For Peter C. Berger
Kermit C. Berger
1. U.S. Mars Outpost 1
FIRST DAY ON MARS
Wednesday, November 18, 2205
“The bosses asked, ‘Do you think you and your guys are ready?’” Armstrong recalled. “I said it’d be nice to have another month, but we’re in a race here and we had to take the opportunity when we had it. I had to say we are ready, we are ready to go.”
– Neil Armstrong, May 25, 2012
Inside a standard Ship-to-Surface aircraft named Aries, Lirren Lamaar, a thirty-six-year-old botanist and her boyfriend Xanders Pierson, the chief technology officer for the commercial space-flight company XWing, headed to the U.S. Mars Outpost. Strategically placed in the warmest area possible, the equator, at 23.1° South and 10.2° West in the Margaritifer Sinus quadrangle, the U.S. Colony was situated carefully in a low-lying, flat area between Parana Valles and Loire Vallis, where it drew an unlimited water supply from a once-frozen spring.
Though Mars was still far from hospitable, the one-hundred-year terraforming process had increased the atmospheric pressure and temperature to levels high enough for survival outside the city, as long as someone wore a component based terrestrial suit, or Coat, a lighter weight version a full pressure suit.
The ship’s sleek, dark cabin held thirty-two seats, which were grouped in fours and had facing pairs on each side, each pair centered by a narrow aisle. The newly acquired passengers had boarded the small shuttle from a larger transport, named the Demetrius, which was still orbiting around Mars before returning to Earth.
Covered in an advanced metallic heat shield, the passenger shuttle turned toward the full majesty of Mars. The planet filled a view window, looking like a giant red marble. Lirren sat by the proximity of the planet in awe and noticed the closest moon, Phobos, circling nearby against a sea of stars. It was incredible, she thought as they flew past the moon, that her son Logan was safely tucked away on a base there.
“Fear and panic,” Xanders muttered from his seat next to her.
“I’m okay, thanks.” She glanced his way. She knew it was clear she was not enjoying the ride. Just then the ship hit another stomach-churning bump.
“No, I meant the names of the moons—Phobos and Diemos mean fear and panic.”
Lirren narrowed her eyes at Xanders. “Thanks for the information.”
Xanders caught her glare but held her hand tightly for support. Half-closing his eyes, he yawned. As he rested his head firmly against the back of his seat, Lirren realized there was no mistaking how well he was adjusting to this new environment, already, like the most contented snail in his shell. Apparently, he found the ship’s vibrations soothing, and he was completely at home.
The remaining passengers, including Lirren, seemed to feel a fraction less content—the interior of the small shuttle made very little concessions for passenger comfort. It was bleak, icy, and cramped; they sat strapped down uncomfortably in their seats, the expressions on their faces accurately depicting their apprehension. Xanders looked relaxed as he continued reading a lit book, which hovered in a projection before him at a comfortable reading distance. Although he’d never been a passenger himself, for over five years, as Chief Technology Officer of XWing, he’d been personally responsible for their space transportation programs. XWing was currently the largest commercial space-flight company on Earth and played a pivotal role in bringing cargo and supplies to Mars. Xanders’ specialty was high-payoff technologies.
Not long ago, Lirren’s magnetosphere inventions had become a source of interest to Xanders in terms of how they could be used on Mars; or, to be more exact, she had become a source of interest to him. To think it had led them here was hard for her to believe sometimes, but Logan had come too, abandoning a dying Earth.
Two men jostled in the seats directly across from them, stirring her from her thoughts. Lirren turned her attention away from Xanders and glanced at the two men in front of her. Huddled in those two seats, Lirren reflected, were probably the two most miserable men she’d ever seen. Like she had done earlier, they had their eyes clamped shut and their hands tightly wrapped around the armrests. She knew they were innovative architects who had chosen to come to Mars to supervise construction of the personal living spaces called Habitats, or Habs for short. The younger of the two men, named Quenton, had described Habs to Lirren as simple, small, and comfortable structures created from printers, with the extra comforts of home. Certain materials3
however had been carried here, one shipment at a time. Lirren had listened carefully as he had explained how these living spaces also protected Colonists from dust storms and peaks in radiation. She was also acutely aware of the fact that the architects’ presence on Mars would perhaps be just as important as the Hab designs themselves. It was satisfying to think that someone, or something, was bringing an amazing amount of diversity to Mars now. Not just scientists like herself, but artists—the right-brainers, the creative thinkers—were coming too. Besides the small group of rowdy air force officers seated in the back of the shuttle, she counted several other scientists, two doctors, three journalists, two architects, and four engineers aboard.
