2005.11.09 prologue:

The firelight flickered in Mel's eyes as she lay looking up at the stars. There had been a few moments in Old John's life with Mel in which he truly understood what it meant to be a father–to be responsible and proud. Seeing Mel like this, her face awash in contentment, warmth, and love; and remembering all his struggles to help her to this point in her life, he felt proud, not just of her, but of himself. Daniel gently stroked her hair as she leaned back against him, his back on his backpack, supported by the large boulder near which they had pitched their tents.

That Daniel was here at all was a secret pleasure for John. Daniel's work took him away from Mel so often, it seemed to John the two spent more time apart than they did together. And with the child on the way, John worried–too much, as she often told him–about Mel being alone without Daniel's assistance at the ready. Mel was headstrong and could take care of herself, he never questioned that fact, but knowing her abundant resourcefulness and self-sufficiency did little to ease his mind. But now, they were together–relaxing and enjoying each other's company, and John was just glad that he was still able to play his part in her life.

John raised his arm and pointed a finger to the night sky. "Mars." he said, "Look there, just above and to the right of that tree. It's just crossing Pisces–see those four bright objects there, like a 'v' with an extra dot on the right." He saw they were looking, saw the lines around their eyes relax when they'd found it–or when they'd given up. Either was fine, really, he was just talking to make noise.

"It's amazing to think that there are actually people living there now. A family, no less." Old John had been following the CNSEA effort to "colonize" Mars when it was big news a year ago after the family's capsule had touched down and immediately gone dark.

"Families have been living on the moon for almost a decade now, John, it's not like it's THAT big a deal." Mel's smirk betrayed her intentions.

"Well sure, except that these are the first people to live this far from earth, if you discount that stupid Europa mission." John immediately regretted mentioning Europa.

"True, the Europa mission hardly counts considering they were dead before they left Mars orbit."

"Guys," Daniel interjected, trying to deflect the darkening mood. "It's a nice night, can we talk about something that's not depressing?"

"I hear they've got everything they need up there…" John redirected back to his original subject. "The robotic missions had everything in place from the concrete mixer to the outhouse before they even got there."

"I don't know, i can't imagine trying to raise a three-year old in an 800 square-foot air-locked 'apartment,' with no babysitters–or liquor stores, for that matter." Mel laughed.

"They do have a greenhouse up there with thousands of specimens beyond just the staples." Old John grinned, "I'm sure, living in that small space, they've been making their own hooch for months now."

Mel and Daniel both chuckled at that statement. It had been well-publicized that the Pendrova family were Hispanic Catholics, and commonly understood that they were no strangers to enjoying the fruits of the vine. Not that Mel liked to buy into stereotypes of that nature, but the rumor floated around in the months leading up to their launch that the Pendrova's had almost been passed over due to Luis' particular affinity for cheap red wine. In the end, the rumor was never substantiated, and the launch proceeded mostly on schedule, but the public still held onto the idea that Dr. Pendrova was something of a lush.

Daniel stretched his arms over his head, and his mouth stretched wide as he yawned rather loudly. "I'm beat," he started saying even before the yawn was over, "I think i'm going to hit the sack."

"That's probably a good idea." Old John made no move to get up. "We have to hike up to the lake early in the morning, if we plan on having anything other than corn for dinner tomorrow."

"I'm still a little pissed that you guys are going to leave me here. I'm perfectly capable of walking up a damned hill." Mel glared at John.

"Only because you're pregnant." John offered, "I know you could probably beat us both up there if you weren't. It's just a harder hike than what we did today, it's practically vertical in a couple places."

"Oh whatever, you just want to get Daniel alone so you can do your male bonding thing. I know you." Mel's tone relaxed a bit, "Besides, it'll give me a chance to work on my painting without you two brutes lumbering around making noise."

"Well, we'll be sure to lumber back with a big bass just for you." John poked at the fire, spreading out the burning and smoldering remnants a bit before covering it all with a bucketful of dirt. He stood and stepped over to his little one-man tent, and unzipped the flap. "Goodnight, you two. See you bright and early."

