include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Colony on Mars Books 1-5 The Complete 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 are, after all, your books. - Kate -



Colonization Book 1

Glory on Mars


START READING GLORY on MARS



Glory on Mars - Table of Contents

Glory Epigraph

Glory Chapter 1 Incident

Glory Chapter 2 Explorers

Glory Chapter 3 Spaceport

Glory Chapter 4 Farewell

Glory Chapter 5 Mass Driver

Glory Chapter 6 Goodbye Earth

Glory Chapter 7 The Cat

Glory Chapter 8 Journey

Glory Chapter 9 Onboard

Glory Chapter 10 Mid-Point

Glory Chapter 11 Arrival

Glory Chapter 12 Disassembly

Glory Chapter 13 Jumpship Down

Glory Chapter 14 Burial

Glory Chapter 15 Cargo

Glory Chapter 16 Construction

Glory Chapter 17 Sun Dogs

Glory Chapter 18 Rovers

Glory Chapter 19 Pressies

Glory Chapter 20 Redundancy

Glory Chapter 21 Forget-me-not

Glory Chapter 22 Walkabouts

Glory Chapter 23 CO2

Glory Chapter 24 Exploring

Glory Chapter 25 Meteor

Glory Chapter 26 Crater

Glory Chapter 27 First Date

Glory Chapter 28 Flare

Glory Chapter 29 Return

Glory Chapter 30 Aloe

Glory Chapter 31 Run

Glory Chapter 32 Wild

Glory Chapter 33 Rescue

Glory Chapter 34 Hindsight

Glory Chapter 35 Impact

Glory Chapter 36 Settler Four

Glory Chapter 37 English Breakfast

Glory Chapter 38 Power

Glory Chapter 39 Data

Glory Chapter 40 Winter

Glory 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 replica, 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. A family was 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 need to check her contact lens for metadata. That was the mission lead's voice in her ear. "Report to the control room as soon as your 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. She crossed her arms, hoping to create a temporary bit of privacy.

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 the slot, there'd be a twenty-six month delay.

The urgent message tugged at her thoughts. Calling for a replacement guide would make this group wait, and the message said as duties allow. So Emma focused on the task at hand, shook her arms loose, and turned 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, which is a model of our settlement, or nederzetting in Dutch, as our 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 candidate-settler's responsibilities right up to their final day on Earth. Wealthy donors couldn't finance the colony alone, so subscriptions, merchandise, and personal contact with the public were important. Tours kept donations high.

The older boy jutted out his chin. "I don't believe you. If you're going to Mars, why aren't you in training?"

The mother put one hand across her face, but Emma smiled squarely at the boy. Colony Mars' selection process ensured settlers were amiable, since they'd have to survive the rest of their lives with a small group in tight quarters, but Emma truly appreciated practical questions. Maybe a future engineer stood before her. "I've finished two years of training here at headquarters, and I'll have months in space to review my classes. But today is my last chance to meet future Martian settlers like yourself."

She gestured towards the white metal hatchway. "Why don't one of you young men open the door and we'll begin."

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 beamed a practiced smile. The tour always started with the surprise of a manual door. "Low-tech human hands can replace dozens of servomechanisms."

The boy scowled at her skeptically. "I read about you. You're a roboticist and robots are fancy tech."

"Oh, we use the latest technology where necessary. Mars will kill you without advanced life support, and we have other fancy tech, like robotics, communications, and power generation. But technology requires lots of support, lots of maintenance and spare parts."

Emma held up a pencil she carried especially for this bit. "Even simple tools are complex to manufacture. The wood for this pencil was logged in Oregon, in America. The graphite in the center was mined in Sri Lanka. Zinc and copper for the cap came from Africa, and the eraser is made from Italian pumice combined with Canadian rapeseed oil." She waggled the pencil at the group.

"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 heaved the door open. "Even no-tech. These hinges will function for a hundred years."

