Short Story: The Well

A series of long, rectangular modules interconnecting domes stole the rusted horizon. They rose from the dirt, dust-covered red and brown from high-winds and a oxygen-starved atmosphere. The city, Uruk, had originally been a lone, dome-rectangle module built to house a small team of astronauts. Their mission had been to make the Red Planet habitable. A few decades after having succeeded, Mars was thriving.

Uruk, named for the first, modern city in human history, had become Mars’ premiere settlement, and thus, the largest settlement outside Earth-orbit. Countless orbital stations contrived artificial gravity and took residence there still, but none compared to the masterpiece of human ingenuity, perseverance, and sheer will of Uruk. In merely three decades, Mars had gone from a settlement of five to over ten-thousand. Likewise, the astronauts’ lone module had grown to upwards of 5,000, not including the various modules required for vital systems, manufacturing, agriculture and the like.

Amid the glorious madness of it all was Commander Jenna Thomason; pushing fifty without looking a day past thirty-eight, eternally fit, and dark eyed with marbled steel and onyx hair. Contrary to expectations, no-one on Mars had aged prematurely from colony living. In fact, aside from a few, minor colds and pre-exisiting conditions, people were in pristine health.

Over the years, Jenna had become something of an icon; she’d been one of first, true residents, having arrived on the last, scientific deployment to Mars. She and four others were to complete the final preparations before the arrival of the colony ship en-route. Jenna had no reason to return to Earth afterward, and like the others, had elected to stay to ease the colonists’ transition.

Unofficially, she was looked at as Uruk’s leader; a Mayor of sorts, despite the position belonging to another woman (who often deferred to her.) Presently, the two were strolling through a series of modules in the “city quarter,” where most business and civil services were conducted. The dome-modules there were roughly a kilometer wide, multi-leveled, and arranged in such a way as to hide their curvature.

Their connecting hallways were another story; thick, with rubber-sealed windows offering views of neighboring stacked, steel modules, imposing edges and rises of domes, or if at the edges of the settlement, endless rusty expanses the faded into browns further along the horizon. It was beside one of these windows Jenna and Mayor Cline found themselves. Jenna stopped to talk, watching dust tossed about in a wind that whistled on the deceptive tundra beneath the sunlight.

“I’ve instructed maintenance to halt all other operations and begin repairs,” Cline said.

Jenna nodded, “And you’re hoping I have a solution. I don’t. I’ve been in this city longer than anyone, and we’ve always known it was only a matter of time. I’ve made weekly inquiries with Earth for twenty years, but no-one’s done a thing about it.”

“There must be something,” Cline urged.

“It’s been done, Sarah,” Jenna replied firmly. “We’ve deployed dew-collectors, and water reclamation systems, but the fact is Mars’ water-supply resides at the poles in its ice. We knew that when we arrived. Finding the subsurface glacier was luck, it was never meant to last.”

Cline’s face sank, “You’re saying you won’t help?”

Jenna palmed her forehead, “There’s nothing to help. Uruk is out of water. We lose too much to evaporation and agriculture to keep up. It’s always been a system of diminishing returns.”

“Are you trying to say “I told you so?”

Jenna leaned forward against a window sill, braced herself with a deep breath, “I would never be that spiteful, Sarah, let alone about this. Ten-thousand people is a lot of water. What we need to do is begin rationing. Put people on water budgets. But we need an accurate measurement of our current resources, and projections for measures to be emplaced.”

Cline’s frown cut deep curves into her cheeks and brow, “There’s going to be a lot of backlash, and it’s only prolonging the inevitable, not fixing it.”

“Backlash is better than death by dehydration,” Jenna reminded. Cline winced. “Put maintenance on stand-by. I’ll lead a team to survey the Well. Meanwhile, someone’s going to need to be review our current water usage to examine our options. I’ll look at them when I’m back. I suggest overseeing the process until then.”

Cline was less than satisfied, but recognized her authority, “I’ll see you soon, then.”

The two parted ways, and Jenna immediately set to gathering a team, exosuits, and supplies. Her group of four met in a module outside Uruk’s water-treatment plant. There, an airlock lead to a catwalk, and in turn, to Mars’ bowels and the small, glacial reservoir contained beneath it. For nearly thirty years, “The Well” had been relied on as Uruk’s main water-source. Unfortunately, ait was never meant to last, nor even to be relied upon in the first place. The ice-caps were, but given the nearby reservoir, all plans for a connecting line had been put on hold for more urgent matters at the time. In Uruk, urgent matters always abounded– such was the nature of planetary colonization. Thus, the pipe-line was never completed.

