Excerpt for Colony on Mars Books 1-5 The Compete Box Set by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Colony on Mars

Books 1 - 5

The Complete Box Set

Someday Real Settlers Will Tell Stories Like These


Kate Rauner


Copyright Kate Rauner

Copyright and License Notes



CONTENTS


Colonization Book 1: Glory on Mars

Colonization Book 2: Born on Mars

Colonization Book 3: Hermit on Mars

Colonization Book 4: Water on Mars

Colonization Book 5: Storm on Mars

About this set

Learn More About Mars

About Kate Rauner

Also by Kate

Thanks




About This Set

Welcome to the complete On Mars series. Lots of people want to go to Mars, and some are willing to take a one-way trip. Someday soon, maybe in our lifetimes, stories about those settlers will be true - maybe something like the stories in this book set.

I have two kinds of readers. Some of you want me to "just get on with it." I hope the story moves along well enough for you to enjoy.

Some of you ask for more details. In a few places you'll find an internal link that takes you to a bonus section. These descriptive vignettes enhance the story but aren't essential to the plot. Read them as you run into the links, before you start the story, after you finish, or never. These is, after all, your books. - Kate -



Colonization Book 1

Glory on Mars


START READING



Glory on Mars - Table of Contents

Epigraph

Chapter 1 Incident

Chapter 2 Explorers

Chapter 3 Spaceport

Chapter 4 Farewell

Chapter 5 Mass Driver

Chapter 6 Goodbye Earth

Chapter 7 The Cat

Chapter 8 Journey

Chapter 9 Onboard

Chapter 10 Mid-Point

Chapter 11 Arrival

Chapter 12 Disassembly

Chapter 13 Jumpship Down

Chapter 14 Burial

Chapter 15 Cargo

Chapter 16 Construction

Chapter 17 Sun Dogs

Chapter 18 Rovers

Chapter 19 Pressies

Chapter 20 Haboob

Chapter 21 Haiku

Chapter 22 Walkabouts

Chapter 23 CO2

Chapter 24 Exploring

Chapter 25 Meteor

Chapter 26 Crater

Chapter 27 First Date

Chapter 28 Flare

Chapter 29 Return

Chapter 30 Aloe

Chapter 31 Run

Chapter 32 Wild

Chapter 33 Rescue

Chapter 34 Hindsight

Chapter 35 Impact

Chapter 36 Settler Four

Chapter 37 English Breakfast

Chapter 38 Power

Chapter 39 Data

Chapter 40 Winter

Bonuses



Epigraph

"Humanity is destined to explore, settle, and expand outward into the universe." Buzz Aldrin, second man to walk on the Moon



Chapter One: Incident


The seaside resort of Noordwijk was a strange place to train for a mission to the barren deserts of Mars, but Colony Mars had its tidy headquarters north of the Dutch city, inland from the deep dunes of the beach. Sightseers hurried through the visitors' center to join guided tours of a Martian colony mockup and settler-candidates stopped between austere buildings to admire the summer flowers that replaced spring tulips.

Emma was about to start her last English-language tour when her link beeped an incoming message - the tone for "urgent". One family was still coming up the ramp, two young boys ricocheting among signs diagramming the mockup of the colony. Emma turned discreetly to one side and tapped her headset.

"There's a mission problem." Emma didn't check her contact lens for metadata - that was the mission lead's voice in her ear. "Come to the control room as soon as duties allow."

A chill ran through Emma. Maybe her launch date had slipped. Maybe they'd miss the window entirely and she'd remain on Earth, temporarily reprieved. Why was that the first thought that came to her? Must be pre-launch jitters.

Emma was about to fly on Settler Mission Three and her journey depended on a narrow launch window. Balancing the planets' orbital dance with fuel requirements, Colony Mars could launch a mission every twenty-six months. If they missed it, there'd be a twenty-six month delay. But Emma excelled at focusing on the task at hand, so she turned her attention back to her tour group.

"If we're all ready? My name is Emma Winters and I'm a Martian settler. In twelve days, Colony Mars will launch me and three crewmates into orbit to board our transport ship. I'll be your guide today through this replica of the Kamp Kans colony habitat or nederzetting, as our Dutch founders call it."

"Wow," one of the bouncy boys said. He was clearly a fan, dressed in a rugby shirt from the gift shop, striped in rusty red and sky blue just like Emma's uniform. "Are you really going to Mars and never coming back?"

"Yup. This is my last day in Holland."

She watched everyone's eyes widen at that. Public outreach, like this tour, was part of every settler's training, right up to their final day at headquarters. Personal contact kept public interest and donations high.

The urgent message tugged at her thoughts and she pushed it away again.

"Why don't one of you young men open the door and we'll begin." She gestured towards the white metal hatchway. The younger boy hopped forward, stopping just before he ran into the door.

"Hey!"

"You have to open it manually, dummy," his brother said. He looked back at Emma proudly. "All the nederzetting's doors are manual."

"That's right," Emma said with a practiced smile. The tour always started with the surprise of a manual door.

"Colony Mars uses the latest technology for some things, like construction, communications, and power generation. But technology requires lots of support - spare parts and maintenance. There are only eight people on Mars now; twelve when my mission gets there. Human beings are flexible - our hands can replace dozens of servomechanisms."

The boy scowled at her skeptically.

Emma held up a pencil she carried especially for this bit.

"Even simple tools are complex to manufacture. The wood for this pencil is logged in Oregon, in America. The graphite in the center is mined in Sri Lanka. Zinc and copper from Africa for the cap, and the eraser combines Italian pumice with Canadian rapeseed oil." She waggled the pencil at the crowd.

"I haven't mentioned the machines needed to produce it, or the thousands of workers and piles of parts at every step. On Mars, we use low tech wherever we can." Emma spun the wheel-shaped handle, and stepped to one side as she heaved the door open.

"Even 'no tech'. These hinges will still be working a hundred years from now."

She pushed the urgent message firmly out of her mind as the group stepped and stumbled over the door frame.


***


The quickest route to Mission Control was through the visitors' center. From the lobby, tourists turned right to enter the museum and gift shop under a banner in four languages.

