Originally published in Analog, June 2011. Distribution in any form without written permission from the author is forbidden.
by David D. Levine
This story is also available as a free EPUB e-book and as a free MOBI (Kindle) e-book.
I was trying to fix my kitchen garbage disposal when my phone trilled. I put it on speaker. "Gary Shu," I said, wiping my hands on a rag.
"Mr. Shu, this is Nnamdi Okonkwo from UNSA." A low voice, cultured.
"UNSA? Really?" Why would anyone from the UN Space Agency be calling me? I was just a second-string newsblogger.
"Really. This concerns your application for the Citizen-Astronaut Program."
"Oh, that." I'd made it as far as the semifinals, but when the finalists had been announced my name hadn't been on the list. That had been over a year ago. I picked up my screwdriver and resumed poking at the clog. "What about it?"
"You have probably heard the terrible news about Kim Yeun-ja."
"Yeah." She was the Korean painter who'd been selected as the first Citizen-Astronaut. Two weeks ago, less than two months before her scheduled launch, she'd broken her neck on a recreational hike in the Alps. She'd recover, but she wouldn't be up for a trip to Mars any time soon. A tragic story, and an excellent hook for a fundraising call. I kept trying to pry the whatever-it-was out of the disposal's blades.
"You are probably also aware of the difficulties we've been having with funding and public opinion." We'd had people on Mars continuously for over eight years now. The initial discoveries of water and life -- frozen, sub-surface water and fossils of microscopic, long-extinct life -- had been newsworthy, but after that interest had declined steadily. And with declining public interest came a declining willingness by the UN's various governments to fund the ongoing mission.
"Uh-huh," I said, squinting down the disposal's throat. By now I was just waiting for the pitch so I could hang up on the guy in good conscience. "So what's the purpose of this call?"
"My superiors have decided that the loss of Ms. Kim provides an opportunity for us to... reprioritize the Citizen-Astronaut Program. Rather than call on Ms. Kim's backup, we have been instructed to bring in someone who is in a better position to influence public opinion. Someone such as yourself."
The screwdriver clattered to the floor. "Guh?" I managed.
"Can you come to Geneva right away?"
"Uh?" I swallowed. "Uh, for how long?"
He chuckled. "In Geneva? Thirty-seven days. But after that it might be quite a bit longer..."
Thirty-seven days? I checked my phone's calendar.
Thirty-seven days was the time until the Kasei 18 spacecraft launched for Mars.
The sixty-five-day voyage to Mars was about as exciting as a long bus trip, bracketed by the thundering, shuddering terrors of launch and aerobraking. Though I did what I could to make the trip interesting to my viewers, my ratings dropped steadily the whole time. I was handicapped by limited bandwidth -- I couldn't embed even a single Spin or Jumbo3D frame in my reports, and was reduced to plain text and flat, still images -- and by the fact that every day was the same. Although we were going almost two hundred thousand kilometers per hour, from inside the ship there was no way to tell we were moving at all.
But as I lay on my back after touchdown, heart pounding and sweat pooling in the small of my space-suited back, I knew everything had changed. I was on Mars! I couldn't wait to step out of the lander, to see the endless red desert spread out before me, to feel the dry lifeless dust crunch under my boots.
The exit protocol was one of the things we'd had plenty of time to negotiate during the long trip out. The commander of our craft, the American-born Flemish climatologist Lynne Ann Morse, had graciously ceded her commander's prerogative to me as Citizen-Astronaut. I would be the first one out of the lander: the sixty-seventh person to set foot on Mars.
But before I could even unstrap myself, the hatch clanged open and Nam Dae-jung's scratched helmet poked in. I recognized his face immediately -- he was one of the three members of the current crew who would be staying on, and with our arrival he was now commander of Expedition 18. A Korean geochemist, he was a small man, built like a fireplug, and his face was just about as red as one. "Get your butts out here," he shouted. "We've got a leak."
We four new arrivals got ourselves unstrapped and tumbled out of the hatch as quickly as we could, bouncing and stumbling in our haste. We immediately saw the problem: a pipe on the lander's underside had split open, and a white jet of steam and ice crystals was spewing out into the thin Martian atmosphere. Frost was already building up around the gap. I activated the camera in my helmet and began snapping pictures of the dramatic scene for my blog. Finally some excitement!
"That's just water," said Kabir Abuja, our Nigerian engineer, and scuttled to the back of the lander where the main valve panel was located. A moment later the stream of vapor cut off.
Kabir, Lynne Ann, and Dae-jung ducked under the lander to inspect the damage. I joined them, mindful of the descent engine's bell-shaped nozzle, which was still nearly red-hot.
