Phase Three: Salutogenesis
My main job on the crew was to make sure that the Habitat and all its systems were in good working order. If we don’t have air, we die. If we don’t have heat, we die. If the water
reclamation system wasn’t capturing and purifying every last drop of water that we brought with us, we die. You get the idea. It’s a big job. I spend most of each day elbow-deep in mechanical guts, just checking every last piece of each and every machine in the Hab, looking for anything that might fail. That probably sounds tedious to most people, but it was actually relaxing. My gut can be a big help. Twelve years of intensive training at the world’s top engineering programs supported ninety percent of the maintenance, but for the other ten percent, I listened to what the machine was saying.
“Hello, beautiful.” I popped open the back hatch on the FDURB rehydration bay. “How many bananas are you going to re-moisten today, my pet?” The appliance purred. “Busy day, huh?” I tipped my chin, so my headlamp helped me see down into her motor. “Oooh, nice guts!” Her engine was shiny and well-oiled. I counted each mister down the line, checking them off my list. I didn’t just talk to the machines for fun. These were my system notes; everything I said aloud was recorded by the Hab’s main computer for analysis. Even with the direct comms out, these recordings were critical for future mission planning.
“Seventeen, eighteen, hmm, what’s going on with eighteen?” The second-to-last mister on the rehydration station was unlatched from its moisture port. I checked the main computer log for the last time I’d gone over this machine. Three days ago. That’s interesting. Moisture could have been escaping for a full 72 hours. I checked the humidity level in the Hab; it was not elevated beyond a reasonable margin for error.
I sat back on my heels. My headlamp bounced off the mirrored metal, blinding me. I
switched it off. At the same moment, spooky how it happened really, all the main lights in the Hab turned off. The contingency for mainlight failure is an array of bioluminescence strips copied from fireflies. Following my training, I used the dim floor stripes to scout my way to the nearest emergency life support bay and grabbed both of the air masks. Current air levels seemed to be stable—but if that changed, I wouldn’t be able to fix anything without oxygen.
“Commander? Dr. Daniels?” I called out before affixing the oxygen mask, which would muffle my voice. According to the main computer, they were in the Farm Pod. Sperling-Pierce and I reached the hatch at the same time, fluttering into each other like zapped moths. Plants covered every inch of the floor. The four of us crammed against each other in the tight space. But at least this pod had light. Its dedicated backup to the backup generator, kept the sunlamps burning.
“It’s the fifth battery bay.” I reported. “It just went offline. That triggered a failure event which then cascaded through the entire secondary operations system, which includes the lights.”
“Is it within your capability to remedy this situation, Dr. Lux?” Commander Ng asked.
“Yeah, you bet. But I’ll have to decouple the battery bay from the main system and
reboot it. And that means going outside.”
Daniels sent his eyebrows up to his hairline.
“Outside?” Sperling-Pierce repeated stupidly.
“Yeah, it’s like a strand of Christmas tree lights, you know? One bad bulb spoils the
whole bunch.” My air mask hid my reassuring smile, and the oxygen levels were consistent, so I disengaged the vacuum seal. It popped off with a satisfying slurp. “I can fix it, but I’ll need an extra pair of hands.”
I was looking at the Commander, but Daniels spoke up first. “I’ll do it.”
“Okay, I guess. Sure. Think you can hold a 15-pound hatch for about twenty minutes in low gravity?” Behind me, Sperling-Pierce snorted. I ignored her.
“Yeah, no problem.” Daniels said.
“No! I need him to listen to the comms for more Morse Code. Let’s focus our efforts on re-establishing contact. We have air and food. We can go without lights for a while if necessary.”
“Are you nuts? Have you been ignoring everything I’ve been saying since the mission
began? It’s all connected! Today it’s the lights, but the reduced battery capacity could snowball. It could be the water recyclers next, or the gravity boosters, or the air.” I waved the emergency air mask in her face. Sperling-Pierce lunged toward me with an accusatory finger. I hopped back, knocking over an immature coconut palm.
“Commander,” The volume of Sperling-Pierce’s voice seemed unnecessarily loud in our cramped corner of the Farm Pod. I was starting to sweat in the humidity of the greenhouse. “I have to protest. We have no guidance from Earth on this and Dr. Lux is over here comparing the situation to Christmas trees and snowballs.”
