© Konart | Dreamstime.com – Humans on mars
By Chris Hutton
Wyatt Alexander reclined, propping his feet up on one of the tables in the tiny mess hall and switching on his reader. He was on a break, a nice, extended break, enjoying the silence and hoping to catch up on some reading now that he had finished gorging himself on his lunch.
The plant seemed empty today, or rather emptier than usual, adding to the pleasant silence. Most of the systems operated automatically and the outpost required only three personnel on shift at any given time, though more was always better. Unfortunately better also cost more, meaning minimal staffs tended to be the norm. With some doubling up, the plant frequently managed with only seven employees living on site, even though it had been built to house up to thirty within the living quarters at the center of Cooper’s Crater, so-called for the first colonist to set foot there, Horace Cooper.
Cooper had always considered himself a failure, as his partner Sundeep Kembhavi beat him to the big goal, the now appropriately named Kembhavi Crater. Kembhavi spanned a diameter of roughly 2.75 kilometers, whereas Cooper on its southwestern rim spanned closer to a mere .75 kilometers in diameter. Now the two craters were best known as the home to the Kembhavi-Cooper Water Extraction, Recovery, and Treatment Plant, or KWERT Plant for idiots that preferred acronyms. Wyatt did not belong in this group.
He couldn’t say for certain, but at last count he believed that they were down to nine current inhabitants, and felt pretty damn sure that there were only two on shift this morning, including himself, despite the three personnel minimum. Albeit, the outpost spanned over a kilometer and a half from the extraction site in the center of Kembhavi Crater to the living quarters and main office of operations up in Cooper, so he could have miscounted. Add in the recovery and treatment facilities on the southern slopes of Kembhavi and the outpost totaled over four kilometers in passageways, walkways, and stairways. In the end, even on a crowded day, he rarely ran into his coworkers.
Wyatt preferred it that way. The solitude of the water plant had been a major draw for him when he had left Hoover and the other colonial cities of the Aeolis Mensae behind. As the seat of Curiosity Colony (a name that was just one in a long line of mistakes that dotted the history of Martian settlement), Hoover had been far too crowded for Wyatt’s temperament. Now he enjoyed the quiet of the plant, the only sounds being the gentle hum of the machinery and the distant echoes of water rippling through intakes in the treatment facilities.
“Wyatt, come in.”
His walkie talkie blared out at him from his utility belt. So much for silence.
“Wyatt, here,” he said, holding up the walkie-talkie.
“Give me a location?” Kelly Roth, the voice now interrupting Wyatt’s peace, helmed the main terminal this shift, the current eye in the sky. Wyatt liked Kelly well enough, but he hated working under her. She tended to micromanage.
“I’m in the Mess,” Wyatt said. “What do you want?”
“Break ended at eleven hundred.” Wyatt worked the early shift, starting at six hundred local time, meaning he got one break between ten hundred and eleven hundred. He glanced to the clock on the back wall of the Mess: 11:45.
“Sure, on a good day.” God, he hated being questioned. “But we had a pressure malfunction on Line Eight for the Aeolis Planum return flow. I had a PRV stuck good and solid and had to wrench her loose. Dropped my bar and it fell off the walk. Took me a good fifteen minutes to haul my ass to tool storage and back to give her another go. Then I had to give the outflow pipe a good once over visual QA to make sure we hadn’t screwed up the return. Didn’t wrap up ‘til about ten after.”
“Jesus, Wyatt. You’re supposed to report these things.”
“True,” Wyatt paused. And he would have, had it actually happened. “But by the time I had it under control,” he continued, “all I could think about was grabbing some lunch. Completely slipped my mind. My bad, Kelly.”
“I didn’t see anything pop up on the terminal.” Wyatt was afraid she would catch that. Much as he hated working under her, Kelly knew what she was doing.
“Yeah, well, I don’t know, Kells. That’s why we keep a man on the floor I guess. Damn system’s already nearly a hundred. It’s breaking down like everything else in the colonies. We can’t rely on terminals alone.
