“Approaching Strelix Station, Max.” The voice of Max’s AI spoke, bringing Max to attention. It was time for a break. She’d been asteroid hunting for months, without any luck, and it was time for her to get some rest before she lost all hope. Besides, she needed supplies.
She wondered whether Sky was on station right now; it would be good to see her. Even though Max did well without any human contact for a long time, it would be nice to spend time with someone who knew her well. And Sky was always good company.
Max pushed some icons on her comm panel. “Max Julian, here, calling Strelix station, request docking permission.”
“Permission granted. Docking bay 25B.”
“Affirmative.” To her AI she said, “Got that, Jane?”
“Yes, Max. Adjusting attitude and direction now. Homing beacons activated. We’ll be docked in six point five minutes.”
When she first bought the AI, she decided to name it, although most people thought that was kind of creepy. AIs weren't supposed to have a personality, but sometimes she suspected hers did. Anyway, she liked using a name.
Max just let Jane fly her ship as she was thinking about her short shore leave. She could only afford a week. She didn’t have enough money left to pay for more than that and her resupply.
Max had become a solo asteroid hunter about five years ago, after spending ten long years employed by Strelix, Inc., crewing a number of ships. They were the largest asteroid hunting corporation that existed. She'd spent nothing, and saved everything, even her shore leave allowances, so that she could lease a ship of her own someday, and go solo. She didn't want to build a company to compete with Strelix, she just wanted the freedom to explore on her own, and reap all of the rewards. She learned over time, that it also meant taking on all of the risk.
She'd found one small asteroid early on, and it was only moderately successful, the asteroid miners she'd sold it to refused to take a flat fee they only wanted to give her a percentage. It turned out to be a C-type asteroid, mostly carbon, with only a little bit of magnesium, iron, and other trace minerals. It paid for itself, finally, at least.
She went for a year without a decent find. She remembered how lean that year was, and how close things got. She then had several mediocre finds, one complete dud, then, a good solid find. But that had been almost 2 years ago. If she didn’t find a good asteroid soon, she wouldn’t have enough Yuan left for payments on the ship. In a few months of that, her ship would be repo’d. She would do everything she could to avoid that fate.
She loved her ship. She looked around at it for a moment. She found the space cozy, even though many would find it cramped. It had small cockpit, with only one seat. There was a work area, with a workstation, and all of the equipment she needed to take samples and gather the data that would provide information for the mining ships who would buy asteroids from her. The ship had a small living area, with a tiny galley, and a dining space for one, with her bunk that folded up at night. She dreamed one day that maybe she'd upgrade to one of the faster explorer class ships—maybe one that spun for gravity. Not much more space, but more oomph to help her find better asteroids.
The mild shudder of the ship that meant it was docked brought her out of her reverie. She could feel the increased gravity from the spin of the station.
“Jane, docking sequence please.”
Max got up from her seat and walked back to get her stuff. She climbed up the ladder to the top docking door, engaged the airlock, and climbed up to the embarkation area for bay 25B. She closed and locked her door, hefted her bag, and walked to the hostel.
After she’d checked in, and unpacked her meager belongings, she checked her tablet to see whether Sky was on station. She was. She sent a message to Sky, and got back a brief message in return. “I’m leaving the station in a few hours. Come over before I go.”
Max got up, left the hostel, and made her way to Sky’s place, on the other side of the station. She stopped in front of Sky’s door, and pushed the doorbell icon.
“God it’s good to see you Max!” Sky’s arms were wide when the door opened, and Max fell into Sky’s embrace. They hugged for a while.
“Glad I came when I did. It would have been a bummer to have missed you this time.”
Max followed Sky into her quarters.
“Want a beer?”
“Sure.” Sky threw Max an aluminum bottle. Strelix beer was barely palatable, only really worth it for the alcoholic content.
“How the hell are you, Max?”
“Alright, I guess. But things are lean. I haven’t found an asteroid in far too long. It won’t be long before my ship gets repossessed.”
“Max, let me loan you some money.”
“Thanks Sky, but I’ll be OK.”
“You’ll wait until you are completely desperate, won’t you?”
“I know you, Max. You don’t ask for help from your friends enough.”
“I try to be independent.”
“You try too hard. Anyway, you know it’s there when you need it.”
“Thanks, Sky. So how are you? Where are you off to?”
“I’m shuttling the CEO of Strelix to Mars.”
“They are trying to negotiate some new contracts, but things are getting sticky. Mars is itching for independence, and that’s the last thing Strelix wants.”
“Mars isn’t going to get independence in either of our lifetimes, Sky. SolGov won’t allow it.”
“I’m not so sure of that, Max. I’ve been hearing some interesting rumbles, and if Strelix is worried, something real is happening.”
“Well, keep me posted. If I go completely broke, I might rather end up on Mars than on the Moon again.”
“Max, work with me. We’d hire you.”
“Strelix would never hire me back, Sky, and I rejected the pilot’s union’s offer a while ago, so I’m screwed there, too.”
“You’ll be fine, my friend. I know you. You always end up doing alright.”
The low voice of her AI indicating that it was time to get up pulled Tina out of a dream. As she opened her eyes, she struggled to remember what it was about, but it all slipped away so quickly as the realities of what was ahead of her today came to the fore in her brain. And, as with every morning, all of the extra weight from being on Earth seemed to keep her glued to her bed—she always had to pry herself up, and stumble around at first.
Today, she was covering more hearings on the future of Mars. It was ridiculous, really. SolGov wanted to control all of the Solar system, but that was, for practical reasons, impossible. It took many days to get from Earth to Mars, and it wasn’t even possible to have a synchronous conversation between the two planets. The Mars governor and the now 500,000-plus people who lived in the six colonies on Mars wanted much more autonomy. Now, Earth needed Mars far more than Mars needed Earth, but Earth-centered SolGov could not admit it. Mars had ample water, energy, and finally, Mars had become self-sustaining in food and manufacturing. Mars had the scientists it needed to start their terraforming project in earnest. Those scientists predicted that within 200 years, Mars could be habitable across the whole surface, without domes. After that, all bets were off.
