art & g.narrative
fiction & poetry
art &
fiction & poetry
current html | pdf
vol v, issue 1 < ToC
If You Lead an Earthling to Water, Who Gets to Drink?
Mary Jo Rabe
previous next

ad astra... Human
Guinea Pig
If You Lead an Earthling to Water, Who Gets to Drink?
Mary Jo Rabe

ad astra


... Human
Guinea Pig
If You Lead an Earthling to Water, Who Gets to Drink?
Mary Jo Rabe
previous next

ad astra ... Human
Guinea Pig

ad astra


... Human
Guinea Pig
If You Lead an Earthling to Water, Who Gets to Drink?
 by Mary Jo Rabe
If You Lead an Earthling to Water, Who Gets to Drink?
 by Mary Jo Rabe
Having just taken off her cooking cap, Emma Brooks Baxter checked her short, white, wavy—not curly—hair in the mirror on the door and looked around her currently empty cafeteria. She resisted the urge to run her stubby fingers through her hair; after all, she was still on the job.

It was dark outside, but she could still see the silhouette of Pavonis Mons off in the dusty distance. As so often when it came to her job, she had been absolutely right to insist on having the cafeteria up on the surface of Mars in a circular structure complete with a panorama view through clear but radiation-resistant plastic window panes. It may have been costly, but it gave the community a place to gather and remember why they all wanted to come to Mars.

Occasionally she felt a little crotchety with her thirty-eight Martian years (certainly one reason to come to Mars—having your age sound younger) and noticed that she didn't move her short and stocky bulk around as quickly or gracefully as she once did. However, one glance out the window, and the dusty, red surface told her that her second chance at life was just beginning.

The cafeteria, as she insisted, never closed. Emma preferred to do the cooking and baking in the morning, then trust customer service to her capable staff, go back to her apartment for a needed nap, and afterwards hang around for the evening and night shift when all the scientists and engineers came looking for something to eat while they brainstormed. Although she appreciated the compliments for her tasty food, she enjoyed their expert and informed speculations even more.

Emma worshiped the astronomers. In her mind there could be nothing more important than learning just how this universe was put together. However, she was also convinced that serious researchers could only rid themselves of their earthbound bias by leaving their home planet.

That's why she was so fond of the engineers who made human habitation on Mars possible. Emma did her bit by keeping the colonists fed, but it was the engineers who kept everyone supplied with necessities like breathable air and sufficient water.

Speaking of whom, her friend Dr. Ruthie Sandcorn and team chose this moment of reflection to open the door from the passageway to the underground sections of the habitat and dash into the cafeteria, still tapping at the communicators in their hands.

"Emma, we're starved," Dr. Sandcorn said. "What do you recommend?"

"Martian lasagna with garlic bread, all ingredients coming from the surface greenhouses and fields," Emma said. "But if not all of you are that hungry, Ruthie, I can make you sandwiches or soup."

"We are that hungry," Dr. Sandcorn said. "Start dishing out your fantastic food and we'll get in line to carry it to the tables." Ruthie was a tall and deceptively slender woman with well-developed though almost invisible muscles. With her habitat nickname of Red Ruthie based on her thick mane of uncontrollable curls, she was famous for her arm wrestling victories.

Emma darted back to the serving line, slapped on a serving cap, and started dishing out the lasagna. She allowed herself some feelings of culinary pride. Not every cook could prepare a lasagna from purely vegetable sources that tasted like the memories the colonists had from their Earth restaurants.

As she handed them the plates, she saw that Ruthie was first in line, followed by her eager, somewhat hyperactive second-in-command, Dr. Blake Behla. Emma couldn't help admiring Ruthie's patience with the man.

"We're celebrating," Dr. Behla shouted. "Bring out your best wine." He was a short, wiry, little man, always jumping up and down for whatever or no reason. This was perhaps cute when he was a teenager but was wearisome now that the good man was visibly middle-aged.

