A snapshot from the colonization of Mars
"Rover to base, rover to base." Si intoned into his broken and dangling helmet mic. "We are at 3000 meters and closing." He gently rocked the pen forward, rotating around the point where it contacted his knee. "Ready to begin sensor deployment on your mark."
Si flicked a set of imaginary switches then shifted the timbre of his voice. "Roger that, Captain Reeves, you are clear to begin deployment on my mark. Three… two… one… Mark." On mark, he depressed the button at the top of his pen, creating a small mark on his pants.
"Probe deployed, base, can you confirm telemetry?" More imaginary switches and buttons were operated as anxious moments passed.
"That's a negative on the telemetry... hold on...” Si put his hand up to the earpiece on his helmet expectantly. “…our engineer thinks it's the power coupling to the instrument platform. An EVA is recommended." The voice from base was apologetic, but the response from Si was full of professional enthusiasm: "That's why they pay me the big bucks, base. Suit pressures are nominal, I'm ready to go out now."
"Roger that, you are clear for EVA." Si skipped over from the window to the hatch which led to his bedroom, oblivious of his mother Jill and her friend talking quietly at the kitchen table.
"Wow," exclaimed Jill’s friend, Keisha, who had been watching with amusement, "I can't believe Silas is only six. Listen to him talk."
Keeping her gaze on Si, Jill replied, "He watches the mission videos nonstop. I try to get him to watch the nature documentaries from Earth, but he just isn't interested.’ The disappointment in her voice was barely masked, as if she was too tired to do a good job of it.
Keisha read the voice and the face, and thought for a moment. She spoke quietly and earnestly as she put her hand on Jill’s arm. "He even sounds like Alan.”
Jill let the warmth of her friend’s hand and spirit soak in for a few seconds as she probed her mind, looking for something. She couldn't seem to find it. "That was a long time ago, Keesh. I think ... I think I'm holding out a hope that somehow we’ll go back and live quietly on Earth. There is a part of me holding on, even after all that has happened." Jill leaned back as she let the thoughts come out. “This place is all that Si knows. He’s never climbed a tree, never experienced the thrill of a thunderstorm, never woken up to fresh snow. When he thinks of his childhood, it will be this place – the habs, the red desert, the computers. Even if we could go back, he wouldn’t feel the same way about Earth as I do. He’d yearn to be back here on Mars. It makes me sad because it reminds me that this is where I must stay. I always took some comfort that I could go back, but that’s gone and I wish I could be like Si and be OK with it.”
Keisha replied pensively, "I know what you mean. Not being able to go back- it felt different when the possibility was there. I mean, even though Carlton and I expected to stay for decades, we also had this expectation of terraforming and gardens that would make this place Earthlike. Now that’s all gone, at least for our lifet…” Keisha’s voice trailed off awkwardly.
Jill squared herself to face Keisha directly and affirmed, “It’s OK. I know what you are thinking. We are all thinking it, but thank heaven we have a plan to take our minds off the gravity of our predicament and something that offers concrete hope. I would go absolutely crazy if we didn’t have that- a real chance to do something about our situation. ”
Keisha looked earnestly into Jill’s face, soaking it in, looking for sincerity. “Do you really think that? When you wake up in the middle of the night, when the terror of reality is clearer than ever, do you still think there is a chance?”
Jill replied with more calmness in her voice, “Keisha, I wake up the same way you do- scared out of my mind. I mean, who isn’t? Sometimes I jerk awake thinking: What did I get myself into? What’s going to happen to Si?” Jill paused and allowed the image to pass through her mind, and then continued more quietly, “Other times I have nightmares of that stupid graph with the perpetuation curve- if it goes up we live, down we die. I watch the consumption and production lines getting so close, then diverging. I start to panic and that’s when I wake up in a cold sweat.”
Keisha laughed out loud. “Oh, so are those the nightmares of a mission analyst? Graphs diverging?? That’s what makes you sweat??”