She slowly got up out of bed, and went to the shower. She thought more about her current work as the hot water flowed over her body, warming her to the core, and energizing her so she didn’t feel so heavy. She was beginning to realize she was somewhat obsessed with Mars. She had been given the Mars beat by her boss mostly because none of her other colleagues wanted it. As one of the newest members of the SolGov reporting team, she got the assignments no one else wanted. Everyone wanted to get to be part of Volkov’s press corps. If not, then one of the high-end governors, like Xien of China, Harrison of the US, or Grendel of Germany. If not those, then they wanted to cover the Solar Senate, where the city-state of Monaco had the same number of representatives as Mars.
But no one else at the Times wanted to show up at hearing after hearing about Mars governance. Except her. She hadn’t wanted to do it at first, but after a while, she had become fascinated by it. She was intrigued by the problems the Mars colonies faced, interested in the issues involved in immigration, and engaged by the relationship between Earth and Mars. At one point, she wished she could go to Mars to see it, and see what it was like to live there. It was at that moment that she finally understood her long lost ex-, Max.
She got out of the shower, and started to dry off. As she went through the rest of her morning ablutions, she thought about Max. Max had been her first lover, and Tina thought of Max as The One Who Got Away. Tina had been born on the Moon, her grandparents being early settlers in the first permanent colony on the moon that allowed families to settle in the early 60’s. At the time she met Max, she had been working as an administrator at the same mining company, before she started her journalism career. Their relationship lasted until Max decided to leave the Moon and head for the asteroid belt. Tina had always wanted to move to Earth, but it was no use trying to convince Max to join her. That Max, who liked spending days out in a Moon rover scouting for good sites to get more of this or that mineral. The Max who she knew was right now out finding the right asteroid. She shook her head as she got dressed. Her AI started to speak.
“You have an incoming synchronous message from the Times editorial desk. Shall I put it through?”
Tina wondered what it could be about. She hurriedly finished putting on her jacket.
She walked over to her wall screen and the image of her boss’ boss appeared. Even though the original family that had owned the company that used to be a newspaper was long gone, somehow, this straight-laced, upper-crust Manhattan born-and-bred editor reminded her of someone who might belong to that family. She remembered how surprised she was that it turned out that he was the great-grandson of old rock and roll stars.
“Ms. Fiorici, I’d very much like to talk with you in person.”
“Sir, the Mars hearings…”
“This takes precedence. Please come to my office. When can you arrive?”
Her AI flashed a tentative schedule in the lower right-hand corner of her wall screen. There was a shuttle to New York she could grab in about five hours, and she’d be there first thing the next morning.
“I can be there by 9 AM tomorrow.”
“I’ll see you then. Oh, and pack all of your things. You aren’t going back to Beijing, at least not for a while.”
She tried to hide her surprise. “Will do.” His picture disappeared.
There were only two things that this could mean: a promotion, or she was fired. The latter was rather unlikely—she’d been headhunted for the job at the Times after having spent years on the government beats of smaller operations. The Times was a plum job—journalists had vied for positions there for hundreds of years. All of her performance reviews had been stellar. Besides, one’s boss’ boss didn’t fire you in person. An email or call from your boss would do fine. So what could he possibly be promoting her to? She had been on the Mars beat for three years now. She didn’t want to be an editor, she liked her job. She also knew there weren’t any editor positions even open. Her colleagues kept track, and she’d have heard about it by now.
She put away her questions, and packed her things. She hadn’t brought much with her to Beijing this time—these Mars hearings were only supposed to go for another two weeks. She was happy that she’d get to sleep the next night in her own bed. She put her clothes haphazardly in her bags—she’d just put them in the laundry when she got home.
When she was done packing, she sat at the desk, logged into her work task list, and saw that it was completely empty. Last night, it had four requests in it. A request for a summary article about the major sticking points around the Mars proposals for autonomy in the realm of immigration, a research request for an opinion page editor about the terraforming project, and a couple of other requests she couldn’t remember at the moment. They were all gone. So she whiled away her time reading the latest news, catching up on what was happening in the City, messaging some friends she’d neglected that she’d be home for a while. She even spent some time on WayBack checking up on some old acquaintances. Nothing from Max in ages. She wasn’t surprised. Max was never one to spend much time doing that sort of thing. Tina thought the last status message she saw from Max on WayBack was years ago about some asteroid.
She said to her AI, “Please send a check-out message to the front desk, prepare my home system, and remove yourself from this matrix.”
The standard welcome message for the hotel’s matrix now replaced her own AIs custom screen. A bell chimed at her door, and Tina opened it, and saw a luggage cart making its way towards her. It stopped a few feet from her, and she lifted her luggage onto it. She was glad they had those things—she was generally unable to carry her own luggage. It proceeded ahead of her quickly, and she made her way to the elevator. When she got outside the lobby, she and her luggage were reunited for the taxi ride to the airport.
Getting from Beijing to New York was pretty easy these days—a nonstop hypersonic flight took only a few hours. She’d be gaining time on the way, and at least for a few hours of the day, she’d be completely functional. On the flight, she obsessively perused the news, especially from the MetaNews sites, looking for possible clues to why she was called in. She landed at JFK, sent her bags home by courier, and took a taxi to the office. When she got to the suite where her boss’ boss’ office was, she was ushered into his office immediately by his assistant.
She sat down, and he immediately told her what he had in mind.
Tina sat looking at him, and she was sure that even though her mouth actually wasn’t open, he could see her jaw drop to the floor.
“Mars? You actually want me to do the Mars government beat… on Mars?”
“Actually, you won’t be doing the Mars government beat. You’ll be doing the Mars beat—all of it.”
“We are promoting you to run the Mars bureau.”