"G'night, John." Mel said. "See you in the morning." She stepped inside the other tent, and began closing the front flaps.

"'Night, John!" Daniel's voice came out muffled as Mel finished pulling the last zipper closed.

"Goodnight, Danny." John said, and crawled inside, stopping just long enough to yank off his boots and set them under the rain fly, before zipping up the flap and wriggling into his sleeping bag. He lay awake for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the mountain, and the sounds of Mel and Daniel as they chatted themselves to sleep.

* * *

Dawn came much too early for Luis Pendrova, as it had every morning since he and his family had landed here. There was so much to do during the day, he went to bed nearly every night exhausted to the point of collapse. So much of what they used on a daily basis was brought here and set up for them by earlier robotic missions, but they were just the first of several families intended to inhabit this first Martian research station. It was up to Luis and his wife to run the extraction/construction machines, to maintain the station complex, and to guide the remaining construction bots in assembling the additional modules required to support the four families who were already or would be on their way in the next few days.

They had already accomplished a great deal in setting up and establishing the crops and other vegetation in their monstrous greenhouse. Nevertheless, most of the support components of the greenhouse were not yet functioning at their anticipated levels, so the Pendrovas were still dependent on mechanical means of maintaining their breathable air and handling water and solid waste reclamation.

Luis' main project in recent weeks was the construction and assembly of components for the second greenhouse, which would eventually completely cover a shallow 100-meter impact crater near the station. After construction, water would be pumped in from underground, and the new lake greenhouse would be home to experiments with various algae, phytoplankton, and other aquatic specimens to see which can make the best use of the thin Martian atmosphere in controlled temperatures. These experiments would be the proving ground for larger self-sustaining lake greenhouses to be established all over the surface of the planet as a first step towards terraforming. Without doubt, it was a long term goal, but the families due to arrive in six months would find survival very difficult without even the limited additional oxygen production of this first green lake. At it's current efficiency, the agricultural greenhouse was only able to supply 20% of the oxygen needed for the Pendrova family. Six months of additional growth would raise that figure to 60%. The lake was expected to do what the station's mechanical scrubbers and the main greenhouse couldn't do–directly process the Martian atmosphere into something the community of 14 colonists could breathe.

Of course, he'd begun to think of Mars as "his" planet–a state of mind his children did nothing to discourage him from, having taken to referring to Mars as the "Kingdom of Pendrovia" in their playtime fantasies. At times, Luis couldn't stand the thought of sharing this place with another family, let alone four. At other times, especially when a moment of free time ended up allowing him to think about the rest of his family and all the friends he'd had to leave behind, Luis would get very excited at the prospect of having a real-time conversation with someone other than his children or his wife. He also looked forward to showing off all the hard-work he and his family had done to prepare for the other families arrival, and to having eight or more extra hands to help out.

At the third chime from his in-ear receiver, the computer's voice gently announced, "The Time is 6:48AM."

"I'm awake," Luis said softly. It wasn't really necessary for him to speak aloud, but he did it anyway, as much out of habit as anything else. The computer "heard" him via the nano-meter thin sensor/transmitter patch on his neck. He didn't need to speak, because the patch was capable of detecting sub-vocal speech as easily as normal speech. The patch also served as a health monitoring device, watching his temperature, heart rate, and the chemicals in his skin excretions for any potential alert conditions. If the computer was not satisfied that Luis actually was awake as he had informed it, it would reset it's morning wake-up routine and attempt to wake him until he was up and moving about the station.

He got up carefully, trying not to wake his wife. In the middle of her second month of pregnancy, Leala was dealing with worse morning sickness than she'd had with either of the boys. She was handling things very well, considering the occasionally claustrophobic and inescapable environment.

He showered and prepared for his day, requesting bacon and eggs from the computer for breakfast. As he ate, he and the computer reviewed the day's schedule. It was going to be another long day of station maintenance and making components for the lake greenhouse.

- 01:08 am :: permalink
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