Mars is ons geschenk aan de toekomst

Marso estas nia donaco al la estonteco

Mars est notre cadeau pour l'avenir

Mars is our gift to the future

Instead, Emma stepped behind the lobby's welcome desk. Rather than the usual cheery greeting, the attendant nodded grimly. Alarmed, Emma laid her hand on the scanner, a door concealed in the wall clicked open, and she hopped on the walkalator to the Mars-Earth Exchange building.

She could see the MEX antenna farm from the glass corridor. Today a group from the nearby European Space Agency's Technology Center stood at the base of the main dish - their visit had been the day's news at breakfast - but she was too distracted to wonder if they'd award another grant to Colony Mars.

She entered at the back of a stadium-style control room, behind two dozen stations, each arranged like an individual cockpit, and scanned the room for Filip Krast, the stocky MEX mission control lead. The front row, on the lowest level, was fully occupied as always by controllers running the satellite systems that orbited Mars - communications, tracking, weather, and solar power. On the second level technicians were installing upgrades for Emma's Settler Three mission.

Filip hurried across the top level, past the special projects stations, and ushered Emma to a glass-walled cubicle against the back wall.

"There's been a... an incident at Kamp. This isn't easy to watch." He steered her to a video console in the corner and hit playback. "There's been a death."

Emma sat up straight and felt her fingers go cold.

On the vid, the colony's doctor, Ingra, was stepping through a door in the habitat module. The lights were dimmed and the audio feed was silent except for the hum of life support systems - it was pre-dawn at the settlement. She crossed to the airlock, slowly rotated the door handle, and hopped through.

Filip tapped the console, switching to the playback from inside the airlock. Ingra sealed the door and looked up at the imager.

"By the time this transmission reaches Earth, I'll be gone. I can't stay here any longer. There's a huge old oak tree beyond that little crater. No one can see it, but I know it's there. I'm going home. Forgive me." She walked past the surface survival suits hanging on the wall and reached for the airlock control panel.

Emma felt a knot tighten in her stomach.

"She can't get out without a suit, can she? The airlock pumps are slow; she'll pass out before the pressure is low enough for her to open the outer door, right?"

Filip pointed back to the screen.

Ingra stepped to the outer door. With a pull and twist, she opened the emergency decompression valve. Red lights began to flash and ice fog clouded the imager lens. Ingra fumbled with the outer door and it opened. With her last lungful of air, she pulled the door open and disappeared into the darkness.



Chapter Two: Explorers


Emma looked up, not quite believing what she'd seen.

Filip shook his head.

"We sent alarms from here as soon as she entered the airlock, but she was gone before anyone received our transmission. With the outer door open, this airlock is disabled. Two of the settlers have already suited up and gone out the other way - to retrieve her body.

"You're the last of your crew to view this," he said gently. "The others are in the settlers' lounge. If you'll wait there, we'll keep you posted."

The lounge was at the opposite side of the building, down the main hall. Murals would one day cover the walls with a panel for each mission, but there were only six missions sketched out so far, with only Settler Missions One and Two completed in full color. Emma walked past pictures of the early robotic missions, the satellite system with its orbiting power station, and the squad of construction robots on the Martian surface. She stopped at the Settler One panel, The Pioneers, to look at portraits of the first crew. Ingra's face was smiling and confident. The first four settlers had lived in their ship, its modules repurposed on Mars' surface, for two years while building the large plaza and utilities spine.

Settler Two's panel, The Builders, depicted four more smiling portraits above a diagram of the growing habitat. Their transport ship had also been disassembled and ferried to the surface. All the ships would be cannibalized this way. There was no going back to Earth.

I don't understand, Emma thought as she gazed at the panel. Sure, the first two years were tough when they only had the three modules from their transport ship as habitat. But the second transport added three more modules and they constructed the plaza bay - pressurized it with air harvested from the wisp-thin Martian atmosphere. Things were looking up.

She reached up to the diagram and touched the airlock Ingra had used. That airlock was probably still open to the frozen Martian atmosphere. Dust is drifting in, she thought idly. It will be hard to clean the airlock seals.

She jumped when her headset beeped with an incoming message.

"Hi Emma. It's Malcolm. Have you heard about Ingra? Are you okay?"

His face, projected into Emma's left eye on her contact link, was pinched with worry.

"Malcolm - you shouldn't contact me in real-time."

Malcolm and the rest of the Settler Four crew were nearing the end of an isolation evaluation, sealed inside a mock-up of a transport ship's habitat module. Anyone who came out early would lose their place on the mission.

"I'm sorry I can't be there with you."

It was like Malcolm to risk a direct message. But then, he was a charmer and claimed he could talk his way out of anything. At a party, he was always in the middle of the crowd, offering jokes and compliments. They'd spent a long weekend together once - he'd planned everything and she had fun.

She walked past her own portrait - Settler Three, The Explorers - to the Settler Four panel, stood so his image in her eye overlaid his portrait, and hugged herself. "But we can't talk like this. Send a time-lagged message.

"And don't worry about me. I'll be with my mission crew."


***


Emma walked into the settlers' lounge, past a table to a circle of sleekly upholstered chairs pulled close together. Liz Brown jumped up. She had her hair pulled back in a streaked blond pony-tail, which emphasized her long face. Liz's eyes were red and, as they hugged, tears formed in Emma's eyes, too.

She'd never lived outside the United States before joining Colony Mars so Liz, a Canadian, felt like a friend from home. Emma had cross-trained as Liz's back-up farmer and they made a good team.

Emma sank into the empty chair next to Liz. On her other side, James Moore gave her a wan smile. The son of a diplomatic family, he'd lived all over the world and was generally irrepressible. It was strange to see a sober expression on his face.

"Do you think they'll delay our launch?" None of them were especially close to Ingra - she'd left Earth before they arrived at Colony Mars' headquarters - so James was probably more worried for the mission.

"I think that will depend on the other settlers on Mars." Claude Krueger leaned over to them to speak softly. He was the oldest member of the S-3 crew - a field lithologist and looked the part, squarely built with callused hands. Claude was German, but had been teaching in California when he applied to Colony Mars.