“But there isn’t a Mars bureau.”
He smiled. “There is now.”
She was astonished. And honored. “What prompted this change? The Times has always been very Earth-focused.”
“We have decided that is a mistake. There has been a lot happening on Mars lately, between the sounds that the Mars government is making about autonomy, to the insistence of Mars educational institutions to have their own accreditation system. There’s so much going on, we want to make sure there is someone there on the ground.”
“I don’t know what to say besides thank you for this opportunity, and yes, I’ll do it.” She could hardly believe what was coming out of her mouth. “Do I get some assistance?”
“Yes, we’re sending you one junior journalist, and one imager.” Tina remembered that before this meeting, she was a junior journalist.
“Do I get to state my preferences?”
“You have some? We haven’t made any offers as of yet.”
“Yes. Joseph Dunnely has done an amazing imaging job—and he’s unusual in that he does 2D and 3D, still and moving, all really well.”
“Sounds reasonable. He’s been working with you a lot, and he’s done some work on Mars.”
“Yes. And for the journalist, I’d suggest Ama Shabazz. She’s smart, has been working on the Moon beat for a while, and I think this would be a good stretch for her. And we work well together.”
He nodded his head. “OK, I’ll add them to my list, and I’ll let you know what happens. I want you on the next possible ship to Mars. You’ll have an assignment list probably before you leave.”
He rose, and stuck out his hand. Clearly, she was being dismissed. She rose as well, and shook his hand.
“Good luck, Ms. Fiorici.”
“Thank you sir.”
She walked out of the room, and for a moment didn’t quite know what to do. Ah, she thought. Go home, do laundry, pack, and figure out when the next Mars ship is leaving VirginGalactic One.
Today was the day. Lodan woke up, feeling warm in her blankets, but she knew that it was bitter cold in her room. She relaxed in the warmth of body and blanket until she just couldn't anymore, and pulled the covers back, looking around. The glass of water on the end table had a layer of ice on the top, and there was frost in all of the windows. It was, so far, the warmest winter in the last 20 years, but the temperature hadn't gotten above twenty below zero in a week.
She hurriedly got up, put her slippers on, and threw on the coat she had next to the bed. She walked to the living room and turned on the geothermal heat. After a while, she could begin to feel a little heat from the floor. Soon the whole cabin would be warm.
As her brain started to thaw, she thought more about what was in store for her today. The application for the new Mars colony had been an arduous process, but she was happy that it had come close to the end.
A few years ago, she'd relocated from Phoenix, Arizona to Massachusetts, where they were trying some re-settlement. Living here had been much more difficult than she'd imagined—the mini-ice-age brought on by the shut-down of the Gulf Stream fifty years ago was just beginning to thaw, but the living was still difficult. The growing season was so short that only the hardiest vegetables, like potatoes and kale, could be grown outside. The rest of the crops had to be grown inside greenhouses. She was living with a few people in a compound, where they grew what they could and bred hardier and hardier varieties of crops to deal with the cold. They were working to rebuild so that people could begin to relocate out of the crowded southern part of the country.
She was nervous. She'd done great work over the past few years, but somehow, she didn’t quite believe she'd be chosen. The new Mars colony was at Stage Three. There were greenhouses, lots of domes, and enough resources that a reasonably-sized colony could begin the work of becoming self-sustaining. The earlier Mars colonies had been a success, and they’d even set up a university there. But this new one, in a totally new area of Mars was designed to try new techniques, and begin the true terraforming process.
She realized she was running out of time—she needed to catch the next bullet train to Washington, DC. As she gathered her things, said her goodbyes, and walked out of the entrance to the group of dwellings, she knew that she was unlikely to return here. Either she'd make it into the program, or she'd return to Phoenix, and take the standing job offer at FoodTechSystems that had been waiting for her for the last few years. There weren’t any other jobs in space for agronomists—the ones on the current colonies or the Moon colonies were all taken.
After the train ride, she walked into the Mars Settlement office. She looked around at the people who were in the waiting room. One man sitting in the corner looked like he'd just come off of a construction site—he wore dusty carpenter pants and a heavy jacket. Another man was wearing a suit that didn’t quite fit; it looked like it might be borrowed. She knew that many people in desperate straits were vying for the new colony. The avenues to get into the established colonies from Earth were few and far between if you didn’t have connections or a lot of education or expertise.
She walked up to the desk where a young woman with dark hair and bright yellow shining contact lenses looked up at her.
“Hello. Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes. My name is Lodan Greenfellow.”
“Just one moment please....”
About 30 seconds later, a tall, uniformed man approached the desk from behind, and signaled to follow him. Lodan walked around the desk, and into his office.
“Please, Lodan, have a seat. I'm Lieutenant Bob Jordan.” He pointed to the chair in front of his desk. She sat down. He fiddled with his tablet, and then looked at Lodan.
“You've been approved for the new Mars Colony.” That felt like a surprise to her.
“Wow, I'm glad to hear that. Thanks! I thought there would be a few more steps in the process.”
“No more steps. We really need your expertise on Mars, now. And we’re very sure of you.”
She nodded, although she was sure her surprise showed. “OK … what's next?”
“You need to have a briefing with Mission Commander Kelley. He'll fill you in on the details of the new colony mission. Then, you’ll get on the next ship heading out—it’s leaving tomorrow from VG1. There is something you should know, though.”
He paused, as if weighing carefully what he was going to say.
“The colony is in a lot of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“It’s hard to explain... I’m not sure even I understand it. The crops are failing.”
She gulped, and nodded. This might be even harder than living in the new ice age.
He picked up a tablet sitting on his desk, and touched it a few times, and then began to speak.
“Commander Kelley, Lodan is here. She’s ready to ship out with you to Mars. Are you ready?”
A slightly tinny voice come out of the tablet. “OK. I’m just finishing up my briefings with the brass. I’ll be over in about 20 minutes to pick her up.”
He looked up at her. “You heard that?”
