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Excerpt for Storm on Mars Colonization Book 5 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Storm on Mars

Kate Rauner


Copyright 2018 Kate Rauner

License Notes


Welcome


START READING




Table of Contents

About This Book

Epigraph

Chapter 1 The Towers

Chapter 2 Cerberus

Chapter 3 Chief Bruin

Chapter 4 Tunnel

Chapter 5 Kamp Kans

Chapter 6 Planitia Hamlet

Chapter 7 Walkabout

Chapter 8 Arcadia

Chapter 9 Basic

Chapter 10 Shakedown

Chapter 11 Kundi

Chapter 12 Crickets

Chapter 13 Oxygen

Chapter 14 Justice

Chapter 15 Corridor Camping

Chapter 16 New Room

Chapter 17 Solstice

Chapter 18 Agents

Chapter 19 Offer

Chapter 20 Return to Towers

Chapter 21 Amenthes

Chapter 22 Hellas Basin

Chapter 23 Terraforming

Chapter 24 Microbes

Chapter 25 Virtuality

Chapter 26 Bioreactors

Chapter 27 Nomad's Wilderness

Chapter 28 Guild Meeting

Chapter 29 Conductive Net

Chapter 30 Emergency Run

Chapter 31 Cydnus

Chapter 32 Troubled Burg

Chapter 33 Camp

Chapter 34 Cupola

Chapter 35 Trapped

Chapter 36 Power

Epilogue

Bonus Sections

Learn more

About Kate Rauner

Also by Kate

Thanks

License Notes

Connect with Kate




About This Book

Real-life colonists may travel to Mars in our lifetimes - what will it be like?

Welcome to the fifth book in my On Mars series. Keep posted on my future books, receive offers, and a free piece of flash fiction every quarter or so by joining my Readers' Club - Click Here!

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. You'll find a few internal links, like this, which take you to a bonus section. These vignettes belong to the story but aren't essential to the plot. One spoiler is marked. Read them as you run into the links, after you finish the story, or never. This is, after all, your book. - Kate -




Epigraph

We stagnate here on Earth. We are so predictable... Just think about if we start to live on another planet.

Elena Shateni, Mars One Project




Chapter 1 The Towers


"Governor." Zeker accessed the colony's artificial intelligence. He could have done this sooner, even on a crowded transit car, since his cranial sensors picked up sub-vocalizations. But he wanted privacy and there was no one else in the warm, moist greenhouse. He'd been thinking about this question since his graduation party, since he'd read his medical file.

"Governor, am I a psychopath?"

"There are more useful diagnostic terms." Governor replied via implants in Zeker's brain and offered no accompanying visual on his optic nerve.

"You know what I mean." Of course it did. Governor serviced the entire colony, supervised every robot on Mars, and contained their libraries and databases. It knew exactly what he'd viewed. "My parents thought I was frightening."

Hits his playmates, takes their toys and lies about it, leaves them crying. His file recorded his mother's words. But he never cries himself.

Underactive amygdala region of brain, the medic had recorded. Toddler lacks empathy.

That didn't sound bad. Lots of kids scuffled. Besides, it wasn't fair to blame a baby.

"I was halfway through my primary classes before I realized that you don't whisper inside every kid's head." Zeker tapped his left temple. He'd received cranial implants after that childhood evaluation.

"You showed an unusual dopamine response," Governor said. "Untreated, normal connectivity within your brain would have been inhibited."

"Is that why you coach me every sol? How to interpret people's feelings, what to say, how to play nice."

"How to control impulses, take responsibility for your actions, and consider consequences. Those are beneficial skills that enhance your social success."

Zeker wasn't about to admit the AI's coaching had changed him. Being handsome helped with interpersonal relations too. This wasn't a biased assessment. He'd researched what made a face attractive and, when he and Governor practiced expressions in a mirror, he evaluated himself. His face was perfectly symmetrical with smooth skin. Light brown irises floated against pure white in his eyes, and his level smile showed straight teeth.

He had ordinary limbs, long and thin thanks to Mars' gravity, and his skin color was typical, like gently steeped tea. Settlers from Earth had brought genetic diversity, but over generations, the colonists melted towards a pleasant average.

Overall, he was attractive and people responded to superficial traits like that. Governor couldn't take all the credit.

"You should have told me why - that my parents wanted to rewire my brain." Anger edged his voice and the AI would, he realized, notice and log the reaction. That was infuriating.

"Parents determine medical care for children until they adult-qualify." Governor used its uninflected voice, the tone Zeker preferred. "Consider talking with them. You left Cydnus in the middle of the night and haven't sent a message in two sols. They'll be worried."

"They can call me if they're worried." Zeker tamped his anger down into exasperation. He hadn't told Governor to make his location private, so his parents knew he'd arrived at Cerberus City.

"You must establish yourself independently. They know that and will refrain from calling. At least, for a few sols."

Zeker didn't want to deal with his parents, not when he was about to enter the Towers. His mother would fuss if she called him, though, so maybe sending a preemptive message was a smart tactic.

"Governor, deliver a message to my parents." He took a deep, calming breath. "Tell them I'm too busy to talk, but want to say hi. Say that I couldn't wait to leave for Cerberus." That sounded normal and he'd add something to flatter them. "Say, I owe this internship to you. Thanks for arranging a special examiner for my application."

Because our regular teacher is too stupid to understand my proposal, he thought. As the last, north-most of twelve burgs on the colony's transit corridor, Cydnus never got the best of anything. At least she'd approved his adult-qualification. One of his classmates designed marginal improvements for imaging the polar ice cap, and the other choreographed an interpretive dance, whatever that was.

His proposal was different - it was important. He would change the face of the planet. Qualification was enough for them, but Zeker applied to join the Tower Guilds.

He needed experience in Construction and Robotics to implement his project. Since guilds were private associations with no obligation to accept anyone, the special examiner's recommendation was essential.

"You certainly have ambitious goals," the old woman had said in a condescending rasp. Remembering her words rankled now, because his medical file said he was likely to set unrealistic goals based on inflated notions of ability.

Zeker knew he had ability, that he was the smartest graduate in his generation. His school scores weren't exceptional, but that was because he took extra classes in technical design. This internship at Cerberus was the next step.

