The seaside resort of Noordwijk was a strange place to train for a mission to the barren deserts of Mars, but Colony Mars had its tidy headquarters north of the Dutch city, inland from the deep dunes of the beach. Sightseers hurried through the visitors’ center to join guided tours of a Martian colony mockup and settler-candidates stopped between austere buildings to admire the summer flowers that replaced spring tulips.
Emma was about to start her last English-language tour when her link beeped an incoming message – the tone for “urgent”. One family was still coming up the ramp, two young boys ricocheting among signs diagramming the mockup of the colony. Emma turned discreetly to one side and tapped her headset.
“There’s a mission problem.” Emma didn’t check her contact lens for metadata – that was the mission lead’s voice in her ear. “Come to the control room as soon as duties allow.”
A chill ran through Emma. Maybe her launch date had slipped. Maybe they’d miss the window entirely and she’d remain on Earth, temporarily reprieved. Why was that the first thought that came to her? Must be pre-launch jitters.
Emma was about to fly on Settler Mission Three and her journey depended on a narrow launch window. Balancing the planets’ orbital dance with fuel requirements, Colony Mars could launch a mission every twenty-six months. If they missed it, there’d be a twenty-six month delay. But Emma excelled at focusing on the task at hand, so she turned her attention back to her tour group.
“If we’re all ready? My name is Emma Winters and I’m a Martian settler. In twelve days, Colony Mars will launch me and three crewmates into orbit to board our transport ship. 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 at headquarters. 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 from Africa 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 piles of parts at every step. On Mars, we use low tech wherever we can.” Emma spun 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 Mission Control 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. Rather than the usual cheery greeting, the attendant nodded grimly. Alarmed, Emma laid her hand on the scanner, a door concealed in the wall clicked open, and she 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 a stadium-style control room, behind two dozen stations, each arranged like an individual cockpit, and scanned the room for Filip Krast, the stocky MEX mission control 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 a 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?”
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.