Here’s the third chapter of my new book. I’ve got the draft completed and am working on the final version – there’s still time for changes, so please comment. I’d love to see what you think.
If you missed the beginning, start reading here.
The next morning, slightly nauseous and heads aching, the S-3 crew boarded a spaceport sand coach and set out eastward across a broad desert valley. After a while, Emma looked up, then over her shoulder. The spaceport was hidden by a colorless slope behind them.
“Have you followed the cat debate?” Liz asked. “They’ve been at it all night.”
She used the coach’s link and played some messages out loud. It seemed the colonists started talking to Lunar Base about a cat months ago, ever since the Loonies announced a litter of kittens was on the way – kittens to be born on the Moon and raised at the Collins Space Dock. Emma roused herself enough to wonder why they’d kept it a secret from MEX.
Colony Mars engineers, quite reasonably, balked at adding an element to their mission at the last minute, especially a live animal. But Lunar Base had a complete proposal ready. They’d provide everything, including a plan for feeding a cat long-term on Mars. After Ingra’s extraordinary suicide, the psychologists were inclined to approve anything the colonists requested. The added mass of the cat’s supplies was well within the transport ship’s margin of error for fuel. A cat was formally added to their mission. Claude and James seemed noncommittal, but Liz was delighted.
The coach bounced and Emma squinted out a wide window.
“Where are we?”
“Jornada del Muerto,” the driver called out cheerfully. “Named by the Spanish who first explored this desert. The Journey of Death.”
“Ironic name, isn’t it,” Liz said. “We’re on a journey of life.”
“It’s a long ride,” Emma said.
“We’re this far from the spaceport so the space ramp could be built up onto the mountains, to take advantage of the angle for launch,” the driver said. “But you’re not tourists so you know that, I suppose. You’ll launch over a restricted area – the White Sands military base – so if you crash on take-off, you won’t kill anyone.”
“I’d feel terrible if I crashed on someone,” James said. He had recovered during the ride and sounded chipper.
“We’ll go under the launch track in a little bit,” the driver said. “Do you know how many loops you’ll make before they shoot you up the ramp? Never tried it myself. I’m told the ship builds up a lot of g-force.”
Emma shuttered at the thought, settled back into her seat, and closed her eyes. James chattered with the driver but she was silently grateful the road was smooth the rest of the way.
She opened her eyes again when the coach stopped. Sloping concrete walls supported a heavy metal track ahead of them, above a narrow shadowed tunnel.
“See the electromagnets mounted on the sides?” The driver said, pointing. “They accelerate the space plane.”
On the other side of the tunnel, the track stretched into the distance around them. The center of the huge circle was filled with heliostatic tracking mirrors focused on a central receiver tower – power for the mass driver magnets. On the loop’s opposite side, towards the mountains and the space ramp, was the launch building – an entirely utilitarian, a squat, flat-roofed structure of unpainted concrete. They’d be isolated in the east wing along with the medical staff. A separate building on the west side, equally ugly, housed the ground team on-duty. They’d had their own, non-alcoholic party last night and gotten right back to work. The relief team would arrive in a few days. MEX’s senior team lead Filip greeted them.
“I wondered why I didn’t see you at the party,” James said as he hopped down. “You’ve been out here since we arrived?”
“I’m not much for parties – especially when there’s a control room to see instead.”
“Your control room’s in Holland,” Claude said with a frown.
“My team has preparations well in hand, and Lunar Base handles the transport ship while it’s in Collins Dock. MEX doesn’t take over until you’re ready to break orbit, so I’ll be home in plenty of time.
“This is my last chance to shake hands with each of you.” He was suddenly solemn and a little teary-eyed. Emma straightened up, sensing a ceremony not listed in Colony Mars’ media kit.
“It’s been an honor working with you. Good luck – from me, the team, and posterity.” He clasped each of their hands tightly before opening the door and waving them towards the isolation wing.
The crew started final launch preparations immediately. Emma’s first appointment was for her pre-flight physical. The doctor was a tiny, birdlike woman.