"Governor, I'm an adult now, in charge of myself. I don't want any more neuroplasticity treatments. Don't look out through my optic nerves or coach my interactions."

"Understood."


***


Pleased with his new freedom, Zeker bounded across the greenhouse. While Basic settlers weren't forbidden here, it would be rude to enter the bron of the Towers, their home and headquarters, without an invitation. As a new intern, Zeker had that privilege.

The greenhouse was ordinary, just rows of garden beds under a standard barrel-vaulted ceiling. The stone was meters-thick to shield against cosmic and solar radiation that enveloped Mars, so the underpass was a short tunnel to the next bay, the Towers dormitory.

The private rooms were larger than at Cydnus, built on two levels and flanking a central fountain. Against one wall were kiosks stocked with luxury goods. Guilders deserved the best habitats since they were the smartest, most motivated settlers. Like me, he thought.

The central pillar of one kiosk sprouted multi-jointed arms. It was transferring pastel bars of soap to a waist-high, round-edged cube on wheels, one of the basic service robots found throughout the colony. This one had an open bin on top and slender arms that almost disappeared when folded into grooves in its sides.

When the cube moved away, Zeker hopped in front, forcing the shiny ceramic bot to stop. Its wheels pivoted to steer around him and he jumped in front again. After one more try, it sank down, surrendering.

"Zeker, please let the bot pass." Governor spoke in his head.

"I told you not to monitor me anymore."

"Through your neural implants, you said, and I'm not. I use several sensor platforms in this bay."

Zeker frowned up at the curved ceiling. The beige stone was fabricated from Martian sand, blotchy with orange and brown streaks that made small platforms hard to pick out, but they were there. Lights aimed upwards from channels in the walls cast their shadows. Governor distributed its components through every bay in the colony, embedded its devices in every robot and vehicle on the planet's surface and across the satellite systems.

Zeker smirked at an imager, but didn't expect a response. Governor was impossible to irritate.

Through the next underpass was the Towers' community space and, at this time of sol, not many guilders. On one side was a recreation bay with a couple hacky-sack games underway. On the other, automated units clattered in an open kitchen beyond long tables.

The area close to the central aisle was more interesting. Small tables on slender metal legs clustered around a beverage bar - a circular counter of mottled rock surrounding a ceramic column sprouting robotic arms. People sat in twos and threes, deep in conversation.

Through the next underpass was the space he most wanted to see. Academy Plaza. The huge open area was full of activity. At workbenches, guilders manipulated shimmering holograms of robot diagrams turned inside out, maze-like schematics, and satellite images. Racks of tools lay scattered around.

Three large curves of stone protruded from the far wall, the bases of three guild towers. At the corners were Robotics and Manufacturing, with Construction in the middle.

People ambled through open doors at each tower and a woman shuffled straight towards him.

"Zeker, welcome." Matuta, the special examiner who'd arranged his internship, greeted him. She was thin as a dried, dead vine with a smock the brown color of the Construction Guild hanging loosely to her knees.

"Your mentor will be Chief Bruin himself." She seemed to think this was an honor. "But he's working at the Tunnel this sol, so please accept my greeting in his place."

With a slight bow, Zeker reached out to grasp the woman's offered forearm, relieved to learn he would not be reporting to this bleary-eyed elder.

"You're assigned room twelve, row B, upper level. Why don't you relax there or explore the Tower bron. Our headquarters will be your home for twelve months."

"Thanks for the chance to join Construction." Zeker added a broad smile to his face. "I appreciate your recommendation for this internship."

"Ah, yes. For graduation, you had the dust project. Perhaps you'll update your plans based on what you learn here." She nodded, and the network of fine lines across her face curved upwards. "Make your goals more sensible."

Not likely. Out loud, he said, "I hope you'll have some time to offer me advice."

"You didn't bring much with you." She turned her gaze to the small bag in his hand.

"No, we don't have much beyond a Basic Allotment at Cydnus."

She smiled at him with sympathy, exactly as he wanted. "Choose whatever you want from the kiosks. I'm rather busy, so we'll talk some other time."

As soon as she stepped back inside the tower, Zeker left to circle the dormitory bay. Up a narrow staircase, he found his room. It was square, bigger than his room at Cydnus, with a desk and well-padded bed. He liked being up high, and he could see the fountain from his doorway.

The old woman said he could collect provisions, and he wanted a vest in Construction brown for sure. He'd find out what sort of drinks that mottled rock bar offered. Or maybe visit all the kiosks. His feet would decide.


***


With a cube-bot following, Zeker tossed whatever caught his eye into its bin - a holographic projection disk, soaps, and tea mugs. He poked through shelves of clothing and enjoyed watching the robotic arms quickly refold whatever he tossed aside.

After examining fabric samples, he ordered brown pants, a bright red shirt, and a pair of high-topped felt boots. Governor's bots manufactured clothing in Amenthes, the burg west of Cerberus, so his things would arrive morrowsol. The AI had his measurements recorded so he didn't worry about the fit.

From a stack of vests, Zeker selected one in Construction brown and buttoned it over his Basic khaki coveralls. Full membership was important to his plan, so he wanted guilders to get used to seeing that he belonged. He'd need guild support for his project.

Governor used complex algorithms evolved over generations to prioritize manufacturing. Anything to do with life support came first, ranging from photon collectors for the orbiting power stations, to garden-bots, to replacement gaskets for water valves.

After that came special runs. Small requests like those high-topped boots he'd ordered were made right away. Complex orders had to go through the wiki where colonists debated, collaborated, and voted on proposals. The colony was a pure democracy and Governor's name was a Martian joke. There would never be an individual human or machine with power over the colony.

The more people who endorsed a manufacturing request, the sooner the AI scheduled production. That's why Zeker needed a guild. Members pledged to support each other's requests, and the three Tower guilds would vote together. A full membership guaranteed priority, and his project would be a massive order.

His stomach growled so he sent the cube to his room and strolled to the cafeteria. People were assembling for lunch and Zeker smiled at anyone who caught his eye, noting with satisfaction that he got smiles in return.

Appetizers lay on the serving counter and a horde of children swarmed around as their teacher left to corral some stragglers. One little boy stood on tiptoes, stretching to reach a plate of cassava dumplings.