I saw a dusty red streak leading up to the damaged pipe. "Look at that," I said, pointing. "Looks like a rock got kicked up by the descent engine." I took pictures of that too.
"Easily repaired," said Kabir, and started backing out of the confined space. "It's only water anyway. No shortage of that." Even through his faceplate I could see the confident smile that almost never left his dark handsome face.
We'd brought a stock of liquid hydrogen and a cunning little chemical plant that would combine it with carbon dioxide from Mars's atmosphere to produce the methane rocket fuel we'd eventually use to leave the planet. This chemical process threw off water as a byproduct, some of which was cracked into oxygen and more hydrogen.
"Don't be so sure," said Dae-jung.
We all looked at him. My breath was loud in my helmet, which was beginning to fog up.
Dae-jung looked right back at us, his flat face defiant. "We've been having some plumbing problems."
Lynne Ann stepped up to him, their faceplates practically touching. "There was nothing about that in the daily reports."
Dae-jung turned away from her. "There are things we don't tell Mission Control. Come on now, let's get you unloaded. We've only got a few hours of daylight left."
While Kabir and Suma Handini, the current crew's Pakistani engineer, set up the insulated hoses to pipe our hydrogen into the habitat's buried tanks, the rest of us set up a bucket brigade to transfer the tonnes of food and other supplies from the lander's cargo bay. Our lander had set down right between the current crew's four-person lander and the two-person emergency ascent vehicle, less than fifty meters from the hab, and the boxes and canisters weighed only a third what they would on Earth, but their mass was unchanged so it was still a lot of work to move them around. By the time we got everything shifted my space-adapted muscles were screaming with fatigue. "Why do we have to get all this stuff inside so quickly anyway?" I asked Li Huang, the current crew's Chinese climatologist, as we struggled with a case of dehydrated meats. "It was fine in hard vacuum for the last two months."
"They used to leave everything in the landers," he said, "to save space in the hab. But a couple of expeditions ago a lander fell over right after landing, and all the supplies were inaccessible until they could get it jacked up again."
"The lander fell over?!"
"Subsidence under the landing pad, I think it was."
That hadn't been in the official reports either.
We got everything shifted inside, took off and stowed our suits, and gathered in the wardroom. This half-circular room, eight meters in diameter, took up half of deck 2 of the cylindrical hab. The largest enclosed space on Mars, it would serve as our meeting room, work room, dining room, and living room. It had one long table and with ten people seated around it we were all bumping elbows. We knew we'd have to get used to the crowding, though, as it wasn't going to change for the next 107 days.
Each new ship from Earth brought four new crew. The usual procedure was that four of the old crew would depart almost immediately, leaving a crew of six: four new crew members, and two experienced ones to provide continuity. But the inexorable mathematics of orbital mechanics dictated that on this particular rotation the old crew could not depart until 107 days after the new crew had arrived. This 107-day period, long for a turnaround but short for an expedition, was my personal territory -- I had arrived with the new crew and would be departing with the old crew. Until then, ten people would have to share a space designed for six.
The ten of us introduced ourselves around the table -- purely for etiquette's sake, of course, as we were all familiar with each other's dossiers. When it came to me, I told them how much I looked forward to posting my first blog from the surface of Mars, and showed off some of the exciting photos I'd gotten after the landing.
"You can't post those," Dae-jung said.
I stared at him. "Doesn't the habitat have at least as much communications bandwidth as the ship?"
"Not bandwidth," he said, raising one finger. "Politics. We don't let the public know about small problems that don't seriously impact the mission." All of the current crew nodded their heads in agreement.
I wasn't happy about the situation, but rather than provoke a conflict in my first day on Mars, I acquiesced. That night I posted a blog about our aerobraking, descent, and landing, emphasizing the noise and vibration; it wasn't bad, but I really felt that it lacked something.
It wasn't until hours later, lying on my hard narrow bunk with a gluey rehydrated meal in my belly, that I realized I had no idea who had wound up being the sixty-seventh person to set foot on Mars.
The next day, once we had breakfasted and unpacked our few personal items into our tiny, Spartan quarters, we found out we had a lot to learn.
It turned out that all the training we had received before departure, and the manuals we had read on the trip out, were almost completely worthless. Just about every system in the habitat, from the surface suits to the sinks, had been repaired, modified, or updated. "Do not under any circumstances touch this button," Dae-jung said, pointing to the toilet's FLUSH button, which was crossed with an X of tape. He and the four new kids -- as he called us -- were all crammed into the habitat's one tiny bathroom. "We don't flush urine at all, and when it's time to flush feces you wash it down with one liter of gray water." On a shelf glued to the wall stood a scarred plastic pitcher, above which a tap hand-labeled GRAY WATER protruded from a hole that looked like it had been melted through the plastic wall with a soldering iron.
