Pipelines are elegant solutions to thorny problems. Who would have thought networks of pressurized tubes that move gas or liquid between two or more points could fix so many problems? They’re so ingenious that they rest at the heart of all complex life. The human body is full of pipelines. There are about eight and a half billion humans on Earth at the time of writing and about 60,000 miles of blood vessels in each one. If you were to tug every individuals’ blood vessels from their bodies and lay them out end to end, they would total about 480 trillion miles. That distance is about 2 million times the distance between Earth and Mars. That means if you grafted together a vast pipeline made entirely of human arteries and veins, stitching the delicate tubes together across the whole huge chasm between the two planets, its girth would reach 2 million tubes thick.
At the time of my leaving the United States, the Earth was covered in about 2.5 million miles of pipeline—metal, not flesh—with more than 300,000 miles of that dedicated to moving petroleum around just the United States. About three-quarters of the country’s petroleum is transported through pipelines. That’s still a lot less pipeline than what’s in our bodies, but relatively simple though these infrastructure networks may be, they do roughly resemble a rudimentary system of organic blood vessels.
Let’s say you wanted to build a giant android, and you wanted to base it on organic circulation, respiration, and digestion. The vascular system you’d build probably wouldn’t look too different from the networks of pipelines that carry the blood of our economy. Even the combustion that powers our cars, trains, planes, boats, tractors, and tanks relies on networks of inner pipes. The internet, too, that most abstract economy, has famously been called“a series of tubes.”We think in tubes. We are a tube-building species. And, one way or another, we all emerged from tubes. Homo tubus.
It makes sense, from that standpoint, that no one could bring themselves to stop the flow of viscous carbon lifeblood pumping through our giant android. The android is everything, the android is God, and we are a good God-fearing people. Even as the glowing hammers of other, older deities smashed down on the world’s most innocent beings, at every moment of every day, our leaders just couldn’t find it in themselves to risk the vascular health of the android. I get it.
No one could come up with a solution to our carbon problem that didn’t involve yet more pipelines. So here I am. I’m sure you, whoever you are, don’t have time for my full story. If there is a you. If you can still read. If this survived, and got back home somehow. Or if you survived and decided to come back up here to this giant emptiness. But I’m only dreaming. You’re probably out looking for food in a desert, so a brief tale will have to do. It’s for me anyway and I don’t have much time.
The trickiest part of the pipeline was lining the Mars end up with the Earth end so that, in the planets’ rotations and revolutions, the ends would connect. But that was the astronomers’ problem, and I’m not an astronomer. In theory, it was an elegant solution to a thorny problem: all of our abundant atmospheric carbon dioxide that was causing so many problems would get sucked from Earth’s atmosphere, blown through the interplanetary pipeline, and blown out into the Martian atmosphere, mouth to anus. It was a win-win, two-birds-one-stone sort of solution, they said. Decarbonize into the mouth, terraform out the asshole. The oil companies could keep selling oil, the car companies could keep selling cars, the big farms could keep growing big fields of soybeans, the militaries could keep flying drones, and NASA could keep shooting rockets into space, and in a few millennia, that Martian atmosphere would become more like ours, greenhouse and all, ready for colonization. Everyone was enamored with the idea. It had all the daring bravado of 1492 and the atomic age. The moon landing, but bigger, better, and with more tube.
The day I was selected was one of the proudest, most joyous of my life. The country’s first woman president was a personal hero of mine. And one day, out of the blue, she called me—me!—and invited me to lead the project. It made sense: I was one of the country’s—let’s not be modest for posterity, world’s—foremost pipeline experts. I had been the lead engineer on Keystone, the DAPL. I was even called on to consult for the massive TAPI, the modern Silk Road (an update we called the Slick Road). I’ll never forget standing next to her on that stage, tears in my eyes, American flag billowing, pantsuit heaven. Her curt handshake didn’t trouble me at the time. I was caught in the strange, sad reassurance of her smile, and in the grandeur of the moment. Training began that very day and it was grueling: astronaut movie montages are all complete rubbish. Directors should be ashamed. The real tests were immeasurably more tedious, more intense, more boring than I could have ever imagined.
For a while, I wondered if I could handle the mission. The pressure, the isolation, the lack of other things to do. Then I remembered the summer between sixth and seventh grade when my dad made an offhand comment about how the interdepartmental mail between buildings on the college campus where he taught was ridiculously slow and inefficient, and so I spent an entire month trying to find the best possible solution to the slow mail problem, measuring distances between the buildings, gathering data on which buildings mailed to which buildings most frequently and at what rate, counting and timing the traffic lights between the buildings, measuring traffic flow at different times of day, learning about the mail sorting technology and performance standards of the different models of mail truck, and during this whole month, never talking to anybody, not really doing or thinking about anything but interdepartmental mail routes. And then, after all the research, I decided the most efficient method was pipelines.
