“The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning.” Carl Sagan
Settlers arrived on Mars generations ago, sent by rivals on Earth. Kamp Kans was the first colony, established by visionaries from Europe’s Low Countries near the volcanoes of the Tharsis Bulge. Half a planet away, Fenghuang District was sent by a Sino-African cartel to the lowlands of Utopia Planatia. Neither Earther group could bear the vast expense of interplanetary missions for long, so the few dozen colonists joined together in a struggle to survive on their own. But survival of the Earth-borns wasn’t enough. If humans were to make the hostile planet their home, the colony had to grow.
Iron and copper was found near Kamp, and water and air were relatively plentiful at District. When prospectors discovered technology metals in the Tartarus Mountains, midway between the settlements, the settlers could finally fabricate more equipment, including squads of robots to work on Mars’ surface. From their new Cerberus Base, roboticists constructed a transit corridor to unite Kamp and District and, spaced along the route, they built burgs that each specialized in a vital technology. Now, no disaster at any one habitat could destroy the colony.
Finally feeling secure, the settlers had planned for everything except what happened.
Chapter One: Kamp Kans
Bliss stopped in the archway. The transit corridor was behind her and the largest city on Mars was in front, home to half the settlers on the planet, six hundred eighty-one people. She stepped through the arch. Now there were six hundred eighty-two. It looked like all of them were swarming through the plaza.
Apprehension tinged Bliss’s excitement. Kamp’s plaza was a standard colony bay, a hundred paces long, but at home there were only twenty-four settlers. In front of Bliss was a whirl of people like a human sand storm reverberating with sound. A man erupted from the throng and headed straight towards her at a gallop.
“Hey, you!” A woman in crisp khaki coveralls ran after him.
Bliss jumped back only to bump into someone behind her. She spun around, apologizing.
“Hello, little lady.” Bliss had a glimpse of a scraggily beard and a grin full of teeth as the man grabbed her elbow to steady her, then disappeared down the corridor.
“So, you’re in league with that miscreant.” The khaki woman planted herself in front of Bliss, fists on hips. She interrupted Bliss’s confused stammer to point straight at her chest.
Bliss looked down to find a small bolt of fabric in her arms. The grinning man had slammed it against her and her hands reflexively clutched the short roll.
She held the fabric out, trying to explain.
“I’ve never seen you before.” The woman’s eyes narrowed but she made no move to take the roll.
“Give the girl a break.” A circle of people had formed around them and another man pushed through. “I was watching. That Basic dumped it on her.”
“If this is yours, please take it.” Bliss held the fabric out. “I don’t know anyone here. I’ve only just arrived from Hibes.”
“You nederlanders need to get smart in a hurry.” The khaki woman took the roll. “You’re in Kamp now.”
Individuals disappeared back into the crowd.
Bliss slid through the horde to stand with her back against the plaza’s central pond. Her heartbeat slowed as she regained her equilibrium.
The woman called her nederlander. She didn’t understand exactly what had happened, but that was no reason to tag her as stupid. Stupid because she came from a burg, one of the small habitats strung along the colony’s transit corridor.
She plucked at her own shapeless coveralls. She’d scrubbed the smell of Hibes’ fish farm from them, but the fabric was worn thin in places and patched in others. Maybe she was a nederlander, but she had the same Basic Education as anyone on Mars. She had her new adult-qualification badge and an internship. And she planned to find a permanent job. She’d be a real Kamper soon, part of the colorful crowd surging through the plaza.
If she’d somehow made a mistake this sol, she’d apologize to the khaki woman. But later. Bliss had been traveling twenty-four and a half hours a sol for five sols, stopping at transit stations only to grab a meal and switch to a taxi with a charged battery.
I won’t look for that woman now, she thought. It made sense to follow her original plan tonight and her enthusiasm returned with the decision.
Bliss wanted excitement in her life and her arrival proved this was no boring little burg like Hibes. This was the much-expanded home of twenty-eight Earth-borns who’d arrived on Mars eight generations ago. Named in honor of an old robotic mission by Dutch visionaries who launched the colony, it was Kamp Kans – Opportunity Site. The first habitat was once called a nederzetting, she reminder herself. It was an honorable term. But she was a Kamper now.
She squared her shoulders and tipped her chin up proudly, defying any doubts.
Bliss had planned this move for as long as she could remember, all through Basic Education. Now she was here.
It was supper time and Kampers streamed by, headed through an archway that must lead to the cafeteria. Bliss smiled tentatively, but people hurried by without a sideways glance. When she did catch someone’s eye, they nodded back pleasantly enough. Most were dressed in khaki coveralls, clean even at the end of the sol, but there were frequent splashes of colorful shirts and bandanas. Kamp was a prosperous city and people had more than Basic goods.
