© Konart | Dreamstime.com – Humans on mars
By Chris Hutton
The remainder of his drive to marker 37 went without incident. When at last Wyatt arrived, he shifted the rover-hab-dolly caravan to a halt, clicked off the radio, and crawled back through the adapter dock to the portable habitat. Once there, he stood, stretched his arms, grabbed a quick protein bar from his ration pack, and plopped down onto his cot.
He knew that he couldn’t sleep, not yet, but hell if he hadn’t had his fill of this day. He lay there, nibbling at the drab bar, and pondered his next move. The Coopers would have men on site by morning, so if he did anything he had to do it tonight. He could always take Ell’s money and run, but that meant trusting that brat and Wyatt trusted no one. Alternatively, he could disappear, just turn around and leave the line be – he had essentially been fired, so it wasn’t exactly his responsibility anymore – but that course presented its own challenges.
Wyatt sat up, thumbed his eyes, and pressed back against his throbbing forehead. He knew he wasn’t leaving. He had to fix the line. Someone either wanted it ruptured, or wanted to cover up the cause of the rupture. Like most things in life, that just pissed Wyatt off, which meant there was zero chance that he could drop it.
Decided he rose, took one last bite of the protein bar, then made towards the suit port. He needed to see the line close up.
Wyatt had just finished the exit procedure from the hab, and began unstrapping the excavator, when a static communication line burst to life in his suit, breaking the deep quiet, and nearly causing him to fall off the dolly out of surprise. Gripping the ratchet strap Wyatt yanked himself upright, regained his footing, and waited. He didn’t know how, but Ellison had tapped into the local suit communications. He shouldn’t have been able to do that at this distance.
“Wyatt, are you there?” Wyatt relaxed ever so slightly. It was Kelly, not Ellison.
“Yeah, and glad it’s you. If I had to put up with Ellison one more time –”
“–No time for small talk. I’ve managed to break through whatever lock they put on my feed, and reroute through your rover to your suit – which all of this would have been a lot easier if you hadn’t blocked your rover lines by the way –”
“–I needed to block out Ell–”
“–Great. Still no time. Look, before they booted me and locked me to my quarters –”
Something snapped in Wyatt. “– Wait, Ellison did what to you –”
“– Stop interrupting, jackass. Look, before they locked me away, I had a final report from Hwan. There is no flow out of Two. Nada. Rien. The water has been diverted, but I never reached Hoover. When I broke back into my feed, first thing I did was try to reach the onsite station, but communication lines are down. So I routed to news out of New Charlotte. They’re reporting rumors that Hoover city officials have been locked out of their own overflow tank. Kembhavi-Cooper denies all rumors, but I guarantee you someone on site has diverted the water and is trying to make sure no one finds out.”
“Makes sense. Water has to be diverted to fix the line, but the company wouldn’t want anyone to know we’d had a rupture in the first place.”
“Which is what I thought at first as well, but then why remove me from shift? Why call you back?”
Wyatt resumed unstrapping the excavator.
“Kelly, I think you and I are circling the same questions, but I don’t have the answers. The only way I’m going to get them is to dig them up.”
“Damn it, can you stop interrupting?”
“I thought you were done al–
“–Well, I wasn’t.” A hint of panic had entered Kelly’s voice “Whatever’s at that bottle neck, whatever blocked the pipe and caused the rupture, the Coopers will do anything to keep quiet.”
“You mean the company?”
“No, I mean the Coopers you interrupting asshole. Look –” Kelly cut off.
Static still piped into Wyatt’s suit, so he knew the line was open, but she had stopped talking.”
More quiet, then a light rapping from the other end of the line. Faintly, Wyatt could make out a muffled voice, but he couldn’t understand what was being said. Then the knocking grew louder.
“Get this door open!” Ellison again, only with an authority to his voice that up until now had always been lacking.
“Damn it!” Kelly said. “No more time. I’ve barricaded myself in, but it won’t last. I tapped into some sat feeds. There are rovers en route. The Coopers have sent their own team. It’s a clean-up operation. You need to go now.”
Wyatt said nothing. What could he say?
“Are you there?”
“I’m here, Kells. But do you really expect me to turn tail and run?”
“It’s the smart play.”
“True. There has to be something though. What can I do?”
“Fuck all, as usual.” She laughed. It came out nervous – faked, as if trying to pretend that all of this wasn’t happening.
“Yeah, that’s me. Dicking around when I should be on the floor. You can always count on me for that.”
