(In part 1, Weng found himself suddenly promoted and about to be thrust into the spotlight…)
He toggled the console, and the row of monitors sprang to life. Weng found himself addressing no less than half a dozen delegates, all of whom wanted to speak simultaneously.
In fact, they appeared to have already begun discussing among themselves.
“—told you that the Indian government would never—”
“—not what we ordered! And where are the supplies we requested last—”
“Hasn’t the Martian Secretariat been in—”
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” Martin began, holding his hands up in surrender.
“Women,” someone interrupted.
“Men and women,” Martin corrected. “We have been made aware of your food supply issues and—”
“What are you going to do about it? We’ve been waiting four days now!”
“Mr. Mbutu, believe me, the needs of the CAA settlers are well known to us—”
“The EEC has priority over African settlers! We arrived first, we have—”
The delegates raised their voices and general argument prevented Weng from understanding much. Martin smiled and raised his hands again.
“Gentlemen and women! Delegates! Please, please! I have—”
The discussion continued for another minute or two. Martin turned to Weng and nodded.
Weng coughed into a fist before speaking.
“Excuse me,” he tried. Too soft. The delegates continued.
“—Persian Empire will make you regret any theft of property from—”
“Excuse me!” Weng fairly shouted at the screens.
The voices died down. The delegates looked at him.
Weng cleared his throat.
“Gentlemen, ladies. I have spoken to many of you these past few days, about your heat, your electricity—”
“Yes, yes,” huffed one delegate. “For all the good it did.”
Weng nodded in agreement.
“I’m afraid you are correct, Ms. Pehrat. However, that has not prevented us from developing an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship, has it not?”
Silence greeted this response. Martin pinched his arm from behind. Evidently, an encouraging gesture.
“Look,” Weng went on. “I know that we are asking much of you and your constituencies. But we must ask you all to realize that our situation is quite dire at the moment.”
“Dire?” Mbutu asked. “How dire, exactly?”
Weng cleared his throat again.
“I am given to understand that, er, due to the rapid increase in the need for electricity to power new settlement districts we will need to begin water rationing.”
“Begin?” Pehrat cried. “We’re already rationing!”
Several delegates jumped in.
“Please! Please!” Martin tried to interrupt again.
The delegates shouted him down in a cacophonous paroxysm.
“Water,” Weng mused as the din rattled around him. “Water…wait!”
He grabbed the sides of the desk and shouted at the screens.
“Wait! Wait! There may be a way.”
“The electrician speaks!” Mbutu laughed. But the other voices died down.
Martin interrupted. “Dr. Weng,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘doctor’, “Dr. Weng is the head of the Martian Colony Water Reclamation Project Team.”
“Ah,” Mbutu exclaimed.
“Thank you, Overseer,” Weng said. He straightened and opened his hands. “Water is needed for producing electricity due to a lack of other energy sources.”
“Yes, yes, we know,” Mbutu commented. “And?”
“What if…” Weng began.
He paused. He raised a hand, stretched out his fingers as if to gesture, and paused again, thinking.
“I have two proposals,” he suddenly announced. “First.”
He stopped. He glanced at Martin. The Overseer maintained his politician’s smile.
“First,” Weng repeated, “We do have the capability to release more water into the water reclamation system. However, we do not presently have enough workers to dig up the regolith required for the process.”
The delegates were silent for a moment.
“What you are suggesting,” Pehrat offered, “would require many, many rounds of negotiations among our nations.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Weng said. “I don’t know the delicate nature of politics but I do know the technical possibilities and necessities of our current situation.”
Pehrat was silent, seemingly considering the truth of his statement.
“I do know,” Weng continued, “that we all need each other. To cooperate, for mutual benefit.”
He stopped and held up two fingers.
Martin briefly dropped his smile but recovered.
“Second,” Weng said heavily. “It seems likely that we may still not get the water reclamation process started in time to suit our immediate needs. I estimate two to three months before processing will be adequate.”
Martin smoothly interposed. “In that case, what do you propose? Won’t rationing be enough?”
“I’m afraid not,” Weng said. “I propose that the United Mars Colonies—”
“The what?” Mbutu blurted.
“Dr. Weng, there’s no such—” Martin began.
