written by Geoff O'Callaghan on June 20, 2005 | contact me
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Mum and Dad were astronauts. She was a surgeon, and he was a geologist. They met at Mars School. (That’s where people go to learn about Mars before they become Colonists.)
As a young man, Dad went to Mars when it was first settled. He came back to Earth after his first Tour of duty. He wanted to go back, but had to wait for ten years between hibernation transits. At school, he met Mum and got very attached to her. One thing led to another, they married, and had a little girl, my sister, Karla Johnson. Then they had me, Steven Johnson. While they waited for us to grow up, Dad taught future Mars colonists at Mars School. Mum worked at the hospital.
Dad was always telling me that “Mars gets in your blood, Son.”
I guess he was keen to go back. I remember Mum and Dad used to talk about it a lot. The rules against having children travel to Mars had changed, and that meant they could take Karla and me.
‘Mars Authority’ is the name of the Government Department that controls the Red Planet. It used to be part of N.A.S.A., but when the space business got too busy, NASA was put in charge of transport and exploration; Mars Authority was put in charge of the planet. Anyway, Mum and Dad had to fill out lots of forms, and the Johnson family had to be tested to see if we were fit for inter-solar migration.
Getting tested to see if you are fit is a real ‘doozy’. They counted my fingers and toes. It’s true – a doctor actually prodded each of my pinkies and made me wriggle it before marking it off in a little square box. They looked at my eyes. They tested my urine (pee) and my blood. I got cat scanned in a machine that hasn’t got anything to do with cats. Finally, they wrote out a certificate to say I was healthy enough to become a ‘candidate for inter-solar migration’.
The Johnson family was a hundred percent fit.
Mars Authority is very ‘picky’. If you aren’t a hundred percent fit, you can’t go to Mars. End of story. It isn’t good enough to be a hundred percent fit – you have to go on a program to become very fit indeed. We worked out in the Authority gymnasium. We ate the correct food. We had shots, and more shots to immunize us against methanocyanates, (Martian bugs). I felt like a pincushion.
A month before lift-off, we went into isolation. Karla and I went into the children’s dormitory. We had to go to school every day, even on Saturdays and Sundays. We didn’t do ordinary school work. We learnt about Mars.
Our class had nine pupils. Karla, Me (Steven), Anthony Wiles, Pierre Dupont, Simon Brown, Harry Smith, Patricia Carter, Henrietta McCarthy, Garry McCarthy, Barry Wilson, and Chris White.
Now you might say, Why the list?
Well, every one of those kids is like a brother or sister to me. We learnt together, we ate together, we played together. We were, and still are, the very best friends that anyone can be.
That’s because something happened to us on the way to Mars.
When you go to Mars, you have a long sleep. It’s called “Hibernation”. You see, Mars is very far away, and it takes months to get there. Space ships are tiny, and there isn’t much to do on such a long journey. In the old days, they tried to keep people awake for all the trip. That is, they divided the day into sleep periods and wake periods. There were lots of problems. Some people went crazy and there were a lot of fights. Life on board was like being imprisoned in a small tin can. Also, The radiation in space stops people having healthy babies.
Hibernation stopped all of those problems. People go to sleep on Earth for the journey, and wake up on Mars ready to go. In my case, they put me on a trolley and wheeled me into the Prep Theatre. I lay down on a special table. I was wearing a pale blue hospital gown. A nurse smiled at me and gave me an injection into a little butterfly needle on my arm. I smiled at her, and woke up on Mars.
That’s why I can’t tell you anything about the trip. They put us to sleep with lots of tubes in us to keep us alive with food, oxygen, blood, and fluids. Some tubes took care of our ‘bodily wastes’. There were lots of wires hooked up to computers to keep us alive. There was a special medicine that looked after our brain while we were asleep and stopped it getting damaged by the hibernation process. Lead shielding protected our ‘family jewels’ from damaging radiation.
We were placed into special hibernation capsules – like white plastic coffins. They were lined up in the space ship’s cargo hold. Because we were asleep, we didn’t know what was happening to us. We didn’t see the capsules being handled from the shuttle to the Space Station to the Mars bound Space Liner, “Mayflower”. At the right time, it was launched from the Space Station and went into an orbit around the sun that crossed the orbit of Mars about nine months later. The Space Liner docked at Phobos Station which is built on one of Mars’s two moons, Deimos and Phobos. There, the capsules are put onto the Phobos Shuttle which flies them down to Mars.
That’s where I woke up – in the hospital on Mars. I could see a great white light and all sorts of fuzzy things going on around it. There was a buzzing noise in my head. It was someone talking.
“Steven, Wake up! Wake up!” the voice said.
It was Doctor Pine. When I woke up, his was the first face I saw on Mars. I was told not to move, but I had to look for Mum and Dad. I pushed myself up on my elbows and saw Karla on another trolley. Then I fell back totally exhausted.
Nurse Dorothy was not amused. She wagged her finger at me, saying, “I told you not to try to get up. Lie still. You’ve been asleep for nine months. It will take a while to get your strength back.”
“Where are Mum and Dad?” I asked.
Doctor Pine waved his med scanner over me. “He’s all right. Put him in the ward with the other recoverees,” he said.
I was wheeled off down a long passage to a large room where rows of beds lined up side by side, each with a locker between. The other kids were being assembled in the same place.
My bed was between Anthony’s and Simon’s. At Mars School, we used to play up a bit, but in recovery we lay quietly, side by side. I slept a lot, which is strange, because after nine months of sleeping, I would have thought I’d had enough of it. Hibernation is not the same as normal sleep. You have to rest after recovering from it. Normal sleep allows your body to recuperate from Hibernation Sickness.
Day two on Mars was different. We could move around on wheel chairs. They wheeled us one by one into a small counseling room, and told us that our parents had not survived the journey.
There had been a fault in the feed lines to the hibernation capsules of some adults, including our parents. Their oxygen was shut off. The computer had not reported the problem. They died. We were orphans.
“Mayflower”, Our Space Liner, was given its name when launched. It was a veteran of ten years inter-solar transport. In all that time, it had operated perfectly. On this one journey – our journey – there was a simple computer error, and eleven of us became “The Mayflower Orphans”.
It was a very sad time.
Lauren Jones took us for counseling sessions. Karla swore at her. Lauren didn’t mind.
“You need to grieve,” she said. “You can cry or swear as much as you want. Grief passes eventually, and you will all learn to cope with this terrible situation.”
She said a lot of other stuff, too, about compensation and legal rights. At the time, it went right over my head. Everything seemed so far away. I couldn’t understand what she was talking about. I missed Mum and Dad. I knew that, from that time on, I would always miss them. They were never coming back.
The wheel chairs were a temporary phenomenon. I got out of mine on day three, determined to regain my strength. The low gravity on Mars helped. Nevertheless, Nurse Margaret urged me to be careful
“You could easily break a bone Steven. You’ve lost a lot of calcium during hibernation,” she said. “And don’t rush about – the gravity is low, but you’ve still got all your mass.”
It was a timely warning. Several times I found myself skidding along the concrete floor and crashing painfully into a wall or piece of furniture. It was like having to learn to walk all over again. Things were light to pick up, but needed a decent push to get them going in any particular direction.
Day four found us unloading light plastic chairs from an electric utility truck into a very large machinery shed. Anthony had sprained his ankle, so he sat in his wheelchair giving us helpful suggestions – which we studiously ignored. Simon, Harry, and I teamed up with Pierre to line up the chairs before a makeshift dais. Pierre should have been a natural leader, but he was very shy. I put it down to his grief, and his difficulty with English, which he spoke with a thick accent.
I found that I was taking charge. One doesn’t have to be a genius to line chairs. We put them in two lines, with ten in each line. The front row on the left hand side would be taken up by our wheel chairs. I didn’t need a wheel-chair, and said so.
“This is a memorial service for your parents. It will be on Solar TV. You will dress nicely. You will sit in your wheelchairs. You will behave. You will do what you are told.” Nurse Margaret said firmly. I raised my eyebrows at Pierre, but he merely shrugged.
“C’est ne fait rierre,” he muttered. It doesn’t matter.
Lauren, the Base shrink, had briefed us in her office. I sat looking at the rough concrete walls lined with color-coded pipes and wires. The blue pipes carried Oxygen. Her desk was untidy, dominated by plastic trays marked “in” and “out”. Like most furniture, the desk was constructed from two-part liquid plastic set in a rubber mold. I knew it was made from processed carbon-dioxide. The stuff was remarkable.
Lauren droned on “Of course, the Mars Authority will pay compensation at the set rate. It will be put in trust until you’re eighteen, and it earns interest. Now - it’s in the form of a pension, so the amount varies from person to person.”
I wriggled with discomfort. My pale blue hospital gown was beginning to irritate me. She must have noticed.
“You’ll go to the ‘Q’ stores this afternoon to draw day clothes. You get thermal underwear, socks, boots, and coveralls for general wear around the base. Look after everything – clothing is very expensive. It has to be brought from Earth. Much of it is ‘pre-loved’.
“There’s no way I’m wearing second hand clothes,” Karla said.
“It’s a cold planet, dear. You can go naked if you like, but it’ll freeze your but off.” Margaret said from behind us.
We laughed – Karla was the oldest, but she could be difficult.
“I hate this fucking planet. I wish we’d never come!” she shouted.
Her sobs upset me. I had been so brave, but the dam broke.
We wept again. I spent a lot of time crying during my first week on Mars.
The quartermaster, Sergeant Jackson, was a large, mature man. Behind his desk was a thick plate-glass window that looked South towards Pavonis Mons. It was a magnificent view, but his large frame blocked much of it..
“Sox, industrial, wool silk, size six and a half, four pair. Coveralls, navy blue, heavyweight drill, size seventy-two ‘R’, King Gee, four. Shirts, khaki, cadet epaulettes, long sleeves, closed front, two breast pockets sized Small Youth, four. Trousers khaki cadet belted size Small Youth, pairs four. Belt plastic imitation leather, small, one. Thermal underwear one-piece grey, Small Youth, pairs four. Boots indoor soft soled six and a half. Pairs one.” So saying, he deftly packed everything into a ‘box, utility, clothing issue, personal issue, one;’ and handed it to me. I placed it on my wheelchair and pushed it to the next clerk who handed me a personal toilet kit, sewing repair kit, plates plastic, mug ditto, and two towels.
Home for Anthony and me was a 3 meter wide slot containing a double bunk with cupboard ends and two desks with chairs. A round port-hole looked out onto the same view that we saw from the ‘Q’ store. The walls were grey concrete. Overhead was a gallery of multi-coloured pipes and wires just passing through overhead. There were several magazine pictures glued to the walls – mainly pictures of Earth. Some pictures had been removed before we moved in. Anthony guessed that they were probably photos of girls.
He bagged the top bunk, and I was too tired to argue with him. It was a relief to change out of the hospital blues. We wore grey thermal underwear beneath our coveralls. The boots slid over our sock covered feet, without effort. At Mars school, we had been taught how to pack lockers, and the memory of those lessons was fresh in our minds. Communal living. Getting along with others. Basic skills. We finished putting everything away and stepped back to look at the end result.
“Ship shape, ship mate,” Anthony said with a grin.
The door chimed and hissed open. Lauren looked in on us.
“All ready?” she said with surprise. “I thought I’d be nurse aiding you for a week at least..”
She fussed around our lockers. “First class!” she said, standing up to look at us. Now – tomorrow at the service, you’ll wear your khakis.
“Those shirts look awfully old-fashioned,” I said.
She gave a soft laugh. “In the military, there is a long tradition of wearing ancient uniforms as formal dress code.” She picked one up and caressed it, stroking her fingers along the half placket. “These shirts have a history going back two thousand years. They were worn by the followers of the prophet Mohammed. He told his followers that they should always wear them in remembrance of him. They were called ‘long shirts’. The cloth was cotton, and the dies were – mud. ‘Khaki’ is the Afghan word for mud.
“When the British occupied India, they found their clothes were too hot, and they adopted the Long Shirts, but had them cut off above the knees to fit into their trousers. The army liked the style, and it spread all over the world. They were worn by Union Soldiers in the civil war, the Seventh Cavalry, the British army, the Australian army, and during World War One …”
“By the Air – force.” Anthony completed her. “ And they were school uniforms everywhere before World War 2.”
Lauren came back to reality.
“Yes,” she said. “And we wear them on Mars as formal rig. Something Old to wear in something New. We don’t wear ties on Mars, so wear them open.”
“Why don’t we wear ties?”
“They get in the way. It’s something to do with safety,” she said.
The memorial service in the great Cargo Bay was lovely. The flowers were made from cut paper, cloth, and plastic. Father Sean O’Neil was conscious of the TV camera at the back of the hall. It was on a robotic dolly – controlled by someone in the complex. Officially, no-one knew who the operator was. It had to be an employee, but ‘freedom of the press’ meant that the reporter wasn’t identified – in case he had to report on something controversial.
As priest and Tunneller, two roles, Sean preferred the former, but what authority could pay a base chaplain? So it was a spare-time activity with the occasional marriage, christening, or funeral. Some of the other workers were ‘Pastors’, but Sean was the most senior priest in the colony.
“Space is an unforgiving place, and there is always the chance of the unexpected.” He said during his address. “Its exploration and settlement will always entail great risk.
“Our hearts go out to these young people, and to their carers, who now have the added responsibility of rearing them, as well as doing their other work duties.
“We ask the Lord that it be made a pleasurable and thankful task.
“Nothing is more important to us, than the raising of these fine young colonists. Just as the welfare of this jewel of a planet will rest in their hands.
“Depart in peace.
“In the name of the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and all the Colonists answered:
(My memory isn’t perfect, I got his speech from the archives.)
After the service, we went back to our dormitory and changed into coveralls. The Utility truck arrived. We stacked and packed the chairs for return to storage. It was a simple task. A job had to be done, and it was necessary, for the great shed was used to garage vehicles. They had to be brought inside for shelter from the dust and the elements.
Sometimes we fought each other. Tensions rose, and we were becoming rebellious. I blackened Anthony’s eye. We became rebellious and argued with Lauren. Christopher lost his temper and threw a gas bottle at a porthole. It held, but it leaked and the emergency crew had to attend to it. Chris had to attend a special safety lecture as punishment.
There was no provision for orphans. Everyone had a task to perform. Colonists with children were stretched to the limit. They had little time, or even space, to take on more children. Single men and women workers lived in cramped areas with lives arranged around periods of work and vigorous relaxation. Karla was almost of an age when she would be attending college, or become part of the workforce. She could be accommodated. The rest of us were children. The administration had to come up with a policy for our future.
“They’ll have to learn to work,” Commander Neil Gordschsky said at a staff meeting. We’ll combine schoolwork with jobs they can do.”
“But they’re far too young to work on real jobs,” Lauren said.
“Henrietta and Gary – twins - eight year olds. We need to find someone who can cope with an instant family.” Neil said. “The older ones can stay in the dormitory. They will be assigned duties appropriate with their age. Lauren, you can be the kid wrangler.”
“That isn’t fair. I’ve got a full case-load.”
“Of what? Last time I looked, everyone here seemed to be functioning reasonably well. If your case load is too big, I suggest you shed some of it ... The last thing I want on this base is a group of angry, and unhappy children with unresolved grief and the potential to become anti-social. Ten, eleven, twelve year olds, we can handle. In five years time, they’ll be fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen. Our lives could depend on their stability and capacity to perform their duties.”
“You sound as if you want to recruit them for something,” she protested. “Kid soldiers.”
“You’re damned right. At the moment, we’ve got them down on paper as Cadets under the control of this administration. Well let’s make it work. It has been done before. In the old sailing days, the Navy took in young boys and turned them into admirals. They learnt their trade on the ship.
“From now on, they are no longer ‘orphans’, but valued members of this administration, training to be young officers - Professional astronauts. They will learn their trade – how to repair equipment, drive vehicles, the Small Aircraft Transport System, Shuttles, Know how to build bases, know how to run communities.
Lauren and George stood on either side of the Commander’s desk looking at each other for a long moment.
“Commander Neil, you’re either nuts, or a bloody genius.” She said. “Just remember, the Captain taught them Mathematics. How’s your calculus? Up to date?”
He grinned. “Get out of here and get cracking. Those kids need you.”
They started our training. It was thorough, and not always pleasant. They taught us to march, salute, pack backpacks neatly, dress tidily. They took on the extra duty of teaching us their trade.
You must remember that everyone on the base had two or three jobs. Sean was a Tunneller and a priest. Commander Neil could do just about everything. Doctor Joe Pine was an anesthetist, a regular doctor, and a teacher. He was strict, too.
I’d buzzed Karla’s door, and it opened. They were nearly finished dressing, but not quite – not that I saw anything.
“Get out!” they shouted.
“You’re late,” I said. Karla had been fussing over her hair – so much like a girl.
“This is the girls’ room,” Karla said. “Have you got lead underpants on, or something?”
“Yeah. This is the girls’ room,” Patricia said.
“All right,” I replied. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Doctor Pine, Joe, was taking an elementary lesson on gasses. Now Mars has an atmosphere, but most of it has been blown away by the solar wind. We don’t have that problem on Earth, because our molten core acts like a huge magnet which shields us from that wind. Mars has very little magnetism, and its molten core is old, cold, and gluggy. So the atmosphere is pretty thin. Like at twenty thousand meters up on Earth.
“Ninety five percent of our atmosphere is – what, Steven?”
A steely edge cracked along his voice. “Carbon Dioxide - who?”
“Carbon Dioxide, Sir.” I said in hasty repair. He gave a half smile registering approval at my correction.
“Good stuff or bad? Christopher.”
“Oh, no. Carbon Dioxide is wonderful stuff. We depend on it. The whole of our economy is based on it. It makes Methane, Oxygen, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide and becomes super-critical at seventy-three earth atmospheres and a temperature of 31oC. You can hold a bottle of it in your hand. Just make sure the lid is on tight.”
“But Sir, Isn’t it poisonous?” Harry asked.
“After about five percent it becomes – toe-ey. What are the symptoms of carbon dioxide poisoning, Anthony?”
At that moment, Karla and Patricia arrived.
Karla apologized, “Sorry we’re late, Doctor,”
“And so you will be. Six strokes of the cane sorry.”
“You can’t do that. I’m Sixteen.”
“An officer will administer the punishment – not me. And next time, it will be doubled with six months of detention on minimal rations.”
He looked around fiercely.
“Don’t you understand – after all I’ve told you – that Death sits on your shoulder waiting for you to make the tiniest mistake. Mars is a demon. It shall not be trifled with.” He was angry, and confronted her. “Tell me, girlie, what will happen to a person who opens an airlock door and gets sucked outside without the benefit of a space-suit?”
“They’d suffocate. I suppose.”
“They explode. Their eyes bulge out of their swelling head and their intestines are pushed out of their mouths and their arses.”
I was about to feel sick, when Pierre asked,
“Sir, does that happen often?”
He looked at Pierre. “No. Not really. Anyway, we’ve got good body-bags.” He looked at all of us. “I don’t want to use one on any of you. Pierre, isn’t it? See me afterwards. I want to talk to you.”
I thought Karla took her punishment rather well. Three strokes on each hand. Tears sprang to her eyes at the last stroke, and Lauren put her cane back on its rack.
“Caning someone is the most unpleasant duty that I have,” she said. “I hope I never have to do it again.”
“I hate this fucking planet,” Karla said, blowing into her hands.
“You’ve certainly had a rough beginning. We used to put naughty children on the naughty seat. There was an incident. The cane is more efficient.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“We had a boy – who set a fire. Deliberately. Five people were burned to death. It was before our time, but we still feel the weight of the incident. There was a hearing. The records are sealed. He had a psychological problem, you see. It wasn’t his first fire. Perhaps, on Earth, he would have been medicated. Disciplinary counseling didn’t work.
“What happened to him?” Karla asked.
“Commander Horton shot him. Summary execution of an eleven year old boy who just happened to be a pyromaniac.”
She looked at us. “Horton returned to Earth in disgrace. Our current commander replaced him. His first act was to throw out the naughty chair and introduce the cane.”
“That is fucking barbaric!” Karla protested.
“Are you going to be late for any more lessons?”
“Then you may return to class. Karla, I suggest you speak respectfully to your teachers in future.
Lose the ‘F’ word.”
On Mars, you seldom get the chance to apologise. If you screw up, you are dead. Carbon dioxide gives warnings – people become irritated and cranky before they die. Nitrogen gives no warning – it is a silent killer. The casualty drops in his tracks as the brain switches off suddenly. Carbon monoxide sends the casualty into a deep sleep and takes over the red cells that carry oxygen to the brain. Four minutes later, the brain cells shut down dead for ever.
We carried a safety cylinder with us at all times. It could be refilled with compressed air at any discharge point. We learned the simple rule: “If in doubt, pull it out.”
The general colour scheme of the base was shades of grey. Living on Mars is just like living in a small, secure prison. There were lots of places where we could go, such as the school, the library, and the canteen. We could visit with each other, and our ‘cabins’ were fitted out with basic entertainment consoles for Internet, email, games, etc. Most other places were ‘out of bounds’. The dormitory cabins – our rooms - were very small. Two kids could fit comfortably, four with difficulty, and there was not much chance of getting eight inside. ‘Ant’ and I shared cabin 22(b)
Pipes were multi-coloured. Blue ones for oxygen, small red for hydrogen, green for Nitrogen. Air-mix was a daffodil yellow, and had the recharge nozzles for our cylinders, marked out with blinking red led lights. Our cabin doors were never locked, unless we chose to lock them ourselves. Nobody thieved on Mars. We had no money. It wasn’t needed. Lauren told us that the economy was ‘needs supplied’ which means, if you need something, the base supplied it. Of course, we did have money in our bank accounts, but we never had to use it. Mars Authority supplied our toys, our clothes, and our books. It got so we never questioned the system.
They fitted us with “Mars Suits”. These are much lighter than space suits. They are fairly warm, and are skin tight. The other thing about them is that they are brilliantly coloured. The idea is, they apply pressure all over the body and compensate for your internal pressure. They have a standard helmet collar, so they can take either the bubble like Marsuit helmet, or they can take a full space suit helmet.
Putting a Marsuit on is not easy. First, you have to strip buff naked, and powder yourself with a white talcum. Then you have to put your M.A.G. on. That’s a Maximum Absorption Garment - highly absorbing underpants like a nappy. The Marsuit is turned inside out, and you sort of roll it on.
Pierre said it reminded him of putting on a gigantic condom. Well he’s French, and I guess he knows about such things. Then you roll your arms in, and you get a buddy to zip you up at the back. You have to wriggle about a lot to get it to fit you everywhere. Socks and boots come next. The boots seal onto the Marsuit pants. The collar and yoke is a large rubber contraption that holds the helmet on your shoulders. It has to be sealed, so once more, your buddy does that..
Then you put the helmet on. Your buddy checks it, and you check his. If you’re going outside at night or if it’s really cold, you put your coveralls on, then your fur-lined pants and fur lined jacket.
Pierre put it rather well when he said, “I look like a human blanket.” But it is cold on Mars. Very dry. Very cold.
The next step is to check your backpack. It’s placed in a special chair that you sit on, and pull the straps over your shoulders and around to click onto a chest lock. It’s like a parachute harness. Your buddy clips the life support hose from the backpack onto your helmet. You test it. Then you have to adjust the oxygen flow rate, and sit on the chair for an hour breathing pure oxygen. That allows any nitrogen in your blood to settle out, so you don’t get the bends. Finally, the oxygen canister is removed and replaced with air-mix. you’re on your own – ‘Suit dependant’. If you must go outside quickly, and don’t have time to decompress, you stay on a mixture of oxygen and helium.
We moved towards the airlock in a line – a slow ballet of boys in black padded clothes wearing gigantic back-packs. We were no longer humans, but had become something quite alien. We were Martians.
(Remember those old movies where the hero shoves his suit on and waltzes out of the airlock door? Well it really isn’t like that at all. Dressing for space takes two hours from being buff naked to airlock exit.)
That’s if everything goes perfectly.
It’s a very long drive from Base to the new works at Olympus Mons. We had this song to sing on long car journeys:
If you’re feeling sorry,
If you’re feeling sad,
There’s a little song to sing
And stop you feeling bad.
My cornflakes are all soggy
There’s a big fly in my soup
My girl-friend’s going crazy
And the dog is Loop the loop.
But we are on Mars.
Among the stars.
Having a ball -
To top them all.
We are on Mars – among the stars
Having a ball, ball, and ball, to top them all.
We were taken on a planned excursion. A great tunnel was being dug into Olympus Mons. It’s where the Capital City for Mars will be established. Digging tunnels is a cheap and easy way to create Bases. The rocks are stable, there are no ‘Mars quakes’ (sorry about the word) and if you are unlucky enough to strike water – well, on a waterless world, that’s just a bonus.
