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Science fiction, actual science, history, and personal ranting about life, the universe, and everything

Bringer of Light, Chapter 20: United Mars Colonies

May 29, 2021
MThomas

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.

“Hydroponics.”

“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.

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“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?”

“Sir?”

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.”

“But…hibernation?”

“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. 

New York.

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.”

“Several days?”

“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.

Perhaps.

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.

Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 1): Mars Colonies

December 19, 2020
MThomas

(While the crew of the Artemis is enduring the long return home, on Mars, Weng is about to run into a problem that is partly of his own making…)

“But, Martin, the designs I sent you were already approved by the new settler delegation from…”

“Sorry, Sam. I know this is important to you, but with the heightened tensions Earthside right now, the priority is foodstuffs.”

“Yes, but—”

“The existing domes will have to suffice for the moment. Why don’t you come down here when you have a chance. We’ll have a chat over ruibos tea.”

Weng stared at the blank space above his console where the 3D holograph had once been. The Overseer had simply cut the transmission without a proper ending salutation.

Dammit it all! He picked up his coffee cup with a trembling hand, but resisted the impulse to throw it.

Taking a sip, Weng stared at the empty space again, as if the image of his superior still remained, smiling at him. 

Nothing had changed. Inwardly he raged, as his face strived for control.

What a fool he had been! To think that anything would be different on Mars. Bureaucracies were all the same, he thought. Only interested in perpetuating themselves. Efficiency? Effectiveness? Not necessary, as long as the status quo was maintained.

Artistry?

He scoffed at his own conceit.

Delusional thinking. Who had time for art with all the work foisted upon him? It had been nearly three weeks since his arrival, and in that time nearly a dozen ships had arrived from multiple countries Earthside. Just over a hundred settlers from the Eastern European Union. A hundred sixty from the Greater Indian Empire. Eighty-three and then ninety-four from the Central African Alliance. More and more each day, it seemed.

The problem was, the UN directives they were forced to operate the Colonies under were confusing, at best. No single country was allowed to lay claim to any particular region of Mars, or of space in general. But now with multiple factions all vying for breathing room, preventing ethnic groups from staking claim to their own territory had proven nearly impossible.

The Iranians didn’t want to be near the Chinese. The Ukranians didn’t want to be next to the Slavic Federation. The Central African Alliance demanded separate territories for each member nation. Only the United Americas hadn’t laid a claim, and that was only because no new settlers from them had arrived. Weng supposed they would prefer to go to Lunar Base, which the UA controlled. Politically, anyway.

He sighed and swirled his cold soy coffee around the cup. Things were no better here on Mars than they had been back on the Moon. If anything, they were worse. Weng had never seen so many different nationalities trapped in such a small confined space before.

He paused, set the cup down in front of the antiquated console, and pondered.

The timing seemed odd. Transition from Earth to Mars normally took at least a full year, nearly three years at their farthest distance apart. Of course, the docking at ISS would allow for reduced payload and less cost. But still, these ships would have taken off from their respective countries long before the current tensions started.

Unless they had somehow known ahead of time, of course, that something was about to happen. That didn’t bode well.

Weng lifted his info pad from its wireless charging port and shut the desk power off to save electricity.

If he had to play the role of the transparent pen-pusher, then for the time being he’d simply have to play along. As the Sage wrote, long ago, “Do not worry that your talents are unappreciated. Make yourself worthy of being appreciated in the future.”

He left his tiny office and entered the narrow underground corridor leading to the central hub. He stepped on the pedwalk and jotted a few random, unnecessary notes on his pad. Keeping the Sage’s words in his mind, Weng made additional mental notes of the lighting, the ceiling, the wall and doorway fixtures. Coarse behind belief. Functional, naturally. The need to protect civilians from radiation meant that every domicile had to be covered in several feet of Martian soil. Still, technology had advanced since the early days of Martian settlement, Weng thought. Why hadn’t someone planned better?

The automated 3D printers had been working nonstop; as soon as one dwelling was assembled, it filled and another had to be prepared. The robotic diggers struggled to connect all the adobes, and their haste showed. Here in the central habitats, where the original settlement had been transformed into a series of UN-Mars colony liaison offices, atmospheric control allowed them to use the automated walkway without wearing any exosuits. Each living unit came equipped with high-speed wifi and personalized access ID for connectivity to the Mars Colony Net.

But the corridors between the new adobes had no fresh air and virtually no heat. Just getting them all hooked up to the electrical grid was proving a struggle, let alone set up wifi and walking strips. It was all they could do to keep the hydrocarbon-driven generators running to prevent the new settlers from freezing and starving.

Weng curled his lip in disgust at the thought of wearing an exosuit to get to work. Drinking his own recycled sweat and urine to reduce the strain on their water supply.

No mobile access to vids.

He shuddered.