The team’s survey concluded enough water for three months remained. On proper rationing, Jenna estimated the time could be doubled. Two to Three days after that sixth month, people would begin dying of dehydration without either a solution, or the first of several, unlikely shipments from Earth. Mars and its people could rely on Earth’s hospitality, however.

That left one, worthwhile solution; several thousand kilometers of pipeline between Uruk and Mars’ North pole need be erected. Even if the project could finished in time, and there were considerable doubts, it would take almost every person in Uruk working nearly ’round the clock. The projections weren’t promising.

Sara Cline, elected and esteemed Mayor of Uruk, called a conferences. Every person in the city was required to attend, or view the broadcast piped across all channels of the city’s televisions. Cline stood before thousands of people, muster all the confidence she could, and with Jenna at her side for morale began to speak.

“It is with dire need that I come to you, Uruk. It has been brought to my attention that our water is running low. To preserve our stores, we must– regrettably– impose a ration limiting families to a thousand liters per week.” She waited for the griping to wane, then continued, “I know it will be difficult, but other matters demand our more immediate attention.” She glanced back at Jenna for courage. The public icon did her best to impart what she could. The crowd noticed, quieted. “We require every last body working to rectify the problem so we may never again be troubled by such matters.”

Jenna stepped up, ready to speak professionally on the plan’s logistics, but saw the concerned faces and sighed, “I’m not going to lie to you. Things aren’t looking good: In less than six months, we must begin and complete a pipeline spanning the distance between Uruk and the North Pole.” There was an audible murmur from the assembled few thousand people. “In order to do that, it will require every one of us working double-shifts.”

The crowd went silent again, but Jenna sensed their collective ire and anger. She did her best to rouse their passion in the proper manner. “One hundred years ago, people said we’d never reach the moon. Forty-five years ago, people said we could never survive on Mars. Today, I am saying we can, but only if we work together. This task should not be seen as insurmountable, but rather difficult, a challenge to be overcome. Our species has time and again proven its innate ability to not only survive, but to thrive. We overcome the difficult, make possible the impossible, all by virtue of our existence. Knowing that we must now turn our sights to the Pole and begin work should hone our focus. I, for one, set my sights there voluntarily, to toil as others will. I ask only that you join me.”

She went quiet, the room dead silent until applause began to rise to a crescendo. Whistles and hoots came with it. Someone said something about loving Jenna while tears formed in her eyes.

Six months to the day later, she and a team of tired, stinking workers stood in the newly constructed module of “Polar pump station-1.” The flick of a switch prompted the start of a water-flow. Minutes later, a radio echoed a confirmation of positive pressure at Uruk. The room exploded in cheers. Jenna smiled; such was the power of Humanity in the face of adversity.

Short Story: Home

Resplendent beams of gold waved over the rusted horizon. The rays winked and glittered along frost-tinted ground, rebounded off it and back up into the atmosphere. The soil had long been deprived of life, or so the surveys had said. In its absence, only clumped balls of hard minerals remained. Every handful of dirt grabbed up, held against only until a slight pressure pulverized it to dust.

The gloved-hand of Mars-one’s Dr. Cameron Markinson did just that. She let the Red-Planet’s malnourished life-blood trickle through her fingers. It caught a north wind, whisked away and dispersed until invisible. Lead-weight steps of low-g boots deposited a figure in place beside her; Commander Mackenzie Williams, always an imposing figure, made one feel he was in their space even at a respectful distance away.

Today was no exception, but neither felt the usual awkwardness from it. It was a new day. One for the record books– the ages, so to speak. Both of them sensed it. The truth of it infected their every breath, each one that much softer, gentler. Something colored the space between them, made even Mac seem smaller, while their forms were dwarfed by the awe-inspiring humility of events around them.

“First sunrise on Mars,” Mac said.

Tears wavered beneath the awe on his tongue. Cameron sympathized. She felt her eyes welling up, preparing to rain behind her helmet with vain hopes of watering thirsty ground. The sharp pain in her chest was as much welcomed as embraced.

“Six million years of Evolution,” Cameron said. “Two-hundred and fifty-thousand years of Human existence, five thousand of recorded history, and we’re finally home.” Her voice stiffened a little, “It took us a less than a century to go from ground-confinement to exploring the solar system. Imagine what we’ll have in another century– or even a millennium.”

Behind his glass face-plate, Mac smiled. He patted a shoulder of her suit, “C’mon, we’ve got work to do.”

He turned for the shuttle, but she lingered a moment before following him.

Mars-One’s shuttle, Verne, looked for all the world like a streamlined city-bus with millions of dollars more investment to it. Its infinitely more complex systems didn’t hurt the image, and its 747-like cock-pit managed to contain twice as many instruments and systems as a the jumbo jet into even less space. Technology was like that; unrelenting, pervasive, even astronauts were just well-educated techies at heart.