Sean was busy drilling holes into the rock-face with his electric rock drill. It was just like the ones that dig up streets in any big city, but in the Martian gravity, it weighed less. Its mass was great, and it was hard to use. Behind him, a great fuel cell sucked in Methane from large tanks at a rate of tons per hour. Yet it wasn’t really noisy. In the thin atmosphere of Mars, sound seemed to come from miles away – until you touched the drill. Then the sound was suddenly ear-shattering.
Kevin pushed my hand onto it, and the men laughed as I jumped backwards in shock at the sudden cacophony of noise. Sean grinned.
“Are you enjoying your work experience, young Steven?” he asked.
I nodded. “Beats algebra, any day.”
“Try it,” he said, lifting the monster up onto my shoulder.
It was heavy, yet strangely light. I pulled the trigger, wincing as the chattering noise nearly deafened me. The bit moved forward, then stopped. Sean took the drill from me and tried. He had no luck.
“I think we’ve hit a diamond,” he said.
“Diamond. Are we rich?” I asked.
“No. It’s just a very hard rock. Not worth anything. Volcanism and carbon equals diamonds, Steven, but nobody has ever found a gem stone. We’ll have to blast the face.”
It took them about an hour to place the explosive charges into the holes. A lot of the time was spent in safety checking. We retired to the vehicle parking lot to ride out the blast.
I looked up at the roof of the cave. It hung over us like the rock clouds of eternal doom. How had tiny humans ever managed to dig such a vast cavern? I wondered. Then I noticed the swarm of tiny robots – like infant spiders – busy polishing the granite dome.
We sat watching the men retrieve all the machinery and pack it carefully to one side, Kevin and Sean sat with me.
“Your father was a good friend, Steven,” Kevin said.
“You knew my father?”
“Very well.” Sean added. “He was an expert on Mars.”
“A Marsologist,” I said. “That’s an old family joke.”
“Did you ever read his diaries?” Sean asked.
I was puzzled. “Didn’t know he had any diaries,”
“Maybe on a mem-cube or something?” Kev asked.
I shook my head. “No. If there are any diaries, they’ll be in his estate papers. We don’t get access until we’re eighteen.”
There was a shrill siren, and I realized it was being broadcast through our helmet radios. I turned the volume down. A few seconds later, the ground shook. A blast of dust emerged from the tunnel.
I thought we’d be allowed to go into the tunnel and look, but safety inspectors took over. They had to check everything, and by the time they had finished, we had left to return to base.
Meanwhile, Karla and Patricia were having their own adventures. The vehicle shed was the largest open space on the base. At one end, airtight doors opened onto the open plateau to admit vehicles for service, and at the end of any excursion. Dust is the enemy of any machinery on mars. Fortunately, Martian dust is easily tamed by a liberal application of water and elbow grease.
The girls arrived equipped with mops and buckets. Their brief was to wash the floor, and mop it clean. They had rags and detergent to enable them to clean some of the lighter SATS (Small Aircraft Transport System) air-cars. Generally, these didn’t get too dirty, but some dust was inevitable. Ground vehicles were notoriously dusty, and there were two electric powered utility trucks waiting for their attention.
Water came from a large plastic tank at one end of the shed. It had a wide clear plastic window on one side to enable easy monitoring of the water level. A white metal ladder led from the shed floor to an airtight door on the tank roof. An internal ladder enabled access to the tank for cleaning purposes. The tank door had to be sealed shut whenever the outer shed door opened, or the water would boil away in the low pressure of Mars’ atmosphere.
Patricia’s coveralls were somewhat big for her. She rolled the legs and sleeves up to fit. She had asked Lauren if they could be cut to her size, but Lauren pointed out that she would grow, and that clothing was at a premium – not to be cut up for any purpose.
“Four pairs of coveralls would be made too small for normal use. Then what would we do if somebody needed them.”
“Why didn’t they pack Tee shirts and shorts?” Patricia asked.
“Clothing has to last. Tee shirts would become rags in a few months and have to be replaced. These coveralls are tough. They last for years. That’s why we use them. Your parents packed some lovely dresses for you – for special occasions. You don’t want to wear your pretty dresses for mudding out sheds, do you?”
“I don’t want to mud out the cargo bay. That’s a really yucky job.”
“Everybody has to work on Mars. That includes the dirty jobs. While you are mucking out the cargo bay, I’ll be cleaning out the sewers. We take pride in doing these jobs properly. Commander Neil cleans the base toilets every Wednesday and Sunday. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Patricia said reluctantly. “I guess It is important.” Something of the work ethic that Lauren was trying to give her must have stuck. “Lauren - We’ll leave the shed gleaming,” she said.
“That’s what I love to hear,” Lauren said.
When they reached the Cargo Bay, the girls placed their safety tags in the airlock door. This ensured that the inner door would stay open, but the outer door couldn’t.
“Stay shut,” Patricia said.
“I don’t think door computers can speak,” Karla said.
The two girls looked at the task before them.
“One cargo bay, Twelve meters wide, and eighteen meters long,” Karla mused. “There’s the water tap.”
They filled their buckets. Karla ordered some music from the P.A. system. She liked classical music, so chose Zigursky’s Toccata and Fugue in c# minor.
“If we start at the airlock, we can move down towards the main door,” Patricia said. “My backpack’s a nuisance. Can I put it somewhere?”
“We’ll put them by the main door. That way, when we’ve finished, we won’t forget them. We won’t need survival pods on this job. Have you got your safety cylinder?”
“If in doubt, pull it out,” Patricia said, waving it with due sarcasm. “And I charged it this morning.”
“Good girl,” Karla said mockingly.
They started mopping the vast expanse of floor.
After our visit to the tunnel project on Olympus Mons, we traveled back to base in a Pressurized truck. It was a relief to take our back packs off, and use them as seating. Our life support hoses could be plugged from our helmets, directly into the cabin’s internal system.
I managed to get into the rear seat of the Prime Mover’s cabin with Anthony and Simon. Sean was driving, and he shared the front seat with Kevin and Gordon. Harry, Pierre, Barry, and Chris rode in the back. It was gloomy, and the red-brown Martian landscape moved past the grey-brown window, desolate in its monotonous flatness covered by billions of gibber stones. Occasionally, large red and white poles marked the road’s edge.
“Are we there, yet?” Chris asked.
It was an old joke, but Sean replied, “Just a few more klicks, and we’ll be home.”
“Then we can go to the mess hall. I’m starving,” Simon said.
Gordon turned around to look at us. “Do you know what a Martian Kid looks like, Simon?”
“A stomach on two legs.” He quipped.
“That’s because – we’re the young Martians. Right, Father” I asked.
“Couldn’t be righter,” Sean agreed. “And not so much of the ‘Father’ stuff. Leave it for church. When I’m drilling for rocks, everyone calls me Sean.
A cloud of dust could be seen ahead of us.
“It’s another truck,” Simon said.
“It’s the commander. We travel back to base in honoured company.” Kevin said, touching his communicator to get an open channel. “One – niner to E.V. One. Courtesy of the road, Commander.”
“Affirmative, Kevin,” Commander Neil’s voice came clearly over the channels. “I reckon – with this wind, we’ll be free of dust on a North-South heading. Glad of your company.”
“Why does he get to go first?” I asked.
“He’s the base commander. His E.V. doesn’t have to eat our dust.”
It was an open channel. I might as well have shouted in the commander’s ear. “You must be the work experience boys. Well, you can take it from me that I have the privilege of falling into any pot holes we come across.”
Karla and Patricia had finished the cargo bay. They emptied their buckets into the sludge drain.
“How come the airlock door is closed?” Patricia asked.
Karla’s heart skipped a beat. “It can’t close. Our safety tags are in the lock.”
They tested the door. Their tags were in the lock, but it was shut fast. An alarm buzzed.
“Outer Door Opens in One Minute from siren shutoff! Outer door opens in one minute from siren shutoff!”
“What are we going to do? Our pods are in our packs!” Patricia shouted.
Karla looked around. “The tank. Get moving, Patricia.”
For once, the light Martian gravity was on their side. They got to the ladder within a couple of bounds.
“I can’t swim,” Patricia said.
“Use your safety cylinder,” Karla said as they reached the top of the tank.
She struggled with the door on the roof. It was stiff. There was a clanking noise as the outer door began to move. The air pressure was dropping, and she felt her ears click. The tank door opened suddenly, bashing against her arm. She ignored it and pushed Patricia in. The youngster found the ladder, and started down towards the water. Karla tried to shut the door, but the air pressure pushed it open. She hung on it with all her weight. It slammed shut, and she nearly let go. She reached out to the locking wheel and turned it. They were locked in. She found it hard to breathe, remembered her safety cylinder and reached for it. Patricia was there with her. She pushed it into her older sister’s hand and guided it to her mouth. Karla sucked in and was rewarded with life giving air.
The cargo bay door opened to the outside world. The girls’ backpacks tumbled out into the Martian wilderness, and the two vehicles drove into the bay. Dust swirled over the cleaned floor.
Five minutes later, the outer door had shut, and the cargo bay re-pressurised. Neil opened the door of his van and stepped out. He was still in his helmet. George, his assistant, got out on the other side and sampled the air with a hand held meter.
“Looks fine,” he said.
Moments later, the boys were all out. Helmets came off, and packs were placed on the ground. We stood in a line. It wasn’t a total mayhem. We had been too well trained for that.
“Alert, boys,” Kevin said as Commander Neil Gordschsky approached. We stood at alert, legs apart, arms beside, and our helmets held by our left arms. He walked along our line.
“At ease,” he said. “Well done, lads. Discipline isn’t easy when you come from Earth with its loose ways. If you can line up, and be orderly, things go so much quicker and better.”
He turned to walk away with George. Suddenly, he saw the safety tags in the door, the upturned buckets and the mops with their heads frozen in ice, stuck to the floor.
“What the hell!”
There was a banging noise coming from the tank. I looked at it, and my mouth dropped open. Karla and Patricia were hitting the window with their safety cylinders.
“Well, well. Looks like a new form of Martian life, Sir. Mermaids.” Gordon said.
Neil turned to Kevin. “Get them out of there, Mr. MacLean. Find out what happened.”
George’s face was white – not from the cold, but from the shock of finding the safety tags.
“Sir, I’m sure the bay was empty. I signaled it, and it said there were no occupants.”
“I know. You don’t have to apologise. Something has gone wrong. There’s no way it should have opened with those tags in the lock. That’s the second computer stuff-up we’ve had, and this one nearly cost more lives.”
He was standing right in front of me, and I couldn’t help it. “Computer stuff up?” I blurted out
He turned on me. “Who is this boy?”
Kevin and George had reached the pressure door on the water tank. George turned the wheel to unlock it, and the door sprang upwards, but he was ready for it. The low temperature steam condensed as a fog around the tank.
Sean covered for me. “This is Steven Johnson – one of the Mayflower survivors … “
“Right. That puts a face to your name. Your father was a fine man, Steven. A brilliant Marsologist, and a good friend.”
In the background, I noticed that George had taken personal care of Karla, wrapping her in his fur-lined jacket.
“You said, ‘computer error’,” I persisted.
Commander Neil put his hand on my shoulder and looked squarely at me. It was as if his eyes were probing my brain. “We’re looking into it. We can’t be sure yet.” He pulled his fingers across his mouth and then put his index finger upwards across his lips. “You’ll be the first to know,” he said.
Kevin brought Karla and Patricia over to the commander. “The young lady has a bruised arm, no more than that. It was Karla’s fast thinking that saved them, Sir. Their packs blew outside”
“We’ll have to retrieve them, then. Well done, Karla. And you, too, Patricia. You’ve both had a very lucky escape.” To Karla, he asked, “Steven’s sister?”
“Yes, Sir. He’s my little brother.”
“Always remember, Karla. The Spirit of Mars sits on your shoulder waiting for you to make a mistake. You outwitted him today. Now you’d better get into some dry clothes, both of you.”
A week later, we attended an official Induction Ceremony to make us Mars Authority Cadets. Earth had considered Commander Neil’s plan, and approved it. We could be cared for officially as wards of the Authority, or by becoming Members of it. The latter course was easier for the administration. They put us on the ‘payroll’ as it were.
The ceremony was held in the large cargo bay. Once again, we put out a dais and lines of seats. We changed out of our coveralls. Our shirts and trousers were pressed, belt and boots shone with mirror luster, hair combed, teeth and fingernails cleaned. We were paraded, showed off our skills in drill and formation marching, then made to take an oath of office, and presented with certificates. Each presentation was a photo opportunity for the press robot.
“I have a special presentation to make,” the commander said. As you all know, the military has always been something of a pyramid organization. There are those at the top who do the planning, and the poor sods on the bottom who do all the work.”
“Now this small corps of cadets needs a leader, so we’ve been observing them, and have chosen someone to do the job.
“Steven Johnson, come forward.”
I was genuinely surprised, for nobody had mentioned it to me.
I stepped forward, came to attention, and saluted.
Commander Neil undid my epaulettes and slid a gold bar onto each one. He re-buttoned them, and stood back. “You are now a sub-lieutenant in the Mars Authority Cadet Corps. I believe you will value these bars and what they mean. Lead your corps well, Steven.”
Then he shook my hand. There was a cheer from everyone, including all of the boys. Even Pierre, who was a few months older than me, grinned from ear to ear.
I stood back and everyone became silent. I was supposed to say something. The room became hot. Everything closed in and my focus narrowed. Then I looked around and spoke.
“Commander Gordschsky, Officers, Cadets. We came here to be colonists with our parents. Things didn’t work out well, but we’re here anyway. We have to make the best of it. We’ve learnt a lot, and we’ve more to learn. It isn’t easy to become a Martian, but I’m sure as hell going to give it my best shot, and I’m sure all of the other cadets will do the same.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Sean in his black jacket and dog collar. It gave me a closing remark.
“May the great God of the Universe look after us all and bless us as we work to Terraform Mars.”
“Amen” everyone said.
I heard Commander Neil mutter something to Lauren.
“You were right about that boy. He’s his father’s son.”
They threw a party for us afterwards. It was great, and everyone had to dance. Now – there are a lot more males than females on Mars, so some of the boys danced together. It didn’t mean anything. We often found ourselves naked together while taking showers or changing into Marsuits or space suits. On long walks outside, there are no toilets. We wore Maximum Absorption Garments, which are disposable underpants. If you felt like you had to go, you did. There was no choice.
It didn’t embarrass us to change our M.A.G.s in front of each other, and we had to help each other make the final adjustments to our suits, such as zipping up the back, or adjusting the air hoses. Our lives depended on these intimacies. We got used to the feel of each other’s bodies, and being squashed together. There was no false modesty on Mars. We even knew which of us had farted, because each of us had our own body odor.
So dancing with our friends was not a problem.
On Mars, day follows day just like everywhere else.
There is a problem – Martian days are thirty-nine minutes longer than a day on Earth. That means that 2439 hrs is midnight. Our human clocks are set on a 24 hour cycle, and it takes a while for them to readjust for the extra half hour.
We have ninety-five weeks every year, ten extra months named after the Jovian moons, and an extra month, ‘Perihelion’ which occurs at perihelion – every two years.
Mars and Earth line up every two years, and we can use the MagBeam system for high speed interplanetary transport. A laser propulsion beam from Earth can push a small space-ship to Mars in fifty days. Mars can send the ship back to Earth in less than forty days. But it only happens once every two years, when the planets are in the right position to each other. The big cargo ships and passenger liners have to do things the hard way. Chemical rocket propulsion systems, long orbital trajectories, and hibernation. But they can come and go at any time.
Most days, we had lessons and work periods. Saturday was a time for sports in the Main Cargo Bay. The vehicles were parked outside while we played volleyball – spectacular on Mars, as we could all jump about four metres high.
A base is a collection of sheds, interconnected by large pipes. We were in Shed 15(d). It wasn’t in use generally, so it became our classroom.
Dorothy was teaching us how to put on a space-suit. It was different to a Marsuit. It came in several parts in different sizes, – sleeves, elbows, pants, waist, torso, yoke, helmet, gloves, and boots, all assembled to fit the wearer.
Once it has been assembled to fit, it can be split into a top and a bottom. You can slip into the pants, wriggling your feet into the boots; then wriggle into the top piece slipping your thumbs and fingers into the gloves. Then the waist ring is rotated to join the top and bottom together. A valve inflates the seal, and you’re locked in.
They used to be great clumsy things, but ours were fairly light and easy to get into. One thing is, you don’t need to spend an hour breathing oxygen after getting into them, because they are pressurised.
Dorothy was giving us the drill: “Space suits - for a long stay outside, and very high altitudes. They carry food, water, and the funny plastic underpants thing is your M.A.G. - personal toilet.”
“We know,” we chorused.
“Because it’s going to be warm outside, you may be tempted to get a bit frisky. Just remember that if you’re stupid, you can hurt yourselves.”
We made a lot of comments about the M.A.G. units. Boy stuff. “Don’t do cartwheels – your Mag is bound to leak.”
“I wish Karla was taking this class,” Harry said. He was standing buff naked and holding his M.A.G. – twirling it in his hands before slipping it on. In shed 15(d), it wasn’t possible to be modest. At least we didn’t need to powder ourselves with talcum before slipping space suits on.
“Where is Karla,” Chris asked.
“with the girls. They’re doing a medical course,” Anthony said. “Sex education – female plumbing problems.”
He’d miscalculated as Dorothy was standing right behind him. She tapped the top of his helmet with a wooden ruler. It sent a small shockwave of sound right through his ears.
“Ow! That hurts,” he said.”
Sean and Kevin entered the shed. They were fully kitted out in suits and helmets. Soon , with their help, we were ready for an external excursion.
“Check everything,” Kevin said. “Computer monitor, Hydration tube, feeding pellets, microphone, earphones.”
We became serious and concentrated on the drills. Sean took us through the backpack functions: “CO2 re-cycler. Visually check the filter for blemishes or cracks. Replace it carefully, your life depends on it. Do not force it in. Do not cross the threads. How do you check it, Chris?”
“When it has been re-assembled, place the filter in its slot and press the blue button. If all is OK the check light will glow green,” Chris said.
Finally, we were done. We lined up and Kevin checked us off: “Steven, Anthony, Chris, Harry, Pierre, Simon, Barry, Listen up.
“Space walking is like scuba diving. We don’t need space-suits at this altitude, but if you go up to the top of Olympus, you definitely need a space suit. Also, if you’re handling liquid gasses, a space suit will offer you some protection. O.K. We are about to de-pressurise this shed and move over to the atmosphere plant.”
Dorothy went out the door and closed it. We could see her at the control booth through the glass panel. The air pressure dropped, and things became strangely silent. Kevin and Sean checked us over, then pressed the door control and the shed’s outer door opened. We walked out onto the surface of mars.
The Atmosphere plant was a hundred meters away from the base, so that if something went badly wrong and it exploded, the base would be safe. We walked through the Magazine levies – great earth banks piled up to deflect any shockwave. The plant was busy. Workers were at the controls checking everything.
Inside the plant, we watched the atmosphere being sucked into large storage tanks and pressurised to 73 earth normals. The CO2 became a clear liquid. Some of the pipes were transparent so we could see what was happening. Nitrogen and trace gasses were being siphoned off. Then we watched as hydrogen was bubbled through the liquid CO2. The liquid went black and settled down into three layers - oxygen, water, and carbon, which settled at the bottom.
The oxygen was piped off to a filtering system to be washed clean and added to the nitrogen, some CO2, and a few other trace gasses. This became ‘air-mix’ to be used by the base. The carbon was removed, compressed into bricks, and used as fuel.
“We call it, ‘I.S.R.U.,” Kevin said. “‘In-situ-resource-utilisation. Big words for big ideas – get used to them. Now over here, we turn CO2 into Methane for re-fuelling the trucks.”
He was so proud of it. The thin, cold, CO2 gas atmosphere of Mars, which I always thought of as an enemy, was being used as the life-blood of colonization. We depended on the gas for everything. It provided us with air to breathe, water to drink, fuel, power, and exports such as plastics and coatings, to pay for it all.
On Mars, CO2 is king.
We passed through the Gas Plant to the trucking yard. A shining Mac waited for us. Streamlined, it had two huge cylindrical tanks on the top. Liquid Methane in one, and Oxygen in the other. The rear of the truck, overhanging the engine, was a crew-cabin. The driver’s cabin was pressurised. The first dog was crew quarters – a sort of miniature Mars-Base. We climbed up to examine it. It was set up for four. It had two double bunk cabins, an ablutions room, a kitchen, and a recreation lounge. The air lock was double-opened so we could get in as a group.
Once inside, Sean closed the outer door, then the inner door. He operated the atmosphere controls, and the large caravan was pressurised. Kevin fiddled with his helmet, and removed it. He took a sniff of the air, and winked.
“Helmets off, boys. The air is fine.”
We were relieved, and buddy-checked ourselves to make sure we removed the helmets properly. We placed them on racks, hung our backpacks under them, Then we sat around a long table.
Anthony put his hand up. Sean nodded at him.
“How come you opened both doors of the airlock? I thought that was impossible.”
“Good question, Anthony. We had to get special permission to do that – you see, the airlock holds four people. And we are how many? Kevin,”
“Nine. We’d have to use the airlock three times,” I said. “Which would take a long time, and use up lots of air.”
Harry put his hand up. “Mister MacLean, Sir, Who uses this rig?”
“Well, boys, you’re all going to learn to drive it, and eventually, you’ll be the ones using it. You see, the dogs on the back are for mineral surveying, and you’ll be out there, looking for useful things for us.
“On Mars, everyone has to work for a living. So far, you’ve all been passengers. We can’t afford to feed idle mouths. Normally, you’d be under the care of your parents, and they’d be training you to take over from them. At the moment, you’re taking a crash course on Mars Basics. In a couple of weeks time, I expect you to be able to drive this rig, and do running repairs on it.”
He was as good as his word. We stripped the motor down in the shed, then re-assembled it. Our coveralls were getting really dirty every day and had to be dry-cleaned. In Mars’ gravity, four boys can lift a one tonne methane motor. He soon had us stripping it down and re-assembling it on the surface. We learnt to use an arc welder, plasma cutter, and a small lathe to turn small parts.
We had to drive the rig without incident, which was fairly easy on voice-computer control. Managing to drive it manually was a far different matter. It was a strange form of schooling, and I was enjoying every minute of it.
Meanwhile, events were taking place that involved us in a much more dangerous matter.
Commander Neil Gordschsky was a meticulous man. He was not one to let details escape his notice, and he was concerned at the close call that Karla and Patricia had had in the large cargo bay.
He’d managed to dump the core computer memory of the “Mayflower” and went through its protocols with a fine tooth comb. Finally, he called Lauren, Kevin, Gordon, and George into his office for a staff meeting. A chunk of code was displayed on the wall screen.
“Can you see what I noticed?” He asked them, after they had looked at it for a while.
“That looks like a program, but what are the comments in gibberish?” Lauren asked.
“I wondered that, too. Then I did a checksum error check on it.” He said, pleased at his cleverness. “They correct the checksum error, making the code fit in without detection.”
“It turns off the oxygen in the feed line, counts out ten minutes, and restores it,” Kevin said. “Enough to kill someone in hibernation?”
“Got it in one,” Neil said. “These passengers were murdered. Now – why didn’t they kill the children?”
“They could easily have included the oxygen line to the kids’ canisters,” George said. “Did somebody want to create orphans? That’s bizarre.”
“After Commander Horton executed the O’Malley boy, the press is watching us very carefully. If anything happens to any of the Mayflower Orphans, shit will hit the fan.”
“We’re a long way from Earth. What can they do?” Lauren asked.
“Politicians. They can start to interfere with the Mars Authority. We run a tight ship. There are many on Earth who would love the opportunity to seize control of this base, and take over the colony. I need a very close eye kept on those kids.
“George, are you attached to any lovely young woman I haven’t heard about?”
“Karla is nearly seventeen years old. Get to know her.”
“Are you match-making, Sir?”
“She’s a very bright young lady – attractive, unattached. She could become the cause of inter-personal jealousies and trouble. I’m appointing you as her personal instructor in vehicle management. Start with the bi-pedal cargo lifters, and work up to heavy machinery. I’m not ordering you to court her, but whatever will be, will be.”
“If she ever finds out that you’ve arranged this, she will be devastated,” Lauren protested.
“Stuff and nonsense.” Neil said. “This is a colony, and these are colonial times. History tells us that the village elders routinely arranged matches within their available gene pool. This is no different.
