The water brought from Ceres to Mars—crushed from the rock sent by Riss and her crew—is beginning to affect colonists. Weng and Gen still haven’t returned from Luna, leaving Mars Overseer Martin Velasquez to deal with the situation on his own…
“Overseer, the latest report on Settler Pod #2.”
“Thank you, Sergeant Major.”
“Should I have additional units sent?”
“No, no. Continue to guard the specified locations.”
Martin switched off the monitor and ran a hand through his thinning hair. He held out the hand; it shook slightly.
The previous week had not been easy.
First, he spent nearly an entire day convincing the settler factions that the communications blackout was necessary for the time being. When his “son” and Weng arrived at the orbital docking station and transferred the new water supply from Ceres, Martin supervised the transfer from the dock to the Colonies’ water treatment facility. Meanwhile, he had also secretly instructed the EU members of the Security Forces to post watches on three UA underground ice factories. At the same time, he busied himself trying to hack into the servers that controlled the ice factory access points. Normally he would have had Gen do the work, but of course his son had already left for Luna, leaving Martin to wonder how much Gen had told Weng about the nature of their “father-son” relationship.
Then the reports started coming in.
At first, Martin dismissed them entirely. One or two isolated cases of space sickness, he assumed. It happened sometimes. A new settler working on the electrical grid extensions would forget to pace herself and then experience fatigue from not being used to the lower gravity. Another in hydroponics would spent too much time outside the protected greenhouse domes or not wash off his farming suit thoroughly enough, exposing himself to greater levels of cosmic radiation.
But when another fifteen settlers complained of feeling odd, he began to worry. The Colonies had a medical center, naturally—designed to treat illnesses for a colony population of a few dozen, not several hundred, rapidly approaching a thousand. And even counting the four new refugee ships that had not yet arrived (and which he could not contact and warn to return).
The rioting had been easy to handle. Identify one or two troublemakers, cut a deal with the settler faction heads, throw in a few virtual headsets.
Sickness, that was something else entirely.
He rubbed knuckles in his eyes. Caffeine withdrawal. He had cut back on water use from the reclamation station, but his private stock was running low. Little remained for drinking, let alone tea.
The reports had started only after the Ceres water was added to the system. Logically, he thought, there might be something in the water that was affecting people. He was no engineer, of course, and there were a number of other possibilities. Stress, for example. Inadequate electricity. Limited internet. The Mars Baseball League temporary suspension of games.
Lack of sex and enforced contraceptives.
That last one had not gone over well with the new settlers, particularly among the more religious.
But they agreed to restrain themselves. For the time being.
Martin worried. Despite his (extremely persuasive and charming) explanation that it would probably be impossible for normal conception on Mars, and that they did not have proper child birthing, maternity or childcare facilities, it seemed likely to Martin that at some point someone would forget themselves.
Nobody had told the refugees this, naturally. They even brought children. Children! The most recent ship had 172 adults and 25 children from age 5 to 14. The last thing they needed was more children running around the Colonies. And not enough space or supplies for new schools, even had they more licensed teachers. Oh, once things had settled down, and the UN was convinced to give them more financial and political backing, then perhaps.
After all, if the United Mars Colonies were to survive as colonies, at some point they would have to set up an artificial birth crèche and incubation chamber. Unless they got to 5,000 colonists, the Colonies would simply remain unviable, fail to reach self-sustainability, and probably collapse at some point.
But he had no intention of getting to 5,000 that quickly. And certainly not under the current environmental conditions.
Martin slapped the console to life again and punched more buttons on the antique desk.
“Velasquez here. What’s the latest estimate?”
“Overseer, with this newest settler group, I’d say we’re down to two weeks now. Maybe ten days.”
“Ten! Anyway to make it stretch? Didn’t that new water supply help?”
“Sir, it takes more than a week to grow vegetables.”
Martin bit his knuckle. Of course. He knew that.
Mustn’t let it show.
“I see. Keep me updated.”
He switched off and toggled another.
“Water reclamation here.”
“This is Velasquez. Status?”
“Sir, we’re working as hard we can to pulverize the latest batch of regolith ice from Outcrop 6. But half of the new workers failed to show up last shift.”
“Failed to—did you contact them?”
“Tried to, yes. The problem is figuring out what they’re saying.”
“What, is the translation matrix down again?”
“No, it’s working just fine for once. It sounds like the workers on the other end are somewhat incoherent. The program sounds, well, drunk.”
Martin frowned and massaged his temples with one hand.
“Do we have water for the next four weeks?” he asked at length.
“On whether any new immigrants arrive, and how much electricity we’ll need to generate.”
“I see. Well, keep me—”
“And, Overseer, I should mention that some of us here are wondering when Sa—Mr. Weng is returning.”
Oh? Martin raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t figured the architect a popular figure. Perhaps he should keep an eye out. Just in case.
“He should return soon,” he said aloud. “Hopefully with more provisions.”
“Thank you, sir. We’ve heard, ah, certain rumors.”
Martin frowned again. “What rumors?”
“Oh, it’s nothing, Overseer. Just that…some people in the Colonies are seeing strange things, and with the Marsball games shut down and not enough VR headsets to go around, everyone’s got to rely on their imagination for entertainment.”
He did not like the way this conversation was going. Best to end it.
“Your concern is noted,” he said. “I’ll see about tracking down the recalcitrant workers.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Martin cut the connection. He sat back and crossed his arms. Damn it all! Seeing things. Babbling. Not contributing to the community. And yet using up supplies at a pace they could not replenish.
They were all going to die unless he did something about it.
He punched another switch.
“Medical Center. Liu speaking.”
“This is Velasquez.”
“Overseer. Are we glad to hear from you. Another twenty settlers just reported feeling ill.”
“Is there any way to put settlers into some sort of temporary hibernation?”
Martin licked his lips. “Listen, we’re dangerously short on water and food. There are too many refugees and the new shipment from Luna isn’t expected for another two weeks.”
“Can it be done?”
There was a pause.
“Yes, technically, by pumping gas into the settler pods and knocking them unconscious, and then transferring them to a cold locker. But—”
“Prepare to flood settler pods with gas.”
“Overseer, Agent 15 usage is strictly prohibited! We would be violating several directives.”
“We have no choice!” Martin raised his voice. “If we don’t incapacitate at least a quarter the incoming settler population, we’ll all starve!”
“But Overseer, we don’t know that for sure.”
“Oh, yes, we do. How long will it take to prepare enough gas?”
“It’s not just the gas, it’s also preparing the cryo-lockers. And if we’re not careful with the dosage, many will experience mind-damaging hallucinations, or worse.”
Martin stopped himself. Or worse? He searched his memories. Ah. Yes. Moscow. Homs.
Was he repeating history?
“How long?” he asked again.
A pause, then a brief cough.
“Two or three days to prepare the gas, plus another day or two to test. After that, several days for the cryo-lockers.”
“Overseer, we would have to physically remove all unconscious settlers from their pods and place them in cryo-stasis. Are you sure this is the only way to—”
“Understood. Let me know when the gas is ready.”
Martin switched the comm off and sat back.
This was a huge gamble. Hundreds could die.
Either way, he thought. Unless he could break into the UA ice factories and extract the precious water reserves trapped underground. At least that way they could survive by sacrificing merely dozens.
He rubbed his eyes again and bent over the aging console.
Four or five days, he thought grimly. Hurry back, Sam.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 21: Transit—Luna to Ceres. Weng’s suspicions about his “assistant” Gen are confirmed, and then some.