Emma glanced around the room. The S-4 crew was, of course, in their isolation evaluation. Candidates for S-5 clustered together on the opposite side of the room. One of them gave Emma an uncertain nod. Settlers had a say in selecting subsequent crews, and they didn't know how to react to Ingra's suicide in front of the S-3 crew.

"Suicide. Could it be anything else?" Claude asked.

"I don't know." Liz had talked with Ingra more than the rest of them. She took medic training and they often messaged back and forth. "She sounded delusional on the vid. She was hallucinating."

"She's Kamp's psychologist. I don't see how this could happen."

"Doctors make lousy patients. Being a psychologist, she'd be able to fake her own routine psych evals."

"Well, this may be ghoulish, but her death's sure increased interest in the colony," James said.

Emma's eyes snapped up to the Earth Scan sphere spinning in the far corner of the room at the ceiling.

The most sophisticated artificial intelligence used by Colony Mars didn't run life support on Mars or pilot spaceships; it tracked their public presence on Earth. Earth Scan collected trillions of inputs worldwide, compiled reports, and projected a holographic sphere, a snapshot of how billions of people viewed the colony project.

The sphere was swollen to double its usual size, reflecting increased views. Color coded like a main sequence star, the sphere had intensified to blue from the usual yellow. Inside the translucent sphere, a silver hoop spun to show the rate of earnings from premium content, donations, and merchandise. It was twirling.

"MEX cut the live feed when they realized what was happening," James said. "And I guess the premium subscribers have been howling. They released the vid a few minutes ago."

"Hell," Emma said. "They released the entire video? What if her family sees it?"

Emma's link interrupted her with another message from Malcolm. She answered in a whisper, as if talking out loud would draw more attention to his breach of protocol.

"I talked to one of the women on my crew. She'll trade places with you, so you can fly with me."

"That won't work. The robotic rovers and walkabouts are already packed in the cargo module. And I'm the mission roboticist. I've got to go."

"I don't want you in danger. Ingra was the colony's psychologist, for god's sake, and she killed herself. It's not safe until the experts figure out what's going wrong."

"I'm not going to kill myself."

"Of course not. But what about the others, the colonists already on Mars? What if another one goes crazy?"

"The colony's Artificial Intelligence can run psych evals for psychologists on Earth."

"It's just that, I'm worried for you. I love you, Emma. I don't want anything to happen to you."

His intensity transfixed her. It had drawn her to him originally and a tingle ran down her spine. But they hadn't spent enough time together to talk about love.

"I'm signing off, Mal. My crew's waiting for me."

"You can't go." There was a cold edge to his voice.

Emma's feelings shifted abruptly. His concern had been touching, but he had no right to tell her what to do.

She'd been talking softly, but now pulled out her pocket pad to type a private reply. I'm not volunteering to give up my spot on S-3.

The words looked harsh on her screen. He was, after all, worried about her with good reason. Critics predicted psychological issues would destroy the colony. That's why Colony Mars decided evals by Kamp's AI weren't enough and included a psychologist among the settlers. Ingra's evaluations of individuals were, of course, confidential, but Emma read all her summary reports. There was insomnia among the settlers, fatigue, loss of appetite, and trouble focusing. None of that sounded fatal, but Ingra was dead.

Don't worry about me. I'm with a good crew and I can take care of myself. You need to take care of yourself. Talk to your mission counselor.

"Malcolm," she said in response to Liz's raised eyebrow. "He's flipping out."

"He was a lot of fun at that candidate meet-and-greet party." Her forehead wrinkled with concern. "I didn't know you were still seeing him?"

"I'm not, not really. We've each had so much training, different duty schedules..."

"He should talk to his counselor if he's upset."

"That's what I'm telling him."

She read the pad again and hit send.

When the public information officer walked in, he had more details, but no more insight. "I've received a few suggestions to change your mission," he said. "But there's not enough time to explore what unintended consequences could arise. And no one wants to miss a launch window. So the Explorers Mission is still a go."

James must have been holding his breath. He heaved out a sigh in relief, Liz and Claude nodded, and Emma ignored the tightness in her stomach.

"But if any of you want to drop out... I'll try to place you on another flight, but I can't make any guarantees."

"I'm ready to go," Claude said and the others nodded resolutely.

Emma's back straightened and her jaw set. "I'm not dropping out."

"I knew you'd all feel that way." He smiled grimly.

Emma sat with her crewmates the rest of the day, abandoning plans for a final walk along the shore. They followed reports from Kamp, watched as Ingra's body was carried beyond the colony's construction zone for burial, and as the airlock was cleaned and closed. Colony Mars issued a formal statement and began planning a memorial service. Emma was sorry they'd miss the ceremony, but not sorry she'd miss the subtle fund-raising that would, no doubt, be embedded in the eulogies.

The launch window wouldn't wait and she had to pack - they all did. The crew's flight to Spaceport America would leave Rotterdam airport the next day.

Then on to Mars.



Chapter Three: Spaceport


Spaceport America's main terminal squatted like a huge horseshoe crab shoved into New Mexico's desert floor. Dry mountains rose in the distance and roads crisscrossed a sandy plain to launch pads, past low scrubby trees raising gray-green leaves to the blue sky. It was the end of the rainy season and birds flitted across the landscape, searching for ripening seeds.

The reception party was canceled after Ingra's death, but a banner still hung at their arrival gate: Welcome Colony Mars Settler 3 Explorers.

Ground-support teams met them, accompanied by spaceport officials. They'd spend two nights in the spaceport's elegant hotel before shuttling out to the launch site.

Emma carried two duffle bags to her room. Settlers took few personal possessions with them and she dropped that small bag on the closet floor. The second bag held what she'd need for her time at the spaceport. She'd leave it behind.

The room was huge. The bed alone was larger than her room on Mars would be, where she'd have a bunk in one of the repurposed ship modules. Kamp's dormitory bay wouldn't be built for years.

She activated her link and made a voice contact.

"Hi Mom. I'm at the spaceport."

Her mother had vacillated between congratulations and tears throughout Emma's training. Today it was tears.

"I can't believe you're really going," she said with a sniffle. "Living on Mars! It doesn't seem real. What are you going to do every day?"

"Mom, didn't you read the Colony Mars mission site?" She'd tried to explain a dozen times. Her mother never paid attention for long.

