Contents Under Pressure

There’s a lot of background research that goes into writing this sort of thing. I received a lot of assistance from people on both Facebook and moonmars.com. In particular I’d like to thank Michel Segeren, Eric Shear, Patrick Ritchie and Richard Trombly pushing me to make it all make sense. The problems that are left are my fault entirely.

You can find a Mars calendar calculator here.

Mars Date 66.04.03 (March 3, 2078) – Jaganathan “Jag” Rangan

Jag and his team were putting the backup pump back together when his phone rang. He glanced down. Shit. Brandon knew they were busy at the desalination plant. He wouldn’t just call.

“Sorry Jag. Bad news.” Brandon Ackerley was the project manager in charge of maintenance of the colony’s water subsystems. “We have a major leak on the pipe.”

The pipe referred to the vast water pipe that carried fluids from Mars’ southern polar icecap to the colony. The cold brine was partially filtered at the pole, but still contained corrosive salts, and leaks, although rare, weren’t unknown.

“Do you know where?” Jag asked.

“We lost pressure too quickly to get a tight fix. Somewhere out by klick 750. Both pipes are out.” Distances on the pipe were measured in kilometers, starting at the colony.

Jag took two breaths before responding.

“We could be out there for a week hunting for that, you know?”

“Yeah. We’re okay for a while on current supply. May have to shut down some of the manufacturing. The farmers are going to be unhappy with us though.”

“Any idea what happened?” Jag asked.

“No. Sorry. Probably just corrosion. Can’t see anything obvious in the satellite photos. Better check the pump station as well while you’re out there.”

“Okay. Let me break the news to the team.”

The pressurized maintenance rovers were a far cry from the crude first generation rovers, but two weeks hunting for a leaky section of pipe still entailed a fair bit of privation.

“One more thing. Meteorology thinks we could have a localized dust storm building soon.”

“You know what they call this in business school? A small piece of good news sandwiched between two stinkers?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry. I’ll let you know if they figure out exactly where the break is.”

Along with many other in the colony, Brandon had spent time in the rovers doing maintenance, and he knew what he was asking of them.

Mars’ atmosphere was too thin for dust storms to be dangerous per se, but the temperature would drop dramatically, and poor visibility would make both driving and maintenance more hazardous, and would likely play havoc with communications.

Jag hung up.

The team had clearly heard everything. They stood around the reassembled pump, wiping grease off of their hands.

“I’m going to go take a long shower and pack.” he said. “I suggest you all do the same, and then we’ll meet up at the garage in an hour.”

The water pipe actually consisted of two one meter diameter pipes running side by side, with a single-lane dirt road running alongside them. Every fifty kilometers, the pipe ran through an automated pumping station, which kept the contents pressured. The pipeline and road ran straight for the most part, going over hills, although it curved around larger craters. It traveled from the colony’s location, south of the great volcanoes, to the highlands of the southern pole, a distance of more than two thousand kilometers.

Brandon had indicated that pressure had been lost somewhere around the seven hundred and fifty kilometer mark. The goal was to drive to the closest pumping station to the stoppage, and for one team to inspect the piping around it for damage while the other tested the pump.

The rovers had a top speed on the unpaved road of around twenty kilometers per hour, which meant a day and a half of travel time to get to the area of the break, assuming that they drove non-stop in shifts.

They would then have to slowly drive the length of pipe searching for the problem, followed by a day or more of sweaty labor to replace it.

The rovers were huge vehicles. Along with a pressurized cabin that could support a team of six people for weeks, they also carried spare sections of welded pipe with a small crane mounted on top for lifting them into place. Two rovers would make the journey.

Brandon came out to see them off. Classic textbook management stuff, but a nice touch anyway. He insisted on high-fiving everyone on the crew, which Jag found oddly old-fashioned, and also vaguely annoying, disliking informal personal contact.

“Don’t rush things,” he said as Jag was climbing up into the rover. “We’re good for a while. Worst comes to worst, I’ll handle the heat. Just, you know…” he tailed off.