“Every single –”
Quiet. The line went dead mid-sentence and once again Wyatt had been thrust into the vacuum of silence that was the Martian surface.
He hung his head for a moment out of respect for Kelly, then pulled a knife from his toolkit and cut the straps holding down the excavator. He wouldn’t be loading that bastard back on.
Three hours later and the machine had drilled down to Inflow Two. Wyatt turned on a winch and cranked the excavator back to the surface, then stepped to the lip of the cylindrical pit, staring down into the darkness. Even with his helmet light he couldn’t see all the way down, but he’d set the equipment for the right depth and had to trust that it had worked to plan.
Pulling himself away from the pit, he unhooked the excavator, then locked the winch line onto his body harness. He had to open up the pipe by hand. In order to do so, he needed to descend all 150 meters down into that darkness. Only then would he know what the Coopers were hiding.
He turned back to the pit, wiping the dust from his visor. The winds had picked up, the whistling breaking the silence with increasing frequency. The rover’s solar cells would be covered, but weren’t doing any good right now in the middle of the night anyway. More importantly dust would be blowing into the pit. Between the darkness of the night and the fine particles whipped up by the approaching storm, visibility would be crap.
Because everything else had been working in my favor up until now.
Wyatt laughed, a light chuckle at the insanity in which he now found himself – the level of crazy that had all been stirred by one pressure reading on one of nearly fifty water mains. He should have just reported what he knew about the line, planned procedure with Kelly, and bucked it over to the next shift. By the time he had hit that vehicle bay he had been an hour from quitting time. Of course, he hadn’t trusted anyone on the next shift to handle the job properly. He didn’t like anyone, and he didn’t trust anyone, and now he was out in the middle of the valley checking a sixty-year-old line against company orders with nothing in it for him. Idiot.
He pressed the remote and lowered himself into the pit.
It took nearly fifteen minutes to safely hit bottom. When he did, Wyatt’s feet scrambled against the loose rock and gravel laid over the top of the main to provide some give against any expansion and contraction of the pipes. He brushed what he could aside, revealing the top of the original Inflow Two. He had dug a meter back from the adaptor marker, ensuring he could get a good look at the obstruction.
Had he still been working with the company’s blessing he’d have called in at this point and requested that the line be sealed one hundred meters in either direction to prevent any damage from pressure loss, but working against orders, he’d have to hope that the automated systems still worked, would sense the pressure loss, and seal off the pipe on either side before it had any impact on Hoover colony or the Kembhavi-Cooper outpost.
Wyatt flicked on a blowtorch and began cutting away at the top of the pipe. He’d cut three sides of a rectangular opening and was working on the final cut when it happened. The flame retreated into the tip of the nozzle. He heard no sound – he wouldn’t in this vacuum – but he knew the whistle he would have heard anywhere but this surface. Wyatt released the trigger, and tried to shut the main valve. The dial stuck, jammed. Dust had clogged every opening in the torch, including the intakes and the nozzle, and the flame had pulled in. A flashback.
Unable to stop the gas, Wyatt dropped the torch and jammed the up button on the winch remote. Its slow retreat upward wouldn’t cut it. His EVA suit had been built for construction jobs, and his gloves had grips built in, but even so, as he hauled ass up that line, he could feel himself slipping. He wrapped the line about one hand, then the other, braced his feet against the side of the pit, and chimney-climbed up as fast as he could.
He managed to make it maybe ten meters before the blow torch exploded. He hadn’t feared the blast itself, not the concussion of it, but the shrapnel. In Mars’ microgravity, coupled with its minimal atmospheric pressure, the metal shards flew with little impediment. He felt the first piece pierce into his leg, followed by half a dozen more. The shock of it caused him to lose his grip and he plummeted down, bouncing off the pit wall, and crashed onto the top of the pipe, right on the weakened, unfinished cut. The force bent the metal partially inward, and a cloud of steam rose as the remaining water within the pipe froze and boiled simultaneously, evaporating and disappearing into the night.
Wyatt had landed directly on his injured leg, his weight pressing it firmly against the metal of the pipe. He didn’t dare move for fear of exposing the tears in his suit. For a moment, he simply froze fighting back the panic.
Until the pressure alarms started. Suddenly his adrenaline jolted and Wyatt acted on instinct. His panic temporarily on hold, he reached to a utility pouch on his suit, yanked out an adhesive wrap that bore a striking resemblance to duct tape, and began wrapping it as fast as he could around his injured leg, and more importantly the half dozen punctures in his suit.
