Star Bright

Checking Out the Wheels (3rd February 2158)
3rd February 2158

Not for the first time, Katrina was glad her Mars Suit was heated. She had met the others as agreed, to inspect the Rovers stored in the maintenance hanger at Fountain’s Sallytown depot.

The hanger was a simple concrete structure with pressure doors, and mounded with Martian Dirt; it wasn’t pressurised at the moment however, and the doors were in fact open. The temperature was reading a balmy -40 degrees centigrade. She stood back and peered through her wraps at the monkeys climbing over their new toys.

She smiled with wry amusement as they tried to outdo one another with their knowledge of minor technical details. She was slightly bored: if only they would hurry up and choose she could move in and check the technical specifications for the field laboratories. Both she and the one called Marcus – clearly a Martian by his accent – had argued for the use of the Land Rovers. But that was last night in the bar, and here they were this morning muttering at the chipped and dusty paintwork of the older vehicles, and casting moon eyes at one of the new Boeing’s parked in the corner. It’s seat covers still had cellophane wrapped on them.

“I don’t give a fuck about the self cleaning microwave” fumed Marcus, “Or the 38 track interior mood lighting options. I’m getting paid for this job so I want to get back alive to spend it, and that is only likely to happen if we take the Land Rovers.”

There was more bickering and puffing out of chests, but eventually reason (or perhaps, superior sulking skills) prevailed. The Land Rovers it was. Katrina moved across to the lab vehicle and climbed inside.

It was a familiar arrangement. Entering through the side airlock gave way to the cockpit seating on the left, and a cramped utility area amidships, with a small dining/ seating area and galley. This gave way to a bunk corridor, which opened into another closet like corridor with a fresher on either side. Beyond this was a storage area, or in the case of this vehicle, a tiny field lab. Hopefully she might rig up a hammock in here and get a bit of extra privacy. Katrina was used to lonely scientific research posts with tiny teams, and she knew well how important personal space was likely to become. Another airlock led from the rear of the vehicle.

Thoughout the Rover every available inch of wall space was lined with storage cupboards, screens, terminals and other equipment. The layout was familiar to her, though clearly not to Jake or Spyder, who were looking askance at the cramped quarters.

“Don’t worry” said Marcus, “We’ll be split between two vehicles remember”.

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Down to Business (2nd February 2158)
2nd February 2158

“Well, I’m glad we’re all here at last " said Willis. “The job is ready to start as soon as you’re able. If we can sign the contracts today I’d like you to set off in a week’s time.”

“The sooner the better really: it’s not like the specimens are going anywhere but we need this data for the annual report to the UWC Terraforming Commision in six months time. As you can appreciate Dr. Orlov, " here he nodded at Katrina, “squaring up all your results for the report itself will take quite a bit of time in itself.”

“So our deadline is…..” asked Marcus.

“Well the paper deadline for yourselves is three months from the date of departure on the 9th” replied Willis, “But in reality we should be ok if you can get all the data back to us by the end of May, and there’s a bit of slack built into the timetable anyway.”

“I don’t understand why you need all of us” said Jake, still secretly hoping that some wealthy school contact would turn up and offer him free passage to somewhere-anywhere-other than Mars. Now the deadline was looming forward towards actual work he was getting a bit fidgety.

“Mars is a dangerous place” shrugged Willis. “A total population of a few hundred thousand doesn’t go far on a planet this size, and most of the smaller settlements are in proximity to the mag rail along the main valley, running from Terminus in the Noctis Labyrinthus to the west, and Helium further at the eastern end of Melas: that will be your jumping off point. Mining camps off this main spine do exist, but are few and far between.”

“And in Coprates Chasma?” asked Spyder, “Are there any settlements there?”

“I was coming to that” replied Willis. “About halfway along Coprates is a small mining town called Presidia: there’s a RAP tower not too far from it and the servicing is run from Presidia. There are also a few tiny stations dotted here and there- the last one is the University Research Base at Eos. In general it’s a pretty remote area though. And that’s the point really.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jake.

