SPRINGTIME ON MARS
By Jeff Robinson (1,581 words)
(published The Martian Wave, July 2002)

15 March 2150, Mars Colony Terraforming Station 27

Loren Grey had walked about four miles from the Terraforming Station, when he finally decided to head back. He had collected temperature and humidity readings from the top of a ridge, where the lonely habitat sat, all the way down to the bottom of the gully that ran east of the station all the way to the horizon. He hiked up to the rim of the ravine and looked out across the desolate Martian plain. While it was still barren and bleak, he marveled at how much the terrain had changed, since he'd arrived three years before.

Back then, the ground had been dry and windblown. The expanse of desert-like terrain had been monotonous and unending. He stooped and chipped at a patch of black ice with his small handpick and carefully placed the sample in one of the remaining empty bottles he'd brought. He put the plastic container back in his pack and logged the location in a small palmtop computer attached to his utility belt.

God, it’s so different here, he thought. He stood breathing heavily into his light atmosphere suit, fog alternately advancing and retreating across his faceplate. He glanced up into the noon sky and stared briefly at the Sun, a smaller dimmer version of the view seen from Earth. Loren had never regretted leaving Earth. It was just crowded and too busy back there. The giant multi-national companies controlled everything Earthside. There was no real freedom there. Mars and the outer colonies were the only places truly free of their monopolistic industrial control.

Even the Sondai Lunar Colony, with its sixty-five million permanent colonists and millions of regular tourists and transients, was far too much like Earth for his tastes. It had lost its rugged appeal, when it had been converted into one giant resort for the rich. As fast as the Sondai Corporation could build new, tiny apartments, people eager to flee the overcrowded Earth bought them and emigrated there.

Of course, there were only about a million total people on Mars and they were spread over dozens austere little settlements. There weren’t a lot of amenities, but that was the price the Martian colonists had to pay for their individualism and freedom. XXXXWith all the research grants from Earth-based companies, even the research stations on Titan and Europa had more luxuries than the Mars colonists had. The other colonies were richer, but they were hardly more than company towns, owned and operated by Sondai and the other giant corporations.

The terraforming stations here on Mars, on the other hand, were owned an operated by those who manned them. They operated on a shoestring budget and were financed by leasing orbiting space habitats that other entrepreneurs used as a jumping off points for asteroid mining operations.

Loren checked his watch and then inspected his oxygen supply to ensure he had plenty of air left for his return trip. “Survey 1 to Outpost 27, do you copy?” Loren said into his throat microphone.

“We read you loud and clear, Loren. How's it looking out there?” came the reply.

“More black ice. I'm bringing back samples. The black algae that Mars Central seeded out here is growing a lot faster than we'd thought. I've also verified the ambient temperature is nearly four degrees warmer than last month. At this time of the year, the air here in the southern hemisphere is normally cooling rapidly.”

“Roger, we copy your sensor telemetry. The satellites verify the black algae, growing on the ice, is decreasing the albedo of the southern temperate regions. The absorption of sunlight has nearly doubled in the past two months.”

The station watch officer paused and then added, “Loren, you'd better get back to base soon. The next scheduled ice drop is set for three hours from now and you don't want to be caught out in the open in case some large fragments make it through the atmosphere.”

“Roger, 27, I'm headed back now. Survey 1 out.”

Loren turned and carefully skipped back down the slope he'd just climbed. With the lower Martian gravity, skipping was more efficient than running and he could manage to bound nearly eight to ten feet between each touch of the ground. At this rate he could cover the four miles back to the station in less than twenty minutes without even working up a sweat.

Reaching the bottom of the gully, his foot slipped on the ice and he slid ungracefully on his backside, careening into a large round rock.

“Damn!” he said aloud. He rolled carefully to his side and raised himself on his hands and knees. Looking at the ground he saw what he'd slipped on and stared at it for a second in shock.

“Outpost 27, do you copy? This is Survey 1. Do you hear me, 27?”

“Yes, Loren, what is it now?”