Fast as he spun the adhesive patch, the second it became exposed to the air it too became clogged with dust. Still he wound the entire roll out around his leg, then tied off either end to tighten it down. It had no inherent grip, not with the dust clinging to it and spoiling its adhesion, but the knots held it down and lessened the speed of the pressure loss.
The suit’s backup system kicked in, rushing in additional air to normalize pressure, but Wyatt still had no time to rest. He had to seal the wrap to the suit. He couldn’t run the numbers and had no time for drafting a plan – he simply reached over and grabbed the largest, hottest piece of shrapnel that he could and pressed it down along the edges of the wrap. The metal cooled fast, due to the temperature extremes, but Wyatt managed to slide it over the general area of the punctures, and form a stronger bond, though also melting much of the grips on his right glove at the same time.
Finally the alarms stopped. The suit had normalized, and Wyatt began to breathe normally, the immediate crisis having passed. His relief lasted only seconds. Then the burning began. He could feel the dust now bound to the adhesive wrap interacting with his skin through the punctures in the suit. Consisting of numerous oxides, the dust acted like bleach against his exposed skin. He gritted his teeth, reminding himself that a few chemical burns were the least of his problems. He now also had a collection of metal shards in his leg, doing all sorts of fun things every time he moved, and his suit could no longer be trusted.
Wyatt shifted to his knees and peered into Inflow Two. Though the force of his landing had bent the cut metal inward, it had only been by a few centimeters, and he couldn’t get a good look inside. Bracing against the pit wall, he kicked at the loose covering with his good leg, but the pipe still held strong. He needed leverage.
Wyatt glanced up following the winch line out of the pit. He needed to get back to the hab. The suit he was wearing came with the hab suitport, but he had also signed out his own EVA suit. He could change and exit through the redundancy airlock. That would be the smart maneuver.
He looked back to the pipe. He didn’t feel like making the smart choice in that moment. Wyatt pulled out his walking stick, flicked it open, until it telescoped to its full meter length, then wedged it into the gap between the broken metal and the rest of the pipe. He pushed up, ever so slowly, and with all of his strength, the end of the “stick” pushing down on the already inward bent portion of the pipe. At last it gave, shifted, then snapped.
He stumbled with the sudden force of the break, reached out, and caught the edge of the newly formed hole at the last moment. His leg burned and the embedded shards dug in with the abrupt movement. He bit down against the pain, wincing, his vision blackening. As he steadied himself the pain lessened ever so slightly, his breathing slowed, and his vision normalized.
Wyatt held himself there, prone, looming over the opening into Inflow Two. He now had a clear view inside. The fallen scrap didn’t rest on the bottom of the pipe, but had caught on something. Careful to keep his injured leg unmoved, he reached in and cast aside the discarded plate.
He stopped for a moment, then, taking in the obstruction. All thoughts of his leg and his suit evaporated.
“Well that was… not what I expected.”
Below a human body had wedged itself into the adapter joint, stuck at the shoulders. The body had bloated and the skin ruptured, the shreds of the poor sap’s clothes clinging to its distended form. Wyatt didn’t know which affects came from the water, which from normal decomposition, and which from the sudden exposure to the Martian atmosphere, and he really didn’t care.
No, he found himself instead caring about his sudden urge to vomit. He needed to get back to the hab and out of his suit fast.
His stomach emptied in the lavatory, and his leg wrapped in a proper roll of gauze, Wyatt braced himself on a crutch (one of many emergency provisions provided with the rover), and hobbled over to the suitport. Suit mended or not, he could no longer trust opening that seal. He grabbed a role of caution tape from his workbench, and marked off the suitport exit with a giant X.
Won’t be making that mistake, he thought. Then for good measure he scribbled the word NO in big bold letters with a black marker by the unlock panel.
That done, he eased into the chair by his workbench. Outside that stupid dust swirled, visibility had dropped considerably, and a body waited in Inflow Two for his decision.
A body. A damn Hoover drifter. The clothes had been ragged, and though that easily could have been from the elements to which they had been exposed, drifters falling into the cisterns or even the occasional waterline were not uncommon. When you had no means, you took water wherever you could find it. Hoover had begun overcrowding decades back, and one of the Kembhavi-Cooper Inflow pipes could have been a lifesaver for one of the city’s homeless.
“Idiot,” he shouted. Wyatt dropped his head against the workbench, relishing for a moment in the fresh wave of pain.
