© Konart | Dreamstime.com – Humans on mars
By Chris Hutton
With the arrival of the dark, bad had taken a swift turn to utterly screwed. Wyatt backed into the open suitport on the exterior of the portable hab module, clicking his backpack into place against the hab and locking the seal. A moment later he had opened the hatch, the backpack parting with it, and hauled himself out of his EVA suit and back inside, leaving all Martian dust on the red plains where it couldn’t ingrain itself within his equipment. The whole system ran much smoother than a normal airlock (though one of those could be found on the side of the cramped living space as a backup measure – redundancies being highly valued by the colonies).
Wyatt slammed his fist down onto the built in workbench, rattling the few tools he had spread upon its surface. The immediacy of the sound came as a comfort, and he relished in its volume. Outside, the air pressure held at 1% of the hab’s internal pressure. Although technically you could hear, sounds outside of your suit environment came across muted at best, and even that much sound meant you were in intimate proximity to its source. Typically Wyatt appreciated that quiet, but today it reminded him of his isolation – not his self-imposed exile, but the imminent feeling that all the powers that be had come together and begun colluding against him.
He had arrived at kilometer 37 of Inflow Two about an hour prior. It had taken him 30 minutes to disembark from the rover to the hab, gather up his testing and monitoring equipment, slide that through an equipment port, then slip into the suitport and disembark from the habitat.
From there he’d tripped on the hitch hooked to the dolly of larger supplies. As he’d landed mask first into the dirt, he’d immediately shifted into QA procedures, examining every inch and seam of the suit for tears, abrasions, or cracks. Finding no cause for concern, he had shuffled to the equipment port, opened the seal, and grabbed the bag that held all of his testing equipment.
Rummaging through it, he pulled out a baton-like pole with a flat protruding disc centered on one end, and flicked a switch at its base. The bottom with the disc telescoped out, then locked into place. Wyatt gripped the walking stick, tapped on a helmet light, and ascended the lip of the Red Horizon’s crater.
Ten minutes later had had scrambled down into the bowl, where, at the western edge, he found the exposed Inflow Two pipe – the repair stretch. The pipe measured roughly a meter across, though half of that width came from shielding and sensory systems, leaving only half a meter for water flow.
Wyatt laid his hand on the sixty-year-old replacement, resting it on the soft layer of insulation bound around the inflow pipe. Even through his gloves, he could feel the warmth radiating from the line.
At least the heating conduits are still working, he thought. All their water mains had heating systems built in. Otherwise the extreme temperature fluctuations of the Martian environment could lead to major breakages with the contraction and expansion playing hell on the joints, and the freezing and unfreezing of the water only exacerbating the problems. Of course, the temperature maintenance would work a lot better if the original engineers had reburied the line in the first place.
Now to check on the obstruction.
Wyatt ducked under the pipe, which ran along elevated trusses, then righted himself, standing between Inflow Two and Outflow Two. Running parallel to one another, the lines had been easier to lay down and it made visual inspections that much easier, as well, but the whole elevated system still stank of corrupt politics and savings over safety.
When the repair line had been laid, those in charge had sought after every potential budget reduction that they could. Besides narrowing the line, and leaving it open to the elements, they had also constructed these awful metal supports every fifty meters, which now themselves had to be maintained and periodically replaced. The line, now elevated, kept level with its entrances into the opposing slopes of the crater, cutting straight through the bowl – two metal scars transecting the circular impact into two-lopsided divisions.
About every hundred meters, anyone walking the line would stumble upon the only luxury afforded the slip-shod repair: viewing windows for manual inspections of the line interior. Covered with stainless steel sliding doors, the windows themselves were built from numerous sheets of glass-like ceramic layered with transparent silica aerogel insulation. The windows presented one more potential rupture point, but the construction here had been better than the rest of the replacement line, and though they didn’t provide for a perfect view inside, they proved useful for preliminary investigations.
Wyatt walked the line, checking all five windows, until he reached the southwestern slope of the crater. The line disappeared into that wall, buried in the Martian earth, and every window he had checked showed the same thing – only a small trickle of water flow.
The blockage was within one of the covered segments and Wyatt placed all bets on the bottleneck. So much for lucking out.