“True, but –”
“– but what did you call me for, Kells.” He had to stop her before he slipped up in the lie.
“Well, you’re not going to like this, seeing the morning you’re already having, but I’m afraid we’ve got a pressure warning on Hoover Inflow Two. We’re also reading a decreased water intake at the primary treatment tank out of the same pipe.”
“Hell’s Bells.” Gone with the silence, gone with the extended break. Wyatt’s peaceful morning had just veered on a collision course to Shitville. He hated it, but it had actually come time to earn his keep. “Where at?” he asked, although he was afraid he already knew the answer.
“Inflow Two out of Hoover. I just told you.”
“Not that Kells. Specifically. Where’s the pressure build-up?”
“Of course. One moment.”
The line went silent, but Wyatt knew it wouldn’t last. He discarded the remnants of his lunch into the compost chute, and set his dishes in the sink, while he waited for Kelly to verify the pressure site. If she came back with the answer he expected he had a long journey ahead of him.
Luckily Wyatt stayed in pretty good shape, despite a few extra pounds in the gut. Doing the rounds in the plant and checking on the physical operations kept him on his feet most of the day. He worked the floor. He always did. Maintenance. QA checks on gauges and the digital readings. Visual inspections of the intakes on the primary and secondary treatment tanks, checking screens, grit, sedimentation, the aeration tank, chlorination and dechlorination chambers, and the output stream. Basically he made sure shit got filtered out and pure H2O discharged into the return pipes, flowing back to the colonies to be used and abused.
Since they were down to two personnel this shift, he was also slated to fit in some quality time with the water extraction units as well, checking the drill bits and the boreholes, performing status checks on the microwave beam performance, and other visual inspections on the condensation plate, and the collection tanks. Baker needed to get his ass back from the caverns of Hebrus Valles, honeymoon or no.
A moment later, Kelly Roth returned, her voice blaring over the channel.
“It’s reading pressure on the rise in the stretch between kilometer marker thirty-seven and thirty eight.”
“Had to be thirty-seven.” Yep. He had been right. Damn, thirty-seven.
“What? What’s so significant about kilometer thirty-seven?”
Kelly had started at the plant three years ago and as such everyone still considered her new blood. She hadn’t been around long enough to know the recurring problem areas. Wyatt had twelve years on Kelly, and he’d seen his share of bad lines.
“It’s the Red Horizon’s Stretch. Pipe should have been replaced proper sixty years ago.”
Kelly didn’t speak for a moment, then finally chimed back in.
“It was a startup back when we still had newcomers butting in line for colonial transport. They were supposed to come down at the Gunjur spaceport but there was a cargo malfunction on atmospheric entry. They wobbled way off course and by the time they could straighten out the only flat grounds were in the Aeolis Mensae northeast of Hoover. There were no landing pads on that stretch, and they couldn’t come down too close to habitats, so they tried for an old-fashioned HDV landing with full retro-rockets. Thing came down too hard. Snapped the lander and fell, exploding on impact. Tore a new crater into the plain and ripped Hoover Inflow Two to shreds for a 500 meter stretch starting at kilometer marker thirty-seven.”
“And the colonists?”
“It was a colonist transport ship, right?”
“Well, the damn thing exploded, Kells. They died. I mean, hell, this bastard is the modern Martian equivalent of the Hindenburg. What do they teach you in those schools down in Hebrus Valles?”
“Well they sure as hell don’t teach us the ins and outs of Aeolis Mensae history. Cut me some slack.”
“Yeah, sure.” To hell with slack. Kelly Roth had just jumped down considerably in Wyatt’s estimation. That came as a real shame, too, since he rarely found anyone to be of actual value. Oh well, onward with society’s descent into idiocy.
“Look, we’re going to have to reduce the flow on Two and divert as much as possible to One and Three. Pressure build up means we’ve got a clog. It might still push through, but let’s reduce the pressure as much as we can in case it can’t. We don’t want to burst that line.”