"Yes. Well, some of it. What's this about you eating worms? Sounds dreadful."

"It's practical. The first two missions have been living on space rations while they build the basic settlement bays. There's room to plant gardens now and - yes - raise mealworms for protein. Fish, too, if that sounds better to you. But the exciting part is the exploration robots - we're taking the rovers and walkabout suits from Dad's company."

Colony Mars engineers had argued for simple surface buggies, but her father could be eloquent. He'd convinced management that rovers fully integrated with the colony's AI would be more flexible and safer. And if the high-tech interface failed, Emma explained, she could strip it out and go back to manual operation.

"You and your Dad are like two peas in a pod on this robot thing." Her mother laughed through her sniffles." I never could follow the conversations you had, even when you were a little girl."

According to her mother, her father's early business ventures all failed. But he started a robotics company about the time she was born and it took off. Mom wasn't interested in robotics or business and Emma couldn't remember a time when her father wasn't working long hours. It was no surprise that her parents divorced shortly after she started college.

It was her father who got Emma interested in engineering, in robotics, and in Mars. After she finished her engineering degree, he gave her a job on his contracts for the colony - much more exciting than tweaking designs on domestic bots, which is what new-hires usually did. All his talk about destiny in space inspired her to apply. That, and the chance to personally test the robots on the Martian surface. Emma's enthusiasm bubbled up as she talked about the walkabouts.

"The adjustable seals on the walkabouts were a real challenge. I had to..."

"It sounds very interesting, dear. I'm sure your father's thrilled, though I haven't heard from him lately."

Emma sighed. She should know better - Mom could only listen to technical talk for so long.

"I've arrived at my maker-space, so I've got to go. I'm going to miss you so much." Her mother smiled through tears. "I'm proud of you and so happy you're following your dream."

Emma flopped across the coral and turquoise bedspread as the link closed. Her mother never shared her zeal for engineering - Emma was her father's child in that way. He'd encouraged her, though mostly from a distance, answering her messages late at night from his lab or while traveling. She'd treasured every message he sent and saved them all. Sometimes it was hard to tell where his passion stopped and hers began. Emma hoped she was following her dream.


***


Emma expected to have the next morning to herself, but as she dressed her link beeped, summoning her to a meeting, immediately. She'd already pulled on a tee-shirt and old jeans - comfortable old jeans she'd leave behind. She decided not to change and headed for the room noted in the message, trying to ignore her growling stomach.

The room was a top floor suite and, as she lifted her hand to knock, the door opened. She didn't recognize the man who tipped his head politely, but he was dressed in khakis and a Colony Mars blue ground-support shirt.

"Please come in. Your crewmates will be here shortly." He waved her inside.

Emma stepped into a large sitting room and looked past the upholstered chairs to a splendid breakfast buffet across the room.

"Please, help yourself."

She was starting on a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs when her crewmates arrived and happily filled plates for themselves.

"I don't know what this meeting's about," James said, spearing a perfect strawberry and holding it up. "But I approve."

The doorman bustled around, pouring coffee for each of them and offering a carafe of warm cream.

"Mademoiselle." He turned, holding the coffee pot balanced against a crisp white napkin.

A slight, elderly lady in a formal business suit quietly entered from the suite's next room.

"Mademoiselle Lambert, may I present Claude Krueger, Liz Brown, James Moore, and Emma Winters." He nodded at each of them in turn. "Ladies and gentlemen, Mademoiselle Amelia Lambert."

Claude leaped to his feet and the others followed. Mlle Lambert was Colony Mars' benefactor, a wealthy reclusive patron whom no one, as far as Emma knew, ever met.

Mlle Lambert stepped forward and shook Claude's outstretched hand, shook hands with Liz and James, and turned to Emma.

"I've looked forward to meeting you, Doctor Winters. I've known your father for many years."

"My pleasure," Emma said uncertainly.

Damn, she thought. Does everyone know my father?

"Jason, champagne for my guests, please. Then take something for yourself and relax."

The doorman pulled an ice bucket and bottle from under the buffet tablecloth and popped the cork. He conjured crystal flutes and served Mlle Lambert, then Emma and the other settlers before retreating out of sight. Emma didn't think he relaxed.

"I might inquire how you like your rooms," Mlle Lambert said after a sip. "But I imagine you are more interested in why I asked you here."

"Why, yes, mademoiselle," Claude said. He recovered his manners faster than the others. "It's a great honor..."

"Rather a great surprise, don't you think?" Mlle Lambert's eyes sparkled over a mischievous smile. "I have a special request. I thought I'd deliver it in person.

"You probably know the settlers at Kamp have cut off their live video feeds. The colony's artificial intelligence system is recording everything, but the settlers have voted to limit the feed to Earth. Right now, we have access to one imager in the plaza bay, the most public portion of the nederzetting."

"It's understandable, isn't it?" Liz asked. "They want privacy after Ingra's death."

Mlle Lambert pulled a pad from her pocket, laid it flat on the table, and called up Earth Scan's 3-D image. A miniature sphere glowed and spun above the pad.

"Understandable, oui. But it does not help us enlist public support. It does not help with fundraising." She tapped the pad again and a bar chart, like a handful of pencils, floated in mid-air.

"Here are donations, here's time." She ran a finger along each axis. "People are frustrated when they can't see the settlers, can't hear their reactions. They lose interest and that reduces donations.

"Colony Mars plans to keep sending settlers forever, but in practice, we can only send missions as long as we have funding. My people use Kamp's feeds to produce weekly infotainments. Access to live feeds is a perk for our premium subscribers.

"I can fund Colony Mars for a time. Sale of my Tuscan estate, for example, bought your transport ship. But it's my hope that Colony Mars will continue to send settlers long after I am gone." She closed the chart display.

"I am a determined woman. All the women in my family are willful. When we choose to accomplish something, we succeed, and that is the attitude needed to colonize Mars. Technology may keep you alive, but attitude will allow you to thrive."

"Perhaps you understand the situation," Mlle Lambert said. "Once you join Kamp Kans on Mars, perhaps you will favor the video feeds."

Liz and James nodded and Claude frowned. The little speech reminded Emma of her father, but she didn't need more inspiration.

