#GloryOnMars #OnMars Chapter Four: Journey

I’ve finished the draft of my new novel about colonizing Mars. Let me know what you think – I’m still making changes.

If you missed the story’s beginning, start reading here.

space_treadmill_cropped

Exercising in space – NASA Photo ISS021-E-028204.

The journey soon became monotonous. Emma knew she wasn’t the only one to think so, because the Earth Scan sphere, which continued to float at the habitat ceiling, shrunk and glowed a sedate orange.

Emma expected a lot of things would set her teeth on edge. There was the constant hum of life support’s pumps and compressors, more noticeable than the HVAC systems in earthly office buildings. There was vibration, a tremor always present, that she noticed whenever she touched fingertips against a surface. There was the repetitive sound of the flexion machine; since MEX scheduled each of them for two hours of exercise every day, the machine was in use half the time she was awake. At least the ship provided good headphones and they were trained to not sing out loud with their music. But mostly cabin fever would develop because she was sealed in a can with three other human beings.

Duties were part of her individualized plan and she regularly inspected life support equipment on the upper deck – tightening fittings, torquing bolts, and recording pressures. The hum was louder on the upper deck so sometimes she’d pull on her headphones, curl in a ball above the hatch, and mediate as she floated along the aisle to the air intake.

Meditation helped manage isolation. Every afternoon the crew meditated together, which was supposed to build a community bond. Emma would open an eye to peek at the others. James preferred to place himself, cross-legged, upside down in relation to everyone else. He often had a sly smile on his face as he floated in classic lotus position, a novice achieving the yogic levitation that eluded adepts on Earth.

Emma paid careful attention to her exercises, her sleep schedule, and her meals. Every day the experts at MEX sent an evaluation of her previous day, right down to breathing rates during sleep. Experts on the ground kept detailed records, including her recreational time on the net, looking for any negative psychological patterns. But MEX didn’t have access to everything. Personal messages remained private and the AIs relayed them automatically without any interference from MEX controllers. Too much surveillance, the experts noted, led to paranoia.

Colony Mars continued to study the settlers during the flight but they weren’t employees anymore. Salaries stopped when they left Earth orbit, though there was some sort of stipend available for spouses left behind – Claude had explained how that worked. Emma had donated all her savings back to Colony Mars.

MEX and the ship’s AI managed the flight. The crew’s main obligation was maintenance, and that included cleaning. As Liz observed, wherever human beings go they take billions of microbes with them, and even organisms that are beneficial to life can damage systems in a sealed habitat. Once a week they opened all the hull panels to release any damp stagnant air. Liz slid swab samples into a handheld analytical unit and prescribed a spray from their biocide supply when necessary.

Colony Mars put as much development effort into waste handling as it did into rockets and engines. Nothing was actually viewed as waste, so they had to compact or compost everything and carry it on to Mars. They rotated responsibility for cleaning the sanitary unit in life support.

“Just think,” James said as he pulled himself up the ladder hand over hand for his turn. “Colony Mars spent billions to turn me into a toilet attendant.”

“They couldn’t have picked a better person for the job,” Claude said.

Emma chuckled at their banter. James had a knack for cheering everyone up, even Claude when he had a gloomy spell.

Emma spent hours on the ship’s net link. Reading and viewing dominated her time as the transmission lag length dragged out to minutes and chatting with Earth became awkward. She received lots of images of her mother’s travels, but nothing from her father.

As the experts recommended, she respected her crewmates’ privacy. Meals were the designated communal time, when conversation was encouraged. But sometimes news couldn’t wait.

Liz, I got a message from Malcolm, Emma texted across the module. Claude was exercising and wouldn’t notice, but James sat at the table, deeply involved in something on his pad, and she didn’t want to disturb him.

Rather than text back, Liz raised an eyebrow from across the module.

S-4 isolation eval is done and Malcolm washed out – dropped as a settler.

Liz drifted over to Emma and they turned their backs to the imagers. Emma glanced up at the Earth Scan sphere which had brightened to a golden yellow this morning. Perhaps MEX had released a new infotainment on S-4’s final crew selection.

“Oh, Emma.” The white noise that filled the habitat easily concealed her whisper.

“He was counting on following you on the next mission. Are you okay?” She reached for Emma’s arm with a touch of sympathy.

Liz meant well, but annoyance bubbled up. She had fun with Malcolm, but she’d succeed on her own. She liked him, sure, everyone did.

Emma looked down at Malcolm’s message displayed as text. Well, maybe not everyone…

I took your advice and talked to my mission counselor. You shouldn’t have told me to do that, because she never liked me. All I did was show some concern for Ingra’s death and she flunked me out. It’s so unfair. I registered a protest but the mission leader’s just as bad. It’s all over for me – the dream of Mars. They took it away. But I can still take care of you. There’s a controller job open on the satellite team. As a failed settler I have priority for another job and I’m fully qualified. It’s miserable consolation, but took it. I’ll be here.