“The point is this team will be pretty much on its own for three whole months. No towns, no backup nothing. Sure we can track your location from time to time with the GPS when a satellite happens to be overhead, and when the dust from the Phobos Incident allows us to actually get a reading at all, or even better, radio contact. But otherwise that’s it. That’s why we need two vehicles, and backup staff. Either one of the Rovers you’ll be using can transport all of you, if need be.”

“What vehicles we be using?” asked Dr. Orlov.

“Well I’d assigned a pair of Land Rover Mark IVs” said Willis, “But we’ve also just acquired two brand new Boeing Dustrakers: I’m sure I could pull a couple of strings if you prefer those- all the mod cons.”

“Hey I saw the advert for those. They look great!” said Spyder.

“All the American and French aerospace company rovers are crap” said Marcus. “It’s better going for robustness than gadgets and fancy electronics.”

“Well, well, I’ll leave that to you to decide-just get back to me before the end of tomorrow” said Willis.

“Will we need Vacc Suits?” asked Spyder nervously.

“Not at all” said Willis, “Though the Rovers contain them anyway as standard locker issue. There should be no need at all to ascend to the high sierra, and even the far eastern outflow of Marinis into Chryse is only about 1km above where we’re sat at present: Mars Suits will be fine. The vehicles can be presurised anyway.”

“We keep them pressurised, Yes?” said Dr. Orlov. “The dust it is big problem otherwise.”

“And, uh…Doc. Orlov here will do all the science stuff yes?” asked Marcus.

“Yes, Doctor Orlov is highly qualified.” said Willis, “Though there will be a lot of sampling and legwork involved so you will need to assist her from time to time.”

“I thought all the seeding experiments were in Amazonis and Chryse” said Marcus, I didn’t know there was stuff done in Coprates."

""It wasn’t really publicised at the time, but the seeding programme was five years ago now" said Willis, “And of course we handled the specifics. This will be the first comprehensive survey we’ve done since then.”

“The locations are all marked and the seeder pods will give you transponder signals as you get within range. We’re hoping for good results, especially in some of the more closed terrain-totally unlike the Amazonis and Chryse locations: different species mixes too.”

“Anyway, any last questions before you sign?”

“None for me" said Marcus, reaching for the datapad, "As long as your cheque doesn’t bounce, I’m in.”

Spyder leaned back and took a long drink from his beer glass, as he mentally calculated both his finances and how long it would take the Russki Mafia to find out that he was in Mariner City. Being off the radar for three months might be good for his health.

“Pass the pad over here" he said, when Marcus had finished. He then passed it to Dr. Orlov, who signed it quietly, though with a slight degree of hesitation he thought.

“It’s a basic 3 month contact with a flat Cr 3000 per month, plus any individually negotiated extras. There’s a time based bonus on completion, if you make it back before the deadline” added WIllis.

“I really do need to know which vehicles you’re taking, so talk it over and let me know asap.”

“Oh- and your signature includes a confidentiality clause too, which you don’t want to breach if you want to get paid.”

“Well like I said”, responded Marcus, “Boeing, Lockheed, Arianspace- wouldn’t touch any of their vehicles with a barge pole. Great looking, comfy, good electronics, but unreliable as shit. For a decent rover you need Land Rover, Shanghai GM, Rolls Royce or one of the Japanese Companies-made on earth by car manufacturers who’ve been building off road vehicles for nearly 200 years.”

“And Earth is 1G: a vehicle built to stand that will be fine on Mars. Moon tested- what a load of crap.” Marcus laughed harshly.

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Tales from the White Hart (2nd February 2158)
2nd February 2158

Katrina eyed the White Hart dubiously from the outside; she seriously doubted that most of its clients even knew what a Hart was. It was one of those slightly upmarket bars where the senior officers of the small companies littering the periphery of Sallytown (usually operational type building and mining companies, with heavy machiinery and storage yards) brought their secretaries and new contract clients for lunch: a cut above the usual miners dens, but nothing to write home about.