“Make haste, slowly?” Jag replied.
“Yeah. That. By the way, the blimp is back in action.”

The colony had a lighter than air semi-autonomous blimp for taking a long, slow look at things from the air. It used a satellite up-link, so it wasn’t tied to a line-of-sight with one of the microwave repeater strings. The blimp had been undergoing major repairs for several days.

“I’ll give you a call if we spot the break.”

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.03 (March 3, 2078) – Sarah Westhuizen

Sarah hadn’t gone out to the landing pad to meet the latest arrivals. Her schedule for the day had already been packed with meetings, and with the water pipeline situation she had been fending off worried manufacturers. She managed to sneak a few minutes to meet the rovers as they came into town though.

The landing pad was located five klicks away from the bulk of the colony, mainly for noise reduction. There was already some concern that the colony’s growth would require it to be relocated within a few years. Between offloading the lander and packing people and luggage into rovers, it was a couple of hours before they arrived.

They dumped everyone off at the community center. The latest batch of colonists would bring the population of people on Mars to a hundred thousand people. Usually only friends and family would come out to meet new faces, but this time there was a small crowd in anticipation of the Hundred Kay celebrations, which had been planned for several months in advance.

Sarah pushed her way through to the front. Her husband, Frank, was in the thick of things already, arranging temporary accommodations and making introductions.

“Here she is. Folks, this is my wife, Sarah.”
She shook hands with a short woman a few years older than her.
“The Mayor of Mars,” the woman said, “You’re famous on Earth. I’m Ava.”

Sarah smiled.
“Most of that just was an accident of time and place. It wasn’t as if I actually did anything.”
“I remember all the press when I was a kid. And then they elected you mayor a few years back.”
“Its really unofficial. The civil government here doesn’t have any real standing back on Earth,” she relied.
“They talk to you though.”
“Yeah. They dumped a lot of the admin stuff on my team. Unofficially.”

Some members of the colony’s nascent press corps spotted her and called out to her.
“You’ll have to excuse me. You’re going to be at the celebration tonight? Hopefully we’ll have a chance to talk then.”

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.03 (March 3, 2078) – Jag

The first couple of hours were smooth going. Jag drove the lead rover. They passed a couple of graders resurfacing the road, edging gently off the road to get around them.

This close to the colony, they could still receive the low-powered colony AM radio station, which mostly consisted of talk radio. Some malcontent was grousing about import weight restrictions again.

“Don’t they have anything better to complain about?” said Pavel from the shotgun seat, cranking his neck around to look back at the passenger compartment.
“I don’t get it. The limit isn’t that restrictive. Somebody hauled up an old tube amp a few weeks ago.”
“How did they get it up the gravity well without breaking it?”
“Carefully, I would imagine.”

They occasionally passed stations for the line-of-sight microwave network. Like the road, they had been built along the path of the pipeline. Small cellular repeater stations piggybacked on the microwave towers. In practice, cellphone signal strength tended to fade in and out as they drove, since the towers were quite far apart, and the repeaters were under-powered. Still, they were able to call each other.

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.03 (March 3, 2078) – Sarah Westhuizen

The community center’s roof was a huge concrete arch. Sarah had been a young child when they had raised it. The technique was an old one. They used dozers to pile up rocks and dirt into a hill like a half cylinder. Then they built a steel framework over the hill, and finally filled it with concrete. Once the roof had set, they dug out the dirt pile underneath it, built walls on both ends, and sealed it so it could retain an atmosphere. The process had taken a couple of sweat-filled weeks.

The place was packed. The large hall could fit perhaps three thousand people. Other celebrations were taking place elsewhere in the colony, with large screens in each location showing events elsewhere. Sarah remembered when the whole colony could have easily fit in a far smaller room.

This evening, all of the internal partitions had been removed. A stage had been set up on one end of the building, and judging from the equipment set up there, there would be live music later on. Tables with refreshments lined the far wall.

Sarah mingled. It took her by surprise, as usual, how many people were there that she didn’t know. Only a few years ago, she knew pretty much everybody in the colony. She had worked as hard as anybody to promote the growth, but somehow she still missed the old days.

