For reasons too bizarre to explain I looked up a few sayings by the old science fiction masters the other week. These included:
Arthur C Clarke’s three laws of science fiction:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
We have a lot of scientists saying that travelling faster light is impossible. By law 1 about, they are very probably wrong. This is probably the most famous limitation science fiction writers either ignore or struggle with. There are loads of others. The one of interest in this article is how to emigrate safely to Mars.
Robert Heinlein made the following comment:
Always listen to the experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done, and why. Then do it.
The important bit in the last statement is the ‘and why’ part. It tells you what problems must be overcome.
The preparation for sending people to Mars, whether it be as visitors or to live there permanently, is gathering pace. But the Martian visit has several hurdles, but as per Heinlein’s comment they are working through the why nots. The two main problems are:
- Radiation, both in space after the craft has left the protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere and on Mars itself where there is no protective magnetosphere
- Long space flight will have an effect on weakening the bones – the longer the flight the weaker the bones – and therefore after a long spaceflight, the human skeleton might not be up to the job. This can be mitigated to a limited extent by doing exercises in space.
Initial designs of the spacecraft required a heavy shield to stop the radiation – difficult but not impossible.
I have always said that if we solve the cancer problem with easy to take medical methods, then we can use them to prevent a lot of effects of he radiation sickness. Earth is working on that – not a month goes by without hearing that progress is being made in this type of cancer or that.
Another route is to develop someone with a genome that has cancer prevention built into it. Reports are now circulating of a secret conference where developing such designer genomes were discussed. Normally I would put this down to a scientist huddle to talk things through… but they had the lawyers there discussing legal implications. So this is serious.
Now comes the news that NASA are looking into putting a magnetoshell around a spacecraft to protect the occupants from radiation problems. See here for details. Of course, they can then use that shell on Mars itself, but that is not mentioned in this article. One of my early stories (which had beginner writer writing mistakes, and hence never got published – shows you how early the story was), designed a magnetoshell for the whole planet… yes I thought big even in those days.
Lack of Gravity and Radiation Problems:
NASA are also looking at ways of shortening the journey time. Apart from the advantages of reducing expenditure due taking less supplies etc, it will mean easier access between the planets. They have trialled an engine that could reach Mars in 70 days. See here for details. This kind of helps kill two problems with one technology.
Of course there could also be answer in the genome as well, but I have not seen any mention of this possibility. Now if I put this idea in a science fiction story, it is possible that a scientist may pick it up and run with it…
This is the kind of area that science fiction can help science – pointing out possible solutions – just like I did (albeit clumsily) in that magnetoshell story on Mars I wrote long ago.
I have had a story on Mars published, which concerns a third problem, and have previously reprinted here on my blog because it was difficult to get hold of. That third problem is potential for the commonality of viruses etc. In the spirit of progressive science fiction I put a positive spin on it – but it can easily be otherwise.
For your edification I reprint here:
A Fate of Dust
The shadow of the cliff wall broke through the amber dust to almost touch the left side of the dart she was flying in. Claudine shrieked.
The shriek became a cough. That turned into more coughs. These changed into retching that continued on and on.
At last, it subsided enough for her to get her breath back and her bleary eyesight to clear. Her faceplate was splattered with a few spots that looked like blood. They were probably some remnants of her breakfast, though she could not remember eating anything that was as dark a red. Out of habit, she touched the spacesuit’s switch to clean the faceplate. Her view dimmed momentarily before she could again see through a clear faceplate.
Claudine eased back into her seat, but could not relax. If only she could be sure her autopilot had picked out a safe route through this, the worst Mars-wide sandstorm in twenty years, to get her to her patient in time. Marie was already in labor and it was going to be a very complicated birth. It would take all Claudine’s skills to deliver both mother and baby.
There was nothing more she could do for now except let the autopilot do its job. The dustiness had disappeared from the cracks and crevices in the cliff face above her. Ahead was the narrow ledge the autopilot was following. It meandered hugging the cliff until it narrowed even more to disappear around a sharp spur. She dared not think about what was on the other side. Instead she looked down into the valley onto the tops of the clouds streaking past in various shades of orange. The vortex patterns changed, and changed again. Every bit of dust was different, as if nature’s supreme artist was creating beauty in motion.
Her comms pinged an incoming. It must be Yuri. He would ring her on the slightest whim, bubbling with enthusiasm for whatever had caught his attention, whether it was about his next major engineering task or the prettiness of a flower in a farm tunnel. He had fascinated and infected her with his liveliness from the moment he had walked through the door for his immigrant’s medical three weeks ago. He could make her laugh even in her darkest moments and she could sure use some of that tension-relieving magic now. Smiling, she hit the acknowledge button.