He had risked his job, risked Kelly, risked everything over a damn drifter. If his over-inflated ego hadn’t run amok, if his hatred of Ellison Cooper hadn’t got the better of him, he wouldn’t be in this situation at all. And even then, had he found himself at this pipe with that body clogging the adapter joint, he probably would have followed the company line.
Official procedure demanded bodies be reported (again they weren’t unheard of), and an investigation to be initiated by official representatives from the source colony. This, of course, meant the body would have to remain unmoved until proper authorities could arrive on scene to document the incident. Pipes remained closed for days during such procedures and water rationing, the same rationing he had sought to prevent, was always a sure-fire consequence of these incidents.
So, unofficially, the company encouraged any bodies discovered in the pipes to be removed, incinerated, and left unreported, even to the company itself. It was the right call. For the company it preserved profit and prevented any fallout from the associated press. Wyatt didn’t give a damn about that. For the colonies, however, the discreet disposal of bodies kept the water flowing and prevented the hardship that rationing always brought upon the colonists, especially the most disadvantaged of them.
Yes, there had been a day when Wyatt would have disposed of that body, repaired the line, and let the water flow once more. He still could. If he did, perhaps he might even have a job waiting for him back at the crater. The Coopers’ secret, if it was more than just the body, would remain hidden, the colonies would thrive unhindered, and Wyatt could return to his isolation.
Or he could call Ellison back, accept his offer, and disappear to the People’s Republic of Northern Aeolis. Maybe Ell would follow through and wire him the money, maybe he wouldn’t, but Wyatt could live with either scenario. The longer he stayed at kilometer 37, the more the Coopers’ cleanup crew gained on him. Once they arrived, he would be left with no choice to make. He would disappear as easily as the body in that pipe. It wasn’t worth the risk.
“Shit,” he muttered, banging his head once more against the workbench. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t leave it alone.
Even the most desperate of drifters typically avoided a pipe with the type of current rushing through Inflow Two. It was possible a drifter could have fallen in, but not likely. Still what was one more cover-up, one more dead as the colonial elite played their games?
To hell with the dead man. Wyatt couldn’t care less why the man had found himself afloat in the pipes, jammed into the infamous Red Horizon’s stretch. He didn’t care one bit, but…
… but Kelly would have cared.
What do you know, he thought. After fifteen years in isolation, I finally care about humanity again. And it feels like complete crap.
Sure, his concern hinged around one single person, and a shift manager of all people, but life progressed in constant baby steps. This one was his. Somehow, just in the past day, he had let Kells in, and now the fact that this mattered to her, even if it hadn’t until he made it matter, made it impossible for him to turn back.
First though, he had to know for certain where he stood. He had to know what had happened to Kelly.
Wyatt rose and hobbled through the adapter airlock into the rover proper, then turned off the block on his comms. He didn’t bother listening to the messages – didn’t see the point. He dialed in to Ellison’s private frequency.
“Ell, pick up.”
Nothing. Just silence, interrupted only by the white noise of the life support systems.
“Ell. Last chance.”
A burst of static followed and Ellison’s voice warbled back at him, distorted through the interference of the encroaching storm.
“… yatt… fuc… of a … urn back.”
This wouldn’t work at all. Wyatt clicked a switch, boosting the signal. It ate up valuable battery power, but he didn’t need long.
“I said turn back you–”
“– sure. I’ll turn back.”
Static rolled over the line as Ellison stopped mid-sentence. Wyatt gave him a moment to let his words sink in, then plowed on.
“I’ll turn back after I speak to SM Kelly.”
“I can’t…” Ellison’s voice broke as his newly gained authority wavered. “You can’t speak with her.”
Wyatt felt his fears confirmed, but he had to extinguish all doubt.
“I’ll disappear, Ell. I’ll disappear and you can cover up whatever the hell it is that happened out here. You don’t even have to wire me shit. Just put Kelly on the line.”
“I’m afraid I can’t.”
“I mean, it’s procedure, you know. You turn back, I can show her some leniency, perhaps… I can see she’s reinstated and given full –”
Wyatt blocked the line and turned off the signal amplifier. Kelly was dead.
He rose, pulled an EVA suit from a storage bin behind the driver’s seat, then ducked through the hab adapter dock. Once in the hab, he opened up a fridge, grabbed out a small bottle of bourbon he had smuggled for the occasion, and held it up as if toasting.