"Need a hand?" Zeker held the plate down so the boy could stab one with his fork. He slid it into his bowl and, with the tip of his tongue caught between his lips, walked towards the tables, concentrating on balancing the bowl.

Another boy deftly flipped a hand underneath and sent the dumpling flying. In the commotion of people around the counter, no one seemed to notice.

Zeker jumped in between one boy's tears and the other's laughter.

"Where's your teacher?" He glared at the perpetrator. "Governor?" He said the AI's name out loud for the boys to hear. "Tell the teacher what he did."

He led the sniffling little boy back to the counter and slid two dumplings into his bowl, then carried him to an open place at the table.

"Mind if I take one of these?"

The little boy shook his head and, suddenly shy, hid behind one hand.

Zeker scooped out a dumpling and walked away. He didn't want to meet the teacher this way, but he exchanged one more smile with the little boy before heading for Academy Plaza.

Sometimes Governor is worthwhile. He bit into the herbed fish filling. It's an impartial witness and I don't have to say a word.

Straight ahead was the entrance to Construction's Tower. The door hung in a sealing frame and he had to step over the lip.

There weren't many pressure doors left in the colony. With Mars' atmosphere less than one percent of standard, early settlers had been terrified of leaks and partitioned habitats. Fortunately, the fabricated stone bays proved so reliable that only a few pressure doors remained in special places.

Like on structures with windows. There weren't many windows either, because colonists didn't want to see the dark dead rock, rippled orange sand, and dusty sky.

Zeker, however, was eager to check out the view. At Cydnus, he'd often donned a surface suit to go sliding across the floor of the ice quarry or clamber over shallow dunes that buried the glacier. Abandoning the surface to robots was for timid Basics.

Comfortable seating occupied the tower's first level, where several guilders were drinking tea. Across the round room was another novelty, a lift. After subvocally asking Governor how it operated, he fidgeted as lights blinked above the accordion-fold door.

"Up, Governor."

He didn't feel much movement, which was disappointing, but numbers illuminated on the control panel as the lift rose. Each tower was eight levels high, the tallest structures on Mars. Standard burgs built outwards, adding stone bays end to end like beads on a string. With Governor's robot squads handling routine construction, guilds were free to design whatever made them happy. Like towers for their headquarters bron.

The lift stopped with a slight bump and he stepped into an open room. A robotic beverage bar like the one he'd seen in the cafeteria stood in the center, but it was inactive. In a dozen bounding steps, Zeker arrived at one of the round windows.

He touched the glass and jerked back from the cold. The window started at knee level and rose over his head. Heaters hung in the ceiling nearby to fight the cold draft. The tower walls were meters thick, so a tunnel of stone continued past the glass, widening as it went. Gazing down gave him an odd sensation of falling.

All of Cerberus City, both the Towers' bron and the main burg, lay below him. Storms had buried most of the bays over the jaars, so the bron looked like a low mesa and the rest like a field of regularly spaced dunes. Dunes rolled on forever to the west and the Tartarus Mountains filled the window to his right. The highest peak was a couple thousand meters tall, but Zeker could only see the southern foothills, striated with narrow shadows. Most of the famous range was out of sight beyond the horizon's curve. Rich in metals vital for manufacturing, the mountains were the reason Cerberus had grown into the largest city on Mars with three thousand residents.

Governor warned that he might feel dizzy or sick. Most people did when they looked out, but then, most people never left the bays and never saw anything but the walls that hemmed them in. Zeker often worked on the Cydnus glaciers since it could be faster for a person to fix a problem with the harvesters than wait for a robot. It was always more fun.

Mars' surface was deadly and surviving it was a thrill. A dusty horizon was a relief from smothering bays full of people and equipment. The air in a suit's rebreather was his own, not shared with anyone. When the colony suspended surface access for the storm season, he missed those excursions.

A dust devil twisted its way across the plain, its thin braid of sand rising into the taupe sky. Zeker smiled. Dust devils would never disappear, but the vast boiling haboob storms that engulfed the planet - he was going to defeat them.




Chapter 2 Cerberus


Bruin didn't return after lunch. Zeker flopped in his room but couldn't concentrate on an entertainment floating above his new holograph projector. Governor touched his auditory nerve with an incoming message and he leaped up.

It was from Bruin. "I'm spending the night at the Tunnel, so I'll meet with you morrowsol."

Zeker kicked his desk chair in frustration, but a second message arrived while his foot was still throbbing.

"Hi Zeker - this is Shazi. I'm interning with Construction too. Would you like to meet and I'll show you around Cerberus? Would the transit station in fifteen minutes be okay?"

An image popped up. It was inside his head of course, but a young man's round chubby face seemed to float, semi-transparent and just beyond arm's reach. Shazi's smile spread wide across his tawny face, making his dark eyes squint.

"Governor, reply. Great idea. I'll meet you there." He gave the chair another kick to send it back under the desk on his way out.

The transit station was a large dome with guideways sunk into the stone floor for passenger and cargo cars, and loading platforms on both sides. The corridor stretched east and west, disappearing into darkness. Zeker marched across a bridge arching over the guideways and found Shazi waving to him.

"Welcome to Cerberus." Shazi extended his arm. He was short and compact, with a strong grip. "I grew up right here in Old Base, you know."

No, Zeker didn't know. He felt stupid for not checking on other Tower interns and didn't like the idea that Shazi might have an advantage, knowing about him. "I suppose you're already working with Bruin?"

"Naw. I know who he is, sure, but he told me to wait until you arrived. Now we're both waiting. Typical from what I hear. Chief Bruin's obsessed with his Tunnel project."

Encouraged, Zeker grinned down at Shazi. "I can't wait to see the city."

Shazi had a pleasant, open expression and seemed eager to please. Zeker was used to being the leader back home, though with only two others his age and a dozen little kids, there hadn't been any competition. Shazi had to be smart or the guilds wouldn't have invited him, so he'd make a good follower.

Friend, he thought to himself. Governor would suggest I think of Shazi as a friend rather than a follower.


***


They entered Old Base through a standard plaza. Like all the colony's bays, it stood on a massive foundation, insulated from the planet's deep cold, with thick walls to guard against surface hazards. Once a lonely miners' outpost, Cerberus had grown into a major technology center, with guilders in the Towers and Basic colonists here, in the original section of the city. Old Base, they called it, remembering its origins.