"What happens if we push the button?" Lynne Ann asked, quite reasonably.
"We call it the Blue Spew. And whoever pushes the button has to clean up the mess."
Kabir looked dubious. "So why don't you just disconnect it?"
Dae-jung gave a little smirk and pulled a panel off of the wall, revealing a disordered nest of variously-colored wires, conduits, and pipes. It didn't look a thing like the tidy pictures in the training manuals. "The last time we tried it, we lost power in the kitchen for half a week. Best to leave well enough alone."
Despite the close quarters and hassles of the hab, I was excited by actually being on Mars after the boring months of travel. Just about every day I got to put on my surface suit and tromp around on the surface of Mars -- Mars! Lifeless and airless though it might be, it had a desolate beauty to it; the low-gravity mineral formations were spectacular and their colors changed from hour to hour as the sun passed across the sky. We'd brought a supply of new weather balloons, ultra-light hydrogen-filled spheres that carried tiny instrument packages high into Mars's thin atmosphere, and they brought back more great pictures and interesting scientific data. I supplemented the limited number of photographs I could post each day with text: moments of personal drama and exciting new findings in biology, climatology, paleontology, and geology. My blog's ratings started to climb.
You might think that science is inherently dull, but personally I was fascinated by the question of why Mars's climate had changed from hospitable to inhospitable all those millions of years ago. I agreed with Secretary-General Zirinowski, who'd declared over twenty years ago that only through study of our dead sister planet could we find a way to reverse the climate change that was threatening to kill our own. I was thrilled by the opportunity to share my enthusiasm with the public, and I think that passion came through in my blog.
We new kids made a lot of mistakes in our first few weeks in the habitat, though. Lynne Ann forgot to plug in her backpack after her first EVA, so the battery ran down overnight and she couldn't go out at all the next day. (We called our outings EVAs because the hab was, technically, a vehicle -- the first crewed vehicle to land on Mars, in fact -- even though it wasn't going anywhere any more.) Audra Miskinis, our Lithuanian paleobiologist, was the first of us to do a Blue Spew, but all four of us made the same mistake at least once in the first two weeks. Even Kabir the engineer managed to mess up, damaging the pressurized rover's gearbox the first time he tried to shift it into reverse.
I managed not to break any of the hab's systems, but the error I made was much worse.
The day Kabir stripped the rover's gears, I was riding in the shotgun seat. When the horrendous grinding noise came vibrating through the rover's frame, we looked at each other in horror, but it soon became clear what had happened -- the exact same kind of boneheaded mistake any teen-aged driver might make with the family car. The necessary parts were just steps away in the hab, Kabir and I worked together to repair the damage, and by dinner that day the rover was again ready to go and we were both laughing our heads off at the whole incident. It made such a good story that I led off with it in my daily blog that evening, and I was still chuckling about it when my head hit the pillow.
Nobody was laughing the next morning, though. While we'd slept, my humorous blog story had turned into a political scandal. A US Senator, one who'd been opposed to the Kasei program since its inception, had seized on the incident as yet another example of waste and mismanagement, with a racial slur for Kabir thrown in for good measure. Mission Control had managed to blunt the public-relations damage, but they were none too pleased with Kabir for breaking the rover or with me for mentioning it in my post.
Dae-jung's face was dark as a storm cloud when he came thundering into my narrow little room. "Give me one good reason not to shut you out of the network right now," he said through clenched teeth.
I looked him straight in the eye. "I was just doing my job!" I said. "I'm here to represent the average citizen and increase public interest in the mission. All I did was report a minor incident in a humorous way."
He didn't back down. "I told you there are things we don't share with Mission Control, never mind blabbing it all over the public nets! Your little blog has undone years of careful political maneuvering in the UNSA Council."
"It's not my fault some senator used my blog to grind his own well-worn axe!"
"It's your fault for not thinking!" He slammed his fist against the cracked plastic wall. "Everything we do is being analyzed by people who want to shoot us down, and we can't hand them any ammunition!"
I had to look away. He was right -- I'd been foolish to forget about how many political enemies the program had. "I'll be more careful in the future."
"You'll be more than careful," Dae-jung said. "From now on, you will not mention anything in your blog that could cast this program in a negative light."
"Now wait just a --"
"I will review your blogs before they are posted."