Wyatt plowed forward, bracing his ascent with his walking stick. As he crested the rim of the crater, the light of his helmet caught on a tall metal pole protruding up from the plane and into the Martian night. It stood there, a monument of the past piercing the sky, marking the joint of the original line to its replacement. An actual monument to the killed colonists, or would be colonists, had been erected decades after the catastrophic crash at the center of the crater, and if he turned back Wyatt probably could have made out its phallic silhouette, birthed from some ungodly amalgamation of Egyptian obelisks and rocketry, but this pole, this simple metal pole bore the true testament to the tragedy of that day. It stood, an afterthought hammered into the earth to mark the ridiculous adapter joint that the civil engineers obviously knew, even then, would need to be located time and again; a joint that had been built to fail and be replaced from the start. They had marked tragedy by erecting a cheap metal pole that only called out the stupidity of the repair, and the complete lack of concern by the elite then already running the colonies. Nothing had been constructed to memorialize the lost then – their tragedy an afterthought even more than the shoddy construction that bisected the crater.
Wyatt kneeled by the pole, opened his bag, and pulled out a thick instrument that bore some resemblance to a nail gun. He loaded a small sensor in its forward nozzle, braced the contraption against the sand, then pulled the trigger. A microwave beam heated and bore through the earth, the sensor shooting down into the cavity created. Wyatt had set the target for a depth of 140 meters. It wouldn’t reach the adapter joint, but it should settle in close enough. The sensor had been designed to collect soil samples, heat them, and measure the percentage of water in the soil. If there was a rupture the data sent back to the rover would reveal a high water concentration. That done, there was nothing else to do that night but schlep back to the rover.
Part of him wished he had parked closer to the bottleneck, but the proximal ejecta from the impact had never been cleared, and still littered the landscape near the crater rim with a mix of melt rock, diaplectic glass, and other potential hazards. Wyatt could have still driven it, but he would have had to slow to a crawl, and at that point it had been faster to walk.
For his return trip, Wyatt traced the perimeter of the crater. It added some distance to the hike, but proved easier than climbing in and out of the historic impact. Without the distraction of checking the inflow pipe, however, the quiet of the night plagued him. Every so often he caught a faint whistle of wind, which might have been pleasant had he one, been able to feel the breeze, and two, not clearly understood that to make that whistle in this atmosphere meant winds approaching gale-like speeds. Even if he had been outside of his suit, the wind would have felt like little more than a summer breeze on Earth, but the problem lay not in its force nor violence, but in the dust it roused, a precursor of the storm to come.
Wyatt had hurried the rest of the way back to his rover, fighting through the diminished visibility.
The second he had exited his EVA suit he had seen the alert on his monitor. His fist had come down hard against the workbench. All was beyond unwell.
Readings indicated a water percentage of 16% in the soil sample, a full eight hundred times greater than the average percentage for the region. The pipe had ruptured.
Wyatt ducked through the docking tunnel to the rover, plopped into the driver’s seat, and glanced to the communication board. The screen blinked back at him, indicating missed communications. At this point, Wyatt had long passed the three hour window since Kelly’s call. The Coopers knew by now that he had continued on to the site.
Wyatt steeled himself, pushing that thought away, and flipped the switch on the comm terminal, setting the dial for the shift manager’s terminal.
“Kelly, this is Wyatt Alexander calling in from the Red Horizon’s stretch of Inflow Two. Are you there?” He gagged as he spoke. He hated this level of formality, but the Coopers would be listening by now. If his luck hadn’t completely crapped out, it would just be the Coopers listening, unable yet to reach the other board members.
“SM Kelly, please respond.”
Static, then a click as someone picked up on the line.
Oh Hell, they’d put Will Horner on shift. Wyatt cringed. He didn’t fear the man, but Will came at you whispering sweet nothings, even as he was sharpening the blade for your back. Will also liked to call Wyatt Rainbow. The man found it to be amusing, playing off Wyatt’s generally dour demeanor. Wyatt found it insulting and disrespectful.
“Evening, Will. Where’s Kells?”
“Her shift’s over buddy. You and I get to share the airwaves now.”