“I am not ordering them to marry, for goodness sake, I’m merely putting them in close proximity, and letting nature take its course. At least George’ll be close enough to protect her if things go wrong.”
“Do you expect further trouble?” Gordon asked.
Neil looked at him. “I’d be a fool if I didn’t take the possibility of further trouble into consideration.”
That is how, next day, Karla and George found themselves in the cargo bay playing with bi-pedal cargo lifters.
Imagine a metal dinosaur with two large hind legs and two shorter front legs that are more like arms. The ‘tail’ is really a counterweight to balance any load the contraption has to lift.
The operator gets into the seat, places feet into a set of stirrups, and hands into a set of sensor gloves, and hey-presto. Magic.
Because much of the work happens outside, Karla and George were working the beasts while wearing Marsuits under their coveralls. George stood next to Karla as he told her to imagine she was walking. The machine lifted its huge right foot. Internal computers twisted the frame slightly, to compensate for the loading, and the beast was standing on one foot.
“Swap feet,” George suggested.
Karla was a fast learner. “This is great,” she said, walking forward.
“Be careful. We haven’t got helmets on, and if you ding a wall, we could lose pressure,” he reminded her.
“I’m not stupid,” she said, turning the machine around to face him. She walked forward, and George moved back. He tried to dodge to one side, but Karla lowered her arm. She backed George into the wall.
“What the …” he protested.
“Gotcha,” she said.
“Very funny. Now reverse, and I’ll show you how to pick up eggs.”
She moved the machine backwards, and George followed. He reached into his pocket, withdrew a plastic tube, and drew an egg from it. He placed it on the ground.
“Pick that up, without breaking it,” he said.
“Where the hell did you get that egg?” Karla asked.
“I’ll show you the ‘chooks’ later,” he said.
She moved the BCL forward and lowered its arms. Its hand opened, and she placed it carefully around the shell, but it cracked when she tried to lift it. Yellow yolk ran across the floor, but froze hard.
“Close,” he said, placing another egg on the floor.
“How many of those have you got?” she asked.
“The last one,” he said. “Try again, but use your index finger to close the jaws. It senses that you want really fine movement, and don’t forget that it has ‘feel’ built in.
She tried once more, this time lifting the egg and moving the arm towards him. He held out his hand, and she dropped the egg into his palm.
“Very well done,” he said.
When the lesson was over, they put their helmets on, and walked over to ‘The Farm’. It was a food factory, built on the edge of the base opposite the Atmospheric Plant.
In space, vegetables are grown hydroponically on large tables with heated shelving. Overhead, ultra-violet lights feed the growing plants with the synthetic sunlight that enables them to photo-synthesise. Row after row of carrots, lettuce, cabbages, broccoli, onions and other vegetables were on display. The atmosphere was warm, steamy, with an over-abundance of CO2. They kept their helmets on.
“Where are the ‘chooks’?” Karla asked.
George led her to a side door. It was pressurised, but this was not unusual, for the base was built of many self contained units. Should one compartment fail, the rest of the base would be safe.
“Methane,” George said, as they left the airlock. Huge bins of black and brown mud were lined up side by side. The surface of one bin heaved, and a great earth-worm poked its head up.
Karla gave a sudden scream. She turned to George, who was grinning from ear to ear.
“Genetically modified earth-worms,” he said. They convert all our waste into worm pellets and liquid fertilizer.
“They’re harmless – look,” he said, pulling a short one from the mess.
Karla looked at it, and grasped it firmly with her hands. It wriggled, but was helpless in her grasp. She put it back into the compost.
George dug down with his hand and pulled a white egg from the bin. “Some of them produce eggs with hard shells,” he said.
“So they are the ‘chooks’,” she noted wryly. “Genetically engineered worms that lay hen-like eggs.”
“We do plan to have real hens one day,” George said. “Until then, these will have to do.”
Karla moved along the bins, looking carefully into them, one by one. She fished a very flat, short worm from one of the bins.
“And this?” she asked.
“Have a close look at the muscle structure,” George said. What do you notice?”
“It looks like muscle structure. Is this what I think it is?”
“Steak. Yes. We could grow it in vats as tissue culture, but this is more efficient. Turn it over, and you’ll see the worm lies along the center of the muscle. We are still working on this. It isn’t for dinner yet.”
She placed it back carefully. “If it isn’t toxic, and it contains the correct nutrients, who am I to be fussy?” she asked.
He came close to her, and she placed her hand on his shoulder. “When I was on Earth,” she said, “I used to do agriculture at High School. I loved it. This isn’t that much different. Farming on Mars. Who would have guessed it?”
She stood face to face with him, and liked what she saw. It isn’t easy to be romantic in a Marsuit, but she smiled, and he smiled back.
“Talking of eating, it’s getting on for lunch time at the canteen. Would ‘steak and eggs’ put you off?”
“My coffee is with milk, and two sugars,” she said.
The Landing field was a flat gibber-strewn plain. It stretched to the horizon. Landing cargo on Mars had become a routine affair involving huge soccer-ball devices dropped from orbit and rolled onto the plain, where they will be collected by the retrieval teams. The game was, to deflate the balloons as they rolled, and to guide them to an assembly area.
Gordon and Kevin sat in their open covered, four wheel drive jeep, to watch, give directions, and if necessary, shepherd any of the cargo balls. George, Karla, Simon and I, sat in our BCLs ready to lift the cargo onto waiting trucks. They looked like a small herd of metal kangaroos. Anthony, Harry, Chris, and Lauren manned the heavy duty retrieval units – prime movers without dogs that would use their bulk to pin the balls down.
“Cargo pods are entering the atmosphere now,” came the voice of the controller through their helmets. “Parachutes will deploy in three minutes.”
Far in the distance, tiny white dots appeared in the sky, gradually getting larger and larger.
“Targets visually sighted,” Gordon said, his deep voice unmistakable, even when filtered over the radio links. “On the button, Controller. We have command.”
“All yours, Gordon, Sir.” Controller said.
The huge balls, painted in black and white pentagrams for visual discrimination, detached from their parachutes and rolled in to land. The Prime Movers started up and began their task of shepherding. The balls began to deflate as tiny explosive charges punctured them. One of the balls failed to deflate, and headed towards the jeep.
“Move it, Kevin. It’s a runaway.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Kevin said, hitting the ignition button. The jeep engine coughed and spluttered. Nothing happened. The gigantic ball rolled closer and closer. Suddenly, it bounced upward as several tons of prime mover struck it from behind. The ball cruised over the top of the jeep, just missing it. There was the crunch of braking, and the front of a huge prime mover towered over the jeep, raising a cloud of dust.
Gordon looked up at the cabin, seeing Anthony looking down at him with a broad grin.
“Thought I was going to bounce you, too, Sir,” the boy said.
Gordon looked up. He could have given the kid an earful, but he controlled himself. “Well done, young Anthony. Very well done. Now get after it and bring it in.”
The huge ball contained a gigantic Bull-dozer. On its engine was a badge identifying Ford’s Lunar Division as the machine’s origin.
A couple of hours later, when the loading was complete, and all the trucks were ready to convoy back to base, the cadets stood around the earth-mover admiring its lines. A tanker had refueled it with liquid methane and oxygen. Its engine was ticking over quietly.
“Cadet Anthony Wiles, you may drive our latest acquisition, The Beast, back to base,” Gordon said. “Cadet Lieutenant Steven Johnston will supervise.”
I grinned at Anthony. “Some people have all the luck,” I said. I parked my BCL on its carry-bed and joined Anthony in the dozer’s cabin. We checked the life support systems and the door seals. Anthony crawled into the driver’s seat and placed his arms into the controller gloves.
“System check,” he said. The lights went on as the machine came alive. “Convoy mode. Main engines start,” he ordered. There was a rumble under our seats as the engine started. “All ahead, slow.”
“Sensors detect mapped road to Olympus Base. Terrain modified.” The Beast said.
“Follow the mapped road,” Anthony said.
Behind us, the convoy strung out in a long line. Anthony sat in the drivers chair, enjoying the experience of driving the beast home. Actually, he could have sat back and read a book, allowing the robotic brain to navigate, but that wouldn’t have been any fun at all.
The road to Pavonis is long and wide, thanks to the work of “The Beast” and an influx of new settlers. Mars Authority had decided to implement stage two of the Mars Terraforming Project, which included the establishment of satellite bases at Pavonis and Gusev. These would be linked with a ceramic railway made out of compressed and fused Martian soils. This meant finding and collecting soils containing aluminium and iron. These were mixed together with water and baked into a solid. The result was a paved Aries ceramic roadway, about two meters wide with a raised center.
Vehicles used the air-cushion effect to ride along the central rail. As there was no contact with the ceramic pathway, there was no friction and no wear. A surface train could reach speeds of a hundred km per hour without any difficulty. The main advantage of the system, was that a single machine could travel along the existing track, laying more track in front of itself, thereby laying tracks to virtually anywhere. The disadvantage was, that track laying was a slow process.
We found ourselves traveling in convoy – four prime movers overland to Pavonis Mons, an extinct volcano. The plan was to build a second base at the foot of the volcano, on the lower slopes of the Tharsis Ridge, with a view to tunneling into it later on. The scheme had worked well at Olympus Mons, where a very large township was taking shape inside the huge Granite footprint of the extinct volcano.
At night, we stopped. There was no point traveling in the dark along roadways that were little more than waypoints marked on a map held as a file in some computer database. There was always the possibility that a trick of the light concealed a large crack in the ground, or some other obstacle. The trucks could drive themselves anywhere, but long experience was, that a driver was always present to prevent disasters.
Dorothy and Simon stepped down from the lead truck, and the rest of us joined her. Karla and Harry from Truck two, Kevin and Steven from Truck three, and George with Pierre from truck four. Dorothy opened the habitat trailer on truck two. Its outer airlock had been modified, so that eight people could enter at once.
I stood watching the sun set in the West over the great hump that was Pavonis Mons. We were a day’s travel from the monolith, but even so, it dominated the skyline. George laid his hand on my shoulder.
“Steven, will you check the gas plant before we retire?”
“I’ll run a computer check,” I said.
“No. You will climb up on the rig and inspect every tap, joint, and hose manually. When you’ve finished, join us for tea.”
“But it’s so easy with the computer,” I protested.
“Do you trust the computer with your life, Steven,”
I had no answer to that. I walked down the line of trucks to the gas plant. I knew it would take two hours at least, and that I would be cold and tired before I was through.”
“No, I don’t trust the bloody computers,” I said.
“But I trust you to do a good job of it,” George said.
I had to shrug off my fur-lined jacket, but kept my pants on over my coveralls. It was cold – very cold. The Marsuit was protective, but cold always seeped through. Micro-wiring in the helmet stopped it fogging up, so I always had visibility. I clambered all over the plant, checking each tube and joint. There were no problems.
The Methane generator showed a full tank, so we had enough gas for the next day. Liquid Oxygen levels needed a top up. I switched the unit to shut off when the tanks were full. We could safely refuel in the morning. At last, the job completed, I climbed down, pulled my jacket back on, zipped it shut, and walked back along the line of trailers to the habitat. The outer light was on as I climbed the ramp. I opened the outer airlock door and stepped inside.
As I entered the habitat through the inner airlock door, I noticed it was dark. No lights were on. It was pitch black. There was no noise. I turned to the controls and switched the light on.”
“Surprise!” Everyone yelled, and I was mobbed.
“Happy birthday, to you!
Happy birthday to you.
You look like a Martian,
And you smell like one, too.!!”
While we had been operating on the Martian calendar, the Earth year had slipped quietly by, and I was now Fourteen earth years old.” Someone had kept score, but I’d always been too busy.
I was happy – of course I was happy, surrounded by my friends, and everyone I felt dear to. But there were two aching spaces in that crowd, and I broke down and cried.
Kevin slapped me on the back, and George took my helmet off. I wiped my eyes and joined in the festivities. No way I was going to be a party-pooper. Dorothy let Simon and Harry do the cooking. It was the usual micro-wave meal – put the packet in and shut the door. The oven read the bar-code and cooked the contents to a ‘T’. But she had managed to hide a full birthday cake in amongst the stores. It had chocolate icing, and the interior looked like a fruit cake, so who was I to be curious?
Our first task on Pavonis Base was to set up a trig point. We hunted about for a large rock outcrop. George and Kevin surveyed the site, and finally, a hole was bored into a large lump of granite that was really the top of a mountain ridge. The laser drill pumped infra red, and the hole gushed plenty of smoke and gas. Finally, a steel pin was cemented into place, and we had Pavonis Base firmly marked on the ground as well as on the map of Mars.
From the trig point, a map was created on the ground. We used stones to mark streets and the corners of buildings. Our headquarters was to be a large corrugated-steel shed. It came off one of the trailers in several loads. Karla and George worked their BCLs while Kevin and George used the MPS to decide where the hut would go. Anthony and I poured water onto the ground where the concrete base would be, and puddle it in so it set like mud. The concrete was poured from one of the construction trailers, and we puddled it down to perfect flatness, allowing the bolts to set. The floor frame went on, and the walls went up. Finally, the barn shaped building was complete, roof and all. Then the real job began. A huge bag was dragged inside and inflated slightly. It was pulled and pushed into shape, so that it fitted inside the building exactly. Then water was pumped into the bag, and as it’s interior padding was made of concrete, it swelled into place, creating an airtight concrete building with a steel outer coating. Doors, windows, and partitions were brought in and assembled. Airlocks were cemented to the front, back, and side doors.
Headquarters Building number one was completed. We moved out of the trailer habitat, and made ourselves at home.
We were joined by Commander Neil Gordschsky at the official opening of Pavonis. The event was televised, and everyone in the solar system had a good view of our work. It wasn’t long before colonists began arriving.
We allocated lots to the settlers, and prioritized services such as water, sewerage, and power. Buildings were laid out as large plastic bags, pumped up with water, allowed to set, and gelled hard into houses within days. The air was soon busy with the new Small Aircraft Transport System in operation. Colonists had to buy methane and oxygen. We soon moved into a market economy. I couldn’t walk up to the depot and requisition my supplies at will. Everything had to be accounted for. A new pair of boots required three forms, countersigned by Kevin, our new Base Commander.
Finally, we opened the Pavonis Base Community Centre. It was built like a large glass box, fifty meters long, thirty meters wide, and twenty meters high. The floor was a ceramic Blackstone. Offices and toilets shared one wall with a large canteen. A frosted glass dais graced one end. Entry was through large community airlocks.
Everyone on Pavonis was invited, and the theme was ‘Country Western’. I managed to dye one pair of my uniform pants and a shirt to a sort of dirty navy-blue, using some plants from the hydroponics shed. With a yellow scarf as a bandana, and a tanned worm-skin belt, I really looked the part.
“Come y’all and join the dance
Bow to the lady in the pretty pants
Hands together and give it a whirl
Move on to the next little girl.”
It was the ancient form of ‘square dancing’ that set the beat. In many ways, those old time Westerners were colonists, too, and we must have shared much with them. The instruments, for instance, earth heirlooms from generations past, and many that saw their creation in the backroom workshops of the miners and farmers.
All good times must come to the end. The original team that had started Pavonis was due to move on to a new site, Gusev Crater. Dorothy would take the original convoy of trucks back to Olympus. A driver, Albert, had flown in during the morning to accompany her. His tiny shuttle was virtually wingless – Four fuel tanks on the smallest of forward flight wings. Take-off was vertical, translating to supersonic flight through the thin atmosphere, like a guided bullet. The crackle of the sound barrier was muted to distant thunder.
Dorothy hugged us all, and we plied her with home-made presents, small, but personal mementos. Then she mounted to the cabin and the roar of synchronized motors let us know to stand back. The huge road train began to crawl, then move forward faster as it gathered speed. The road, now well worn, was no longer a mystery, and the trucks, on synchronized programs, would soon be at Olympus City.
“That big town, just up the road,” someone had called it.
Life on Pavonis Base settled down to routines. I had inherited Dorothy’s quarters. There are some advantages to being an officer cadet. Unlike the small cubicle that I shared with Anthony at Olympus, my pad was sheer luxury. I had my own bedroom, bathroom, toilet, and kitchen, study come workroom, and a living room big enough for small parties. It was a larger area to keep clean, and I had incentive, as Kevin was in the apartment opposite. He reserved the right to inspect crew quarters, especially when the crew in question was only fourteen years old. We kept things in check pretty well. Mars imposes its own disciplines. One has to be tidy. It’s a way of life.
Pavonis is not the highest peak on Mars, but it has a nice crater at the top, and is an ideal place to put a transmission tower, so my work was to sit in the main office in front of a very large panoramic screen, and drive The Beast as it created a road up the volcano’s side towards the peak. The Beast was helped by several modified BCL units that were also controllable. I could switch from one device to the other with a tap on the keypad. I could have used voice control, but that would have meant a sound proofed office and isolation.
“How’s it going,” George asked over my shoulder.
“Pretty good. I’m on a ridge at the moment, creating a ‘U’ bend. We might have to go up there and blast a cutting by hand,” I said cheerfully.
“We can hire a squad of miners to do that,” George said. “Kevin and Pierre are going to the top to check out the foundations for the tower.”
“How are they getting to the top?” I asked.
“The old way. Motorcycles and in space suits,” he said.
“Wished I’d known,”
“Next trip up. You and me, right?”
“You’re on,” I said.
For Pierre, things weren’t going that smoothly. He was looking ruefully at a rubber “O” ring that had perished.
“We got any more of these?” he asked.
“Should be a supply in the ‘Q’ store,” Kevin said. Ask Karla. She’s on duty.
Ten minutes later, Pierre joined him at the airlock.
“Karla lent me her helmet,” he said. “Which is great, but I hate purple.”
“Where are the ‘O’ rings?” Kevin asked.
“Not yet unpacked. Apparently, nobody has requisitioned one for so long that they were overlooked. There’s a box of them in container 279(a), Shed 12, storage area C6479.”
“I’ll get right onto it when we get back. We’ve been so busy with getting everything up and going that some of the little details have been overlooked.”
He checked Karla’s helmet onto Pierre’s breast and shoulder plate. It worked perfectly, so Kevin gave Pierre a hearty slap on the back, and they left through the airlock. The 250cc methane powered motorcycles were the workhorses of the base. They required small tanks of Methane and Lox, which sat up behind the rider and acted as a back to their seats. A light trailer could be hitched behind the bike, or a sidecar could be hitched beside it. They took the road that The Beast had carved, and were soon powering up the slope.
With such a light gravity, the trick to riding a motorcycle on Mars was, to keep it on the ground. Every small bump, at speed, tended to propel the bike into a jump. However, jumps could be made, and areas of ground that might not be covered easily, such as cracks and gullies, were a simple matter of taking a run up, and flying over the gap.
If the ground was especially rough, as it was in places, the motorcycle could be carried with two hands, and progress made on foot, jumping from boulder to boulder.
They made the ‘U’ turn without incident. Kevin and Pierre parked their bikes and looked up the steep slope.
“No wonder Steven baulked at this. I’ll drive it up the slope and get to the top of the cutting. You wait here,” Kevin said.
“Commander Kevin to base, are you there, Steven?”
“Affirmative,” Steven replied.
“Cut your control to The Beast. I’m taking him up manually. You should be able to push a cutting from the top, over.”
“Roger, Sir. Beast disabled at this end. She’s all yours.”
Kevin swung into the seat and gunned the engine. It wasn’t comfortable seating, as the machine was designed to accommodate personnel wearing Marsuits, but somehow, Kevin removed his backpack, and got himself settled. He placed his backpack beside him.
“Camera on,” Pierre said, as he watched the huge earth mover claw its way up the slope. It slithered and swerved, first one way, then the next, but finally settled on its new elevation. Kevin pushed it forward, and rocks began to fall as the new rampart of road was started. Then he turned The Beast around and began to push the cutting from above. Finally, he turned the engines off and climbed down the steep road to where Pierre was waiting for him.
“That should make it easier for them,” he said.
Pierre helped him shrug his backpack on, and checked his instruments.
“You used a lot of air-mix, Sir.”
“Yes. There should be a spare tank on The Beast, in the Tools compartment. Let’s get up there and look, shall we?”
They checked the toolkit. There was a full tank of airmix, so Kevin re-filled his supply. A short time later, they were dirt-riding up the side of the mountain. The road had ended, so their route was through what Kevin preferred to call ‘Tiger Country’.
The higher they went, the more curved the horizon became. Fine dust particles made the ground thousands of feet below them appear slightly smoky, At last, they gained the flag toting steel pickets which marked the summit.
The crater – with its walls a hundred kilometers away, was spectacular. There was no atmospheric dust inside that great depression, so the bottom of it was as sharp as any picture.
They set up their survey instruments and worked out the position for a tower base. Kevin pushed small steel pegs into the ground to mark the floor, and Pierre helped him with the theodolite and pole.
“If we built a café here, would we make money?” Pierre asked.
“I don’t think the conservationists would allow it,” Kevin said. “We could have tourism, but it always pollutes the environment.”
“Mars is beautiful,” Pierre said.
“There’s no place on Earth like it,” Kevin joked. “Yet I know what you mean. The sight takes your breath away. It is so beautiful.”
“We put the rotating café here, the bus park over there … Donkey rides into the crater over there,”
“And stuff it up completely,” Kevin said.
“But it will happen,” Pierre said.
“Cost, politics, and conservationists. It’ll never happen,” Kevin said.
A strange sound came from Pierre.
He turned to look at the boy, and saw with horror, that the Pierre’s faceplate had disintegrated. Glass flew in all directions, and Pierre’s head began to swell. The atmospheric pressure at the top of Pavonis is almost zero. It might as well be in deep space. Kevin reached down to a pocket on his trouser leg and pulled out the plastic survival pod. He unzipped it and stepped inside. He had drilled and drilled for this moment. He grasped Pierre to him and pressed the closure button. Air pressure forced the steel zipper closed, and the balloon inflated.
Alarms shrilled through the base. Airlocks closed automatically, and work stations lit up, waiting for their operators. People swarmed into the base to take their positions everywhere. Kevin’s seat was empty, and George, hesitated for a moment before sliding into it.
“What have we got,” He asked.
Karla swung her seat around to look at him. “Pierre’s helmet has failed. They’re both in a survival pod. They’re too high – the pod could fail. It isn’t meant for those altitudes.”
“Are you there, Sir,” George said clearly. He switched Kevin’s helmet camera on, and they could see Pierre’s bloody face clearly. “Hang on,” George said, switching camera views. It showed Kevin’s boots clearly. He decided to ignore vision for the moment.
“Something smashed Pierre’s helmet. It must be a micro meteor We’re in my survival pod. It has a half hour of airmix. I’ve got plenty, but if I release it, the pod could explode. I’ve taken Pierre’s helmet off. He is unconscious, but his face has swelled badly.”
“We have to get them down from there,” Karla said. “Have we any fast transport?”
“There’s the jump jets at Olympus. Put a call through to Neil. Let’s pray they’ve got one on line ready to go.”
The calm voice of Commander Gordschsky came online, together with his face on-camera at the main screen. “Commander Gordschsky of Olympus to Commander Peters at Pavonis. We are monitoring your situation. How can I help, Commander?”
“We have a party of two trapped at the summit of Pavonis with a depressurisation. They are in a survival pod and require extraction. The pod may rupture. I’m going to suggest they use Pierre’s pod to give them double thickness. Have you got an extraction team and a jump jet on line, Sir.”
“We always have a rescue team on standby, George. You should know that.” Neil said. “Tell the casualties we are on our way.”
“Commander Peters to Kevin MacLean, a rescue vehicle has been dispatched to your location,” George said.
“What’s this ‘commander’ business, George. You been promoted or something?”
Neil’s voice came over the intercom, calm, soothing, “Now, now, Kevin. You know the protocol. You are the casualty, and he’s the ranking operational officer.”
“Just reality checking, boss. Tell your boys to get a wriggle on. This lad’s got real problems.”
“Nothing like a nice discussion about rank order to settle everyone during a crisis,” Neil said. “Our operating theatre is ready, Kevin. You’ll both be returned to Olympus. George, you look after Pavonis, you hear?”
“Aye, aye, Sir,” George said.
He grew into the position as I looked at him. His body became straighter, his voice took on an edge of authority.
“We’re going up there. Get Simon and Harry. Space-suits and a spare helmet. We’ll take a SAT.
The small green SAT vehicle looked like a horizontal cylinder with equal sized wings fore and aft. Four wingtip engines powered it, and it could lift vertically as well as horizontally by simply rotating the engines. A SAT is to Mars as a helicopter is to Earth. Their main limitation is their very short range. They must carry all of their fuel, as well as the liquid oxygen to burn it.