Now both of the women were laughing. “I know, I know, it’s so ridiculous. Definitely not as scary as your dreams where the windows blow out on the hab; those are truly terrifying. No, just charts and graphs for me.” Jill and Keisha paused to smile at each other and wipe their eyes. Neither of the women noticed the sounds of play coming from the bedroom had died out.
“Jill, what do you tell yourself to keep going? Some days I don’t even want to get out of bed.” Keisha’s voice then got low and serious. “Some days I wish the windows would blow out and end the stress I am feeling right now.”
“Well, I definitely have the same stress… it’s excruciating at times. But what do I tell myself?” Jill looked away for a minute to survey her self-talk in recent days. “Well, of course I think about Si and he alone is enough for me. I feel incredibly responsible for him. But I’m a mission analyst and I have to have answers for everyone else too… It’s all stuff you’ve heard before: Eastport has deposits to keep it running indefinitely, the resource pooling from the other colonies will buy us years from our supplies alone, the fabricators will last long enough to multiply themselves… you know.” Jill paused for a beat, then continued, “The farms are a risk, but the results are solid and encouraging from Greentown, and Eastport has finished building one after their pattern.” Jill then waved her hand outwardly in a dismissive gesture, “It’s all facts on paper. I can hold on to that.”
“What about wave 23?” Keisha asked.
“We were lucky that the pre-supply for Wave 23 made it out of orbit before the Kessler event. Some people see that as fate, and some other people think it was planned, and that’s fine for them. But I think it was luck.”
“Why Luck? You say all the time you don’t believe in luck.”
I have to see it that way because luck is the most conservative explanation; as an analyst, I can’t depend on luck. I have to look at known quantities. For instance, what I do look at is the landing of the stasis pods in Eastport. That was an intellectual tour de force. Sure, we took some chances, but we orchestrated it with some extremely smart people who were careful and deliberate. And don’t forget we did that during the com blackout when we thought we had lost Earth entirely. We did it by ourselves. On top of that, we organized The Council. So, now that we have com back and the governments back home are trying to play us politically, we are already an independent country and we are immune to their poison. So if I’m going to believe in something, it’s going to be us. That’s where I put my faith, and since we are all in this together, I find that’s another good reason to get up and do my job.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“You mean the rover train to Eastport?” Jill frowned and looked out the window. “We are as ready as we are ever going to be, and the sooner we leave, the better. I know the numbers don’t look good for us, and we might not make it… I have a feeling I know where you are going with this, but Keesh, if we make it, we make it. I don’t think anyone is going to get us there but us, and maybe we’re not enough, but we can’t change that. I just can’t let myself worry about… failing.”
Keisha leaned forward, holding on to Jill’s hand, and said earnestly, “Jill, I know we have some different beliefs on this, and maybe what I have to say won’t be of any use to you, but I have to say something because I feel it in my heart right now and I want to give it to you as a gift from one friend to another. I think there is a reason we are here, a reason you are here with us. I can feel it. I also feel that we are going to make it to Eastport. Luck, fate, careful planning- whatever you want to call it- it has kept us alive till now and we’re not going to die before we reach that place. I know it in my bones. But even if we don’t, I treasure the fact that I got to know you, and Si, and Alan, and all these other great people in Hawking’s Landing. And hell, we got to go to freaking MARS! Who gets to say that? That’s what gets me up in the morning. I know we were meant to keep trying because every moment is a treasure… and I see many more moments ahead.”
Jill’s reply was soft: “Thank you Keisha. I can feel that you love me and trust me and I take joy in that. Your thoughts are beautiful. I think that’s why I like being your friend, because your faith is truly art compared to my rational charts and graphs. There is a part of me that would like to have those same thoughts you have, but there is another part of me that won’t allow it. That part needs to see something. It’s too frightening to put trust in something I can’t see. But in the meantime I’ll agree that our friendship is something to treasure.”
