First Runner Up in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award 2017
Part 1: Greed
"A rail gun? Why on God's red planet are you building a rail gun?" Patricia asks. She studies me with eyes that are never without mischief.
As much as I wish it would, I know my charm won't work on her. She made it quite clear that she was engaged when we started training for our one year rotation. As such, I made sure to get the requisition form signed by Mars2050's CFO and the outpost commander, Inigo. Patricia isn't handing out freebies from the supply stock.
"It's for meteors, Trish," I say. "There isn't enough atmospheric friction to burn them up like on Earth. I'm trying to ensure the survival of the hub."
She looks over the form, then back up at me with a raised eyebrow.
"We're in a lava tube, Vinny," she says.
"With solar panels and a rover parked on the upper surface."
"I mean, you've got approval, but when you use my stock for your projects, I can't sell it to the Chinese, or Russians, or whoever else wants it."
"We're Americans, Vinny."
"We're mercenaries, Trish. Anyone who lands under a flag is a customer. Meteor protection is added value for transients. Anyway, that's what the supply rockets are for. The home office sends you more stuff, and you sell it."
"You're cutting into my margin."
"Our margin," I say. "We can't spend those bonuses if we're dead."
She shakes her head.
"Fine," she says, "but you'll have to build the capacitors from scratch. The only ones I have are for habitat circuitry. They wouldn't hold enough juice to launch anything bigger than a sewing needle."
"I don't think that'll be a problem," I say.
I've already got four of them in my storage closet.
"Why couldn't you use up some of this dang VapoResin?" she asks.
"Are they still sending that stuff?"
VapoResin is an aerosol glue. It's completely fluid and non-adhesive at any atmospheric pressure above 5 psi. Below that, though, the molecules rapidly expand and bind to anything around them.
"I guess they figured we were going to have a lot of holes to patch up in a big hurry," she says. "That's the problem with forecasting. We haven't used a single can. I ran out of room in storage, so there are stacked pallets of it sitting outside."
Eight sols later I make my way into Faith's Saloon. Its polished bar, leather seats, and low lighting allow a peaceful escape from the harsh realities of life on Mars. It's one of the other key money-makers for Mars2050. Liquor usually makes up half a percent of every supply shipment, and at least one flag-rider has gone home with much of his paycheck already spent.
They all bring a plastic bottle with them in their gear, but it runs out quick. That's when they meet Faith.
"I haven't seen you in a week, Vinny," Faith says.
"I've come to celebrate," I say, easing myself onto one of her bar stools. "I think I've solved two problems in one fell swoop."
"That's good to hear," she says. "How are you celebrating?"
"Bourbon probably," I say. "I'm guessing the Ruskies drank up all your cheap vodka again."
"Not yet," she says, as she pours a double shot into a tin cup, "but they're working on it."
The Korean exobotanists sit in the corner booth with the American agriculturalist, quietly discussing their craft.
More than one profound comparing-of-notes has happened in Faith's, and I sense that the problems America's been having growing kale in regolith are about to be solved. Korean astronauts already enjoy the Martian variant of kimchi, made from cabbage genetically optimized for the Martian soil.
"So were they company problems, or personal?" Faith asks.
"A bit of both," I say.
I sip the bourbon, and remember the fifth grade egg drop contest I won with Amos. It's probably what started me down this path. We'd been given four pieces of tape, a cardboard tube, two sheets of paper, a pencil, a rubber band, and twenty minutes. We're twins, so we've always been predisposed to load-sharing ideas.
While the other kids built elaborate variations on da Vinci's airscrew, Amos used the paper to do some basic trigonometry. Even before he finished making calculations, I'd mounted the cardboard tube at about the angle needed to get the egg into a snow drift. We couldn't throw it—that would be cheating—but no one said anything about redirecting gravity. Our teacher said we'd bent the rules by introducing a protractor, but excused us from that week's math test anyway. Our egg was the only one that survived the fall.