"You can't do that!"
He straightened, and even though he was at least ten centimeters shorter he managed to look down his nose at me. "I am the commander of this expedition," he said. "You will obey my orders or you will be subject to discipline."
"I'll go over your head!"
In reply he gave me a smug little grin. "I'm sure Mission Control will give your protests the full attention they deserve."
I matched his grin with a level stare, jaw clenched and breathing hard through my nose. But he had the authority, he had the administrative passwords, and I was as certain as he was that in case of a dispute our superiors would side with him. They were already upset with me, and insubordination wouldn't help my case. "All right," I said after I had gotten my temper under control, "I'll let you review my blogs. For a while."
"We will see," was all he said. He shut the door behind himself, leaving me seething in my narrow little stall like an angry bull with no rider.
I came back to my quarters after a grueling geological EVA to find a blinking video-message indicator on my display. Even though I had red dust caked in every crease of my body, I played it right away -- it wasn't often anyone back home cared enough to spend the money on sending a video all the way to Mars.
It was my agent. "I'll get right to the point," she said. "The syndicate isn't happy."
Of course they weren't. Dae-jung insisted that anything negative, controversial, or unprofessional -- in other words, anything of interest to the average viewer -- be removed from my blogs, and that the scientific content be accurate and complete. Thanks to his careful editing, my blogs had turned into the same snooze-inducing stream of technical bafflegab that all the non-Citizen Astronauts had produced before I'd come along. After almost two months of this, my ratings were in the toilet.
"They're giving you three weeks. If your ratings don't improve substantially by the fifteenth of next month, they're moving you off the front page."
I sighed and put my head in my hands. They couldn't drop me completely -- I had a contract through the end of my mission -- but if my blog didn't appear on the syndicate's front page my already-puny ratings would vanish off the bottom of the chart. I'd come home to a tiny paycheck and a smoking hole where my career used to be. I'd have to start over from scratch.
I sent my agent a text message reminding her of the censorship I was facing -- not that it should be a surprise to her; I'd kept her in the loop all along -- and promising that I'd do everything I could to make my blog more interesting. But after I'd sent the message I found myself sitting and staring disconsolately at the blank screen.
I'd said I would do everything I could. But I'd already tried everything I could think of, including arguing with both Dae-jung and Mission Control, and nothing had helped.
Just then came a knock on the door. It was Kabir. "Hey, can you give me a hand with something here?"
I was still grimy and exhausted from my EVA, as well as depressed, but I knew Kabir wouldn't ask for help unless he really needed it. "Yeah, sure," I said.
It was the electrical system again, of course.
The small nuclear plant on the other side of Bathtub Ridge provided more than enough power for our needs. But the omnipresent dust, ultraviolet light, and extreme temperatures made insulation crack, switches short, fuses blow, and backup batteries fail, adding up to a rickety mess that could barely meet our needs on a good day.
And today was not looking to be one of the good days. We'd lost power in half of deck 2 and none of the usual tricks had brought it back.
Kabir's legs protruded from an access panel in the ceiling of deck 1. "Try again," came his muffled voice.
I flipped the circuit breaker. It immediately tripped again. "Nope."
Kabir cursed and squirmed around, still looking for the short circuit. While he searched, I peered at the tangle of conduits leading upwards from the panel. I was trying to figure out where the problem wire came from and where it went, but they were all the same color and it was almost impossible to trace each one visually. "Hang on," I said.
I ran my eyes along the wire again. "That wire you're looking at isn't even connected to anything. It just loops around."
Kabir pulled his upper torso out of the access panel. His hair was filthy with red dust. "So where's the short?"
"I don't know, but..." If that wire was just a dead loop, then the short had to be on this one. I followed it away from the panel, peering closely as it snaked along where the wall met the floor.
Then something caught at the back of my throat. "Huh." I closed my eyes and sniffed.
Yep. Burnt insulation.
"Here it is."
"No. Look." I pulled the conduit away from the wall, revealing a blackened spot and exposed wires.
"How the hell...?"
I smiled and tapped my nose.
Kabir shook his head in admiration.
Now that we'd found the short, fixing it only took about ten more minutes. Everyone cheered as the lights and fans came back on.
But what we'd learned disturbed me. "If that whole conduit is just a dead loop," I said, pointing, "that means the main and backup power systems are both routed through the main panel. Single point of failure."
Kabir shrugged. "Dae-jung told me the secondary panel blew out a couple years ago and they had to rewire it. But the systems are still completely separate... they're just in the same place."
I sighed. Just another one of those things we didn't tell Mission Control about. "It'll have to do, I guess. Let's get everything closed up."