When I went to my dad and showed him the tube solution, he said,“They’ll never build mail tubes all over the campus, honey. That’s absurd.”But I wasn’t daunted and continued to press him about it until he helped me get permission to build one of those simple mail tube systems you see at drive-thru banks. I didn’t have the funds to build a pipeline network all across campus, but I spent months building one by hand in one of the bigger buildings so staff didn’t have to run mail up and down the stairs. (Two weeks after I completed the system, they introduced interdepartmental email.)
I’d come a long way. I’d been married to pipelines for years. No family left—dad died of peripheral artery disease not long after that—few friends. I could do this. Maybe I was the only one who could do this. Training over, I was about to become the biggest hero on Earth. I’m surprised I didn’t spring up to space on the adulation of the masses alone. I was crowd-surfing on billions of people, their hopes and dreams, their histories. They all depended on me now. I was their grandmother, I was their saviour. If those weeks were my most elevated, my first days in the vacuum were my loneliest.
Steel bathtub pressing against my chest. Searing light burning my corneas to ash. Despite the straps I could feel my heart and brain bouncing against bone the whole way. After that metallic scream, I thought I’d be plagued with tinnitus for every moment of my trip. Then it was like movies, breaking through the atmosphere: that sexually climactic silence, weightless relief, darkness. Absolute darkness. After a while—I don’t know how long because my sense of time had suddenly changed, pushing against the Earth’s rotations—after slowing my breath and heart rate to something closer to normal, I unstrapped. The absence of pressure and gravity was like underwater but without the resistance. I switched on a small, warm light in a green imitation of an old-timey Coleman lantern, the red-spectrum LEDs and nostalgia meant to keep me from going insane.
I floated back in my bubble of warm light through the dark, narrow white tunnel that felt like a cheap camper van, to find a tiny round window. There she was. The big bitch. I couldn’t see the pipeline networks from out here. I couldn’t see the roads and cars and trucks and buildings and treaties. Couldn’t see the economy. Just big patches of green, splotches of brown, swirls and sprays of white, familiar coastlines, and the deep blue sea. My charge. My giant daughter and her billions of babies. But I was the only one up here, thousands of miles away. Before me was everyone, ever. Behind me the vastest emptiness—or fullness, I guess—a mind could conceive. I was at the edge of the campfire, back to the dark and no one around it could see or hear me. Ghosts tickling my neck.
Time to get to work. I didn’t even take a break in that first loneliness. I’m American, my only friend is work. The Earth crew would build the quarter of the pipeline extending from the sky into space. I never met them, but they would begin soon after my launch, they told me. My job was to go further out, build the second quarter, the end that would connect with the third quarter, which would be connected to the fourth quarter, the one rammed into the Martian sky. The Mars crew, they said, the ones who would build the third and fourth quarters, were to be sent on separate missions, after we had a sense of how my quarter handled the vacuum. Fair enough, I thought.
My routine was simple: I’d wake up at the same time every day (“day”) and start the coffee boiler. I’d deposit my tube wastes into my high-tech portajohn and do a quick couple of laps on my exercise bike while my soggy egg sandwich heated up. After a breakfast spent staring into space, I’d do maintenance on my Camper Van and get ready to go outside. Set up the catheter, a vital tube in space, and take about half an hour to climb into my suit. A huge shipping container accompanied my Camper Van into space with a lot of aluminum piping packed inside. My job was to float over to the big metal box, take out a big metal cylinder, and weld one end to the end of another big metal cylinder. Do this enough times, and we’d have a long pipeline between the two planets, which is about 250 million miles at their furthest. After my daily quota of ten 10-foot-long sections, which took around seven hours to weld together, I’d go back inside, strip off the heavy suit, and have a wash-cloth-and-waterless-soap bath. I’d combine lunch and dinner in a feast of dehydrated stew or a single burrito. Then I went to sleep. Easiest job I ever had.
No phone calls between the Camper Van and mission control, or anywhere else on Earth—didn’t have the tech, they told me. I did have email, but could only receive messages from NASA addresses. For a while I only got mass emails sent across the whole agency. Notices of closures. Memos about procedures. Bureaucratic pulp. Before launch, someone had made an offhand comment about forwarding fan mail to me, but it never arrived. Every now and then someone from mission control, some anonymous intern or lowly bureaucrat with a scrap of pity left over for me, sent me updates directly. They were always impersonal messages and soon just became a list of news headlines.
For about the first two weeks, I dominated the news.
The New York Times:“Earth-saving Interplanetary Pipeline Mission Successfully Launched”
GQ:“Amelia Earhart meets Armageddon’s Bruce Willis meets Jesus Christ: Get to Know Humanity’s Last Hope”
Washington Post Opinion:“The Hero We Need, but the One We Deserve?”
USAToday:“Climate Change: Solved”
They never sent me the full articles, just the headlines, and I would spend hours imagining what they might say inside. After my two weeks of fame, the newscycle returned to equilibrium. The headlines went back to the daily dramas I was used to scanning before I left: record-breaking weather, unprecedented natural disasters, mass shootings, elections. Despite the bleakness, I’d imagine all the scenarios in gross, gory detail, in all the locations, and all the people impacted. I’d scroll through them during my dinner burrito, dreaming blood. Then I’d go to sleep, then I’d wake up, then I’d get back to welding my giant pipeline.