“Way to state the obvious. But what’s so different about this stretch?”
“I don’t have time for a full-on history lesson here, but to sum it up, the colonies were growing fast and there was a material shortage that year. Someone got the bright idea to build the new pipe at a smaller diameter and attach it with an adaptor on either end to save raw material. Now we got ourselves a sixty-year-old bottleneck with a history of rupturing.”
“And we’re just going to hope rerouting the water fixes the problem?”
“No.” Wyatt shook his head. “No, apparently I’m heading out to get some sun today.”
“Wait, you’re taking a rover?”
“And hauling an overnight Hab. I’m going to test the soil for moisture. Determine if we already have a rupture or just a clog. I’ll know next steps once I’m there.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I do. Sign off for the rover and meet me at the Vehicle bay with the keys. And while you’re at it, sign off on an EVA suit and a ten-person inflatable as well.”
“We don’t even have that many persons at Cooper right now.”
“Nope. And hopefully we won’t need them. But if we do, we’ll call them in from Hoover Operations.”
“You do know I’m in charge right now, right?”
“Of course.” He didn’t bother to hide his distaste for the arrangement. Wyatt knew what he needed to do and couldn’t care less what anyone else had to say about it, in charge or not. He had always been a great people person – a real charmer.
In this instance, however, he was right, even if an ass. If the line ruptured the whole colony might have to undergo water rations, and it wouldn’t stop there. The plant would have to divert a greater percentage of the extracted water back to Curiosity Colony, shorting the colonies on Aeolis Planum. There’d be international and interplanetary uproar. Curiosity came under American rule, but Aeolis Planum colonies fell under a mixture of Indian, Chinese, and Canadian governance. Hell, they even had the first independent state, The People’s Republic of Northern Aeolis.
Water rationing to the region would affect them all. Outflow Two was the mainline out of Curiosity Colony, one of the largest colonies on Mars, and a rupture there could cost forty-one megalitres of water per day. The vast quantity of water running through that line was the very reason it had never been shut down for a proper repair. No one wanted to be responsible for stopping that line from running. It was political suicide.
“Okay, Wyatt. I’ll take your lead on this, but this better not be the same BS you were feeding me on the Aeolis Planum Outflow.”
“You caught that did you?” Wyatt smiled. Historical gaps of knowledge aside, maybe Kells still deserved a little of his respect.
“Yeah I caught that you lazy bastard. So go out there and fix this one up for me, and maybe I won’t write you up.”
Wyatt clipped the walkie back to his belt and grabbed his reader off the table. Before shutting it down he tapped over to a weather report. Summer had come to Equatorial Mars and it looked like he could expect temperatures to peak at 17 degrees Celsius today, though it would drop down to minus 70 overnight. He wasn’t concerned about the temperatures though. Not in a traditional Earth sense. His rover and his EVA suit could handle the fluctuation. No, there were bigger issues to worry about on Mars.
With summer came the ever present threat of dust storms. Luckily today had a clear forecast. Tomorrow, however, did not look so promising. Warm surface temperatures meant trouble, and chances were high for a dust storm within the next 36 hours and rising every hour thereafter.
Wyatt had his timetable. He’d have to move fast and hope that the damage at kilometer 37 was minimal. If not, he could be looking at repairing the pipeline in the thick of a major dust storm, which would be disastrous for the solar generators that powered the portable Hab, not to mention just a plain pain in his ass.
He tapped off his reader, pocketed it, and began the trek back up to Cooper Crater. He hadn’t mentioned everything to Kelly yet. She would also have to sign out a portable excavator, and various testing equipment. And if he had to make the big call, if he had to shut down the water flow on Inflow Two, they were both about to be in a world of trouble. Ah, bureaucracy, he thought.
He picked up pace, dreading what lay ahead, but determined to yank off that bandage as quickly as possible. Delay would do no one any good. And if the worst was to come, he might as well have at it already. Fifteen years was a good run at an outpost like the Kembhavi-Cooper Craters. It had to end sometime.