The screen flicked to Dr Willox. His grey hair took on a toughened steel look as his lips were pressed together and he stared hard at her. Whatever it meant, it was more trouble for Marie.
‘Hello Claudine. I’m afraid your check-up came back with some positives and there’s no way of telling you this gently.’ He paused watching her intently. ‘You’ve got T.B.’
Claudine did not want to ask her next question. ‘Which variant?’
‘I’m sorry. It’s Hillier’s.’
She was stunned into silence. It had to be wrong. You caught Hillier’s and you might be dead within five weeks. You were very lucky to last fourteen, if you could call it lucky when you coughed and retched your way to exhaustion and beyond. Chances of survival? Virtually nil. There had to be a mistake. He must be erring on the side of caution. It was a duff test result.
She coughed. Her throat was sore. She felt drained, just like a person with T.B. would. Just like… She stared at him. She could not believe him, but he had never been wrong before. He was not wrong this time either. She wanted to scream, but she just sat numb with incredulity at what was happening to her.
Dr Willox continued: ‘Under the Martian Medical Act as passed by the Council two years ago, you are hereby ordered to Wing J of-’
Claudine cut off the link. She had learnt the words off by heart and didn’t need to hear the rest.
Wonderful silence. But a silence whispering of desolation and grief. A silence she would have to get used to over her remaining weeks. Or was it just days? She wanted to live. She had so many things she wanted, no, needed to do…
The dart curved right, then turned left round the mountain spur.
A crack sounded. She was jolted sideways and shuddered against her harness. Dust buffeted and rushed past her from a cleft in the cliff down into the valley. The thin walls of her dart reverberated with the dust’s hiss.
The dart swerved to the right and downwards. It scraped against the cliff wall. The dart’s canopy darkened to navy indicating it had been holed. Claudine was jerked forward against her harness, jammed backward against her seat and then slewed to her right, as the dart went into a spin. There was a loud bang and she was jarred against straps.
She edged into consciousness, her head feeling full of cotton wool. Her air was stuffy. She needed oxygen. Her thoughts muddled along. Despite breathing more quickly, the ache in her chest worsened. Claudine lifted her arm up. Pain shot through her. Gasping, she held her arm mid-air as she let the pain subside. She gingerly continued moving her arm to open her visor. The air was warm, fresh and sweetly scented. She breathed deeply.
She opened her eyes. Green and yellow specks floated above her. Frightened, she snapped her eyes shut. The specks disappeared. Her eyes must be all right. She re-opened them. The specks were still there. Her eyes adjusted to a dim greenish light. It had no obvious source.
The ceiling a couple of meters above her was covered with smooth green inverted domes, which continued down the gently curved walls and onto the sloping floor. This bubbly coating undulated very quickly into the darkness of tunnel in front of her.
She coughed. Pain shot through her. She dared not cough again even though her throat prickled badly. Her eyes began to water.
Willox’s call slipped into her mind. What was it he said? Through the grogginess came one word: Hillier’s. She wanted to wail, but dare not risk making her throat worse. She wanted to weep, but was too scared. She wanted to rant against the injustice, but had nobody to listen to her. She was alone. They must have found her some temporary place to quarantine her in, though she could not remember how she had arrived here in her dart. Nor could she work out why its canopy was missing.
Holding each breath as long as she could to fight off triggering more coughing, she undid her safety harness. A pain in her upper left arm jabbed at her. She tried to concentrate on anything but the agony.
The pain was getting worse. It kept her awake and heightened her awareness until it was all she could focus on. She had to have the painkillers stashed in her medical bag in the dart’s trunk. Slowly, she stood up, opened the dart’s door with her right hand and carefully stepped out. Her foot sank slowly into a dome scrunching down the green material until it became solid. She put her other foot on the floor. There was definitely something hard beneath the green layer, probably real rock. Agony lanced through her arm, making her feel faint enough to stagger. She regained her balance and took a step. It was too much. She stood still and time passed. She forced herself to take a step. Then another. And a third.
She found herself leaning against the trunk, which was covered by a dusting of the green material. She had got there. The green lining of the ceiling, walls and floor continued round the back of the dart to form a closed-off space. A trail of dented domes on the floor led up to a flat navy patch in the ceiling.
The trunk was buckled, but the lid had twisted enough to leave an arm-sized hole. Slowly groping inside, she found her bag and pulled out its contents, piece by piece only to discard them on the floor. At last, the drugs box. Sorting through the hypojets, she found the strongest painkiller and triggered the injection into her neck. She slumped. Everything darkened.
Claudine opened her eyes; everything was fuzzy. She had to concentrate to get things into focus. A discharged hypojet was in her hand. Why? Something was wrong. Badly wrong. She yawned. The pain was fading. She was so tired. A side effect of the painkiller. She rolled back to lean against the dart’s trunk. What was this place? Her eyelids closed.