That went on for months. I lost track of how many. The headlines, my only connection to the theater of Earth, began to take on a more urgent tone. Food shortages dominated for a while, what I guessed was seasonally. Then riots were the big story.“Glad I’m in space,”I thought. Eventually“war”became the dominant word, with variations on“escalation”a close second, then finally“world war.”I imagined nuclear warheads shattering cities to shards, grinding pasture into radioactive dust. I imagined the lines of refugees, ragged and ill, stretching for miles. I imagined the camps: first the holding camps, then the concentration camps, then the death camps. I wondered if there could be a reconstruction after this one, whatever it was, whoever it was between, like after the last one. If it was radioactive, if the crops were already failing from the heatwaves and droughts, how could we rebuild? Would we deserve to? They. I guess it’s they now. I thought through these scenarios everyday. When I glimpsed the Earth, about the size of a big watermelon from out here, she looked fine. A tranquil orb. So I kept on piping.
The messages from NASA stopped abruptly. Rather, the direct ones to me stopped. I sent out dozens of emails. Desperate, pleading, earnest ones to that anonymous address that had been sending me the headlines. Angry, bitter, malevolent ones to the mass lists. I received a trickle of automated ghost emails. Even as the news headlines grew more urgent, the out-of-office autoreplies grew more and more innocuous:“Due to a family emergency, I won’t be able to reply to emails immediately.”“Due to recent circumstances, my access to email has become less reliable. Please excuse tardy replies.”And the cryptic.“See you over there.”Then even the automated messages stopped and I assumed the server had gone down. The silence from Earth left a vacuum for my imagination to fill with things more horrible than those I knew to be occurring.
Then a week ago, I came in tired from my spacewalk. I laid down on..down? force of habit; I floated just above the firm cushion on the edge of my austere Camper Van and stretched my limbs out. The small round windows that led every seven-feet-two-inches precisely down the walls of my narrow corridors let in no light and showed nothing, so I didn’t look out. The only light came from the small lantern with the soft orange-yellow candlelight LED glowing on the floor, so I stared at that, letting my mind wander around in the past to keep it away from pondering on whatever painful present was unfolding on the skin of my giant daughter and her billions of babies. The steady glow kept the pregnant black of my pupils away from meeting the barren black everywhere else.
And as I looked into that even light, suddenly the president was there. She wasn’t the first or only one to visit me, but it was the first time she visited. No, no she didn’t appear like a ghost, out of nothing. I’m not crazy. She came from the shadow. First I heard a click-clack of sharp heels coming beyond the line of light, though I didn’t know it was heels at first, echoing from deep down the corridor in the dark. Firm, proud footfalls, unwavering as the lantern. Click-clack, one-two, and for a moment, before I saw her, the sound baffled me. I thought some mechanism was breaking. A ventilation malfunction. But it wasn’t still, it was moving closer to me. My heart began to race, I started to sit up, when from the darkness I heard that familiar voice above the click-clack now very near, the familiar voice strangely soft and soothing slipped from the dark. She said,“Don’t be afraid.”
“Madame President,”I said aloud, with vague surprise, as if I had expected her an hour later. Her aubergine pantsuit and lined olive face emerged gently and liquidly from the vanta into the small pond of electricity, and she stood firmly planted just at the edge of light as if gravity still pulled her down. In a reassuring tone, a tone holding no ulterior motive, no politics or affect, just unalloyed reassurance, she said,“You are doing a wonderful job here, honey.”It didn’t occur to me that it was odd for her to address me so intimately and informally, me, First Engineer to the Mars-Earth Pipeline Project, who had met her only once, hand-selected by her, her, the Leader of the Free World, first woman to hold the office of President. It felt like the most natural way for her to address me.“I am so proud of you. So glad you are here.”She stood very still in that warm light, bent slightly toward me, her face focused on me, black oily eyes punctured by that golden light, such sad reassurance.
“Thank you, Madame President. It is an honor. The honor of my life,”and when I said it, I realized I was echoing the words verbatim that I’d said to her on the stage at the press conference before the launch, and I felt foolish. I closed my eyes in embarrassment and fatigue, and didn’t open them immediately. Then I jerked up and the corridor was empty. She didn’t visit again.
This morning on my usual routine maintenance, I decided to check the oxygen monitor. When it occurred to me to do so, I realized that I’d never checked it before. And I was surprised. I had just taken it for granted. Never really thought about it during my routine. The oxygen reserves were very low, and so the system had been automatically rationing the oxygen levels in the Camper. Almost gone. The monitor said hours, maybe a day of it left. Of course! I thought. Of course, it’s just packed into cannisters, and there are only so many of those on board. No plants here to photosynthesize, to respirate my own breath, pump out more oxygen. Just those cannisters. It hadn’t occurred to me before then. I’m not an ecologist. So many questions flashed into my mind: was this an oversight? Was this an accident? Did I mess up? So many questions, but only for a brief moment. I was only confused for a moment. Of course.
I suited up and went out into space and got back to work.