Later, we watched an old video of David Blaine catching a bullet in his mouth with a metal cup and a special mouthpiece. The precision involved with the feat was, I think, what inspired me to specialize in rocket guidance systems after Georgia Tech. That and a degree in electrical engineering got me a seat on the third rotation at Mars2050's trading hub.
Mars2050 rents habitat connections to flag-riders with free MOXIE usage inside the hub and cheap fission-generated electricity. Most of them only bring air generation equipment for their rovers and EVA suits at this point. All of them use our gym, infirmary, and bar.
"People are going to drink and screw," Mars2050's CEO told us during training. "Healthy people—and astronauts inherently want to be healthy—work out, too. When they're under stress, like on Mars, they'll do all those things more to cope. That's our business model, except for the screwing. We can't sell that, or the flag-riders will sanction us and we won't have any customers. The wild west ain't what it used to be."
The reactor got Patricia her ticket to Mars, but everyone has more than one skillset. Hers are running a store and splitting atoms. No nation wants to leave people on Mars indefinitely (on the taxpayer dime) any more than they want to deploy uniformed troops. That's what contractors are for.
The economy that's sprung up inside the hub, though—trading sweet potatoes for mushrooms between greenhouses—means Ricardo's Law of comparative advantage has started to take hold. The hub makes it a positive-sum game.
I open my laptop to send Amos an email.
I'll launch tomorrow, it says. Flight time will be roughly one month. Reconfirm that the landing strip is still viable. I'll send you a precise splash time after the launch.
We're currently eighty million kilometers from Earth.
The email will take about four and a half minutes to reach Amos, travelling at the speed of light.
The platinum ore I found will take longer, since my capacitors can only push the ceramic tube to about 30 km/s. For a rail gun, that's pretty good. In 2016, DARPA was still shooting tungsten rods at tanks at a tenth of that.
The second-best part about this is, I'm not using any hydrocarbons to do it. Solar fuel is free.
The best-best part is, I'm sending Amos ten kilograms of platinum, which is worth about four hundred grand. When the capacitors recharge from the solar array, I'll send more.
"I know what you're up to," Patricia says. She looks me up and down with a gaze that I might mistake for desire under other circumstances. Right now, she looks more like a tigress eying a rabbit.
I keep my composure, wondering if she hacked my email account or spied on my "test" launch.
"Is that so?" I ask.
"You're trying to get corporate to pay you a big fat bonus to stay on for another rotation—to work on 'planetary defense.' You're making a niche for yourself."
"I'm as eager to get back to Earth as you," I say, and it's true. I'll have a bigger bonus waiting for me there.
"Sure," she says. "We'll see what happens when our Hohmann transfer window opens."
"Faith and Inigo have each other," I say. "Money ain't enough to keep me on this rock when all the good-looking women are spoken for."
She snorts, batting away the compliment with a wave of her hand.
"If I was divorced," Trish says, "I'd stay as far from my ex as I could get. If they started pumping gas on Titan, I'd go there. I don't see how you can live in the same town as your ex-wife."
"Kids make you do that," I say.
She studies me for a moment before looking away.
"So what do you need today?" she asks finally. "You want parts to build your own private rover?"
"No," I say. "I need a thousand tons of aluminum powder."
"A thousand— For what?"
"Have you noticed all the red iron oxide outside, just lying around?"
"Yes . . .?"
"I'm going to drill a hole in the side of Olympus Mons and turn it into a giant thermite torch. It'll release oxygen and heat the atmosphere enough to melt the ice. We'll get the greenhouse effect—"
"Vinny, shut up."
"What? I could do it. It would only take me—"
"Just shut up and go away."
She's smiling again, though. I watch her walk back to her small-parts shelves. The way she moves makes me hate myself, just a little.
Three packages made it, Amos's email says. One missed the track and burned into the side of the mountain. I uploaded a video to RandomIP for you, big brother.