She woke physically refreshed from a deep sleep. Her mind burbled and rambled through random thoughts. Her brain was still fogbound by the painkiller. Motes of green and yellow floated in front of her. The air was scented with vanilla and freesia, a standard air-freshener that hid the city’s stench, but without the undertone of decaying waste. This place must be new. She breathed deeply. Her arm gave her painful reminder. It was probably a hairline fracture. Better get it strapped in.
She was stiff while undressing. Bruises and swellings confirmed that her arm must have taken quite a knock. Searching through the bits and pieces on the floor, she found and gingerly picked up a thin roll. She hooked the bandage end over the top of her arm and rolled it round underneath until she could press it against the loose end. The auto-bandage took over to wrap and tighten itself around her arm. Why was she out of suit? If only her brain would clear. Her stomach rumbled signaling a deep hunger.
Claudine settled back into the dart and tore off green material to open the emergency rations locker. She glanced at her watch. 1830 hours. No wonder she was ravenous. She switched on a pack of stew to heat it up. Something was bothering her, ticking away at the back of her mind. It was something to do with her watch… the date. She had been away from home for two days. Rumbles turned into butterflies as hunger turned into panic.
She checked the dart by rote as if back in her driver training class. Only the emergency life-support systems were working. There was oxygen and water for two days. That was the good news. The bad news was that there was only a day’s supply of food left and the supposedly indestructible rescue beacon was dead.
The memory of her journey through the Martian dust storm with its ensuing nothingness crashed back. Yet now she was breathing air unaided. She must be dead and this purgatory or hell…. or unconscious and hallucinating… or insane while awake.
‘Stop this,’ she chided herself. What was she thinking? No way could she imagine something as weird as this. This had to be reality. What exactly was this place?
Claudine stepped out of the dart and panned a torch round the whole place. The green material lined everything except that navy patch in the ceiling up slope and possibly the depths of the tunnel she couldn’t see into down slope. She tried for a long time to make out what was beyond the tunnel’s entrance. The specks of light grew denser in her torch’s beam until she could not see into its entrance. She turned the torch up to the flat patch. It had a familiar sheen. Why was it so recognizable in this strange place? She looked back at her dart to realize the canopy was missing off it. That patch up there was exactly the right color for a holed canopy. How did it get up there?
The last she had seen of it was on the dart when she was in the dust jet. Come to think of it, she never saw it disappear away from her. She glanced at the dart’s nose. It was badly compacted. That would have been expected from when the dart hit the valley’s floor after that long fall. The dart must have made a hole through which she fell, somehow shaving off the canopy to let it fall on top of that hole. That made sense as far as it went.
But she was breathing air comfortably, which meant it was at pressure. But what was stopping the canopy from being thrust away from the hole? There must be rocks and dust lying on top of it. Even so, the air would rush out through the gaps.
Claudine shone her torch on the canopy. It was covering a small hole. There was no way the dart could have fallen through it. She scratched her head trying to coax her brain into finding an explanation for all this. She flashed her torch over the dart. The green material over the trunk must have grown there while she was unconscious. It could just as easily have grown over the canopy.
She switched off her torch, climbed back into the dart and opened the pack of stew. She took small mouthfuls while contemplating what she could do before her water, if drunk sparingly, would run out in three days.
Wait until she was rescued? Although the autopilot would have automatically logged her route with Argyre city’s computer, the dead beacon meant her only chance was for somebody to find the canopy and have the gumption to rip through it. But the canopy was likely to be hidden under a heap of dust.
What about going down the tunnel, hoping to find a way out? She switched the torch back onto its entrance. Without the green material it would look like a riverbed. The tunnel would have to continue downward. As she was already below the valley’s floor, there would be no surface exit for many miles, if at all.
And escaping through the canopy? Would her arm heal enough in three days to allow her to climb out and then make the long walk back to humanity? But would humanity accept her back with Hillier’s? How long did she have to live anyway? Would she be better off ending it all now? No, that would be stupid. There was still a chance no matter how miniscule she could survive. But would she have enough strength to struggle back or would Hillier’s weaken her so much that she would end up dying on the arid floor of Mars? So many questions. So much uncertainty. If only she could see her way through it all.
That was it. She needed to think clearly before she did anything. That meant waiting for the painkiller’s fug to subside. It certainly was her best, no her only choice.
Sixty hours later, she ate the last of her food. She had to leave this morning or she would never have the stamina to make it back to the city and Yuri. His love beckoned to her like a guidance beacon showing the way home.
Looking round, she tried to memorize everything of what had been her home for the last few days. It felt wonderful to have such experiences. It felt even better having coughed so little recently. In fact, she hadn’t coughed at all during the last day. That was odd. She should be getting worse, not better.