The bay looked like the plaza at Cydnus, but people filled the space. Crowds surged through arches in the sidewalls. Zeker's eyes glowed with excitement as he breathed in the throng's energy.

Shazi led the way through an underpass to another standard bay - the spine, where recycling systems throbbed inside assemblies of tanks, pumps, and compressors. Strings of bays branched off from aisles between the equipment and Shazi veered towards another underpass.

A robot rolled up to them, its back to the dark bay beyond. "Can I be of assistance?" it asked.

"Wow, a humanoid." Zeker leaned close to examine the bot. Although mounted on a wheeled cube, from the waist up it mimicked a man.

"Visitors like to see it," Shazi said. He cleared his throat and, making a show, stared straight at the bot. "We're new interns. Show us this manufacturing wing."

The bot led them forward several meters, stopping at a fence running into the walls and half way to the ceiling, with a single gate in the center.

"You'll need permission from the Manufacturing guild to proceed further," it said. "Protocols require manufacturing robots to halt most of their movements when people approach, so allowing visitors to enter the area reduces production rates. Please enjoy the view of these units from this safe position."

Zeker slipped his fingers through the mesh, watching multi-jointed arms swinging from ceiling mounts and sparks flying behind a screen. "I need to learn about these processes. To manufacture the swarm-bots I need for my project."

He tapped the humanoid's shirted chest. "Why are you here?"

"I function as docent for visitors."

"But why do you look human, at least from the waist up?" Zeker spoke out loud for Shazi's sake. He even wore a thumb-sized audio nub over one ear and a basic interface on his wrist. When the other kids had gotten theirs, his parents explained that he didn't need them. That's when he learned he was different - special, his mother called it, though she didn't say why. He'd refused to go back to class without an interface, said he'd look weird and the other kids would tease. He could present a heartbreaking pitiful expression by then, and he got his ear nub and interface. He still wore them.

"My designer was intrigued by humanoids," the bot said. "But I am the only one that was built."

"Governor, this humanoid is you, isn't it?" He leaned close to the bot's face and tapped a glass eye, which blinked. Governor confirmed that, like all bots on Mars, this one was merged into its planet-wide system.

"I guess even on Earth there aren't many humanoids," Shazi said. "They're too creepy for people to enjoy, and bots don't need a human form to do their jobs."

Back in the spine, Shazi led the way to the far end and turned right.

"This is called Old Kinderen Wing," he said. "The bays were originally divided into separate homes for families with children, but were reconfigured ages ago. I live in this wing."

They walked through bays that alternated among greenhouses, dormitory rooms, and community spaces. People gathered everywhere, leaning over upper dorm walkaways or strolling through lush gardens. Men and women bent over workbenches or sat around tables. In one bay, children fidgeted in front of a large hologram as a woman in the brightly patterned vest of the Teacher Guild explained the power stations orbiting Mars.

In the eighth bay in the string, a community area, Shazi stopped at a low wall of stacked beige blocks.

"Prima, this is Zeker. Zeker, this is my mom."

A woman with Shazi's compact form and chubby face hurried towards them, one hand outstretched in greeting and a ladle in the other. "We're so pleased to meet you. All the way from Cydnus. I hope you'll join us for supper. I do some of my own cooking, so if you don't mind, we'll eat here instead of the cafeteria."

There was a small cooktop behind her and fragrant steam rose from a simmering pot.

"I'd be honored. My grandfar likes to cook, too. I'd love to share one of your recipes with him, if it's not a secret."

Prima beamed, clearly pleased. "I'm so happy Shazi will have a friend in the Towers. Let me introduce you to the rest of the family."

Zeker grinned. This was easy. He didn't need Governor whispering inside his head for social interactions.


***


The colonists at the kitchen's table were all Shazi's family - his portly father, a quiet older brother, and three kids still in Basic Education.

"Do you have brothers and sisters?" Prima asked as Zeker logged all the names with Governor.

"No. My parents..." He almost said they weren't breeders, but he stopped himself. The slang came from fish farming and implied someone with no more brains than a tilapia. Most colonists didn't want many children, and sometimes, when the population was dropping, people worried about it. Living in stone bays wasn't natural, so maybe it changed people in ways no one understood.

For the first few generations, the colony had managed births to grow a sustainable population. Once Governor manufactured enough robots to take over basic survival functions, everyone felt secure, and the pressure for children disappeared.

Every couple jaars, someone would propose that Basic Education resume teaching demographic obligations, or that special kinderen bays for families be brought back. Those proposals always failed. Zeker had heard a lot of angry arguments on the subject.

Prima had lots of children and he didn't want to be rude to her. "My parents were busy getting the ice quarry started. Nobody in Cydnus has a big family."

"Children are my vocation," Prima said, fondly patting the youngest boy, who squirmed away.

Zeker shot him a lop-sided smile and shrug that meant I know about parents. Ali - that was the kid's name - shrugged back. They were conspirators now, and friends.

"Here comes another sister." Shazi looked down the bay's central aisle. A slender girl strolled towards them with a basket balanced on one hip. She was dressed in an orange skirt that flowed around her ankles and an intensely pink shirt, but her hair was startling - a teased column standing straight up somehow, from a base of blue curls, like a bushy dust devil.

"This is Mooie Bloem, Momma's pretty flower."

"That's a baby's name and I'm adult-qualified now." She pouted at Shazi before smiling at Zeker. "Call me Mooie. Just Mooie."

"As you can see, Mooie's talent is as a stylist." Prima swung her ladle for emphasis. "She doesn't just follow trends. She sets them."

And looks ridiculous, Zeker thought. He ran a hand through his own floppy cloud of hair and said, "At Cydnus we don't have trends."

"You have such nice tight curls," Mooie said, reaching her free hand to his head. "Your hair will sculpt beautifully. I'll cut it after supper."

While the family set the table, including the fonio bread Mooie had brought from the cafeteria, Zeker subvocally asked Governor about haircuts in Cerberus. He viewed statistics on popular styles over his optic nerve and glanced around the bay. Several men his age lounged nearby, and he felt confident he could defend himself from Mooie's talent.