We arrived at the top of the extinct volcano and parked to one side of the casualty, leaving room for the Jump Jet from Olympus, which had a much bigger footprint than our limited vehicle.
Our first problem was, that Kevin had placed his helmet on Pierre. The second was, that he had inflated Pierre’s safety pod inside his, to give them a double skin.
“Pierre won’t survive a second depressurisation,” Kevin said. You’ll have to cut me out, and get a helmet onto me fast.”
We had practiced this very maneuver during first aid classes. This time, it was for real.
“Press your hands over your eyes, shut your mouth and hold your nose. As soon as you feel the helmet coming down on your head, let everything go,” George said.
“I know the drill,” Kevin said. “Ready, Cut!”
George’s utility knife bit into the swollen plastic. It burst like a balloon as the diamond coated blade slashed down. Simon and Harry dropped the helmet onto its locking ring. I could see Kevin’s face swelling as I turned the locking ring and sealed the catch. George attached the hoses and turned the valve. The pressure in Kevin’s helmet rose, and I had a view of his distorting face before the pressure equalized. His face settled down, but his eyes were bleeding at the corners.
He was such a strong man, yet in this moment, he was so vulnerable, so helpless. His life hung in the balance - on the skills of his four friends. He slumped down beside Pierre. For the moment, both were as safe as we could make them.
Neil visited Kevin in the small hospital. He looked down at his friend, lying silently on the bed with his eyes bandaged.
“How’s the hero?” he asked.
“’bout bloody time you dropped by,” Kevin said.
“Yes. I’ve been busy. Not often we have an accident to report – lots of paper work, especially where the kids are involved. Pierre lost his eyes. They couldn’t save them. We have to hold an enquiry, and pending that, you’re under suspension. It’s typical of Earth. They have no idea of what it’s like to live here. All their rules are Earth-Normal.”
“Can young George run Pavonis? He’s very young.”
“I trained him well. He’ll cope,” Neil said.
“Sorry I don’t have a badge and a gun to hand over, but I need as rest from duty any way.”
“I have to get it through to Earth that Colonists have always taken their children with them, and that creates a small element of danger,” Neil said. “There’s always the chance that a child will get hurt or even die.”
“It hurts even more when you know the child. Can’t they do transplants?” Kevin asked.
“Not here. They have his stem cells in storage on Earth, so they can grow new eyes for him. He has eight years to go before he can return for the operation. Even then, there are no certainties that he will regain his sight.”
“Poor kid. I shouldn’t have taken him. It’s my fault.”
“Don’t talk like that. There was no real danger. Whatever happened up on that mountain happened unexpectedly. His helmet failed. It wasn’t even his helmet – he borrowed it. It was an unforeseeable accident. Helmets never fail. That glass is transparent aluminum. A Tri-nitro-aluminum-tri-nitrate crystal.”
“Yet it shattered,” Kevin said.
In the Science laboratory at Pavonis, George placed a jigsaw of crystal pieces onto his workbench. The shell of the helmet lay amongst disassembled pieces of electronics. It was a masterpiece of micro engineering.
“So that’s what five million dollars worth of machinery looks like,” Karla said. “How did you get this?”
“Christopher and Harry spent a couple of days on the mountain with tweezers and magnifying glasses.” George said.
She leaned in closer and placed her hand on his Right shoulder. Her sharp eyes probed the collected debris.
“By the look of the pattern in the shield, there was an impact. See there?”
“The breaks radiate from a fixed point. What could do that?”
“Meteor strike. Mars’ atmosphere doesn’t protect the way Earth’s does. Small meteorites get through.”
Karla pushed at a pile of glass with her finger. “Is that your meteorite?” she asked, indicating a metal fragment welded to a piece of glass.
George picked it up with his tweezers and placed it on the table of the viewing microscope. A beam of laser light passed over it.
“Lead, nickel, iron . . . that’s weird.”
They looked at each other.
“Only one thing has that signature,” George said.
“A full metal jacket,” Karla said. “That’s a bullet.”
She looked at George and stepped back.
“He was wearing my helmet. Vivid purple. George, that bullet was meant for me.”
He stood up and turned to her. She was shivering slightly, and he held her. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, Karla. Look at me.
She looked up into his eyes.
“We must keep this secret,” he said. “Whoever it is must not know that we’re on to them. A Meteorite struck Pierre’s helmet. He was unlucky. A million to one chance. Do you understand that?
She nodded. “He was hit by a tiny meteorite – a million to one chance.” She said. The lie didn’t stop her from feeling frightened, and angry.
Someone decided that the Olympus Base school children should visit Gusev Base – on the new train. Lauren and Sean were given the job of helping Aida and Stanley Walters as kid wranglers. Patricia, Walter, Clare, Samuel, Benjamin, Maria, Henrietta, Barry and Chris were in the group. Karla and George were allotted the same car.
The railway track to Gusev Base was laid so that pneumatic wheels on either side of a central rail ran on a firm pathway of ceramic tiles. The front cab of the train contained computerized controls. Fuel cells powered the train by energizing the wheels, each of which was driven by its own electric motor.
Gusev Station was a cylindrical concrete structure built beside the huge geodesic zone that was inflated over Gusev Base. It was really a gigantic airlock. The train went in, its doors closed, and the station was pressurised. Passengers and freight could be unloaded.
The lighter gravity on Mars enables plastic structures to be built using air pressure and exotic materials. The panels which made up the Gusev Dome were made of lightweight plastic film ribbed with diamond fibres. Mars is much further from the sun than Earth, so ultra violet light is softer, but It has enough power to harden the panels, making them rigid. The plastic pipes which make up the domes frame are filled with self-hardening plastic. The dome becomes more rigid with age. Gradually, further layers are laminated onto the dome, until it becomes rock hard.
When the children alighted from train, Lauren lined them up on the platform of Gusev Station.
“I want you all to line up, while Mr. Walters explains what is happening here at Gusev Crater,” she said.
“Thanks, Lauren,” Stanley said. “This is the largest pressurized dome in the solar system, and will let one thousand people live nearly normal lives on Mars. All the people here will be working to produce food for the colonies, and some will be running the steel mills and factories.
Why is it here?” Patricia asked
“Put your hand up if you want to ask a question, Patricia,” Lauren reminded her.
“That’s a good idea,” Stanley said. “Well, Patricia, there’s lots of underground water here. Mars has lots of everything else we need, but water is pretty scarce.
Gary interrupted. “Why don't...” He remembered and puts up his hand. “Why don’t we get it from the North Pole?”
“Does anyone know the answer?” Lauren asked, “Patricia.”
“It’s too cold, and too far away.”
George and Karla listened for a while, then they moved away to do their own exploration. They entered the horticultural area. Cabbages, broccoli, lettuce, beans, and peas grew in rank after rank of hydroponics beds. It made the farms at Olympus look very small.
“Leapfrog technology at work,” Karla said. “Build a little machine to make a bigger machine, and on and on. A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought such a farm could be built here.”
“It was planned forty years ago – on Earth, long before Mars was colonized,” George said.
“Yes. The great economist, William Crushmore, noted that an economy is developed when two or more humans interact. They begin to trade. At first, it’s all nominal stuff, feelings, data, and exchange of needed things - barter.” George said. “When the system gets big enough, the economy moves into trading with cash – token economies. Then the economy really takes off with electronic accounting. All of the money required for colonizing Mars came from the sale of Lunar land.”
Karla said, “Money – I hardly ever think of it.”
“That’s because, within the Mars Authority, we have a ‘needs – supply’ economy. If you need something, it’s supplied. That includes luxury items according to rank.”
He was moving along the white stoned path towards a long wall with a high gate. The gate opened onto a wide street, faced with plastered buildings. She noted that they were standard rectangular steel framed houses. There were many on Mars – built with lattice steel wire walls, filled with an inflatable concrete and fabric bladder that lined the building and set hard when water was introduced through a pressure valve. The outside was finished with synthetic stone, concrete, even plastic synthetic marble.
Beneath the homes, tunnels carried service roads, power, water, sewerage, and communications. The surface level, under the dome, represented suburbia. Comfortable houses sat on grassed lots with gardens, trees, and exotic plants.
The suburb was silent, empty. Nobody moved on the streets, the air was still. Karla felt uneasy, and grasped George firmly by the arm.
“Where is everyone?” she asked.
George pointed at the ground. “Gusev is to be a factory town. This suburb is for the steel plant workers.”
A vehicle approached, breaking the silence with the slight sound of its electric motor. It stopped, and a young man stepped from the pressurized driving compartment. He was wearing a copper coated Marsuit. On his shoulders, the three stripes on the Mars Authority epaulettes ranked him as a Captain.
He walked towards them and saluted. “Commander Peters, I presume. Welcome to Gusev, Sir.”
George returned the salute. “Captain Jorgensen. This is Lieutenant Karla Johnston, my personal assistant.”
Karla looked at George and raised her eyebrows. She knew he had temporary command of Pavonis. As they walked over to the car, she asked “Is there something you forgot to tell me?”
“I haven’t decided, yet. Neil wanted me to bring you on this trip – to look over the place. Technically, I’m still commander of Pavonis, but Kevin will be returning to duty soon. Gordon is to take command of the new Olympus facility. There’s loose talk that Neil will be retiring, and someone from Earth will be appointed as Administrator.”
Jorgensen opened the rear door, they slipped their backpacks off, and climbed in.
“Gusev is available, if I want it.”
He looked at her. “I guess the real question is, ‘Do you want it, too?’ Because - I don’t want to do it on my own.”
Jorgensen drove down the quiet street and turned right onto a service tunnel entrance. They slipped quietly down a ramp into the submartian underworld of transit ways, pipes, and electrically controlled subways.
“Never pass up on a promotion, George,” she said. “And I rather like the idea of moving into a farming environment. We could grow little cabbages and things.”
“I thought the cabbage thing was a myth.”
“Steven . . . “
“He’s getting old enough to cut adrift. Besides, he’s sweet on Clare …”
“And Jennifer, and Maria.” She paused. “Let’s not talk about them. Let’s just talk about us.
Gusev base was a secure pressurised environment. They entered the central office building and elevated to the control room, on top of the central tower of the dome. It was empty. The desks were vacant, and the monitors dark. They placed their packs and helmets on a large empty desk.
“As you can see, nothing much is happening at the moment. It’s all in caretaker mode. I’ll see if I can rustle up some coffee,” Jorgensen said, leaving them alone.
They moved to the large picture windows that gave them a panoramic view across the expanse of white dome to the crater floor. Mars spread out below and around them.
In the far distance, the ragged walls of the crater could be seen as a roughly sketched line of darkness against the faintly pink sky. They held hands.
“Karla, will you marry me?” George asked.
She nodded, satisfied, then turned to him.
They embraced and kissed, for it was neither the time nor the place for long conversations.
Our pressurised Prime Mover towed five trailers, or ‘dogs’ across the flat plains South of Gusev. The first dog was our living quarters. It had four twin cabins, a kitchen, ablutions, and a lounge. Not much, but it held eight comfortably.
On this trip, there were only four of us. In charge - Cadet Lieutenant Steven Johnson – me, now fifteen years old. My crew was: Harry Smith, fourteen earth years, Simon Brown, also fourteen, and Chris Jenkins – the same age as me, fifteen. Our mission – a mineralogical and water resources survey.
The second dog carried our Life Support. That consisted of an atmospheric processing plant, a fuel cell, food and general stores. Dog three took measurements of the soil we passed over using a laser spectrophotometer and a Geiger counter. Dog four held routine maintenance equipment, our motorcycles, and a portable emergency life-support unit.
The truck ran on methane and oxygen, supplied by the A.P.P. while each wheel on the dogs was motorized to run under computer control, and powered by the fuel cell. The initial power was provided by a General Atomics Fusion Lobe, or G.A.F.L.
With all that grunt, why were we ambling along at ten klicks? Well, I was driving. At least, the truck was driving itself, while I sat behind the control column, trying to look important.
“Where are we?” Harry asked nobody in particular.
Simon tapped the G.P.S. It didn’t move. “We are here, boys and girls. And at this rate, we’ll be here for a long time.”
“Are we there, yet?” Chris asked.
Chris snored out of his nostril – a sure sign that he was super-bored.
“Hey, Guys. Give me a break. I didn’t invent this topography. Gibber plains, and we’ve got a lot of it to go,” I said.
“Well, Chief – not that I’m an expert, but couldn’t we go just a little bit faster?” Chris asked. He leaned over me from the back, his Marsuit reflected the lowering sun, and the faint odor of his MAG leaked from his collar. None of us were wearing helmets.
“You know the rules,” I chided. “Ten kilometers per hour in unknown country, or off-road.”
“I don’t see any huge cracks in the ground, or boulders out there. In fact, it looks clear – right up to those sand dunes,” Chris said.
So, I planted my foot and took the rig to thirty klicks. It wasn’t racing circuit stuff, but the three of them cheered and patted me on the back.
“That’s better,” Harry said.
There were a few larger rocks, but we bounced over them, unconcerned, and it wasn’t long before we were skimming along the side of the dunes. The sandy soil was soft and deep, but our huge tyres coped fairly well with the changed terrain.
Without warning, there was a tremendous “BANG!” to our rear. The truck altered its rate of progress as the computers took over the vehicle and brought it to a definite stop. Red lights began to flash.
“Damn. There’s a problem in the Oxygen Line,” I said, reading the gauges on the monitoring board. “A breach in the Liquid Oxygen lines.”
We put our helmets on and re-charged our air tanks before leaving the pressurised cabin. It was cold outside, and our coveralls and fur coats were in the Habitat module, which was sitting stranded over a pool of blue liquid. I looked under the dog and saw the problem. The seal joining the atmospheric plant’s pipe had come loose on the habitat side. Because the fault was under dog two, dog three didn’t acknowledge it. I raced back down the train. Liquid oxygen pooled along the path. It was too dangerous to approach the stuff, let alone touch it. I managed to grab a strap of the Portable Emergency Life Support unit, and managed to free a large survival pod.
When I got back to the others, the LOX had spread out under the cabin, cutting off our access to the prime mover.
“Did any of you guys think of getting the emergency beacon?” I asked.
They looked at me and shook their heads.
“Man, look at that stuff. There’s tons of it!” Chris said, impressed.
Indeed, the blue pool of liquid oxygen spread out across the sand. I was surprised it didn’t settle into the ground, but Martian soils can be strange. Then I figured it. The ground would be relatively hot, and the LOX cloud would be floating on a thin layer of oxygen gas caused by contact with the ground. Certainly anything touching it would snap freeze and shatter. While the truck remained stationary, the LOX wouldn’t harm it – the same thin layer of oxygen would prevent the liquid from actually touching the metal or the tyres.
“It’ll evaporate,” I said. “Give it a couple of hours, and it will all be gone. We can do repairs then. There’s no need to declare an emergency. Neil said we have to learn to look after ourselves.”
“What’s with the pod?” Harry asked.
“We may have to camp out in it. It’s big enough for four. We’ll see if we can find a sheltering spot.”
We walked up the dune face and found a great rift in the valley floor on the other side. It dropped unevenly, a couple of hundred feet. We walked down a rocky depression in the ground.
“Look at the sides,” Harry said. “Smooth basalt. This was a lava tube.”
Harry was becoming as good at spotting anomalies as I was. We came across a part of the tube which still had its roof. It formed a convenient cave, and we managed to climb into it. The floor was smooth, and covered with globules of frozen muddy rock. I picked one up and tapped it with my small hammer. It split open, revealing a dried clay-like heart with crystals inside. They were cubic, dull white and yellow, but not terribly interesting. Some of them were quite clear. I spotted a large red crystal. It was well formed, free of flaws, and quite transparent. Without thinking too much about it, I placed it in my sleeve pocket. Outside, the wind picked up. Evening was coming, and so was a large sand storm.
“I suggest we stay here until morning,” I said. I don’t feel like walking back to the truck in that scud.”
“Has anyone got a spare MAG in their pack,” Chris asked.
I gave him one of mine. Mars puts severe limitations on some of our most basic functions.
“I’ll help you change it,” I volunteered.
He smiled at that. “Thanks, Steve,” he said.
We cleared a patch of flat ground and inflated the eight man survival pod. It was rather like a dome tent made of clear plastic. It had its own survival pack, enough to keep the four of us for eighty hours. I hoped we wouldn’t need it for that long.
The dust storm settled in, blocking off radio communications with Phobos. Inside the control tower at Gusev, Karla got in touch with Neil at Olympus.
“Their last data upgrade showed their position as fifteen point 12 South, and Eighty-five point 2 West.”
“They’ve missed two scheduled contacts, Commander. I’m really worried. It’s not like Steven to forget the schedule. He’s always so careful.”
“When is his next schedule?” Neil asked.
“If we don’t hear from them by then,” Neil said, “We’ll initiate Search and Rescue.”
He turned to Pierre, who was listening carefully to the noises coming through his earphones.
“Can you hear anything, Pierre?”
The blind boy swiveled his chair to face Neil. It wasn’t that he wanted to see his commander, but he wanted to make sure Neill could hear him clearly.
“Nothing, Sir. It’s not that they’re trying to get through. There is no sign of a transmission at all.”
They waited. Neill studied the ground below the orbiting satellites. Where the trailer should be was covered in blowing dust. The clock ticked over, twelve thirty-seven, twelve thirty-eight, then zero. Nothing happened.
The phone rang. Neill picked it up. “Nothing from Gusev.” He put the phone down.
“Pierre, log the commencement of Search and rescue at Zero hundred hours, twenty-fifth of Ganymede, Year M-32.”
He pushed the small red button on his desk, then spoke into the intercom: “Gordon, wake the team up. We’re going to Gusev, Estimated time of arrival - ten hundred hours, local time.”
It was cold in the survival pod. We took the opportunity to remove our Marsuits and change our MAGs. We suited up again, and Harry was given the job of taking our ‘nappies’ to the far end of the cave. We broke open the ration packs and ate tea from self-heating cans.
Nobody wanted to sleep, so we played cards. We made a crude set of dice from two of the cubic crystals, marking them with the magic felt pens that had been invented to write in space a hundred years ago. At twenty-two hundred hours, I called for lights out. It was freezing cold, so we huddled together for mutual warmth. I can’t remember if I slept or not.
In the morning, we checked our resources. Our re-cycling crystals were fine, so we could re-breathe the air we were using. I repacked the deck of cards and the make-shift dice into my backpack. We re-charged our airmix from the pod’s supply. I decided we would leave it in the cave, so we placed rocks onto the floor to anchor it down, and left sufficient air in the tubing to keep it erect. I took the pod’s emergency beacon.
We walked up to the ridge and climbed over the sand dunes to where the truck with its trailers should have been waiting for us.
There was a small problem. It wasn’t there.
We looked around.
“We’re lost,” Simon said. Then he added “Lost in Space. Ohhhhhhhh!”
“Shut it,” Harry said, losing patience with Simon’s warped sense of humour.
“According to my reliable MPS, this is where we were yesterday,” Chris said.
“I see it,” Harry said. “Everyone stop moving. Look at the ground. The air is bubbling up through the sand. Don’t go forward, or you’ll fall through.”
We stepped back. Sand can be very treacherous, especially if it is over a hole or underground cave. A person can be sucked down and never seen again. In this case, the evaporating gas was venting through the sand dune which had covered the truck overnight.
“It’s like quicksand.”
I opened the emergency beacon and gave a call for assistance.
“Explorer five to Gusev Base. Explorer five to Gusev Base. CQ CQ CQ CQ. Explorer five to Gusev Base.”
Neil’s voice, filtered, came back through my helmet earphones.
“Explorer Five, This is Search and Rescue One, Over.”
“Contact confirmed, SAR one. Contact confirmed. We are in need of assistance. What is your position, over,” I said.
“If you’d care to look behind you, oh great leader, you’d see him coming in right up your tail,” Simon said with a wide grin. We had been rescued.
“Mayflower Orphans Survive Terrifying Ordeal Lost on Mars,” screamed the headlines. I turned the Video-screen off. It wasn’t like that at all. We had never been in any real danger.
In the control room, Neil was going for George in fine form, and George was serving back:
George was arguing: “There is no way I’m having any charges brought against those boys. What happened could have happened to anyone, and you know it.”
“No. I don’t know it.” Neil said. ”What the hell were they doing down there in the first place? And where were you? Not with them.”
“It was a routine geological survey. They’ve done four similar patrols before - without incident.”
“This couldn’t have come at a worse time.” Neil said. “The publicity on Earth over this one incident, Three young boys lost on a hostile planet. While doing adult’s work. You’ve got no idea of the sort of pressure being put on us. Senator Jones wants to close Mars down. Reduce it to a research base.”
“That’s your worry, isn’t it?” George said, seizing on Neil’s argument. “Senator Jones and his Mars Watchdog Committee. They know nothing about Mars. Everything here is different.”
Neil was exasperated. “They don’t see it that way. To them, Mars is an outpost of Earth. Kids should be in school. We should have duty of care. And on, and on, and on.”
George tried to put things into perspective: “They had a malfunction, got out of the truck to inspect it, couldn’t get at the problem right away so went to do a bit of surveying and got caught in a sandstorm. So they took shelter and waited it out - thereby missing two call-ins, which triggered Search and Rescue. Hey! The system worked. They were retrieved in perfect health. The truck has been recovered. It’s a press beat-up. There is no need for all this drama. We have nearly a hundred children on Mars. Most of the older ones do useful work. It’s necessary.”
George closed his file and left the office turning at the door for one last shot. “As for Senator Jones. Tell him that Mars really is a frontier. Earth rules don’t apply here. Children have to work alongside their parents as well as go to school and learn how to stay alive.”
After our rescue, and its negative publicity, Neil told me, somewhat curtly, that I was ‘due for leave’, which meant in effect that I had no duties to attend to.
How could I take a holiday on Mars? There were only three bases available, or I could have taken a habitat rig, and ‘camped out’ somewhere.
I stayed out of the affair for as long as I could. Some instinct warned me, that the less I had to say, the better things would be. I also knew that, because I was central to events, I couldn’t hide for ever. I requisitioned accommodation at Olympus Base.
My apartment at Olympus was new. It was bright, airy, and tidy. I had two bedrooms, one of which was used for sleeping. It had a Queen sized bed, en-suite, wardrobe and dresser. The other was converted into a study. A tech-chair with computer station floated luxuriously before a dioramic window overlooking the southern slopes of Olympus Mons. There was a modern kitchen with a counter dividing the cooking area from the lounge. This contained my music and entertainment station, a studio bar and enough space for a small but respectable party
Down a flight of stairs was my workshop, with three lathes, welding equipment, a work-bench, and cupboards of tools. In one corner was my latest prize acquisition, a fully programmable industrial robot.
While rummaging through my backpack, I found the crystal cubes we had used as dice during our enforced stay in the cave. It didn’t take me long to dig the large red stone from my Marsuit’s sleeve pocket. I cleaned them up and placed them on a shelf with my other rock specimens. The base had a new suit-maintenance facility run by private enterprise. I checked mine in for cleaning and maintenance. It was becoming too tight, and I was due for an upgrade.
Kevin’s visit was timely and welcome. I was feeling depressed. Anthony dropped in occasionally, but he was busy studying chemistry and spent most of his time at the Atmospheric Plant. Harry, Simon, and Chris were busy at the Gusev farm, working under Karla’s direction. When the chime rang on the front door, I hesitated. Then I shrugged my shoulders and admitted him.
“Steve, my lad. How are you?” he gushed. “I haven’t seen you for ages. We’ve finished rescuing your survey vehicle. We got rid of all the sand in the air plant, then scrapped it, anyway.”
“So what went wrong? What caused the breakdown?”
“A Faulty connecting ring. If you were in space suits, you could have replaced it.”
“Well we weren’t, were we!” I said angrily. “We were in Marsuits and you can’t handle liquid oxygen in Marsuits. We couldn’t even get back into the truck. We went for a walk. What were we supposed to do? Well, fuck the lot of them!”
Kevin drew in his breath. “Hey. Cool down, little buddy. It’s me you’re talking to.”
“It’s so unfair. Nobody cares about what we did out there. We found an aquifer. We found chromium traces. I brought back samples and positions for everything,” I said, pointing to the specimens laid out for classification. Kevin looked over them, then did a double take at the crystal cubes. He picked one up, and scratched the Sapphire lens on his wrist watch. It was a very small scratch, but it was all he had to do.
“Ah, Steven. Do you know what this is?”
“Rock crystal. We found some in a cave. Clear, isn’t it? It isn’t quartz – that’s got a dog-tooth shape, and it isn’t fluorite – that gives a double image when you look through it. I haven’t got around to doing a complete analysis on it.
“Hardness ten?” Kev asked.