Bliss leaned against a central pond built of waist-high stone and saw it didn’t simply house fish. Instead of aerators, a fountain burbled over decoratively stacked rocks at each end. Its sides were gleaming white, contrasting beautifully with the floor of massive stone fabricated from Martian sand in splotches of beige, brown, and orange. Fabricated walls curved to a barrel-vaulted ceiling that seemed higher than her home plaza, though she knew the bays were standard construction. It must be the colors and sounds that made Kamp’s plaza feel so big.
Bliss crossed the plaza with a light step, her pale auburn braid bouncing against her backpack. She was a city girl now, on her own for the first time, and she planned to enjoy every sol. She started by browsing kiosks selling Extras. It was like visiting every burg on Mars, only better. There were dates from Planitia Hamlet, apples from Olympus, and fabrics woven from Amenthes’ bioreactor outputs.
She spun around, startled at the sound of her name.
“Beeb, who’s calling me?”
“That is Nia calling you.” The colony’s Artificial Intelligence responded through her ear gel. “Her kiosk is to your right.”
Oh, yeah, Nia lived in Kamp now. She’d raised a family in Hibes and was an aunt to Bliss – her children were Bliss’s kinderen cousins. Last jaar Nia returned to Kamp, her childhood home, when her last boy adult-qualified. Only my parents, Bliss thought, want to spend their whole life in Hibes, smelling of fish guts and mealworm bedding.
She spotted the short, energetic woman and waved.
Nia kept ties with Hibes and bought their mealworms to sell, spiced using a recipe Bliss’s parents had developed. Bliss breathed in the familiar smell as she approached a sample bowl on Nia’s counter and reached for a worm. She had to admit, they were delicious, and reached for another.
“None of that, girl,” Nia said sharply. A tight pony tail emphasized her wide face and stern expression. “Your mother told me you’ve got a position in Kamp, so you can buy a bag like everyone else.”
Bliss gripped her pack’s shoulder straps with both hands to keep them from wandering back to the worms. A man waiting at the counter chuckled.
Nia handed the man a bag of freshly fried worms, reached into a tub behind the counter, and dumped a handful into a pan.
“Don’t be telling your mother they aren’t fresh,” she said as Bliss leaned forward and frowned at the pan. “I freeze them before cooking. Kampers don’t like to see their mealworms writhing when they hit the heat.
“When do you start your job?” Nia asked.
“In a couple sols.”
“I could use some help. Want a job in the kiosk until then?”
“Oh, no,” Bliss said. “I came early so I can look around.”
Nia harrumphed with a parental sort of disapproval. But Bliss clamped her lips together tightly, refusing to be swayed.
“Which job did you get?” Nia asked without looking up from her pan.
“Building a public park. The first one on Mars.”
“That’s Vance’s project, isn’t it? You’ll be working in a surface suit. Did you know that?”
“Of course.” The project sounded grand, though Bliss didn’t know much more than what she’d told Nia. The intern posting was vague. She hadn’t told her parents it required surface-qualification, though of course her father looked it up. With her mother, he tried to talk her out of taking the job, saying risks on the surface were too great for a recreational park, for anything non-essential.
She said goodbye to Nia without buying any mealworms and slipped back into the crowd.
Despite being a Kamper, Nia had fit in with Bliss’s parents at Hibes – practical like they were and always working. Bliss understood why there was little time for play. There were as many tasks vital to survival in a little burg as in a city. Life support had to be maintained with human hands – all those pumps and compressors and fans. Ignoring a rattle or leak could lead to a system failure. Mars was a deadly planet and technology kept them alive.
Beyond life support, wastes had to be recycled, clothes cleaned, food cooked – and then the fish and mealworms tended. While Bliss was growing up there were only eight adults in Hibes with their gaggle of children, so she learned to work hard, even if she couldn’t resist sneaking off sometimes to play games or view entertainments. She’d always felt guilty when her mother tracked her down in some corner, but she also knew there was more to life than raising fish and children.
Of course, one thing her parents never did was go out on the planet’s surface. Each burg had a squad of robots to construct new bays and harvest air and water from the scant supply in Martian sand dunes. Not a large squad like the one constructing bays for Kamp, just three bots controlled by the colony’s AI. But when they needed human maintenance, specialists came to Hibes.
A surface requirement added a thrill to the intern posting. Bliss was glad her parents had argued with her, because that gave her a reason to dig in her heels. Being contrary had advantages. It ensured she applied for the position, guaranteed she’d accept it, and made it easy to push any of her own misgivings aside.
People go out on the surface all the time, she’d told her parents with exaggerated patience. It’s perfectly safe.
Water on Mars coming in late November 2016 – two ways to ensure you don’t miss the release. Subscribe to my Reader’s Club or sign up with Smashwords. Don’t miss out! An in the meantime, catch up with the first three On Mars books.