A notification from his ID badge told him the pedwalk was reaching the end of the corridor. He staggered as the automated strip abruptly halted. Still several meters from the end. Righting himself quickly, he immediately jotted down on his pad, Maint. crew fix pedwalk Sector 1A-2. Stat.

Inexcusable. The Mars Colony simply could not take on any new settlers at this point. It couldn’t even maintain structures for existing residents.

He clamped the pad shut and strode off the pedwalk into the building before him. The Central Offices. The original building had been adobe like all the new facilities, he had been told. Now it was a complicated reinforced plexiglas and native concrete structure, complete with UV and solar radiation protection shield.

What would happen if the new settlers weren’t sufficiently shielded? he wondered.

Weng shrugged, dismissing the thought. His job at the moment was to make sure they had enough water to go around. And since much of the electricity in the Mars Colony was produced from water, this was more easily said than done.

Entering the Central Office lobby, he waved his ID at the receptist. The cyborg nodded and gestured at the next door.

“Go ahead, Mr. Weng. The Overseer is waiting.”

“Thanks.”

Weng was sure the simulacrum was smirking. Not possible, he knew. The cyborg was programmed to respond to a tens of thousands of combinations of external stimuli, but despite the human-like torso, arms, and face, it was still just a machine. A creepy machine, but a machine.

That smile did look like a smirk, though. He shook his head and paused at the closed door. From the other side, he heard a raised voice. Martin seemed to be arguing with someone.

He touched a hand-size panel in the door, and a faint buzzing noise came from within the room.

There was a pause. Then, “Come!”

The door opened. Facing the door several meters away was a large off-white plastic desk, with Martin seated behind it. The desk had seen better days. Early Colony, Weng guessed, realizing with a start that his own desk looked much newer and likely had a much more recent computer set up as well. He felt slightly embarrassed.

“Ah, Sam, good to see you,” the Overseer said, beaming. He gave no indication of just having finished a conversation.

“Over—Martin, I wanted to see you about—” Weng began.

“Of course, of course,” Martin responded, jumping to his feet. “Tea?”

Before Weng could respond, Martin had already placed the order. A series of buttons lined the left side of the desk. That further dated it. Buttons! Just like the water reclamation plant room.

“Martin,” Weng started again, “have you given any thought to my proposal?”

Martin nodded, then shook his head. “Yes, yes, I have.”

Weng opened his mouth but the Overseer forged on.

“And I have a counter proposal for you.”

A buzzer sounded.

“Ah, that would be the tea. Come!”

They waited as a drone-server wheeled into the room, deposited two plain aluminum cups on the desk, and then wheeled backwards into the lobby area.

The door closed.

“How would you like to be the head of the water reclamation committee instead of just a member?”

Weng nearly dropped the cup, but managed to bring it to his mouth. He took a careful sip.

Not bad. Upper management had its perks.

“Head?” he stammered. “Martin, you know that I’m more interested in—”

“Architectural redesigns of the settler units, yes, of course.”

Martin raised his own cup and drained it without a glance.

“But,” the Overseer continued, “before we can consider expenditures on superficial concerns—however noble and proper they may be, mind you!—there are more immediate, ah, considerations.”

“Such as foodstuffs?” Weng cut in.

He bit a lip. That sounded too indignant.

Martin cocked an eyebrow.

“Water, Sam. Water.”

“Martin, these people have no heat. No access to the Net. Their electrical grid set up is archaic. A good architectural redesign would alleviate—”

“Yes, I know. And you’re absolutely correct. 100%.” Martin paused. “But they need water. And we haven’t got any.”

Weng paused. “No water?”

“No water,” Martin repeated. “Well, not literally no water, but we must start to ration or we’ll run out within a few weeks. Well, not to exaggerate. A few months, perhaps.”

Weng slowly lowered the tea cup to the plastic desk. The tea felt stale in his mouth now. How much water had they wasted making it just now?

“Electricity,” he said. He looked up at the Overseer. “We’re using too much on the generators.”

Martin nodded somberly. “Yes, exactly so. And that’s what you need to tell the head of the settler delegations.”

Weng laughed. “Me?”

“Yes, you.”

Weng stared. The Overseer wasn’t joking.

“Martin…you must…are you…me?”

Martin draped an arm across his shoulders. “Look. It’s all very simple. You know these people already. You’ve been meeting with them, working with them. You’ve shared your concerns with them about their situation.”

Weng winced at the Overseer’s touch, but allowed himself to be led behind the yellowing desk. An array of ancient computer monitors stared up at him.

The architect resisted the urge to curl a lip. First generation networking like this belonged in a museum, not the Office of the Martian Secretariat.

“Here,” Martin gestured. “I’ve already got a meeting set up with several colonist delegates.”

“But—”

“Just follow my lead,” Martin said urgently. He eased into a smile. “They trust you. Let’s play.”


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 2): Mar Colonies (Coming 12/26)

In which Weng finds himself at the center of a fight and makes a proposal that will change everything…

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