Xanders, as an executive for XWing who had a past in law enforcement, was in a class of his own. He had told her that before coming to XWing he had been a DS agent for the U.S. State Department. Initially, Lirren had understood his role had been primarily dignitary protection, but after doing some research on her own one night, she was certain she had only scratched the surface. Considered a member of the Foreign Service, in his former unique position, Xanders could also have been involved in a nexus of other dangerous responsibilities, including counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and counterespionage, to name a few.
Understandably, Xanders was tight-lipped and seldom brought up details about his past assignments with the government to Lirren or anyone else. Curious, she had tried prying into his past before XWing once or twice, but the only answer she ever got was that it was all still classified and confidential, so he wasn’t allowed to tell her much, even now. He was more than happy to tell her, though, that he had stopped enjoying the overseas lifestyle required of DS agents and had thought about settling down before switching to working for XWing.
When they had started their journey to Mars, Xanders had a heart-to-heart with Lirren, revealing he had originally quit his job as a DS agent after briefly investigating XWing for fraudulent permits and human trafficking to Mars, an investigation in which he uncovered more than he bargained for. Without hearing too many details from Xanders, Lirren understood that it must have been shocking for him, after being charged with the job of finding interstellar permit fraud at XWing, to find out just how many rich and powerful people were practically begging XWing for a pass to Mars. Looking into the drastic measures XWing and other space flight companies made to accommodate the growing list, it must have been impossible to ignore the link between his investigation and the alarming data he uncovered about the cataclysmic climate shifts taking place on Earth. He knew it was more than just a coincidence. That part was loud and clear between the two of them now.
As for the rest, his sudden leap of interest in Mars and XWing had had to do with a keen interest in space flight. By the time they had met, Xanders had carefully leveraged his position inside XWing for over five years, helping manage key programs in advanced technologies, with his own escape in mind. Meeting Lirren hadn’t been part of the plan, but they were bound to meet head-on when XWing and the USDA made arrangements to take Lirren’s magnetosphere technology to Mars. Just a few months later after their friendship began, they fell into a romantic relationship, tangled in a web of secrecy over the Top Secret project. Understanding the lengths that Lirren and other scientists experienced to save the Earth’s food supply must have been the last push Xanders needed to finalize his plans—his own mission exit, revised to include her and her son. She could only imagine what must have been going though his head before he told her about everything. It had all come to a head one day, at the last minute before the XWing getaway shuttle had left Vandenberg.
As the ship began to lurch its way through Stratosphere, her train of thought ended. The ship’s mild acceleration had been barely noticeable for the first half of the trip, but now as they reached Mars thin atmosphere it was getting rougher and potentially dangerous. The captain came over the intercom to make a short announcement about the turbulence: “Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your seatbelts fastened as we do a belly flop through the atmosphere.”
Lirren felt a jolt of fear rip through her body as the reality of the moment kick in—this was now the point of no return. Her jaw muscles clenched tightly and her knuckles turned white as she gripped her seat’s armrests. The other passengers all fell silent as the ship jarred her way through the atmosphere. The ship lurched down again so fast it left Lirren’s stomach behind.
“I’m gonna be sick,” someone spoke into his com-set.
Lirren turned her head, looking in the direction of the voice. It was coming from the heavy-set journalist named McLean, who was anything but lean. Seated on the left side of the airship, he was facing the cockpit, along with two female colleagues.
The other passengers looked on anxiously as McLean began grabbing for a sick bag.
“Sick,” he repeated.
Xanders was staring, but Lirren quickly pulled her hand up to block her peripheral vision. “Great Space, don’t look,” she said.
Xanders ignored her and continued to stare blatantly for a few more seconds.
“Guess who’s gonna lose his dinner,” one of the privates chimed in, speaking in a low voice through his com-set.
“Yeah, and we’re all going to be wearing it when gravity kicks in,” another voice added sarcastically.
