(Like the previous Chapter, this one is over 3,000 words. So I’m posting it in two parts.)
“Well, I’ll say one thing,” Weng muttered, stepping out of the vertical transport capsule into the Mars Colonies Receiving Station. “Mars smells much worse than I imagined.”
“You’ll get used to it,” said an approaching voice. “It’s just recycled feces. A small prize to pay for settling the universe.”
Weng looked up to see the owner of the voice; a slender East Asian man, wearing a business suit and a shoulder to waist white sash that marked him as a career politician.
“Martin Velasquez, Martian Colonies Overseer,” the man said with a practiced smile.
They shook hands. Weng almost did a double-take, but caught himself. The name didn’t seem to match his partner’s appearance.
“Weng Wei,” Weng said slowly. “But most people call me Sam.”
Velasquez laughed. “Sam. Originally from China?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Weng replied carefully. “But my allegiance is to the United Nations, not a single nation.”
Velasquez laughed again. “Not to worry, Mr Weng. We’re all friends here on Mars. No room for disagreements.”
“No room, huh.” Weng said, surveying the building surrounding them. He self-consciously touched his left wrist with his right hand. No watch. No way of using it on Mars, where the infrastructure wasn’t set in place yet. He sighed.
The geodesics were primitive by Lunar standards. The Mars Colonies primarily consisted of tall, egg-shaped semi-transparent structures connected by underground passages. All constructed by robotic drones and remote-controlled 3D printers the previous decade before the UN settlers landed. Compared to the spacious residences of the Moon, the living arrangements seemed horribly cramped.
Not to mention even less aesthetically pleasing, Weng thought. If that were actually possible. But he kept that thought to himself.
He let his hand drop awkwardly by his side. “So, uh, I gather you have a position open on your water reclamation team?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Velasquez said, smiling. “You came highly recommended.”
He gestured. “Shall we?”
They walked past the Receiving Station operator, who sat reading the latest sports news on his pad. He looked up briefly and touched a panel at the console in front of him. The transport capsule lifted and disappeared into the tube, headed back to the transit station in geostationary orbit above them.
“Mars Landers win today?” Velasquez called.
The operator waved his free hand. “Nah. Red Rocks beat ‘em. 15-7.”
Velasquez shook his head.
“Mars Baseball League,” he explained to Weng.
Weng shrugged. “I don’t know much about baseball,” he admitted.
“Well,” laughed Velasquez, “You’d better learn quickly. The colonists are crazy about it.”
He waited until they were out of earshot of the transport operator before adding, “Actually, without Marsball, many colonists probably would go crazy. It’s awfully isolating, being stuck in domes all day. The wireless network is barely adequate to support vid streaming, and even then only on UN-sanctioned pads.”
They left the Receiving Station and walked down a flight of metal stairs into a long winding corridor. The stench seemed to grow with each passing step, but Weng said nothing.
Instead, he focused his attention on the Martian Overseer, who prattled on about various problems the Colonies were experiencing.
“You know,” the Overseer was saying, “It’s so nice to finally meet a man of obvious intellect, such as yourself. I mean, a member of a terraforming design team! And a friend of the great Captain Bardish!”
Weng tried to humble himself as best he could. “Thank you for your kind words, Overseer. I’m just a company man.”
“No, no, not at all,” Velasquez retorted, waving away perceived concerns with a hand. “The Mars Colonies are desperately in need of more brain power. We’ve been applying for a qualified engineer up here for months, but with all these factional disputes Earthside…well, you know how it is.”
The Overseer paused. They stopped and he peered at Weng.
“You are a scientist, are you not?” he queried.
Weng didn’t like the suspicious tone in the voice. “Yes, yes,” he stammered, “Of course, I am. I’m eager to examine your water plant facilities.”
“Which ones?” Velasquez asked. “Desalination? Sewage? Recycling and filtration?”
“Filtration,” Weng said automatically. He’d rehearsed this bit. “I have some design ideas that may increase the regulatory capacity.”
“Ah,” said Velasquez. “But perhaps I should see if you can get some living quarters before—”
“Later,” Weng interrupted. Seeing the expression on the politician’s face, he hurried on. “I mean, I would very much like to go directly to my new workplace. Meet my new teammates. Find out what I can do.”
“Well,” said Velasquez dubiously, laying a finger aside his nose. “If it would set your mind at ease, I suppose the grand tour could wait. Still, hydroponics has some projects that might interest you. But I’ll take you directly to the reclamation plant, if you wish.”
He gestured. “This way. There’s a bit of more walking involved, I’m afraid. The underground pedestrian belt isn’t functioning at the moment.”
Weng refrained from sighing again. He had to play his cards close to his chest with this man. Bardish may have got him to Mars, but now he was on his own. Somehow he had to convince the Martian Overseer that he could be a valuable member of this fledgling Martian society.
And from there, become a valuable aide in the politician’s inner circle. This was his chance.