Amos started calling me "big brother" when he realized that Mars's reduced mass and relative orbital speed meant time would move a teensy bit faster than on Earth. When I see him again, I'll be about one second older.
I put on my auggles—augmented reality goggles, but really just glasses with a HUD in each lens—and pull out the fob that's synched to Amos's RandomIP fob. His video will stay on this webpage for three Earth-days or until I delete it. Then the IP address will be open to any other RandomIP subscriber. It's the best way to avoid detection on the darknet, and RandomIP's owners have come under legal scrutiny more than once.
I lie in my bunk and use the blank ceiling as a backdrop for the holographic image. I watch, through the auggles, as an object falls from Earth's sky toward a snow-covered mountain. Air resistance has slowed it somewhat by this point, but it's still travelling fast enough to leave a smoking crater if it impacts the ground directly. Amos's cameras are too far away to pick up the gas jets, but I discern a slight trajectory shift as it falls. Then the tube touches the snow-covered slope and rides the track a full kilometer to the ground below, turning its path from 90 degrees to 0 and reducing its velocity one meter at a time.
When it reaches ground level, the tube impacts the long snow bank that Amos piled up with a plow on his truck and finally comes to rest. He reaches into the snow and holds the tube, now cool to the touch, in front of the cameras. After glancing down at his watch, he turns the cameras back up to the sky and I watch the second tube come in.
Being the electrician and guidance repair-man at a Mars hub is a lot like being a firefighter. If something isn't broken or in a position to become so, you have a lot of free time to kill. Trish has the store, Faith has her bar, and Inigo has his greenhouse and an endless stream of emails from corporate. I have diagnostic checks and an endless imagination.
After I get done running my daily diagnostics on the hub's grid, I find myself back at Faith's polished bar.
"I got coffee today," Faith says. Coffee takes far too much soil to grow locally, so we still import it from Earth. Corporate is usually good about the resupply schedule, even though they have to forecast depletion a year in advance. Trish's VapoResin stockpile is the exception.
For us, there's no such thing as emergency resupply.
Faith opens her vacuum canister and holds it near my nose. Just the smell of fresh beans is enough to get my brain spinning in high gear.
"I'm sold," I say. "There was a time when I drank that stuff twice a day."
"There was a time when you ate meat, too," she says, as she scoops beans into a hand-crank grinder.
"Cricket patties aren't so bad," I say. "My palate adapted faster than I thought it would."
One of the South Korean astronauts—Li, I think—pulls out a stool and sits down. I smile, but she looks worried and barely notices me.
"Everything all right?" Faith asks, pausing in her coffee-grinding.
"I'm pregnant," Li says, oblivious to her audience. "I think—stupid birth control—"
That was sooner than expected. The over-under bet during training was 10 years from the time we started renting hab-hookups.
"Oh," Faith says. She turns the coffee crank several times as she processes this.
"I was hoping—" Li says.
"I can run an ultrasound and some basic tests," Faith says. "Let me start this coffee for Vincent, though."
She pauses to scoop more beans into the grinder.
"I think maybe we'll all want some," she says, and begins grinding again.
Part 2: Need
Thirty minutes later, I catch a glimpse of a red-eyed Li walking out through the side door. I hear Faith sigh as she puts her auggles back in their case.
"These are great for medicine," she says. "You can overlay scans and anatomical charts over the body in real-time. I wish I'd had auggles in the ER."
"I get the feeling they didn't show you anything good," I say.
"When NASA and corporate decided to up our allowable exposure to cosmic radiation, they didn't look at the effects on pregnant women. Li's the Korean geologist. She's been working on the surface four hours a sol for the last month."
"And radiation can mutate cells—"
"There's a neuroblastoma putting pressure on the fetus's spine," Faith says. "If she makes it as far as birth, there's a seventy-five percent likelihood that kid won't be able to walk, urinate, or defecate. Life will be short and miserable if it even gets that far. Right now I'm not sure it's creating enough amniotic fluid, so its lungs aren't going to develop properly."
