Saturday, December 31, 2022

A Boy of Mars (A Sci-Fi Short Story)

Living on Mars is not a technical problem, but a people problem.

The first Mars colony was a failure, and in part, it was thought because we provided enough return rockets so that every colonist could leave if they wanted to.  And after a year or so, they wanted to.  That, and the costs were staggering and people on Earth raised the usual objections, "Why are we spending so much money so a few people can live on Mars when we have people starving on Earth?"

So the second colony was designed differently.  No half-measures this time, and in part, that meant no return flights.  Each of the dozens of rockets sent to Mars every other year would be a one-way trip, bringing people and supplies.  The rockets would then be taken apart and their plumbing, wiring, and electronics used for building the colony - underground.

Yes, living on Mars wasn't a fantasy of life under clear plexiglass domes.  The bitter cold temperatures and cosmic radiation meant that was simply not possible. The lack of a significant magnetosphere probably lead to the dissipation of Mars's atmosphere and water in the first place, and today it means no shield from solar or cosmic radiation.  Truly, Earth has a host of unique aspects which allow it to support life - from its size and distance from the sun, the makeup of its crust, its liquid core, its magnetosphere, the ozone layer, and even its unusually large moon, which created tidal estuaries that were incubators for early life - the lack of any one of these things could have meant Earth would be a lifeless rock like the Moon - or Mars.

The new Martian colony had slightly less than 100 colonists - all volunteers, of course, and all experts in multiple fields. We wanted a large enough colony to be sustainable, but not so large that Dunbar's number comes into play.  Every colonist had to cross-train in a number of fields, must have a number of different skills, and be willing to work in a number of fields.  It wouldn't be possible, for example, to have only one doctor, as if they died, well, the colony would be helpless.  Not only that, everyone had to have some familiarity with various systems that sustain our underground colony, from the hydroponics farms, to our power plant, the air recirculation system and yes, even the sewage treatment and water recycling plant. Yes, everyone has to do a shift there, if only just once a month.  Failure of any one of these systems means death for the entire colony.

And of course, everyone would have to dig - to expand the colony space to accommodate the growing hydroponic farms needed to sustain us in food and oxygen - as well as provide space to grow. Dig - or die.  Those were our two choices.

A big part of why the earlier colony failed was psychology.  The first colonists were chosen mostly for their scientific skills, and there developed a resentment by some, having to do "dirty work" like cleaning the waste filters in the water recycling plant, or the tedious process of getting hydroponic plants to grow.  This time around, however, every colonist was carefully screened, not only for their technical skills, but for their emotional makeup.  It goes without saying that there would be no room in any extraterrestrial colony for conspiracy theorists or flat-earthers - and yes, they still exist on Earth.  In fact, a whole new conspiracy theory arose that the first Mars colony was a hoax - with some believing that Mars itself did not exist at all.  It seems the crazy times had come back.

Oddly enough, when asked why they wanted to join the new Mars colony, one of the most common answers was "to get away from humanity."  It seems many technical and logical people were just fed up with the state of mankind and wanted a fresh start.  But psychology isn't an exact science and some people slipped through that should have been caught in the screening process - and Sarah and Tom were two of them.

People don't think about the little details involved in setting up a colony - and inter-personal relationships are part and parcel of humanity.  A system of governance had to be figured out and we came up with a military-style system of rank - such as used on the Moon colony - but tempered by an elected council of advisors. Clearly, pure Democracy would never work in an extra-terrestrial colony - you can't let people vote themselves more air or food, or let things get so bad before people come to their senses, as you can do on Earth - or could do, before things got out of hand.

Then there is sex.  Yes, people have sexual as well as emotional relationships, and often, on Earth, they cause people to do irrational things - stalk, rape, murder, or just create basic emotional imbalance and havoc.  This was a tricky part, as the current US government, being rather religious in nature, didn't want to hear about it - or have the public know about it.  As far as NASA was concerned, all the colonists were married, monogamous couples.  There would be no "free love" on Mars - but of course, there was, to some extent, we just didn't tell anyone about it.  We tried to screen our candidates so that things like jealousy and envy would not arise.  And for the most part, we were successful.