Lodan nodded. He got up from his desk, and showed her out of his office. He pointed to some seats toward the back of the outside office. “Please wait there. Do you need anything? Coffee? Water?”
“No, thanks, I’m fine.”
“Alrighty then. It was nice to meet you. Good luck on Mars.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” He shook Lodan’s hand, and went back into his office. The woman with the contact lenses seemed to be looking at her with some sympathy.
Lodan sat down, and decided that it would be a good idea if she could find information about the current status of the new Mars colony. She hadn’t heard anything about trouble, and she wondered how much of this was still secret. She took out her tablet, and gave her AI instructions for what to look for.
After the first few articles the AI indicated she should read, she could tell that the situation was still secret. The most recent article about the colony suggested that they had delayed emigration of non-expert families, which was telling, but there were no details about what prompted that delay. The absence of information about the new agricultural development processes was also telling. Taken together, this was pretty indicative to Lodan that there were some serious problems.
Lodan kept reading, and then got absorbed in reading a recent scientific article which investigated approaches used for growing warm-weather crops on Mars, when a voice surprised her.
“Lodan Greenfellow, I presume.”
Lodan looked up to see a tall man, with a dark and wizened face, a grey mustache, and a broad smile looking at her.
“I’ll bet you’re reading the latest data from Mars, yes? You don’t seem the type to pass the time on WayBack.”
Lodan couldn’t help but smile. She instantly liked Commander Kelley. She got up, and extended her hand. “Commander Kelly, nice to meet you.”
“Please, call me Josh. Everyone up in the new colony does. Let’s get going, I’m finally ready to get off this rock. I’ve been missing Mars, and briefing the brass kept my interest only so long.”
He turned, and she followed him out after hurriedly shoving her tablet into her bag. He stepped around a small vehicle, just large enough for two, and opened the trunk, indicating where to put her bags. They both got in.
He spoke to the AI in the vehicles dashboard. “Dulles Space Port.”
“Acknowledged. Approximate arrival time, 15:20.”
The car started to move, and joined the traffic heading toward the expressway.
“I’ve been following your work in the Northern Resettlement Project for quite some time—even before you applied to join the new colony. I’ve been quite impressed by your applications of ancient agricultural techniques to solve modern problems. I’ve been especially interested in your anthropological approaches that include applying strategies of older civilizations to current agricultural problems.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that—but to be honest, I’m not at all certain that ancient Earth agricultural techniques, or anthropology are going to help on the colony.”
“Well, you’ll get a chance to be the judge of that, once you’ll go through some of our data… and findings. These are findings we have not released to the public.”
“I noticed you delayed emigration.”
“Yes, we did. We have about 100 families on Earth that were slated to come with us on this trip, as well as several hundred from other colonies on Mars. Of course, they are not at all happy. But there isn’t anything we can do about it, for now.”
“So, what’s going wrong?”
“I’d like to wait until we get underway, so I can show everyone coming up with us all of the data we’ve got. I’m also pretty careful what we say here on Earth—this information can’t become public.”
Lodan nodded, but she couldn’t for the life of her imagine what could be that big of a deal. Everyone knew that the efforts to terraform Mars were going to be risky, and not necessarily generate the results wanted. And the new techniques they were trying out were certainly theoretically sound, but if they failed, there were other well-established techniques already available on Mars.
The first colonies on Mars had been quite successful. The greenhouses had worked well, and the combination of water transported from the poles, mining for minerals and using solar power had made those colonies self-sustaining in a matter of a few years. They had begun to raise chickens and goats in some colonies.
But building out more colony space was extremely expensive, and VirginMars had expended a lot of capital to get the initial colonies going. No other corps wanted to take the risk of starting new colonies, so SolGov had to. Earth was too crowded, especially since the mini ice age that had made all of Northern Europe, all of Canada, and a swath of the United States about 300 miles south of the Canadian border into barely habitable lands.
The good thing was that the mini-ice age, which came upon the world relatively quickly, had been enough to get everyone extremely serious about dealing with global climate change. The Gulf Stream was eventually re-started with a gargantuan global effort, and the predictions were that in another 15 years or so, those regions would be back to the climate they had been in the 18th century.
Lodan was jarred out of her reverie by the car slowing down, ready to enter the spaceport gate. Josh opened his window, and flashed his ID to the guard, who waved them through. The car made a right turn, and eventually pulled up in front of a squat metal building that almost looked temporary.
“OK, let’s go.”
Lodan knew the drill. The ship going to Mars was actually in orbit, and this would be a short shuttle trip to dock with VirginGalactic One, the space station that served as a space dock for most ships leaving the Earth orbit, on the way to the Moon, Mars, Ganymede and a dozen other colonies, as well as the numerous asteroid mining and transport craft coming and going. Lodan had once been to VirginGalactic One on her way to the Moon.
Several hours later, Lodan was stowing her gear in the small closet next to her bunk, inside the quarters she was sharing with four others on their way to Mars. There was a group orientation meeting before they were to undock from VG1. She walked down to the large conference room. The personnel from the Colony had commandeered a chunk of the transport going to Mars, including some of the nicest meeting space. They had, thankfully, started spinning the habitat ring, which had settled her stomach. During the shuttle ride up, and the transfer from VG1 to the ship, there had been several segments of time at zero-g. She hated zero-g.
Commander Kelly was speaking. “Welcome to the Acheron, everyone. Now I’m going to give you an idea of how we’ll be spending our time during the 15 days we’ve got to get to Mars.”
“We’ve sent everyone a full brief—it’s hundreds of pages of data. I know it will take you a while to process. There are two important pieces of information to focus on. First, we have been unable to grow anything, except plants that are kept in sterile, hydroponic environments. There is something toxic in the processed regolith that we cannot identify, but it prevents seeds from sprouting, and seedlings die after several days. The regolith has been processed the way we’ve been doing it on Mars for years, to eliminate perchlorate, acidify it, and add nutrients. All analyses of this processed regolith suggests no presence of anything toxic to plants that we can find.