She scrambled through her medical bag for an emergency medi-card. They weren’t comprehensive in their diagnoses, but it would do. Exposing its needle, she pricked her finger and left it sampling for longer than was necessary. She would have to still wait ten minutes. Meanwhile, she admired the dance of the specks. The green and yellow motes of light jiggled, sometimes bumping into each other, more often changing direction for no apparent reason. She followed one particularly bright yellow speck as it glided, jerked and coiled on its flight down towards the tunnel entrance.
The card pinged. Startled, she fumbled to open it. No sign of Hillier’s. She did not believe it. Willox was never wrong. Yet, she should be short of breath and regularly coughing. Had Willox got the variant of T.B. wrong? She read the card again. There definitely was no sign of T.B. of any variety. She shook her head in disbelief.
She checked the rest of the card for clues. Her recent history of her immune system had been unusually active trying to beat off infections until shortly after becoming conscious in this cave. It had dropped suddenly, too suddenly. She had had some very serious help. But where from?
She searched the cave for inspiration for the answer. Her eyes were drawn to one of the dancing specks. She had to have been breathing these in. Claudine watched her breath as she exhaled. A few bright specks came out of her lungs, but they were somewhat dimmer than those floating in the cave. She followed a green one meandering downwards. It touched the floor and sparked back to the strength of the cave’s green specks. There was no way that could be a purely chemical reaction. The specks weren’t the fluorescent minerals she thought they were, but living organisms in their own right. Living organisms? Here on Mars?
Impossible. But what other explanation could there be?
The evidence of the medi-card sat solidly in her hand. Hillier’s was gone. What had cured it? The only things that had changed in her life were this air with its luminescent microbes, and touching the green domes. Was the green material also millions upon millions of microbes? She did not know the answer. One or more of these things must have cured her Hillier’s. Although this thought was there, it took some time to believe it was the right answer. Relief flowed through her. She could roam Mars freely again. She could go home to Yuri.
She gathered her things and happily whistling, climbed up to the canopy.
Did her suit’s comms unit have enough power to get a signal into the Mars net from here? She clicked it on and said: ‘S.O.S. Stranded person emergency. Can anyone hear me?’
Faint static came in response.
Claudine tried again.
Still only static.
Her broken arm ached as she reached up to feel around the canopy. The painkillers she had taken were not yet up to strength, but they were dampening the pain. She dared not take any more.
Gently, she peeled away some green material from the canopy to find out big a hole in the valley floor it really covered. Underneath was a black film. The green material grew back preceded by a brown band and then both encroached further over the canopy. What was going on? This time there was only one sensible explanation: the green material was made up of microbes that died and changed into brown, then black film when it came into contact with any hint of vacuum.
She tested a bit of black film with her laser knife. It didn’t even leave a scratch. Her only escape route was through the canopy. Its exposed area was just big enough for her to climb through. She only had one chance to escape before the black film made the hole too small for her.
Claudine crouched close to the canopy and locked her visor. She had ten hours of fresh suit oxygen to make it back to the city. She took a last glimpse of the dart though a mist of specks. It seemed so far away and forlorn.
Holding the knife’s handle against the canopy, Claudine switched it on. The blade thrust through the canopy. She swept the blade in an arc. Air rushed past her and opened the flap. She hauled her protesting body onto the surface amidst a storm of dust, flakes and small rocks. There was a thump against her leg.
‘Hole in right knee,’ said the Mars suit. ‘Ten seconds to patch.’ At the same time an overlay showing the suit’s lag and the exact position of the hole appeared on her visor.
Grabbing a patch hanging from her belt, she bent down to slap it on the hole and stopped. Some of the green microbes had attached itself around the hole forming a black film. It closed the hole almost instantly.
As she put the patch back onto her belt, an iridescent red, yellow and green fountain emerged from the hole in the canopy. The hole was being closed very fast by a black film. The fountain died. The canopy’s shreds were nowhere to be seen under the fountain’s debris.
She checked her watch to see how much oxygen time she had left through the green and yellow specks floating in front of her eyes. Her watch went out of focus as her breath came into focus. She exhaled a jet of specks. They could supply oxygen if need be. Her oxygen time was uncertain, but extended beyond the nine hours and fifty minutes she nominally had left. As to how long was a pure guess. She still had to get a move on, as it was only eleven hours to nightfall and its deadly cold.
She turned towards the Sun. The cleft where the dust jet must have forced her off the ledge was a long way up above her. To its left must be the spur she had just traveled round. These high valley walls were a possible reason as to why her suit comms could not link into the net. Claudine turned left to trace the floor of the valley back to home and humanity.
Her legs ached from the eleven-hour walk. She wanted to stop, sit down and rest. If she did, she knew she would never get up again. She forced her legs to move onward.