"I don't think the first thing I want to do is start an argument with the other settlers," Emma said.

"Very wise. Keep in mind the colony is not yet self-sustaining. We will launch ships through mission seven, one every twenty-five months - then we must skip a few years, so ships don't arrive at the height of Mars' storm season. After that... we shall see. By then, perhaps there will be enough resources on Mars for the colony to survive without us."

"Mission seven. We'll have twenty-eight settlers on Mars by then," Claude said.

"Twenty-seven." Liz corrected him quietly.

Mlle Lambert sipped her champagne for a moment. "Twenty-seven are not enough settlers to satisfy the experts, as you know. But, with luck, perhaps enough for humanity to have a permanent home on Mars."

She rose from her chair.

"Of course you must do what you feel is right. But it would be a very sad thing to be both the first and the last humans on Mars."

Jason appeared and opened the door behind her.

"Please enjoy your breakfast," she said. "A human foothold on Mars has been my lifelong dream, and you are making it come true. You have my gratitude."

She gave them each a nod, turning to Emma last.

"Your father never mentioned me, did he?"

"I'm afraid I don't remember..."

"Quite right. Good luck Doctor Winters." Mlle Lambert stepped through the door and Jason followed her. There was the soft click of a lock turning.

"Well, I'll be..." Claude continued to stare at the closed door.

"She seems to like you," James said to Emma. "What do you think of this business with the vid feeds?"

"It's close to eight months before we enter Mars orbit. Maybe things will sort themselves out," Emma said. She walked back to the buffet and picked up a wedge of watermelon.

"It's seedless, Liz."

"Too bad. We don't have any watermelon seeds with us."

They were leaving so much behind.

I'll have to request that watermelon seeds be added to the next mission, Emma thought.



Chapter Four: Farewell


That evening, Emma dressed for the farewell event in a standard settler's uniform: a rust and blue striped rugby shirt over khaki cargo pants. The versions she'd wear on the spaceship and at Kamp Kans were stain-free, self-cleaning fabrics knit from fibers infused with a slippery film.

At least I won't be doing laundry for years to come, she thought, and sadly rubbed the soft cotton shirt between her fingers.

Emma didn't usually worry about how she looked. In robotics labs, fashion consisted of colorful frames on safety glasses. Outside the lab, Colony Mars had been dressing her for a couple years. But for the journey to Mars, she'd cropped her hair short and the severe cut didn't enhance her square, pale face. Tonight was a party, so she tried to fluff her hair out around her ears but didn't bother with makeup - there'd be none on Mars.

There was just one last duty before the farewell party, a final media conference in the convention wing of the hotel.

She was walking down the hall with the rest of the crew when her link beeped.

"Huh, it's Dad," she said to Liz. "I'll be along in a minute."

Her father's face appeared over the link. He usually wore a solemn expression, but tonight he looked grim.

"I'm starting a new line of asteroid mining bots, and I need a group leader. I'd like that leader to be you. Your own lab, and of course you'll pick your own team. We'll start with a research-oriented budget..."

"What? Dad." She interrupted him. "What are you talking about? I'm on my way to Mars. I'm at Spaceport America now."

"I know that," he said. "But you can do more for the company on Earth than on Mars. Would you rather take over the future Colony Mars contracts?

"I want you to stay."

Emma stopped dead in the hallway.

"What? You encouraged me to go. What about all those speeches you made? What we learn will benefit humanity - the lure of the unknown - the noble experiment to inspire future generations - that exploration is in our DNA. What about the benefits to the company by ensuring our bots are part of a scientific breakthrough?"

"It's not just the company." He wore an odd, strained expression.

"To survive you've got to maintain a bubble of Earth on Mars. If that bubble bursts, you'll die."

"You've seen the technical specs..."

"No one knows the technology better than I do." He took a deep breath. "I'll miss you, hon."

"We never see each other anyway." Emma waved her hands in exasperation. "We can trade messages - just like always, every couple months." She felt inexplicably angry.

"You don't have to give up Mars. I've got contracts right here at home for future missions. Take your pick."

"Look, Dad. I'm going. Nothing changes between us."

"I'll miss our dinners together when I'm in town." He sounded hurt.

"You want me to give up a dream for dinner once a year?"

Liz glanced over a shoulder at her. Emma took a deep breath and calmed the shrillness in her voice.

"Dad, you've got pre-launch jitters. Everything we've planned over the past few years - me and you - it'll all be good, you'll see."

She hurried to catch up with the crew and whispered to Liz what her father said.

"His wavering is natural," Liz said. "It's hard to say goodbye. But we're lucky. We'll have contact with our families, and all our favorite book and picture files. That's more than most immigrants had throughout history."

"Did it give you second thoughts? Saying goodbye, I mean?"

"I've cried, but - no. Mars or bust." Liz shook her fist with a thumbs-up.

"What about Ingra? You have medic training - do you think someone else will go crazy?"

Liz shook her head. "Who knows? But it's worth the risk. Expanding the spiral of creation is the purpose of life."

Emma retreated to her own thoughts. Liz belonged to SolSeed, dedicated to seeing life take root among the stars, as she'd often said. Mars was humanity's first step and Liz wasn't worried about personal deprivations. Emma didn't have a cosmic purpose to comfort her.

In the small conference room, Colony Mars functionaries ushered the crew to seats at a long table. Logo-festooned banners hung from the table and two staff psychologists were already seated. A dozen folding chairs faced the table, all empty. Emma was used to these internet press meetings. As each journalist was tapped by the coordinator, their hologram would pop up in a seat and a question would be read into her ear in English, out of synch with the lip movements of whatever language the questioner spoke.

Most questions tonight were about Ingra's suicide and Emma was happy the psychologists answered those. They offered assurance that the colony would survive - serious answers tinged with optimism.

A dark woman popped up in the front row.

"My viewers wonder, how is this colony different from the space missions we're used to, from the European Space Agency or from NASA?"

The public information officer answered, but Emma could imagine Filip Krast nodding for all the mission controllers.

"Letting the settlers manage their own lives in space, accepting that we're not in charge anymore. It's as hard as any engineering challenge."

Finally there was a familiar question, one asked all the time.