“Take off your shirt, please,” she said after introductions, and looked slightly over Emma’s shoulder, reading from her contact lens link.
“Your contraceptive chip is in your upper left arm.”
It didn’t sound like a question, but Emma answered, fingering the spot.
“You have your personal device to deactivate the chip when you choose.” Again, not a question, but the device was in her personal duffle bag. “Colony Mars has the code on file for you, should you lose your device.”
The doctor now looked at her and – somewhat abruptly – smiled.
“If you would stand here, and place your arm in the gauntlet tray…” The doctor closed the lid and Emma felt pressure build along her forearm.
“Stand still, please. This will take a moment. A little more…” The doctor looked over Emma’s shoulder again.
“Party last night, I see. But you’re cleared for launch.” The gauntlet popped open and Emma rubbed her arm. It was covered with hundreds of barely-visible red dots.
“If that redness isn’t gone by morning, call me. I’m right here in quarantine with you. This is the last readout you’ll receive until the Settler Four mission delivers full hospital diagnostics to the colony.”
“That’s only two years away and there’s no reason for a healthy young adult to have a full diagnostic more often than every five years.” She took a plastic case out of the drawer next to her.
“This is your lacertossum medichip, which will tweak your own hormone production to maintain bone density and muscle tone. Emma Winters, correct?” She turned the case towards Emma to display her name across the top.
“Your upper right arm this time, I think. I’ll just deaden the area…” She used a thin needle to inject analgesic at a half dozen points- enough drug to visibly swell a spot on Emma’s arm.
“This has to go in deep enough to ensure capillaries will grow into the chip…”
Emma looked away until the doctor pressed a bandage over the area.
“The chip doesn’t relieve you of your exercise obligation,” she said as Emma pulled her shirt on. “But avoid lifting anything heavy with that arm for a couple days.”
The pre-launch schedule was modified to allow Liz to spend a day neutering cats with a veterinarian in the closest town. The doctors fumed over her shortened quarantine.
“They think I’ll contract something horrible at a vet clinic,” Liz said, laughing.
“You won’t laugh when you have to go through the entire physical again when you get back,” Emma said.
“My helicopter’s landing – gotta go. Pay attention at the feline briefing.” Liz hurried off.
Feline care was added to everyone’s briefing schedule. Emma had never paid much attention to Lunar Base news before, but she learned a few of the Loonies spent their spare time figuring out how to keep cats on the Moon and had happily donated a kitten to Kamp Kans.
The final week before leaving Earth was filled with briefings and medical tests, and Emma fell into her bunk each night, asleep before she hit the mattress.
On the morning of the first launch attempt the crew was awake before dawn. New Mexico’s monsoon rainy season had shortened over the years, so weather wasn’t a big risk for an August launch, but the ground crew carefully reviewed the forecast. The morning was clear and all systems were ready.
Emma stood, holding her small personal duffle bag, at the edge of the embarkation stairs. Red lights outlined the launch building so her eyes quickly adjusted to the lingering darkness and stars shown clearly despite the eastern sky lightening to gray.
“I never thought about it much before,” Emma said. “But I’m going to miss the stars.”
“Yup, atmosphere’s too dusty for much stargazing on Mars,” James said as he stood rocking on his feet impatiently. “And there’s no full Moon to swoon over, either. Just a couple little rocks zipping by overhead.”
Ridiculous to notice the stars, Emma thought. I’ve never spent much time looking at the sky.
The transport ship that would take them to Mars had blasted into Earth orbit months ago atop heavy-lift rockets. Today the crew and the rest of the live cargo would follow in a space plane. Emma could see the atmospheric ferry of the hybrid craft hanging over the track above them.
Ground teams were loading the space plane – half the seats had been removed to allow for their cargo. Emma watched as they moved canisters of fish and mealworms, each with its own life support unit, and packs of sturdy young plants. Food for the body is food for the soul, as Liz would say. Last on board were cases of seeds packed in nitrogen.
