This, Javier Navarro thought in disgust as he stared up at the tower he was supposed to fix, was not exactly the heroic and exciting thing he had imagined when he’d seen the NASA recruiting posters and, on a whim, submitted an application.
Sure, here he was, on the Martian red soil, in a space suit, about to climb up and fix a satellite dish—just like the poster! He should ask Lakesia to take a picture to send to Mama and Papa, they would be so thrilled. Their son, the astronaut!
What hadn’t been in the poster, and wouldn’t show in the picture, was how bad his suit smelled. Or how it rubbed in just the wrong way under his armpits. Or how he was already sick and tired of it after the three hour ride out to the antenna, and would have another couple of hours out here working and then another three hours back. Or how awkward the thing was to move in. Or how impossible the gloves made any kind of fine work.
“Yo, Javi, you going to get to it sometime today?” Lakesia asked.
“Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever,” Javier grumbled. With a sigh, he clipped himself to the frame of the tower, and began to climb. He had two safety tethers, and with each step he took, he unclipped one and fastened it to a higher step. Then the other, at the next step. It doubled the time it took to climb the dang thing. And Javier was all in favor of safety—if he fell, anything but the most basic first aid would have to wait until they got back to base—but surely the best engineers in the solar system could figure out a safety system that wasn’t so damned annoying and time-consuming?
Below him, he knew, Lakesia was getting her equipment out and checking things. Javier wasn’t quite sure what exactly she was doing—something scientific, obviously, but it was mostly makework. You couldn’t send someone out by themselves three hours from the base; what if there was an accident? But that didn’t make it a two-person job. So they sent out an extra person, who mostly got to be really uncomfortable for an entire day for no other reason than to serve as a backup.
“So what are you doing down there, Lakesia?” he asked as he laboriously made his way up the ladder. He knew how to climb a scaffolding in a spacesuit in his sleep; NASA training was thorough. But the suit was big, and bulky, and stiff, and didn’t respond to his movements very well. Even in Mars’ low gravity, it was a workout.
“Soil samples,” she said, with a bored tone. He didn’t bother looking down at her; with the suits on, he wouldn’t be able to see any expressions or body language anyway, and the quicker he got this done, the quicker he would be able to get this fricking suit off.
“Don’t we already have soil samples from here?” They would have taken some when they set up the tower five years earlier, surely? Javier hadn’t been here at the time—hadn’t even joined NASA, yet—but it would have been SOP to do so.
“Yeah, but they want to see change over time,” Lakesia said.
“This is Mars. Nothing changes,” Javier said. He reached the top and paused to fully secure himself before taking a look at the malfunctioning system. “Well. Nothing except the shape of the dunes, I mean, not in five years.”
“That we know,” Lakesia pointed out. “Also, did you by chance happen to notice that we have the excavator and the core sampler loaded?”
“Yeah,” Javier said, absently, as he studied the damage. Well. No damage that he could see—unsurprising, given the fact that Mars’ atmosphere was just thick enough to protect against minor space debris, while still thin enough that even the most massive storm couldn’t get up the force to do much equipment harm. He’d swap out the antenna anyway, see if that fixed things. “I thought we just hadn’t unloaded it after Carter and Sano’s trip yesterday.” That happened more than NASA would like; loading and unloading the heavy equipment was a chore, and likely to be skipped after a long hard day’s work, since the rovers all had more than enough battery power to spare to haul the extra mass, unless someone was going really far outside their normal range of work.
“Nope. Well, that might explain the excavator, I probably won’t need it, but we didn’t have the deep core sampler yet the last time they sent someone out to this station.”
“Ah. Oh, shit-fucking—!” Javier said, as he watched the bolt he’d been just about to put back on slip out of his fingers and fall, slow-motion, to the ground. He’d learned through long experience that trying to catch at things in the suit only made things worse, as the thick material hampered his movements.
“Everything okay up there?”
“Yeah,” Javier said. “I’m fine, just dropped a bolt.” He sighed, and pulled a replacement out of his spare pouch. At least it wasn’t the antenna—that would be hard to fix and harder to replace. Bolts, on the other hand, were simple. But even a bolt, well, it wasn’t like he could run to the nearest hardware store.