After we finished, everyone who happened to be in the wardroom when we reported our achievement toasted us with tea, heated up with the newly-restored power.
"Gary's got the Magic Nose," Kabir said.
I waved a hand dismissively. "I was the 'super' of my apartment building for a few years in grad school. I didn't get a lot of sleep, but the rent was cheap. I never dreamed I'd be using those same skills on Mars!"
Just then Dae-jung came in, and we told him we'd fixed the electrical failure. He humphed and nodded. "Good work."
I decided to press my advantage, small though it was. "So can I blog about it?"
He stared at me across the scuffed plastic table, while Suma and Kabir and the others looked on. Finally he blinked. "Very well. But you must emphasize the solution, not the problem, and I will still review your work before submission."
"Of course," I said, and tried to be glad of the small victory. It wasn't much, but it was a small note of human interest that I could use to leaven the usual scientific blah-blah-blah.
It helped, but not as much as I'd hoped. Three weeks went by -- twenty-one days, twenty-four-and-a-half hours each, filled with clambering over rocks in my sweaty space suit, sifting through endless samples looking for microfossils, and constant battles with balky, malfunctioning equipment -- and though I emphasized the positive enough to get some of the interesting bits past Dae-jung my ratings remained less than stellar.
At least I'd been able to make myself useful. After the incident of the Magic Nose I'd gradually taken over more and more of the small repair and maintenance tasks that took up so much of Kabir's and Suma's time, leaving them free to perform some major system upgrades that had been put off for far too long. It wasn't how I'd planned to spend my time on Mars, but I found it more satisfying than working on blogs that I knew were going to get edited into mush and then ignored by most of my potential audience.
On Monday night, washing dishes after yet another bland rehydrated meal, I reflected that when I woke up I would probably find my blog pulled from the front page and my ratings reduced to the low single digits. "I'm going out for a walk," I said to Suma and Audra after I'd dried and put away the last plate.
Technically, we weren't supposed to go out on EVA alone, for safety's sake. But that rule had been relaxed to the point that you could solo as long as you didn't get out of sight of the hab. I suited up, got Suma to check me out, and cycled out to the surface.
The thing about being on the surface of Mars is that it's quiet. I'd grown accustomed to the many sounds of the hab, from the whir of fans to the hammering thud of the water pump; in fact, I'd gotten to the point that I noticed immediately if the sound changed, indicating that something wasn't working the way it should. But out on the surface, even with the echo of my breath and the soft clack of valves in my helmet, I felt something relax in my neck and jaw and I realized just how badly I'd needed to get away from the constant barrage of noise.
It was dark out there, too. I climbed a slight rise a couple hundred meters from the hab, switched off my headlamp, and looked up at stars scattered thick as salt spilled on a dark tablecloth. Twinkling just slightly in the thin atmosphere, they burned bright against a background blacker than any on Earth. Even through my scuffed faceplate they were awe-inspiring.
Then, as I turned back to the hab, it struck me hard that the few dim lights that shone from its windows were the only lights on the entire planet. We were alone here, entirely alone, and farther from home than any human beings had ever been before.
That's when I saw the flash.
It was brief and silent, but quite bright, and for a moment afterwards I couldn't see anything at all. But then the stars gradually reappeared, and I realized what I was seeing... or, more to the point, what I wasn't seeing.
The hab's lights had gone out. There was nothing but blackness below the horizon.
"Hello?" I called. Suma was on comms duty.
No response came on the radio.
I switched to channel 8. "This is Gary, on EVA, to anyone in the hab. Do you copy?"
Nothing. Not even static. Digital comms give you perfection or nothing at all.
I stood blinking into the endless dark. Heart pounding. Waiting.
Communications on channel 8 were automatically routed to the main speakers. Everyone in the hab -- every single human being on Mars -- should have heard my call. If no one was responding...
I switched on my headlamp and headed down the slope toward the hab, moving in a tiny rust-colored ellipse of illuminated soil. My breath was very loud in my helmet and I had to remind myself to take it slow and careful. Tripping and cracking my helmet would only make the problem worse. Whatever it was.
When I got close enough to illuminate the hab with my headlamp, I couldn't see any damage. The lights were still out, but as I walked around to the side where the main airlock was I could see flashlights moving around inside. That simultaneously reassured me and deepened my fears -- some people at least were still alive, but what kind of failure could knock out both the primary and backup power systems?
Then the answer appeared around the curve of the hull.
A big elliptical hole, two or three meters long and maybe half a meter wide, slashed diagonally across the hab's skin and part of the airlock door, ending in a fresh one-meter crater in the dirt. Meteorite strike.