The image of a pale man with sagging jowls appeared on their left. The crew turned their heads. It was easier to be engaging if they pretended he was really there.

"Why go to Mars? You'll be the most isolated humans who ever lived. Why, especially, do you want to live the rest of your lives there? I'd like to hear from each of you... Miz Brown?"

"Earth's a fragile orb. Something catastrophic could happen - natural or manmade. I'll be making life multi-planetary."

James couldn't resist adding something.

"If dinosaurs had a space program, they wouldn't be extinct."

"Noble, but, Miz Brown, is there nothing personal?"

"There's the opportunity for transcendence, to grow spiritually, and gain a greater appreciation of life."

Claude got a faraway look whenever he answered this question.

"To gain new knowledge."

"How about creating wealth? An entire world of untapped resources? You're a geologist - isn't that what you do?" The jowly man was persistent.

"Geo means Earth, so I'm a lithologist now - I study rocks on Mars." Claude shook his head.

"And - no. One reason that people are fascinated by Mars is that it's beyond our current culture. Earth can't make a profit from it. It makes no economic sense. We go for science."

James was their most popular spokesman. He kept a little speech ready.

"Humanity evolved in Africa - so why aren't we all still there? I think it's because of what we are - what we do. We wander. We explore.

"Half a millennium ago, Europeans set out to conquer the Earth for gold, glory, and god. Well, Claude wants to study Martian rocks - that will be our Martian gold.

"Liz is called to carry life to a barren world, a sacred obligation to god.

"But me and Emma..." Here he turned to her.

"We're in it for the glory. The pure, glorious idiocy of the challenge."

Emma smiled into the room's cameras, ignoring the tension in her body.

"Yeah - my walkabout bots are so unconventional - I couldn't find anyone else willing to pilot them on Mars."

That got a laugh, as always. But it was a relief when the conference ended.

They walked straight down the carpeted hall to a large ballroom. Emma paused at the door to look around. There were spaceport officials and Colony Mars executives glad-handing significant donors. The ground-support team members were milling around quietly, easy to pick out in shirts striped with two shades of blue instead of the settlers' blue and red.

A Colony Mars official gestured the crew to join him, grabbed a microphone, and the crowd quieted. After a short eulogy to Ingra, he called for a minute of silence.

When the minute passed, he raised his fist defiantly.

"Ingra's sacrifice is not in vain. On to Mars."

"On to Mars!" The crowd shouted back to him and the party began.

Someone pushed a flute of champagne into Emma's hand. She abandoned her usual restraint, had a second glass of champagne, and switched to tangy margaritas when waiters brought out platters of cheese-stuffed jalapenos.

"Settlers, we need you at the front of the room." The climax of the evening was coming. An officious looking man in a suit waved his hand solemnly and the crowd parted, letting Emma walk to the front of the room with her crewmates.

"These are the final Colony Mars contracts," the man said. For an oddly archaic effect he held long paper pages over his head. Liz pushed forward to sign first and the rest of the crew queued behind her. Emma scribbled her name awkwardly with a pen. She understood there was no chance of returning from Mars, understood her survival was not guaranteed, and relinquished her right to sue Colony Mars for any reason.

"Okay everyone. Gather round." The support team lead hopped up on a chair and swayed precariously. "It's time for the electronics swap."

Unexpectedly, Emma felt a wave of panic battle the tequila in her bloodstream. She'd had phones and tablets, games and links for as long as she could remember. But batteries were a luxury on Mars, used only for necessary applications. All her earthly devices would be left behind.

One by one, with laughing and back-slapping, the crew of Settler Three relinquished their devices. Contact lenses were popped out and pads were dropped into a box.

"We don't leave our intrepid settlers out of touch," the support lead shouted over the crowd. He passed Emma a hand-sized pad.

With a cord. An electric power cord. And then he handed her an extension cord.

Emma stared at them. Of course, she used corded pads in training, but the permanence of surrendering her own devices left her hollow inside. She wandered towards the edge of the crowd, to the ballroom wall, and plugged into an outlet.

Her pad powered up immediately and, already set to Emma's account, popped open a message.

"Hey! I've got a message from Kamp," she called out. People nearby turned towards her and the room quieted when they saw her puzzled face.

"They want a cat."

"What?" The support lead tumbled off his chair in confusion.

"They want us to bring them a cat." Emma held up the pad, hitting the end of the power cord.

"You mean a pet-bot?" someone asked.

"No. A real, live cat. They say they've arranged for a kitten to be delivered to our ship from Lunar Base."

Fuzzy with margaritas, Emma was perplexed. Maybe the settlers on Mars were going crazy. But a cat would be more life on Mars and, somewhere in the crowd, she was sure Liz was smiling.


***


Emma slipped out of the party and wandered down the hall to a hotel coffee shop. Real coffee with real cream was something she'd miss and she didn't trust the stuff they'd brew at the launch facility. This could be her last chance.

She chose a small table in the far corner of the room. As she nursed her cup, Claude Krueger came in. She wasn't sure she wanted any company and certainly not another settler. But he spotted her, carried his coffee with exaggerated care, and sat at her table.

"Hi, Claude." Emma forced a smile. "Enjoying your last night?"

"They're all so damn happy in there." He gestured vaguely down the hall.

"They're not going to Mars. You and me. James and Liz. We're going. I don't even know most of those people."

"The party's not really for us - it's a Colony Mars event. Didn't you take your vacation last month with family?"

He didn't seem to hear her.

"Wanna see a picture of my wife?" He fumbled in his pocket and laid out his pad, then swore. "I forgot. This thing needs to be plugged in."

Emma leaned forward, realizing she'd been wrong - she did want to talk.

"Do you ever have second thoughts? Regrets?"

"Second thoughts, no. Regrets..." He slurped at his coffee and wiped a hand across his mouth. "I've had regrets since I filled out my application. I had a good life." He fingered the pad.

"So why did you apply?"

"For a chance to go to Mars!" He sat back in the chair and spread his hands helplessly.

"How could anyone ignore the opportunity? I've taught classes on Martian lithology, designed experiments to determine its mineralogy. If I had the chance and passed it up, how could I live with myself?"

"I helped develop the rovers and walkabouts we're taking," Emma said. "That's what gives our mission its name - the Explorers. That's what I'm going for."