"Ouch," I say. "Isn't there therapy for that kind of thing? Gene editing, or chemo, or—"
"We have some basic treatments here," Faith says, "but they're meant for fully-grown adults, and they only treat symptoms until the rotation's up. We're not set up for pediatrics. I was an ER surgeon, but even with some guidance through the auggles, I don't have the tools I'd need. She's three months along. Where we are now, it would take—"
Faith pulls her auggles back out, and places a finger on the side of the frame.
"—Hohmann transfer analysis—" she says to the auggles’s mic pickup, "—shipping from Earth, launch within twenty-four hours."
Green numbers project into her eye, unseen by me. While the auggles do their thing, I wonder how long it will be before everybody on Mars is in a cancer support group.
The Hawaiian test colony didn't have to deal with Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs), since Earth's magnetosphere acts as a radiation shield. Mars has no such field.
"It would take a year to get a supply rocket here if it launched tomorrow."
"What if they burned a straight line, outside of the Hohmann transfers?"
"Eight months," Faith says. The program always does an automatic comparison. "The kid will still probably be dead by then."
"Even if we could launch from Earth," Amos says, "how would you decelerate? If we add an engine and enough fuel to slow it down before it landed on Mars, it would require too much mass to launch from a rail gun."
I'm not a completely soulless platinum prospector. I know my shipping method is faster, but I can't exactly show corporate my proof-of-concept and ask for supplies. I sent Amos an encrypted message through RandomIP an hour ago, and now I'm staring at the ceiling in my room watching his reply.
"You could build a reverse coil gun, maybe—a series of fission-powered coils that would magnetically decelerate the tube as it fell through their center," Amos continues, "but the thing would have to be massive. It'd take more raw material and power than you have on that station. It'd take a year to build.
"Unless you're planning to change the entire atmosphere and put snow on Olympus Mons in the next six months, I think the Koreans are just going to have to hope for the best."
Wouldn't that be nice? It'd be another revenue stream for Mars2050: skiing the double black diamond down Olympus Mons for R&R.
I pull out a stylus and start writing on the wall. Though it will remain blank to anyone else, my auggles note the movements and record them as black text on the wall's surface. It's time to brainstorm.
1. Snow works on Earth for sustained deceleration. Can I make snow without abundant liquid water?
2. Mars has a lot of atmospheric CO2. Could I make a dry ice slush? How fast would it sublimate?
3. I don't have a lot of water. What do I have a lot of, and how can I use it to slow down a projectile?
I stare at the augmented wall for several minutes, but nothing else comes to me. I put my finger to the auggles's frame.
"Save," I whisper. "Encrypt. Send to Amos."
The next day, Faith's Saloon is full of astronauts from all of the habs.
"Business is booming," I say.
"Dust storm," Faith says. "Nobody's going out. The Americans took off just in time. They even took their potato farmer with them."
I sit at the bar, away from the others. Faith sneaks away from her customers, knowing my propensity for conspiracy.
"If I could get emergency medical supplies here faster," I ask, "how much help could you give that kid in a ten kilogram package?"
Faith pulls a bar towel from her shoulder, and wipes out the coffee cup she just finished washing. She chews the inside of her lower lip, as I've seen her do countless times.
"If I sent corporate a DNA sequence," she says, "they could synthesize a CRISPR vial in a day or two. Personalized gene therapy's 97% effective with cancer. On Earth, this would be a non-issue. How fast are you talking?"
Faith laughs, but it's not derisive.
"With what, a teleporter?" she asks. "This isn't science fiction."
"A rail gun."
She cocks her head at me, wondering if I'm serious. She turns away and starts chewing her lower lip again.
"Inigo could sequence the fetal DNA," she says finally. "He's got a kit with his forensic gear. We could email it once it's digital."
Inigo, in addition to being our horticulturalist, is charged with keeping peace inside the hub.