She hesitated to show Liz the message. It gave her a little shiver as she reread the words. He was upset so some bitterness was understandable. And he loved her, Emma felt certain.

“He says he’s got a job as a MEX controller for the Mars satellite systems.”

“That’s a big team. There must be fifty guys managing the satellites between communications, GPS, weather, and the power station. They don’t talk to the settlers much, though.”

“It’s okay – really.”

Liz gave Emma a hug and pushed off, drifting back across the module.

Actually, it’s fine, Emma admitted to herself.

***

James had no trouble filling his days. He was finishing a PhD thesis, which occupied him for endless hours, headphones on, sometimes typing, sometimes scrawling on his screen with a stylus. He moved a chair and bolted it to the deck facing into his open bunk to make a study carrel. He spent so much time he needed the bunk fan running so the carbon dioxide he breathed out wouldn’t build up around his head.

“What’s your thesis topic again?” Emma asked at lunch-time conversation.

“It’s sort of abstract.” He sounded apologetic. “It’s a theory of quantum cohomology. Kinda hard to explain without the math equations.” James frowned.

“Actually, with my implants deactivated, it’s hard for me to follow, too.”

“You have cerebral implants? Wow. But why are they deactivated? I thought those were biologically powered.” Emma stopped, embarrassed.

“Sorry. I know that’s a private matter.”

“It’s okay.” James smiled, tight lipped. “We’re going to be as close as any people can get. Batteries aren’t the problem, but a lack of technical support – calibrations and periodic rebalancing of my brain chemistry. None of the necessary equipment will be sent to Mars until Settler Mission Fifteen at the earliest.”

“That’s, like, twenty-five years from now.”

“The implants will be permanently inactive by then.” James sighed with resignation. “Not that it matters. University’s not the world I’m competing in now.” But he frowned. Emma supposed losing a mental edge so suddenly would hurt. Liz must have seen that, too. She floated to James and gave his arm a pat.

“You’re giving up a lot of technology in return for the privilege of spreading life to a dead world.”

“I get to keep my high-tech, my robotics,” Emma said. “Liz, unless we need a medic, you get the low-tech.”

“I like gardening. Manual labor is low tech, sure, but it’s a timeless connection to our ancestors. The high-tech is in the seeds – we have the best biological stock.”

“Hey, I’m learning to be a pilot.” James’ good humor quickly rebounded. “This ship has a simulator.”

“That sounds more like you, anyway,” Liz said.

“Kamp has two jumpships and two pilots, but they want to train backups. It’s not too hard – the AI does most of the work.” He grinned wickedly. “The simulator lets me nosedive into some spectacular crashes.”

“So that’s what your shouting’s been about,” Emma said. “Somehow, I doubt crashing will get you behind real controls anytime soon.”

“What are you up to, Claude?” Emma asked politely. Claude had been quiet and Emma wondered if he was missing his wife.

“I set up a net site for geology students at my old university.” Claude transferred his pad image to the main screen.

“Have you got them submitting papers to you?” James asked.

“I like to keep track of their research, so I offered my services as editor.”

“What’s this?” James pointed to a sidebar of links.

“Proposals for deploying the prospecting drill we’re carrying. I’m considering their suggestions. Kamp Kans will need to mine metals if we’re going to survive.”

James snorted.

“It looks to me like you’re assigning homework. You can’t be anyone’s favorite professor.”

Claude rapped his pad in irritation and the main screen went blank.

“Just kidding, professor.” James affected an innocent expression that made Emma laugh despite herself.

Claude sulked. “This is my technical outlet. I’m a Martian lithologist, but I’ll spend my first year on survival projects – pulling cables and laying pipes in the new settlement bays.”

“I think it’s wonderful to stay in touch with past students,” Liz said with a thin lipped frown to James.

“I understand Claude’s frustration,” Emma said. “I have to help Liz get the mealworms and gardens established before I’m scheduled to deploy the exploration units. When I got a degree in robotic engineering, I didn’t expect to become a subsistence farmer.”

“Farming’s a great job. Panspermia in reverse,” Liz said with a smile. “Some people think that life came to Earth from the stars. So it seems appropriate for Earth to spread life out to the stars.”

“Mars isn’t very far out,” James said.

“It’s a start.”

“You never worry about contaminating Mars with Earth life,” Emma said. There were still groups agitating to stop colonization of Mars for that very reason. “What if we kill off Martian life?”

“If there’s any life on Mars, it’s dying today. If we find it, we’ll nurture it. Humanity is good for Mars.”