Emma tried to move her facial muscles into a neutral smile. She never lied to her customers, but sometimes it was better to sugarcoat the truth a little. "Farmer Oscar has made genuine progress with his grapes, and I think you'll find this wine a definite improvement over last year's," she said.

Then of course it occurred to her that she had missed the more important message. "What's the occasion?" Emma asked.

"We did it!" Dr. Behla shouted. "We found enough water to keep this settlement on Mars supplied forever."

Ruthie smiled patiently as she carried her tray effortlessly with one hand over to the largest table. "We'll all be going out to check for ourselves tomorrow," she said. "But it does appear that our little robot excavators have plunged into an underground lake that has enough volume to flood the entire northern hemisphere many times over."

"And besides providing enough water to maintain human life, there is more than enough to release for hydrogen for any other purposes the settlement can come up with," Dr. Behla piped up.

Emma sat down at their table. "You've been looking for water for a long time," she began.

"Yes," Ruthie said. "But so far we've always only found tiny underground ponds. It's hard to find definitive evidence of water supplies from the surface, and trying to penetrate the Martian surface itself is like digging through cement with a plastic spoon."

"We didn't make any progress until the authorities let us use nuclear power to blast some deep holes and then drill from there," Dr. Behla added.

"Yes," Emma agreed. "I remember the decision was somewhat controversial, and there were even some protesters among the settlers."

"All idiotic Luddites," Dr. Behla said. "Compared to the cosmic radiation that beats down on Mars every day, the minor contamination from our nuclear-powered blasters and drills was negligible."

"No, no," Ruthie said. "I'm grateful when people question decisions. It's good for the whole community when people insist on protecting the settlers from their own enthusiasm. Still, I am so relieved that we have finally found enough water. Now the fun part starts, figuring out the nuts and bolts of getting the water to the settlements and keeping the supply steady and reliable."

Emma smiled. "I would have thought that was the dull part, no different than what you could do on Earth," she said.

"I guess I'm still just a plumber at heart," Ruthie said. "My degree might say hydraulic engineering, but what I always loved most was twisting pipes, attaching hoses, and plunging drains. It is neat to do this on Mars, though. The challenges, temperature, rock contents, surface air pressure, are all very different."

"So what do you do now that your drilling robots have discovered the water?" Emma asked.

"We have excellent mapping programs," Dr. Behla interrupted. "We need to determine where pipes of which length need to be laid, where they need to be insulated against the surface temperatures, and then send off an order to the Stevensen Plastics factory to get our pipes molded. Then we order more robots to get the pipes connected underground."

"There is one more formality," Ruthie admitted. "The drilling robots have sent a sample of the water to Doc Brach for testing. We need to use this water, but it might be good to know ahead of time what precautions we need to take when we release it for human use."

"Well, good luck with everything. I hope everything goes smoothly from here on in. Where will you be setting up your engineer's camp?" Emma asked.

"We already have a tiny research habitat at the Vastitas Borealis," Ruthie said. "We'll go there and decide whether to set up operations there or somewhere else." She and her group then wolfed down their food and left, still tapping at their communicators.

After Ruthie's group was gone, Emma allowed herself some jubilation. A safe and reliable water supply would be very helpful for the cafeteria. Ever since she got to Mars, she had managed to run the place successfully despite the various water restrictions, but now she would have one thing fewer to worry about. She could expand the drinks she offered; she could save time and energy with respect to hygienic activities. Emma could only hope that Ruthie and her team worked fast.

Assuming that that had been the excitement for the night, Emma was surprised when Spin and his troop of equally adolescent pilots ambled into the cafeteria. "Any cookies left, Emma?" Spin asked.

He was a nice boy, tall and skinny like most of the Martian-born, but healthy and fit. Spin had almost beaten Red Ruthie at arm wrestling once and probably would someday.

These young people, eight to ten Martian years old, were the fearless rocket pilots who made transportation possible on Mars. Emma was always relieved when they showed up alive, having heard too many believable accounts of how they flew.

"All yours," Emma said as she pointed to the full bin of cookies. "Did your last trip wear you out?"