"I mean, I know you're good with guidance systems," she says. "Your rail gun would probably work against a meteorite, but how on Earth would you stop the projectile if you weren't trying to destroy something? Even if you had a system to catch it, you'd need precision like—"
Can I trust her?
Does it matter?
She's the key to getting Inigo on board, and all the platinum on Mars won't help me sleep at night if I don't give this my best shot.
"I don't have all the bugs worked out on this end," I say, "but I absolutely have the precision to pull it off."
She raises her eyebrows.
I put my auggles on the bar, and nudge them toward her with my fingertips.
Five minutes later, she pulls them from her eyes. In those eyes is an unfathomable mix of contempt and awe.
"You can judge me," I say, "or we can save the first Martian baby. I can't do it on my own."
4. Dust. You have a lot of very fine dust on Mars. Dust can be the condensation nuclei for water droplets in snow, rain, or clouds to form around. If you could hold a dense dust cloud in place somehow, the combined mass could be used to slow a projectile.
Amos has updated our shared augmented-reality brainstorming session. Given that I'm literally inside a dust storm, I'm a tad embarrassed that I didn't think of this first, even though it isn't a full solution.
One of the main problems with using a fluid of any sort is the huge temperature variance between the day and night. We're close to the equator, in the lava tubes at the base of Olympus Mons. In the summer, it's about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21° C) during the day, and minus 100 (-73° C) at night. That means that if we make a slush or snow out of any fluid that would freeze during the night, it will melt or sublimate during the day.
5. A slush like snow may not be ideal, since the fluid's state would be so temperature-dependent. There must be air bubbles or gaps integrated throughout the structure so that it can be crushed without damaging the projectile. Think about stunt men who fall into a pile of cardboard boxes. Something like soap bubbles, with strong surface tension, and adhesion to dust particles . . .
And then I have it. At least, I think I do. I don't want to jump for joy until I run some tests.
"Hey Trish," I say.
"Hey yourself," she says. "You look chipper."
"I want to buy a case of your surplus VapoResin."
Patricia's eyes widen.
"Is there a leak somewhere?"
"No," I say, "it's for a personal project."
"Sure," she says. "You want two? I can justify a buy one, get one discount to free up inventory space."
"If this works," I say, "I'm going to need everything you have."
I run my test. Then I build another, larger cloud.
I go back into the hab and email Amos.
"Tell me it's invested," I say.
"It's invested," Amos says an hour later. "Even if they come after you, you were prospecting in international 'waters' and not working for any government. I looked over your contract. Corporate wouldn't have any sort of claim just because you were working for them or used their parts to build the rail gun. I'd say you're good to go public."
"Bubble wrap," Mars2050's CEO says. He's looking into the camera, with the video I sent him playing on a loop in the background. Our CFO is sitting next to him in the board room. "Just so I understand what you're trying to do: you want us to launch a vial of prokaryotic DNA from a rail gun, eighty million kilometers, into a bubble wrap cloud you made from glue and Martian dust. Is that right? Please confirm that this is your plan when you reply."
Behind him, on the replaying video, I poke my finger into the squishy amber glue-cloud I made to test the principle. They don't seem to be as impressed as I was.
"Additionally, since Inigo briefed us on your 'proof-of-concept,' I'll say this: reimburse us for the rail gun—of which we will retain control, pay for the CRISPR work-up, and buy all but one case of the VapoResin we've sent so far."
I thought they'd be more understanding. It's what Amos expected, though.
"Sounds like saving the day is going to be expensive," he says. "For what it's worth, I think you're doing the right thing. Faith does too. She just took you for more of an altruist before you started smuggling platinum ore."
"I was a cop for eight years before I went back to school," he says. "People don't surprise me. Altruism's a phase some folks go through, but hardly anyone stays there for long."
"Even with what the platinum's worth, I can't afford what they're asking."
"Korea might subsidize it," he says. "I wouldn't bank on it, though."