Claude waved his hand dismissively.

"Tools. Just fancy versions of my rock hammer. It's the rocks. The damn, blasted rocks, that are important."

"Claude, you're drunk. You should go to bed."

Without another word, he snapped the lid on his cup, pocketed the pad, and tottered out of the shop.

He's right, Emma thought. Who could pass up the chance to go to Mars? She felt a tingle in her gut, maybe thrill or maybe fear.

I've got grit, she thought as she watched the barista serving another late-night customer. It's my best feature. When I say I'm gonna do something, I do it. I got top grades in school because I've got grit and that made Mom and Dad proud of me. I got my PhD because I've got grit, and my advisor was impressed. Now I'm going to Mars for the rest of my life because I've got grit. It's the opportunity of a lifetime.

She stared at the coffee counter. Next to the pad where people tapped their links to pay was a jar with a few coins.

Whenever she dithered over a decision, her mother told her to flip a coin. You'll be relieved at the result or disappointed, she'd say, and either way that tells you how you really feel.

"I'm borrowing a coin," she said to the barista. "Just for a minute."

She tipped the jar, fished out the largest coin, set its edge against the counter, and gave it a spin. As the spin turned to a wobble, she whispered.

"Heads for Mars, tails for Earth."

The coin fell and she knew. The tightness inside her vanished. Emma was going to Mars.



Chapter Five: Mass Driver


The next morning, slightly nauseous and heads aching, Emma boarded a spaceport sand coach with James and Claude, leaving Liz behind for a day of intensive veterinarian training. The coach set out eastward across a broad desert valley. After a while, Emma looked up, then over her shoulder. The spaceport was hidden by a colorless slope behind them.

"Have you followed the cat debate?" James asked. "They've been at it all night."

He used the coach's link to play some messages out loud. It seemed the colonists had been talking to Lunar Base for weeks, ever since the Loonies announced a litter of kittens was on the way - kittens to be born on the Moon and raised at the Collins Space Dock. Emma roused herself enough to wonder why they'd kept it a secret from MEX.

Colony Mars engineers, quite reasonably, balked at adding an element to their mission at the last minute, especially a live animal. But Lunar Base had a complete proposal ready. They'd provide everything, including a plan for feeding a cat long-term on Mars. After Ingra's extraordinary suicide, the psychologists were inclined to approve whatever the colonists requested. The added mass of the cat's supplies was well within the transport ship's margin of error for fuel, so the engineers didn't object. So a cat was formally added to their mission.

The coach bounced and Emma squinted out a wide window.

"Where are we?" she asked the driver.

The coach ran on autodrive, so the driver wasn't actually driving. Spaceport never left clients without a real live human escort and he rode with his seat swiveled to face the crew.

"Jornada del Muerto," he called out cheerfully. "Named by the Spanish who first explored this desert. The Journey of Death."

"Hopefully not prophetic." Claude roused himself to grumble.

"It's a long ride," Emma said with a sigh.

"We're this far from the terminal so the space ramp could be built up onto the mountains, to take advantage of the angle for launch," the driver said. "The spaceplane launches over a restricted area - the White Sands military base - so if you crash on take-off, you won't kill anyone."

"I'd feel terrible if I crashed on someone," James said. He was recovering and sounded chipper.

"We'll go under the launch track in a little bit," the driver said. "Do you know how many loops you'll make before they shoot you up the ramp? Never tried it myself. I'm told the ship builds up a lot of g-force."

Emma shuttered at the thought, settled back into her seat, and closed her eyes. James chattered with the driver but she was silently grateful the road was smooth the rest of the way.

She opened her eyes again when the coach stopped. Sloping concrete walls supported a heavy metal track ahead of them, above a narrow shadowed tunnel.

"See the electromagnets mounted on the sides?" The driver said, pointing. "They accelerate the spaceplane."

On the other side of the tunnel, the track stretched into the distance around them. The center of the huge circle was filled with heliostatic tracking mirrors focused on a central receiver tower - power for the mass driver magnets. On the loop's opposite side, towards the mountains and the space ramp, was the launch building - an entirely utilitarian, squat, flat-roofed structure of unpainted concrete. They'd be isolated in the east wing along with the medical staff. A separate building on the west side, equally ugly, housed the ground team on duty. They'd had their own, non-alcoholic party last night and were back at work. The relief team would arrive in a few days.

Filip from MEX greeted them.

"I wondered why I didn't see you at the party," James said as he hopped down.

"I'm not much for parties - especially when there's a control room to see instead."

"Your control room's in Holland," Claude said with a frown.

"My team has preparations well in hand, and Lunar Base handles the transport ship while it's in Collins Dock. MEX doesn't take over until you're ready to break orbit, so I'll be back at MEX in plenty of time.

"This is my last chance to shake hands with each of you." He was suddenly solemn.

Emma straightened up, sensing a ceremony not listed in Colony Mars' media kit.

"It's been an honor working with you. Good luck - from me, the team, and posterity." He clasped each of their hands tightly before holding open the door and waving them towards the isolation wing.


***


The crew started final launch preparations immediately. Emma's first appointment was for her pre-flight physical. The doctor was a tiny, birdlike woman.

"Take off your shirt, please," she said after introductions, and looked slightly over Emma's shoulder, reading from her contact lens link.

"Your contraceptive chip is in your upper left arm."

It didn't sound like a question, but Emma answered, fingering the spot.

"You have your personal device to deactivate the chip when you choose." Again, not a question, but the device was in her personal duffle bag. "Colony Mars has the code on file for you, should you lose your device."

The doctor now looked at her and - somewhat abruptly - smiled.

"If you would stand here, and place your arm in the gauntlet tray..." The doctor closed the lid and Emma felt pressure build along her forearm.

"Stand still, please. This will take a moment. A little more..." The doctor looked over Emma's shoulder again.

"Party last night, I see. But you're cleared for launch." The gauntlet popped open and Emma rubbed her arm. It was covered with hundreds of barely-visible red dots.

"If that redness isn't gone by morning, call me. I'm right here in quarantine with you. This is the last readout you'll receive until the Settler Four mission delivers full hospital diagnostics to the colony."