Second, and probably most important, is the discovery of artifacts in caves at this new site. There are photographs and details in your briefings, and I don’t want to begin to discuss these until you’ve fully brought yourselves up to speed on what we’ve found. It is our current theory that these two things are connected somehow—we just don't know how yet.”
There was a lot of murmuring, and Lodan decided to be one of the first to head out, and find a comfortable place to sit and read all of this material. She found her way to one of the living rooms, with comfy chairs and a large view screen showing earth. It was nice to get to see Earth while they were slowly pulling out of orbit. They wouldn’t start seriously accelerating for another few hours. She sat down on a chair, and started to take out her tablet, but she was interrupted by someone speaking in front of her.
“Hi there, my name is Michael.”
Lodan looked up, to see a young-looking man with a small goatee smiling at her. She thought that his eyes belied the young look of his face—Lodan bet he was quite a bit older than he looked. She smiled, and waved.
“Hello. I’m Lodan.”
“Hi Lodan. Where are you from?”
“Originally, Utah and Arizona, but I spent the last 3 years in Massachusetts.”
He smiled, even more broadly if that were possible. “I just got back from Minnesota.”
She groaned. “I did my best to avoid Minnesota and North Dakota. Massachusetts was bad enough.”
“I was low man on the totem pole, so I took what was offered.”
“Well, not many people wanted to be part of the resettlement program—it takes a certain kind of person…”
“Yup, like the kind who will fly headlong into a new troubled Mars colony.”
Michael seemed her sort of person. He came to sit down on a chair next to hers, facing Earth.
“So what’s your specialty, Michael?”
“I’m an anthropologist. My major role in the resettlement program, besides chopping wood and carrying water, was to do ethnographic studies of people’s accommodation process to situations like that.”
“Oh, you’re Michael Gerald!”
“You know my work?”
“I do! I’m an agronomist by training, but I have a very serious interest in anthropology, and I have used anthropological research to apply ancient agricultural methods to modern situations. I came across your study of “The Holdouts.” It was fascinating.”
“I loved doing that research—well, except the months inside my RV. Good thing it had been specially built to withstand the cold! I was amazed how these folks had managed to eke out a living and stay in the areas that never saw spring. I could never have spent my life in perpetual winter.”
Lodan nodded. “It was hard enough living up there after the warming started. I can’t even imagine dealing with a winter way below zero all the time, and summers barely breaking the freezing point during the day.”
“It’s hard for me to leave Earth. I love it, even in its extremes. My contract is only for three years. After that, I decided I’d go back to Minnesota. I bought some land already.”
“Cheap, I’m sure.”
“It was when I bought it, 15 years ago. I had a small inheritance from my father, and the efforts to re-start the Gulf Stream again had just begun, and I was betting that it would be successful. So I got 50 acres of land in suburban Minneapolis for a song. It’s worth about 30 times what I paid for it now. I already have a few folks interested in helping me farm it in a few years when it becomes fully arable.”
Lodan laughed. That was pretty smart. She hadn’t thought that far ahead back then—but also, she didn’t have an inheritance to spend. There was a moment of envy, but it passed. Her early life without her biological parents had been hard, but she’d managed fairly well in the end.
“I don’t know how long I’ll stay. I have an open-ended contract, and had expected that it would be possible, even likely, that I’d spend my life on Mars. But with the current troubles … who knows what will happen. I may end up being a farmer on your land in Minnesota!”
He smiled. “You’d be a great addition to the team!”
The ship shuddered slightly, and Lodan could see Michael flinch.
“Spaceflight not your thing?”
“I’ve never been in space before. This is an exciting opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up, given my earlier work...”
I actually made my name originally in archeology. I was one of the folks who discovered that ancient, semi-technological society in Eretria.”
“Oh! I remember that find. It was so exciting and unexpected. I guess I didn’t remember you being connected with it, but I learned about it before I went to grad school.”
Michael smiled, “I guess that dates me. But I was a grad student myself.”
Lodan smiled, “It must have been such an amazing adventure to have discovered that.”
“Yes, it was. I guess that’s mostly why I’m here. Speaking of, I guess I’d better get to reading. I haven’t even cracked this open yet.”
“Nor have I.” They took out their respective tablets, and began to read, as the Earth slid slowly by on the screen.
The image of caked dirt inside of a boot floated inside Lodan’s head as she drifted awake. As that image made its way into her conscious mind, she sat bolt upright, hit her head on her bunk, and swore.
The head with the long, blond hair of her roommate, Olga, showed itself above Lodan.
“I’m fine, sorry. Hit my head.”
She got up out of the bunk, got dressed quickly, and asked her AI for the location of Commander Kelley. He was in the mess. She hurriedly made her way there.
“Commander Kelley, I need to urgently speak with you.”
He looked up, from his bowl of cereal. “Sit, please.” He motioned her to a seat across from him. “Want breakfast?”
“Not until I ask you a question.”
“Go ahead. This sounds important.”
“It is. What is the decontamination procedure of people entering Earth atmosphere who have been on Mars?”
He looked puzzled. “Well frankly, there isn’t one. You know there are no microorganisms on Mars. After 20 years of Mars colonies, and 30 years of our presence, there have never been signs of infection after exposure to the Martian environment. We decided a long time ago that a decontamination process would not be necessary.”
She felt the blood draining from her face. He looked at Lodan, and she could see that he was concerned.
He said, “Why? What am I missing?”
“I don’t know yet, but I am very worried. The data on the crop failures suggests that it isn’t a lack of nutrients, nor an imbalance of chemicals, or too much perchlorate. It suggests something more dangerous—some sort of herbicidal like substance.”
“What do you mean?”