“Liz will set a heater on some patch of ice and have red trees towering over us in no time.” James meant it as a joke, but he’d reminded them of Ingra looking for oak trees as she stumbled out the airlock to her death.

“I’m keeping up with all the reports from my company on rovers and walkabouts.” Emma tried to keep the conversation going. As usual, she didn’t mention it was her father’s company. “With two of each in the knarr module, we’ll get to explore the surface.”

The main screen suddenly activated, repeating the last entertainment they’d watched.

“Ship, did you turn that on?” Claude asked.

“Yes, Claude.”

“Why?”

“A settler requested the screen be turned on.”

The kitten was clinging to the bottom of the frame, batting at the screen with one paw.

“That’s kinda scary,” James said. “The ship takes orders from a cat.”

“Ship, don’t open any airlocks for the cat, okay?”

“Don’t worry,” the AI said. “I understand he’s a cat. I have modeled his access as ‘human toddler’. Besides, airlock operation is manual.”

***

The kitten was a great distraction and MEX asked for more vids of his antics. Liz found her pad would project a red dot of laser light for him to chase. He found all the spots in the habitat where he could get a grip with his claws, and would streak wildly around the module or launch across the room, legs stretched out and toes spread wide.

They took turns feeding him from small tubes of mushy food. He’d grip the hand holding a tube with his front claws, and lick at a little blob as it squeezed out. They had to be careful with water, which tends to crawl around in space like something alive. Feeding was a slow business, but the cat liked the attention and purred lustily throughout. Soon everyone’s hands were laced with fine pink streaks from his claws.

One morning, James’ shouts woke Emma. She hurriedly squirmed into her clothes and unzipped her bunk.

Flakes of something floated in the habitat, like a beige snow storm. She pulled the neck of her shirt over her nose to avoid breathing in…

“What is this stuff?”

“It’s just wheat bran,” Liz said through the hands she held over her face. “We have sacks of it for mealworm bedding. It’s stowed with the seed cases at the ceiling.” She pulled herself towards the storage brackets.

An orange blur rocketed past. The cat.

“Looks like the cat tore open a sack.”

Emma heaved a sigh. The tingle of fear in her stomach subsided. There was nothing to worry about. Well, there was one thing. Emma zipped her bunk shut tight.

“This is going to plug the air filters.”

“I’ll take the filter off…” James said.

“No, wait. Then the bran will get sucked into the compressors. Let me.” She swam up the ladder to life support.

“Hey, Settler Three. What’s going on?” an MEX controller said over the module link. The transmission lag was becoming annoying.

“It’s okay. Just a bag of wheat bran broke open, that’s all,” Liz said.

Emma returned with some large squares of plush filter medium in light frames.

“Brush off as much bran as you can, then put a clean filter in front. Like this.” Emma slid the new filter up as she brushed bran off the one installed in the hull. Airflow held it in place as bran collected on the surface.

“We just keep changing the filters until we collect all the bran. We’ll need bags, and where’s that vacuum cleaner?”

Liz floated over, passing out dust masks from the medical kit. They drifted in the swirling bran storm, waiting for the filters to collect enough to vacuum off. The cat clung with his back claws to a fabric square on the hull, wildly swiping at flakes floating by.

They spent all day cleaning. Even though it got tedious after a while, Emma welcomed the break in routine.

***

Holidays also broke the routine and brightened the Earth Scan sphere. Oktoberfest was an international festival, so everyone appreciated that. They celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving for Liz and Halloween for James. Claude had lived many years in California, so he was happy with North American choices, but added Martinmas. There weren’t any candles on board, of course, but he dimmed the module lights and looped a vid on the main screen of children singing and carrying lanterns through a forest.

“That looks like fun,” Emma said. “Why lanterns?”

“It gets darker earlier each evening until deep winter. During the cold dark months, people have to make their own light, so children carry lanterns to the neighbors.”

“I prefer Halloween,” James said. “Then I get candy.”

Emma expected Claude to grumble at James, but he looked lost in his own thoughts.

“Let’s eat,” she said brightly.

While tanks of macronutrients couldn’t provide much holiday cheer, even extruded into funny shapes by the food printer, there were a few treats in the galley cabinets – dried fruit, chocolate, textured cheese, and some squeeze tubes of wine and beer.

“Beer loses something in a squeeze tube,” Claude said sadly. “I can’t watch bubbles rise or smell the brew properly.”

“I can’t smell anything anyway,” Emma said. “My head’s all stuffed up and achy. I feel like I’m hanging upside down.”

“As your medic,” Liz said, “all I can suggest is grin and bear it. You’ll feel better when you get some gravity under your feet.”

“I know what you need,” James said. He maneuvered up to the ceiling and unfastened a few bungee cords.