I paused for a long time. “Couldn’t be. They’re hardly ever found as cubic crystals,” I said, taking the red one and holding it up to the light. “Diamond?”
Kevin smiled and nodded. “A few million dollars worth.”
“Am I rich?”
“Not if you found it on company time. You can put them away, and at some future time, we’ll go out there and collect a few good ones.”
“There are plenty more – not all cubes. I brought back a bag full of them.”
Kevin laughed. He looked around to see that the door was closed, and turned up the music on the entertainment center. Then he gave me a lesson on the diamond trade.
“What makes diamonds so valuable, is their rarity. We don’t want tons more. We want a few good ones, and then we make sure the rest are ground up into diamond dust and put to use as grinding powders. That way, we get rich.”
I looked at him, amazed at his duplicity. Here was an officer, the second in command of Mars, offering me a deal that seemed to be totally corrupt.
If I was thinking rationally, I would have refused immediately. Inwardly, I was seething with a feeling of injustice. I looked at Kevin, and said nothing. Here was a man who could have been number one, but who was marked as number two because a kid in his care was hit by a meteorite and blinded.
It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t my fault. The race of life was so unfair at times. What harm could there be in taking the inside track?
I pocketed the gems. “What diamonds?” I asked.
He grinned, and patted me on the shoulder.
“I’ll be in touch, Steve,” Kevin said, and let himself out.
I had to attend a formal interview with Commander Neil Gordschsky. Dressed for the occasion in my formal khaki uniform, I stood at attention before him while he recorded events.
“After you found the aquifer, you moved across the plain in a Southerly direction.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said.
“And the truck suddenly stalled?”
“Well – not really. I opened it up a bit – to give it a bit of a workout. Simon and Harry were becoming irritated at the slow rate of travel. So was I,” I confessed.
“Across terrain that hadn’t been reconnoitered, and that might have had rocks or hidden gutters?”
“Visibility was very good, and we started to move across sand at the base of dunes. I thought it was safe.”
“Are you easily led, Steven?”
“Led, … I’m not sure what you mean, Sir?”
“Led into doing silly things by the taunts of others?”
“Not usually, Sir, but – perhaps this once,” I admitted. “I’m sorry, Sir. I stuffed up.”
“I’m glad you admitted fault, Steven. It stopped me from squeezing the truth out of you, and that can be more like squeezing the toothpaste back into the tube.”
“Recorder back on.” He commanded.
“The mechanical failure was due to a faulty seal, and not due to the speed of the vehicle, which was well within design parameters on stable sandy ground. Therefore, you are not officially admonished, but I must caution you about observing off-road speeds.
He looked at me. I had nothing to say – my record was clean.
“But it was a stupid thing to do,” he said.
“Six strokes for stupidity.” He said, taking the cane from his cupboard. “It won’t go on your record. This is between us, and when it’s all over, we won’t refer to the matter again. That set of bars on your shoulder means you have rank. Don’t hesitate to use it, next time some snot nose tries to manipulate you.
“Touch your toes.”
They had finished the steel mill at Gusev. It was operated by computerized equipment, but needed human supervision, so Karla was appointed as foundry operator. A new control room overlooked the floor of the plant where the ingots were cast. George was giving instructions to Karla as she held the control unit and steered the pour.
“We need to keep the pour smooth so it doesn’t create bubbles or inconsistencies. Just imagine you’re pouring custard into a mould,” he said.
“That’s sexist, George.”
“I meant it to be. I was hoping to turn this conversation around to more domestic matters. Including sex.”
“I’ll put the ladle in its cradle, and we can be as domestic as you like,” she said.
The pour finished, Karla returned the giant ladle to its resting position. The metal ingots steamed and glowed a brilliant golden hue as they lie cooling in their beds of sand.
“As it happens, I make very good custard. Even if Martian eggs come from giant worms, and milk comes from plants. The custard tastes just fine. Saturday night, seven p.m. You’ll have to share it with Steven.”
“Damn. I thought we’d be alone.” He said. He moved in behind her and took her hands, putting his chin over her shoulder.
She enjoyed it. “You wish. They’ve stopped anyone under fifteen from working adult jobs. He could work, but he wants to graduate. On Monday, he starts high schooling - here.”
“Well. At least he won’t be trashing trucks all over the surface of Mars. I’ll organize an apartment for him. Do you realize that boy has an apartment in every base on the planet?”
Karla turned around, and they kissed lightly.
“He’s well organized. As for driving trucks, he enjoyed it. It wasn’t work to him. It was a glorious game.”
“Work can be very pleasurable,” George said.
“Hmm. So he’s going to be one bored little brat now.” George murmured. He still hadn’t got all her attention.
“No. He’s taken up a new hobby. Lapidary. Takes after Daddy. He collects rocks,” she said.
While Karla was making Steel and whoopee at Gusev, Kevin and I started our own manufacturing industry in the workshop of my apartment. Kevin looked up from the diamond lathe he had built in my workshop. It was a strange device, a flat plate cut with fine lines rotated at the bottom. A steel robotic arm held the gem in a glob of hard red wax.
“Useful things, robots. They are so precise,” Kevin said. “Have you checked all the cuts?
“Twice. All right, I’ll have a look three times,” I acknowledged. “Go,” I said.
The machine started, and we watched the diamond form as the robot cut and ground the brilliant to perfection. Finally, the steel hand swung around and dropped the finished gem into a felt lined container.
Kevin scooped it up and examined it with his loupe.
Then he handed it to me. “Notice anything?”
“A slight smokiness at the base, and a couple of tiny occlusions. I hoped it would be perfect.”
“If it was perfect, it would be a fake. All natural gems have very tiny faults. That makes each one unique, and it adds to the value,” he told me.
I held the stone in my hand. “Look at that sparkle,” I said.
“Yes. When you improve something, it’s called ‘Value added’. That is the product we send to Earth. There’s no point in sending raw stones, they have plenty of them, but genuine Martian diamonds – cut to perfection - that is something else.”
While we were concerned with our own affairs on Mars, momentous events were happening on Earth. To some extent, we were blind to the politics and manipulations. The events concerned us, but as we were at such a distance, we were not sufficiently concerned to keep a watch on what was happening.
Administrator Gallant Harding was well on his way to Mars by Mag-Beam flight, on the “Orion”, when the Director of Mars Authority advised Commander Neil Gordschsky that he was to spend a month with the new Administrator, showing him the ropes, before retiring. It was assumed that the commander would return to Earth on “Orion’s” return journey. This could only occur once every two years. It was a ‘Take it or leave it’ offer.
Neil did not wish to return. Statistics were, that older Martians did not live long on Earth under the stresses of normal gravity, polluted atmosphere, and life in a crowded urban environment. He resigned, stating that his contract guaranteed him a life pension, a grant of land, and apartment rights in any Martian settlement. As for showing the new administrator the ropes, he was always available as a consultant – at a reasonable fee.
Mars Authority did not argue with him. There was no point in doing so. It was cheaper and easier to cut him loose at his own request. A growing number of citizens were unattached, owing no particular loyalty to any company or government authority. They were free to strike out on their own, and live as free colonists, making a living in any way that was legal and viable. He could live out the rest of his life at Olympus, Pavonis, or Gusev, drawing rations and – eventually – moving into a hospice for the elderly to be cared for as a Senior Citizen. They had hospice accommodation in the planning stages. Not that anyone was old enough to require it yet.
Deimos orbits Mars at a distance of 24,000 km and moves slowly enough for the Mag-Beam’s hyper ray to be focused properly and propel or brake any Mag-Beam Flight at maximum efficiency.
Gallant Harding arrived on Deimos with his wife Alyssa, and his sixteen year old son, Ormond. An inter-orbit ferry transported the party to Phobos, a much larger moon only 6,000 km from the surface of Mars. Phobos is an ideal way-station. It was the first point of contact for early manned exploration, and made an ideal control platform during the early years of colonization. For a time, Phobos was the administration centre of the planet. It was easy for small rocket craft to get to and from the planet’s surface, could accommodate any shape of space vehicle, and had an ideal hotel environment for transient passengers.
The hotel lobby was impressive, and it made an ideal setting for the new Administrator’s arrival. Gordon was waiting at the end of the access tunnel.
“Welcome to Mars, Mr. Administrator,” Gordon said.
“Ah. Acting Commander Rogers, I presume. Thank you. My wife, Alyssa, and my son, Ormond.”
“Please to meet you’s” were exchanged all round, and Maria Walters, representing the children of Mars, presented Alyssa with a large bunch of flowers. She looked at them for a moment, and gasped in surprise. “Why they’re real. Flowers on Mars, that’s amazing.”
“Commander Peters, your shuttle pilot for the trip down,” Gordon said, introducing George. “Father Sean O’Neal, our chaplain,”
“Catholic?” Gallant asked. “I didn’t know the Mars Authority had a chaplain.”
“Tunnel engineer, actually. Chaplain is my second occupation,” Sean said.
“That explains it,” Gallant said.
“I hear the clocks are weird up here,” Ormond said.
“Not really. The day is a bit longer than on Earth, so we add thirty-eight minutes. At 12.39, midnight, the clock returns to zero. That enables us to keep standard seconds with Earth.”
“We were briefed on it, Son. Remember?”
George pointed to his watch. “I’ve just been reminded that we depart in half an hour, so I’d like to get everyone aboard and prepped for descent.”
“Don’t worry. The shuttle landing is just like a school bus ride. Totally routine,” Gordon said.
While Harding was being installed as civilian Administrator, I was traveling to Gusev by train. It didn’t run steel wheels on steel rails, but rubber tyred wheels on a roadway of aries-ceramic tiles. These were made by mixing two soils, water, and sufficient heat to sinter the mix. The centre of the road had a low wall, about a foot in height, to give directional control. The train carriages ran with wheels on each side of the wall. One could think of it as a guided roadway. It was an inexpensive surface transport system. Below the rail road was a trench that carried power, water pipes, optical cables, and gas lines. Beside it, a conventional highway carried vehicles – trucks, cars, motorcycles, and small busses. It was busy, and there was talk of adding extra lanes.
Night fell, and I left the canteen to return to my seat. A familiar voice spoke to me:
“Ah, young Jones. Quo vadis?”
“Ad Gusev,” I replied, turning round to find Neil Gordschsky looking at me.
“You’re very quick tonight,” he said.
“Yes, commander. I try to be,” I replied.
“Have a seat, and not so much of the ‘Commander’ business. I have retired.”
“Was that my fault?” I asked. I had to know.
“No. That was a storm in a teacup, Steven. No, they retired me because the bean counters on Earth want Mars to make money – for them. They’re not content with settlement, growth, and eventual terraforming. It’s all too slow for them. They want it all now. Yesterday if possible.”
I took a seat next to him, moving carefully.
“I see you remember our last conversation.”
“Oh that. No. I’ve just got a lumpy pack. I’m staying with my Sister for the weekend.
Neil opened his carryall and handed me a pack of sandwiches.
“Eat up. We’ve a long way to go,” he said.
“Sir, nobody likes what’s happened to you. The Mars Authority didn’t have the decency to tell you until Harding was almost out of planet-fall.
“A lot of people on Mars were happy to see me go, Steven. I told the Authority that I’d be happy to retire on Mars. They don’t have to pay for my return, so they’re happy, too.
He changed the subject: “Your father and I used to go prospecting. Somewhere out there, is the richest diamond mine in the Solar System. He was going to tell me where it was. He wanted to keep it as a surprise - for when he returned.”
“So that’s why Kevin and Sean wanted the diary.” I mused. “They wanted to see where he’d been, so they could find the diamond mine.”
“They quizzed you?” he asked, surprised.
“Yes. I was able to tell them - there is no diary. Lauren got access to his stuff. She’s the administrator of Dad’s estate. That’s how I got my apartment at Olympus.
“Karla and I went through everything he owned. No diary. Sorry.”
“Oh, no worries, Steven.” He said with a laugh. “There are lots of other things on Mars. After all, there’s industrial diamond by the ton. No, what I want to discover is a decent copper mine, or a large Nitrate deposit. Near an Aquifer, if possible.
“You’re sure about that, Sir?”
“I’m sure. How old are you now?
“I’ve Just turned Fifteen. I’ve been on Mars for two years. Earth Years. Doesn’t seem that long.”
“Would you consider yourself to be - from Earth, or from Mars.” He looked at me, as if searching. “I’ll put it another way, Steven. Are you an Earthling or a Martian?”
“I guess I’m a Martian, Commander. If it ever comes to a choice. Oh, by the way ... Try Ravi Valis for Nitrates.”
Neil threw his head back and laughed heartily.
“You’re sharp, boy. You’re like your father.”
“You don’t really want to find a diamond mine, do you, Sir?”
“You should talk to Father O’Neal. Sean says It would cause too many problems. You know that He’s fanatically opposed to progress. He wants a ‘White Mars’ with the surface conserved for science.
“King Canute, holding back the ocean by royal command,” I said. “It’s not going to happen, is it?”
“White Mars? No. There’s too much wealth to be made here. The powers that be, cannot ignore it. Gallant Harding is a forward scout - a bridgehead for multi-nationals.”
“So, Earth wants to change things. Is there some sort of resistance group. or what?”
“The miners and farmers don’t want to hand Mars over to a Multi-national cartel, but they aren’t organized.” He rummaged in his bag and brought out a thermos flask. “Drink? It’s real coffee – a gift from Harding.”
He poured a full cup for me and drank from the thermos bottle cap.
“Thank you.” I said. “What about Harding? He’s for the multi-nationals. Is he a problem for the colonists?”
“He could be. - Harding brought his own police force with him? They came in hibernation capsules a few days after he landed. That shows long term planning on someone’s part.”
I took a long, slow drink from the cup.
“They’re a long way away, The Mars Authority.”
A day later, I stood looking through the window at the level stony plain flashing past. I could still hear Neil’s voice.
“People are going to die. They’re going to die of stupidity. I ran a tight ship. Harding will try to loosen it all up. Democracy, red tape, committees, reasonableness. Promise me one thing, Steven. Stick to the old ways. Keep you pod close and your survival cylinder full.”
I was given an exemption from attending school at Olympus, and continued my education at Gusev. It was a smaller provincial High School. My course was ‘Practical Prospecting’. My training as a prospector was valued, and I closed my apartment at Olympus, and moved to Gusev with all my equipment. The other orphans attended the newly commissioned “Challenger Memorial High School” at Olympus.
From the start, there was conflict between children who had been raised on Mars, and the children of the new settlers. The former were more disciplined, quieter, better trained at Mars Survival, and more careful as a result. They dressed differently – in Marsuits and coveralls, rather than day clothes.
Ormond, Harding’s son, was a natural bully, and leader of the Newbies. They had brought flashier casual clothes with them, and stood out from the kids who still wore Marsuits and coveralls on a daily basis. A typical incident was described to me.
Harry, Barry, Simon and Chris were making their way to class, when Ormond blocked their way. His friends, Billy, Mike, and Norman were bigger, stronger, and playfully aggressive.
“Excuse us, please,” Chris said.
Ormond noticed the survival pods on their belts, next to their survival cylinders.
“Well, look at the little Martians,” he said. “Hey, guys, what are those for? Condoms?”
“Get out of our face, Ormond. You know what they’re for. You’re stupid for not having them.”
He pulled his helmet clear as one of the boys tried to grab it.
“Oh, so tough,” Ormond said. He reached forward quickly and flipped Simon’s pod POUCH open. The plastic POD flew out and inflated automatically to its ready position, just as Mrs. Janice Frost came past with students in tow.
“What’s going on here?” she asked sternly. “Ormond, are you pushing your weight around?”
“No, Mrs. Frost. We’re just helping this kid put his condom back into his pants.”
She walked off in disgust.
Simon deflated the pod, and with Harry, Barry and Chris, walked off, leaving Ormond, Billy, Mike and Norman and their other friends to laugh among themselves.
“That’s typical. We get four strokes if we don’t carry these. Where do they think they are?” Simon protested.
“We don’t get strokes. Not any more.” Harry said. “Mrs. Teale said they’re thinking of banning Marsuits at school. She says it causes too many differences. Martians and others. She also told me to always keep mine with me - just in case.
They entered their classroom - a bright, airy room with a magnificent view through plate glass windows down the flank of Olympus. Miss Frost was waiting for them.
She said, “I want everyone to sit down and pay attention, please. We have some new policies to explain to you, so settle down.”
The older boys moved in to the back of the classroom. Ormond was still very much in charge of his group. He listened with some cynicism to her, as she introduced Jack Gardiner, their new school principal, balding, approaching mid forties. Officious, but efficient.
“Mr. Gardiner is our new principal. The Mars Authority now wants all children to attend school full time, instead of adhering to the old Work - School policy. Mr. Gardiner?”
To give him his due, the new headmaster tried to enforce discipline. He was up against the new establishment. The Administrator’s son was a part of the problem.
“Just in case the boys down the back don’t understand, we do have discipline here. Do you understand, Master Harding?”
“Sure thing. Carry on, teach.”
Gardiner should have set an example of him there and then, but he chose to ignore it.
“But because we’re such a small school, we don’t need oppressive formality. We’ve decided to introduce a progressive discipline policy. The barbaric use of the cane is a thing of the past. However, if you do not behave, we will put you through the school’s disciplinary process.”
Ormond gave a mischievous nod to his friends. He produced a small plastic bottle, and put something in it, then rolled it along the floor into a corner.
Unaware of the mischief, the principal talked on: “Now this school building is designed for safety, so we don’t think it’s necessary to wear those cumbersome Marsuits. It causes a feeling of insecurity, and those metal cylinders are totally unnecessary.”
There was a whiff of something unpleasant in the air. It didn’t reach Gardiner immediately.
“There is more of a danger that someone might mis-use one in solving personal conflict, or .... sniff ... sniff”
Finally, he twigged it.
“Is that Rotten Egg gas? Is someone being stupid?”
The students started coughing and spluttering as the gas permeated the room. Simon, Harry, and the other Marsuited students took their safety cylinders out and breathed through them. The gas intensified, and a couple of students collapsed, choking.
Simon looked around at the students and realized something was badly wrong.
“They don’t know what to do,” he said.
“GAS DRILL!” Chris called, striking the glass panel of the alarm with his steel cylinder.
The more experienced Mars kids deployed their temporary plastic helmets from their suit collars. They began stuffing students into survival pods. Chris rescued Ormond by pulling his own pod over him and inflating it. The classroom was soon full of pods.
“Are they all secure, Simon?” Barry asked.
“Packed safe and sound,” Simon said. “We’re in helmets.”
“Depressurising classroom now.” Barry said, opening the windows. The plate glass windows lifted out, releasing the poisonous gas.
Simon noticed the plastic bottle hissing on the floor and picked it up. He was showing it to the other boys when the rescue squad burst in.
“What is this?” a security guard asked, snatching it from the boy’s hand. The bottle was still fizzing in his hand. “You’d better have a very good explanation, young man.”
Simon, Barry, Chris, and Harry were brought before the Administrator for disciplinary action. Although they protested their innocence, the facts were that they had possession of the bottle which produced the gas.
It was said, that the incident was staged to force the administration to keep the old safety rules. Conspiracy theories have a way of growing, and the press had got hold of it. Truth is always a casualty when people have agendas to run. It was important to prove that Mars had changed. There were no more lessons about the spirit of Mars sitting on one’s shoulder, ready to deal death at the first mistake.
“I am mindful of the fact that you worked together to retrieve the situation, and nobody was seriously hurt. The bottle has been examined, and there are no finger-prints, thanks to your gloves. I’m disappointed that nobody has the guts to own up.
“This administration does not shoot children, and I’m inclined to be lenient. Boys will be boys.”
“Please, sir. We didn’t do it,” Simon said.
“No, Sir,” Harry added.
Harding turned his back on them.
“I want all safety cylinders and pods confiscated. From now on, Marsuits are not to be worn inside the pressurised buildings. It’s bad for morale. Your movements are restricted to your apartments, the school, and recreational or commercial areas. You are not to enter any restricted places such as laboratories, workshops, or sheds, unless on official business and accompanied by authorized persons.
“Get them out of here.”
The boys went to the canteen, where they met up with Patricia, Henrietta, Garry, and Anthony. They ordered their favourite snacks and settled into a cubicle. The canteen had been brightened up. Several soda machines lined the walls, along with dispensers of chocolates, cakes, lollies and chips.
“It could have gone better,” Simon said, sipping his chocolate soda through a curled pink plastic straw.
“Well looky here. This is where the rats pack,” Ormond said, settling into the next cubicle with his buddies. It was all too much for Simon, the biggest boy in our bunch. He jumped into the passageway and stuck his fists up.
“You want a go, then?”
“Hey, none of that in here. I’ll have security onto all of you,” Dorothy said, from behind the counter. She fronted up to Ormond, hands on hips.
“Listen, young man. Mars is still a very small place. There’s no room for anything but getting along with each other. You may be relying on him one day.”
Ormond changed his attitude with a false display of friendliness. He put his fists down, and backed away, brushing his hair out of his eyes.
“You’re right, Mrs. Teale. Actually, I was going to suggest that we bury the hatchet and try to make friends.” He said “We’ll just sit in this cubicle here next to them and talk over our future good relationships.”
Simon sat back in his seat.
Dorothy looked a bit suspicious, but as they weren’t really fighting, she went back behind the counter to attend to the chores.
“So it’s you or me, Simple Simon? What do you say? Five rounds and may the best man win? Of course, I’m older, bigger and heavier, but I’ll bet you’re quite handy.”
“Fighting is strictly against regulations,” Simon said.
“But a moment ago...”
“That was a mistake. A flash of temper.”
“I should have known. Chook, chook chook chook chook chook ...”
Simon looked at him with contempt. “But seeing, as you’re so keen. Name the time and place.”
“Don’t, Simon,” Harry said.
“Go on, Simon. You’ll beat him. He hasn’t even got his Mars Legs yet,” Patricia said.
“Time and place,” Simon said.
“The big cargo bay in one hour. It shuts down after Five O'clock. We’ll have it all to ourselves.”
Although nobody knows what really happened, I can imagine the older boys entering the great shed. At one end was the huge roller door opening onto the planet outside. It was sealed by the pressure of the atmosphere in the building, pushing it out against the rubberized door frames. The water tower, with its plastic window is hard to miss. The trucks and vehicles were parked in neat rows ready for servicing or cleaning.
They didn’t place their safety tags in the door, because safety tags are kept on the belt of a Marsuit, and they weren’t wearing them. They wore their casual clothes – tee shirts, sneakers, and shorts.
We do know they were carrying pressure cans of coloured paint from the “Q” store. I suppose they intended to spray their victims to show them up. At any rate, they decided to hide in a tractor cabin at the end of the row. Its windows had been removed for servicing, but it was a good hiding place.
At five minutes past five, Simon, Harry, Garry, Barry, Patricia, Anthony, Henrietta, and Chris walked down the tunnel towards the cargo bay. They wore their coveralls over the top of their newly issued Tee shirts and shorts. Whilst these were colourful, they were also cold to wear without extra covering.
Suddenly, an authoritarian voice rang out.
“And just where do you think you’re going?”
“The cargo bay,” Simon said. “It’s a designated recreational area.”
“Not today it isn’t,” the guard said. “The bay is full of vehicles, and we’re expecting a road train from Pavonis.”
“But we were going to meet Ormond and his friends for a ball game,” Patricia said.
The guard stood his ground. “The recreation hall is available for that sort of thing.”
A second guard joined him. “I’ve looked at the bay. It’s empty. There are no tags in the lock.”
“Close it, then.” The first guard said. “And you lot can take a hike. Hop it. Buzz off. Get lost. If I see you hanging about down here, you’ll be in heaps of trouble. You may have had the run of the place before now, but times have changed. We’re all safety conscious. There will be no accidents to children under this administration.”
A few minutes later, the scheduled road train from Pavonis came in. The drivers found the depressurized bodies of Ormond and his friends covered in colourful paint and blood. It was not a pretty sight.
At Gusev, while Karla cut my hair short, Harry gave us a running commentary of the events leading up to their exile from Olympus Base.
“We had a memorial service for the boys,” Harry said. “It was very moving.”
“We wore our Marsuits,” Simon said.
“You didn’t,” I said. “Oh, that was cruel.”
“No it wasn’t. It was a pointed gesture,” Harry said. “I still can’t figure out why we’re supposed to be the villains.”
“Finished,” Karla said. I checked the tonsorial results in the mirror and was satisfied. There’s nothing more irritating than loose hair in a space suit helmet.
George had finished his shift in the control tower and joined us. He was surprised to see the boys.
“Harry and Simon have been sent down here to get them out of the way for a while,” Karla said.
“What part did you two play in that accident?” he asked.