Her long shadow dimmed. She turned round towards the Sun. It was dropping below the craggy horizon, throwing off a blue shimmer into the thin atmosphere, lighting up the canyon in a strange light. The canyon’s left wall with all its clefts and cracks, and floor turned into crinkled mauve, while the other wall turned a lighter shade of brown. The trail of her footprints in the new sand deposits tracked just beneath the left wall. It was one of those rare moments of beauty and peace.
The Sun’s upper rim fell below the horizon. Stars lit. Green and yellow meteors appeared to streak in random directions across the sky, only they were the specks floating inside her suit. Claudine turned back round and continued her walk using her suit lights to make sure she stayed close to the cliff.
At the end of the canyon, she rounded the corner. About a mile away, hemispherical shadows rose from the ground to cut into the field of stars. This was Argyre City, her and Yuri’s home. The specks were even brighter against the domes. Still, Claudine kept on walking.
Her route veered towards J-wing, which housed the isolation unit. She didn’t want to go there, but there was no way the city’s system would allow her in anywhere else, not when it would have been told she had Hillier’s.
Claudine had a bigger problem. She glanced at the black patch just above her right knee. If the microbes had sealed her suit so fast, what would they do to the city’s systems? Sealing doors to the outside would imprison a whole community. Nobody would be able to escape. What right had she to take away people’s freedom so others could be cured of Hillier’s?
A needle of yellow light shone up from one of the service domes. A wisp of white frozen air climbed up the light. The light switched off. Those meteor strikes were getting more frequent. Some had said more manmade debris was falling from orbit, others because they were going through an astronomical dust cloud. Whatever the cause, too much vital air was lost.
With the help of the microbes, she assessed she only had twenty minutes of oxygen left before the carbon dioxide levels would start to rise. She did not know how long she had after that. She did not know what to do. Head for J-Wing, find a corner to die in or open her faceplate and rip her suit to pieces while she could.
She kept on walking step after aching step. She needed to know the answer to something else.
Claudine opened a voice only comms link to Doctor Willox.
‘It’s well after hours—,’ Willox said, his face showing the deepened lines and bags under the eyes from worry and sleepless nights. ‘Who is this?’
‘Did Marie and her son make it all right?’
‘Of course they did. Now, who are you?’ He gasped. ‘Claudine?’
‘Claudine, is that you? Where are you?’
Willox would be worried about her spreading Hillier’s.
‘Good to know about Marie. What’s her son called?’
‘Denis. Now, where the devil are you? How are you holding up?’
‘That’s a lovely name. Is he healthy?’
‘He’s already above his birth weight. And I won’t answer another question about them until you tell me where you are.’
‘The same old gruff. You’ve not changed.’
‘Claudine!’ He coughed, almost choking on himself. ‘Your oxygen supply ran out twelve hours ago. Where the hell are you? And why haven’t you put this link on visual?’
‘I’ve got a bit of a problem.’
‘It’s not the problem you think it is.’
‘Oh? Since when was having Hillier’s T.B. not a problem?’
‘I don’t think I’ll answer that. Is there anyone in J-Wing at the moment?’
Willox hesitated. ‘There’re four in there including your current boyfriend. You must have caught your T.B. off him. He’s holding up surprisingly well all things considered.’
‘Yuri… Not Yuri, please God, no.’ An image of his sparkling eyes and crooked grin on his tanned face sprang up in her mind. She tried to imagine him being ill, but could not picture it. Yuri was joy and happiness personified. There was always a spring in his step, wittiness in his jokes, kindness in his actions and above all else, he cared about everything and everyone. He threw an aura of comfort around anyone he met, her most of all. She would be losing that. No, she had already lost that, and more, she had lost his companionship, his understanding of her little mannerisms and his being there, solid and reliable.
Willox coughed and continued: ‘I’m sorry. We’re checking all his contacts. Yuri sure got around.’
‘But that’s not his fault.’
‘There’s talk of isolating the city.’
Claudine gasped. A whole city would be left to die. Maybe a few would recover. What would happen to them? They could be carriers and wouldn’t be allowed contact with anyone on planet or off afterwards. They would be the unlucky ones. It would be that or many millions dying. Quarantining the city would be the right decision if that were what it had to take. It was so cold-blooded.
Willox intruded: ‘Why haven’t you been coughing?’
‘Should I be?’
‘Most definitely, but I haven’t heard a single ahem, let alone a full-blown raucous cough. Are you using filtering software?’
‘It’s selling well on the black market. You could have picked up a copy.’
‘Why the hell should I waste money on that when you already have diagnosed me with Hillier’s?’
‘Good point.’ Willox paused. ‘But how do you explain the lack of coughing?’