"We never wear out," Spin said as he and the others, five young men and two young women, stuffed their hands into the cookie bin. "But we had a few interesting excursions up and over the mountains tonight."

"And down into the valles," one of the young women added.

"Well, don't make them too interesting," Emma said. "I need live people to eat my cookies."

Spin laughed and the group wandered back to the exit. Like every evening, Emma hoped their competence would continue to be equal to their confidence. Buzzing around a dusty planet was never without its unique surprises.

A Martian month later Emma was preparing to make chocolate chip cookies in her dust free—due to the impermeable seals around all exits—kitchen when she heard some shouting coming from the eating area. That was decidedly inconvenient. She was just at the point of determining whether the substitute cooking oil and sugar mixture was now creamy enough for her to add the substitute vanilla. This was a fairly critical point in the process and determined just how soft and chewy the cookies would be after they were baked.

She strained to recognize the voice and then wished she hadn't. To her honest regret, Emma had never had much interest in the work of the astrobiologists. Maybe she was prejudiced, but she pretty much doubted the existence of extraterrestrials since none had bothered to show up so far in her cafeteria. Nonetheless she tried to be a good listener whenever Barbara Cohan came around complaining. No one else had any patience for the poor woman.

Barbara was young and passionate about her work, to the point of suspecting that everyone else wanted to prevent her from discovering anything. In Emma's opinion, her billionaire brother Ned had let far too many only marginally sane colonists come to Mars. And yet here they were, and Emma felt she should do her bit to integrate them into the habitat community since they weren't capable of it on their own.

Maybe it wouldn't do any permanent harm if she refrigerated her cookie dough for a few moments and went to talk to Barbara.

Emma waited until she was outside the kitchen area before she pulled off her head covering that bore some resemblance to what religions on Earth had demanded of women worshipers. Hers, though, was literally taped around her hairline and included a huge, stiff collar bent upwards. Emma only wore it because it was perfect for keeping any kind of biological droppings from entering the cafeteria food chain.

Before Emma had pulled off all the tape, Barbara came running over as fast as her chunky, short legs could manage the short distance. "I found them," she shouted, clearly out of breath. "They're here, just like I said they would be."

"That's nice, dear," Emma said. "Who's here?" Much as she enjoyed people eating her cafeteria food with obvious pleasure, every now and then Emma thought she should encourage people like Barbara to eat a little less. Barbara's puffy face didn't look at all healthy, but maybe that was due to the oily, long, dark-brown hair that bordered it like greasy theater curtains. Well, as soon as the new water supply was available, everyone could shower more often.

"The microbes," Barbara yelled. "They found living microbes in that new lake that Dr. Sandcorn's robots discovered. Doc Brach called me. I rushed over to his infirmary where he fortunately does have adequate laboratory facilities and looked at the creatures in the water myself.

"There are Martian microbes in the water, and most of them are alive. I did a quick analysis of one of the dead ones, and its DNA is completely foreign to ours. We can forget all the silly panspermia theories. Planets develop their own, unique life forms; we just still don't know how yet. I sent the data back to Earth and just got my confirmation from three different exobiologists. We have discovered extraterrestrial life forms."

Emma wasn't sure what to say. Barbara was always extremely sensitive. "I'm happy for you, dear," she came up with. Surely that sounded positive without a hint of criticism.

"I need to celebrate," Barbara said. "Join me in one of your monster-sized chocolate milkshakes, please!"

Emma was briefly sad that she was the only friend Barbara had to celebrate with. Still, she could try to make this minimal celebration pleasant.

"Certainly, dear," Emma said. "Would you like some chocolate meringue pie with it? That's your favorite."

"You're a mind-reader," Barbara said, hugged Emma, and walked over to the serving area.

Emma brought two milkshakes and two pieces of pie over to the table. Barbara still looked unusually happy. "What happens now, dear?" Emma asked. "Will more astrobiologists be coming here to examine the microbes or are you going to send a water sample back to Earth?"