"So you think the colony will exist for a hundred years?" the boys' mother asked.

"Absolutely. Colony Mars has a slate of missions planned to send everything we need to be self-sustaining. The public is helping us make that a reality, with your purchases from our store." Emma nodded towards the boys' brand new shirts. "And your donations, for which I personally thank you."

The urgent message intruded on Emma's thoughts as the adults stumbled over the doorframe. She fiddled with the pencil in her hand. The tour would go faster if she pushed the message out of her mind for now. She slipped the pencil back into her pocket and followed her group.


***


The quickest route to Mission Control was through the visitors' center. From the lobby, tourists turned right to enter the 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 offering the usual cheery greeting, the attendant nodded grimly, and Emma's stomach tightened with alarm. She 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 where the mission control teams were housed. MEX would be her link to all of Colony Mars' technical experts and Earth's internets. The controllers also managed satellites orbiting Mars and all communications with the colony. The urgent message that brought her here might involve her spacecraft or something wrong on Mars.

Emma nibbled on her lip. Maybe something involving the eight settlers already living at the colony. She'd know in a minute.

The MEX antenna farm was visible through the corridor windows. A group from the nearby European Space Agency's Technology Center stood at the base of the main dish. Their visit was the day's headline at breakfast because money was always on top of the newsfeed. They might award another grant to Colony Mars, but she was too distracted to wonder for long.

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 leader. The front row, on the lowest level, was fully occupied 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 a few special projects stations and ushered Emma to a glass-walled cubicle against the back wall.

"There's been 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 fingers went cold as she lowered herself stiffly into the chair.

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

Filip tapped the console, switching to a 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. I can't see it, but I know it's there. I'm going. Forgive me." She walked past the survival suits hanging on the wall and reached for the exterior door's controls.

Emma's stomach tightened in a knot. "She can't get out without a suit, can she? The airlock pumps are slow, so 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 flashed and ice clouded the imager lens. Ingra fumbled with the outer door and it opened. With her last lungful of air, she disappeared into the darkness.



Chapter Two: Explorers


Not quite believing what she saw, Emma pressed a shaky hand to her lips. There could be no question that Ingra was dead, but she raised her eyes to Filip in a silent question.

Filip shook his head. "We sent alarms from MEX control 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. The others are in the settlers' lounge. If you'll wait there, we'll keep you posted."

The lounge was on 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 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, the core of the nederzetting.

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

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

She reached to the diagram and touched the airlock Ingra had used. From what Filip said, that airlock was still open to the frozen Martian atmosphere. Dust was drifting in, a practical concern. Survival had to be first in a settler's thoughts, even before mourning. The airlock seals would be hard to clean.

Her headset beeped with an incoming message, and Emma jerked her head back. She tapped the headset, annoyed at being startled out of her thoughts. Metadata told her who was calling, and unlike a message form MEX, she could accept or reject this one. Rejecting would be rude, but she answered with a sharper tone than she intended. "Hi Malcolm."

"Hi Emma. 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 his Settler Four crew were nearing the end of another isolation evaluation, this time 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," he said.

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, full of jokes and compliments. They'd spent a long weekend together once. He'd planned everything and she'd had fun.

She walked past her own smiling portrait at Settler Three, The Explorers to the Settler Four panel, stood so his image in her eye overlaid his picture, and hugged herself. "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. Teary red eyes emphasized her long face, 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. Liz ran a greenhouse business in Manitoba before joining Colony Mars and would establish the first gardens on Mars. Emma had volunteered to cross-train as Liz's back-up and they made a good team. Emma sank into the empty chair and stared down into her own empty hands. She'd found no comfort, or explanation, in Ingra's hallway portrait. Mars was a deadly planet and they were prepared for fatalities, but not for suicide. It was hard to know what to say.

Slumped on her other side, James Moore gave her a resigned shrug. The son of a diplomatic family, he'd lived all over the world and was usually irrepressible. It was strange to see a sober expression below his tangle of curly auburn hair.

