© Konart | Dreamstime.com – Humans on mars
By Chris Hutton
“No, no, no. This ends, now, Wyatt.”
Ellison Cooper. One in a long line of the Cooper family to find himself working the plant, hoping one day he’d climb up those rungs and wrestle his way onto the board. A Kembhavi hadn’t sat in one of those chairs since the Blue Terra buyout of ‘36, but the Cooper family was tenacious. They clung to every share they could to ensure they always had a seat at the table. It wasn’t a controlling share, but it had kept the family in the decision-making process, and they always believed that the tides could turn. The phrase made little sense on Mars, but the older families, the ones that still celebrated their Earth heritage, they held tightly to such seemingly vestigial plays on words.
Cooper rubbed at his eyes, still trying to press out the last hints of sleep, while he stumbled through the vehicle bay. As he did, he reached with his other hand for Wyatt, lightly grasping his shoulder.
“Don’t.” Wyatt brushed Ellison’s hand aside and glared at Kelly. “Why’d you wake this piss ant?”
“Balls.” No more needed to be said. Kelly knew the storm Wyatt had just stirred.
“I am a GD Cooper, you lowly blue-handed, ditch digger.” Ellison brimmed over, all of 160 centimeters of pathetic rage.
“Seriously,” Wyatt said. “What part of that do you want to me to pick apart first? Let’s start with GD. What are you trying to say there? Gosh Darn? I mean, golly gee, Ellison, if you’re going to try to play the big man, why don’t we try some big boy words?”
“Do you want to be fired? Cause I can make that happen like this.” Ellison snapped his fingers as if the gesture somehow conveyed the sincerity and power of his threat.
Wyatt laughed, thoroughly unimpressed. “You’re an intern. Your family name gives you no weight here over anyone. The only power you have is to call granddaddy Cooper and play tattle tale. That always impresses.”
Wyatt was right. Coopers always clawed for a seat on the board, but it was only the most desperate ones, the most unqualified that found themselves working shifts at the plant in hopes to win over Old Man Cooper’s respect, which they rarely did.
Wyatt turned to Kelly before Ellison could respond. “You still didn’t answer my question, Kells.”
“I’m on shift. I make my calls.”
“Yeah, to this shriveling legacy.”
“Because the Coopers still hold weight. They’d want to know what we’re doing here.”
“Great. Tell them. But don’t inflate Ellison’s ego. We don’t want him having delusions of grandeur.”
“Tone it down a notch,” Kelly started. “I know he’s not in charge, but damn it–”
Ellison erupted, cutting Kelly off. “You blue-handed asshole. You’re done.”
“Good job on the grownup vocabulary, Ell, but you can cut that blue-handed nonsense. I get my hands wet. I work the water. We all do here, whether you’re wading in the muck with me or not. And you better get it out of your mind that this job is some bottom rung stepping stone. Making sure these lines run, we are the lifeblood of Mars. We grind to a halt, we make a mistake, and colonists die. It may not be a fucking Cooper losing his ration, but the workers of Hoover, Franklin, New Charlotte, all of Curiosity Colony, half of North Gale, not to mention Yuegang, Nair, and Redknife colonies on the Planum, we stop the water, they lose theirs. And don’t you think their onsite extractors can make up for that loss, because that home-extracted water, that doesn’t trickle down.”
Ellison slumped, slack-jawed and finally cowed. Then, after the briefest of wonderful silences, he spoke.
“Fine. You have it your way,” he said, pivoted, and walked out.
Kelly shook her head.
“Some speech. We’re the lifeblood, eh? The noble and ever vigilant heroes of the people? As I remember it, you spent half the morning sitting on your ass in the mess making excuses for yourself.”
“True, but my point is no less valid.”
“You know Ellison’s going to go right back to the comm terminal and call his daddy.” Not a question.
“He would’ve anyway. This way I got to have some fun first.”
“You’re a total jackass, you know that?”
Wyatt grinned wide, something he rarely did, revealing his yellowed teeth. A chip was missing from the tip of one his cuspids, which, added to his already snaggle-toothed smile, made his grin all the more unsettling. Kelly averted her eyes ever so slightly.
“Yeah I do. But something about that boy just pisses me off good and solid.”
“Yeah, something about everybody pisses you off, Wyatt.”
“That it does. We signed off here?”
“Yeah, we’re signed off. You got your rover, your EVA suit, your hab, your inflatable, your excavator, and enough other assorted equipment to bankrupt me if you screw this one.”
“Always trying to help.”
Wyatt smiled. Twice in one day. It had to be a record. Kelly turned once again, whether out of distaste for that smile or, more likely, some misguided attempt to politely avoid staring at him, Wyatt wasn’t sure.