“Once I get this set up and running, I’ll see if I can find it,” Lakesia said.
“Thanks,” Javier said. They had a large supply, and an incredible manufacturing plant that could make more, but that then took raw materials that were also in short supply. Which was why they had to account for every bolt and washer and nut. In six months or so, when Mars was closer to the part of the asteroid belt that was being mined, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but right now they were pretty poorly positioned for resupply from either Earth or the belt.
He finished the installation, and hooked up his testing rig. Everything seemed to be working fine. He switched to his long-range radio—currently routed to go through the rover’s antenna, not the tower’s antenna. “Pathfinder base, this is Navarro, do you copy.”
“Navarro, this is Pathfinder base.” It was Kayleigh Wizowski on comms. She must have traded shifts with someone, because she wasn’t usually running the boards. “Done already?”
“Possibly,” Javier said. “I’m not finding any obvious problems. I switched out the antenna, want to see if that fixed it.”
“Sending the ping now.” There was a few moments of silence. “And … not only are we not getting anything from the tower’s radio, now the satellite dish isn’t responding either.”
“Great,” Javier said glumly. The tower started vibrating slightly; he looked down to see the core sampler working. He couldn’t hear it, though; the air was too thin to carry much in the way of sounds. “Well, my testing rig says everything’s working AOK. I’ll run through the connectors and see if any of them are loose and just not showing up on the tester.”
“Keep us posted, Navarro,” Kayleigh said.
“Will do, Pathfinder Base,” Javier said. “Navarro out.” He switched back to local comms and started going through the connections, one by one. He was grateful for the gloves that protected his hands from the miniscule air pressure and freezing cold of Mars. But damn did they make everything take ten times as long.
“Hey, Javi, found your bolt,” Lakesia said eventually.
“Huh? Oh, great,” Javier said. And promptly fumbled again, this time almost dropping the housing. Still, the housing was mounted to a tether; unlike the bolt, it couldn’t go far.
“You okay up there?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Javier said. “Just these gloves, turn me into a butterfingers. I swear, I’m a really coordinated guy without them!”
“Yeah, well I still kick your ass at ping pong,” Lakesia pointed out.
“Wait till I’ve been here more than a year, and then we’ll see,” Javier said. Mars’ different gravity made his reflexes all wrong. Lakesia had been on base longer than anyone still there, and had two International Space Station tours before that.
“Talk, talk, talk, that’s all you’ve got,” Lakesia said. “And you’ve got nothing to complain about—the old suits were ten times worse, at least.”
“I know,” Javier said. “They made us train in ‘em, for a while.” The old suits used layering and internal bladders to maintain pressure and temperature and protect from radiation. The new suits weren’t skintight suits like you saw in science fiction—and Javier doubted they’d ever figure out the mechanical counterpressure needed to make that a reality—but they were at least a step towards less bulk. “That does not change the fact that if it weren’t for the gloves, this would be a very simple job and I would have finished it so much quicker we’d be halfway back to base by now!”
“Nope,” Lakesia said. “The core sampler isn’t finished working, yet. We’d still be here. But you, as junior astronaut, would be doing the logging.”
“Hey, man, I’m a tech, not a scientist,” Javier pointed out. “Science is your job, not mine.” This was not strictly true. He’d been recruited to be a tech, and it was his primary function, because a permanent installation of main base plus subsidiary habitats/research bases with an average of a hundred people on planet at any one time needed people to fix things and keep the equipment in working order. But NASA was big on cross-training, so Javier could do almost any job on the planet. (He might not understand what he was doing for all of those jobs, but he could follow the steps to do them.)
Javier could feel his hands get sore, and it felt like they might start cramping up if he went on too long. He carefully put the last fitting back on and switched over to long-range. “Pathfinder base, this is Navarro, do you copy.”
“Navarro, this is Pathfinder base,” Kayleigh said. “Ready for the next test?”
“Yup, all the connections should be functioning within tolerances.” He flexed his hands as much as he could in the suit, then let them hang limply at his side.
“And … nada. Nothing. Antenna still out, satellite dish still out.”