Grabbing a drink, she encountered the woman she had met earlier in the day.
“Ava, right?” she said.
“Yes, that’s me.” Ava shook her hand. “I was going to ask you about the whole mayor thing.”
“The colony is very informal, as you’re probably noticed. I don’t have any real power or budget or anything. I just mediate and help people arrive at a consensus. Sometimes.”
“They elected you though,” Ava said.
“Yeah. Sort of. There were only a few thousand people on Mars at the time -”
“This is before the cyclers?”

The cyclers were large spacecraft that traveled in a continuous loop between Earth and Mars, allowing large quantities of cargo, and many passengers to be carried.

“Yes, exactly. About ten years ago. And then somebody got drunk on imported whiskey one night and started shouting that we were a real town now and we needed a mayor. Next thing I know somebody proposed my name and I’m stuck with the job. It wasn’t a serious thing at the time.”
“And then they got the cyclers going.”
“Right. And every month like clockwork there’s a few hundred more people,” Sarah said.
“So what’s next for Mars then? Statehood? Independence?”
“All that Westphalian stuff? We don’t even know if that works out here. Anyhow, we Martians are a fractious lot. There’s no consensus yet on how things should play out, and what’s the rush anyway?”

Sarah spotted her husband in the crowd.
“I’d better go keep Frank company.”

She threaded her way through the crowd until she reached him.
“That lady I was talking to?” Sarah spoke quietly in Frank’s ear.
“From the new group this afternoon?”
“Yes. She’s got an agenda of some kind. Not sure exactly what yet.”
“Want me to keep an eye on her?” he asked.
“Not much point. She’ll let us know, or we’ll figure it out eventually.”

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.05 (March 5, 2078) – Jag

They saw the blimp looming in the distance as they arrived at the pumping station. The road had been widened to provide room for parked rovers, and to allow for turning the massive vehicles without having to go off road.

The pumping stations were composed of two bland looking concrete pressurized domes, side by side. The larger one, perhaps ten meters across, held the pumps. The smaller dome contained an emergency base, with rations, basic medical supplies and a phone.

Jag sent two of the team briefly to the smaller dome to make sure the supplies were intact. Then the team assembled, for convenience, in the pump house, to discuss the next steps.

The pump house was heated, for the sake of the pumps, but only marginally. Everyone kept their suit heaters going, and breathing caused noticeable vapor trails.

He looked around. Typically the pumps would have been sufficiently noisy as to drown out his voice. The automatic cut-off shut them down when the fluid stopped flowing. Hopefully no damage was done.

“I’m going to call in to see if they’re spotted anything yet,” Jag said. “I think we should leave one team here temporarily to check out the pumps, and then they can join up with us once they’re done.”

His phone rang before he could call.

“We spotted the break,” said Brandon. “I’ll send you exact coordinates in a second, but its about five klicks beyond the pump.”
“I was just about to call you. We’re looking over the pump right now.”
“Some more bad news though. Dust is likely to be on top of you by this evening.”
“Not good. We’d better get going then.”
“It looks like something came down on top of the pipe. It likely wasn’t a big landslide, but if the pipe was corroded already…”
“Yeah. We’ll have to dig things out as quickly as possible, and then hope we can cut things away and weld in the new pipe before the dust hits us.”
“Give me a call when you’re on site. The mayor is really sitting on me here. The farmers and manufacturers aren’t happy.”
“Got it.”

He turned back to the team.
“Everyone ready? Let’s grab a quick break, and then head out.”

/\/\/

When the pipeline had been laid down, two occasionally conflicting principles had been followed.

One the one hand, the goal was to run in a straight line wherever possible. The line generally went directly up and down crater hills, unless the grade was far too steep for convenience. At times that took the pipeline away from the road by as much as a few hundred meters.

On the other hand though, the engineers understood that certain kinds of landscape features were likely to have occasional landslides, particularly in deep craters where the walls were in shadow for lengthy periods of time. Where feasible, the pipe had been routed around such spots, in order to reduce the possibility of future damage.

Somebody had slipped up here though.