Weng continued, “—that the United Mars Colonies send an envoy or envoys to Ceres for the purpose of procuring an emergency supply of water strictly for the drinking supply. Not to be used for electrical generation.”
Martin grabbed his arm, hissing, “We must talk.”
Turning to the screens and smiling, he said, “Pardon us for a moment. Please hold.”
He stabbed at a button on the desk, then turned back to Weng, furious.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
Weng regarded the Overseer calmly. “We’re not ‘on Earth’.”
“For the love of—you know what I mean!”
The Overseer began to pace, waving his arms. “The Moon Treaty of 1979, the Outer Space Exploration Treaty of 1991, and the Mars Mining Treaty of 2031 all forbid any one nation to act on behalf of citizens of other sovereign nations working or living off-world!”
Weng blinked. “Meaning?”
“Meaning,” he said heavily, “each group of settlers is bound by the laws of their countries, and we cannot speak for them as a group!”
“But,” Weng said, “most of these recent settlers are obviously refugees, and their governments have either not contacted us or have been evasive and vague in our communications.”
“True, all true,” Martin retorted, agitated. “But I work for the UN. Not ‘the United Mars Colonies,’ whatever the hell that is.”
He stopped pacing and frenetically ran his fingers through his hair.
“Martin,” Weng said.
The politician looked over him, and clasped his hands in front like a prayer.
“Weng, I have already had to agree to give each and every country its own territory, in stark contrast to existing UN directives. Separated each group by a minimum of 1.4 kilometers. Forbidden settlers from other nation-states to enter their territory without permission.”
“And has that prevented settlers from communicating with each other?”
“Or sharing their supplies, which they got from us?”
“Um. Not in so many words, no.”
“And yet,” Weng continued, “the UN has obliged us, as a central authority, to supply housing, food, water, power, communication facilities. All despite the fact these settler factions are supposed to be operating independently. Correct?”
“Yes, yes,” Martin replied quickly.
Weng approached the near-panicked politician. He held out his hands to calm him down.
“Look, we need water, yes?”
Martin nodded, rubbing his palms together.
“And we need water from the asteroid reclamation plants on Ceres, because we can’t get ours to produce enough water fast enough and we can’t convince the UA to give us any of theirs. Again, correct?”
“Yes, that is essentially the situation.”
“And we only have three months before we run out of drinking water?”
Martin swallowed and nodded again. “I believe those are the current estimates.”
Weng smiled. Actually, he had no idea what the current estimates were. Nor how long it would take to produce more if the settler factions agreed to donate workers. Probably he was close to accurate. But that hardly mattered, to get what he wanted.
“Now,” he continued, “if we were to ask Ceres for water, as per UN regulations, we would have to go through each country’s delegation, then wait for an answer from their respective countries, then wait for the answer to, ah, filter back through the delegates.”
Again, Martin nodded, this time with more certainty.
“So,” Weng concluded. “If we approach Ceres not as the UN, beholden to separate, divided, bickering nations, but as a sort of united group of fellow outer space residents, wouldn’t the mining community on Ceres treat us as a single entity? with slightly more respect?”
Martin looked dubious. “I’m not as confident as you on that issue,” he said slowly. “However—”
“Good,” said Weng. He strode back to the ugly yellow desk. “I’ll convince the delegates that a temporary alliance and a united front will get us more water.”
“Wait!” Martin called out. “Let me, let me stand next to you. You talk, I’ll support.”
Weng shrugged. “Support” sounded like “use you,” but he supposed they, too, needed to show a united front.
In the end, he would get what he wanted, he thought, inwardly grinning. And it would only cost him an extra trip to Ceres to see Riss.
Next: Chapter 10 (Part 1) The Artemis (Coming January 2nd)
(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)
Future moon settlers might benefit from oxygen extraction from lunar regolith as it can be used to create breathable air as well as a source for fuel. In addition, the newly found extraction method might also be useful for Mars colonization.
Regolith covers the Moon and Mars (and presumably many other potentially habitable rocky bodies).
Of course, the composition of regolith on the Moon differs from that of Mars.
But if the new method can extract sufficient quantities of both oxygen and hydrogen, there should be ample amounts for both human usage and rocket fuel.
(Yawn.) “Dry” science? Sure. But think of the (fictional) possibilities!