“Okay,” Javier said, thinking. “It’s gotta be either a really weird hardware error in the router, or a bug in the programming. I’m going to see if I can format it and reload the software, see if that fixes the problem.” That, at least, was something he could do rather simply. He signed off the radio to base, hooked his tester in again, and gave the command to wipe and re-install the programming, then sat back in the harness and looked out at the horizon while it worked.
He missed trees and rivers and things, but you didn’t get this view on Earth. The HUD pointed him in the direction of the nearest secondary Habitat, as if he didn’t know the way from here. He sometimes visited each of the secondary habs in turn, fixing anything that needed a more specialized touch than the main crew could manage. The first one in this direction from Pathfinder Base was past the mountains, over a carefully-marked trail. If they’d had heavy dirt-moving equipment, they could have made a much shorter road, but as it was, the rovers could handle the winding path they’d made. It was a beautiful drive, even if you did have to wear a suit the whole time. And the towers like this one made sure that there were multiple communications options every step of the way. Even if something happened to a rover’s communications suite, an astronaut would always be in range of one of the towers, able to contact Pathfinder base and even (in dire extremity) NASA, through the radio and satellite links in the towers.
Eventually, his helmet dinged to let him know the tester was finished. He rebooted the whole thing, and ran the tester one more time. It looked good … but then, whatever the fault was, it hadn’t shown up the first time. Another quick call to base found that they still couldn’t see the tower, radio antenna or satellite dish, either one.
“And we checked everything over at the base, to make sure the fault was on this end,” Javier confirmed with Kayleigh.
“You know it, you were the one to do it,” Kayleigh said.
“Yeah, I know,” Javier said. “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to swap out the central unit, see if that fixes the problem.” If it was an internal hardware issue, there was no way he could fix it here; it would have to be taken back to base with them.
This took a little longer, and needed Lakesia’s help. He let down the cable to her, she hooked the new unit on to it, and he hauled it up. Swapping it out was relatively simple, but it took a while, and then he called back to base to check it again.
“Looks like that fixed it,” Kayleigh reported.
“All right,” Javier said, hooking the old unit onto the cable and beginning to lower it down. “I’ll bring this back to base and we’ll see what we can do with it.”
“Then we’ll see you when you get back to base,” Kayleigh said. “Oh, by the way, we’ve got the results from the US Open Cup, and the last game should have finished downloading by the time you get back.”
“Awesome! I know what I’m doing tonight!” The final game should be something to look forward to. He did miss soccer, and often speculated what it might be like to play it in Mars’ lower gravity; there just weren’t any open spaces anywhere near big enough, unless you wanted to try playing it in a spacesuit. Which, despite Alan Shepard’s golfing on the moon, Javier wasn’t quite enough of a soccer fan to suggest. “Thanks for the information, Pathfinder Base; Navarro out.”
“I’m done with the samples,” Lakesia reported. “As soon as it’s all loaded and stowed, and you get down from there, we can head back to base.”
“Wonderful,” Javier said, and began the careful task of climbing down. Which was just as slow and laborious as climbing up had been, only this time he couldn’t see as well. By the time he was down, Lakesia had most of her samples stored. Javier helped her load the core sampler, then made sure everything was secure while she cycled through the airlock into the rover’s pressurized cab.
By the time Javier was inside the pressurized cab, Lakesia had the beast fired up and ready to go. He stripped off his gloves before strapping in to his seat; the seatbelts were a pain to fasten wearing gloves, and it was quicker to take them off first. On a flatter piece of land, Lakesia would probably have started off before he was strapped in, but they were in rough terrain. She hit the accelerator as soon as the belt clicked in. Javier took off his helmet, shaking his head once it was off and enjoying the range of motion.
“Ah, fresh air!” he said. He’d mostly gotten used to the smell of his suit, as he always did, but it was still nice to be out of it.
“You know, if you hate the suits that much, you could always transfer back to earth,” Lakesia said. “You’re a great tech, and especially now you’re an astronaut, you could have your pick of jobs.”
“No thanks,” Javier said. “I mean, there’s so much I miss, don’t get me wrong. But you know what I’m going to do when we get back to base? I’m going to take that unit apart and figure out what the heck is wrong with it, and then I’m going to fix it. On Earth, something goes wrong, you yank out the part and throw it away. It doesn’t take any real skill, no tinkering. I mean, you can if you want to make a hobby out of it, but that’s what it is—a hobby. I want to work with my hands, and I want to fix things. We do that here. It’s different. Now, if I only had to leave the base a few times a month, or didn’t have to try to work outside it, just enjoy the scenery, I’d take it in a heartbeat … but the job itself? No. I wouldn’t trade it.”