The settlers, dressed in their uniform of cargo pants and striped shirts and each clutching a personal bag, walked up the stairs, waved back at the cameras mounted on the launch building, and stepped through the space plane’s hatch. The pilot welcomed them like they were tourists. He had nothing to do until the ferry released the plane at the top of the atmosphere, so he busied himself ensuring his passengers were comfortably strapped in. Emma felt the tingle in her gut grow as the ferry pilots called out their checklist over the com system.
Just hang on, Emma thought to herself, letting her breath out slowly. Nothing to do but hang on.
The hatch was sealed, the stairs retracted, and the craft began slowly accelerating. They each had a window and Emma watched as they circled the ring until the increasing speed forced her to relax back into her seat. There wasn’t the slightest bump when the craft transferred to the ramp. The ground dropped away as the mountains caught the first pink light of dawn.
The ferry fired its onboard boosters and vibrations shook the ship. With a terrifying thrill, Emma wondered if something had gone wrong, but the ship settled into a steady rumble beneath her and she loosened her grip on the armrests.
The pilots kept up a running commentary as they tacked through bands of strong winds. They skirted the jet stream near the top of the troposphere and continued up to the edge of space. The curve of the Earth stood out distinctly and the sky was black. At maximum velocity, Emma’s weight disappeared and only the harness straps tugged on her torso.
Emma was glued to her window when the pilot announced separation. The ferry clamps disengaged and Emma felt the seat drop under her. After a moment to clear the ferry, the plane pilot engaged his ion engines, and the force of the plane’s acceleration pushed Emma into her seat again.
It wasn’t long before the pilot cut the engines and they were weightless, cruising towards the Collins Space Dock. The dock was located at a Lagrangian point, a spot where the gravity of the Earth and Moon balance, where their transport ship was effectively parked. The Moon was a disk faintly illuminated by Earthshine and thinly rimmed by a crescent of light. Within an hour they spotted the ship with the enormous Moon, now half illuminated by the Sun, hanging beyond.
Settler Three didn’t look much like a spaceship. The heavy lift rockets and aerodynamic nosecone had been stripped away and sent back to Earth, leaving a cylinder. The solar collectors below the habitat module were still in their stowed position and three small engines with individual fuel tanks hung on the aft end, ready for the journey to Mars. Weirdly, smaller cylinders protruded at regular intervals. These were airlocks, welded on by the Collins teams. Once in Mars orbit the ship would disassemble and each module would land to become part of the settlement, connected at those airlocks.
It looks like something I made in kindergarten from cardboard tubes, Emma thought as she pressed against her window.
The space plane slowed and rolled, putting the ship out of view. Finally a shudder ran through the cabin as the pilot locked the docking clamps and the Collins dockhands opened the hatch.
Emma floated slowly through, crinkling her nose at her first whiff of the ship’s air, like hot metal, a smell picked up from ions in space and brought in on the dockhands’ gear. James slid past her like a swimmer under water.
“You okay?” he asked. “You look a little green.”
Emma smiled at him but continued her slow progress. She’d felt fine on the ride up, but now was dizzy.
“Ship: I’m James. Activate my transponder.”
“Welcome aboard, James.” The transport ship’s artificial intelligence voice was vaguely feminine. They each announced their presence.
Emma had trained in an identical habitat module. She could cross the living quarters in eight steps on Earth, though steps didn’t mean anything in zero-g. She clung to handholds at the edge of the airlock, kept her feet aimed at the gray floor, and pushed off gently. An oval table was mounted left of center, so it was a straight shot across to the second airlock where the Collins team’s shuttle was docked. To her right were cocoon-like bunks and to her left, the galley. Macronutrient cylinders stood against the hull there, floor to ceiling, and there was a food printer to extrude the nutrients into different shapes with, hopefully, appealing textures. In front of the galley, exercise equipment was bolted to the floor.
An Earth Scan sphere floated at the ceiling, glowing green. Apparently, the settlers’ arrival was a popular event.