James rubbed the back of his neck. "Do you think they'll cancel our launch?" He wasn't especially close to Ingra. She'd left Earth before the Settler Three crew arrived at Colony Mars' headquarters, so none of them were.

Claude Krueger stopped twisting a gold band on his finger and leaned forward, closer to the others. "I think that depends on whether the psychologists think it's safe to send us. And that depends on the other settlers on Mars now." Claude was the oldest member of the S-3 crew, a field geologist who looked the part, squarely built with callused hands. Claude was German, but taught in California before 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 and then looked away. 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.

Claude shifted in his chair. "Suicide. Could it be anything else?"

"I don't know," Liz said. Since she took medic training, Liz had messaged with Ingra more than the rest of them. "She's been discouraged, but she never sounded delusional before, not like on the vid. She was hallucinating."

"She's Kamp's psychologist," Claude said. "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."

James turned to the Earth Scan sphere spinning in the far corner of the room at the ceiling. "Well, this may be ghoulish, but Ingra's death's sure increased interest in the colony."

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 a growing volume of views. Color-coded like a main sequence star, increased engagement had intensified the sphere from the usual yellow to blue. Inside the translucent sphere, a silver hoop spun to show 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."

Emma straightened. "They released the entire video? That's cold-blooded."

"We all signed releases," James said. "The financial guys have to raise money to send the minimum number of missions for the colony to survive. Without enough equipment, we'd be the last settlers on Mars."

Emma stiffened at James' apparent defense of the release. "What if her family sees it?"

Liz slumped forward, leaned her elbows on her knees, and let out a steadying breath. "It sounds cold, but James is right. They're following the protocol in case of a fatality, and that means the psychologists contacted her family first."

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

"I talked to one of my S-4 crewmates. She'll trade places with you, so you can fly with me."

"That won't work," Emma said. The rovers and walkabouts are already packed in S-3's cargo module. 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." Emma shook her head. She was more resilient than he seemed to think.

"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 to examine."

"I'm only 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." A cold edge hardened his voice.

Emma's feelings shifted abruptly. His concern was 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 giving 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 first settlers. Ingra's conclusions about individuals were, of course, confidential, but Emma read all her summary reports. Insomnia plagued most of the settlers, along with fatigue, loss of appetite, and some trouble focusing. Not unexpected, and tolerable. Certainly not 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.

Liz raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Malcolm," Emma said. "He's flipping out."

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

"I'm not, not in months. We've each been involved in our own training, had 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.

An hour later, the manager of the psychology department walked in wearing a suit jacket over his ground-support shirt of double-blue stripes. Coming from media interviews, no doubt.

He had more details, but no more insight. What he did bring was word about their mission. "I have people going through Ingra's past psych evaluations, but I don't expect to learn anything new before your launch. I wish to emphasize that I continue to maintain full confidence in our colony plans. Based on my recommendation, the Explorers Mission is still a go."

James heaved out a sigh of relief, and Emma ignored the tightness in her stomach.

The manager's voice became flat and neutral. "If one of you wants to drop out, we're willing to launch with three. That's our minimum crew size. In the past we might have added someone from a later mission, but after what happened, well, I won't approve launching anyone who hasn't completed their training. Without a crewed mission, Colony Mars will send a cargo module, so none of you should feel pressured by the colony's supply needs. I'm sorry to ask for a decision so soon after Ingra's death, but do any of you want to drop out?"

"I'm ready to go," Claude said, and Liz and James agreed without hesitating.

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

"I knew you'd all feel that way." The manager relaxed into his chair. "I cleared your calendars for the afternoon. If you'd like to see one of our counselors, alone or together, they're available."

