Short Story: “Key Insight”

“Key Insight”
by P. Orin Zack

“Spit it out, Stephen.”

The twin on Lou’s left made a face. The cake his father had made wasn’t anywhere as good as the ones his mother used to make, but that wasn’t any reason to not finish it. He pointed at his full mouth. “Hmmm?”

His brother Alan, who was seated across from him, quickly swallowed so he could laugh. “Not the cake, stupid. Anyone can tell something’s been eating you. Finish eating Dad’s latest science experiment, and then spill.”

Lou glared at him, but could only keep a straight face for a few seconds. “Science experiment?”

“Well, yeah. You did stray from the recipe, didn’t you?”

“You can tell?”

Stephen had finished his dessert by this point, so he tapped his glass a few times with his fork. “Yeah, Dad. Of course we can tell. But then, mom played variations on recipes all the time. It’s just that yours are, shall we say, out of key?”

“Hey,” Lou said defensively, “at least I tried. Cooking isn’t exactly my strong suit.”

The twins glanced at one another. “We know.”

“But you’re right,” Stephen added a few seconds later, “something has been on my mind. I’m just not sure how to explain it.”

“You’re not in any sort of trouble, are you?”

Stephen sat back. “Trouble? Oh… no, nothing like that. It’s more along the lines of a spiritual conversion.”

His brother smirked. “What, again?” Stephen had been sampling the world’s religions with the staccato passion of a serial monogamist ever since the two had graduated from their respective colleges, and family gatherings had turned into a sporadic series of weekend seminars.

“It’s different this time.”

Lou took a sip of dessert wine. “Different,” he said flatly.

“Well, yeah. This time it isn’t about sampling a religion. But it was a conversion, of sorts.”

Alan eyed his brother briefly. “Then you’ve finally decided on one?”

“A religion? Of course not. This is different. It’s um… I’ve become a Martian.”

“You’re…” Lou hazarded, “you’re going to move to Mars… leave us forever and live in a dome on another planet?”

“What?” Alan said at nearly the same time, his hands spread on the table. “You’re going to be a colonist?”

Stephen shook his head. “God. Don’t you two ever listen? I said I’d become a Martian, not that I was planning to move there.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Yeah, there’s a difference. It’s more a different way of looking at the world, a different way to solve problems.”

“And, um,” Lou prompted warily, “how exactly did you come by this conversion? Was it someone you’ve met? A new girlfriend, perhaps?”

“Well, yes and no. Rachel convinced me to go camping with her last weekend, but she didn’t have anything to do with it. It was the camping trip itself, actually.”

“Okay,” Alan said, “now you’ve got me completely confused. What does a camping trip have to do with becoming a Martian, whatever that means?”

“Everything, actually. Do you remember our first camping trip in the scouts?”

Sensing a lengthy digression, Alan dragged his father’s experimental cake closer and cut himself another piece, while his brother set the groundwork for his weekend camping story. He’d taken that ‘be prepared’ motto to heart, and refused to even hit the woods for a bathroom break without going through a detailed checklist, and making sure he could handle just about any eventuality.

“Just cut to the chase, okay?” Alan said between bites. “We both know how painfully anal you were as a kid.”

Lou raised his eyebrows. “You were only a tad less anal, yourself, you know.”

“Sure, but I did finally get over it. Well, mostly.”

“Anyway,” Stephen said, in a bid to regain control of the floor, “you get the idea. So we were all set to spend the weekend in the woods. The car was stuffed to the gills with food, clothing, a bunch of different weight jackets, bug spray, cooking and cleaning supplies, three first-aid kits, sleeping bags, a couple of folding chairs, and so forth. I even insisted on bringing a spare tent, just in case one sprang a leak, and it wasn’t even supposed to rain that weekend.”

“Let me guess,” Alan said, waving his fork in the air, “you forgot the bear repellant?”

“Close. It was raccoons, actually.”

Lou had crossed his arms and his eyelids were starting to droop, but the possibility of there finally being some point to the story brought him back to alertness. “Raccoons,” he said with interest. “I take it they got into your stuff?”

“Boy, did they ever,” Stephen said, laughing. “Of course, at the time, I didn’t think there was anything funny about it. Not in the least.”

“Why,” Alan said, “what did they do?”

“Not ‘they’ so much as he. There was this old grey raggedy-looking raccoon that was missing his tail. I guess he lost it in a fight or something. Anyway, the guy was fearless. Nothing would scare him off. After a while, we started calling him Stumpy, just so we could warn each other about what he was up to.”

