Tag Archives: Mars

Inflow: Part 4

© 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 –”

          Kelly interrupted.

          “–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.”

          “Kelly?”

          “Shh…”

          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.

          “Here’s hoping.”

          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.

          “Say again.”

          “I said turn back you–”

          Wyatt interrupted.

          “– 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.”

          Confirmed.

          “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.

Back to Part 1
Back to Part 3

Inflow: Part 3

© 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.

          Even nature.


***


          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.

          No answer.

          “SM Kelly, please respond.”

          Static, then a click as someone picked up on the line.

          “Evening, Rainbow.”

          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?”

          “Yes.”

          “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.

          “Wyatt?”

          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.

Back to Part 1
Back to Part 2
On to Part 4

Inflow: Part 2

© 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.”

          “What’s not?”

          “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.

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Inflow: Part 1

© 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.

          “Red Horizon’s?”

          “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?”

          “Say again.”

          “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.”

          “Right-e-oh, boss.”

          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.

On to Part 2