Prima's bean stew was excellent. Mooie lifted a plate of date-stuffed dumplings from her basket while Shazi's father brewed tea.

"All my children have vocations. Ali made these mugs." Prima lifted an off-kilter mug with bands ringing its middle. "Our family is gifted in so many ways. A stylist, ceramicist, game designer..."

"And the finest cook in Old Base." Shazi's father took her hand.

"Are you applying to the Artisans?" Zeker asked Mooie. That must be the guild for stylists and asking was a compliment. It implied she was talented enough to be accepted.

"Oh, no. To make something beautiful is rewarding enough. Besides, I don't want any restrictions on my talent." She shot a sharp-eyed glance at Shazi, whose mouth curled in a one-sided frown. This must be an ongoing argument.

"Technology is a talent too, young lady." Prima frowned for the first time. "You're as proud as the rest of us that Shazi earned a place in the Towers."

Shazi and Mooie crinkled their noses at each other while the little kids giggled. It was an affectionate argument, Zeker decided, with no anger behind it.

"Your parents must be proud too." Prima's expression turned sympathetic and she slid another dumpling onto Zeker's plate. "Even if your vocation takes you away from them. But you have a new family here, with us. You've chosen to follow your talent, but you need family too, to be happy."

"Prima also has a talent for philosophy," the father said.

"Enough talk." Mooie piled her dishes into a tub outside the low wall for cube-bots to pick up. A cooking talent didn't extend to washing dishes. "It's time for me to cut your hair."

"I don't want to impose," Zeker said.

"Happy to do it."

"Happy to get her hands on a new head," Shazi said.

Mooie gave him a withering look. "There's a salon station in this bay, right across there, but I always carry my own scissors." She reached into a pocket in her voluminous skirt.

"See that guy over there?" Zeker said. "Short on the sides and straight up to a high top. I like that."

"I'll do better and slope the flat top from back to front." Mooie steered him across the bay. "Everyone's head will turn when you go by."

"That's what he's afraid of," Shazi said. "Don't take all night, Mooie. I want to show Zeker Cafe Row."

"Oh, Shazi." Prima shook her head. "I suppose, if you must."


***


Zeker sent the image from a sensor platform to his optic nerve and ran his hand along the bare back of his head.

"You actually look okay," Shazi said.

"You sound surprised."

"Not at all." He led the way across the plaza, through an underpass to a repurposed dormitory.

Zeker grinned at the scene. Lower level room walls had been removed, leaving columns to support the upper level. Most of the overhead lights were dimmed and strings of colored lights lit the bay. Shadows danced as potted banana trees swayed in the ventilation current.

Counters were laden with banana beer, spiced mealworms, and crisp fried dumplings. A large group huddled over palm-sized interfaces.

"They play two dimensional games." Shazi paused to watch as they weaved among tables. "The one waving his interface must be winning."

Halfway down the bay, at a large table surrounded by trees twinkling with red lights, Shazi greeted friends and pulled out two chairs.

A cube-bot rolled over with watermelon punch in chilled, dripping mugs. Zeker took a sip and grinned. The punch was laced with alcohol. Shazi tipped the bowl in the table's center to find it empty and asked the bot for more toasted mealworms.

It wasn't long before Zeker had everyone laughing at his stories of skating through ice quarries, dodging robots that cut blocks from the glacier.

"It sounds like fun, but why go out on the surface?" A young woman leaned close to talk over the din of conversations. "Governor could record skating in a virtuality format. Then you can augment the files - make it even better."

"I'll release my documentaries to the Cerberus wiki, so you can give it a try," Zeker said. "But I've never seen a game that compares to reality."

"Then you've never seen a decent game." She gestured to the gamers hunkered over their small interfaces. "Those guys will play till they pass out, even using flat displays. I prefer tridimensional games."

Groups of musicians arrived and spread throughout the bay. Their songs pulsated against one another and Zeker's head began to throb.

"I know what we should do," he said. "Come on."

Most of the group followed him - two girls, a lanky guy, and Shazi, all giggling over the mystery of where they were going. Zeker led them to the spine and the first arch on the left.

"That's just a manufacturing wing," one of the girls said. She had dust-brown hair that hung to her shoulders with the tips colored red.

Must have a talent like Mooie, Zeker thought. But she was pretty.

"Governor." Zeker called the AI subvocally through his implants. "How do I shut this humanoid off?"

"That's not recommended. The bot's operation is required by safety protocols."

"I'm an adult, so just show me."

A diagram superimposed over the approaching bot and Zeker reached under its upraised arm, felt through its yellow shirt for a groove, and pushed a recessed button. The bot froze.

"How'd you do that?" the red-tipped girl said with frank admiration.

Zeker tapped his left temple and smiled. He rattled the gate, but it didn't open. "Up and over." He hooked fingers into the fencing and climbed. The girls laughed and followed, and they all dropped down on the other side. As the humanoid had predicted, nearby robots froze.

"Watch me." Zeker hopped up on a bench, then jumped farther away from the aisle. Those bots froze too and he swung from a multi-jointed arm hanging from the ceiling.

"I can do better." The red-tipped girl ran down the aisle, bots freezing and resuming motion in a wave as she did.

"Zeker, we should go." Shazi stood at the fence looking worried.

"Hey, there." A man in a yellow vest called to them as he pulled open the gate. Two other yellow vests came hurrying up behind him. "What are you doing?"

Shazi hung his head but Zeker widened his eyes innocently. "I saw this amazing circuit station here and just had to get a closer look. I bet it puts out a dozen boards a minute."

"Almost two dozen," the man said, the alarm fading from his face. "Say, aren't you Chief Bruin's new intern?"

"Yes," Zeker said with enthusiasm. "But Bruin's away till morrowsol."

"Well, ask him to set up a tour - sometime during the sol before the cafes get rolling." He smiled and held the gate as they hopped through. Zeker hurried the group away as the yellow vests puzzled over their frozen humanoid.

"They'll never figure out how I knew." Zeker laughed over his shoulder. The red-tipped girl giggled.

"I hope they don't tell Chief Bruin." Shazi looked embarrassed.

"You never have to worry when you're with me." That was usually true. Zeker swung an arm over the red-tipped girl's shoulder and steered a path towards Cafe Row.