Jets of gas spewed silently in several directions from the edges of the gash, showing where the meteorite's grazing path had cut through pipes carrying water, air, and other fluids and gases. Nothing came out of the gaping void in the middle of the hole, though, indicating that whatever compartments the damage had breached had already lost all their air.
Fighting down panic, I forced myself to focus on the problem at hand. Which compartments were behind the damaged sections of wall? The main airlock, of course, and the EVA prep room next to it. What was on the other side of the prep room's back wall?
Aw, crap. The engineering workroom.
No wonder the power was out. The damage cut right through the main power panel. Where the main and secondary systems came together.
Single point of failure.
As I tried to visualize the deck 1 floor plan, I realized the problem was even worse than I'd thought. If the EVA prep room and engineering workroom had both lost pressure, anyone left alive inside would be cut off from both the main airlock and the engineering airlock -- and those were where the space suits were stored.
The two upper decks were equipped with survival balls, airtight spheres that could keep one or two people alive for a few days. But once you crawled into one of those you were dependent on someone in a full-service space suit to fix the problem or haul you to safety.
And that came down to me.
I realized I was hyperventilating. I adjusted my air mix and bent down, hands on knees, until I got my breathing under control.
Okay. Priority one was to assess the situation. Did that. Priority two was to ensure my own safety, then that of others. Priority three was to prevent further damage, then initiate repairs.
I was in no immediate danger. My suit had power, air, and water for almost seven hours, though heavy physical activity would reduce that. How about the rest of the crew?
I peered up at the windows in decks 2 and 3. Flashlights still moved there. At least two, maybe three, maybe more.
There were handheld radios in the same emergency kits as the flashlights. I called all the handheld frequencies but got no response. Why?
After I gave up on that, I stepped back and waved, but got no reaction -- probably nobody was looking out the window at the moment. Even throwing small rocks at the windows didn't prompt a response.
Well, they'd be okay for a few hours at least. Even if there were nine survivors and they were restricted to the top deck, that was still over a hundred cubic meters of air. Without power that air would get cold and stale pretty quickly, but the gouts of steam from the meteorite scar had slowed and stopped -- they weren't losing any more of it.
The situation was stable, but it wouldn't improve by itself. After one more radio call -- still no response -- I headed back to the hab to see what I could do.
The main airlock's outer door was too damaged to open.
The gash made by the meteorite was too narrow and ragged to risk slipping through.
The engineering airlock door, around the back of the hab, appeared undamaged but wouldn't open. I hauled at the handle but it simply refused to budge. I peered through the small porthole in the outer door with my headlamp. Nobody was in the airlock that I could see.
I stopped to think. If both airlock doors had been closed at the time of impact, and the engineering workroom was open to Mars's near-vacuum, then the engineering airlock would be an island of air between the vacuums of the exterior and the interior. That air was doing nobody any good, and preventing me from opening the door.
I pried open the emergency manual depressurization panel and opened the valve I found there. Air jetted out -- I regretted the loss but couldn't think of an alternative -- and soon the pressure was equalized; I was able to open the door with no problem.
A long, hard look through the porthole in the inner door showed nothing moving inside the hab. There wasn't any visible damage, though papers and other lightweight objects were scattered everywhere. After a reflexive check to make sure the outer door was shut -- probably pointless, but by now it was a deeply ingrained habit -- I tried the inner door. The handle moved easily, indicating no pressure differential, but the door itself met some kind of resistance.
I pushed against the resistance and felt something fall away with a soft thud that reverberated through my feet. With a sense of dread I pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped through.
Oh God. It was Suma. She'd made it as far as the airlock door. Now she lay still, eyes open and blood-red, dark skin peppered with red blotches.
"I'm sorry," I said aloud. The sound of my own shaking voice in my helmet made hot tears spring to my eyes, but I blinked hard and tried to sniff them back. I had no way to wipe my eyes.
I checked out the rest of the lower deck as quickly as I could. All the airtight doors had sprung shut as the pressure dropped, but with the hole slashing across so many compartments there was no air on either side of any of them. The main power panel was as badly damaged as I'd feared. And in the EVA prep room I found Audra halfway into her suit. She'd managed to get the helmet on her head and the air turned on full, but it hadn't been enough.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn.
The only good news was that all eight remaining suits were in their racks and appeared undamaged.
Okay. Time to head upstairs.
