Read the beginning of my new science fiction novel about the first colony on Mars. If you missed the opening, start here.
Chapter One: Incident (continued)
“If we’re all ready? My name is Emma Winters and I’m a Martian settler. Colony Mars will launch me and three crewmates into orbit, to board our transport ship, in twelve days. I’ll be your guide today through this replica of the Kamp Kans colony habitat or nederzetting, as our Dutch founders call it.”
“Wow,” one of the bouncy boys said. He was clearly a fan, dressed in a rugby shirt from the gift shop, striped in rusty red and sky blue just like Emma’s uniform. “Are you really going to Mars and never coming back?”
“Yup. This is my last day in Holland.”
She watched everyone’s eyes widen at that. Public outreach, like this tour, was part of every settler’s training, right up to their final day. Personal contact kept public interest, and donations, high.
The urgent message tugged at her thoughts and she pushed it away again.
“Why don’t one of you young men open the door and we’ll begin.” She gestured towards the white metal hatchway. The younger boy hopped forward, stopping just before he ran into the door.
“You have to open it manually, dummy,” his brother said. He looked back at Emma proudly. “All the nederzetting’s doors are manual.”
“That’s right,” Emma said with a practiced smile. The tour always started with the surprise of a manual door. “Colony Mars uses the latest technology for some things, like construction, communications, and power generation. But technology requires lots of support – spare parts and maintenance. There are only eight people on Mars now; twelve when my mission gets there. Human beings are flexible – our hands can replace dozens of servomechanisms.”
The boy scowled at her skeptically.
Emma held up a pencil she carried especially for this bit.
“Even simple tools are complex to manufacture. The wood for this pencil is logged in Oregon, in America. The graphite in the center is mined in Sri Lanka. Zinc and copper mines in Africa produce metal for the cap, and the eraser combines Italian pumice with Canadian rapeseed oil.” She waggled the pencil at the crowd.
“I haven’t mentioned the machines needed to produce it, or the thousands of workers and machines, and piles of parts at every step. On Mars, we use low tech wherever we can.” Emma cranked the wheel-shaped handle, and stepped to one side as she heaved the door open.
“Even ‘no tech’. These hinges will still be working a hundred years from now.”
She pushed the urgent message firmly out of her mind as the group stepped and stumbled over the door frame.
The quickest route to the mission control building was through the visitors’ center. From the lobby, tourists turned right to enter the museum and gift shop under a banner in four languages.
Mars is ons geschenk aan de toekomst
Marso estas nia donaco al la estonteco
Mars est notre cadeau pour l’avenir
Mars is our gift to the future
Instead, Emma stepped behind the lobby’s welcome desk and laid her hand on the scanner. Rather than the usual cheery greeting, the attendant gave her a grim look as the door clicked open. Alarmed, Emma hopped on the walkalator to the Mars-Earth Exchange building.
She could see the MEX antenna farm from the glass corridor. Today a group from the nearby European Space Agency’s Technology Center stood at the base of the main dish – their visit had been the day’s news at breakfast – but she was too distracted to wonder if they’d award another grant to Colony Mars.
She entered at the back of the stadium-style control room, behind two dozen stations, each arranged like an individual cockpit, and scanned the room looking for Filip Krasts, today’s MEX shift lead. The front row, on the lowest level, was fully occupied as always by controllers running the satellite systems that orbited Mars – communications, tracking, weather, and solar power. On the second level technicians were installing upgrades for Emma’s Settler Three mission.
Filip hurried across the top level, past the special projects stations, and ushered Emma to a glass-walled cubicle against the back wall.
“There’s been a… an incident at Kamp. This isn’t easy to watch.” He steered her to a video console in the corner and hit playback. “There’s been a death.”
Emma sat up straight and felt her fingers go cold.
On the vid, the colony’s doctor, Ingra, was stepping through a door in the habitat module. The lights were dimmed and the audio feed was silent except for the hum of life support systems – it was pre-dawn at the settlement. She crossed to the airlock, slowly rotated the door handle, and hopped through.
Filip tapped the console, switching to the playback from inside the airlock. Ingra sealed the door and looked up at the imager.
“By the time this transmission reaches Earth, I’ll be gone. I can’t stay here any longer. There’s a huge old oak tree beyond that little crater. No one can see it, but I know it’s there. I’m going home. Forgive me.” She walked past the surface survival suits hanging on the wall and reached for the airlock control panel.
Emma felt the knot tighten in her stomach.
“She can’t get out without a suit, can she? The airlock pumps are slow; she’ll pass out before the pressure is low enough for her to open the outer door, right?”