Claudine hesitated. Willox would never believe the truth, not without hard evidence.
He coughed several more times.
She looked at him more closely. His skin was unusually white and he was sweating from exertion even though he was only sitting and talking. He had the killer T.B.
She didn’t need to ask where he was. Willox would have isolated himself as soon as he suspected he had the disease, and once Hillier’s was confirmed, would have gone to J-Wing the moment he was sure he would not meet anyone in passing. He had always been harder on himself than on anyone else. ‘Who’s looking after the city’s medical needs?’
‘I am, of… How did you… That was observant of… You must be… Why are you so bloody healthy?’
At last she had his whole attention and he would believe something very unusual had happened to her. She laughed. ‘I’m glad to see you haven’t lost your crustiness either.’
He leaned into his screen, eyes very much focused on her even though he could see her on his blanked screen. ‘I’m going to get even crustier if you don’t answer my question, and for God’s sake take down your privacy mode. It’s not as if I haven’t…’
She switched off her privacy mode.
‘… What’s wrong with your suit comms unit?’
‘The picture I’m getting is sparkling all over.’
‘Those sparks are green or yellow. They’re floating around inside my suit and they’re the problem I was talking about earlier.’
He had a bout of coughing before staring back at her. ‘What happened, Claudine?’
‘You’re not going to believe this.’
‘Right now I can’t but have to believe you’re alive. So you might as well tell me about the rest of your impossibilities.’
She glanced at her fresh oxygen supply. There was only ten minutes left. Argyre City’s domes had grown larger, their blackness having risen to hide more stars. She could just about make out the green solar-light lines around the nearest man and dart airlocks. To the side of the Central dome with all its shops, offices and services was the much smaller J-Wing. It was smaller than she remembered it. She did not want to go there to be cramped into a few small rooms with no exit. They would become the only world she could smell or touch. The city, landscape and stars would only ever be seen by proxy through comms, as long as they lasted. It would not be same as experiencing the real thing as she was doing now. This would be the last time she would be roaming free, walking on the Martian dust floor. She wanted to savor the moment, but time was running out.
‘I’ve only got ten minutes fresh oxygen left and am about fifteen minutes away from the outside entrance to J-Wing.’
‘I’ll get suited up and-’
‘Listen. These sparks are microbes. Yes, real Martian microbes. I don’t know how they killed off my Hillier’s, but they’ve been ruthlessly effective. This cure comes at a price-’
Willox’s faced switched from misery to joy in an instant. ‘That’s wonderful news. As soon as you get here-’
‘Shut up and listen. These microbes are anti-vacuum. One slight crack to vacuum and they’re there, sealing it off.’
‘You don’t get it, do you? They live in self-contained pockets of air with no contact beyond the seal they’ve made for themselves. Anything that’s in with them will stay inside. Once these microbes hit the city, airlocks will be sealed shut permanently. We won’t be able to get out. We’ll be prisoners for life. And death.’
Willox’s smile swung to a silent scream.
She had got through to him.
He had a coughing fit.
She forced herself to take one painful step after another towards the J-Wing airlock.
He looked back up to the screen with tears in his green eyes.
She could not be sure whether they were from the coughing fit or from the misery he must be feeling. Knowing him, he would say it was the former to cover for the latter. She did not bother to ask. Instead she asked: ‘What do you want me to do?’
Willox hesitated. ‘I need time to think things through.’
‘I haven’t got time.’
‘I’m aware of that aspect.’ He had reverted to his professionalism he was used to doling out in medical emergencies. ‘Come to the airlock in J-Wing. We’ll take things from there. I need to organize a few things.’ He blanked her off.
An amber light flashed in the corner of her faceplate’s display.
‘Warning light acknowledge. Display information.’
The display changed to a message. Her suit’s store of solar energy had fifty minutes left at the current usage before reverting to the standard back-up batteries, which had an hour’s worth of juice. She would be in J-Wing or dead by then. She cleared the display.
She tried to call Yuri on his mobile. She wanted to see him, to see how bad he was. If he’d passed the T.B. onto her, he was likely to be very ill. She wanted to talk to him, tell him how much he meant to her even though she could not really put it into words.
No answer. She left him a message to ring back as soon as possible.
She tried contacting Willox.
J-Wing’s silence was turning from peaceful via brooding to menacing. It was as if the place was trying to push her away.
She had nowhere else to go. She forced her legs to move. They were getting very sluggish. Their pain caused tears to form in her eyes. The door’s green outline became blurred.
A red light flashed in the corner of her faceplate.
She knew what it meant: no oxygen left in her supply. It was only a hundred meters to the door. She could make it before the carbon dioxide poisoning did any permanent damage. She cleared her faceplate. The light had given her a new urgency to get to the door. Desperation let her override her painful protesting legs to march forward.