Barbara chewed her pie, smearing some of the chocolate filling onto her cheeks. "Actually," she said, "that is the bad news for us. All of us Earthlings will have to leave Mars. It would be immoral to endanger Martian life forms. They were here first. We are the invaders, and now that we know there is a native population, we have to leave."

"Isn't that a little drastic, dear?" Emma asked, knowing that her brother Ned would use all his monetary resources to keep the Martian colonies up and running. "Couldn't we stay if we took care not to bother the microbes?"

"Think Murphy's Law," Barbara said. "Too many things will go wrong. The engineers want to pump this water up to human habitats and purify it for human use. Purifying it can only mean killing off the microbes."

"Not necessarily," Emma said. "Surely there must be a way to filter out the microbes and leave them underground."

"No," Barbara said firmly. "The water that human beings use would be contaminated by this use and eventually find its way back to the lake where the microbes live. We can't risk that."

"Hmm," Emma said noncommittally. "You think all of us have to return to Earth? I'm not sure my old bones and muscles could manage that. I've gotten used to this pleasant Martian gravity."

"It's the only way," Barbara said. "I've given notice to all possible authorities. The latest Earth treaty on space travel specifically states that alien life forms must not be endangered."

"You think that microbes are more important than human beings?" Emma asked.

"All life forms have an equal right to exist," Barbara said firmly. "We already have our planet. The microbes deserve to keep theirs."

Emma didn't really listen to the rest of Barbara's diatribe. She wondered what would happen if all human activity on Mars had to stop. As soon as Barbara left, she put in for a video call to Ned. That call was short and curt. Ned said he was busy but that nothing would come from Barbara's fanatical demand. Apparently he had already begun diverting resources to influence the necessary committees.

As Ned predicted, business continued more or less as usual. There were habitat meetings where Barbara screamed that they were all microbe murderers, but authorities on Earth and Mars determined that the correct course would be to take all possible measures to protect the habitat of the microbes while also diverting the water from the underground ocean to the surface for human use.

Barbara came to the cafeteria over and over again to vent. She never tried to get Emma to do anything, maybe because she thought the cafeteria cook wasn't a person of power—not everyone knew that the billionaire "owner" of the Martian project was Emma's brother. However, soon Emma was the only person who was willing to listen to Barbara at all. No one else was willing to sacrifice the settlement on Mars for some single-celled microbes.

As a concession, Barbara was given access to as many robots as she needed to monitor the living conditions of the microbes throughout the underground ocean. This did keep her occupied and out of the cafeteria for several months.

Ruthie and her group of engineers made astoundingly rapid progress. Soon the pipes were mapped out and laid, pumps installed and tested. Doc Brach developed a filter he said would keep most of the microbes from being pumped up to the habitats. A celebration of opening the first water connection from the underground ocean was to be broadcast live to Earth, despite the unavoidable time delay.

Emma was in her kitchen preparing cinnamon rolls and watching the broadcast when the explosion took place. Just as Ruthie moved her gloved hand toward the symbolic faucet underground, there was a suspicious clicking noise. Then the video feed stopped. Seconds later all that was visible were the inert bodies of the engineering team lying around the pipes. It looked like Ruthie had thrown herself onto the clicking noise in hopes of saving the others. Unfortunately the bomb was stronger.

Emma dropped the bowl of dough, which, being made of durable plastic, didn't shatter but just bounced and rolled away. She waited for any kind of explanation on the audio feed, but no one had expected anything other than a pretty ceremony for turning on the water to the habitats. There were no security or medical teams present. All she heard were screams.

A different video appeared on her communicator lying on the counter. Barbara was wearing a surface suit and seemed to be standing at the top of Pavonis Mons. "I did it, Emma," she said. "I protected the microbes. My robots have placed the bombs all over the planet wherever there are human beings. The bombs will go off and kill everyone here."

Emma tried to keep her voice even and neutral as she spoke into the communicator. "Surely you don't want to kill me, dear," she said.

"I don't want to kill anyone," Barbara said. "But I have to protect the microbes. This is their planet, not ours. I tried to get the human beings to leave voluntarily, but they didn't. So I had no choice. It was the microbes or the humans, and I chose the microbes.