The airtight hatch at the top of the ladder was sealed and wouldn't budge. That was good news -- it meant there was pressure on the other side. But there was no window in that hatch and I still had no radio communication with the survivors for reasons unknown. I tried pounding on the hatch but got no response; even when I pressed the top of my helmet against the hatch I heard nothing. That didn't mean too much, though. The hatch was heavily padded on both sides -- I myself had bashed my elbows and knees against it many times and welcomed the padding -- so the sound might not be audible.
How to get them out, or get the suits to them, with no airlock? How to even let them know I was here and trying to help?
I clung to the ladder, breathing hard. The indicator on my wrist said I had enough air for another four hours at this rate. Damn.
Okay. Think, think.
From the top of the ladder I looked down, passing my headlamp beam over scattered papers and equipment and... oh God, Suma's body. I swallowed. Think. From the bottom of the ladder it was just ten or twelve steps to the engineering airlock and its emergency suits. Not far, but too far to walk in vacuum, and donning the suits would take much too long.
But still... it wasn't far to walk. In fact, it wasn't a very large space at all.
If I could force open the hatch, air would flood down from the upper deck. Shared between the upper and lower decks it would thin out dramatically, but might still support life, at least long enough to get to the suits and don them.
The claustrophobic tightness of the hab might save us all.
I scanned my headlamp around the space, considering my plan... but no, damn it, it wouldn't work. There was still a huge hole in the wall behind the damaged power panel.
I climbed down the ladder and examined the hole. It was about one and a half square meters all told, with ragged edges of torn metal and plastic. Heavy power cables and conduits crossed the gap, blocking easy access. Some of them might still be live.
How to seal it? Even temporarily?
We had expanding foam for small holes. This was far beyond what that could cover.
But we also had something else that expanded...
I let myself out through the engineering airlock and ran to the rover. The box still held six weather balloons. I grabbed three, just in case, put them in my thigh pockets, and ran back inside.
I put one of the folded packages on the floor about two meters from the damaged power panel and pulled the inflation tab. It inflated rapidly, and in less than a minute it had nearly filled the space, bulging out tautly between floor and ceiling.
It wasn't a clean seal by any means. The taut plastic film was tough, but far from immune to punctures. The balloon was full of potentially explosive hydrogen.
It would have to do.
I went to the EVA prep room and hauled all eight suits to the base of the ladder.
There was just one more thing to do.
I went back outside and flung a few rocks at the windows, then inflated another weather balloon. As it rose gently into the black sky I played a flashlight beam across it, hoping someone inside would notice.
It worked. A flashlight from one of the deck 2 windows caught me in the eyes. Behind it I saw a waving hand. Still nothing on the radio, though. At least they knew I was here.
I ran back inside. I checked that the balloon was still in place. I made absolutely sure that every airtight door on the lower deck was closed and sealed. I climbed the ladder.
And then I put my shoulder against the hatch and pushed.
A hundred kilopascals of air pressure pushed back. It was like lifting a car. It was impossible. It didn't budge at all.
I pushed harder.
The plastic and metal of my suit's hard torso creaked as I put every bit of my strength into the effort. The edge of the neck ring bit painfully into my shoulder. I found myself grunting "Nnnnngh..." through gritted teeth.
I kept pushing.
A jet of air hissed across my helmet, letting me know I'd managed to open the hatch by just a crack. I was elated, but the pressure didn't let up at all. I kept pushing.
And then, just as I feared my trembling legs and back would give out altogether, I heard/felt a scraping noise in the hatch. I looked up and saw the scratched metal tip of a pry bar probing at the gap.
I took a deep breath, gathered my strength, and heaved.
The pry bar made it through the gap, caught, and began levering the hatch upward. The jet of air turned into a hard wind, then a wash like a waterfall as the press of the hatch on my shoulder lessened and then evaporated. The hatch swung back with a clang, revealing Kabir's smiling face.
I clung, shivering, to the ladder rungs. It was all I could do to just stay in one place as the air rushed past me. Soon everyone would be safe.
The flow slowed... slowed... and then, with a whump, it sped up again.
I looked down.
The weather balloon was gone. Only a few scraps of torn plastic fluttered in the gap where the air was rapidly escaping. The sharp edges of the hole had punctured the balloon.
I looked up. There were Kabir and Lynne Ann, hair whipping around their heads as they moved to close the hatch again.
If that hatch closed it would shut off all hope. I didn't have the strength to push it open again.
But I had one last weather balloon in my pocket.
I pulled the tab and, as the package began to inflate, lobbed it underhand toward the hole in the wall.
The growing wad of plastic and gas struck the hole and stuck. It inflated for a moment, like a kid blowing bubble gum... then suddenly deflated. It had been punctured.