“We were going to fight him and his cronies in the cargo bay. It never happened, because the guards wouldn’t let us in there.”
“But you were on the time line. Not guilty, but not exactly innocent, either. Commander Rogers has been stood down. The Base commander carries the can, I’m afraid.” He sat down in the recliner chair and turned on the wall TV. “You guys had better stay in Steven’s apartment. We don’t have much room here.”
“That’s O.K.,” I said. I was glad of the company.
Karla produced a tray from the oven. It was a large chicken, surrounded by vegetables.
“That’s a real chicken?” Harry asked.
“Well it certainly cost enough,” George said. It will be a long time before we get another. It came on the “Orion” – luxury freight.” He flicked his finger at the large TV set on the wall, and it sprang to life with the news.
They sat around the dining table. George served. The news droned on in the background:
“Up to now, prospectors and geologists have been able to peg deposits and claim them locally. All such mining operations will be illegal under the terms of the new agreement between the Mars Civilian Administration, and the Mars Authority. The claims of large companies with declared capital of more than ten million dollars will not be affected.”
Outside, the Sun set brilliantly in the West giving a magnificent view through the main window.
“The miners will never allow that,” I said. “A lot of them paid a fortune to get here, and there’s the cost of setting up a mining camp.”
The News continued: “The new agreement is the result of the Harding Report prepared by the current Mars Administrator, Gallant Harding. He says it will bring order to what has been something of a Wild West attitude amongst smaller mining operations.”
George switched the TV off. Karla served desert – custard pie with strawberry jelly. The conversation switched back to the death of Ormond and his friends.
“Pity about Ormond, though. If they’d been wearing their Marsuits, or had safety pods, they’d have been all right.”
“Actually, it’s very sad,” George said. “Their family came all this way, only to have their oldest boy killed in a silly accident.”
Karla said, “I used to hate Lauren and Neil. They were so severe. Remember? She caned me for being late to a safety lesson. You don’t get a second chance on Mars.”
She looked at an infant’s high chair in the corner of the room. “You can’t send a corpse to its room, or counsel it, or sit it on the naughty chair.”
“Hey! We’re being morbid,” Harry said.
“Yes. Let’s have a bit of cheerful,” Simon agreed, and we sang the Gusev Song:
When I was walking down the road,
I met a man with a heavy load,
But he was pleased to welcome me -
Tonight at Gusev, I will be.
So round and round and round we danced,
Until we stopped and then it chanced.
Another traveller I did see,
I'll be at Gusev soon, said he.
At Gusev, there's a merry inn,
That takes the weary travellers in.
They'll sell you beer, they'll sell you Ale,
They'll listen to your cheery tale.
It's one, it's two it's three and four -
The Gusev Inn can take in more.
So if you're traveling down the road,
Come on with your heavy load.
The outer door chime rang. I waved my video remote at the TV and looked at the video for a surveillance picture. It was Kevin and Neil.
“What an unlikely pair,” I muttered.
I waved the remote at the door, and it slid open.
“Enter. I know you’re not good looking.”
Kevin and Neil entered. The door slid closed behind them.
“Is this an awkward time?” Kevin asked. “We could come back later, but we’ve got something very important to tell you all.”
Karla got up to meet them, while Simon and Harry gathered the plates and took them into the kitchen.
“No, that’s fine. Sit here and join us. Can I get you gentlemen a drink?”
“That would be great,” Neil said. We came to welcome the boys to Gusev. Heard they were with you.”
Kevin scanned the room with a snooper detector, putting his finger to his mouth as he does so.
We watched his antics in surprise as he moved around the room.
“You know how word travels fast in the colony,” Neil said.
Kevin put the scanner away. “All clear. I didn’t think they’d bother bugging you, There hasn’t been time.”
“You’re both spooking us,” Karla said. “Sit down and come clean.” She set steaming cups of coffee on the table, “So. What’s the problem?”
“Gallant Harding. Since the death of his son, he’s begun to act... irrationally.” Kevin said
“Like selling out all the small miners was rational?” I said.
“That too.” Neil added. “His senior police officer, an honest man, handed in a report on Ormond’s death. That report said that Ormond and his friends entered the Docking Bay on their own, with pressurized paint cans they had stolen from the Q. Store. Their prints were everywhere. Also, that they found bottles in Ormond’s room containing iron sulfide. The bottles matched the one used in gassing the classroom.
“So it proves the gassing wasn’t us. It was Ormond.” Harry said. “He was an arrogant thug. They should never have allowed him on Mars.”
“Didn’t they do personality tests on him?” Simon asked.
Neil said, “Harding accepted the report. Or seemed to at first. He knows his son was no angel. The problem is, it takes a great man to admit when he’s been wrong.
“Don’t tell me. I’ll guess. Harding isn’t a great man,” I said.
Now the bad news: “Patricia, Anthony, Chris, Henrietta, Pierre, Garry, and Barry have been arrested. A group of Harding's police is on its way here for Simon, Harry, Steven, and Karla.”
“Us? But we haven’t been at Olympus for weeks. Why would he want to arrest us?” Karla exclaimed, astonished.
Neil continued: “He’s following a much nastier agenda. He wants to create trouble, so Earth can put in more enforcers - Subdue the colony while it’s still weak.
“You’re the fall guys. My guess is, that more of his troops are on the way. They were launched months ago. This is all part of a much larger plan.”
“How? And why does it involve us?” Simon asked anxiously.
“Because you’re orphans. He thinks you don’t have family ties, so you won’t be supported by the colonists. He can lie about you, Monster you, Bastardize you. Whatever he wants.” Neil said.
“Go on, then. Tell us the lies.” Karla said.
Kevin took over the tale: “Well, it seems you’re all supposed to be part of a gigantic conspiracy to wreck the Mars Terraforming Project. You’re all mad with rage over what happened to your parents on the “Mayflower”. A group of young Psychotics, deranged by trauma. We can’t protect you if you’re in their custody. Give them a couple of days, and you’ll be saying anything they want.”
“Fortunately,” Neil said, “You guys have more of a family here, than they know about. We want you to disappear for a while, until this nonsense blows over. We have a few hours of leeway. There’s a problem with the train.”
He patted his nose knowingly. “Finish your meal, guys, and then pack whatever you need for a long holiday in the desert. That’s why we’re here - to help you.”
George and Karla had a lot to discuss. She didn’t want to leave him, but he insisted that she seek safety amongst the miners, at least for the present. We all packed, and then donned our space suits. They had a greater range than the Marsuits if we had to walk, and we didn’t have to breathe oxygen for a long period before going out in them.
Sean was waiting for us in my Prime Mover. The two survey dogs had been detached, and all we had was the habitat trailer with an attached atmosphere plant. It was an ideal vehicle for our use. We could hide out on Mars for months without being seen by anyone.
“Have you got them all?” Sean asked.
“All present and accounted for,” Neil said. Steven, you ride up front. The rest of you can go in the habitat trailer. Karla, you’ll be in charge.”
“Did you manage to get us a window of opportunity?” Sean asked.
Neil tapped his nose. “The train is delayed for two hours. The observation satellites have been put in maintenance mode, and the Jump jets at Olympus are being serviced. If they work on them all night, they’ll be ready by mid-day.”
I looked back at the two men who had gone out of their way to ensure our safety. We were fleeing into the wilderness of a hostile planet with no plans for the future, nowhere to go, and a dwindling supply of survival goods.
Harding had lost control of his Base Commanders. The miners were in revolt. His wife had lost her position as first lady of Mars. The only people he could trust – his personal enforcers – were new to the planet.
The conspiracy, which had existed only in his mind up to now, was gradually coming to life all around him as he alienated the colonists. He had no understanding of the society he was trying to administer. Colonists worked together. They relied, not only on the official means of communication, but also on their own networks.
On Olympus Base, At Pavonis, and Gusev, many of the longer term colonists were quietly packing, getting ready to move into the outlying camps belonging to the miners and prospectors. Some had habitats of their own – ‘weekenders’ – they called them, where they often spent time away from work.
Methane was at a premium, as the Sats fuel tanks were topped up. Stores were depleted of food stocks. Trouble was coming to the main bases, and people were voting with their feet to get out, while there was time.
Like sand from the desert, trouble on the soft winds of suspicion, grief, and uncertainty flowed into the bases. The wisest colonists left. They no longer needed the infrastructure of large bases. They had become independent of them. I.S.R.U – In-Situ Resource Utilisation was the new order of the desert. Whatever happened, Mars was rich in resources.
The Colonists of Mars would survive.
At Olympus, Lauren told the children that they were going on a midnight adventure. They pulled on their Marsuits like veterans, checked each other, got their helmets and charged their safety cylinders. Walter, Claire, Samuel, Benjamin, and Maria led the way, followed by Stanley, Aida, Lauren, and Dorothy.
“This is exciting, isn’t it?” Lauren whispered. “All off to a midnight picnic.”
“We’re not stupid, Lauren,” Maria whispered.
“Helmets on,” Stanley said. He waited until everyone signaled with their thumbs up before adjusting the atmosphere panel to pure nitrogen. He closed the panel and secured it. They moved towards the air lock.
Suddenly, the door at the far end of the passageway opened, and security guards appeared. The men were armed
“Hold it right there,” They ordered. One moved forward and grasped Stanley by the arm. “And where in the hell do you think you’re going. The base is locked down.”
He closed his eyes and dropped to the floor. His fellows looked at him with surprise, but the pure nitrogen atmosphere was doing its work on them as well. The men fell to the floor, unconscious.
Lauren opened the airlock and placed her foot on the safety button. Everyone managed to squeeze in. She closed the inner door, and Dorothy opened the outer door. It was quiet outside, Dorothy placed a rock across the airlock door’s slide, jamming it open. Nobody would be able to follow them.
“Central Control, there are some unconscious personnel in corridor 24c.” Stanley reported on his helmet radio’s emergency channel. “Looks like a Nitrogen problem.”
“They should have used their safety cylinders,” Clare said.
Stanley waved them on impatiently, and the group moved out to the vehicle park. A large gathering of people waited for them. Gordon, the former commander, was there. Vehicles were moving out of the compound towards the highway.
“There is the suggestion that the base could be the target of Rebels,” He said. “We’ve negotiated a short vacation for everyone who can stay with the Mining Guild,”
Trucks loaded with base stores, mostly food, began moving through the gate. A road train with two dogs followed. There was no hiding the fact that they contained atmosphere processing equipment.
Stanley joined the group of stern faced men and women from the engineering section.
“Never thought it would come to this, Jack Gardiner and Janice Frost will drive the busses. Our best bet is to utilize the caves at Elysium – they’re not likely to look there, it’s in the European sector.”
The children piled into the pressurised bus under Dorothy’s control. Lauren guided them into their seats.
“Can we take our helmets off yet?” Benjamin asked.
“What do your drills tell you?” Lauren asked.
“The led is red, cover your head.”
“And what is the led?”
“It’s still red. We’re in vacuum.”
“So keep your helmet on,” she said. Both airlock doors are open so everyone can get in. Once they’re shut, you’ll be told to take your helmets off.”
There was a hissing sound from their front. That meant that the bus was pressurised. The sound of the engines thrummed through the floor, and they began to move.
Stanley and Jack climbed the ladder to the roof and mounted themselves securely to the top. Lauren noticed that they carried rifles. She wondered where they had got them from. Under all the space treaties she knew of, firearms were forbidden in any part of space. It hadn’t stopped Harding from brining in armed troops..
Four men remained in the parking lot. Gordon shook hands with his three companions, and walked back towards the entrance. He turned, waved, and opened the outer door of the airlock.
“He could have come with us,” Bryce Clarke said.
“His decision – to stay with the base.” A tall man said. Let’s close it down.
They did not hear the small explosion that took the transmission tower down.
“Transport, fuel, food, air, and outer doors,” he finished. They saw the airlock door blow out. The explosions were small, well targeted, and precise. There were no flames, no huge blasts of smoke. Each item was selected because it could be repaired with small replacement parts. Needless to say, these items no longer existed in their storage areas. They had been removed earlier in the evening, and placed in the trailer that also held all the known stocks of helmets.
“Last out, turn off the lights,” he said, pressing a button. They saw sparks in the generator shed, and the lights of the base went out. “I suggest we vacate the area,”
A sense of humour predominated. They switched on their long range communications radios and sang, “We’re all going on a Summer Holiday . . .”
At the Copper mine, Karla, Simon Harry and I were sitting in the recreation area with our new found miner friends, ironstone Bob (venerable old miner) and Nugget (just as old),watching the TV news from earth. others were present, either watching the news, or playing eight ball - a strange game in Martian gravity.
A news reader was broadcasting the latest from Mars:
“Saboteurs on Mars made a major attack on the main colony, Olympus Base, destroying essential infrastructure, and taking whole families hostage.
“At noon today, The C.E.O. of the Mars Authority, Doctor Karansky met with the President and members of the Security Council.
“A State of Emergency has been announced on the Red Planet. Marines from the Solar Defense Corps are at Olympus Base and are said to be in control of the situation.
“How did Marines get there so fast?” I asked.
There was a head shot of Karansky: “We are determined not to allow radical elements to gain control of Mars. It is far too important for the development of the Solar System to allow it to fall into other hands.”
Ironstone protested: “ They’ve been fed all the bullshit that Harding could make up. He’s behind all this.
“Surely the resistance can broadcast the truth from somewhere.” I said.
Nugget said, “they’re not listening to us. Harding has their ear. If only we could put our side of things fairly, we might have a chance.
The TV Continued: “Today, I appealed to any dissatisfied elements on Mars to come forward with their grievances and use negotiation to overcome any difficulties. We can settle problems in a civilized manner.”
Sean brought a fresh pot of steaming coffee over to the group watching the telecast. He sat in with them, listening.
“We received a more detailed account this morning from a former deputy commander Gordon Rogers.” The news reader said.
Gordon appeared, tired and withdrawn.
He spoke woodenly, but as the transmission was broken up, it wasn’t easy to assess the truth of what he said: “Former commander Neil Gordschsky, who has recruited other malcontents from his former staff, is leading the terrorists. He has influenced teenage members of a group, known locally as the “Mayflower Orphans”.
They showed our pictures in black and white, sketched so that we looked quite villainous.
“These children were without support, and very vulnerable. They were kept away from schooling and contact with other base families while they were secretly being indoctrinated into a cult based on conspiracy theories, false patriotism for Mars, and the ridiculous idea that, somehow, Mars could attain independent nation status.
“Fortunately, many younger members of the “Mayflower Orphans” do not appear to have been indoctrinated.”
They showed a Picture of Gordon, Patricia, Henrietta, Barry, Garry, Pierre, Anthony and Chris waving Flags and smiling.
“That’s impossible. I protested, “There’s no way they could all support Harding. It’s all a set - up. It must be.”
Sean agreed: “Gordon wouldn’t broadcast like that if he wasn’t being forced in some way.”
Later, we learned from Gordon and the others how it was done. He was taken to the prison where the children were held. They were in the care of Major Kronner.
Anthony was strapped down on a medical gurney so he couldn’t move. His head was unsupported, lying off the gurney so it fell backwards. He tried to hold it up to relieve the discomfort of blood rushing into his head, but could only do so for a short time.
Major Kronner, looking Sinister, in Military uniform, stood behind his head. He looked over to Gordon and the younger orphans: Henrietta, Garry, Barry, Chris, Patricia, and Pierre, who were in a large holding cell.
“It is so simple.” He said, “Not a mark on him, boys and girls. No beating, no pulling of fingernails. Just a tiny pain in the neck - which becomes agonizing after a few hours.”
“I’ll see you hanged Kronner, you sick bastard.” Gordon said.
“I believe I’ll bury you first. You have the choice, Major Rogers. Make the broadcast, or . . . I’ll walk out and leave him here.”
Anthony was defiant. “Don’t do it, Sir...”
Kronner puts his hand on Anthony’s head and pushed it down firmly. Anthony began to cough and splutter.
“All right.” Gordon said “Just don’t pick on the boy. Let him up. I’ll do it. We’ll all help you make your silly broadcast. Just let him go.”
Kronner smiled. He dragged a chair over, and supported Anthony’s head on its back..
“So reasonable, Gordon. And I didn’t have to torture him at all. Just demonstrate the possibilities.” Kronner said, gloating. “The fact is, you’re not even sure what side you’re on, are you?”
“You’re helping me make up my mind.”
“We’re not helping that rotten Harding, and that’s final,” Garry said.
Gordon squatted down in the cell and gathered the children around him so they could listen. “If we don’t help, Kronner will hurt Anthony. You don’t want that, do you?”
“But that will help Earth,” Patricia objected.
“Honey, we’re not at war with Earth.” Gordon said. “These are some bad men wanting to hurt Mars and Earth. People on Earth will find out the truth sooner or later.” He walked to the bars so he could talk to Kronner. “Kronner, leave me alone with the kids for a while, so I can talk them into helping you. Give me about half an hour.”
Kronner thought about it. “Very well. I’ll just help things along a bit. While you’re all deciding.”
He pulled the chair out from under Anthony’s head, smiled at them, and left the room.
“It’s starting to hurt like hell.” Anthony said, holding his head up.
“I know it does, Anthony. Bear up while I tell the kids what to do.”
Sometimes, the simplest actions can turn the tide of public opinion. We watched Gordon and the kids pull the stunt that began to undermine Harding.
“And we leave you now, with those brave little Martian children, cheering on our forces, as they endeavor to clean out the nest of terrorists on Mars.” The newscaster said.
“Are we recording this, Nugget?”
“Sure are. Why?”
Another program came on, and Nugget re-set the disc to the segment containing Gordon.
“Show Gordon and the kids waving the flags.”
“What do you see?”
Everyone looked at the picture.
Nugget said, “They seem spontaneous enough. All smiles. Don’t seem under pressure.”
“The semaphore, man. Read the semaphore. Go back.” Ironstone said.
They all watched as the message came through.
“Bullshit, Bullshit, Bullshit.” The miners laughed.
The boys, Sean, and the miners took up the chant:
“Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit! ...”
But with their next message, the miners stop chanting and become very quiet.
I looked up at Sean and Nugget. “What does it say?”
“They’re in trouble.” Sean said.
Neil and the engineers had set up a hideout in an area they referred to as the ‘Colonial Defense Force Camp’. They had watched the broadcast.
“Useful thing, semaphore,” he said, “If you’re out of chat range.”
“The miners on Mars are experts. Everyone should learn it.” Kevin noted.
“Trouble is, nobody on Earth uses it any more. Good try, Gordon.” Neil said
“We have to try to rescue him, and the children. We’ve enough men here to lead a good raid.” Kevin suggested.
“Take on trained marines? There’s no way that could work. It’d be a massacre. Besides, that would be a Declaration of War against Earth. We couldn’t win.” Neil advised.
“Then what are we going to do?” Kevin asked.
Neil put his hands under his chin and looked thoughtful. “See if a very small group of us can get inside Olympus Base and carry out a small surgical strike.” He said.
On Phobos Station, Gallant Harding was conferring with Colonel Morgan Keenly, an experienced soldier of the old school. They were observing satellite observations of Infrared tracks across Mars As well as the monitors they are observing, other Space Marine officers were floating about in the background doing associated tasks.
“With this equipment, I can locate almost anyone on the surface by the heat signature, Mr. Harding.”
“Do you have recordings of the movements of vehicles over the last few days, Keenly?
“We haven’t been recording that sort of Data, because it hasn’t been necessary until now.”
“Now - it seems that it is necessary. Please make the arrangements, Colonel. I believe these terrorists have a large base somewhere on Mars, and I wish to find it, and destroy it.”
“How can you decide who is just a colonist going about his lawful business, and who is a terrorist?” Morgan asked. He was not intimidated by this fat civilian.
“All prospecting and mining has been outlawed. There should be very little movement on the surface.”
“Some around farming areas.” Morgan pointed out.
He knew the administrator was an important man, and didn’t want to irritate him. However, he thought it necessary to ‘educate’ him – even though it was to be done gently.
“I shall institute a system of movement permits, coordinated through this station.” Harding said. “If we don’t know about a movement, then it’s probably the rebels.”
“Rebels? I thought we were dealing with Terrorists, Mr. Harding.” He said nicely.
Harding turned on him. He was sick and tired of the offensive and patronizing manner the senior officer exuded. “Don’t split hairs with me, Colonel. I was promised full cooperation from you and your men. You are effectively under my command.”
If he thought the Colonel would crumple under his bullying, he was wrong. Morgan was no wimp.
“My orders are that I am to cooperate with you fully, in restoring order to Mars, Mr. Harding. I don’t have carte blanche, and neither do you. The safety of civilians is my primary responsibility. Within the law,”
“The law. Well, of course, we must obey the law.”
He paused and looked eye to eye with the Colonel. “It’s those who don’t obey it that worry me. Those who try to render the Major Base on Mars inoperable by sabotaging vital operating equipment. Those who hide the fugitives that murdered my son. I want them found. I want them brought to justice. And I want them punished.
At that time, Stan Walters had joined the mining camp with some of the refugees from Olympus Base. Walter, Clare, Samuel, Benjamin, and Maria were being bedded down in a far corner by Aida. I was discussing the latest news with the miners.
“It didn’t take the Marines long to fix Olympus. Just a day’s work, really.” Stan said. “and a shuttle load of spare parts from Phobos. They even brought down a container of suits and helmets from the hotel’s stores.
“You held them up for that day. That’s the important thing,” Sean said. “You say Harding’s up on Phobos.”
I laughed. “He must be scared.”
“Took the first available flight up.” Stanley said. “Phobos is now their control centre. A chap called Major Kronner is in charge of surface operations. Right nasty bit of work, I can tell you.”
There was a disturbance outside of the canteen hall, and two miners entered, escorting two Marsuited figures. The air steamed around them as they approach the table. The men took their facemasks off, revealing Neil and Kevin. There were handshakes and hugs all around as we welcomed them.
“Welcome, Commander, and Kevin.” Sean said, giving them a friendly hug. “How was your journey?”
“A bit rough towards the end. We had to walk. They’re tracing vehicular movements with Infra-red imaging. I didn’t want to give the campsite away.
“How do you know all this, Commander?”
“Let’s just say I have eyes and ears everywhere.” Neil said. He looks at their somewhat cynical faces “Oh, all right. I set up a private surveillance network two years ago. I’ve always known what’s going on. That’s what commanders do.”
“You’re forgiven. Under the circumstances.” Ironstone Bob said.
“We need to coordinate our efforts.” Neil said. “That’s why I’ve organized a meeting of senior colonists from all over Mars. We want to send Earth and the Mars Authority a clear message that we didn’t come all this way with our families, in order to be pushed around.”
“We’re not a slave labor force for Earth’s Industrialists. What we want, is economic independence.”
“They sit in their offices, sticking pins in the map of Mars, saying ‘This is ours, this is ours’, when it’s not.” Kevin said.
Neil was inclined to be more reasonable. “A lot of those companies invested in Mars. They expect a fair return.”
“Nobody’s arguing about a fair return. We’re just arguing for a fair slice of the cake for the Colonists.”
Neil held his hand out to settle everyone down. “I’ve invited Colonel Greenway to meet with the colonists at Pavonis. We’ll set up an elected administration to govern the colony. We should have had it from the beginning. Mars shouldn’t be run by Government Departments.
“What about miners’ rights?” Ironstone asked.
“They’ll have to be recognized, too.” Kevin said. “Mining is the key to developing Mars. The large companies can process the ore once it’s been found and mined. That way, everyone saves money.”
I held my hands up and asked for quiet. Neil pointed to me. “What have you got to say, Steven?”
“What about a ‘Plan B’. - If things don’t work out?”
There was a long silence. Of course we had to consider the chance that we would lose the fight.
Neil spoke to me quietly, but everyone could hear. “Steven, I want you, Simon, and Harry to prepare somewhere for the colonists to go, in case things go wrong. What about your gigantic cave.”
“What cave?” Nugget asked.
I explained, “We found it in the desert. It used to be an aquifer, but it drained out, wearing away huge caves in the process. The point is, it’s a natural underground base. It has only one entrance. We could easily make it airtight if we ever have to use it.”
“How do we get there undetected?” Nugget asked.
“A bit at a time.” Kevin said. “Sensors will detect one vehicle moving in the area, but won’t make much of it. We make up one huge road train with lots of life support systems.
“At the drop off point near the cave, the prime mover stops for ten minutes to disengage, and then drives on over a false trail.” Harry said.
“We can pull them close to the cave, And the next sand storm buries the trail. Great idea.” Simon said.
“We need a safe place for our families. We’ll call it - ‘The Sanctuary’” Stanley said.
I volunteered, “Why not call it ‘Sherwood’ - you know, like Robin Hood and his Outlaws. They all hid out in Sherwood Forest.”