Chapter 3 Chief Bruin


The next morning, Shazi was waiting at the fountain in Towers' dorm. "Did you spend the night in Old Base?" Zeker asked with a frown. "There's a room assigned to you here- I asked. Interns belong in the Towers." That was obvious.

"I know. But I've never been away from my family." Shazi hung his head sheepishly.

"You and me are family now, like Prima said. I had a great time yestersol - didn't you?"

"We could have been in trouble." He looked so guilty, Zeker doubted Shazi ever got away with anything.

In the first level of the Construction Tower, Chief Bruin sat facing the door, in one of the cushioned chairs that circled a low table. He rose and grasped their arms in turn with with square-tipped fingers.

Bruin was very square for a Marsborn - surprising since their Earth-evolved bodies grew lanky in the planet's low gravity. His head was cubic under gray hair cropped flat, and his bushy brows formed a shelf above gray eyes.

As they sat down, a cube-bot rolled up with mugs of tea and a bowl of powdered stevia. Towers seemed to have no shortage of the sweet herb and Zeker shoveled it into his mug.

"You both understand your time here is limited?" Bruin rested his elbows on the soft chair arms and tented stubby fingers under his chin. "We celebrate Sol Zero next week - the guilds mark that equinox as the official opening of the surface construction season. Your time here lasts twelve months - until the jaar's next equinox. You understand? No one is guaranteed membership. We're very selective."

Zeker tipped his chin up defensively, but Shazi leaned forward with an earnest nod. "Of course, and we're honored to be here."

"Three hundred thirty-six sols go by quickly, so don't waste your opportunity."

"I have a detailed project plan," Zeker said. "I know what I want to do."

"I viewed your plan, and the examiner's report. Intriguing. But worrying about surface conditions is superfluous when the colony is contained inside stone bays."

"Surface conditions control everything." Zeker could be blunt too. "All our minerals come from the surface, and the construction sand to make those bays you're talking about. Every jaar, the colony shuts down surface work for the storm season. And the worse storms rise from one place - Hellas Basin."

Shazi was intent on every word, but Bruin sunk deeper into his shoulders, his fingertips now against his nose. "Hellas isn't the only source of storms."

"It is for the haboobs that envelope the planet for weeks, that drive dust into every joint and crevice of a surface bot, that leave us scrambling to repair seals."

"And you'll stop that?" Bruin smile was patronizing.

You'd know if you'd viewed my plan like you claim. But out loud, Zeker said, "We know Mars warms as it orbits closer to the sun each jaar, pumping energy into planetary winds. Hellas is the lowest point on the planet, so it generates huge updrafts. And since the basin is thick with dust, huge storms. I'll drop swarm-bots there, to reproduce themselves until they cover the basin."

Zeker appreciated Shazi's slack-jawed admiration. It was a brilliant project. But Bruin harrumphed. "Sounds like you should intern with Robotics."

"They were my first choice." Zeker bit his lip. That wasn't a smart thing to say to the Chief of Construction. "I mean, I'd like to learn robotics, too. But to design bots that withstand surface conditions all jaar - I need more experience than I got at Cydnus."

"Ah, yes," Bruin said. "The Cydnus ice mines. Your experience there is quite applicable." He dropped his hands without further explanation and turned to Shazi. "Tell me about your project."

"I just thought..." Shazi stumbled over his words. "I'd like to back-fit utilities better in the bays. Especially for Governor's servers and platforms. New units sit in big niches built for older models - the ones that had big heat sinks. I thought I could adapt our existing bots to sinter those niches closed without interrupting service. To make, you know, more attractive walls." Shazi glanced to Zeker for support.

"I viewed your proposal," Bruin said. "Your specifications could improve other utility installations too, and Construction is responsible for all utilities as well as new habitat space and so on." He smiled.

Zeker's face tightened. Given a choice between changing the planet and cleaning up some old walls, Bruin liked Shazi's project better? That was ridiculous.

"You both need to start with some practical hands-on assignments. I've sent several construction problems to your accounts." Bruin set his mug down. "If you're done with your tea, I'll show you the workbenches you'll be using. Our senior members will be happy to offer advice and I'll meet with you periodically to access your progress."

Bruin's tour took the rest of the morning. Zeker had Governor make a recording of everything they saw because he couldn't concentrate. Instead, he fumed over Bruin's dismissal of his project until the chief left him and Shazi alone in the cafeteria.

"That was rude." Zeker felt free to complain to Shazi. "He should be grateful we bring great projects to his guild. What a dwass."

"Oh, no. He's brilliant. Wait till you see the Tunnel. That's been Chief Bruin's project for jaars and it's amazing."

"You've seen it?"

"Only in images. But it looks amazing. He uses huge tunnel-boring robots."

Shazi muttered a command to Governor and tapped his wrist interface. "I hope the problems Chief Bruin gives us aren't too hard."

"Forget about them for now," Zeker said. "I'm hungry."


***


Bruin's problems required weeks of effort. As the new jaar started, Governor's robot squads resumed fabricating habitat bays and mining metals. At Cydnus, ice harvesting was underway - Zeker had talked with his father about that. Late storms blew through but were manageable and the chance of solar flares - a deadly danger - was low. It was a perfect time to be on the Martian surface, but Zeker was stuck inside.

Things weren't all bad. Every sol he spent the evening in Old Base, often with Shazi and his family, and always with a stop at Cafe Row. The red-tipped girl was glad to see him and he'd sometimes go to her room for a few hours before joining the night's party.

Some sols he left the Towers in the afternoon - no one ever asked about his time.

Zeker enjoyed the freedom, but if he didn't study, he'd never finish Bruin's problems and move on to his project. He and Shazi worked side by side to assemble circuits in Academy Plaza.

"Have you viewed the lesson on construction history yet?" Shazi asked as he frowned at his haphazardly inserted components.

"No, and I don't see why we care about how Earthers construct things," Zeker said.

"Chief Bruin says it's a useful analog to Mars."

"We should be on the surface with a bot squad. The storm season ended weeks ago."

"Chief Bruin says he doesn't like to risk running into a late storm."

"He's wasting our time." Zeker tossed a chip across his bench. "Once we finish the specifications, Governor should assemble these boards for us."

"Chief Bruin says, doing boards with our own hands gives us a valuable feel for the circuits."