“And what was he up to?” Lou asked.

Stephen looked each of them in the eyes for several seconds before answering. “Stealing the keys,” he said slowly and quietly.

“So you had to hike out to the ranger station?”

He nodded. “Worse. When we tore out after him, he managed to press the lock button on the key-fob. Our packs were in the car, so we couldn’t carry much for the hike out.”

Alan, who had been struggling to restrain himself, finally burst out laughing. “And that’s why you decided to become a Martian?”

“No,” Stephen said, looking mortally wounded, “I decided to become a Martian because of what happened next. Rachel could tell I was in distress, cut off as I was from all of the stuff we’d brought along to deal with what we’d undoubtedly run into on the way to the ranger station. So she started telling me about how her ancestor, a Canadian trapper, made do with whatever he could find while he was out for months on end catching and skinning animals to trade. Well, that led to a discussion of Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old frozen mummy they found in the Alps back in ’91. From what they could tell, the guy’d been fitted out like an ancient space traveler with the most exquisite exploration gear you can imagine. Back then, surviving a trip across the Alps must have been as challenging as colonizing Mars until someone finally realized that you didn’t really have to bring everything with you.”

“Well at last!” Lou said, relieved. “You finally got around to mentioning Mars. Now if you could please tell us how comparing a Paleolithic explorer to the folks at the Mars colony convinced you to be one with them, maybe we’ll have a shot at understanding what the heck you’re talking about.”

“I’m getting to that.”

“Well, speed it up then, Stephen,” Alan said, waving his fork, with the last bit of his second piece of cake, at him. “Or we’re going to send you there ourselves.”

“All right, all right. So anyway, we had to stop for the night, out there in the woods, and get some sleep.”

“And did you? Get any sleep, I mean.”

“Come on. You know me better than that. I was petrified. Of course I couldn’t sleep. So I had all night to think about what we’d been talking about. Those people on Mars really do look at things different than we do. I mean, down here on Earth, we’ve got all the resources we might want, either immediately available, or shipped in for the right price. It’s not much different on the Space Station, really, except that some things are prohibitively expensive to ship, so they either make do without, or they figure out some workaround.”

Lou was smiling happily. He’d spent a good bit of the twins’ childhood teaching them how to think through a problem. Watching Stephen relate his thought processes gave him enough satisfaction both for himself and for his late wife. “What about the bases on and around the moon, then?”

Stephen nodded. “Exactly. They showed us the limits of maintaining a forward base with supply runs. And they turned out to be just as economically foolish as any of the far-flung military outposts over the centuries that one nation or another attempted to keep running exclusively with supplies shipped in from home. The only solution was to cut that umbilical and have the soldiers or settlers make do with what’s available to them locally. They’ll either adapt, or they’ll die. And that’s the essence of the strategy used by the folks who dreamed up the Mars Direct scheme for colonizing Mars.”

“Well,” Alan said, “except for that monumental fly in the ointment.”


“Lack of them, really. Forward outposts on Earth had breathable air, arable land, and potable water. It wouldn’t have taken a whole lot of ingenuity to make a place like that work, once you set your mind to it. But Mars? It’s dead.”

“It was dead,” Stephen corrected him. “And all it took was commitment, and a whole lot of ingenuity. I mean, look. The original plan included a way to make rocket fuel and air from the local rock and a small amount of stuff from Earth. The important thing was a different way of looking at the world, a different way of approaching problems. Once the people working on the problems facing the creation of a sustainable colony on Mars changed their perspective like that, solutions just started to appear out of thin air!”

Lou thought about that for a few moments. “So that’s what you meant, that you’ve changed your perspective? Is that how you’ve become a Martian?”

He grinned broadly. “It is. And I owe it all to that tailless raccoon.”

“Pretty cool,” Alan said. “So what happened to your car?”

“It all ended happily. The ranger drove us back. He had a jimmy for such emergencies, and some tools for tricking it up so we could start it without the key, but we didn’t end up going to all that trouble. Stumpy had returned in our absence, and left the keys on the hood.”

“That’s quite a tale, son,” Lou said.

“Yeah. It does make me wonder, though.”


“Yeah. After Stumpy lost his tail, he must have had to learn how do some things differently. It would have changed his ability to balance in tricky places, for example. But it also would have enabled him to get into places that a raccoon with a tail couldn’t. I wonder if raccoons tell stories.”


[Author’s Note: This and my other Mars-related short stories will also be available at starting in January 2010. If you’re interested in Mars, space flight, and the colonization of Mars, please click over and explore the site.]

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack


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