Filip pointed back to the screen.
Ingra stepped to the outer door. With a pull and twist, she opened the emergency decompression valve. Red lights began to flash and ice fog clouded the imager lens. Ingra fumbled with the outer door and it opened. With her last lungful of air, she pulled the door open and disappeared into the darkness.
Emma looked up, not quite believing what she’d seen.
Filip shook his head.
“We sent alarms from here as soon as she entered the airlock, but she was gone before anyone received our transmission. With the outer door open, this airlock is disabled. Two of the settlers have already suited up and gone out the other way – to retrieve her body.
“You’re the last one to view this,” he said gently. “The rest of your mission crew’s in the settlers’ lounge. If you’ll wait there, we’ll keep you posted.”
The lounge was at the opposite side of the building, down the main hall. Murals would one day cover the walls with a panel for each mission, but there were only six missions sketched out so far, with only Settler Missions One and Two completed in full color. Emma walked past pictures of the early robotic missions, the satellite system with its orbiting power station, and the squad of construction robots on the Martian surface. She stopped at the Settler One panel, The Pioneers, to look at portraits of the first crew. Ingra’s face was smiling and confident. The first four settlers had lived in their ship, its modules reassembled on Mars’ surface, for two years while building the large plaza bay and utilities spine to tie in future habitat bays.
Settler Two’s panel, The Builders, depicted four more smiling portraits. Their transport ship had also been disassembled when it reached Mars. All the ships would be cannibalized this way. There was no going back to Earth.
I don’t understand, Emma thought as she gazed at the panel. Sure, the first two years were tough when they only had the three modules brought down from their transport ship as habitat. But the second transport added three more modules and they constructed the plaza bay – pressurized it with air harvested from the wisp-thin Martian atmosphere. Things were looking up.
She reached up to the diagram and touched the airlock Ingra had used. That airlock was probably still open to the frozen Martian atmosphere. Dust would drift in, she thought idly, and the it would be hard to clean the airlock seals.
She jumped when the link beeped in her ear.
“Hi Emma. It’s Malcolm. Have you heard about Ingra? Are you okay?”
His face, projected into Emma’s left eye on her contact link, was pinched with worry.
“Malcolm – you can’t contact me in real-time.”
Malcolm and the rest of the Settler Four crew were nearing the end of an isolation evaluation, sealed inside a mock-up of a transport ship’s habitat module. Anyone who came out early would lose their place on the mission.
“I’m sorry I can’t be there with you.”
It was like Malcolm to risk a direct message. But then, he was a charmer and could talk his way out of anything. At a party, he was always in the middle of the crowd, offering jokes and compliments. They’d spent a long weekend together once, he’d planned everything and she had fun.
She walked past her own portrait – Settler Three, The Explorers – to the Settler Four panel, stood so his image overlaid his portrait, and hugged herself. “But we can’t talk like this. Send a time-lagged message.
“And don’t worry about me. I’ll be with my mission crew.”
Emma walked into the settlers’ lounge, past a table to a circle of sleekly upholstered chairs pulled close together. Liz Brown jumped up. She had her hair pulled back in a streaked blond pony-tail, which emphasized her long face. Her eyes were red and, as Liz hugged her, Emma felt tears form in her own eyes. Emma had never lived outside the United States before she joined Colony Mars and Liz was Canadian, so they were comfortable together. Emma had volunteered to cross-train as Liz’s back-up farmer and they made a good team.
Emma sank into the empty chair next to Liz. On her other side, James Moore gave her a wan smile. The son of a diplomatic family, he’d lived all over the world and was generally irrepressible. It was strange to see a sober expression on his face.
“Do you think they’ll delay our launch?” None of them were especially close to Ingra – she’d left Earth before they arrived at Colony Mars’ headquarters – so James was as worried for the mission as saddened by her loss.
“I think that will depend on the other settlers on Mars.” Claude Krueger was the oldest member of the S-3 crew. He was a field lithologist and looked the part, squarely built with callused hands. Claude was German, but had been teaching in California when he applied to Colony Mars.
Emma glanced around the room. The S-4 crew was, of course, in their isolation evaluation. Candidates for S-5 clustered together on the opposite side of the room. One of them gave Emma an uncertain nod. Settlers had a say in selecting subsequent crews, and they didn’t know how to react to Ingra’s suicide in front of the S-3 crew.
“Suicide. Could it be anything else?” Claude asked.
“I don’t know.” Liz had talked with Ingra more than the rest of them. She took medic training and they often messaged back and forth. “She sounded delusional on the vid. She was seeing things.”