"Some folks believe that saving any life is worth any amount of money, because they don't understand what money does," he says. "Would you spend the entire GDP of the United States to rescue a downed pilot?"
"No. Everyone else would starve."
"Exactly," he says. "At some point you have to put a dollar value on human life. The question becomes: how much does Korea value a fetus with cancer? I'm guessing they'll tell her to abort."
"I can do this, dammit."
"Not on the company dime, apparently."
Li talks to Korean Mission Control. She explains the plan, and shows them my spongy glue cloud.
They tell her to abort.
Inigo sends a video to a contact at NASA, asking for help from one American to another.
His contact tells us to abort to prevent "serious psychological trauma" when the child dies slowly in the hub.
"Who's the father, Li?" Faith asks. "Is he part of your crew, or another? That baby would have dual citizenship."
I hadn't thought of that. It takes two to tango, unless this is the Martian messiah.
"Yulian," Li says finally. "Yulian Zaytsev."
"The Russians have been first at a lot of things in the space race," I offer. "Maybe they'd place more stock on claiming the first alien birth than Korea does."
Li nods slowly.
"I will talk to him," she says.
The next day, Li, Yulian, Inigo, Faith, and I huddle around a video screen.
"These are the conditions," a man says. Yulian identifies him as Leonid Grekov, the operations chief at Roscosmos. "They are nonnegotiable."
This doesn't sound good.
"First," Grekov says, "the mother will become a Russian citizen, and this child will be raised on Russian soil with allowances made to visit extended family in Korea twice a year."
Li's eyes widen, but she says nothing.
"Second," he continues, "the rail gun architect—Mister Vincent—will provide schematics of his guidance system, and detailed coordinates of his platinum mine. He will sign a nondisclosure agreement regarding this mine so that Roscosmos can further explore its potential."
Not as bad as I thought. I figured they'd at least want a kidney.
"Last," Grekov says, "all involved parties will participate in a press conference promoting the Russian space program and our role in saving the first child born on another world. We will await your response by midnight, Moscow time."
The video ends with Grekov giving the camera his best look of steely resolve.
All eyes go to Li. She has the most skin in the game.
Li looks to Yulian. He nods, urging her to accept.
Maybe this wasn't a fling after all.
"Okay," Li says, then looks to me. "That is, if you're—"
"It's not like I'm selling a state secret," I say. "I never worked for DARPA. The guidance is my design. As for the platinum, I took all I can spend in one lifetime. I'm not that creative when it comes to profligacy."
Yulian smiles, and claps me on the back a bit harder than I'd like.
"You're a good man, Vincent," he says in a heavy Russian accent. "We won't forget this."
"Don't thank me yet," I say. "We've got economics and politics on our side finally, but physics and biology are far less forgiving. There's more math and less BS."
After we waste half a sol driving a Russian dozer near the base of the mountain, I toss the last can from a case of VapoResin into the empty bag. My plan to fan dust from the surface and spray it while it's in the air only works on the small scale I used to make the model. When I try to make bigger shapes, they turn into a tangled mess and fall flat.
Nothing. We accomplished nothing.
Yulian notes my downcast expression, and smiles.
"I think maybe your snow-chute idea is more appropriate for Earth, and for snow," he says. "Perhaps we need to do something a little different here."
"Yeah, no kidding."
"The VapoResin molecules," he says, "they only expand and stick when atmospheric pressure drops below 5 psi, right?"
"What if we mix the dust into the aerosol, and spray them together?"
"How would that help?"
"The expansion would happen with the dust mixed in. If you sprayed the mixture through fine jets over a wide area, it would solidify in the air a short distance from the nozzles. You wouldn't have to fan anything. You're not getting a stable structure because the condensation nuclei aren't mixed thoroughly. The glue is sticking in sheets, and falling apart."
"Interesting thought," I say.
"Perhaps," Yulian says, "we could also make it stronger by spraying it into something, rather than on the surface?"
"You mean like a crater?"