Emma nodded.

"That's only two years away and there's no reason for a healthy young adult to have a full diagnostic more often than every five years." She took a plastic case out of the drawer next to her.

"This is your lacertossum medichip, which will tweak your own hormone production to improve bone density and muscle tone. Emma Winters, correct?" She turned the case towards Emma to display her name across the top.

"Your upper right arm this time, I think. I'll just deaden the area..." She used a thin needle to inject analgesic at a half-dozen points- enough drug to visibly swell a spot on Emma's arm.

"This has to go in deep enough to ensure capillaries will grow into the chip..."

Emma looked away until the doctor pressed a bandage over the area.

"The chip doesn't relieve you of your exercise obligation," she said as Emma pulled her shirt on. "But avoid lifting anything heavy with that arm for a couple days."

Emma hurried off to a briefing on feline care that had been shoehorned into the schedule. She'd never paid much attention to Lunar Base news before, but now learned a few of the Loonies spent their spare time figuring out how to keep cats on the Moon and had been happy to donate a kitten.

The final week before leaving Earth was filled with briefings and medical tests. Emma fell into her bunk each night too tired to think, thankfully asleep before she hit the mattress.



Chapter Six: Goodbye Earth


On the morning of the first launch attempt the crew was awake before dawn. New Mexico's rainy monsoon season was over, so weather wasn't a big risk for an August launch, but the ground team carefully reviewed the forecast. The morning was clear and all systems were ready.

Emma dropped her small personal duffle bag at the edge of the embarkation stairs. Red lights outlined the launch building so her eyes adjusted quickly to the lingering darkness and stars shown despite the eastern sky lightening to gray. James dropped his own bag next to her.

"I hope you enjoyed your last opportunity to use toilet paper. It's a perfect morning, so we're sure to launch."

Emma could only work up a faint smile.

"I never thought about it much before," she said. "But I'm going to miss the stars."

"Yup, atmosphere's too dusty for much stargazing on Mars," James said as he rocked impatiently on his feet. "And there's no full Moon to swoon over, either. Just a couple little rocks zipping by overhead."

Ridiculous to notice the stars, Emma thought. I've never spent much time looking at the sky.

Ground teams were loading the spaceplane - half the seats had been removed to allow for their cargo. Emma watched as they moved canisters of fish and mealworms, each in its own life support unit, and packs of sturdy young plants. Food for the body is food for the soul, as Liz would say. Last on board were cases of seeds packed in nitrogen.

The transport ship that would take them to Mars had blasted into Earth orbit months ago atop heavy-lift rockets. Today the crew and the rest of the live cargo would follow. An atmospheric ferry overhung the track above them, blocking a view of the spaceplane on top.

After a final briefing, the settlers, dressed in their uniform of cargo pants and striped shirts, walked up the stairs, waved back at the cameras mounted on the launch building, and stepped through the spaceplane's hatch. The pilot welcomed them like they were tourists. He had nothing to do until the ferry released the plane at the top of the atmosphere, so he busied himself ensuring his passengers were comfortably strapped in. Emma felt the tingle in her gut grow as the ferry pilots called out their checklist over the comm system.

Just hang on, Emma thought to herself, letting her breath out slowly. Nothing to do but hang on.

The hatch was sealed, the stairs retracted, and the craft began slowly accelerating. They each had a window and Emma watched as they circled the ring until the increasing speed forced her to relax back into her seat. There wasn't the slightest bump when the craft transferred to the launch ramp tracks. The ground dropped away.

The ferry fired its onboard boosters and vibrations shook the ship. With a terrifying thrill, Emma wondered if something had gone wrong, but the ship settled into a steady rumble beneath her and she loosened her grip on the armrests.

The pilots kept up a running commentary as they tacked through bands of strong winds. They skirted the jet stream near the top of the troposphere and continued up to the edge of space. The curve of the Earth stood out distinctly and the sky was black. At maximum velocity, Emma's weight disappeared and only the harness straps squeezed her torso.

Emma was glued to her window when the pilot announced separation. The ferry clamps disengaged, thrusters fired, and Emma felt the seat drop under her. After a moment to clear the ferry, the plane pilot engaged his ion engines, and the force of acceleration pushed Emma back into her seat.

It wasn't long before the engines cut out and they were weightless again, cruising towards the Collins Space Dock. The dock was located at a Lagrangian point, a spot where the gravity of the Earth and Moon balance, where their transport ship was effectively parked. The Moon was a disk faintly illuminated by Earthshine and thinly rimmed by a crescent of light.

The pilot announced they were free to leave their seats.

Liz pulled herself close to the window looking down on Earth, turned to view the Moon, and back to Earth. White clouds swirled over a dark ocean as the edge of a continent appeared on the curve of the planet.

"I've never felt closer to God," Liz whispered.

Within an hour they spotted the ship with the enormous Moon, now half illuminated by the Sun, hanging beyond.

Settler Three didn't look much like a spaceship. The heavy-lift rockets and aerodynamic nosecone had been stripped away and sent back to Earth, leaving a cylinder. The solar collectors below the habitat module were still in their stowed position and three small engines with individual tanks hung on the aft end, fueled with hydrogen and oxygen mined from ice at the lunar poles, ready for the journey to Mars. Airlock cylinders had been welded on by the Collins teams and protruded at regular intervals. Once in Mars orbit the ship would disassemble and each module would land to become part of the settlement, connected at those airlocks.

It looks like something I made in kindergarten from cardboard tubes, Emma thought as she pressed against her window.

The spaceplane slowed and rolled, putting the ship out of view. Finally a shudder ran through the cabin as the pilot locked the docking clamps and the Collins dockhands opened the hatch.

Emma floated slowly through, crinkling her nose at her first whiff of the ship's air, like hot metal, a smell picked up from ions in space and brought in on the dockhands' gear. James slid past her like a swimmer under water.

"This is the coolest sensation I've ever had - better than the simulator pools. Hey, you okay?" he asked. "You look a little green."

Emma smiled at him but continued her slow progress with one hand on the hull. She'd passed the motion-sickness screening. They all had. There was no relief in zero-g and it could be debilitating, even fatal if vomiting led to dehydration and unbalanced electrolytes.


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