"Dwass." Zeker wasn't sure himself if he meant Bruin or Shazi.

Shazi shushed him as Bruin crossed the plaza. He examined their schematics, and then peered at each board.

Zeker fidgeted until he couldn't contain himself.

"I saw something posted on Towers' wiki," he said. "Lithology is requesting a way to assay minerals in-situ, in the ore bodies."

"Honnette, the Robotics Chief, mentioned it to me." Bruin didn't look up.

"Ousmane took the commission and says he's going to use swarm-bots to taste the rock for different elements. I want to work with him."

"That's up to Ousmane," Bruin said.

"I'd like to see how his bots pass power from unit to unit." Zeker was happy to talk about his project.

"As I recall, your project requires interactive edges between individual units," Bruin said. "That's a challenge you haven't addressed yet."

"Each of my bots will be rectangular and flat, like this." Zeker spread one hand on the benchtop. "When the next bot comes alongside..." He placed his other hand on the bench. "They'll overlap like scales on a fish. One after the other. Millions of them. Until they cover the bottom of the basin."

"I suggest you keep an open mind and think of your plan as a starting point." Bruin set the circuit board down and looked up at Zeker for the first time.

"I've worked on it all through Basic Education," Zeker said. "My plan's perfect."

"You have a clear problem definition, but there may be other ways to approach a solution. Perhaps entirely different ways."

Zeker clamped his jaws tight.

"As long as you keep up your studies, I see no problem if you spend time with Ousmane. He can help you with those unit interactions you need."

Bruin picked up Shazi's board next. "These weld joints are sloppy - see how this one runs into the neighboring component? Still, you're far ahead of Zeker."

Bruin left, leaving Zeker fuming.

"Chief Bruin's trying to help you." Shazi peered at his own board, examining the welds.

"He doesn't appreciate my proposal."

"Oh, no." Shazi set his board down. "He does. He likes your problem definition, and said you should talk to Ousmane, didn't he? Pass me the desoldering pump."

Zeker grabbed the palm-sized tool. "I'd get more done if you'd stop interrupting me."

"I'm sorry." Shazi hung his head apologetically. "I have to re-do these joints, so you'll catch up."

They worked in silence. Zeker's back was sore and when he stopped to stretch, he watched Shazi.

Shazi glanced at the parts cabinet on the bench between them, pulled open one of the tiny drawers, and looked back at his board while fishing out a part.

He's not even checking the color code, Zeker thought. Different electrolytic condensers appeared identical except for bands of colors to indicate their power rating. He's not faster than me, just too trusting.

Zeker glanced up at the ceiling. "Governor, send me the image from that sensor platform." Through his implants, Zeker saw his own back as a transparent overlay floating above the bench in front of him. He shifted the parts cabinet so his shoulders blocked the platform's view and closed the imager feed.

From one of the drawers, Zeker fished out an electrolytic condenser for himself. Then he jerked open another drawer in the same row, containing condensers with two thin stripes of color-coding. They'd never handle the power his circuit would carry.

He snagged a few components, dropped them in the first drawer, and pushed the cabinet back in place.

Shazi groped for the drawer and another condenser. "Done at last."

"Congratulations," Zeker said. "Power it up and let's see how it works."

"I can wait till morrowsol when you're done."

"Don't wait. Power it up." Something was about to happen. Zeker wondered how impressive it would be.

A flash and acrid cloud burst from the board. Shazi yelped and tottered backwards, his hands over his eyes.

Zeker caught him before he hit the floor. "Governor, emergency. We need a medic."

"There's something in my eyes. Oh, it hurts."

A confusion of help arrived - members who'd been working nearby and Bruin running from the tower.

"Let me see." Bruin tilted Shazi's face to examine his tearing eyes. Someone handed him a bottle of deionized water - there was a safety label on it - and Bruin let water run across Shazi's face. An automated gurney rolled up and Bruin pulled a towel from its base. "Hold this over your eyes. Try not to blink. Don't rub." He hurried alongside the gurney as it rolled away.


***


Zeker paced in the aisle outside the Old Base medical lab. Bruin and Shazi's family were there too, seated on a bench against the wall.

I didn't mean for this to happen, Zeker thought furiously. It's his own fault anyway. I was helping, showing him that he needs to check power ratings.

Prima jumped up and Zeker spun around to see Shazi standing in the lab's entrance.

"I'm okay."

Prima wrapped her arms around him. Everyone joined in, laughing or crying.

"What's on your face?" little Ali asked.

"The medic says I have to wear these goggles for a while." The dark goggles pressed into his cheeks. "They make everything look red."

"Can I try them?" His brother reached up.

"Don't say such a thing," Prima said, disentangling herself from the group hug. "They're for hurt eyes."

"You'll need to take a break while you heal," Bruin said. "No close work - don't even view lessons."

"He's coming home then, to Old Kinderen." Prima expression forbid argument.

"Oh Mom, don't fuss. The medic says I just need to avoid bright light for a while."

"Governor." She raised her wrist interface. "Dim the lights above us, and in each bay as we get to it." Prima kept one arm on Shazi's shoulder as if she was afraid he might run away.

Zeker slumped on a bench in relief as the lighting level dropped.

"It's alright now." Mooie gave him a hug.

"I'll find out what happened, what went wrong." He jumped up. He wanted to get away from them.

"We'll both examine that board immediately," Bruin said.

"Thank you Chief Bruin," Prima said as she led her family away. "And Zeker, you too. You're a good friend."

Back at Academy Plaza, Zeker grabbed the burned board. He didn't need to make a show of examining it - a blast mark surrounded the vaporized condenser like a fresh meteor crater.

"Something was wrong with this electrolytic condenser," he said.

Bruin pulled open a component drawer and stirred the parts with a thick finger.

"They're mixed up," Zeker said, easily peering over his shoulder.

Bruin dumped the drawer, spread the components, and called for a cube-bot.

"Take these away to be sorted." He swept the parts onto the cube's tray. "Wait, take the whole cabinet. And the boards. Take them to the Manufacturing Chief."

He was angry and Zeker looked down at him warily.

"You have sharp eyes," Bruin said. "Good job. Accidents are unacceptable. I'm sure this upsets you too. Take some time off if you'd like."