Emma clung to a chair at the central table to survey her new home. The habitat module was configured for its ultimate use in Mars’ gravity, so floor and ceiling, up and down had meaning. The airlocks entered on the lower level, the living space. Above was the life support level with sanitary facilities. Wiring, ducts, and all the electronics were installed in the cylinder’s hull, hidden behind panels for the most part. The exceptions were sets of three small LED lights, each below a finned black heat sink protruding from the hull. They provided supplemental cooling for the individual servers behind panels – specialized, fault-tolerant, with a very low failure rate – the physical brain of the ship’s AI. Emma maneuvered in a slow circle, checking their status. No red lights glowed, which was good. In half or more, the center green light blinked a slow on-off rhythm. Those were installed spare capacity on stand-by. The rest were in use as the solid green lights indicated.
Watching her crewmates explore the habitat, Emma appreciated the effort Colony Mars made to balance their skills. Emma came to Colony Mars with a degree in robotics, and she also knew a lot about all the systems in the exploration rovers. That gave her a passable knowledge of life support, control systems, and coms applicable to the ship and the colony. As a lithologist, Claude would prospect for raw materials vital to their survival on Mars, but was cross-trained in life support, including all the utility installations required as the nederzetting expanded. James had primary knowledge of communications and the satellite systems orbiting Mars as well as AI administration.
Emma was cross-trained in biodynamics – the system of farming that was Liz’s specialty. Liz further cross-trained in medicine. They all had first aid training, of course, but Liz could perform basic surgery. One of her most important tasks would be to ensure they kept up with psych evaluations – since Ingra’s suicide those were scheduled monthly. The AI could remind them of the schedule but Liz was the human being who would, if necessary, cajole them into compliance.
Emma looked for outlets on the table legs and around the hull. Colony Mars insisted on plug-in pads so they provided lots of outlets. Emma reached one arm towards the bunks to guide herself over and stow her personal bag. She could touch both elbows against the inside wall of her bunk compartment, but at least she’d have a modicum of privacy, and zipped it closed as she left.
Dockhands in yellow coveralls dove back and forth from the space plane, bringing in cargo.
“Was there any trouble with the knarr?” Emma asked a nearby woman. She was feeling steadier already and balanced against her bunk with fingertips as she gestured towards the habitat floor. “The cargo module,” she added. Colony Mars conducted business in English, but words from other languages crept into their daily conversations.
She’d seen original Scandinavia knarrs on a trip to Demark, to museums preserving graceful wooden cargo boats from the Viking era. It seemed a grand term to apply to the can attached below them, studded with airlocks and packed with supplies – and with their exploration vehicles.
“We don’t have access to the knarr during the flight.” Emma was worried about her rovers and walkabouts. “If anything shifts, we’ll be out of luck.”
“Everything’s fine, ma’am,” the dockhand said. “The cargo’s packed so tight I doubt you could slip through to check even if there was a hatchway.”
As the space plane was unloaded, Emma steered the fish canister “up” to the life support deck through the open hatch. With a dockhand’s help, she hooked it into the water recycling system while Liz unpacked the seedling pots and slotted each plant into a special lighted cabinet.
Emma floated down the ladder head-first to watch the dockhands stow their seeds. They tossed the hard-sided cases from hand to hand. The last man was standing on the ceiling with his toes braced under stowage brackets.
Another dockhand floated in from the Collins’ shuttle, which was docked opposite the space plane. In one hand he held a large yellow duffle bag and in the other a small pet carrier with mesh sides. The carrier meowed insistently.
“Here’s your cat,” he said. “We picked a rusty colored kitten for a rusty colored world. Better not let him out until all the airlocks are sealed. He’s one hellion.” He grinned proudly. “We put a transponder on his collar for you. Ship – this is the cat.”
“Welcome aboard, Cat.”
Liz pushed off and bounced into the dock hand.
“Oops, sorry,” she said as he steadied them both against a handhold. “How old is he?” She took the carrier and peered inside.
“Eleven weeks. He was born on the Moon and he’s been on the dock platform with us for a couple weeks now, so he’s used to zero-g.”
Two more dockhands drifted in behind him, carrying large sacks against their chests.