“I like that. ‘Sherwood‘ it is then.” Neil said.
A week later, a monorail, full of marine Troops, arrived at Pavonis Station to a large welcome by the colonists, all waving Earth Flags. The train was escorted by troops in other vehicles traveling by highway alongside. Colonel Greenway alighted from one of the vehicles to be met by a contingent of colonists.
“Welcome to Pavonis, Colonel. I’m Stanley Walters, and this is Doctor Joe Pine, our Medical Superintendent.” Stanley said. “The colonists have voted for him to be our representative during these talks.”
“Talks. I didn’t know there was much to talk about, Mr. Walters,” Greenway said. “I’m here to restore law and order to Mars. We’ll mainly talk about that.”
He pointedly refused to acknowledge Joe, who proffered his hand. Joe shrugged with both hands, and then put them away.
Greenway turned to his officers. “Secure this base. Make sure nobody tries to leave. Remove any arms you find, also confiscate all space suits and Marsuits. Until the situation is clarified, everyone is to consider themselves under house arrest.”
He used a loudhailer to address the colonists. “Return to your homes or dormitories. We’ll call you when we want to interview you. Until then, anyone outside of their accommodation units will be in breach of curfew and liable to be shot. Understand?”
“On behalf of the colonists, I protest,” Joe said. “These strong arm tactics ...”
“Arrest this man, Captain. In fact, arrest both of them.” Greenway said curtly.
Joe and Stan hold their hands up in surrender. It was the pre-arranged signal that things had gone sour. There was a distant sharp Hiss as a small rocket flew upward, detonating a magnesium flare high overhead.
The marines reacted quickly, diving for cover, as the colonists also dropped to the ground. The monorail towards Olympus disintegrated with a roar. Then the rail towards Gusev. The Atmosphere Mine exploded, taking with it the Greenhouse Complex, Water supply, Power station, and Communications Centre. Then the buildings exploded, one after the other. It was a far more destructive action than the one that temporarily disabled Olympus. Pavonis has been virtually destroyed.
There was a long silence while the smoke and dust cleared.
“We’re just a bunch of old fart technicians who stayed behind out of a misguided sense of loyalty, Colonel,” Stanley said. “Looks like you’re king of nothing.”
“We have supplies for a hundred days.”
Joe smiled. “And after that? I’m sure even your small brain can work out the fact that a thousand troops can’t stay on a hostile Mars without logistical support from Earth. The colonists grow their own food. They make their own water and air. They make their own fuel. You boys have come equipped for war, not for survival. Now you can treat us like shit, Greenway, or you can talk. The Ball’s in your court.”
Greenway was furious – he’d been out maneuvered badly, and he knew it. “Lock all the colonists in the train. I'll talk to them when I'm good and ready.” He said.
On the landing field at Olympus Base, Harding’s troops were preparing the Phobos Shuttle to carry his young prisoners to Mars’ largest moon, Phobos, some six thousand kilometers above the planet. Neil, Kevin, Sean, Nugget, and ironstone Bob were hiding in a sand ridge on the perimeter of the field.
“The access tunnel to the base is used to service the Methane and Oxygen pipes.” Neil told them. “It’s got crawl space for technicians. I wasn’t expecting them to be refueling.”
Kevin shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait, Commander. Hold on. Look there.”
A bus drove along the landing strip from the Base. It stopped, and several guards in Marsuits got out. They unloaded a group of prisoners.
Gordon, Patricia, Henrietta, Barry, Garry, Pierre, Anthony, and Chris, were wearing space suits. They walked to the shuttle with their escorts, carrying their packs on their backs.
Neil said, “They’re being transferred to Phobos.
Kevin added, “That means they’re being shipped back to Earth.”
“No. They won’t. They’ll never make it. In fact, I doubt if they’ll even make it to Phobos.”
“So what do we do?” Kevin asked.
“Take them now. When it’s least expected.” Neil said, checking his rifle.
“That means ...
“We may have to shoot the guards.”
He set to work, cutting the security wire fence with hand-snips. The men with him readied their rifles. As they sneaked through, Kevin tugged Neil’s sleeve for attention:
“We’ve got a wind coming up, Commander.”
Neil looks out at the whirling sand storm approaching.
“We’ll move in under cover of the dust,” he said. “Stand by. Looks like we won’t need to take anyone out after all. We’ll use tranquilizing darts instead. They’ll penetrate their armour.”
They swapped ammunition - replacing shells with dart tipped arrows.
Patricia noticed the men approaching through the dust storm. She poked Gordon in the side and he looked down at her. She switched off her radio and they talked helmet to helmet.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Don’t look now, but watch my hand.” She said.
She pointed carefully, and Gordon turned to see five Marsuited figures in Earth Force colours leaning into the wind approaching them through the dust.
The men fanned out and mingled with the guards and Refuellers. There was a brief scuffle, Taken by surprise, the guards went down. However, sirens went off, alerting base security to trouble.
“We got your message, Major.” Neil said, “Sorry to be late.”
“Well met, Commander. But how are we getting out of here. I don’t think that little fracas went un-noticed.”
“I was thinking of a bus drive,” Neil said, ‘but I believe that would be too slow. Did they cancel your shuttle license, Mr. Rogers?”
“In their haste, I don’t believe they did, Mr. Gordschsky. Listen up, everyone. Into the shuttle.”
Harding’s security forces, in small open vehicles, sped through the gate towards the bus where the figures of the re-fuellers and guards were lying on the ground. The dust was blowing harder, and it was not easy to see anything much, until the gigantic shuttle engines burst into life. The shuttle lifted horizontally on its vertical thrust engines and crabbed across the runway, blasting dust furiously towards the oncoming security forces.
The shuttle translated its engines to horizontal mode and the blast caught the bus which toppled over and rolled towards the oncoming cars which had to swerve out of the way. Even on Mars, the noise was thunderous.
There was a brilliant light and confusion as the shuttle took off in planetary flight towards the South West. Then there was the incoming crackling noise of the sound barrier being broken.
The men, picking themselves up after the dust storm has passed, could only look at the long vapor trail behind the shuttle leaving the site.
Sherwood was a maze of rock and concrete tunnels. It had been lined with plastic foam to seal any atmosphere leaks. The walls were of native rock, but large flat areas of concrete had been poured to make level floors.
Simon and I were repairing a small compressor on a workbench within the Control Area. To one side of the cave, a group of older men monitored cameras overlooking the outer areas with computer monitors. Neil, Kevin, and Gordon stood around a strategic plot table containing a large relief map of Mars.
“Kronner’s still at Olympus Base with the main force of marines. About four hundred men,” Gordon said. “Greenwood is at Pavonis with a hundred, and Striker holds Gusev with a hundred men.”
“Four hundred men were evacuated to Phobos, but are on ready alert if needed.” Neil said. “They don’t have the supplies to maintain more than six hundred on the surface, and even then, they’re pushing it.”
Kevin added his report: “This has come in from Pavonis. Stanley and Joe are making some headway with Greenway. They’re under House arrest, but officially helping with repairs. and they’re free to move about during the day.
I went over to join the group. “We’re running out of small screws and washers.” I said “We’ll need to get that lathe on line fairly soon. Also, we need more copper wire, some magnesium ingots, and some steel flats.”
“We can get copper wire in various gauges from the Japanese colony on Syrtis Major.” Gordon said.
“They’re not under the control of the Mars Authority. Unless they’ve got orders to the contrary, they’ll be willing to trade.” Kevin said, pointing to their base on the map.
“What have we got to trade?” Neil asked.
Kevin looked at me. “We may as well let them know our little secret, Steven. You can’t keep it under wraps for ever, you know.”
I looked at Kevin for a long time. I was reluctant, but eventually gave way and removed three large brilliant diamonds from my pocket. The largest glowed pink. The other two were pure white. I placed them on the table. Neil and Gordon were dumbfounded.
Finally, Neil took one of the stones and looked at it in awe. “Beautiful Mars.”
Kevin smiled, “I think you’ve just named the stone, Neil.”
“And you kept it secret all this time,” Neil said, looking at me.
I couldn’t read his face. I didn’t know if he was pleased, or annoyed. I smiled and pocketed the stones into my coveralls. “I’m told there are a lot of secrets in the diamond trade.” I said.
“These are too valuable to trade for copper wire.” Kevin said. “We’ll offer them some smaller ones. Standard cut, two, and four carat brilliants.”
There was a disturbance at the main entrance. I looked at the security monitor. It looked like an old man on an electric motorcycle.
“Karla will be happy,” I said.
Neil looked at the disguised figure. “Well if it isn’t my old driver,” he said.
George was brought into the main control area. “Hi, everyone. Sorry I’m late,” he said.
“Where in all hell were you?” Neil asked.
“I had to stay at Pavonis. It was the only base not damaged in the recent troubles. A Colonel Greenway decided to take over Pavonis and relieve me of my command, so here I am. I’m told there’s a warrant out for my arrest.”
“Where did they get all that paper?” Kevin asked. “They must have warrants out for everyone on Mars.”
We needed more than paper. In some logistical areas, our supplies were becoming critical. We discussed the possibility of trading with the Japanese base. - Diamonds for trade goods.
“We’ll have to get a fresh supply of stones.” I said. “I’ll take Simon, Harry, and Anthony with me. We’re a good team.”
“I’m not happy about sending anyone out on the surface at the moment. Our movements can be monitored.” Neil said.
“We’ll be careful,” I promised. If we travel when Phobos has set, they won’t see us. We can cool the vehicle with a fine liquid nitrogen spray to hide its heat signature.
“That’s a good idea,” Kevin said. “I’ll get maintenance on to it right away.”
While we were busy at Sherwood, Stanley and Joe were having some successes with Colonel Greenway at Pavonis. He had read their reports, examined the available evidence, and reached a conclusion.
“All the evidence I’ve uncovered supports your version of events, gentlemen. It seems that Gallant Harding lost it when his son was killed. That was a terrible accident.”
Doctor Joe took that as his cue to say what he thought about it. “An unnecessary one, Sir. Ormond wasn’t screened before coming to Mars. He wasn’t trained in survival. He treated Mars like Earth. everyone here has to cooperate and get on, whether they like each other personally or not. Survival means self-discipline.”
“I’ll send my report directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Greenway said. “ That way, there will be no political interference. Harding will be recalled.”
“And Commander Neil?” Stanley asked.
“That’s the unfortunate aspect of this whole business. Gordschsky, Peters, Rogers and MacLean will have to return to Earth to face an enquiry, and possible prosecution. In the course of this fracas, government property has been damaged, and lives threatened. Look around you.”
He pointed to the obvious signs of repaired destruction. “Wrongs done on both sides, I’m afraid.”
Kronner and Harding visited the control room of Phobos, discussing the latest intelligence from Mars. Morgan was showing Kronner around. One of the observers called him across to observe a monitor trace. “Sir, I’ve got something unusual here. Could you please take a look at it?”
“Excuse me a moment,” Morgan said. He moved out of earshot.
Kronner talked quietly to Harding. “I wouldn’t have told you about Greenway’s report if I didn’t think it was in our best interests, Mr. Harding. You’ve come out of the investigation rather badly.
“Does Morgan know?” Harding asked.
“No. And I haven’t told him.”
“You know, Major,” Harding said, “I’ve always thought one should know one’s friends. Know who can be relied on. A man in the right position on Mars could become very wealthy.” He tapped his nose with his index finger.
They moved over to where Morgan was watching a strange trace on the monitor.
“It’s a black mark on the monitor. It fades very quickly, so it isn’t ...”
“May be a glitch in the monitor,” the observer said.
“That could also be an attempt to disguise a heat signal.” Kronner said. “In trying to hide, they’ve attracted our attention.”
“If they don’t want us to see them, it can only be rebels. Hmmm! Keep an eye on it. We’ll definitely check it out.” Morgan said.
Stan, Joe, some colonists, and military observers, all in Marsuits, shook hands with Colonel Greenway, and watched him board the shuttle to Phobos. His briefcase contained all of the documents setting out his findings into the whole “Mars Rebellion Affair.”
The colonists watched as the large mantis-shaped Mars - Phobos shuttle blasted off on its regular trip to the space station.
The Shuttle moved horizontally like a Jump Jet at first, then began to tilt upwards as its main rocket engines fired, boosting it upwards at 3 km/sec.
“Do you Reckon he’ll sort it all out with Earth, Doc?” Stan asked.
“We’ve got to hope so, Stan. This nightmare must come to an end some time.” Doc said.
Suddenly, there was an extremely bright flash. The sky lit up as the shuttle exploded in a brilliant fireball. The two men stood with their mouths open in shock. The sound of the explosion reached them as a distant thundering roll, muffled by the thin, rare, atmosphere.
They were still standing there, when a marine officer, Captain Striker approached them from behind with two escorts. He said, curtly, “Would you two gentlemen come with me, please. I have some questions I’d like to ask you.”
Simon, Harry, Anthony, and I were collecting diamonds from the floor and walls of the cave.
“Look for clarity,” I said, ”We don’t want to take any flawed stones to Sherwood.”
“This is like Aladdin’s cave. It’s a treasure house,” Anthony said, carefully placing the stones he had selected into his canvas carry bag.
“I can see that look in Anthony’s eye. He’s got diamond fever.” Simon said. “You're carrying them back, Ant. You've got the biggest bike.” We placed our stones with his.
“Don’t get carried away. Remember - it’s the rarity of diamonds that makes them valuable. We only need a few really good ones to trade for what we need.” I said.
I checked the bag. Anthony had about fifty good looking stones about as large as the end of his index finger. They would be easy to cut with the robot lap, and ideal as trade objects.
We rode our motorcycles back to the Prime Mover.
Anthony lagged behind. His bike had a problem. He stopped and got off near some large boulders.
“Don’t wait. I’ve got a blockage. I’ll clear it and catch up. You’ll have to wait, anyway. I’ve got the stones.” He shouted.
He put the specimen bag on the ground and started to fiddle with the tanks at the back of his machine. I gave him a wave, and we rode on towards the Prime Mover, seen in the distance.
Anthony saw what happened next.
Marines stepped out from behind the truck and leveled their weapons at us. We were in the hands of the enemy.
Anthony dropped his motorcycle on its side. He hid behind some large rocks and was not seen.
Harry, Simon, and I surrendered. They searched us for weapons and marched us behind the vehicle. One of the marines secured our hands using plastic ties. They piled our bikes together and shot out the tires.
“Get in,” one of them ordered, indicating an open cargo hatch. We were made to sit inside. It closed and locked. We were in darkness.
A short time later, Anthony watched the jet take off with the three of us inside. He realized he was alone in the Martian desert. He rolled over onto his back, watching the vapor trail streak away across the sky. There was a bright flash and the soft thud of an explosion as the Prime Mover and habitat trailer were destroyed by explosive charges.
In a fraction of a microsecond, sensors in the trailer detected the explosion and triggered an alarm at Sherwood, but the explosion destroyed the emergency system before it could make a proper report.
Neil’s attention was taken by the alarm signal, which turned off suddenly. Warning lights went on near the board, then turned off.
“Some kind of glitch at Site D?” Neil thought. Karla entered the monitor station and moved in behind him.
“Is Steven’s group in some kind of trouble?” she asked.
“I’m not sure yet. It may be a stray bit of E.M.P.” Neil said. He began checking the panel for any other signs of an anomaly.
The three motorcycles had been blown clear of the area. Anthony began to work on removing the Methane and Oxygen tanks from one of them. He placed the tanks beside the four he has already salvaged. He checked the airmix gauge on his suit and took a refill from the Motorcycle’s tank. Then he refilled his water supply.
It would have been so easy to hide the diamonds then trigger his emergency beacon before the jump jet had gone too far. It would have returned for him, and he would have been a prisoner, too, but he would have been safe.
He took his emergency beacon from his pack. He considered whether to use it or not, and placed it on the seat of his motor cycle. He walked around the hot wreckage which was glowing, but no flames show in the CO2 atmosphere. A small sheet of aluminium plating caught his attention. He dragged it to the motorcycle. Using scraps of wire, he tied the spare tanks onto the sheet and secured it as a drag behind the motorcycle.
Finally, he dug a hole in the sand and triggered the emergency transmitter before burying it. Then he mounted his motorcycle and rode towards the North. He had to go carefully so as not to upset his load of spare tanks. He was a small, lonely figure riding into the great expanse of the Martian desert, in the faint hope of reaching safety and home.
The alarm went off three times, then continued.. Neil knew that things had gone very wrong. He looked over the shoulders of George and Karla as they worked on their consoles.
“So what is that signal?” Karla asks.
“That transmitter will bring Greenway’s forces right on top of them.” Neil said.
“Not if we get there first.”
“It’s too dangerous, George. Steven would only activate that, if things were serious.” Neil said.
“It’s Anthony’s transmitter,” Karla said. “Not Steven’s.”
“We’ve got a jump jet hidden about twenty klicks from here. You could be over that position within an hour.” George volunteered.
Neil was annoyed. “I said - it’s too dangerous.”
“Steven’s my kid Brother, Neil. I’m going out there. Space suits, George.”
“Whatever you do, don’t bring the jet back here. It will be a complete give-away.”
“We’re not stupid, chief,.” George said, racing for his ready room.
“Sometimes, I wonder,” Neil muttered.
There was a shortage of workers at Olympus Base. Some of the families had returned after the initial troubles passed. The Base was functioning again, and provided a more secure and comfortable existence than remote camps on the Tharsis Highlands.
Kevin and Gordon had little difficulty slipping past the guards. They picked up a section of wall cladding, and carried it through the airlock. With their coveralls, and eyes masked by welding glasses underneath their helmets, Nobody noticed them. It didn’t take them long to discover that a wing of the base had been converted into a cell block and interrogation centre.
“Are you the welders?” a marine asked from behind them.
The soldier, a young lieutenant, was looking at them. “There are two cells needing their doors fixed. I don’t know where the maintenance team is, but they were supposed to be done yesterday.”
“We could do them now,” Gordon said. “Is the equipment there?”
“Leave it to us,” Gordon said. He grinned at Kevin, and the young officer unlocked the door.
The two cell doors were lying on the floor next to a MIG Welder and two sets of heavy duty hinges. Kevin looked at the steel door frame.
“Looks straightforward,” he said.
“Cover up. Someone’s coming,” Gordon said. They placed their packs against the wall with their helmets on top, and pulled their welding masks down.
There was the sound of marching and a group of marines brought Simon, Harry and me into the block. We were wearing one piece Thermal Underwear, (grey woolen long-john suits), Fetters on our ankles, our hands were cuffed behind our backs, and round our necks - shiny metallic explosive collars. We were taken to a completed cell and ordered inside.
“If you attempt to leave this area, or if there is disruption to power caused by a rescue attempt, your collars will detonate.” The officer said.
He removed the handcuffs, but not the fetters.
“You are under the control of regular marines. You must obey any orders we give you. If you behave, you will not be harmed. You will receive food, water, and medical attention if it is required. Do you have any questions?”
“Where’s the John?” I asked.
“Recessed in the wall. It comes out if you touch the black panel. Water tap does the same if you touch the blue panel. Red panel calls the guard if you need anything.”
“Regular room service,” Harry said.
The guard smiles at this. He shrugs.
“Major Kronner will be interviewing you separately when he returns from Phobos this evening. He has a special way with young people. I’m sure you’ll all like him.”
“Kronner.” Harry gasped.
“I see his reputation for firmness and fairness has spread far,” the guard said with a smile. “Squad - About face! Quick march!”
They marched away, leaving the boys standing at the bars of their cell. The two maintenance men began welding the next door in place.
“What a total mess,” Simon said. Nobody will know where we are. We’ll never get out of here.”
“There’ll be something we can do. Anthony’s managed to get away,” I said.
At that point, Kevin and Gordon moved quietly out of the cell they had been working on. It was a relief to see friendly faces again The two men held their fingers up to their lips in warning.
“Kevin, Gordon. How’d you get in here?” I asked.
“Pretended to be contractors,” Kevin said. out of work and desperate. Don’t give us away. Pretend we’re total strangers. Let me look at those collars.”
He closely examined the one around my neck.
“Micro-fine wiring around the whole collar, Break the circuit, Kaboom! Electronic lock with ten million possible combinations. Enough explosive to kill anyone tampering with it. As well as you.”
“So how can we get out of here?”
“You can’t,” Gordon said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be released by the marine guard. He’s the only one with the combination.”
“Can’t you get at him,” Harry asked.
“There are only two of us, Harry, not enough to take on a whole marine garrison. Besides, he’s just an honest soldier doing his job. We aren’t at war with Earth.” Kevin said.
“But Kronner’s the one who tortured Anthony. He’s going to question us.” Harry said.
“We can’t allow that,” Gordon said. “I saw what he did to Anthony. I mean - well it wasn’t much, but it was a hint.”
“He’s supporting Harding?” Kevin asked.
“Seems like it. All the way, I think.” Gordon said.
“Right. Steven, listen up. Here’s what you do.”
He motioned the others away and whispered a plan into my ear. Then he passed something between the cell bars to me.
“Do you Know what to do with it?” he asked."
"Worth a try. I’ll give it my best shot,” I said.
One of the guards entered the corridor. Kevin hastily took out a tape measure and measured while Gordon held onto the end. We moved back.
“Don’t talk to those boys,” the guard said.
“We’re just taking measurements,” Kevin said. “You want the doors to be properly aligned, don’t you?”
Kevin and Gordon get on with their work installing the doors, and we sat resting on the flat prison bunks under the supervision of the guards. It was a long wait.
On the sandy plains of Elysium Planitia, Anthony removed the two gas tanks from his motorcycle and attended to the change-over of his last two gas bottles. He cut the sheet of aluminium loose, and threw away the cords he used to tie everything together. It was just him, and his motorbike. The small pile of discarded rubbish looked quite pathetic.
He was exhausted. He looked down at his instrumentation. A lot of his dials were in the red, and there was a single red diode light flashing warningly. ‘Low on Airmix’.
He mounted the machine uncertainly, and rode Northward once more. A small white dot trailing a plume of red dust across a vast red landscape.
The dot also appeared on the monitoring equipment of Phobos. The observer passed the information down to Pavonis Base.
At Olympus, Kronner was handed a message. He looked on his screen which showed a copy of what the Phobos Observer had seen. He looked up to his aide.
“Get a jump jet out there to pick that up. I want to know what’s happening in that area.”
He turned to the marine guard standing nearby.
“I’ll talk to the leader of that group now, sergeant. And sergeant, Don’t forget to remove his explosive collar before bringing him to interrogation.”
Kronner rolled his eyes upward in frustration as the soldier left. He picked up a set of brass knuckle dusters and Placed them on.
“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a messy interrogation room.”
Anthony’s motorcycle coughed and stopped. He got off it unsteadily and it fell over. Weaving drunkenly, He walked onwards. He saw an oasis ahead of him. Date palms waved invitingly. He looked puzzled. Everything was blurred. Sand swirled about him. Something loud, white, and out - of - focus swam into his vision.
He gasped for air, with strident noises. For a moment, his vision clarified and resolved into a white Jump Jet in front of him. He swooned into unconsciousness.
Blackness. In the darkness, he heard voices:
“Anthony, can you hear me, Anthony?” George said
“He’s going into shock.” Karla said. “Anthony. Hold on, Anthony.”
Karla picked him up and handed him to George, who was standing on the wing. Karla climbed into the cockpit with the boy. George closed and pressurised it. Karla removed her helmet and then removed Anthony’s. She placed her mouth over his and blew.
“Come on, Anthony. Breathe,” she said.
A moment later, the boy sucked air into his lungs.
He coughed, then he asked, “Are the diamonds safe?”
Half an hour later, a jet from Olympus base flew over the area.
“There’s Nothing to report below, Colonel. I guess it was just a whirlwind or dust cloud.” The pilot reported.
Back at Sherwood, Anthony was admitted to the base hospital. Karla and George took the diamonds to the work station for processing. George studied the notes that I’d left and checked the programs on the Robotic laps. The only difficult part of the operation was to find the optical axis of the gems. Karla analysed the gems under polarized light.
“There’s nothing to lose,” she said. “Try it.”
He tried it out and was rewarded by the production of a brilliant diamond, weighing in at two carats.
Later, he joined Karla and a large group of colonists in the canteen. They were watching the news broadcasts being sent by the satellite TV network. It was reporting an accident on the satellite moon, Phobos. Apparently, there was an explosive decompression of the Control Room.
“Our corps will miss the leadership of Colonel Morgan, who was found dead in the control area of Phobos Station.” The newsreader said.
“Another marine commander lost. What’s happening up there?” Neil asked.