Bruin patted him stiffly, perhaps meant to be comforting. "I'm going to talk to Manufacturing about this mix up right away."

Zeker was miserable. He didn't dare ask Governor to play the imager feed - if it showed him switching the parts, viewing it might alert someone else to check. Excuses played through his mind every time a guilder approached, but they offered sympathy.

The next morning, Zeker went to the Old Kinderen wing. When he entered the dormitory bay where Shazi's family lived, he found all the lights dimmed.

"My mother insisted." Standing at the door to his family's darkened rooms, Shazi looked a bit embarrassed. "The other residents say they don't mind."

"Of course they don't." Prima's voice came from farther inside.

Zeker stepped through the doorway. "This is huge." Despite the low lighting, a table and collection of cushy chairs were obvious.

"Each person gets a standard dorm room. That's Basic Allotment the sol you're born." Prima stood up from the table and swept an arm out. "We put ours all together."

"Kept the walls around a few rooms," Shazi said. "We kids sleep in stacked bunks so this is our family room. Let's turn up the lights, Prima. I'll put my goggles on."

"Zeker doesn't mind."

"The medic said the goggles work fine." Shazi shook his head. "You're making too much of a fuss."

"No need to take a risk." She frowned. "There aren't supposed to be accidents. Not inside the bays. Oh, a child might scrape a knee, but we're safe inside the colony."

"Interns go out for construction projects." Zeker ignored Shazi's warning headshake. "I've been outside at the ice mine lots of times."

"I know you boys will go outside. I don't have to like it." Prima folded her arms across her chest. "Why can't you monitor construction through the robots' imagers? Or use telepresent controls from inside the bays, where you're safe?"

"It's not the same. Besides, I like the surface - mountains and glaciers, dune fields, and seeing the sky above a horizon. A horizon in front, behind, and on all sides. I've even been out at night and seen the moons. It's beautiful."

"You're too brave for your own good." Prima shivered as if sensing the cold, airless surface. "All the more reason to let me fuss now. You'' take care of Shazi for me, won't you? Make sure he's safe?"

"Mom, you're embarrassing me."

Zeker smiled as he nodded, and realized he meant it. Shazi always saw the best in everyone. Even in Bruin. Even in me - the real me, without neuroplasticity prompts.

Zeker skipped evenings in Cafe Row after that, determined to wait for Shazi's return to the Towers. He stayed in his room, talking to Governor, and ignored messages from the red-tipped girl. When she called directly, he told her to stop bothering him. She closed the link in a huff but Zeker didn't care.




Chapter 4 Tunnel


The sol Shazi shed his goggles and moved back to the Towers, Bruin met them for breakfast. "It's time for that surface construction job you've been wanting, Zeker."

Shazi was holding his breath, but Bruin didn't leave him hanging. "The medics say you can travel, Shazi, so I'm assigning you as well. Be prepared to be gone for some time. Before the work begins, you'll both join me on a visit to our clients in Kamp Kans."

"That means we'll pass the Tunnel." Shazi glowed with enthusiasm. "May we stop there? It's the largest project on Mars and I've heard how innovative the excavation is. To visit the Tunnel with you, Chief Bruin, when it's your personal project... What an honor."

Zeker sucked at his lower lip, trying to preserve a smile. Shazi's not flattering the old dwass. He means what he says, he thought. He acts like a kid sometimes.

"Bring whatever personal items you'd like." Bruin said, rising to leave. "Meet me at the station in an hour."

Bruin could have explained the assignment, Zeker thought, but if it was surface construction, he'd suppress his annoyance. And Shazi was right. Everyone talked about Bruin's Tunnel, so he had to admit he was curious.

It didn't take long to pack. He could travel with nothing at all. Basic Allotments were available at every burg. Twenty minutes later, Zeker trotted into the station. Four transit guideways ran through the center, sunk into the thick floor. Similar side channels held cars recharging batteries or waiting for travelers. He climbed into an eastbound car and fidgeted as he waited.

Echoes in the corridor announced a cargo car's arrival and Zeker watched idly as it slowed and slid into a channel. Crane arms reached from an overhead frame to transfer tubs of frozen fish to cube-bots waiting on the outer maintenance lane. Another car from the west roared through without stopping. In each burg, Governor's bots specialized in some product, so the AI ran cargo throughout the colony, distributing basic supplies every sol.

Bruin and Shazi arrived together, hopped in, and pulled the cowl closed. The transit corridor maintained colony-standard air pressure, but while traveling at high speed the car had to be closed.

"Everyone please take a seat and lower the safety bars." Governor spoke without prompting.

As soon as they settled the bars against their thighs, the car moved forward and bumped a little as it entered the guideway. Zeker leaned into the cushioned backrest but the acceleration caught Shazi by surprise and he gripped the bar.

One short nap later, Zeker woke as the car stopped at Tunnel Station. Instead of a passageway to a burg, a second corridor angled off to the left.

"Sixty more kilometers to reach the Tunnel," Bruin said. They climbed out to find a car waiting in the branch corridor's separate set of guideways. "I built this branch before starting work on the Tunnel itself. Take a careful look at the layout - you may need it later."

"The guideways don't connect," Zeker said. He wasn't planning to be impressed by Bruin's project.

"That's because the original builders never expected to run branch corridors, isn't it?" Shazi said.

Bruin nodded. "This station was a project by itself. It took a little over a jaar - twenty-six months. But the Tunnel must connect to the rest of the colony to achieve my goal, so I had the patience to tackle this first."

Zeker scowled. The comment was aimed at him, and at his Hellas Basin project.

"Lithology discovered several craters here, buried in tuff beneath a layer of sand." Bruin continued, facing a rapt Shazi. "It's the perfect place to develop tunneling robots."

"Tuff?" Shazi asked.

"I'll explain when we get to the Tunnel."

Shazi was enjoying the lecture, so Zeker suppressed a sigh.

In less than half an hour, the corridor sloped down and ended in a bright white dome - an underground station. "The dome was excavated with prototype robots that the Chief Roboticist and I designed jaars ago, when we were both new to the Towers. That passageway off the side slopes upwards to a standard dock at the surface." Bruin looked pointedly at Zeker. "This terminal took longer to build than the branch corridor. New designs are always more difficult than you expect, Zeker."


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