“The data I’ve seen so far seems to suggest that what is causing the crops to fail is quite different than the ways in which crops respond to different factors such as lack of nitrogen, sun, water, or soil acidity or alkalinity. Further, the experiments on hydroponics using regolith-treated water suggest a water-soluble factor.”
“Certainly our biochemists and microbiologists would have found something—they have found nothing so far.”
“I understand that—but the effects on the plants are pretty clear. My fear is that there might be some regolith from this region carried to Earth on your boots, for instance, or on clothes.”
“Ah, well, water soluble did you say?”
“OK, good. You don’t have to worry. We do wash everything—all clothing and footwear, as well as ourselves, before we board the ship to go back to Earth.”
“Ah. OK. That makes me feel a lot better.”
Lodan was relieved, but something still was nagging at her. She wasn’t going to figure it out without breakfast, though.
They arrived at Mars station just as Lodan had gotten used to life aboard the ship, and just when she’d finished absorbing all of the data given to them. The information on the artifacts was interesting to her, but she had to focus all of her energy and time on the issues of crop failures.
“What we really need is some very high-resolution split-beam electron microscope images of the regolith. I wish we had one.”
“I can’t imagine why that would help—there’s nothing in the soil to look at!” One of her team members, George, who was the team leader, was always convinced he knew more than anyone else. Besides having somehow managed to land a job at Harvard, Lodan couldn’t imagine why he was the team leader. Although prolific, Lodan thought his research was pedestrian at best.
“I think there’s something there we can’t see with a regular microscope, and can’t see in the chemical analyses. Something on the scale of a few hundred atoms. Some mineral formations that get in the way of nutrient absorption, maybe?”
George shook his head, and Peter, who had yet to suggest anything, shook his head as well. Lodan was outvoted in her suggestion to get Regolith samples to a hi-res EM lab.
A loud voice spoke, drowning out Lodan’s next comment. “Your attention, please! We are arriving at Mars station. We will be turning off spin in approximately 10 minutes. Make sure you are prepared. Please exit the Acheron in the docking bay, section 5.”
It was time to take the shuttle down. Lodan went back to her quarters, where the return of zero-g happened just as she took out her bags. She pushed herself out of her quarters, and down what used to be a hallway, but now she was using handholds to propel herself to the docking bay, towing her bags behind her. Even though she felt like she wanted to vomit, at least her bags didn’t weigh anything.
She got to the docking bay, and could see a lot of people, some were headed to the new colony, and there were varied passengers on their way to other colonies. She got in line to go through the docking doors, and found herself on a little tram to the station’s habitat ring. One moment she was strapped in to the seat, and the next moment, as the tram curved to meet the habitat ring, the straps went slack, her stomach settled, and there was now a real “up” and “down.” She felt much better.
After a little time on the station, Commander Kelley herded them to the shuttle which would take them down to Colony 6. It was a fairly painless process, and in just a few hours since they’d arrived in Mars orbit, Lodan was on the ground, on Mars, walking to her assigned quarters, and settling in.
Lodan heard the sound of her AI, which woke her. “Call from Commander Kelley”. It was still dark in her quarters. She was glad for the cycle of lights in the colony, but she still hadn’t gotten used to how dark it was at night. All of the quarters were underground, so there was no ambient light.
She looked at the clock on the table next to her bed. 4:00 am? What was going on? She got up, put on a shirt and pants, sat down at her desk, and answered the call. Josh’s face looked like he hadn’t slept in a while.
“Hi Josh. What’s going on?”
She could see him take a breath. “I’m not sure exactly how to tell you this.”
She didn’t have any family, so it wasn’t that someone died. What could it be?
“Just tell me.”
“Well, its late spring now, in the US. As you well know, the northeast US is struggling to grow food again.”
“A large swath of southeastern Pennsylvania and some of Maryland have had serious crop failures. Reminiscent of what’s happened here. When I heard about it on a news program, I remembered your concerns.”
“But how would regolith from the new colony make it to Pennsylvania?”
He took another breath.
“We delivered to a certain company 500 pounds of regolith from the region of the new colony. They were going to analyze it for new possible commercial uses.”
She was speechless. She collected her thoughts. “Why?”
“Well, honestly, this company was willing to spend a hundred million Yuan on the sample, and a 5 year exclusive contract for regolith mining near the new colony. The program needed the money. And what I just found out is that the company is based in Harrisburg, PA.”
“And they fucking washed the regolith down the drain, didn’t they?”
“I don’t know—but I expect its likely.”
Crap. That meant that whatever they could do to solve the problem on Mars would be way more important than Lodan could have ever dreamed.
The next morning, Lodan was meeting with George and Peter, going over this new problem. She again suggested high resolution EM imaging.
George said, “I’m still not in favor of that, I’m sorry.”
“George, I don’t care. I’m going over your head on this one—there is too much at stake, now.”
Lodan turned and left the meeting room to go to Josh’s office. As she arrived, she saw Michael leaving.
She said, “Hey there—how is the artifact analysis going? I’m so sorry I haven’t had time to check in with you.”
“It’s pretty fascinating—and impossible. I’m at my wits end, frankly.”
“Well, you and me both. Maybe sometime we should have a chat. Maybe fresh perspectives might be useful.”
“Sounds great—I look forward to it.”
She watched him turn and walk away, noticing how she appreciated his body as he moved. She knocked lightly on Josh’s door.
She heard, “Come in.”
“Hi Josh. I need a favor.”
“George won’t agree to a hi-res SB EM look at the regolith. I think it’s necessary. We’re drawing complete blanks using every other method. I think George vetoed it because it’s expensive, and he is always looking at the budget. Plus, I think he thinks I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Look, anything we can do to solve this is important—were in trouble here. Apparently, the crop failures are spreading.”
She said, “Let me know who to send my official request, and I’ll spell out the specifications for specimen preparation.”
“Alright, we’ll make it happen.”
It took more than a week to get the images back. There were some regolith samples from the new region tucked away at a couple of different national labs, but they had to be sent directly to USAMRID for imaging, because they needed the regolith to stay in the highest possible containment area.