“Alright then. You’re going to need someone else down in Kembhavi to run the QA shift. You should probably go wake–”
Kelly interrupted. “–Hwan. I know. She’s got the best eye for that facility out of anyone on site.”
“Other than me.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Now who’s being a dick?”
“Just calling it as I see it.”
Wyatt grunted. He tried to speak, but he couldn’t find any more words. He’d already spoken more than he cared to. Instead, he simply turned with a slight wave, and keyed in the entrance code on the rover airlock.
“That’s it then.”
Wyatt didn’t look back. “Yep.” He hauled himself in, keying the airlock shut.
The dusty plains of Mars extended out before Wyatt’s rover, nothing but red, iron-rich regolith, pierced here and there by basalt and mugearite rock. The vehicle rolled gently over the terrain, its eight-wheeled, rocker-bogie suspension climbing easily over the scattered obstacles, or more accurately, lifting over them. The system had been automated to slow down and speed up differing wheels on approach to obstacles, in order to literally lift the wheels over potential impacts minimizing any jarring that could otherwise flip an early rover design. By Martian standards it was a smooth ride. It was also a slow one, the rover topping out at 15 kilometers per hour.
Unfortunately, Wyatt wasn’t even approaching that roaring speed. With the hab hitched to the back, sealed to the rover with an airtight, flexible docking adapter, and a tow dolly behind that carrying the larger equipment such as the excavator, and each tow-able unit with its own rocker-bogie suspension system, the whole arrangement made a whopping 10 kilometers an hour on a good stretch. Based on the drive so far, Wyatt could expect an average speed of 8 kilometers per hour for the voyage for a grand total of roughly a four and a half hour drive each way.
Kembhavi and Cooper craters were located at what was considered the northeastern edge of a small valley. Of course, magnetic directions didn’t mean much on Mars – just one more hangover from the colonies’ Earthly origins. Still the system worked well enough in relation to mapping, even if compasses didn’t work worth a damn on the planet.
To the longitudinal north and south, two small ridge-lines rose up a few thousand kilometers above the flat dust bowl in which Wyatt found himself. As he continued by GPS southwest from the plant, more ridges encircled him rising up to the tableland of the Aeolis Mensae. He couldn’t yet make out those most distant ridges through the smog-like haze, but he could see both the northern and southern outcrops peaking through the bleak skyline.
Wyatt had twenty-two more kilometers to go of red regolith, and hazy skies before he could set up the hab and take his first look at Inflow Two. That meant just shy of three more hours of driving left in his trek.
Slow classical compositions played over the satellite radio, and though Wyatt would have preferred something a little more uptempo for his drive the radio had been stuck on this station for a year, the glitch never considered high enough priority to merit the cost of fixing it. Damn Hwan and her classical music.
Wyatt’s mind began to wander as the drive dragged on. He had laid in hard on Ellison, and he didn’t regret it one bit, but he kept turning over his last speech to that snivelling brat. He hadn’t been sure he bought it himself at the time, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had stumbled in anger upon a horrible truth.
The colonies produced their own water. They always had, ever since the first permanent settlement on Mars. Self-generation, or more accurately extraction, of water had been a requirement of all habitats constructed since the beginning of the colonization efforts, from the moment the first Habitat Descent Vehicle, or HDV, fired its retro rockets and descended onto Martian soil.
Equally important had been water reclamation, and every habitat also required built in water recovery systems to recycle all water produced by the colonists, including sweat, urine, and other waste waters. Life on Mars could not thrive without these systems, and, in the end, the drinking water produced was actually quite pure – in the early years.
Regulations differed depending upon the common law ruling over the particular colony but universally every colonial power required their habitats to both be capable of extracting enough water ration from the local area to meet the needs of its corresponding colonist capacity designation and to recycle all waste water within a 95-99% efficiency. 100% remained the elusive goal, and even those manufacturers that claimed such capabilities, such as Moreux Crater Recovery Systems, Inc. actually fell flat of that goal by at least .07%.
The major flaw of the water regulations lay in the implicit agreement that the colonists abide by strict rationing indefinitely and that they maintain their water recovery infrastructure in order to maintain proper efficiencies. Frequent failure to live within these proposals coupled with populations that grew beyond the recommended controls and a gradual decrease in practical capabilities of older and failing water reclamation systems led very quickly to massive Martian water shortages.
Resupply from Earth was not a feasible alternative, and though asteroid water mining became a serious consideration, in the end the Martian colonists could not rely on help from a ruling body that at its closest was over 90 million kilometers away, and much further considering the rules of spaceflight, which rarely allowed for straight lines.
As the colonies expanded, dedicated water extraction and reclamation centers had become the new necessity. Centers like Kembhavi-Cooper. In essence, Wyatt and his co-workers really did control the lives of their fellow Martian colonists. Without these extraction and reclamation centers (or recovery centers depending on local nomenclature), the colonies would have used up their water supplies decades ago.