But this time it was only half-inflated. The plastic was not stretched taut under pressure. It didn't tear.
The punctured balloon caught in the hole... and stuck like a glob of gum. It bellied out, away from me, growing more and more taut as the air from the upper deck filled the lower deck.
But it held. For now.
"Come on!" I shouted, clambering down the ladder, waving my arm to reinforce the words they probably couldn't hear through my helmet. "Get in your suits! Hurry!"
Down the ladder they came, Kabir and Lynne Ann and all the rest. I counted them as they passed me, joining the mob scrambling to find and don all the pieces of their suits in the crowded space. Four. Five. Six.
Only six. "Where's Dae-jung?" I asked Kabir over radio as soon as he sealed his helmet.
"Still upstairs," he gasped. "Fell down the ladder when the lights went out. Broke his leg."
We made a bucket brigade, passing Dae-jung's helmet and torso and boots and all the rest up onto deck 2. It wasn't easy getting him into the suit with a broken leg, and it must have hurt like hell, but though his eyes clenched tight shut and his skin was pale and sweaty he didn't make a sound.
I dogged down his helmet and turned on his backpack for him. As soon as the suit's cool air hit his face his eyes opened.
"Thank you," he said.
It took nearly three days to get the hole repaired and the pressure restored and the power back on. When we finally contacted Mission Control they tried to maintain their usual bureaucratic detachment but, reading between the lines, you could tell how frantic they'd been during the days of silence.
There were a lot of lessons to be learned. One, re-route the power systems to avoid a single point of failure. Two, store emergency suits on all decks. Three, deploy analog radios as a backup. Digital radios were great, but the hab's metal structure had blocked enough of the signal that they'd refused to communicate at all; the more primitive analog radios would provide at least some communication in situations of weak signal.
We buried our dead. We worked hard, eighteen and twenty hours a day, getting the hab functioning and stable. And we started to think about what we were going to do next.
Our launch window for return would open in ten days. We'd lost two people, including our most experienced engineer, and a lot of air and water and other resources. Even worse, public confidence in the whole mission had been shaken by the incident. Mission Control strongly recommended we use both landers to abandon the station and return all eight of us home. They'd try again soon with a more robust hab.
But we knew that "soon" for UNSA almost certainly meant "next decade" and might mean "never."
Defying Mission Control's recommendation, we decided we'd stay on Mars until the next crew arrived in six months, then reassess the hab's status. Mission Control didn't like it, but there was nothing they could do about it.
We knew we were taking a risk, but Kasei 19 was already on the launch pad, its crew trained and ready. If we managed to fix the hab and do good science under these circumstances, it would be a public relations triumph. Mission Control would have no choice but to continue the program.
But we couldn't all stay. Dae-jung's leg was too badly broken for him to work at all. He'd need surgery to walk again, the sooner the better. And getting the population of the hab down would make our narrowed resource margins a lot more comfortable.
In the end my own decision wasn't as hard as you might think.
"I'm staying," I blogged, "because I can't leave now. There's a lot of work to be done to get the hab back in full working order... more than Kabir could possibly do alone. I'm not a professional engineer but I know I can do the work. And humanity needs this program to succeed. We've made some amazing discoveries already, but there's far more to be learned from Mars. That's why Lynne Ann and Huang are staying as well -- to keep the science going. Two engineers and two scientists isn't a full crew, but it's enough to keep the dream alive."
After that post my ratings shot through the roof.
Which was nice, but it wasn't really important any more.
The four of us stood and saluted as the lander rose silently into the salmon-colored sky. But we returned to the hab before its vapor trail had cleared.
We had a lot to do.
David D. Levine has sold over 40 science fiction and fantasy stories to all the major markets, including Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy. He's won a Hugo Award, been nominated for the Nebula, and won or been shortlisted for many other awards as well as appearing in numerous Year's Best anthologies and the revised version of Wild Cards Volume I. His web page is at http://www.daviddlevine.com/.
About the Author
In January 2010, I spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert. You can read my blog of the experience at http://bentopress.com/mars/. For more information about MDRS, see http://mdrs.marssociety.org/.
Although "Citizen-Astronaut" was inspired by my experiences in Utah, this story is fiction and none of the awful things that happen to my protagonist in the story actually happened to me at MDRS. In particular, I must point out that my entire MDRS crew and the fine volunteers at the Mars Society were a lot nicer and more cooperative than the people in the story who give my protagonist so many problems, and we didn't have to face nearly the same level of equipment failure that my protagonist does.
Even though his name is Gary Shu.
Go to David's Science Fiction Writing page