The pipeline followed a steep grade down the wall of a relatively small crater. The road lay about twenty meters away, in a worn-down section of the crater wall that was too narrow to accommodate both.

Ideally, Jag thought, somebody should have brought in a dozer and leveled things somewhat. It wouldn’t have been too big of a job.

The current situation was thus: a small landslide had shifted the steel footings for the pipe. Clearly some corrosion damage had previously occurred, as Brandon had surmised. The resulting stress on the pipe had caused it to break.

They would need to first dig out the mess, largely by hand using shovels. Then they would need to redo the footings, in order to make them more secure in the future. Finally, the broken pipe would have to be cut away, and new piping welded into place.

The rover would have to be driven off of the road a few meters, on an uncomfortably steep slope, in order for the crane to be used. This was the part that really worried Jag.

In addition, the usual Martian breeze was clearly getting stronger. The small flags on top of the rover flapped wildly in the wind.

One of the crew called Jag from the rover over their suit radio. “We have a problem.”

He walked over.  “What’s the matter?”
“Crane won’t rotate out.”
“You’re kidding me? Don’t the maintenance people do anything?”
“It looks like it is clogged with dirt. I think we’ll need to strip it down before we can do anything with it.”

Jag closed his eyes for a second before responding. “Okay. Let’s wait until the other rover arrives. We’re going to need their crane to work on this one.”

/\/\/

Sweating in a spacesuit is an unpleasant thing, even if the spacesuit is a relatively light-weight Mars version. The situation was made worse by the realization that the closest hot shower was thirty hours away, and only a cold sponge bath awaited the end of their efforts.

Stripping the crane down took several hours, during which time the wind steadily rose, and visibility dropped.

They used the crane on the other rover to lift the weight of the crane’s hoist, and then gradually worked the base loose. Once the rotating base unit had been disassembled, the individual parts were brought back into the rover for cleaning.

The issue was exactly what they had expected – a buildup of dust had jammed the track, and that had caused the motor to burn out when they had attempted to rotate it out.

Jag kept the team going with some gentle humor, but it was clear that everyone was tired and frustrated at the delay. By the time the crane was reassembled, it was close to dusk, and Jag decided to give everyone a break.

“We’ll start again tomorrow morning,” he said. “Anyone bring beer?”

Groans all around.

Supposedly there was a micro-brewery operating somewhere in the colony. The operators, according to rumor, had built a small greenhouse in the periphery of the colony, and were growing barley and hops. Nobody seemed to know anyone with access to the actual product though, and beer remained an expensive import.

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.06 (March 6, 2078) – Brandon

“I’m getting yelled at,” said Sarah.

Brandon juggled his phone, while ineffectively waving hand signals at some staff who were arranging some bulky pieces of equipment.

“They’re working on it as quickly as they can. They’ve been tangling with Murphy though.”
“Please ask them to step it up. I’m going to have to release some of the stored supply to the farmers, and then its going to be a real job smoothing things over with the manufacturers.”
“There’s only so much they can do. There’s a lot of dust too, and we don’t want somebody getting hurt out here.”
“Look. The colony is okay for a while, but people are getting worried. My job is difficult enough without full blown panic.”
“I’ll keep you in the loop.”
“I know.”

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.07 (March 7, 2078) – Jag

Everyone was running on coffee at this point, and the dust wasn’t helping at all.

The microwave network was down, so they had no way of updating Brandon. The visibility was down to a few meters, and it was cold enough that the suit heaters were running at capacity. Jag had to rotate people so that they could catch a break in the rover. The crew used guide ropes to ensure that they knew where they were, and work progressed fitfully.

The old pipeline had been cut away, and lifted out of the way using the crane.

They had piled rocks to brace the rover’s wheels, out of necessity. The other rover was driven down onto the crate floor, to keep it out of harm’s way.

The old broken pipe was left off to one side. Perhaps somebody would come out later on and grab it in order to recycle the metal. Jag attached a magnetic radio tag to it, in case anyone had the time.