“Bullshit. No one took this shift voluntarily. Where’s Kells?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve got an eye for her, Rainbow.”
“Do you even know how to give a direct answer?”
“Good. Glad to have that established. Where’s Kells?”
“Buddy, you don’t have to worry about that. I’ve got your back.”
Wyatt shook his head, and pinched once more at the bridge of his nose. That migraine might be making a comeback.
“Ellison had his daddy can her, didn’t he?”
“Look, bud, I’m not at liberty–”
Another voice interrupted. Ellison.
“–she tried to call Hoover and divert the water to the overflow tank. You and I both know the stink that would cause. Our stock would plummet.”
“Ellison, you spineless, flaccid prick, we needed to reduce pressure.”
“No, you needed to increase it and push the obstruction loose. Instead you’re causing a panic over nothing. Now we’re having to call in the board for an emergency meeting. At fifteen ‘til twenty-two hundred. Do you get the mess you’ve caused here?”
“Oh my God, you’ve had to wake the board? I’m just so sorry. What a disaster. Excuse me while I just let the main line out of Curiosity rupture.”
“Don’t be crude, Wyatt.”
“Or what, you’ll fire me? I’m pretty sure you’ve already set that in motion with granddaddy, right?”
“You were ordered back.”
“Yeah, and kilometer 37 has ruptured. We’ve got a leak at the Hoover-side Red Horizon’s adapter. If we don’t fix this now, we could be rationing for months.”
“That’s no longer your problem, Wyatt. We’ll have a team out in the morning. You are to turn around now.”
“Yeah…” Wyatt paused for a moment. He had nothing else to say. Ellison was not worth his time.
Wyatt clicked off the channel and switched to Kelly Roth’s private frequency.
“Kelly, are you there?”
An automated message kicked in.
“This frequency has been suspended until further notice. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.”
Wyatt turned off the communications board and switched back to the ever present classical satellite station.
He stared out through the rover windshield into the dark sky. He had twelve hours remaining to figure out what was happening. He couldn’t trust the Coopers, not with Ellison somehow calling the shots, and with Kelly effectively removed from service he had no allies left. Maybe he should have worked a little harder at endearing himself with the rest of the crew.
He pondered that thought for a moment, then discarded it. Nonsense. Utter nonsense.
Screw everyone else, he had a line to fix. Wyatt cranked the rover into gear and slowly inched forward. It would take him almost forty-five minutes to haul the materials the remaining half a kilometer to the adapter site, but the impact ejecta made a full speed run too dangerous. He buckled up and settled in for the classics at an amazing pace of one kilometer per hour.
Ten minutes into his drive, and the classics shut off as a secure channel called in.
Great. The last man he wanted to hear from, and apparently Wyatt would have no peace from him tonight.
“Ellison, why are we on a private frequency?”
“I’d like to offer you a severance package.” They both know they weren’t talking severance packages.
“You mean your granddaddy wants to offer me a severance package.”
“No. I do. Five Hundred Million Yuan. Just turn around now.”
Wyatt didn’t trust Ellison, but he couldn’t deny the offer had its temptations. That many yuan would have him set for life. Of course, he’d always know how he had earned it and from whom.
“Just head back to base and pretend there’s no rupture?”
“No. Just disappear. I’d suggest the People’s Republic,” Ellison said. His voice picked up a tone of excitement now. The dick thought he had Wyatt locked in. “I hear it’s easy to vanish there,” he continued. “Once you’re within their sovereign territory, I can wire the funds into an untraceable account. No fuss. You’re set and we’re good.”
Wyatt paused, mulling over the offer. He already knew his decision, but the fact that an offer had been made at all plagued him. One of this amount, a monetary loss so hard to discount or conceal, it just plain baffled him. Ellison desperately wanted his cooperation. That, of course, made Wyatt’s decision an easy one.
“It’s a nice offer, Ell, but I’m afraid I just don’t believe you.”
Wyatt clicked off the call and set up a block on the override. For the next five minutes, the screen lit up with call after call trying to reach the rover, then the lights tapered off. Ellison had finally received the message. Wyatt no longer worked for Kembhavi-Cooper. He was on his own.