"I'd rather stay here." Emma glanced from face to face, and her crewmates agreed. She sat with them the rest of the day, abandoning plans for a final walk along the seashore. They viewed reports from Kamp, watched as the airlock was cleaned and closed, and as Ingra's body was carried beyond the colony's construction zone for burial. Colony Mars issued a formal statement and scheduled 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 a string of 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 on New Mexico's desert floor. Dry mountains rose in the distance and roads to the launch pads crisscrossed a sandy plain, past 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 waited with spaceport officials to meet them. 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 sniffled dramatically. "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 if the high-tech interface failed, Emma tried to explain, she could strip it out and go back to manual operation.

Her mother laughed through the sniffles. "You and your Dad are two peas in a pod on this robot thing. I never could follow your conversations, 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. So it was no surprise when her parents divorced shortly after she started college.

Her father 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. That was much more exciting than tweaking designs on domestic bots, which was what new-hires usually did. All his talk about humanity's destiny in space inspired her to apply to Colony Mars. That, and the chance to personally test her 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.

Her mother wiped away her tears. "I've arrived at my maker-space, so I've got to go. I'm going to miss you so much. 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. In her zeal for engineering, Emma was her father's child. He'd encouraged her, mostly from a distance, by 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 own 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. The 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 ground-support shirt striped in Colony-Mars-blue.

"Welcome. Your crewmates will be here shortly." He waved her inside. "Please, help yourself."

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

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

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

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

The delicate woman 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." Damn, Emma 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 wine flutes and served Mlle Lambert, and 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 paused for a sip. "But I imagine you are more interested in why I asked you here."

Claude recovered his manners faster than the others. "Why, yes, mademoiselle. 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."

"I am not indifferent to Ingra Hanssen's death. Nor to the courage and optimism of each of you. I am, however, a financier and must perform my duty."

Mlle Lambert lifted 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. "Restricting the live feed is understandable, oui. But it does not enlist public support. It does not aid fundraising."

She tapped the pad again and a bar chart, like a handful of pencils, floated in mid-air. "I examine this chart daily. Donations are on this axis and here is time. People are frustrated when they can't see the settlers, can't hear their reactions. They lose interest and donations fall."

Mlle Lambert shifted her gaze to each of them in turn as she spoke. "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," Mlle Lambert said. "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 my position. Once you join Kamp Kans on Mars, perhaps you will favor the video feeds."

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."

Mlle Lambert lifted her glass. "Very wise. I ask that you keep in mind the colony is not yet self-sustaining. We will launch ships through mission seven, one every twenty-six 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."

Claude had listened intently, without touching his breakfast. "Mission seven," he said. "We'll only have twenty-eight settlers on Mars by then."

Liz corrected him quietly. "Twenty-seven."

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 create 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 proper. 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 stared at the closed door.

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

"It's close to eight months before we enter Mars orbit. Maybe things will sort themselves out," Emma said. She walked 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. Perhaps watermelon seeds could be added to the next mission.



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 she'd be leaving behind.

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. 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 a hand in exasperation. "We can trade messages, just like always, every couple months." She felt inexplicably angry.

"Hon, 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."

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

"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 media files. That's more than most immigrants had throughout history."

"Does 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. As a teenager, Liz had joined SolSeed, a group dedicated to seeing life take root among the stars, as she often said. Mars was humanity's first step and Liz wasn't worried about personal deprivations. Emma didn't have that sort of cosmic purpose to comfort her.

In the bare 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. One of the public information officers fussed with a dozen folding chairs facing the table. Emma was used to these Earthnet press meetings. As each journalist was chosen by the coordinator, their holograph 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. Emma was happy the psychologists answered those. They assured the journalists that the colony would survive and offered 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?"

A public information officer answered, but Emma could imagine Filip Krast nodding for all MEX's mission controllers. "We're 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?" the man asked. "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?"

Liz's eyes gleamed. "I believe life to be a precious gift from the universe. Astronomers have some indications of life on exoplanets, the presence of oxygen or methane in those atmospheres, but we may never know for sure. A Martian colony establishes human beings, plants, animals, and microbes on an otherwise barren planet. It's worth any risk, any hardship, to be part of that effort."