Given how badly it had sheered off, the less anyone had to do with it right now the better. The last thing they needed right now was a punctured suit. Tired workers, poor visibility and time stress seldom combine well with sharp pieces of scrap metal.

They dug the new footings for the pipeline in as deeply as possible. At least they had equipment for that part of the process, Jag thought. The work was hard enough as it was, although the relatively small size of the crater meant that only a few new footings were required.

With some luck, and a little cooperation from the weather, they would be able to place the new pipe tomorrow.

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.08 (March 8, 2078) – Sarah

Representatives from the colony’s manufacturing and farming sectors gathered in Sarah’s office.

In order to finance the construction of the water pipeline, the colony had adopted a system similar to that of the ancient falaj system in the Middle East on Earth. Various shareholders had invested capital in order to build the pipeline and filtration systems.

A certain percentage of the water was made available at no charge for the common good, and the remainder allocated according to water rights to the shareholders, who could then buy and sell futures on those rights as they required.

The maintenance of the pipeline was the responsibility of the colony though, paid for in part by the shareholders, and then sourced to the company that Brandon and Jag worked for. In practice, this meant that decisions with regards to the pipeline needed to be made via consensus, and Sarah was diligent about keeping everyone in the loop.

“The storm is obviously delaying things,” she said, “and they also had some equipment issues that took some time to sort out. The last progress report before we lost contact indicated that they had cut away the broken pipe, and were inserting the new one. Hopefully not too much longer.”
“You can’t release some more of the reserves now?”, asked one of the manufacturers.
“We’re good for things like drinking water for weeks. We’ll need to do some more back-of-the-envelope to see how much we can spare for everything else. Obviously farming takes priority.” she replied.

There were a number of unhappy looking faces around the table.

“We’re probably talking hours at this point, not days. If its any longer than that, we’ll reconvene here and figure out a better solution. Everyone okay with that?”

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.08 (March 8, 2078) – Jag

Jag recorded a brief message regarding their progress on a portable drive, and then went outside to place it in the drone’s tiny cargo container.

A couple of the team struggled with the launching rails. He couldn’t tell who they were. He could barely see a meter in front of him.

Once the rails were locked in place, they unfurled the drone’s long thin wings. The drone itself was tiny in comparison to its wings. Its rocket engine would launch it high into Mars’ atmosphere, and then it would glide down to its destination.

He waved the others back, and punched in the destination code on the remote control. With the dust interrupting the microwave network, they wouldn’t be able to steer the drone manually, but it would be able to get satellite positioning coordinates once it climbed over the storm.

The rocket flared up, and the drone rapidly accelerated, flying off of the launch rails and up into the dust. He lost sight of it almost immediately. Not a big deal, he reassured himself. The drones were extremely reliable.

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.08 (March 8, 2078) – Sarah

Sarah’s cell rang. Brandon.

“A drone came in from the crew out on the pipeline. Looks like they’re just about done. The dust has really been making things miserable though.”
“Everyone okay?”
“Looks like it. The project manager seemed more frustrated than anything else,” he responded.
“Keep me posted.”

She clicked off, and turned to Frank.
“You mind calling some of the manufacturers? They’ll want to know that the water is coming back on any time now.”

/\/\/

Mars Date 66.04.10 (March 10, 2078)

Brandon called when they were about an hour outside the colony.
“You missed a good party. Sorry about that. Please apologize to the crew for me as well,” he said. “I have some good news for you for once though.”
Jag smiled. “Oh yeah?”
“Yup. Turns out that the rumored brewery is actually semi-official. A bunch of their equipment came in on the latest lander. We still have to wait a couple of months for them to really get going. Good thing you fixed the water though. They’re going to need a lot of that.”
“Hope its good. Or at least decent when cold.”
“No idea. They’re already growing everything locally, and they seem to know that they’re talking about. I guess we’ll see.”
“Well you owe the whole lot of us a cold one at some point in the near future then.”
“I’ll put the tab on the department’s budget.”

As Jag put away his phone, the lead rover pulled up over the crest of a crater hill. The colony appeared in the distance, lights slowly turning on as the daylight faded.