The next morning, Si was up early getting his own breakfast when Jill walked in, fully dressed for the day. She pulled out a power bar and set it on the table and sat down, staring at it, too anxious to eat. After a minute, she just put it in her pocket. Si looked up from his own food and asked her, “Did you have that bad dream last night?”
“What?” said Jill who was startled out of her thoughts.
“Did you dream about the… diverting thing?” Seeing Jill’s continued confusion he added, “The one that makes you sweat?”
“Ohhh. No, Honey. I didn’t sleep much at all, so I only had a bunch of tiny dreams that I can’t remember any more.”
“Are you scared?”
Jill felt tears surge up in her eyes and took a deep breath to hold them just below the surface and find her voice. “Yes, Si. I am a little scared. … But this is how I always feel before a mission.”
“Why does that make you scared? I like missions! Don’t you like missions?”
“Yes, of course I like missions. That’s why I went to Mars with daddy. We loved missions and this is a place where we get to have missions all the time. But just because you like something doesn’t mean you won’t feel scared about it.”
“What is scary about a mission?”
Jill stared blankly at Si while a million thoughts went through her mind. She had never told him the whole story about Alan. It was too painful when he was a toddler, and ultimately it just became a habit to leave it in the simple form of: ‘Daddy had to go away and he won’t be coming back.’ There was something beautiful and wonderful about that pure, fragile innocence looking back at her. Is now the time for him to know? Or does he deserve to enjoy his innocence a little while longer?
Finally, Jill answered him: “Si, sometimes things can go wrong on missions.” She glanced, ever so briefly, at the broken helmet with the handwritten name of her husband on the back, then back to her son.
“Yeah, and then you get to call base and fix it!”
“Yes, sometimes you can fix the problems. Most of the time you can fix the problems. But sometimes the problems can’t be fixed.”
“Then what happens?”
“Well… then the mission is over. We have to abort it. That means we failed and that is a sad thing.”
“Well, you still got to go out on a mission. It’s fun to be on a mission even if it is just a little while.”
“Hmm. I supposed you are right, Si. It is fun just to be on a mission.”
“What happens when you uh-port a mission?”
“When you a-Bort a mission, you have to turn back and go home. You don’t get to do the thing you wanted to do when you set out on the mission.”
“So on our trip today, if we abort, then we get to go back to Hawking’s Landing?”
“No, son. We don’t want to abort. We can’t go back. We have to make this long trip because the supplies we need are in are in Eastport and they can’t bring them here.”
“Why can’t we get our supplies from Earth like before?”
“Something bad happened on Earth. Some person with a mean idea made a big cloud of junk and dust around the whole planet. The space elevators they need to bring supplies to us were destroyed by the dust. They could try to send space ships, but any rockets that tried to go through the dust would be damaged. So, they can’t send us any supplies.”
“Did they put the dust there because of the war?”
“Nobody knows son, but I think that’s probably why.”
Si thought about that for a little bit, then moved on to a new question. “Will there be other children in Eastport?”
“Yes Si,” Jill felt a tear in her eye and choked a little on her words. “there are children there already and more are arriving soon. In fact, when the train arrives from Wells Station today, there will be two kids that you will get to meet. In fact, you will get to ride with them all the way to Eastport.”
Si’s face lit up with delighted surprise.
That afternoon, Si looked out the window of the hab scanning impatiently for signs of the rover train. He could not sit still and peppered his mother with questions, making it nearly impossible for her review the checklists again for the necessary 100th time. Finally, a glint of reflected sunlight heralded the coming train. Their progress was somewhat painstaking, but the appearance of the vehicles put Si into a calm alertness. He put on his helmet and began his mission routine, barking commands and status from his imaginary base to the incoming rovers.
When the rovers finally drove by his hab, Si peered closely at them and thought he could make out two small forms in a silvered glass windshield, peering back at him. He waved. They waved back.