“Hey,” Claude said. “Those hold cargo in place.”

“Oh, relax, Professor. The cargo’s not going anywhere.” He pushed off from the ceiling and landed next to Emma.

“I bungee myself against my bunk wall at night. Try it. You can snuggle into the sleeping roll. You’ll feel better all day after a good sleep.” He grinned at Claude. “It improves your mood. Want to try, Professor?”

“Well, I’m going to,” Emma said, taking the bungees. “Thanks.”

***

Shortly after American Thanksgiving the mid-point engine burn approached. The ship was still in an elongated elliptical orbit around Earth and had to increase velocity to transfer to a Mars orbit. If the engines didn’t fire, their ship would start a long fall back to Earth. Malcolm reminded her of that in another message.

“He said, this is my chance to return to Earth,” she whispered to Liz. “He wants me to tell MEX to call off the burn – let the ship fall back to Earth.”

“Does MEX know he’s saying these things?” Liz asked. “I bet they wouldn’t appreciate Malcolm trying to sabotage the mission.

“You don’t want to go back, do you?” Liz spoke with a cautiously neutral tone like psychologists used, but her eyes narrowed.

Emma’s back straightened and her shoulders squared. The journey was going well and she was happy – there was no reason to abort the orbital transfer.

“I’m going to tell him everything’s fine and that I’m committed to Mars.”

“Good,” Liz said, relaxing into a smile. “I know how to take your mind off Malcolm. I want to neuter the kitten now, so he’ll heal before the engine burn. You can help me set up the surgical kit later after lunch.”

She told Claude and James at lunch.

“Guys, it’s time for my big medical procedure. I need to pull one of the downdraft panels from life support to use here on the table.”

“Okay,” James said. “But I don’t see why you have to neuter the poor little fellow. He’ll be the only cat in the world. It’s not like he’ll make babies by himself.”

“He’ll be a better citizen. It’ll keep him cuddly and prevent any objectionable male behaviors.”

“Don’t look at me when you say that.” James kicked out of his chair and up to the ceiling in mock distress.

“Don’t worry, James, you’re safe. A colony wouldn’t make much sense without children, would it?”

Emma laughed with the others, but her fingers rubbed the spot on her upper arm where her contraceptive chip was embedded. She couldn’t feel it, but it was there, reliably pumping out hormones until she shut it off with the little device in her duffle bag. That was one personal electronic device she got to keep. But Colony Mars hadn’t scheduled the first Martian pregnancy for another five years. That allowed time for S-4, the Doctors, to arrive with a sample of frozen embryos.

All the research said Colony Mars’ chosen cryochamber design was impervious to the dangers of space flight, but with an abundance of caution S-4 would confirm the embryos remained viable and set up a medical bay for future pre-natal care. S-4 would have been Malcolm’s mission, Emma thought dryly. He’d cross-trained as a physician’s assistant, but Colony Mars replaced him with a full-fledged doctor who had a psych specialty. A replacement for Malcolm and for Ingra.

And after the Doctors would come S-5, the Kinderen mission.

S-5 was the only all-female mission, a chance to jump-start the settlement’s first generation. Colony Mars never used the term “breeders” in their PR – it was too harsh, too clinical. They preferred to keep the public’s attention focused on the children to come. That’s why, they explained when Emma had once asked, S-5 was the Kinderen and not the Mothers Mission.

Colony Mars was about to announce finalists for the Kinderen mission.

Ironically, the cat was neutered that same afternoon. Liz used a specially prepared surgical kit and he recovered quickly. James sagely observed that his behavior was as objectionable as ever.

***

The ship’s AI announced the engine burn an hour in advance and, tracking his transponder, helped Liz and Emma find the cat wedged between some pipes in a particularly warm spot in life support. He protested as Emma pulled him out, stuffed him into the carrier Liz held waiting, and sucked at the scratch on her hand.

They tipped the bunks into acceleration position and strapped in. Emma gathered her hair into one hand. It was long enough to put back and she twisted on a stretch-tie. They were secure far enough in advance for James to complain about the wait before the AI began the final countdown.

Despite being ready for acceleration, Emma could hardly breathe through the burn. The cat meowed pitifully. Emma was beginning to worry the ship would send them into the asteroid belt when the pressure evaporated and she sucked in a deep, shaky breath.

“The course correction is completed,” the AI announced. “Engine performance was within parameters.”

Emma glanced at the Earth Scan sphere, which was a soft orange. Apparently news of the successful burn hadn’t registered on Earth yet.

“Yee ha!” James pulled his straps loose. “Next stop Mars.”

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One thought on “#GloryOnMars #OnMars Chapter Four: Journey

  1. Pingback: #OnMars #GloryOnMars Chapter Three: Goodbye Earth | Kate Rauner

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