It was decided, however, that the colony couldn't afford to raise children until it was firmly established, and even then, having a child would have to be approved by the council, and then only if your genetic and psychological makeup passed muster.  We couldn't afford to have any children with congenital defects, who would need lifetime care - which means any deformed or handicapped child would have to be aborted.  Again, the fundamentalist administration didn't want to hear this, so we didn't tell them about it.  Speaking of which, another topic the fundamentalist administration and the general public didn't want to know about was euthanasia.  If a colonist was severely injured to the point they needed constant care, euthanasia was the only option.  Similarly, if a colonist aged out and became unable to care for themselves or suffered from dementia, then it was a quick breath of nitrogen and you get buried in the Martian soil (actually, your body would be recycled, but the Earthies didn't want to hear about that, either!).

No, living on Mars wasn't going to be fun.  There could be no slackers, no ne'er-do-wells, no alcoholics (no alcohol!) or drug addicts or vandals, thieves, or criminals of any sort.  The entire colony would have to work toward one goal - survival of the colony - and survival of the individual would be secondary to that.

This is not to say life on Mars was a grim existence.  It was invigorating to see the colony grow, with each new underground section opened up.  It was a big day when we were able to finally achieve self-sufficiency in food production - after achieving self-sufficiency in water and oxygen first.  And each new discovery of the geology of Mars excited the whole colony.  It was starting to look like the colony would survive - that we would survive, if we kept working at it.

But of course, we were still dependent on Earth and the plethora of rockets launched about once every two years when Mars and Earth were in opposition.  We were unable to produce any but the most rudimentary of manufactured goods.  Things like semiconductors, wiring, tubing, glass, and plastics all had to be imported from Earth and it would be years before we could produce any on Mars.  Our first order of business was to acquire an additional power plant which would allow us enough energy for most basic manufacturing processes, such as producing metal alloys.

It seemed like things were going well, until Sarah announced she was pregnant.  Like I  said, it wasn't anticipated we would have children in the colony for many years - the average age of the colonists was 27. All the men had agreed to a vasectomy before shipping out from Earth, with sperm samples carefully frozen and kept in cold storage at the colony for later use, if necessary.  It wasn't clear at first whether the vasectomy didn't take with Tom (who we presumed was the father) or whether Sarah had somehow sneaked into the cold storage vault and obtained a sperm sample.

Abortion seemed like the logical choice at first - the colony could not afford to have a day care center set up, as we had little room for one, and the entire staff of colonists was already working at least 12-hour days, without stop, as it was.  That option, however, was lost when Sarah announced on social media that she was pregnant - and thus that information got back to Earth.  With the fundamentalist administration in power on Earth, having an abortion was out of the question.  They would have cut off future funding just as we needed it most.

So in a way, it turned out to be a good thing, at first, as interest in the Mars colony was waning as Earth became more and more mired in its problems, and started looking inward.  A baby on Mars!  It made the headlines of all the tabloids and support for the Mars colony surged.  Legislation funding the new power plant sailed through Congress and it was promised to be shipped next year.

Of course, a baby on the way meant we had to make quite a few adjustments on Mars.  A nursery had to be constructed - baby-proof of course.  Not much in the colony was designed to be child-proof, as everyone there was an adult and had some sort of scientific background.   Power leads and connection panels were often unguarded, as the materials to make safety enclosures and electrical insulation were in short supply.  You just had to be careful and not do stupid things.  What's more, so many of the critical components, including the plumbing for our water supply and recycling, were accessible to anyone.  The air recirculation system was similarly exposed.  It wasn't a problem for a cadre of scientists and engineers, but a small child?  This could get sticky.

What's more, work schedules all had to be reworked to accommodate not only Sarah's pregnancy (and she did work a full shift, right up almost to the end) but also to provide supervision and care for the baby once it was born.  Yes, this was difficult, but we all felt we had to pull together.  It was the next step in the colonization process, of course  - but a step we had hoped not to deal with for a decade or more.