"I mean like a small, vertical-shaft lava tube with a horizontal access. We could walk in and cut through the glue to get the canister at the bottom."
For once, I'm not the crazy one.
"The trajectory would have to take it straight down the tube," I say. "If it hit the sides on the way down, it could destroy the canister. Getting more dust is no problem, but to have enough glue to fill a vertical shaft—"
"It would have to be fairly narrow, yes," Yulian says. "I have faith in your guidance system, though."
"I don't have many other options," he says. "This is my child's life, yet you're the one who didn't give up at the prognosis. God works through whomever He chooses."
"In that case, let's find a lava tube."
We take the rover back to the hub, and spend the rest of the sol poring over maps of known tubes. Our Goldilocks list of vertical shafts with access tunnels at the bottom is discouragingly short. Most of the ones that have been explored were studied for habitat sites, so they're massive—far too big to fill with glue and dust.
Inigo brings paper charts to supplement the auggle data sets, since not all of the hard copies were transcribed to digital.
"We could . . ." I start to say. I visualize what I'm thinking, though, and don't finish the thought.
"We could what?" Faith asks.
"Do we really need a horizontal access at the bottom? The tube's going to cut a narrow shaft through the cloud. Couldn't we just crawl in after it and grab it?"
"That shaft would be barely big enough for an adult in an EVA suit," Faith says, "and that's assuming that the friction from the canister burns a hole wider than its diameter."
"Trish has solvent in the supply room too," Inigo says. "VapoResin is meant to be temporary, so the hub doesn't turn into a block of glue after a decade of quick fixes."
His wife fixes him with a wilting gaze.
"You want to send someone down a near-vertical shaft," she says, "—half a kilometer to a kilometer deep depending on glue density—with a little spray bottle of solvent to make it wide enough?"
At least no one's laughing at the glue-cloud idea anymore.
"I will do this," Yulian says, "and if we have a little girl, we will name her after you, Faith. If I do not come out, spray more glue over me and place a marker."
Faith laughs, shakes her head, and walks away.
"You're going to be a great dad," Inigo says. "It's going to cost you enough to be one."
He holds up a paper chart with several red grease-pencil circles on it. I pull my auggles off and place them on the bar as Inigo outlines some of the first shafts the rovers explored when they were looking for liquid water.
An hour later, we've selected six that are far enough away from the hub to avoid turning it into a crater if the guidance system fails, but close enough that we don't have to set up a second camp when the canister flies in.
"This one, I think," Yulian says.
We've mounted a massive spotlight and a laser range-finder on a boom at the rim of a vertical shaft, and he's watching a readout on a tablet computer.
"How deep is it?" I ask.
"I'm getting some variance from the dust cloud at the bottom," he says, "but it's over 1,300 meters."
"That should work. We won't have enough VapoResin to fill it to the surface, but it's narrow enough to give us the depth we need. Help me load the probe onto the cable."
Over the next hour, we lower a laser-mapping probe into the shaft to make a virtual image for Amos. We've officially abandoned Mars2050's help on the project, and my brother is assisting Roscosmos with technical details at the cosmodrome in Amur Oblast.
6. Next time, big brother, let's use something other than glue on the Martian end. It defeats the purpose of free energy for a launch when you're using a ton of expendables on the other end. Magnetic particles, maybe? Nano machines? Yeast bubbles?
The next day, Yulian sits on a platform at the end of the cable with the new, improved spraying rig. We've dumped all the VapoResin into one tank on the surface, built an intake for the giant dust pile we shoveled together, and connected every bit of hose we had at the hub so that we wouldn't have to raise and lower him every fifteen minutes. Even so, it's going to take us a full week to fill the lava shaft.
"This is madness, isn't it?" Yulian says.
"No," I say, as I pull the lever to lower him into the shaft. "This is Sparta."
His helmet radio is voice activated, so I hear muted laughter as he disappears into the abyss.
Laughter wards off the Grim Reaper.