Lodan had been right... sort of. The hi-res SB EM images showed clear evidence not of any crystalline formations that she’d expected, but of artificial nanoparticles.
She realized that her conversation with Michael was far overdue. She wondered if the key to understanding was in his bailiwick. She went in search of him, and found him in the colony lounge, reading. She took a moment to observe him. She’d come to really appreciate his points of view, and his sense of humor. She realized that she was attracted to him. She smiled, and went to where he was seated, sat next to him, and told him what they’d found.
Michael said, “I don’t understand.”
Lodan answered, “Nanoparticles are not naturally occurring, although of course George thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve gotten permission from Josh to talk with some nanotechnology experts I know on Earth, and have them see if they can figure out what these particles are.”
“I never really liked George. Anyway, these are definitely not natural?”
“Definitely. These shapes and sizes just don’t occur in natural crystals. These are absolutely artificial in nature.”
“Well, let me tell you about the artifacts, then. We can see if anything comes to us. They aren’t very revealing. They are some geometric shapes, made out of something resembling plastic. Definitely carbon based, but with some unusual elements, too. Sort of like Poly Vinyl Chloride.”
“It’s funny, when I first saw them, that is actually what I thought of. They are about the right size, even. I had this image of a bunch of aliens hurriedly leaving Mars, and the kid having to leave behind their toys.”
“So that’s all?”
“There are 40 of the shapes. Some are different geometric shapes—a couple of tetrahedrons, some cubes, and a lot of dodecahedrons and icosahedrons. All platonic solids. There are some very enigmatic carvings and symbols on the walls of one of the caves, and about 30 small fragments of materials that seem part of some sorts of mechanisms, but we can’t figure them out.”
“Did you say Platonic Solids? What are those?”
“I heard that from Maria, the mathematician. They are regular, with congruent sides.”
She took out her tablet, and showed him pictures of the nanoparticles.
“That there looks like a dodecahedron with patterns on the sides.”
“Yes, these nanoparticles seem to be all dodecahedrons.”
It didn’t make any sense to Lodan. Why would an alien species leave nanoparticles in the regolith, as well as geometric shapes behind?
“Is this the only place where these have been found?”
“Yup. They were found in one of the caves. Apparently, nothing else like this has been found in any other areas that have been explored on Mars.”
Michael said, “So that means they are probably local, just like the artifacts.”
That sounded right to Lodan. “Let me find out.”
She had her AI send a quick request to Josh. There had been regolith samples taken from all over various parts of Mars. After a few days, the results came back—Michael had been right, the nanoparticles were local. Everyone was now in the process of determining a new site for Colony 6. In the meantime, she’d sent requests to some old colleagues of hers who were nanoscientists. She’d hoped they had a solution for their problem—not the one on Mars, but the one on Earth.
About two weeks later, she was sitting across from Josh in his office which was full of half-packed boxes.
“Well, Lodan, it looks like you’ll finally get to grow some crops.”
Lodan smiled broadly. “Yes, I’m quite looking forward to it. I’m glad we found a new suitable spot not too far away, with both caves, and space for greenhouses, and no sign of nanoparticles.”
“The whole thing is still a mystery to me, but I’m sure glad that your nanotechnology friends knew how to dismantle those nanoparticles. Otherwise, we might have had a serious disaster on our hands on Earth. As it was, thousands of farms lost a growing season.”
“Josh, it’s still a mystery to everyone. The current theory is that the nanoparticles were just some refuse of the aliens, maybe just garbage. It didn’t hurt them -it just happened to hurt Earth plants.”
Lodan walked out of his office, went to the storage locker to don her pressure suit. She then joined the team disassembling the greenhouses.
It had only taken Tina two weeks to get on a transport to Mars. That gave her time to pack what she’d want for Mars, put the rest of her things in storage, arrange for a sublet for her apartment. Even as she did all of these things, she noticed that she only put things she felt she could part with in storage. Some part of her knew somehow she wasn’t coming back.
It wasn’t at all logical—Tina worked for the Times, and hoped to work for them for as long as she could. The Times, unlike the rest of the news organizations, was very old school. People actually worked there for twenty or thirty years, once hired. She actually had hope that she could work at the Times until her body gave out, and she’d have to retire to the Moon. The good thing about spending a few years on Mars would be that her body clock would stop ticking quite so quickly, since the gravity was so much less than Earth’s. But she knew that by the time she was fifty, or perhaps at most sixty, she’d have to return to the Moon to spend the rest of her life.
She was thinking about this as she was enjoying the zero-g gym at the center of the Mars transport. She’d be on this ship for about 45 days—Mars and Earth were pretty far apart at the moment. She did a few final exercises, then headed back to her quarters. Her stomach was grumbling, so she planned to head to the mess hall after she cleaned up.
When she arrived in the mess hall, there weren’t many people there. She picked up her food, went to one of the small tables toward the outside of the hall, and ate while she looked over her AI’s picks for the most important stories from Mars for the day.
Once she’d started to really read the news reported from Mars, she got a much fuller picture about what was going on Mars than she’d had when following the Mars government beat on Earth. There was an active Mars independence movement that was much more popular on Mars than anyone on Earth had reported. The results of one recent poll were that an independent Mars was favored by 75% of the populace. With those kinds of numbers, it made all sorts of sense that the representatives Mars sent to SolGov would be pushing for more autonomy. And the pushback, Tina realized, was bound to make things less stable, not more stable, for SolGov. Tina at first was shocked at how uninformed she had been, but she gave herself some slack—her job hadn’t been deep investigative reporting on Mars—it had simply been reporting on Mars representatives on Earth. She was looking forward to doing some real investigative reporting.
The assignments that The Times had sent her were laughable, given what she was learning about the realities on the ground on Mars. It was then that she realized something of her true job—the job they hadn’t told her she had. The Times had SolGov’s back, and the Times wanted to have SolGov’s back on Mars. She didn’t know what to think of that. She’d do what they asked, but she suspected that after a while, it might be hard to maintain. She’d worry about that when the time came.