The birth was anticlimactic - it went smoothly despite, as our primary doctor put it, "my best efforts" and everyone was excited to see the new baby - the first human born on Mars - the first Martian, if you will.  He was a healthy baby boy and Tom and Sarah named him Jake.  Sarah was out of action for the first two weeks, but returned to work, with her schedule adjusted to allow for breast-feeding.   The entire diaper thing was a bit of a challenge, as the colony was set up such that everyone used a recycling toilet.  We had to sew diapers from fabrics scavenged from surplus clothing stores (spacesuit underwear worked very well) with the hope that it would be replaced by a shipment in the next rocket.  Disposable diapers were out of the question - as indeed, disposable anything was impossible in the closed-loop system we lived in.

There were signs of trouble early on. Jake would cry incessantly and even scream for hours on end.  We were concerned that maybe he suffered from some form of Autism, but it was too early to make such a diagnosis.  The screaming sort of put everyone on edge - it is hard to get away from loud sounds in the cramped environment of our underground colony.  On the plus side, more colonists volunteered to work at the remote waste recycling plant, where the hum of pumps and machinery drowned out the noise - if you didn't so much mind the smell.

The first real hint of trouble was a communication we received from Earth.  As a member of the council, I was privy to communications between the psychological staff on Earth and our two resident psychologists (one also an Engineer, the other a biologist) in the colony.  It seems that the background checks on Sarah has somehow failed.  Her family had a history of mental health problems and worse yet, Sarah knew about this and lied about it on the application forms.   Further research indicated that she had, in fact, impregnated herself from our frozen store of sperm, which would imply she herself had some mental health issues.

But what to do?  We didn't have a return rocket to send her and the baby back - and it wasn't even clear a baby could survive the acceleration g's associated with launch and re-entry, not to mention the months in space such a journey would take.  We were stuck with Sarah and Jake - and Tom - and had to figure out how to make things work.

Despite these concerns, things seemed to get better.  Jake stopped his crying and screaming and turned into a charming little baby.  He seemed quite curious about his environment, though, and had to be watched constantly.  As soon as he learned to crawl, he tried to crawl away from one of his minders, and as I explained before, our colony is hardly baby-proof.  We ended up walling off one section of the sleeping quarters as a "nursery" for Jake as well as a sleeping area for Tom and Sarah.  There was some grousing by other colonists as to the fairness of this, as Sarah and Tom had (by Mars standards) a luxurious private "room" while the rest of us had to sleep in not-so-private bunks.  And they achieved this luxury by breaking the rules.  It didn't help matters any that Sarah bragged about having these private digs.

A few years went by and a few more oppositions came and went, and while the supply rockets arrived, the power plant we were hoping for never materialized.  We were dependent on Earth to survive and maybe Earth wanted it that way.  Little Jake grew up and was a real terror.  Hyperactivity was one diagnosis, another was somewhere on the Autism spectrum.  Perhaps it was ADHD.  Whatever the cause, he was starting to become an annoying little pain in the ass, to put it bluntly.  He ran around the colony, screaming at the top of his lungs and often broke things by accident.  He would pout and sulk when verbally disciplined.  We never dreamed of spanking him - that was considered abuse. The best we could do was withhold access to video games, which seemed to be his greatest joy.  But even then, he figured out how to access them by using his Mother's account.

We had started formally schooling him by age five - again a task we were not yet prepared for, and one which used up a lot of manpower.  We had tried getting Jake to self-educate using programs beamed from Earth, but he refused to participate in these - loading games into his tablet as soon as adults turned their backs. It was becoming apparent that his mental capacity was somewhat deficient and we pondered what role he would play in the ongoing colony.  It could be he would be suited for little else than manual labor.