“Here’s your cat food. There’s about six months worth of dry food for use on Mars, double bagged so the little tike can’t claw the sacks open. In space you’ll have to rehydrate these squeeze packets. Inject water here.” He fished a packet from a sack and pointed. “Squeeze the food out here. The cat knows how it works.”
The dockhand with the dry food kicked off towards the ceiling to stow the sack. He hung there as more sacks tumbled up to him from someone in the airlock.
“You better show me how the zero-g litter box works,” Emma said, swinging away from the life support hatch to let another dockhand through. “I see it’s already plumbed into the air system on the vacuum side.”
“What’s that?” Liz asked as yet more cat supplies arrived, this time a stack of stiff knobby fabric squares floated in through the airlock.
“These go on blank spots on the hull,” the cat man said. “The cat needs places to grip with his claws and to scratch. Sorry the color doesn’t match your hull, but we didn’t have time to bring up anything else from Earth.”
“Damn cat has a bigger gear allotment than I do,” James said as the dockhands glued the squares around the hull, leaving it crudely checker-boarded with green on beige.
“Tell me again why we’re taking a cat.”
“Because Ingra is dead and who’s going to say ‘no’ to the survivors?” Claude looked as dubious as James sounded.
“Cats are a wonderful diversion,” the cat man said. “You’ll be pleased to have him. Space is deadly dull most of the time.”
“I’m already pleased,” Liz said.
Emma was fairly sure James was feigning annoyance, and she hoped the cat man was right. Psychologists had prepared her for a long tedious journey so any diversion was welcome.
Once everything was stowed, the Collins Dock team wished them luck, said good-bye to the cat, and double-checked the airlock seals as they left. The space plane and the Collins shuttle undocked with a few clunks.
There wasn’t anything else to do. Settlers were passengers. The ship’s AI system and controllers at MEX would pilot them to Mars.
“Hold this so I can unzip it,” Liz said to Emma. The meowing stopped and a small striped head poked out. Liz cooed and inside the Earth Scan sphere at the ceiling the silver earnings hoop spun happily.
“Eleven weeks old? He looks awfully small.” James held out a finger for the cat to sniff.
“He’s only a kitten. Besides, the Loonies breed small cats. They don’t expect him to be more than half the size of typical house cat, full-grown.”
Suddenly the cat rocketed out of the carrier, sending Emma floating backwards. He bounced off the hull like a ping-pong ball, flailed his legs towards a fabric square, and clung there. He was an orange tabby with closely spaced tiger stripes, white paws, and a wild look in his yellow eyes.
“We should be named the biophilia mission,” Liz said. “Life-loving. There’s a theory, you know, that human beings need to be surrounded by nature to thrive, that we understand that on an instinctive level. A live animal is much better than a pet-bot. The cat, the fish, and the plants we’re bringing will be good for morale.” She shook her head sadly. “Too late for Ingra.”
The cat shot across the module.
“Kittens can fly, even on Earth,” Emma said. “This guy will be quite an acrobat in zero-g.
Since the weather had cooperated and the space plane took off on the first scheduled attempt, they had a week before the transport ship would leave orbit. They elected to immediately go on a standard Martian day – a sol – twenty-four hours, thirty-nine minutes and thirty-five seconds long. MEX was staffed full-time while their ship was in flight, so allowing their ship’s daybreak to drift through the Earth day was manageable for them. It presented a challenge for the crew, though.
“Time to adapt our circadian rhythms to a Martian day,” Liz said. “Ship – initiate our light therapy routine.”
“Done, Liz,” the ship said pleasantly.
“You’ve all tried this in training, so it should be easy. The ship will shift the module’s light level at the end of our day.”
“I know what the experts say,” James said. “Turn up the lights blue in the evening to reset our body-clocks. I’m not sure I need that – I never had trouble staying awake into the night.”
“I bet you overslept the next morning. Without light therapy, the extra-long day on Mars is like a little jet-lag every day.”
“We’ll be living inside a sealed habitat. Who cares if our body clocks are out of synch with the Sun?”
“I care, once we start prospecting,” Claude said. “If the colony stays on Earth time, habitat-morning and surface-morning won’t line up. I want full days to work.”