“Knock it off.” The unit leader cut them off, annoyed.
Uneasily, Lirren and Xanders looked over at the journalist, who had jammed the bag to his mouth. So far, he was just breathing into it.
“We’ll be out of the worst soon,” Xanders said assuredly to Lirren. He understood space travel was both new and terrifying to most of the passengers. He closed his eyes, surely thinking about the next few busy days of life on Mars, but Lirren and the others weren’t exactly sharing his mood.
Lirren shut her eyes tightly and then opened them again, this time studying every detail of her surroundings to keep her mind off the landing. She looked down at the thick, X-shaped seatbelt that was clamped over her chest and holding her fast to the seat. The extremely tight suits she and the other passengers wore were a thick, dark-gray color. The Coats, as they were called, provided air flow and a protective layer of tightly woven fabric around their wearers’ bodies. For now, the suits also served as back-up in case they lost cabin pressure, an event she hoped would never happen. Arrays of gray lines weaved their way across her suit, giving it an almost quilted look; however, she knew the quilting was not made up of threads, but included small lines through which air pressure carefully flowed. Her matching, lightweight boots with dark black trim and rubber soles reached comfortably to her knees. Bright-yellow trim ran down the sides of her neck to the back and under her forearms. Two thin lines also ran up the sides of her legs. On the left side of her left shoulder was the yellow and silver-gray XWing emblem.
“Xanders, I’m having déjà vu,” she exclaimed, looking at the suit and her surroundings.
“Was I in it too?” one of the young privates behind her asked.
“That would be a nightmare,” she retorted smiling. A few of the privates began snickering again in their com-sets, but tiny brightly lit hologram videos flickered on in front of each passenger, rescuing her from further insidious banter. She and the other passengers watched the moving graphics while a smooth female voice explained the ship’s unusual landing protocol and necessary precautions they needed to make with their suits before stepping out of the ship.
After the video ended, Lirren wondered again how her son Logan was doing on Phobos. Several younger passengers, including Logan and Lirren’s close friend Dirk, had reluctantly agreed to stay on Phobos for a short time. Although Mars had been expecting a handful of temporary specialists, and three permanent arrivals, Dirk was an unexpected guest in the equation. Mars needed a few more weeks to complete additional living spaces. Logan would also remain on Phobos, from four to six months, because of his age and a dilemma over radiation levels. The gamma levels on Mars were a risk for everyone that could easily max out the limited lifetime rule of thumb if one wasn’t careful; in the worst-case scenario, exposure could cause genetic defects in the Colony’s descendants. Therefore, the Martian government had begun a strict policy that any new arrivals on the planet aged twenty or younger, or anyone considering pregnancy, remain on Phobos temporarily, until Mars’s maximum doses, known as mSvs, had reached a reduced and acceptable level. Lirren had been forced to keep in mind that it wasn’t just the risks they imposed upon themselves, but also the risks potentially imposed on her son and other young arrivals, and the severity of the consequences. Mars simply did not have the resources to treat pregnancy complications on base, and Phobos had far less risk of impact from the dangerous cosmic rays. Understanding the staged process had been difficult but she understood it was best for his protection. Logan would be sequestered away from the sun’s light on Phobos with it’s hidden base tucked deep inside.
Having just turned thirty-six, and Xanders at forty, the two easily made the cutoff, but saying good-bye to Logan on the XWing ship Demetrius, had been heartbreaking. Lirren and Xanders had boarded the shuttle to Mars, while Logan and Dirk took a different direction to station Phobos. Saying their goodbyes inside the Dem’s inner docking portals was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, and it had been the last time she saw her son. Logan had stood there, tall, looking back at her quietly in his own proud yet tender way. Something had hit her then, seeing him go with a brave look on his face. Hiding her feelings, she had stood there and heard herself say, it was for the best and she’d see him soon. It was all she could manage without bursting into tears. Logan and Dirk had disappeared from view into the docking bay to Phobos.
One more bump hit the ship, jostling Lirren into the present. Another passenger’s tight, nervous voice made a joke that echoed from his quad seat, which was located somewhere behind Lirren and Xanders, as the spacecraft tumbled through the worst of the atmospheric entry.
“Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight,” a voice mocked back, coming through everyone’s headgear microphones.
“What are you doing?” Lirren heard another voice say.
