“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.
(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)
The new research is especially topical given that NASA plans to land humans on the Moon in the 2020s and use lunar resources as part of its Artemis program, prompting thorny discussions about legal and ethical extraction of materials on the Moon.
“Being able to get humans on Mars and actually collecting one of these samples would be such an incredible moment, I would kind of hope it would almost bring us back to the moon days of everyone being glued to the TV.”
Um. Well. OK. TV is dead so we’ll all be watching it streamed on our smartphones, but the point is taken.
NASA and other scientific groups have discussed the potential of using the Moon as a sort of jumping-off point for missions deeper into space. If water could be collected on the Moon it could prove to be a great resource for manned missions headed deeper into the solar system.
Interesting, but I have a feeling that Lunar Base occupants will need slightly more than a few “bouncing” molecules to drink (or to create hydrogen for rocket fuel or colony energy needs).