Since the kid's lung development isn't getting better with wasted time, Roscosmos accepts the risk and launches while we're still building the landing site.
Don't screw this up, Vinny.
The month ticks by, half of it spent under a dust storm.
Everyone at the hub follows the bullet-tracker that Faith posts above the bar.
As the tube hurtles closer, Li talks less and less as she visualizes the best and worst outcomes.
Yulian jokes, but I can tell he's just as worried.
The dust storm clears the day before the bullet arrives. Half the station puts on EVA suits to watch the thing as it flashes like lightning into the lava shaft.
Then the hard work begins again.
"I can't see anything at all," Yulian says. He's on a closed-circuit air supply instead of MOXIE since there won't be enough CO2 to harvest inside the shaft. "Even with my lights on, it's just amber bubbles in front of my face. It's so—squishy."
"Keep talking to us, Yulian," Inigo says. He's sitting inside the rover while several other cosmonauts and I man the boom that will pull Yulian out feet-first.
"I think—" Yulian says, but the radio crackles with static.
"Yulian?" Inigo says.
"Yulian, we lost you on comms," he says.
"Some of the dust in the cloud is iron oxide," I say. "It's going to give you interference."
Several minutes pass in silence. The cable continues unspooling, so we know Yulian's alive.
Then it stops.
The cable is 1,400 meters long, and he's only 800 meters deep.
I try my radio too.
"—tube's cracked," he says finally. "It didn't go straight —ertical. —ull me up, and we'll —ave a look — it."
"Reel him in," Inigo says, and I throw the lever on the boom. Slowly, to avoid ripping his arms off in the shaft, we pull Yulian back the surface.
As the other cosmonauts help him to his feet, I see a long crack running down the side of the ceramic plating.
There, on the regolith, Yulian pulls open the projectile that hurtled through space for a million-to-one chance at saving a life. Even through his EVA suit, I can see his hands shaking.
A smile spreads across his face as he pulls the padding away from the CRISPR canister and holds it up in both hands.
It made it.
Biology proves to be the easiest hurdle of all, which I chock up to incentives. People with money have been dying from cancer for a long time, so a lot of money has been thrown at cancer. Researchers who want to feed their families have chosen to serve the public good in exchange for that money.
Mars colonization was underfunded for decades because the coolest thing people could think of to do there was look for bacteria. When I told the Russians I had a platinum mine, they doubled Roscosmos's budget overnight.
CIA figured out what was going on, and suddenly NASA's budget went up too. It's funny how people sit on their butts when you mention the survival of the species, but they jump up when you mention shiny rocks or hydrocarbons.
I shouldn't cast stones, of course. Those shiny rocks are the only reason I came up with "planetary defense."
I'm getting ahead of myself, though.
Faith Dejah Thoris Zaytsev is born with healthy lungs and without the tumor that threatened her in the womb. After a year on Mars for early development, Faith, Li, and Yulian prepare to board a Soyuz rocket bound for Earth.
Inigo officiates the first Martian wedding, and I'm honored to stand as Yulian's best man.
We celebrate with Faith's cheapest vodka in the saloon.
"Here's to a bunch of lunatics," Faith says, raising a shot glass.
After downing his shot, Yulian speaks up.
"It's ironic that you use this word," Yulian says, "since lunacy comes from luna. It refers to Earth's moon. It was hard when the Americans did it, of course, but now lunacy is as easy as crossing the street. We aren't lunatics, dear friend. We're far past that. We're Martians."
Copyright © 2017 Stephen Lawson
“Bullet Catch” is the first runner up in the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award competition. Author Stephen Lawson has served on three deployments with the U.S. Navy and is currently a helicopter pilot for the Kentucky National Guard. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, and is an MBA student as well. His writing has appeared in the Writers of the Future Volume 33 anthology, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Daily Science Fiction. He also has a story upcoming at Galaxy’s Edge. Stephen’s blog can be found at stephenlawsonstories.wordpress.com.