He wanted to go outside and see the surface of the planet, but we had no spacesuits in his size and it would be another year before one could be sent from Earth.  There was some discussion as to whether it was worthwhile to have a suit made in a child size as he would quickly outgrow it - and the colony had no plans for more children for years, at least.  We finally were able to get him into one of the pressurized rovers by having him curl up in a pressurized sample container and then carrying that out the airlock to the rover.  It was a dicey proposition as we usually required one space suit for every passenger in a rover.  If there was a decompression issue, he would have to curl back up into the sample container, which had a limited attached oxygen supply.  If they had to walk anywhere to be rescued, he would have to be carried.

Once in the pressurized rover, he seemed to enjoy seeing "his" planet for the first time, but when it came time to go back to the underground colony, he threw down a fit and started kicking and screaming - cracking one of the flat panel displays in the rover cabin.  This was a piece of electronics that we could ill-afford to lose, as getting a replacement from Earth would take a year or more and cost tens of thousands of dollars - and mean displacing some other piece of hardware on the cargo rocket, that we dearly needed.

But it got worse.  Once back in the colony, he started sulking and doing small acts of vandalism and sabotage.  At first it wasn't noticed or was chalked up to accident, but then he was caught turning valves in the air recirculation system and dumped several hundred kilos of precious breathable air into the Martian atmosphere.  The director of the air recirculation system was livid and hauled off and smacked him in the butt so hard that little Jake flew three feet in the air, which isn't too hard to do in the reduced gravity of Mars.  Some present were horrified and a meeting of the council was called.

We asked for some professional opinions from Earth as well as that of the two qualified psychologists in the colony.   Some claimed it was a phase he was going through, while others thought this was a sign of mental imbalance that could get worse with time.  What was clear to everyone was that we were not yet prepared for child-rearing.  The colony would have to build a child-proof creche to raise children in, and allow them into the general colony only with strict supervision.  One curious hand could kill off the entire colony by pressing the wrong button or turning the wrong valve.   It was clear too, that long-term, the colony would have to increase the safety factor of all of our systems, many of which were jury-rigged, to prevent such accidents in the future.

Unfortunately, not much was accomplished at this meeting.  Like most parents everywhere, we kicked the can down the road, when it comes to problem children.  We hoped that Jake would "grow out of it" as he matured and realized that life in the colony was a lot of hard work.  But in his defense, he never asked for any of this, and had he been born on Earth, perhaps his life would have been different.  Maybe he would have been a troubled child there, but the consequences would be less dire.

The next problem we had with Jake involved stealing food. Like I said, we had just become self-sufficient (barely) with hydroponics.  Food was still in short supply and our staff nutritionists carefully monitored what was served in our meals as well as the portion sizes.  Life on Mars wasn't like our lives on Earth.  You could not just "raid the refrigerator" if you were feeling a bit peckish.  Food was rationed, and no one in the colony had much in the way of excess body fat.

We were quite proud, therefor, when our head of hydroponics announced a special treat for us - he was able to grow a patch of strawberries that would be ripe next week - and provide us with a treat for dessert at Sunday dinner.   But alas, such was not to be - we found Jake groaning with a belly-ache and the entire row of strawberry plants picked clean.  Not only was it a selfish thing to do, but it was a breach of etiquette.  We didn't have the draconian laws in effect on the moon colony (which was run as a military base).  Theft of food there was a capital offense - although such punishment had never actually been meted out.  The threat alone was enough to curtail such thievery - that and the military discipline that they enjoyed.

At this point, there started to become an anti-Jake faction in the colony.  A number of colonists were grousing that Jake had caused nothing but problems for the colony and that Sarah had been selfish in impregnating herself.  Many started to give Sarah the cold shoulder and they resented their shifts monitoring Jake and his behavior.  It got so bad that we had to cull the Jake-haters from babysitting him - the outright hostility from some colony members were making his emotional problems much worse.