They resumed walking. Here and there along either side of the pathway various corridors branched off. Weng wondered how expensive it was to maintain lighting. The underground architecture reminded him of his trip to the Sudan, in the days before China and the United Americas became allies. Another waste of his talents, that trip. But at least it had taught him how to address local officials with tact.
“Overseer,” he began.
“Martin,” said Velasquez.
“Ah, Martin,” amended Weng. “I have to admit that I am not familiar with the current problems on Mars.”
Velasquez nodded in understanding. “Yes, with the tensions Earthside, and the close-minded-ness of the Lunar Council, it doesn’t surprise me. Some things don’t make NetStream News, you see.”
Weng cocked his head, feigning ignorance. “Some things?” he repeated.
The politician allowed himself a brief smirk, but returned to his empty smile. “Come now, Mr. Weng.”
“Sam. We are men of intelligence. Any fool can see that if the Greater Indian Empire does not accede to the UN demands, violence is all but inevitable.”
Weng frowned in abeyance. The Overseer was an astute observer. The UN was even more ineffective than before at preventing conflicts among member nations. China and India frequently rattled sabres in the past, but things had quickly escalated with the creation of the Lunar Base. India felt slighted at not being asked to join the settlement project; China felt slighted at not being more involved in the Mars Colonies administration; the United Americas and the Slavic Confederacy still had horns locked over the ultimate fate of the Ukrainian Union.
And now the UN was demanding that India give up its claims to the old ISS, which had been earmarked for dismantlement long ago. The creation of Ceres as a way station for asteroid hunters made ISS irrelevant, the UN argued. India disagreed; their use of nuclear fissile materials rejuvenated the station, turning it into an armed outpost. They hinted the ISS harbored ship-to-ship nuclear warheads and MIRVs. Other nation-states suspected a ruse, but remained concerned that Indian warships could threaten their space interests and that the ISS, itself, represented a huge biological hazard should its systems fail.
At any rate, the ISS was a dangerous sword of Damocles. But what did it matter? Weng thought. His future lay here, on Mars. With Riss.
“Overse…Martin,” he said apologetically, “I’m not sure what use I can be politically, but I am here to help as much as I am able.”
“Of course, of course,” Velasquez chuckled, as he adjusted his sash. “But you see, politics is what makes Mars live and breathe. Refugees. Prisoners. Exiles. Or should I say, Martian settlers.”
They ascended a staircase into another domed structure. This one was much larger than others they had passed along the way. In the center of the room was an enormous computer workstation. Behind the workstation stretched several three-meter high water tanks, mounted with valve readers. Stacks of tubes in square metal racks lined the back wall, with tubes of varying sizes connecting everything in a complicated, convoluted weave across the floor. Three or four technicians in white hard hats and gray worker outfits wandered among the equipment, occasionally inputting information on touch pads. At the back of the room was a closed door, in front of which stood a cart filled what appeared to be dirt. A dull gray aluminum shovel leaned against it.
As they entered, one of the workers noticed and waved.
Velasquez returned the wave.
“Our new water reclamation system,” he explained to Weng. “Still in need of a few engineers. That’s why it’s not up to 100 percent just yet.”
Weng was about to respond when he noticed a large open slot in the wall next to the entrance doorway they had walked through. It looked almost like a cafeteria tray return window. From the slot curious glass rectangular panels ran along the walls in a strip all the way around the room.
“And this?” Weng asked, pointing at the slot.
“Ah.” Velasquez beamed. “Our pride and joy. Let me show you how it works.”
He walked over to the cart. Picking up the shovel, he scooped out a fair amount of material.
“This,” he said, while walking the shovelful to the slot, “is how we make water on Mars.”
He unceremoniously dumped the dirt into the slot. He put the shovel down, pulled a silk handkerchief out of a jacket inner pocket and carefully wiped his hands.
“Push that green button over there,” he said with a big grin.
Set into the wall above the slot was a panel, containing two thumb-size plastic buttons. One green, one red. How quaint, Weng thought, pushing the green button. Inside the slot, a whirring sound echoed. The noise of a metallic conveyor belt starting up. The dirt disappeared to the right. After a few minutes, another noise came from behind the first two glass panels in the wall.
Weng bent over and looked through the glass.
“Looks like a microwave oven,” he commented.
“It is a microwave oven, basically,” Velasquez replied. “At least, to the best of my knowledge. First, we need to cook the dirt and get the ice out of it.”
Water vapor began to cloud the panel, but the vapor quickly dissipated.
“Of course,” Velasquez continued, “with just a single shovelful of dirt, we won’t get nearly enough water vapor to bother with.”
He pushed the red button, and the noises stopped. The politician folded his handkerchief carefully and replaced it inside his jacket. Pausing to ruffle his lapels, he looked over at the technicians.
“They seem capable enough,” Weng said without thinking.
Velasquez looked back at him. “Oh, they are. That’s not the problem.”
He waited. With a start, Weng realized he was being tested. Would he know what the problem was?
Next: Chapter 4, Part Two (Landing at 7:00 p.m. EST on 11/14/20)