of insects,” James observes. “Not many insects in space.”
Emile grins wryly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t really blame them.”
James opens his mouth to say something. Instead, the Mars Polar Lander strikes atmosphere. It begins using the friction of the Martian atmosphere to decelerate rapidly from its initial velocity.
“Hot!” says Emile.
As the wind whips by them, James says, “We need . . . shelter . . .”
James points. Emile follows him around to the lee of the lander. Buffeted by wind and weakened by the twelve gees of acceleration, Emile loses half of his grip on the white-hot lander. He hangs on by one hand as the Mars Polar Lander races down through the Martian sky.
“Can’t . . . hang . . . on . . .” says Emile.
“You’re notional,” says James, in disgust. “Get over it.”
Emile hesitates. Then, sheepishly, he reasserts his grip on the lander and climbs over to shelter next to James.
The parachute opens.
“It’s strange,” says Emile. “First I was very cold and couldn’t warm myself, and now I’m very hot and can’t cool myself. But something’s different.”
“It’s the loss of dukkha, the pervasive universal character of suffering,” James says. “The closer we get to Mars, the more we’ll be suffering because we’re clinging to a white-hot lander on an alien world and the less we’ll be suffering because it’s an inevitable consequence of ignorance and desire.”
“Huh,” says Emile. “Are we getting less ignorant?”
James points down. “Look! Mars!”
“Oh,” says Emile, softly.
They watch Mars loom. Each new detail they can make out dispels a bit more of the ignorance that breeds the desire that chains them to the wheel of karma and the pervasive universal character of suffering. The heat and gee-forces of the landing strip away their original sin. On the negative side, James slowly realizes that his advanced understanding of Tantric sex practices won’t do him any good on Mars, where sex is savage and primitive.
“Hey,” says Emile. “Is that a city?”
The lander legs deploy. The ship hits the Veil.
“Apes!” shouts Emile, in terror.
Inertial gyros and accelerometers orient the Mars Polar Lander. It is rapidly steering itself towards a nest of great white apes.
“There’s nothing for it,” says James. “We’re going to have to jump.”
The Martian atmosphere shivers with the primal cry of the largest of the great white apes. It beats upon its chest. Emile notices, in a state of distant detached fear, that the ape has four arms.
James reaches out. He touches Emile’s hand. He smiles.
“It’s okay,” James says. “I planned for this. Everything has been leading up to this moment. Kick off—now.”
They push away from the lander. They fall.
James holds his watch up near his face. He has worn it the entire time that Emile has known him, and not once has the watch been correct; for among the many things that hungry ghosts are starved for is time.
The watch is working now. James frantically adjusts the knobs and buttons, and the face of the watch is glowing green, and there is a countdown on it.
The lander strikes down amidst the apes. It has been four minutes and thirty-three seconds since the Mars Polar Lander struck atmosphere.
The timer on James’ watch hits zero.
The lander explodes.
Emile and James tumble across the red sand of Mars. The apes are a bloody ruin, all save the strongest of them. That one is still lurching towards them, though great chunks have been ripped out of its flesh, though one arm is missing, though its entire back is baked clean of fur. Emile looks over. James has not landed quite as well as Emile, and for a long moment James is stunned. So Emile does the only thing he can.
Emile pulls his holdout knife and hurls it at the creature’s face. It is a perfect strike; and the great beast topples to the bloody sands of Mars; and as it falls, James says to Emile, “Good man.”