“Just as importantly, you’re going to be a Martian.” Liz was exasperated by James’ teasing.
James raised his hands in surrender. “I’m not objecting. Let’s add the extra forty minutes every day to the cocktail hour.”
Emma suppressed a laugh at the disapproval on Claude’s face.
“The extra minutes will be productive time, once we get to Mars,” she said. “But maybe James has a good idea for Saturdays.”
“Every day is Saturday now.” He gave her a wink.
He was right, since they didn’t have any work to do while the ship orbited, waiting for the perfect instant to break orbit. Emma practiced maneuvering in zero-g and began to enjoy gliding magically up and down the ladder. James preferred superhero leaps which often ended in tumbling crashes.
“Look there,” he said to Emma with a nudge as they both clung to the ladder after one spectacular save. Claude was turning somersaults above the table, towing the cat in a wide circle as it clung to one arm.
“In zero-g, even a serious old curmudgeon will play.”
They spent a lot of time on the net link to Earth – from orbit the transmission delay was barely noticeable. Liz played with the kitten, but Emma tried not to move around too much. She occasionally had a sudden sensation of falling and had to suppress the urge to flail around looking for “down”.
When MEX announced they were ready to break orbit, the crew tipped their bunks to the proper orientation for acceleration and strapped in. Liz cajoled the kitten back into his carrier and held it next to her.
As they waited, Emma plugged her pad into the bunk outlet and found a message from her mother, wishing a safe journey.
She must have checked the mission site for our departure time, Emma thought with a smile.
“Ready guys?” The MEX controller’s voice rang through the module. “Here we go.” And the engines fired.
Colony Mars used a standard transfer orbit for their missions. The ship was already in a high Earth orbit so a relatively small amount of thrust was needed to stretch the orbit out into a long ellipse where, mid-course, a short engine burn would send them to Mars. Even so, after a few days in zero-g the acceleration was uncomfortable. Vibrations rumbled through the ship and into the bunks, and the constant hum from life support seemed to push harder against Emma’s ears. The kitten yowled and Liz made comforting shushing sounds. The engines continued and Emma couldn’t hold her breath any longer. She closed her eyes, breathing out slowly, practicing her meditation routine. The minutes ticked by.
Then it was over. The engines cut out and zero-g returned. A small shift indicated thrusters had aimed the tail of the ship towards the Sun, so the packed knarr module would provide extra shielding against solar radiation.
Emma floated loosely against the straps. Liz unzipped the cat carrier and the kitten rocketed out and up to the life support deck.
They were all euphoric and bounced together, hugging and laughing.
“Ow, ow,” James said as they bounced him into the hull. Emma wanted to run and jump, but there was nowhere to go. After a few summersaults in the restored zero-g, following Colony Mars’ recommendations seemed the only thing to do. They gathered in front of the galley imager, floating arm-in-arm in semblance of standing together, and took turns describing the start of their journey. At MEX, controllers reviewed the ship’s diagnostics and quietly confirmed they were on course to Mars.
“We’ve got enough vid,” MEX said. “Thanks, guys.”
Claude plugged in his pad.
“I’ve got a personal message. Mind if I play it on the big screen?”
The others turned to their own pads, offering him what little privacy they could.
“I wanted to show you my wife, Emma,” Claude said. “Come watch.”
He opened a vid of a slender lady dressed in a red parka, standing on a windy shore.
“That’s my wife,” he said. His face was impassive, but tears spread a sheen of moisture across his face.
The vid must have been taken from a boat. The camera pulled away from the lady and, as she grew small on the screen, she waved. Claude cleared his throat and wiped his face.
“We’re going to stay married,” he said. “There are benefits from Colony Mars for a spouse, and she deserves them.”
“It must be hard to leave her behind,” Emma said.
“Since I was selected, we’ve been like kids. Sophia moved back to Germany, and every day I had off we met somewhere, every place in the world we said we wanted to visit. It’s been great.” He wiped his face again as the vid ended and the screen went blank.