“She’s Kamp’s psychologist. I don’t see how this could happen.”
“Doctors make lousy patients. Being a psychologist, she’d be able to fake her own routine psych evals.”
“Well, this may be ghoulish, but her death’s sure increased interest in the colony,” James said.
Emma’s eyes snapped up to the Earth Scan sphere spinning in the far corner of the room at the ceiling.
The most sophisticated artificial intelligence used by Colony Mars didn’t run life support on Mars or pilot spaceships; it tracked their public presence on Earth. Earth Scan collected trillions of inputs worldwide, compiled reports, and projected a holographic sphere, a snapshot of how billions of people viewed the colony project.
The sphere was swollen to double its usual size, reflecting increased views. Color coded like a main sequence star, the sphere had intensified to blue from the usual yellow. Inside the translucent sphere, a silver hoop spun to show the rate of earnings from premium content, donations, and merchandise. It was twirling.
“MEX cut the live feed when they realized what was happening,” James said. “And I guess the premium subscribers have been howling. They released it a few minutes ago.”
“Hell,” Emma said. “They released the entire video?”
Emma’s link interrupted her with another message from Malcolm. She answered in a whisper, as if talking out loud would draw more attention to his breach of protocol.
“I talked to one of the women on my crew. She’ll trade places with you, so you can fly with me.”
“That won’t work. The robotic rovers and walkabouts are already packed in the cargo module. And I’m the mission roboticist. I’ve got to go.”
“I don’t want you in danger. Ingra was the colony’s psychologist, for god’s sake, and she killed herself. It’s not safe until the experts figure out what’s going wrong.”
“I’m not going to kill myself.”
“Of course not. But what about the others, the colonists already on Mars? What if another one goes crazy?”
“The colony’s Artificial Intelligence can run psych evals for psychologists at MEX.”
“It’s just that, I love you, Emma. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
His intensity transfixed her. It had drawn her to him originally and a tingle ran down her spine. But they hadn’t spent enough time together to talk about love.
“I’m signing off, Mal. My crew’s waiting for me.”
“You can’t go.” There was a cold edge to his voice.
Emma’s feelings shifted abruptly. His concern had been touching, but he had no right to tell her what to do.
She’d been talking softly, but now pulled out her pocket pad to enter a private reply. Colony experts might decide to change crew assignments. But I’m not volunteering to give up my spot on S-3.
The words looked harsh on her screen. He was, after all, worried about her with good reason. Critics predicted psychological issues would destroy the colony. That’s why Colony Mars decided routine assessments by Kamp’s AI weren’t enough and included a psychologist among the settlers. Ingra’s evaluations of individuals were, of course, confidential, but Emma read all her summary reports. There was some insomnia, fatigue, loss of appetite, and complaints about poor concentration. None of that sounded fatal, but Ingra was dead.
Don’t worry about me. I’m with a good crew and I can take care of myself. You need to take care of yourself, talk to your mission counselor.
“Malcolm,” she said in response to Liz’s raised eyebrow. “He’s flipping out.”
“He was a lot of fun at that candidate mixer party.” Her forehead wrinkled with concern. “Are you still seeing him?”
“Not for a while – we’ve each had so much training, different duty schedules…”
“He should talk to his counselor if he’s upset.”
“That’s what I’m telling him.”
She read the pad again, added a ‘please’ at the end, and hit send.
When the S-3 mission manager walked in he had more details, but no more insight. “I’ve received a few suggestions to change your mission,” their manager said. “But there’s not enough time to explore what unintended consequences could arise. And no one wants to miss a launch window. So the Explorers Mission is still a go.”
James must have been holding his breath. He heaved out a sigh in relief, Liz and Claude nodded, and Emma ignored the tightness in her stomach.
“But if any of you want to drop out… I’ll try to place you on another flight, but I can’t make any guarantees.”
“I’m ready to go,” Claude said and the others agreed.
Emma’s back straightened and her jaw set. “I’m not dropping out.”
“I knew you’d all feel that way.” He smiled grimly.
Emma sat with her crewmates the rest of the day, abandoning plans for a final walk along the shore. They followed reports from Kamp, heard that Ingra’s body was carried beyond the colony’s construction zone for burial, and that the airlock was cleaned and closed. Colony Mars issued a formal statement and began planning a memorial service. Emma was sorry they’d miss the ceremony, but she had to pack – they all did. The crew’s flight to Spaceport America would leave Rotterdam airport the next day.
Then on to Mars.
Thanks for reading – Please comment, I’d love to know what you think of this chapter. Watch my blog for the next chapter.