I wish I could say it got better, but it got even worse - petty acts of vandalism continued as well as graffiti.  We knew it was Jake, of course - his childish scrawls were easy to spot.  Everything came to a head, however, a year later when Jake intentionally broke through several safety measures we had installed and dumped several thousand gallons of hydroponic fluids outside of the habitat.  By the time the sabotage was discovered, half the plants in our hydroponic farm had died.  These plants not only represented our food source, but also helped recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen.  When confronted with the damage, Jake yelled that he was "getting even" for being denied access to his video games.  He threw down a full-fledged tantrum.

An emergency meeting of the council was held. The prognosis was grim.  Opposition - and supply rockets - were over a year away.  We would have to go to a crash diet, limiting rations by nearly half.  Worse yet, the oxygen supply would be critical the entire time.  It was entirely possible that some or all of the colony would die from malnutrition and/or oxygen starvation.   One member of the council raised the ugly question: If there was only enough air for half the colony population, should half then be euthanized to insure the survival of the other half?

You could have heard a pin drop.

"I think I know who we should start with," another council member added.  The Chairman had to bang his gavel for order as pandemonium broke out.  The harsh realities of living on Mars were starting to become apparent.  We were living a very precarious life here, and so far we had been lucky that no major mishap had occurred on our own accord.  The birth of Jake had thrown a wrench into the works by accelerating our plans.  Compounding the problem was the Earth was cutting back on our supplies, using the logic that we were becoming more self-sufficient and needed less Earth goods - and that things like electronics and machinery (including the promised power plant) were "luxuries" that colonists didn't need - as people on Earth were suffering enough.

Once again, we kicked the can down the road.  We would ration food and hope for the best and "see what happens."  People were starting to feel lethargic on a low-calorie diet and within a few months, the air got kind of foul and hard to breathe.  If we could only hold out until the next supply rocket arrived, we'd be OK. In the meantime, we scrambled to re-establish our hydroponics systems, but plants don't grow overnight.

As for Jake, that problem sort of resolved itself.   We found Sarah, Tom, and Jake in their private room, apparently victims of a murder-suicide.  They had fed Jake a fatal dose of tranquilizers before taking them themselves.  The prospect of having killed off their fellow colonists was apparently too much for them.  We reported their deaths as accidental and recycled their bodies after a brief ceremony.

And that, in short is how the second Mars colony failed.   We made it to the next opposition, albeit a bit thinner than the previous.  But Earth didn't send a supply rocket, but rather two passenger rockets and a refueling drone in orbit.  We were given an ultimatum - return to Earth or else.   Earth wasn't going to spend trillions more to establish the Mars colony.  And the near disaster caused by one person illustrated how frail the Mars colony was.  How could we expect to establish a self-sufficient colony without extensive facilities for manufacturing, child-rearing, education, as well as retirement for the elderly and infirm?

Reluctantly, we held a vote and a majority voted to return.  A few hardy souls with military experience applied to join the Moon colony - under the strict military discipline there, they would be required to be rendered chemically sterile.  The military wasn't messing around as we had been.

Could another Mars colony succeed where we left off?  Only if trillions more in equipment were sent there first.  In order to succeed, the colony would have to be able to make everything they needed to survive - and to survive in such a hostile environment mankind would need a lot of technology. You can't just drive to the hardware store on Mars to buy a length of pipe, a piece of wire, or a new rubber seal for your spacesuit - it all has to be shipped from Earth, at considerable expense. Shipping the manufacturing capabilities to make these things is even more daunting.

Maybe someday, we will go back to Mars. Maybe not. There has been a lot of hand-wringing and discussion - mostly in private - as to what went wrong with both attempts at settlement.   All I can say is, a trained cadre of Engineers and Scientists can survive underground for a long while, if they are dedicated to a technical task as we were.  But for ordinary people, like poor Jake, who may not have that dedication to such a lofty goal, life in an underground warren might seem a bit confining and unsatisfactory.

Maybe Jake was trying to tell us something - mankind wasn't meant to live in a cave, a spacesuit, or in some tin can floating in space.  Yes, mankind can survive in such places, for a limited time and at staggering expense.  But as a place to live - for all mankind for all time?  It simply makes no sense, when we live on a world designed for our beings, or more precisely, we have been designed for such a world.