Her enthusiasm was catching. Emma always felt her own chest swell as Liz talked.

Liz leaned forward and locked her gaze on the holographic journalist. "Furthermore, we don't know how much time we have. Earth's a fragile orb. Something catastrophic could happen, natural or manmade. Life must become multi-planetary."

James couldn't resist adding something. "If dinosaurs had a space program, they wouldn't be extinct."

The holograph continued standing to press the question. "Preserving humanity is noble, but rather abstract. Miz Brown, is there nothing personal?"

"I have an opportunity for transcendence, to grow spiritually, and gain a greater appreciation of life."

James nudged Emma. He often teased Liz about her beliefs on interplanetary life, and she did sound grandiose, but the public loved her.

Claude got a faraway look whenever he answered this question. "To gain new knowledge. What I've taught my students about Mars comes from sensors and robots. We know the Martian surface resembles Earth, but we can't be sure of their meaning until we analyze the rocks, and human beings are good at that. I'll learn more in a year than all we know today."

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

"Geo means Earth, so I'm a lithologist now. I study rocks on Mars." Claude shook his head. "And, no. Earth can't make a profit from Mars. If the planet was made of platinum, bringing it back to Earth would make no economic sense. I go for science."

"I understand you're married. What does your wife think of that?"

When the crew talked about interviews, Claude said he hated this question, and never got comfortable answering. Maybe the cameras wouldn't pick it up, but his shoulders tensed and his fingers intertwined. He would mourn the loss of his wife, but like explorers of old, he was determined to sail into the unknown. "She's very supportive."

James was more sensitive than most people realized, and protective of the older German. He jumped in, diverting attention from Claude. 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 and 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, so what he learns will be our Martian gold."

James steepled his fingers together and leaned forward to smile at Liz on Claude's other side. "Liz is called to carry life to a barren world, a sacred obligation. But me and Emma." Here he turned to her. "We're in it for the glory. The pure, glorious idiocy of the challenge."

Emma had her response ready, and 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."

The journalist's eyes narrowed. "But what about this death at the colony, apparently a suicide. Perhaps life on Mars is too hard. Aren't you worried that you'll go crazy?"

Emma took a long breath, arranging her thoughts. No, she wasn't worried about herself. Like the others, she'd passed an endless series of psych exams, and the routine would continue during their flight. None of them could hide their results, not like Ingra had.

One of the psychologists interrupted, sternly rejecting the colloquial term crazy and promising that Colony Mars was improving their emotional support protocols.

Emma nodded her confident agreement, but it was a relief when the conference ended. She wasn't afraid of going crazy, but didn't want to nurture any whisper of uncertainty that might lurk in her mind.


***


They walked straight down the carpeted hall to a large ballroom. Emma paused at the door to look around. This was a corporate event, so no friends or family were present. There were spaceport officials and Colony Mars executives glad-handing significant donors. The ground-support team milled 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 plastic cup of champagne into Emma's hand. She abandoned her usual restraint, had a second cup of champagne, and switched to tangy margaritas when waiters brought out platters of cheese-stuffed jalapenos.

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

He held an oddly archaic handful of long, yellow papers over his head. "These are the final Colony Mars contracts."

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.

The support team lead hopped up on a chair and swayed precariously. "Okay everyone. Gather round. 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 where necessary. 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.

The support leader shouted over the crowd. "We don't leave our intrepid settlers out of touch."

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'd 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."

People nearby turned their heads and the room quieted when they saw her puzzled face.

"They want a cat," Emma said.

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

"They want us to bring them a cat." Emma held up the pad,

"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.

The support leader steadied himself against a chair back. "Add a new element? And something alive? Now? Absolutely not."