“I had a little accident guys, I fell down.”

There was a long silence. “Are you hurt Loren? Do you need us to send someone out there to assist?”

“No, no, fellas. I'm okay. I just thought you'd like to know what I slipped on.”

“Huh? What are you talking about?”

“Water, guys. I slipped in a puddle down here in a low spot between the ridges.” He paused awaiting a reply. “Did you hear me guys? I slipped in a puddle of water. There’s free water on Mars.”

No one answered. Loren slowly stood and looked down at the tiny pool of water that had collected from the melting ice. “Guys? Did you hear me? I said there's free water out here.”

Outpost 27 came back on line and there was some shouting in the background. “Loren, are you sure? The ice from the asteroids they've been dropping from orbit isn't supposed to produce free water for another two years at the earliest. The black ice algae that Oberon Genetics engineered is supposed to absorb light and gradually raise the ground temperature, but it's still too cold out there for the ice to melt.”

“Yeah, I'm sure. It's water. It's not much, and it may not be here long, but it’s definitely water. It’ll freeze again, if the wind picks up, but it's calm right now and I guess we're having a minor Martian heat wave. Anyway, it’s enough to wet the ice and drop me on my but.” Loren laughed, not sure what more to say.

“Come on back, Loren. We've notified Central and, if you're right, they might want to accelerate the seeding program with the next generation of biologicals. The Station Chief will want to debrief you personally.”

“On my way. Survey 1 out,” said Loren. He started to ask if he should bring a sample of the water and then laughed at himself. It would just freeze on the way back. He checked his bearings and took off for the station at a more modest pace.

The small ice moons that the Martian fleet of tugboats had been bringing into orbit, decelerating and blowing up as they entered the atmosphere, had delivered hundreds of cubic miles of frozen water to the Martian surface in the past decade. For the first time in millions of years, it had snowed on Mars. In the time Loren had been stationed here, the landscape had changed from red to white, and eventually to gray and black, as the special genetically tailored black algae had been seeded onto the open terrain flourished. The algae that grew in the ice not only raised the ambient temperature by absorbing light, it converted the carbon-dioxide Martian atmosphere into oxygen and established the key to a future Martian ecology.

Once the temperature increased enough to produce free water, everything would change. Weather patterns would develop. Clouds and storms would appear and produce rivers, lakes, and small shallow seas. The frozen dioxide ice at the Martian poles would melt, and return to the atmosphere. Then those greenhouse gases would warm the planet even more.

When the atmosphere stabilized, a whole new range of organic plants and animals would be introduced that would further alter Mar's environment. Eventually rugged grasses and insects would be introduced. Finally, a whole new, self-sustaining ecosystem would be built.

Loren started working his way up the long hill to the outpost. As he trotted along, he smiled and wondered what Mars would be like then. He thought about fields of green and warm moist air he could breathe without an environment suit. I would be heaven then. Then he thought some more and his smile slowly faded. He remembered what had already happened to the moon and began to worry that it might become too much like Earth. It wouldn’t be long before the large Earth-based conglomerates moved in and changed everything. In a few years, the place would be worse that the Lunar colonies, and Mars would become overcrowded just like the other colonies. He shuddered imagining people crowded into surface habitats like sardines in a can.

As he loped up the hill, he began wondering where he would go, when they started building cities here. Maybe he could ask about those sleeper-ships they were planning on sending to Procyon and Cygnus. The trip would take more than fifty years even with the new gravity drives, but all the colonists would be frozen in stasis and sleep the whole way.

Smiling to himself, he decided to make a few calls and find out if they were still accepting applications for colonists. With his experience here, he’d be guaranteed a berth. With Earth fifty years away, it would be quite a while before the Far Colonies were overrun by Earth and its giant industrial companies. He grinned and decided to apply first chance he got.

As he reached the station and opened the hatch that led down to the spacious underground quarters of Station 27, a gust of wind stirred and blew in wisps of delicate Martian snow.

 

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