She did get Ama Shabazz as her junior journalist, and she would be on the next transport, several weeks hence. She hadn’t gotten Joseph for imaging. Strangely, Joseph had just been transferred to the sports desk. Tina couldn’t understand what was going on—Joseph was totally wasted imaging sports, and he’d spent a lot of time on Mars. She shook her head, choosing not to delve too much into speculations on machinations at The Times. She’d been assigned Holly Trimble—she knew that Holly was a decent imager, and would do fine. Holly and Ama were heading to Mars on the same transport.
The first thing on her list to write an investigative story on was the movement of Colony 6. Just one month ago, for reasons that no one would talk about, the entire colony moved from one place to another. Interestingly, they were trying to pass it off as a problem with the local regolith, but Tina knew enough to know that didn’t really make a lot of sense. The regolith on Mars did differ from region to region, but not enough so that the known ways to treat it so that plants could grow in it wouldn’t work.
She had a list of a few folks she would request interviews of. She saw an anthropologist on staff for the colony, which made no sense to Tina—he would be the first she’d request an interview of, as well as the Colony Commander. She set a number of reminders for her AI, including background research on the anthropologist, and then kept reading.
The alarm next to Tina’s bed rang, and she woke up, feeling more refreshed and ready to go than she’d felt in years. Although Mars had twice the gravity of the Moon, where she was born and raised, it was just over one third of Earth’s gravity. So being on Mars, even for a few days, had been a surprising relief, even from the .6 gravity in the Mars Transport generated by the spinning habitat rings.
Today, she was taking a day trip to Colony 6 to talk to a few people about the move. She had contacted Michael Gerald and Lodan Greenfellow, both of whom were willing to talk to her, but warned her there was much they could not talk about. The colony Commander had declined her request for an interview. She understood, and she knew she’d be getting less than half the story, but it was worth reporting anyway.
On the shuttle to Colony 6, she did a re-read of all of the information she had. They had tried to grow plants using the same techniques of modifying the regolith as usual, and it hadn’t worked, so they moved. It seemed very straightforward, and also quite strange. It didn’t look like any scientific studies about the regolith had been published, or were even in process, from what she could see. No funding had been released by SolGov to research the problem, no theories about the problem had even been blogged. It was as if they said “Can’t grow anything here, don’t know why, doesn’t matter, we’re moving.” On its face, for most of the public, that might seem reasonable, but Tina knew enough about Mars and about science to know that it wasn’t, not at all.
When the shuttle arrived, she made her way to the central dome, which looked to be in complete chaos. Containers were scattered about, people were dashing to and fro. She could hear the loud sounds of machines digging into the caves to create caverns. At times the sounds became almost deafening. As she was looking around, trying to figure out how to find the people she was supposed to interview, a tall man with a goatee came up to her.
“Tina Fiorici, I presume?”
She smiled. “Michael Gerald?”
“One and the same.”
She stuck out her hand, and they shook hands.
“Come this way—we found a quiet place where we can do the interview.”
She followed him through the chaotic dome, through a corridor which led underground. They went down a hallway, and into a room which looked like it was being prepared to be offices. A woman with dark curly hair stood up to greet them. Tina recognized Lodan from her background research.
“Ah, Michael, you found our journalist!”
“Please, Ms. Fiorici, have a seat.”
“Feel free to call me Tina.”
“So, Tina, how can we help you? I’m hoping that you don’t think this visit ended up being a waste of time.”
“I know, you warned me that there wasn’t much to tell me. But anyhow…” Tina took out her small pocket recorder, and placed it on the table between them, which was strewn with assorted papers.
“So, I’d like first to learn a little about both of you, and how you became attached to the colony.”
Lodan started, and, from Tina’s perspective, her involvement in the colony didn’t have much to do with the move. Tina had already learned that she was a very well-regarded agronomist, with particular expertise of the sort that would be extremely useful on any Mars Colony.
Lodan finished up by saying, “… and the problems that the colony had faced weren’t really ones I’d been familiar with, but were certainly in the realm of things I could deal with.”
“Thank you, Lodan. That’s very informative.” It wasn’t really, but Tina was trying to be friendly. “Michael…”
“I was recruited primarily because of my work researching how people deal with living in harsh conditions. The earlier colonies hadn’t had any folks on staff to help with that kind of research. My work on ‘The Holdouts’ in the northern US during the mini-ice-age was the primary reason I was added to the Colony. And if you’ve done your homework, which I imagine you have, you’ve seen that I’ve already published one ethnography about the first members of this colony.
Somehow, Tina didn’t believe a word of what he was saying, other than the fact that he’d published an ethnography. She’d already read it. On its face, the reasons he stated that he was sent here made a tiny bit of sense, but in her years of covering SolGov, she knew how little they regarded research that didn’t have clear, material ends. VirginMars would be more likely to hire an anthropologist than SolGov. Further, although Michael’s more recent work was ethnographic, Tina found that he had done a lot of significant archeological research, and he was better known for that than his ethnographic work. This just wasn’t passing the sniff test.
“OK, thank you both. Could you now recall for me the events that led up to the need to move Colony 6.”
Lodan replied, “Of course. We had heard on the trip out that the crops were failing—there had been no successes in treating the regolith in ways that had been used all over Mars before to allow any crops to grow. There seemed to be some sort of toxic compound in the soil that prevented that from happening. We did a lot of testing and investigation, and realized that this colony site was just not going to be viable, so we found another site where we could grow crops, and we moved here.”
“Did you find the reason that the regolith was toxic?”
Tina noticed a slight hesitation in Lodan’s voice, and she detected the most subtle flick of Lodan’s eyes toward Michael.
© Copyright 2016 M Murrain. All rights reserved.
Book / Science Fiction
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