“Dr. Sperling-Pierce. Dr. Lux. Stop.” Commander Ng held up both hands in peace. “I
hear both of you. As the mission commander, it falls to me to make decisions for this crew. The primary and most immediate need is to secure the Hab. Dr. Lux, Dr. Daniels, suit up for outside. Dr. Sperling-Pierce, please return to the comms unit. Earth may have resumed contact while we were discussing the current situation.”
Triumphant, I couldn’t resist needling Sperling-Pierce. “Don’t mess around with the
radio circuits. You don’t know what you’re doing.” I turned to Daniels, “You ready?”
“I need a snack first.”
Commander Ng floated back with us to the Cafetorium. I pressed a couple of buttons in the near-darkness, and we patiently listened to the gentle whirring of three bananas unflattening. I’d reattached the eighteenth mister on the rehydrator, but something about it was still bothering me. There were over six thousand separate machines on the Hab—why had I checked this particular appliance again after just two days? It shouldn’t have come up again on the maintenance chart for weeks.
Sperling-Pierce reappeared just as Daniels, and I were suited up and about to enter the first vacuum bay. ‘U.S.S. Utah,’ the name of the Mars lander, was printed on the sleeve on my surface suit.
“Any word?” Daniels asked.
“No. Same static.” Sperling-Pierce looked tired. “Lux, I really think you should check out the radio again. Maybe you missed something. Or, if you would just let me use your
electronometer, I could check it myself.”
All combined, the layers of surface gear added about forty-five pounds of weight. This wouldn’t be a problem in lower gravity, but we were still inside the Hab. Swinging around to face her, I overcompensated for the turn and ended up spinning past her to yell at the wall.
“Don’t touch my tools! You’ll break something or you’ll hurt yourself. I’ll look at it again when I get back. Okay? Stand down.”
Sperling-Pierce stalked off down the dark hallway.
Commander Ng helped us cycle through the twin airlock chambers to exit the Hab. There were two physical keys and four keypads, each requiring a voice code and an ocular scan. The three of us, working together, took about a quarter of an hour to safely complete the door opening procedures. Commander checked in orally with the main computer at each step to make sure we were doing everything right.
I looked over at Daniels as we stepped over the threshold at last, but he’d already flipped on his sun visor. A distorted version of my own identical helmet looked back at me. It was a thirty-meter walk from the exit terminal to battery bay five. The extreme traction on our boots left distinct impressions in the rust-red sand of this foreign planet.
“Doing okay, Dr. Lux?” Daniels’ voice came out of a pair of speakers positioned right
behind my ears.
“Can you believe this is only week one?”
“I’m trying not to think about that to be honest. We have over fifty more weeks and I
already want to toss Sperling-Pierce out here without her surface suit.”
Daniels’ laugh echoed inside my helmet.
There were six battery bays in all, spread out equidistant around the north side of the Hab in a half circle. By chance, battery bay five was the farthest from the exit chute. I hadn’t stepped in the raw dirt of Mars since making landfall. The sun seemed brighter. Shards of light beamed off the metal equipment keeping us alive and contained.
“What’s that?” Daniels pointed to my left wrist. I looked down and saw a triangle of
paper sticking out of the arm cuff. In our rush to gear up for outside, I’d somehow lodged
Geoff’s letter into one of the suit joints. With fat gloved fingers, I tried to dislodge it but only managed to tear off the corner.
“Shit.” I said.
“Did you just litter on Mars?”
“Damn. Yeah, I guess I did.” Now we were both laughing.
Once I took battery bay five offline, we both got readings that the Hab was recalibrating correctly. It was satisfying to be right.
“Can you save it?” Daniels initially held the hatch with both of his arms raised overhead but as I dug around in the guts of the machine, he’d taken to holding it up with one arm and switching one out for the other as he tired. I looked up at him from a crouch and used his body to block the sun from my eyes. Even with my visor, the light was blinding.
“Maybe. Maybe not. I’m going to reboot it on its own and see if I can re-integrate it later. See here? The PV panels aren’t keeping the batteries charged. The entire system is set up to have redundancies. We’ll be fine, but I don’t like losing a battery unit less than a week into our mission.”