Emma hit the end of the power cord. "They sent the protocols we need. And weight to fuel calculations for MEX. All well within our transport ship's capacity."

"That extra fuel's for contingencies." The support leader stomped a foot.

"And here's that contingency." Emma balled up a fist as if gripping her voice, controlling her tone. "I'm the one going to Mars for the rest of my life, and the settlers at Kamp are already stuck. If they want a cat, I'm taking a cat."

It was too late to change crews. Everyone said so. After years of caution, weighing every word, worried that the wrong thought or sentiment might get her rejected as a settler, Emma felt the balance of power shifting. This was her mission.

Two psychologists broke from the crowd to each take one of the support leader's elbows, and the public information officer joined them. She bounced from foot to foot, unable to stand still. A cat would be good public relations.

Liz slipped along the wall to Emma's side. "Leave him to the experts. If the calculations you got check out, we're taking a cat to Mars."


***


Emma slipped out of the party. Excitement over the cat had drained away, and the margaritas were taking hold again. She 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 pad. 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?"

"Yeah, it's great. Loved the thing about the cat. Is it real?"

"Of course it's real." Emma swallowed her annoyance.

"Good for you. Stick it to 'em." He gestured vaguely down the hall. "They're all so damn happy in there. 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 for us. It's a Colony Mars event. Did 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 was wrong. She did want to talk. "Never mind, I've seen your pictures. Claude." She put out a hand to stop him from fiddling with the pad. "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 in California." He fingered the blank pad.

"So why did you apply? Really?" She didn't need to worry about psych evals here.

"For a chance to go to Mars. Really." 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 to explore Mars with my own two hands, and passed it up, how could I live with myself?"

"I developed the rovers and walkabouts for the colony," Emma said. "That's what gives our mission its name. The Explorers. That's why I'm going."

Claude waved his hand dismissively. "Tools. Just fancy versions of my rock hammer."

Emma felt limp inside and closed her eyes. "We have the same goals, you and me. To explore. For me, it's the bots, it's how we'll explore. For you, it's what to explore."

"Yeah, the rocks. The damn, blasted rocks are important."

"Claude, you're drunk." Emma took a deep breath to perk up and slapped him on the shoulder. "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'd 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 serve 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 couldn't change her mind now. Could she? Not after making a fuss over the cat. But, as long as there were three settlers in the crew, the mission would launch. As long as her feet were on Earth, she had a choice.

Emma 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 Mom was right. Emma knew how she felt. The tightness inside her vanished. Emma was going to Mars.



Chapter Five: Mass Driver


The next morning, slightly nauseous and head aching, Emma boarded a spaceport sand coach with James and Claude. They looked as bad as she felt. Liz, chipper as always, stayed behind for a day of intensive veterinarian training because the cat was officially part of Settler Three's mission.

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.

James was improving too, and since the coach had convenient charging outlets, was scanning his pad. "Have you followed the cat debate? They've been at it all night."

He played some messages out loud. Apparently, Kamp's colonists had been talking to Lunar Base for months, ever since the Loonies announced a litter of kittens was on the way, kittens born on the Moon and raised at the Collins Space Dock. Emma roused herself enough to wonder why they'd kept comms with Lunar Base a secret from MEX. Tensions had been rising for a long time, she knew that from reading between the lines of official reports, but it still seemed strange.

In the back-and-forth of posts, Colony Mars' planners argued hard against adding the cat. But Lunar Base had a complete proposal ready. They'd checked for allergies in all the settlers and most upcoming candidates, and promised to provide the necessary equipment and a plan for feeding the cat long-term on Mars.

Given Ingra's extraordinary suicide, the psychologists responded that morale was the controlling concern. The added mass of the cat's supplies was well within the transport ship's margin of error for fuel, which meant the rocketry 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 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."

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

"It's a long ride." Emma sighed.

"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.

"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 shuddered at the thought, settled back into her seat, and closed her eyes, 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.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-33 show above.)