He tried to think of something proper to say – something with the solemnity that Kelly deserved for her sacrifice. Her stupidity. My stupidity.
He drew a complete blank. He had never been prepared for a situation like this. Words failed him and what justice would they serve anyway? He clinked the bottle forward, completing the toast in silence, then drew a long swig from the bottle.
Thirty minutes later, after struggling through the redundancy airlock and hoisting himself back down the pit, Wyatt stood over Inflow Two and the dead drifter that had caused the entire shit spiral of the past seventeen hours. He hated that man. God, he hated him.
“Thanks, asshole.” He could have spit on him if he didn’t have to wear his EVA suit. Instead, he reached down, screaming with the pain of the movement, fought for a hold on the dead man’s body, then yanked his corpse out from the adapter, and though the opening of the pipe. He and this man had an appointment to keep with Hoover City security.
He harnessed him onto the winch line and reached to clip himself in when something caught his eye.
No, no more, he thought, but he had come too far.
Pressing down on his belly, he leaned down into the pipe casting his helmet light downstream towards Hoover. His light caught on a boot, then the leg protruding from it – another body.
Cursing into the night, Wyatt reluctantly hauled himself into the open pipe. As a mainline constructed before the purse strings had been closed tight, Inflow Two’s primary stretch had two meters of clearance. With plenty of room to stand, Wyatt lowered himself down into the muck, but as he did, he slipped, jolting his injured leg. He hadn’t had time yet to remove the shrapnel. The pain flared, overcoming him, his vision blackened, and he collapsed.
When at last he came to, he found himself staring up into nothing, just a whirlwind of darkness. Had his light gone out? He began to panic, then stopped, catching his mistake. He wiped his gloved hand over his visor, swiping away the dust and grime that had settled over him as the storm above increased in intensity.
Light returned to the world, and thankfully only his helmet light. Checking the sensors in his suit, he found that it was 4:50 in the morning. He’d only been out for a little less than an hour. He still had time.
Wyatt lifted his head and glanced back towards Hoover. A second body lay where he had expected to find it. Behind that, however, lay a third, a fourth, a fifth… He stopped counting. There were too many – more than he could recover.
Wyatt struggled to haul as many bodies as he could back to the rover. The dust ate at his suit, and with each passing minute the risk of getting lost in the rising storm grew. At last, after an hour, and shortly before dawn, he stopped.
He had hauled three bodies back. He tucked the first two in the storage bin where he had kept his EVA suit. The third he sat on top of the bin. He could have placed him in passenger, but the thought of that macabre guest pilot didn’t settle well with Wyatt.
That done, Wyatt popped a pain reliever for his leg, and for the massive headache that had been hovering on the edge of a migraine for the entire evening. Then, he plugged his nostrils against the awful smell dominating the rover, and powered up the motor. The engine hummed to life and Wyatt settled back into the driver’s seat.
Rich, red dust caked the entire windshield, as if he had been buried alive. With the pull of a few levers, the dust blew away and its remnants scattered under the motion of the rover’s wipers. Outside, through the now streaked glass, Wyatt spotted lights shining through the storm: the clean-up crew. Each rover would be towing habs. With the work ahead of them that crew would be anticipating a long stay. The water had stopped flowing, and it would be a long time before it flowed again.
Wyatt gave the exit airlock one last check to make sure it had sealed tight, then clicked the disengage on the hitch to the portable hab. A light on his dash blinked, indicating the operation had succeeded and slowly he pulled forward until he had cleared the join. Then, he pulled hard to the right, circled back, and headed east. Without the hab or the tow-dolly, he’d be able to outrun the other rovers, and even if one followed him, he had turned into the storm. Once far enough in, he’d head to a little known path to the south, the same path he had taken when he fled to the craters fifteen years prior. He would wind his way back to Hoover or New Charlotte and he’d make sure Curiosity Colony knew what the Coopers had done.
He’d found a badge on the last body he hauled out: Blue Terra security. He knew then whom he had found in Inflow Two. The Coopers now held a majority share of seats on the board. They had finally come out on top, even where Sundeep Kembhavi had failed.
Wyatt pushed forward until the lights behind him vanished in the windswept haze. Ahead, he spotted the sun, a vague blue patch in the dust-choked sky, rising over the eastern horizon. Day had returned to Mars and Wyatt still breathed, surviving as he always had, one more day in the life of the colonies. Only today, Wyatt began life anew, leaving his isolation and returning to the world he had left behind.