Wyatt shrugged as he pushed on in his drive. Maybe he really was a hero. He smirked at the thought.
Suddenly the gentle tunes piping through the rover cut off, replaced by Kelly’s no-nonsense voice as the station-to-rover communication system overrode the preset satellite.
“Wyatt, we’ve got a problem.”
“Of course we do.”
“I’ve received word from Herbert Cooper. He wants you to turn back.”
Like Hell, Wyatt thought. He’d pushed forward another six kilometers since he’d let his mind wander. He’d passed the halfway point, and what’s more, he was starting to believe his own BS.
“And Old Man Cooper?”
“Say again, Wyatt?”
“Jeffrey Cooper, Ell’s granddaddy. Has he weighed in?”
“Wyatt, don’t push this.”
“Herbert doesn’t run the company. Hell, for that matter neither does Jeffrey. They want me to turn back, I want to hear it from someone with direct authority at Kembhavi-Cooper, not an isolated board member.”
“You know Ellison will get his way. You piss off Herbert like you are everyone else today, you’ll be out of here.”
“Maybe.” Wyatt winced. The sun had begun its descent, the ruddy hue of the sky just faintly broken by blue as the sun dipped towards the western ridge lines. It would deepen as the sun sunk beneath that horizon, shining a brilliant blue through the dust-filled atmosphere. For now it merely proved a nuisance for visibility. Wyatt clicked a button on the dash and the windows tinted easing the glare. It dawned on him then that it must be approaching 18:00, give or take a few minutes.
“Aren’t you overdue for a shift change, Kells?” he continued.
“Way overdue. You think anyone wants to my job right now?”
They definitely didn’t. Whomever gave Wyatt clearance, or allowed it without giving it, would be standing against the Cooper family. Kelly knew that, and she knew Wyatt knew it. No sense dwelling on the topic.
“Well, while I’ve got you, how about you keep Ellison and family off my back?”
“In for a penny I suppose…”
She stopped short of finishing the statement. The silence stretched out. Finally, Kelly chimed back in.
“It’s not just Ellison.”
“Our problem.” Kelly sighed. “Pressure is picking back up on the pipe. I’ve diverted all I can to one and three, but if it doesn’t ease down soon…”
“I get it, and I got it. If you have to, divert Inflow Two into the overflow tank.” He knew what he was asking of her. The overflow tank was controlled on site at Hoover. Diverting the water there, meant placing a direct call to the city station. Word would spread about a problem on the line. That wouldn’t be good for anyone.
“Well, that sounds like a peachy idea. Any other ways you want to take a crap on my day?”
“About the Coopers?”
“Damn it, Wyatt. I’ll tell them I called you back. When you’re not here in oh, two and half, three hours, that’s on you.”
“Perfect. Thanks, Kells.”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll talk to you in a few hours after I have my ass handed to me.”
She clicked off before he could say goodbye, not that he would have. They were beyond pleasantries. Kelly had just climbed out on a huge limb for him, which made little sense considering they weren’t really friends outside of work. Wyatt always kept to himself, and had never gone out of his way to make a decent impression with his shift managers.
Still, by the time the Coopers realized Wyatt hadn’t come back, he’d be at kilometer 37, hab set up, and taking his first look at Inflow Two. It would be twenty-one hundred or after, and Herbert and Ellison would still have to take matters up to the old man, and that’s before they bothered approaching anyone else on the board. Even if they managed to round up support, no one was going to travel out for him after dark. It would be ten hundred in the morning before the remotest possibility that anyone else would join Wyatt on site, and he could think of more than a few ways to guarantee they weren’t hauling his ass off site until he’d had time to properly check the pipe.
Wyatt stopped the rover and clicked on his reader, tapping over to the weather. Predictions were still high for dust storms and the timetable had moved up. If anyone tried to haul him away the next day, even immediately upon arrival, they’d still be cutting it close. Storms could start by thirteen hundred that afternoon.
What the hell had he gotten himself into?
The thought rang out, echoing as he set there, the rover still halted. It didn’t make sense. Why call him back at all? Why risk a rupture? Sure, Ellison was full-on useless so Wyatt expected to be dicked around by him, but Herbert had a decent head on his shoulders, if not a moral one. He’d know that amount of water loss could be exceptionally costly for the company both monetarily and in reputation.
Wyatt pinched at his brow, fighting back a potential migraine. Pressure was rising, the line could rupture at any moment, and no one wanted anything to be done about it. He’d stepped in much deeper shit than he’d anticipated, and he had no way out. He had committed, and he always followed through with his commitments.
He eased his foot back onto the accelerator, and rounded a small a crater, driving as he did straight into the blue aureole surrounding the descending sun. Night had fallen on Mars.