Nearby was a small church dedicated to St. Mary of Mars- a catholic nun who had had engineered the first organism seeded on Mars, Matteia gabrielsis. She wasn’t quite sure how that had squared with the catholic theology of the day. She supposed that it was all wrapped up with the Reformed Church of God now, though she knew that the Catholic Orders still existed- quite a few others too. Not her field. She cycled through the airlock and went in.

Willis was sat over in the corner, and he stood up and gestured her over. He was sat with a handful of others, who Katrina took in at a glance.

“Bozhe moi!” she thought to herself. “They look as though they’re all about to be arrested.”

As Katrina made her way over from the airlock, Marcus nudged Willis as he noticed her hesitate slightly as she scanned the table.

“Is that the chick we’re waiting for?” he asked Willis. “She’s cute. Is she just eye candy or is she useful? That look she just gave us has ‘high maintenance’ written all over it…” his voice slid down in volume as the woman approached.

Willis stood up, the bottom of his tie now resplendent with chile sauce. Marcus saw that the woman had noticed this and sniffed slightly. Willis seemed oblivious.

“Dr. Orlov, glad you could make it” he beamed., turning round slightly to the others. "Gentlemen this is Doctor Katrina Orlov, our Planetologist. She will be doing the species monitoring on our little expedition. "

Introductions were made, and Dr. Orlov sat down (somewhat stiffly Marcus thought), replying in a heavy Russian accent. She accepted a black coffee ordered by Willis.

“Well now we’re all here” said WIllis, “I guess we can begin.”

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The Bottom of Beyond (2nd February 2158)
2nd February 2158

sallytown.jpg

CHAPTER 1: " STIRRING THE ASHES"

“The most merciful thing in the world… is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Sallytown was the shithole armpit of Mariner City (or Mars Central, if you preferred). Unlike the newest constructions which were building the settlement upwards into the canyon walls , or the domed settlements of more recent history, Sallytown was the original settlement of robot built concrete hab units, and had grown into a sort of shantytown on the periphery of the modern city.

Dr. Katrina Orlov mused that one day this would all be gone: as the terraforming reached its more advanced stages the permafrost would start to melt, and the water locked into the martian soil would return to the bottom of the 4 mile deep Valles Marineris and pour from its eastern end to flood the basin of Chryse Planitia, once more recreating the ancient sea. Sallytown, and the first domed settlements, would be no more. But that was the future.

In the distance she could see the vast pinecone shape of one of the huge RAP’s which were scattered across the martian surface. The RAPs were essentially atmospheric scrubbers and converters that sublimated the soil bound carbon dioxide and released oxygen. Inside the structures pumps deep inside drove the cleaned and scrubbed atmosphere up through a series of cables to a height of over two miles, and in some cases associated mining units additionally pumped out PFCs.

The buildup of carbon monoxide and oxygen would eventually raise both temperature and atmospheric pressure to the point where a greenhouse effect would kick in, and start to melt the permafrost and polar ice: Mars would become an atmosphere and water rich world again

Already at the depths of the Mariner Valley pressure suits were no longer needed, and the colonists could get by with a Mars Suit and rebreathing apparatus. Up on the high plateaus it was still a different story however-but one day…….

As a native of the small mining town of Petrograd Katrina was familiar with all this: indeed, even in her own short lifetime she had witnessed changes in the awakening planet, and how its inhabitants lived.

And that brought her back to her meeting with Willis.

The doors which were being closed to her in the academic community had forced her to return to Mars and try to pull in a few favours from family friends. She had hoped that some of the smaller mining companies and terraforming sub contractors might still be able to find her useful, and so it had proved with Fountain Botanicals. A former high flying academic applying for a lowly outback monitoring post had seemed too good an opportunity to resist, and she had still been able to call in private references from a few ex colleagues.

And now it seemed that WIllis had finally managed to find a few others desperate enough to accept a job spending several months driving around the martian outback. She imagined that they were unlikely to be other academic types.

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