Gasping, she reached the airlock and pushed the pad to open the outer door.
She pulled up the manual override handle.
Still nothing happened. Her chest changed from an unacknowledged tightness to an ache of demanding oxygen.
She was locked out of J-Wing, no the whole city. This was her only route in.
She accessed a link to Willox.
She tried Yuri.
She tried the door comms link.
She opened all three channels to her suit comms. ‘I’m at J-Wing airlock. I can’t get in. Help me.’
She tried again.
‘Willox, please,’ she whispered. ‘You’re killing all those who have Hillier’s. Please give,’ gasp, ‘a chance.’
She slid down onto her knees and fell to the ground. ‘Please…’
Claudine opened her eyes; everything was fuzzy. She was shivering from being cold. There was a dull pain across her chest. Her legs were in agony. She tried to stop the shivering. It grew worse. She tried to forget about it.
Stars shone steadily above. An uneven cream stripe was painted across the sky. She could not remember what it was called. Green and yellow meteors streaked in from random directions. Some even changed course abruptly.
Something was wrong. Horribly wrong. She yawned. Where was she? Her eyes closed.
It was dark when she woke, refreshed from a deep sleep. She was lying on a firm bed with a sheet thrown lightly on top of her. There was a tube stuck into her left hand. A screen to her side threw off a dim light showing her heartbeat, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and breathing rate. They were all normal for someone at rest in the middle of the night.
What was not normal was the occasional yellow or green spot crossing her eyesight. The microbes were still with her. They would always be with her, both her savior and her curse.
She felt for, found and pressed a switch to raise her into a sitting position. Lights automatically lit. She was in a small room with a shut sliding door a meter beyond the end of her bed. To her right was a standard hospital cabinet for personal things, a high-back chair and beyond them was an open door through which she could see a shower cubicle. It was all standard hospital building and kit. There were no personal possessions, individual decorations or even unique serial numbers to be seen. It was a repeat of things she had seen and dealt with many times before. Only the lack of scuffmarks, tarnishes and scratches identified this as J-Wing.
The after-numbness from her unconsciousness was slipping away. She was alive. What was the time? She glanced at her left wrist. It was empty. Her watch was gone, but there was a tube going into a vein in the back of her hand. She looked at the screen. It was two-fifteen in the following morning. She had been out of it for well over a whole day. So Willox must have relented and hauled her in. He had cut it fine, too damned fine for her liking.
A green mote shot across her sight, then a yellow one diagonally in the opposite direction. How far had these motes spread? If they were in this room, then the ventilation would have made them spread through the rest of J-Wing by now. Had they gone further and into the city passed the filtration webs? Had the microbes had chance to work their miracle on Willox? Had they got to Yuri in time? She needed answers particularly to the last question, and she needed them now.
She swung her legs over the edge of the bed. They felt stiff and achy. She ignored their protests. Standing up on the cold floor, she switched off the machine reading her vitals and withdrew the tube from her vein with her right hand. Her gown was standard hospital attire, practical but made her look like an old frump. She yanked it off. She pulled the sheet off the bed, folded it in half lengthways and wrapped it around her body like a sarong. It wasn’t perfect, but she felt more human.
Claudine went over to the door and tentatively touched the pad to open it. To her surprise, it slid across to let her out into a square reception area. The night lighting let her see the doors to the other four care rooms were shut. Didn’t Willox say there were four patients already in here? Yes, he did. Yuri had to be behind one of these doors.
The board behind the counter hadn’t been filled in. She stepped round behind it and stopped. A plant pot holding a small tree was standing behind the desk stopping her from accessing its computer. That unhygienic thing shouldn’t be in this hospital. Instinct made her pick it up and carry it into the corridor leading away from the reception. The automatic door slid open. The corridor was stacked with boxes, on top of which stood trays of plants. There was only enough room for one person to sidle past all this and there was no room for the tree she was holding.
‘You might as well put it back,’ Willox said quietly behind her.
She turned round. He was standing in the opened doorway of the room nearest to her. His eyes still had bags underneath them, but his skin was pinker and there were fewer lines on his face. He was recovering from his T.B. ‘Where’s Yuri?’
‘Yuri’s fast asleep and I’m not going to let you disturb him. He’s my patient, not yours.’
‘He may never wake up.’
‘Oh yes, he will. He’s on the road to a full recovery thanks to those microbes you brought back. Leave him in peace.’
‘No. I’ll stay awake to make sure you don’t.’
‘No, I’m not. You’re fit. He’s still recovering.’
‘Damn you! I could’ve died outside that airlock.’
‘No. You were completely safe all the time.’
‘I went unconscious.’
‘Of course you know, you had to pick me up from outside.’
‘That as well.’