Daniels dropped his arms heavily as I took the hatch from him to secure it closed. My hand hovered over the scanpad. Who exactly was this designed to keep out? I outpaced Daniels on the walk back. Something didn’t feel right. “Lux! Daniels! Please return to the Hab, um, now, if possible.” Commander Ng didn’t sound like herself on the main feed. She never dropped our titles, even, as I now knew, in scientifically intimate situations.
“Yessir. We’re done out here.”
Phase Four: Integration
It was easier to re-enter the Hab than to leave it, though Daniels and I still performed a
complicated hand off to make sure that the first airlock cycled fully before we moving to the second. A pair of heavy clicks and a whooshing sound signaled that we could remove our surface gear. As the Commander’s voice shifted from reverberating inside my helmet to standing across from me, I tried to catch up with her panic.
“…she is saying that she needs medical attention. Physically, she doesn’t seem to be that bad, but she won’t stop screaming.”
“What is happening?” Daniels asked the question for us both.
“Dr. Sperling-Pierce. She tried to reboot the comms deck from the root system and got electrocuted!”
I was already running for the opposite end of the Hab. The halls were still dark, but I had my headlamp switched on.
“Sperling-Pierce, what the hell did you do?”
The narrow beam of the headlamp swept over her body on the ground near the comms eggchair (another GLG masterpiece that looked like it had been printed as a single piece. It was a nightmare for the lower back). Dr. Sperling-Pierce was curled up in the fetal position, but she’d stopped screaming. I fought back the irrational urge to burst into tears. I hated seeing someone I don’t like looking vulnerable. I tilted my head to illuminate her face with my headlamp. Her eyes were closed. Twin trails of tears ran down each cheek.
“I need a doctor.” A mess of wires spilled out from under the comms console. Remnants of her ham-fisted engineering.
“Okay. What’s wrong?”
“Not you, you ninny. A real doctor. A medical doctor. I’ve been electrocuted.”
“Any trouble breathing? Are you bleeding anywhere?”
Daniels slid into the small cabin behind me. Commander Ng’s head poked over his to see better.
“I didn’t sign up for this shit. My hands are burning.” Sperling-Pierce paused
histrionically between each sentence. “Get me a real doctor. Now.”
The Hab’s lights flared up again to full strength. I resisted saying something about fixing the battery. This wasn’t the right moment to brag.
The Commander stepped forward, her headlamp blinding me as she maneuvered to enter the crowded cube.
“Dr. Sperling-Pierce, are you able to stand? We will convey you to the medical bay.”
“No. Don’t touch me. This has gone on long enough.” Dr. Sperling-Pierce used the back
of the eggchair to right herself. Her eyes were bloodshot and wild. Her usually curly hair was nearly straight.
“Daniels!” I yelled out as she brushed past me, pushing me over in the process. I was still wearing my surface gear from the waist down, so I wasn’t completely stable, especially in the lower gravity. “Stop her!”
Daniels stuck out a hand, but Sperling-Pierce pushed past him easily. She had a head start on us and the rest of us were all blocking each other in the narrow hall. The situation was not unlike the threesome from the other night, and I don’t think I was the only one thinking that because the Commander’s pleas came out raspy and low. “Doctor! Stop!”
Sperling-Pierce was heading toward the exit doors.
She wasn’t pausing to suit up.
Exiting the Hab safely takes several people, multiple failsafe actions, and about 16
minutes to do it properly. But there was another way. There was a big red handle on the opposite side of the main exit doors. In English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Russian, Chinese, Thai, and Arabic, the sign above the handle read: Emergency Exit.
“No!” I shouted. “Don’t do it!”
She looked back at us, still wild-eyed. Hair everywhere. More alive than I’d ever seen
her. The GLG day counter flipped over with the whistle, flutter, and then click: day seven of three hundred. Sperling-Pierce pulled the handle causing both sets of doors to spring open, exposing the Hab to the planet outside.
“I didn’t sign up to get electrocuted. This shit has gone too far. I need medical attention. I’m stuck in a pod with horny idiots who forgot they’re in a simulation.” She pointed at the Mars red dirt piling up on the outside of the Hab airlock. “We’re in fucking Utah.”
About the Author
D.S.G. Burke (she/her) lives and writes in New York City with her fiancé and a cat named Android. Her writing has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Opiate Magazine, Thereafter Magazine, and the 3Elements Literary Review. Find her at www.dsgburke.com or on Threads/Twitter @dsgburke—where she’s usually hyping up composting.