Speaking for the remainder of the Mars Experimental City Project, things aren’t really that bad up here.
Of course, it was a blow when we were told that the supply shipments would no longer be coming. Mars was supposed to be a stepping stone to conquer the stars, but it turned out that a stepping stone a toenail’s length away from the doorstep is not a whole lot of use. We were a prestige project—fragile, hard to maintain, our international staff riddled with buff, overfriendly military intelligence agents. As the food riots got going in earnest, before being supplemented by energy riots, water riots and habitable land riots, Earth curled into itself like any wounded animal.
Solemn voices told us that the future of the human race depended on moonshots—which felt slightly insulting given that we were never less than 54 million kilometres further away than the Moon, but never mind. Maintaining a foothold on Earth’s dullest neighbour was no longer a sustainable vanity, when serious men on serious Earth had to think through the survival of the species. So, no more resupply runs. Thank you for your service.
We shared some admittedly angry thoughts on this pretty much non-stop, until our transmitter went down and we didn’t have the parts to repair it. After that, we rationed and listened.
Despite being Earth’s unwanted child, the Mars Experimental City Project had at least produced one useful thing, as our bored military intelligence signals experts and codebreakers discovered from scanning channels carefully shielded from Terran monitoring.
For all the talk about cryogenics and generation ships, if you want to get to anything resembling a habitable planet before your DNA unravels or your freezetech rots down to nothing you still have to be moving pretty fast.
Even getting to Mars takes a really long time—cramped, boring and dangerous time. One of the more advanced projects the Project Areopagus rocketry team threw around to shorten the journey was open-cycle gas core technology.
Open-cycle gas core rocketry burned hotter and pushed harder than anything in the world, with a fission reactor transferring incredible heat to a hydrogen propellant. The minor downside being that an open-cycle engine blasts radioactive matter across a wide area as it ascends. There were ways to reduce that risk, but they all involved effectively launching your payload into space with a conventional rocket, then launching it again at a safe distance, with the concomitant costs in weight and risk. Which was why we ended up taking the closed-cycle slow boat to Mars.
Nobody solved that problem. A lot of high-minded talk about escape orbits and low-energy positioning rockets was wiped off the drawing board as we listened. The transition from “we would never” to “OK, so how do we make sure we keep the radiation away from the ship’s interior” replayed with startling rapidity.
Some of us discussed trying to cannibalise our life support systems to send a warning to the people of Earth about what exactly their leaders were planning, and the impact on those without a ticket offworld. But, after a council meeting that really felt like we were going through the motions, a resounding verdict of meh was recorded. Earth had been pretty clear about how it felt about us—you don’t want to be too solicitous of your ex’s health, or it gets weird.
Still, it’s hard to keep a secret from spy satellites, and pretty soon the governments and militaries of Earth were politely, quietly racing to be the first to shower the majority of their own populations with gasified uranium while moving rapidly above and beyond them.
It was arguably in poor taste when we started a sweepstake, but by then we were rationing oxygen and everything was getting a little bit giggly and wobbly around the edges.
Chad, our telecoms officer, drew Chad. How we laughed.
Ultimately it was a draw, or thereabouts. As soon as the first fleet of transports broke surface, rising majestically and impossibly quickly, leaving visible fires and a far larger corona of invisible radioactivity behind them, everyone who had a button to press pressed it.
You could generally tell the ones that had not gone through final checks by the way they exploded in midair. The ones that went on the launchpad were the most dramatic, in terms of our scanners—bright blooms of sequential catastrophe. It was probably those blasts that triggered the weapon launches; that’s what I’d like to believe, at least.
A few of the survivors called out to us as they went by—sometimes giving very professional mission updates, more often begging for forgiveness, or for assistance, or telling us their names. I’m not sure what they expected. Our transmitter had been down for years. Perhaps they thought we’d just been sulking.
Notwithstanding, we could hear them. Increasingly panicky systems checks, restart drills, route deviation reports, last words and last words and last words. Most went silent before they left range. A few sparked out and left bright marks on our screens. It was a mess of electromagnetic pulses and radio noise, but I’m pretty sure that some of them were still transmitting something non-automated as they passed 90377 and lit out for the territory. That might be more wishful thinking, though.
I don’t envy them. Between the panic to launch and the distance to go, anything alive on those ships is in for a pretty terrible time. We’re dimming the lights here, but it really feels OK. Not many people get to see the end of the world.
— Save to WaterBear storage.
(With thanks to Dr. Nick Bradbeer for rocketry inspiration.)
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