"However, I am willing to give most people a little time to prepare before I send off the code to activate my bombs. Now they have to realize that I mean business. Please broadcast my message through the habitat system. I can't override the video feed coming from underground."

"Give me a little time, dear," Emma said. "You know I'm not very good with technological things. It is good of you to give us a chance to do what we need to do. I want to leave a message for my grandsons on Earth. I want them to know that their grandma loves them."

Hoping that Barbara would refrain from sending any commands to her bombs in the meantime, Emma sent off a general alert to the habitats explaining the situation and recommending that everyone get into a surface suit. She inquired as to whether habitat robots could be sent to prevent the bombs from going off. She sent a more specific message to the group of adolescent rocket pilots. "Spin," she said. "Get your friends up to the top of Pavonis Mons and overpower the woman there who plans to kill us all."

Spin's face looked slightly surprised. "Sure," he said. "But you'll have to keep her distracted. People tend to notice when we land our rockets in their vicinity. The rockets are small but not invisible."

"You do your job, and I'll do mine," Emma said. "And there will be extra cookie rations for all of you when this is over with."

Emma wanted to mourn Ruthie, one of the genuine friends she had made here on Mars, a kind and tolerant soul. However, there was truly no time for that. She called Barbara on her communicator.

"I'm still trying to reach everyone," Emma said. "But it's very chaotic right now. Please give me a little more time. If people have to die, they deserve time to send off final messages to their loved ones."

"I realize that," Barbara said. "I'm sorry it had to come to this. I tried to get people back to Earth peacefully, but I failed."

"You are a good person, Barbara," Emma said. "Do you really want to kill us?"

"I don't know what else to do," Barbara said. "No one took me seriously, and I'm the only protector the microbes have. Then the settlement gave me the robots and I realized what I had to do. I equipped them with explosives and sent them off to their locations. The televised explosion showed that my plan will work."

"Yes," Emma said sadly. "Ruthie and her team are all dead. Barbara, what good can come of this?"

"The microbes," Barbara answered. "Let me tell you what I already know about the microbes."

"All right," Emma said. "You do that. Tell me absolutely everything you know or even suspect about the microbes. But first let me pick up the bowl I dropped when you called. I'll be back to you in a second."

It took a little longer than that, since Emma first notified security that the bombs were all attached to the robots Barbara had been assigned. It could be possible to locate and perhaps even isolate them, or so Sheriff Curtis assured her when she told him.

Fortunately Barbara was eager to talk about her microbes. When Emma called her back, Barbara started babbling nonstop about what she knew about the microbes, what she suspected, what others speculated, getting more passionate by the minute, so passionate that she didn't notice the little transport rockets landing on the rocks behind her or the spacesuited young people who tackled her and disconnected her oxygen supply.

"Sorry," Spin said through his suit communicator. "We couldn't risk her giving out any voice commands. I'll take responsibility ..."

"No," Emma said. "Any actions you had to take to protect our lives here on Mars have already been approved by the sheriff. You have saved us all. There is no way we can ever thank you."

"Good to know," Spin said, this time sounding disconcertingly adult. "We'll be back as soon as we can."

The assembled clergy held an emotional memorial service for the engineering team, a moving celebration of Ruthie and the others. Father Greeley even managed to generate some understanding for Barbara, while insisting that passion for an ideal must always be tempered by compassion for others.

Afterwards people came to the cafeteria and exchanged memories about Ruthie and Dr. Behla. Emma couldn't really join in. Suddenly she just felt old.

Spin walked over to the serving area where she stood alone. "Like you always told us," he said to Emma. "It's part of growing up when you realize that there are no easy answers. But none of us really ever grows up." He squeezed her hand.

Emma smiled. Trust these kids to figure things out. Human beings would continue to explore this universe, and the Martian microbes would get a fair chance to survive and develop. Life forms were always endangered but also tenacious. You couldn't ask for more than that.

ad astra