“Praying for you, man,” another voice chimed in.
The men finally settled and said nothing more.
Eventually, the ship’s course smoothed out and Lirren could actually see the Colonies—the beacon of mankind, surrounded by the Colonists’ lights, just a few thousand feet below. She was expecting a thought-provoking announcement, but the captain made a small, rather anticlimactic comment about their pressure suits, and that was it.
“There it is! ” Her comment sliced through the quiet cabin.
Xanders nodded in agreement and turned his head, craning his neck as best he could over her shoulder.
Following the captain’s instructions, Lirren, Xanders, and the other passengers prepared themselves by activating their suits’ protective pressure capabilities. Lirren pressed a lit button on her left outer cuff, which then glowed as it transitioned from red to green. She felt her elbows and knees stiffen as the suit tightened, just like a glove over her entire body. It suddenly struck her that, besides the suit, all she had with her was a small duffel bag that contained some undergarments, one sharp-looking interior lab garment, make-up, a hairbrush, and some personal hygiene supplies, all marked with XWing’s logo. Each passenger had a similar duffel bag.
After the ship finally touched ground, the ship’s crew members became preoccupied with docking procedures, giving the passengers a moment to unbuckle and prepare themselves for stepping onto Mars. Soon after, someone behind them began speaking. “Thanks for choosing XWing. We have landed at Mars Colony 1, and the temperature outside is cold as hell. Please enjoy your visit.”
The voice was full of mockery.
They were all standing by now, lined up to leave, and a few passengers chuckled nervously. Then the hatch opened, and they exited, one by one, down the ship’s small ramp onto the surface of the planet. The landing had kicked up clouds of sand, and a light, gusty wind whipped at their feet. Lirren gazed around, looking at the red sandhills everywhere. A couple men rushed forward toward them, directing them to the hanger.
She felt light, and she jumped to see what happened. Her legs and her steps felt effortless. She stopped and strained her eyes through her clear, protective shield to get a good look at her surroundings, peering back at her footprints in the red powdery sand. She shivered with a sheer sense of awe, not wanting to forget the moment she landed on Mars. It didn’t take her more than a few seconds to slide her visor back and test out the air pressure. The cold hit her, and her chest heaved trying to inhale the strange thin air. She noticed Xanders had also done exactly the same thing while he walked down the ramp—apparently, he was just as curious about the geo-engineered atmosphere as she was. He walked in front of her and then stopped, looking back with a grin on his face. Lirren walked over and paused next to him, returning his smile. Simultaneously, they looked down at their footprints.
“Can you believe it?” he said, trying to catch his breath.
“No,” she said, gasping. It felt surreal. “I can’t...I can’t believe it.” The ordeal to get here was long. Against all probability, against all odds, they had come to survive on Mars.
“We shouldn’t do this long, it’s dangerous,” Xanders coughed feeling like his lungs were burning. He swiftly tapped their suit’s controls, and their shields glided back over their faces, snapping into place. She jerked her head back as oxygen shot though her suit again, but then breathed in the mixture appreciatively.
“How long can you breathe it?” she asked.
“A few minutes,” he warned. “Not enough oxygen, and still too much CO2.”
“Okay,” she said, already feeling her heart pound.
Xanders grabbed her hand lightly and pulled her closer. The passengers walked forward, as they lagging behind. It was difficult to make out much beyond a few lights in the distance now. Another small security team appeared a few yards from the ship, waiting to lead them into an entranceway. It looked like there were two main landing pads: the one they had landed on and another a few hundred meters to the west.
“The landing pads are made of packed concrete—Mars concrete.” Xanders remarked with growing excitement.
He turned his head to Lirren from inside his shield for a moment, speaking in a lower voice.
“I meant to tell you there are a little more than a thousand people living at the U.S. Outpost. It’s almost thirty miles long and ten miles wide, and most of it’s under your feet.”
“How many people are here then?” she asked sounding surprised. She looked ahead as they trailed behind the line of newcomers .
“About thirty-five hundred—five hundred or so are Independents.” He kept talking. “The other three colonies are nearby, about fifty miles apart from one another.”
“Independents?” she asked.
Xanders took a quick intake of his O2 and then spoke again “People who get here on their own—like our Russian friend, Zalesskii.”