“Yeah,” Lakesia said. “I know what you mean. I will really miss this thing when my last rotation here is up and they call me back to Earth.”
“Any idea when that will be?” Javier asked. Transportation between Earth and Mars was incredibly expensive and time-consuming, so while the standard rotation was about six months long (plus travel time on both ends), NASA encouraged their astronauts to take multiple rotations in a row, pending regular rigorous health examinations.
“Naw,” Lakesia said. “But I’m getting old enough I know they’re getting nervous about the idea of me in space.”
“Yeah,” Javier said, snickering, “because you’re ready for the nursing home, I know it.” Lakesia could go longer working outside in a suit than any other person on Mars. That took no little amount of endurance.
“You know three quarters of new cancers happen in people over the age of fifty-five?” Lakesia said. “Heart attack risk skyrockets, too. Lot of other risk factors, and I’ve spent a large chunk of my life in space and on Mars, where the radiation levels are higher even with NASA’s best shielding, and where even the best exercise regime can’t quite make up for the loss of Earth’s gravity. No, much as I’d prefer to stay, the risk factors are going to start climbing sharply for me in a few years, and NASA deals with all the risks they can’t control by micromanaging the ones they can. That means I’ll be heading back to the ol’ blue marble. Dunno what I’ll do then. They’ll probably want me doing NASA press. Maybe coordinating things with one of the asteroid mining companies. Office work. Joy.”
“Cheer up,” Javier said. “Maybe by then they’ll decide to turn this experiment into a colony, not just a research station.”
“There’s no economic value to colonizing Mars,” Lakesia pointed out. “It’s too expensive to get here and live here. The only reason to do it is bragging rights—we’ve colonized another planet! Wouldn’t that be something. But it’s too expensive to do just for pride. And anyway, a post-menopausal woman isn’t anybody’s idea of a great candidate for colonizing a place.” She bent over the readouts, reaching forward to toggle something on the dashboard, so he couldn’t see her face. All he could see were the elaborate braids she kept her hair in, by far the most stylish hairstyle of any woman on Mars.
“I suppose not,” Javier said. He couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He was happy here, happy to stay for a few years, and overall he liked the work. But he’d be happy to go back to Earth, too, when the time came, and get a girlfriend and settle down in a house of his own. “You know, technically, we already have colonized Mars. I mean, we’re growing crops and everything.” It was a lot cheaper to grow stuff here than to grow it on Earth and then ship it to Mars.
“You’ve been talking to Wirtz again, haven’t you?” Lakesia said.
“Well, yeah,” Javier said. Wirtz was the other big soccer fan on the base. And in charge of hydroponics.
“We may be self-sufficient as to food, finally, now that they figured out how to grow vat meat in Mars’ gravity, but we still need a lot of other supplies from Earth,” Lakesia pointed out. “And ‘colony’ implies that this is our new home, not just a workplace we happen to live in.” She sighed. “Well. It implies that Earth thinks this is our home. And they don’t. So it isn’t.”
There didn’t seem to be much more to say, so the conversation drifted to a close. After a bit, Javier put on some music, and the good-natured bickering over what to listen to took up much of the rest of the trip back to base.
"Maybe I'll retire from NASA and go to work for one of the asteroid mining companies," Lakesia said as they unloaded her samples and Javier's equipment and supplies. "They always need trained spacehounds, and I'll bet their safety regs are less stringent."
"Yeah, well, there's a downside to that," Javier pointed out. "And I've heard the mining companies pay well, but the accommodations suck. Plus, you love science, and you wouldn't be doing it any more, just running equipment."
"Yeah, but I'd be in space for longer," Lakesia pointed out.
"You have to go back to Earth sometime," Javier pointed out. Much as he loved his job, he wouldn't want to stay here forever; he missed his parents and his siblings and playing soccer too much.
"Wanna bet?" Lakesia said with a grin.
"If you want it, go for it," Javier said, shaking his head, and went in to log the day's work.