Half the cock-pit was used to communicate and monitor Verne’s docking cradle alone. Orbiting the planet, it was a veritable hotel for cosmonauts, and the only way-point between Earth and Mars’ surface. It was the sole place capable of harboring life outside Earth’s orbit. Even the shuttle itself could only power their suits’ oxygen, and otherwise was merely an airtight coffin for anyone seeking refuge.

But coffins weren’t needed here. The International Cosmic Exploration Agency, or ICEA, had made sure of that. Even a total-systems failure on the shuttle had been compensated for. Excess resources and parts aboard the orbiter could be shot down like one of Heinlein’s bouncers, aimed by the pair of crew still aboard. The canister would reach the target area in less than ten minutes, and could be repeated almost ad nauseum to ensure any problems were repairable.

Cameron and Mac worked to roll out metal cases and tubular contraptions for the next hour, aligning a series of large cylinders and various-sizes of steel and aluminum parts into formations. By the time “tank change” came, the items were separated into several, individual piles, each with angled sheets of aluminum, steel cases, cylinders, hoses and nozzles, and a plethora of fasteners and tools. Once assembled, the seemingly innocuous conglomerate of spare parts would form a fleet of UAVs that would begin laying down high-level nutrient sprays.

In the fleet’s wake, the orbiter would launch specialized seed-pods into the sprayed soil. The hardy seeds, genetically engineered for the Martian atmosphere, would theoretically take root in days. A month from now, Cameron and Mackenzie would return to check the results of the growth. If the seeds had taken root, and truly appeared to be surviving the harsh-Martian climate, phase two of “Habitat Reformation” would begin. It had become Cameron’s sole, life pursuit.

A little less than a decade before, she’d broken ground in astrobiology. It was the only reason she was on Mars now, why she wouldn’t have let anyone go in her place: While analyzing Martian soil deposits from the first, return-probe, striking similarities appeared between impact craters on both Mars’ and Earth’s surfaces. Rigorous testing proved conclusively the two shared a cosmic connection.

That connection, Cameron soon concluded, was the impact of a sole asteroid on Mars’ surface. Ejected debris from the impact was launched through the skies, into space, and eventually into Earth’s atmosphere, carrying microbes formed from an unknown, primordial ooze on the Red Planet.

Another probe Cameron designed, tested, and launched, eventually proved what many in the scientific community had begun to suspect; Earth’s life was alien. More specifically, it wasn’t Earth’s life on Earth, it was Mars’ life. The revelation of life being “extraterrestrial” took the world by storm. Space-exploration was suddenly reinvigorated. The ICEA formed to compensate for the sudden cascade of researchers seeking funding for space or Mars-based experiments. An influx of private investors, millionaires and billionaires with passions for science, quickly helped fund them.

But Cameron’s vision was different. Eventually, it had taken her to Mars, to home. The primordial ooze that had formed life, she reasoned, could not be understood until “home” or its history was. With Mars’ life no longer theoretical, only one option appeared to remain open to her. Most of her learned colleagues agreed; they needed to return home, begin seeking answers in their true birth-place.

Mars’ life may have merely gone extinct, some said, unable to thrive in the harshness of multiple impact events. It was probable even, others added, that the same impact transferring the microbes from Mars to Earth, had eradicated what remained of them on Mars. Most agreed, the impact had effectively launched a time-capsule, that opened prematurely on Earth, and thrived in its complimentary conditions.

There was no confirmation of whether the asteroid was responsible for the extinction, nor if the life had continued thrive before dying off from something unrelated. As Cameron saw it, there would be no further confirmation of their place in the universe until Mars was made habitable. After all, it had taken hundreds of years and countless naturalists to piece together even an infinitesimal amount of understanding regarding life’s formation on Earth– or rather, its evolution after arriving on Earth. That wayward life, now searching for its origins, simply couldn’t do so properly until it once more inhabited its home.

Over the course of six hours, and several air-tanks, she and Mac constructed and scrutinized the UAVs. The drones had enough battery-life, solar-panels, and payload to work unaided for a week. As the harsh winds grew colder, and the skies dustier and pinker from particulates, the last of the UAVs was assembled and tested via comm-connections to the orbiter.

When all was green, they stepped back to watch. As if launched like rockets, the UAVs sprinted into the distance, gained altitude. They came about in formation, fanned out, and separated for pre-programmed zones. They sank toward the ground, disappeared against the red-orange with streaks of invisible hope on their tails. In a month, the two cosmonauts would return to find life thriving, or dying, then try again, or continue the search for their true history.

Mac patted Cameron’s shoulder again, then made for the shuttle. She lingered once more, her mind on only one thing; Humanity had returned home, and begun to lay down its roots.