‘Is that all you’ve got to say after putting me through… How?’
‘I patched my mobile into your suit’s diagnostics. A little trick I learnt from my ex before you ask.’
‘You’re a ruthless-’
‘Please put that pot down before you throw it at me.’
‘-bastard.’ She eyed the pot. ‘It’d be a waste of good plant to throw it at you,’ she said setting it back down where she had found it.
‘You’re right. We’re going to need its apples before we’re finished here.’
‘We’re cut off from the city while we work out exactly what these microbes of yours do. What do you think we’re going to survive on? It’s all right water and air being pumped in. But we needed food, replacement parts and research kit. We had to lug all of them in before we brought you through the outside airlock and blew our internal airlock to the city.’
‘Oh.’ She needed time to absorb this and work out what it all meant for the future, hers and Yuri’s.
‘Go and get some more sleep. You’ll see Yuri in the morning at breakfast.’
‘I hate it when you’re always right.’
‘I know. It’s one of my less endearing traits, which I reserve only for emergencies I hasten to add. Goodnight.’ He stepped back into his room. ‘By the way, breakfast’s at seven,’ he said before closing the door.
She was faced with a closed door and the frustration of waiting. She didn’t feel sleepy and she had nothing to do except dwelling on what her future would be like. Willox would drive her up the wall and he certainly would was a good candidate for being murdered.
‘What’s all the noise about?’ Yuri asked.
‘Yuri,’ she spun round, ran towards him and embraced him.
‘Hello, Angel,’ he said holding her close to him.
He was warm, smelled clean with an overtone of cooled sweat and his muscles were as hard as ever. At last she pushed him away to look into his face. His crooked grin and sparkling blue eyes shone more brightly against his drained tan. His short blond hair acted as a halo around his face. He turned his face away and coughed before returning his gaze to her.
‘Come on, back to bed with you.’
‘Yes, nurse,’ he said as his grin became even more crooked. ‘Only if you promise to tell me a bedtime story about your adventures.’
‘There’s not that much to tell.’
‘You go out in the middle of a sandstorm and come back with Martian life that cures a deadly disease, and you say there’s not much to tell. Please, for me.’ His lips pouted like a child’s and his eyes took on a pleading look.
How could she refuse? ‘Oh, all right. But only one story.’
He pulled her towards him and gave her a lingering kiss.
She could not resist and closing her eyes, immersed herself in the pleasure of his succulent lips.
He broke off for another cough.
When he’d finished, she turned him round and gently guided him into his room. ‘Bed for you. Now.’
Claudine tucked him into his bed and sat on the armchair facing him. She told him her tale. Instead of him falling to sleep as she had hoped, his face grew more and more animated with astonishment. She stopped at the description of the blue sunset. ‘I’ll never forget it. I’ll never see anything like it again, not being stuck here in this prison.’
‘It’s not a prison. It’s a great gift you’ve brought us. It’s cured Hillier’s. It’s-’
‘How can you say that when we’re confined to this wing? We’re stuck here forever, until the day we die.’
‘No,’ he said shaking his head. ‘You think only of medicine and how to make people well. It’s a lovely thing to do and you are a wonderful person to do it. You must feel very happy to have found that Hillier’s and, perhaps other killer types of T.B., can be cured. I can understand you not liking us being trapped in here. But it will pass. We’re survivors, just like those microbes of yours. They had to adapt, change to survive in a dying world. They had to become what they are now.’
‘Yes, but they’re our jailers now.’
He pulled his hand out from under his sheet and told hold of hers, squeezing it gently. ‘Please, Claudine, see it my way for a few moments. These microbes have a lot to teach us. They survived by changing to what they had to. So can we. That’s not all. We can do things with them, things we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.’
‘Yuri, you’re the eternal optimist and I love you for it. It’s time you got some of that precious sleep,’ she said getting up.
Instead of letting go, his hand gripped hers more tightly. ‘Look, to be an engineer you have to work out how to use things in new ways. For that you need a good imagination. And my imagination tells me we can use the microbes to repair holes in our domes, to shield spacecraft against dust as they fly faster, build the hulls of generation ships for the stars and that’s only the start. One day, I don’t know when, we will find a way of stopping these microbes locking us in.’
The needle of yellow light pointing out of the Central dome flashed into her memory. She wished his ideas could become reality. ‘They’re dreams and that’s all they are.’
‘They’ve not, Angel. I’m an engineer. It’s always been my job to work out what controls to put on things to turn dreams into reality. These microbes are something new. They just need controlling in the right way. Our children, and if not them, our grandchildren will be able to do things with them we would consider magic today. It’s always been like that and it always will be.’
He was so earnest that she could do nothing other than believe him. A flicker of hope of an escape from J-Wing and for an interesting future stirred in her heart.