“Now it wasn’t us,” Sean said “and it wouldn’t be them, so my guess is, it’s the Good Lord sending them a message.”
“And talking of the good Lord, I’m here to do his work with the splicing of a very fair Martian wench, to a most handsome Martian pilot. Forgive me while I have a chat to the bride to be.”
He took Karla aside for a quiet talk.
“You’re sure you want to go through with the wedding?”
“We know that Steven’s safe - for now. They won’t do anything to him, he’s only a boy.” She said.
“I agree with you. I don’t think Steven's in any immediate danger. They are trained marines. professional soldiers.”
“It’s Mars, Father. There’s never going to be a perfect time. We could wait for ever.”
“Yes. Let’s do it, then.”
Thus it was, that later that day, The colonists sat in rows facing the small stage area.
Karla and George, in white space suits, without back packs and helmets, were married in front of the assembled population of Sherwood.
Anthony was lying back in bed resting when Sean paid him a visit the next day. The TV was playing an Earth channel softly in the background.
“There was an unexplained explosive decompression in the chamber which has been sealed off until the bodies can be recovered.” The news reader was saying.
Anthony felt depressed. He switched the TV off with the remote, and rolled over, ignoring Sean, his visitor.
”Are they still on about that explosion. Anthony complained. “Doesn’t the news ever change around here?”
Sean gave him a playful backhander across his rump.
”I’ve come all the way from Gusev to marry George and Karla, and to pray for your recovery,” he said, “and this is all the thanks I get.”
”It’s not you, Father. It’s just - things.”
”Things not going right, you mean?” Sean said with a laugh. “I used to think that there was no justice on Earth. That’s one of the reasons I came to Mars - to get away from it all.”
Karla entered the ward room quietly with a small flat box in her hand. She listened as Sean talked.
”I thought - once - that Mars would be pure. A pristine world. A Garden of Eden, where we could start again.” He got into stride – enthused “No greed, no corruption, no evil. A world without wealth or poverty. Everyone equal.”
“And it can never be that. Evil is everywhere. Where Man goes, Satan accompanies him.”
Karla puts her hand on Sean’s shoulder. He looks up at her in surprise. She handed the box to Anthony.
“George and I processed them for you. They’ve come out fine.” She said.
Anthony opened the box and took out one of the diamonds. He looked at it, and spilled the others onto the sheet between his legs. Sean was totally astonished.
”What in the fires of all Hell is this!”
“Some diamonds - for trade. We are going to trade with the Japanese colony for Copper Wire and micro-tools. Why? What’s wrong?”
Sean was enraged. He grabbed the handful of diamonds and threw them across the room. He turned on Karla.
“You knew all the time, didn’t you? Your father told you where to look.” He shouted. “I knew all along where the diary was. You carried it in your head where you thought I couldn’t destroy it!”
Anthony was frightened by the reaction. He pleaded for restraint.
“It was Steven who found the diamond mine, Father. Not Karla. She knew nothing about them.”
“Steven. Of course. He is almost frothing in rage. How could I be so stupid.”
Karla backed out of the room, She didn’t want to leave Anthony with Sean. Anthony slid his hand towards the nurse’s buzzer. Karla tries to distract him.
”You! You’re the one who tried to kill me. You’re crazy, Sean.”
“No I am Not Crazy! It’s starting all over again, don’t you see. The greed. The thousands, then the millions who will come - seeking wealth, and tearing up the soil, bringing their filthy, greedy, grasping evil with them. They’ll bring hotels - grog shops. Then brothels. Fighting and killing. Speculators. The Mars Stock Exchange. Capital and Labour at each other’s throats. Evil. All evil.”
In response to the buzzer, Joe Pyne and Margaret have entered the ward. They move in behind Sean.
“For what? A few miserable - carbon crystals.”
“That is why you had to die, and why both of you will have to die now. To save Mars from more Evil.”
He produced a revolver from his coat and lifted it towards Anthony. Joe moved forward to grab him.
“Oh no you don’t, Sean. Put it down.” Joe commanded.
Sean spun around quickly, jumping upwards while turning to fire at Joe. Anthony seized the moment, picked up his hospital food tray with one hand and bounced it off Sean’s head. Sean fired wildly into the air, and dropped to the ground.
”What would we do without low gravity?” Anthony said.
”A lot less damage.” Joe said. “That tray has a lot of mass. He’s well out to it.”
“Well - Better him than me,” Anthony said.
Karla looked about the floor and found most of the diamonds. She placed them carefully into the box. The nurse went for help. Joe turned Sean into the prone position and cleared his airway. Then he took a syringe from the medical tray, filled it with sedative, and injected it into him. Karla handed the box to Anthony.
”Still want them - after what he said?” she asked.
“We sacrificed a lot for these. We still need the copper wire, and the tools. Got any better ideas?”
Karla put her hand out, palm down and balanced the stones on the back of her fingers, A gold band is on her ring finger. She looks at the diamonds sadly. She closes her hand and catches the stones in the air as they drop. She puts them into the box.
”They’re Supposed to be a girls’ best friend. No. Go get your copper wire. It’s more valuable than a few old carbon crystals. I’ve got the jewelry that I want.”
She displayed the gold wedding ring on her finger.
“It looks really nice. By the way, Mrs. Peters, Congratulations. And . . . Thanks. for coming to get me.”
She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “No trouble, Buddy. That’s what friends are for.”
In the dungeons of Olympus Base, I was not having a very good time. Colonel Kronner shoved me into a straight backed chair, and pulled my cuffed hands behind it. The steel dug into my wrists, and the wooden back of the chair put pressure onto my arms. He rapped my bottom jaw with his hand, knocking my teeth together painfully.
His office TV was on, and the newsreaders were bringing everyone up to speed on the latest from Mars.
“Mars authority has confirmed that Colonel Kronner will now act as commander of the task force which has been sent to stabilize Mars. Authorities are looking into the depressurisation of the Control Tower on Phobos which killed Colonel Morgan and five other soldiers.”
I looked at him with contempt. “Colonel now. Congratulations, Colonel. Are you going to blame us for that as well?”
Kronner ignored me, and pointed to the screen.
The reader continued “This means the gloves are off, and the administration is taking a very tough line with the rebels. Unless Colonel Neil Gordschsky, Gordon Rogers, George Peters, and Kevin MacLean surrender to the authorities at Olympus Base within forty-eight hours, All rebels currently held at Olympus Base will face summary execution, regardless of their age.”
I sat up straight and took notice. Gallant Harding appeared as a news bite on screen.
“These boys have been tried as adults and convicted of terrorism and murder. If they are old enough to commit such treacherous acts, they are old enough to face the death penalty.”
I was shocked. “What trial? We haven’t been tried. What terrorism? What murder? We were just driving our motorcycles about on the desert!”
Kronner switched the TV off. He moved around to the front of his desk and sat on it, facing me. He was very close. Threatening, but slimy. He folded his hands, placed the knuckle duster on the desk, and talked very quietly - very gently.
”So? Tell me where this Sherwood of yours is, Steven. Think of your friends. I may decide to reduce your sentences as an act of clemency.”
“Never. You can go to hell. ”
“Never? Never mind. I’m sure Harry and Simon will be - more - cooperative.”
To this day, I have no idea as to where the question came from. It just popped into my head. “How long will you live?” I asked “If you win, I mean?”
Kronner hadn’t foreseen this tack in the conversation. ”Live? If we win? What are you on about?”
“I’m going to make a guess that you didn’t kill Morgan or Greenwood. I know we didn’t. And if you didn’t, then it must have been - Harding.”
The shot worked. His face took on an astonished look. I laughed. “And you’re next on the list.”
Kronner’s face became an iron mask. He hadn’t foreseen this development.
Perhaps I had a point. He listened.
“Did he offer you wealth, Colonel? Undreamed of wealth? Did he?”
“Are you accusing me of accepting bribes - of being corrupt?”
“I’m sure you’re an officer and a gentleman, just as I’m sure nobody’s taping this little session.”
”Actually, We’re off the record.”
“Harding’s corrupt. He’s working for organized corporate criminals on Earth. They’re trying to seize control all the wealth on Mars. To do that, he has to get rid of all opposition.”
“It’s very hard to get away with anything like that.”
I looked up at Kronner in all earnestness.
“Of course it is. He may get away with it for a long time, but sooner or later he’ll go down, and you’ll go down with him. But you’re the last evidence ... If he gets rid of you, he’ll survive a lot longer.
Kronner thought for a moment. “He won’t try anything on me.”
“Honor? among thieves? When the truth gets told, as it will, eventually, your name will be the shit paper in the history of Mars.”
Kronner slapped me across the face - Very hard. I fell over with the chair. Kronner picked me up and put me back on the chair. I had rattled him.
Kronner walked over to the wall cabinet and took a drink.
“I can make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams, Kronner. I can make you famous - a hero. All you have to do, is swap sides. Join us.”
“That’s enough! You managed to get at me. That’s good. Really good. It’s my turn now. to get at you.”
He went to the desk and took out a large syringe with a large needle. It was full of milky liquid.
“Truth serum. You’ll tell me everything I want to know.”
He brought it round to me and prepared to plunge it into my arm.
“Before you do that, search my left armpit, Colonel. I’m not joking. I’m not trying to get at you. Have a look.”
Kronner put his hand into my clothing and felt my left armpit. He brought out the large pink red - diamond.
“I said I’d make you rich. Its name is: “Beautiful Mars.” and it’s worth - millions - of dollars.”
The colonel looked at the stone in disbelief, he put the syringe down onto the desk almost absent mindedly. He looked at the stone, and at me, then back to the stone.
“We won’t kill you. You’ll be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. You’ll have a medal. A statue. You’ll be famous. The Liberator of Mars. You’ll be a hero. Even - candidate for President,” I said.
Kronner suddenly seized me by the front of my Grey long-johns and lifted me from the chair, into the air face to face. He was very angry.
“I will not be bought by a fifteen year old boy! My loyalty is not for sale. When I have finished with you and your little friends, I will have all the diamonds I want. I will destroy the rebels. I will restore Earth’s authority over Mars. I will be wealthy, And I will be honored as a hero. With no help from you.”
He pressed a buzzer and practically threw me at the guards who entered.
“Put him back with the others.” He shouted.
Soon, I was back in the cell with Simon and Harry. my neck collar had been restored. The Marine Guard closed the door on me and prepared to leave the area.
“Hey! You forgot to take the handcuffs off!” I shouted.
“I have a terrible memory, kid. Enjoy them.”
I slumped down against the wall, bruised and defeated.
“That - could have gone a lot better. You know - for a moment, I really thought I had him. I did rattle him, though. He didn’t stick me with that scopolamine.”
All good things must come to an end. We had lived through exciting times, but the rebellion never had a chance. Sherwood could never be viable – not as a concealed base. Stores were used up, and there were no replaceable supplies.
Harding’s threat to execute his prisoners out of hand was a real gamble. I didn’t think he could do it, but Neil, Kevin, Gordon, and George couldn’t take the risk. Besides, they had done their sums and realized Sherwood had a life span of three more months at the most.
A surrender was arranged. Many of the colonists decided to remain at Sherwood while the bulk of the colonial ‘army’ gave itself up.
Anthony sat in his hospital chair at Sherwood, watching proceedings on TV.
Companies of marines with enormous amounts of firepower waited for the convoy of vehicles which approached from the South West. All the vehicles were carrying white flags.
The newsreader was describing the scene.
“So this is the end of the rebellion on Mars. Marines are moving into position now, to search the vehicles, in case they carry explosives. If they are cleared, they will drive to the marshalling area where the surrender will take place. We understand that the bulk of the colonists are still hiding out in a secret location they call “Sherwood”, but will surrender later.
Neil, Kevin, Gordon and George alighted from the first vehicle. The four men were searched, and placed in an open 4wd pickup under guard. The trucks moved towards the marshalling area. The pickup traveled towards the Shuttle Landing Area.
“These rebel leaders will be taken directly to Phobos, and from there to Earth under Marine Guard escort.” The news reader said.
Simon, Harry and I, wearing our white space suits, waited for the men to get out of the truck and move over to join us. From a convoy vehicle behind came Karla, who was with Patricia, Chris, Henrietta, Garry, and Pierre.
“There’s Kronner.” Anthony said. “ I’d recognize him anywhere. I can’t see Karla.”
Colonel Kronner is traveling with the prisoners.” The news reader said. “He is required to give evidence against them back on Earth. The other civilian passenger, Karla Peters is the older sister of one of the accused young rebels, Steven Johnson.
“Recently, she married another rebel, George Peters. She is not under arrest, but will be a witness for the defendants, along with other orphans from the Mayflower tragedy. Nobody can claim that the Mars Authority is being unfair in this matter.”
Just then everyone looked upwards at a descending shuttle. The newsreader tried to second-guess what was happening.
“It seems as if there’s an unexpected shuttle landing. Yes, one of the shuttles used by the rebels is being returned to the military.”
The second shuttle landed beside the first. Refuellers moved quickly towards it, and hoses were run out from the large tanks of Oxygen and Methane.
The news reader had a note handed to her. “No. A message to hand, is that there is a small problem with the first shuttle, and this is a backup vehicle from Pavonis Base.”
“Of all the luck,” Anthony said. “They’re going after all.”
Meanwhile, on the Shuttle Landing Strip, old friends were getting together again. Neil put his hand on my shoulder.
“How are they treating you all?” He asked.
“Very professionally, Commander. I’m not allowed to speak to Karla, but she’s over there.”
He looked at Karla, standing with the other free passengers for Phobos.
“You didn’t have to come. They wouldn’t have shot us. I’m sure of it.”
“Wrong again. We Intercepted a signal from Earth. They were going to make good on their promise to execute you. I had to come.” He said. “I couldn’t let that happen. A good commander always looks after his men, Steven. Real rebels might have thrown you to the wolves for political expediency. I couldn’t.”
“We’d have been martyrs for the cause.” Harry said.
“Sorry to spoil your fun, Harry.”
A marine guard came over to the prisoners. “You are all cleared to board. Walk up that ramp there. Take your seats quietly. You will be shackled for the flight.”
“That figures.” I said.
“And gagged - so you can’t plan anything stupid.” The soldier added.
The Sherwood Colonists watched the broadcast of the take-off in stunned silence. Some of them were visibly upset. The adults stood in family groups with their children. They watched the TV as the shuttle hovers in horizontal mode, then rockets forward, translates into steep climb and finally, vertical lift off.
”We have Lift-Off.” The news reader said, “Lift off of the military shuttle taking the rebel prisoners back to Earth, to face Justice.”
There was a brilliant flash of light, and the TV camera went dark.
“OH what a brilliant flash from the field. There’s something wrong down here. A tremendous explosion has occurred. It may be the Methane tank. Wait, some information is coming through.
“There has been a major incident. Repeat, there has been a major incident. The shuttle on the launch pad has exploded. Repeating that, the shuttle that was reported as having some sort of problem, has exploded.”
The camera clears, and everyone in the canteen can see the carnage on the Olympus Base shuttle field.
There was a tremendous shuddering as the shuttle hurtled upwards. As prisoners, we were all helpless, chained securely into their seats by strong security shackles. we wore tube gags in our mouths.
Kronner and the Marine Guard were not faring much better in the lift - off. The shuddering stopped suddenly, as the shuttle went into free fall.
Kronner reached for a space bag, and barfed into it. For a while, he was privately very sick. The marine GUARD was more stoic, but looked a little green. Kronner turned to him.
“Works every time. Your commanding officer hates space travel. Tell anyone, and I’ll have you shot. Now, see to the prisoners. I don’t want them choking to death with those gags on.”
The control room of Phobos Station showed signs of repairs. Monitoring stations had been patched up, cables draped in all sorts of awkward positions, and a great metal PLATE had been bolted and sealed across the window with sealing goo that oozed slowly into weird formations. Hal, a comparatively fresh young observer was on duty. He was about twenty years old, and still keen to impress. Harding was his audience.
“I’m surprised the last observers didn’t use this old technique, Mr. Harding. All images contain noise, but it’s random. Superimpose a lot of images of the same thing, and the noise filters itself out. Very weak signals become very strong, including very small heat signatures. There you have it, like a beacon in the night. “ Sherwood ”.
Harding was overjoyed. “Sherwood. Sherwood Forest. Oh, I love that name ...‘Sherwood’.” He burst into maniacal laughter and floated around the room doing slow cartwheels. The observer looked a bit embarrassed, but Harding clapped him on the shoulder.
”Never mind me, Son. We all have our moments. You’ve only just got here, and don’t appreciate all the hours we’ve spent - looking for ‘Sherwood’.”
An announcement on the P.A. System diverted him. “The shuttle from Olympus Base is docking at Port Delta. The shuttle from Olympus Base is docking at Port Delta.”
“You’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got a lot of people to meet,” he said, leaving the control room with his aide.
At the reception area, Harding greeted Kronner and the Guard, as well as the other marines guarding the prisoners. A group of TV cameraman were filming the event for various Earth Networks.
“Ah. Colonel. We meet again in more happy circumstances.” Harding said. “Excellent conclusion to your campaign. Excellent.”
“You must be delighted, Gallant.” Kronner said, indicating the prisoners lined up under the control of the marines.
“Oh, I am. I am. And I have a special surprise for you. We’ve detected the terrorists’ base. We’ve found “Sherwood”.
Neil and the other prisoners were wearing four set and peels - security manacled at the waist, fettered, and gagged. We could only stand and watch Kronner and Harding gloat at their find.
Kronner waved his hand at the press cameraman.
“That camera can go off, now. I want to discuss something with you, Gallant, in private.”
“Sure, Colonel. We can go in here.” Harding said, indicating a vacant room to one side of the platform.
The news cameraman moved away, putting his camera down as Harding took Kronner into the port’s observation room.
As soon as the door was shut, Kronner placed his helmet on his left arm and glared with anger at Harding. “What was that shuttle bomb for, Harding? The explosion on the shuttle we were supposed to be on. You’ve got a bad habit, Sir.”
Harding blustered. “That. That. Now don’t hold that against me, Colonel. I had no idea you would be leaving Mars at the same time as the prisoners. I knew the second shuttle was coming from Pavonis. I thought you’d be traveling on it. Not with the prisoners.”
He sat down at a table and Kronner sat opposite him, resting his helmet in front of him, and placing his hands on it.
Kronner pressed harder. “Have you any plans to entertain us on the way to Earth?”
“Of course not. I’ll be returning to Mars to organize the mining concessions for the Syndicate. We won’t have any resistance from the miners once we’ve destroyed their base at Sherwood. ”Don’t worry. You’ll be well taken care of on Earth. You’ll be a very wealthy man.”
“So everything has worked out well in the end. The leaders of the colonists will be fighting for their freedom in the courts on Earth. I won’t be in the way. Did you plan it all to end like this?”
Harding grinned, pleasingly. “As a matter of fact, I did. Not everything went to plan, of course. But most things fell into place. There’s only one thing left. The destruction of Sherwood, and the end of any resistance by the miners.”
“And how do you intend to do that? There are people down there.”
“Ah, well, you see - Phobos contains a small. but impressive armory of nuclear missiles, designed to intercept comets or asteroids which might threaten Mars or its moons. I’ll use one of those.”
Kronner nodded his head, thoughtfully. “You’re going to nuke the colonists’ hideout? Even though they’ve surrendered? It’s only a rump down there – women and kids.”
Harding sneered. “Now don’t go squeamish on me, Kronner. Morgan had that problem. A lack of clarity of view. I want Colonel Gordschsky and his companions to witness the destruction. It will be the final straw - the one to break the camel’s back.”
“Why not let everyone on Earth witness it?” Kronner said. “Bring in the cameraman.”
Harding hesitated. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. There might be some protest. ”
“After all the destruction the rebels have caused? Well - you, actually, but nobody’s to know that.”
“You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. I had to destroy a few things. Some people died. You have to see the big picture.”
“Oh, but I do. Mars is worth a black mass, eh? Greenway, Morgan, two shuttles, Phobos Observation crew. What’s a nuke down the throat of some inconvenient colonists?”
Harding looked a bit cynical at Kronner’s comments. “You aren’t trying to blackmail me, are you?”
“Of course not. But you over did it - all those killings?”
Harding glared at Kronner. “I don’t have to answer to you. I killed them because It was necessary. Necessary at the time. That’s all you need to know.”
He stood up and said,
“Now bring the prisoners to the control room so they can watch the destruction of their precious Sherwood.”
A short time later, I stood with the other prisoners, chained and helpless, lined up under guard to watch as Harding prepared for a live telecast of the nuclear destruction of Sherwood.
Harding spoke to the camera
“People of Earth and Mars. The prisoners you see assembled here are the leaders of the revolt on Mars. They are the lucky ones. They will survive to live out their miserable lives in prisons on Earth. The other terrorists, who remain in hiding, must be destroyed.
“Destroyed, because they will always be a threat to Martian colonization. Mars is so fragile. It is so easy to destroy vital installations on which our very lives depend.
“They are pests. Martian scum! This panel before me controls the means of eradication. I intend to fry the rats in their holes. Even as we speak, we are approaching the target. Yes, we know where their secret base is situated. They call it “Sherwood” after another famous bandit hideout. As we overfly it in high orbit, we can remove it from the globe of Mars as easily as picking a pimple.”
Neil struggled to try to stop him, but the guards held him and the others very firmly.
Down in Sherwood, some people were in panic, trying to vacate the base. Anthony sat where he was. He knew that trying to flee was futile. He held Dorothy’s hand.
“I now put an end to this rebellion and reclaim Mars for Earth.” Harding said, holding up the fire control box and pushing its red button.
Nothing happened. The missile stayed where it was.
Harding looked confused. “Did it fire?”
Kronner shook his head. “No.”
Then he turned to the cameraman. “Did you get all that on camera? How was the helmet feed?”
The cameraman smiled. “Earth got a fine bit of entertainment, Sir. And those scenes of you with Mister Harding were excellent. The President asked me to tell you that. He has authorized you to act according to your previous submission to him.”
Kronner nodded slightly. “Thank you. Mister Harding. You are under arrest for the Murders of Colonel Greenway, Colonel Morgan, The crew of Phobos Station, Conspiracy to defraud the Mars authority, Illegal arrest and imprisonment of Civilians, and on and on and on.
“It’s a long list. You don’t have to say anything, but anything you do say will be recorded and put with all the other evidence against you.
“Sergeant, cuff him, read him his rights, and get him out of here. Guard him well.
Kronner walked over to me and removed the tube gag from my mouth. He grinned at me.
“I had you going there, son. Didn’t I?”
He personally unlocked my security manacles.
“You were on our side all along.” I gasped.
“No, boy. I’m a soldier. A public servant. I'm not on anybody's side. I just do my duty, as it happens from time to time.”
Neil and the others were being released. They stood around looking confused. Kronner looked at all of them and held his hands out in a “So what?” gesture. Karla managed to get through the throng and she gave me a long hug. She also gave me a small packet.
“O.K. I’m sorry. I used you all. I had to.” Kronner said. “There was no other way to expose Harding. He had too many friends in high places. He had to be exposed publicly – with all the theatre that entailed. So I set you all up.”
He puts his arm around my shoulders.
“Steven and I had it planned all along. But our security was so tight, even he didn’t know about it.
I was still confused, but getting the picture.
“Err. Right! Yes, Sir. We did really well, I think.”
Kronner led me out of the control room into the viewing passage way - where there was some privacy.
“You’re all going to give evidence against Harding, by video link. I’ve got to return to Earth. Would you like to say “Goodbye” to - Beautiful Mars - before you see it for the last time?”
“You had me worried, there for a moment, Colonel. I was beginning to think you were a good guy.”
“Wealthy beyond my wildest dreams? I’ll be famous, and a hero. Right?”
“Right.” I said, “My sister wasn’t searched, so It’s all taken care of.” I reached into an inner pocket of my Space suit - and produced the two other large diamonds. “Yours - to keep, They’re named Phobos and Demos. You’ve got the complete set.”
We stood looking through an observation deck window. Kronner took the big red diamond from his pocket and held it up to the planet with the two other stones. He whistled as he regards the diamonds.
“Beautiful Mars. With two moons.”
He whistled. “You know - I reckon you guys should stick around. We’d make a good team.”
He pocketed the gems and walked away.
I stood at the large picture window and looked down on the red planet turning beneath us. Demos shone brightly above the rim of Mars.
My friends left the control room and crowded around me. I looked for Kronner, but the colonel had gone.
“Beautiful Mars.” I said.
The rest of the ‘Mayflower Orphans’ joined me and we watched the sun set, leaving a stark terminator over the land below.
Neil stood behind me. He held me in a firm bear hug.
“Beautiful Mars - It sure is.” He said.