Short Story: The Well

A series of long, rectangular modules interconnecting domes stole the rusted horizon. They rose from the dirt, dust-covered red and brown from high-winds and a oxygen-starved atmosphere. The city, Uruk, had originally been a lone, dome-rectangle module built to house a small team of astronauts. Their mission had been to make the Red Planet habitable. A few decades after having succeeded, Mars was thriving.

Uruk, named for the first, modern city in human history, had become Mars’ premiere settlement, and thus, the largest settlement outside Earth-orbit. Countless orbital stations contrived artificial gravity and took residence there still, but none compared to the masterpiece of human ingenuity, perseverance, and sheer will of Uruk. In merely three decades, Mars had gone from a settlement of five to over ten-thousand. Likewise, the astronauts’ lone module had grown to upwards of 5,000, not including the various modules required for vital systems, manufacturing, agriculture and the like.

Amid the glorious madness of it all was Commander Jenna Thomason; pushing fifty without looking a day past thirty-eight, eternally fit, and dark eyed with marbled steel and onyx hair. Contrary to expectations, no-one on Mars had aged prematurely from colony living. In fact, aside from a few, minor colds and pre-exisiting conditions, people were in pristine health.

Over the years, Jenna had become something of an icon; she’d been one of first, true residents, having arrived on the last, scientific deployment to Mars. She and four others were to complete the final preparations before the arrival of the colony ship en-route. Jenna had no reason to return to Earth afterward, and like the others, had elected to stay to ease the colonists’ transition.

Unofficially, she was looked at as Uruk’s leader; a Mayor of sorts, despite the position belonging to another woman (who often deferred to her.) Presently, the two were strolling through a series of modules in the “city quarter,” where most business and civil services were conducted. The dome-modules there were roughly a kilometer wide, multi-leveled, and arranged in such a way as to hide their curvature.

Their connecting hallways were another story; thick, with rubber-sealed windows offering views of neighboring stacked, steel modules, imposing edges and rises of domes, or if at the edges of the settlement, endless rusty expanses the faded into browns further along the horizon. It was beside one of these windows Jenna and Mayor Cline found themselves. Jenna stopped to talk, watching dust tossed about in a wind that whistled on the deceptive tundra beneath the sunlight.

“I’ve instructed maintenance to halt all other operations and begin repairs,” Cline said.

Jenna nodded, “And you’re hoping I have a solution. I don’t. I’ve been in this city longer than anyone, and we’ve always known it was only a matter of time. I’ve made weekly inquiries with Earth for twenty years, but no-one’s done a thing about it.”

“There must be something,” Cline urged.

“It’s been done, Sarah,” Jenna replied firmly. “We’ve deployed dew-collectors, and water reclamation systems, but the fact is Mars’ water-supply resides at the poles in its ice. We knew that when we arrived. Finding the subsurface glacier was luck, it was never meant to last.”

Cline’s face sank, “You’re saying you won’t help?”

Jenna palmed her forehead, “There’s nothing to help. Uruk is out of water. We lose too much to evaporation and agriculture to keep up. It’s always been a system of diminishing returns.”

“Are you trying to say “I told you so?”

Jenna leaned forward against a window sill, braced herself with a deep breath, “I would never be that spiteful, Sarah, let alone about this. Ten-thousand people is a lot of water. What we need to do is begin rationing. Put people on water budgets. But we need an accurate measurement of our current resources, and projections for measures to be emplaced.”

Cline’s frown cut deep curves into her cheeks and brow, “There’s going to be a lot of backlash, and it’s only prolonging the inevitable, not fixing it.”

“Backlash is better than death by dehydration,” Jenna reminded. Cline winced. “Put maintenance on stand-by. I’ll lead a team to survey the Well. Meanwhile, someone’s going to need to be review our current water usage to examine our options. I’ll look at them when I’m back. I suggest overseeing the process until then.”

Cline was less than satisfied, but recognized her authority, “I’ll see you soon, then.”

The two parted ways, and Jenna immediately set to gathering a team, exosuits, and supplies. Her group of four met in a module outside Uruk’s water-treatment plant. There, an airlock lead to a catwalk, and in turn, to Mars’ bowels and the small, glacial reservoir contained beneath it. For nearly thirty years, “The Well” had been relied on as Uruk’s main water-source. Unfortunately, ait was never meant to last, nor even to be relied upon in the first place. The ice-caps were, but given the nearby reservoir, all plans for a connecting line had been put on hold for more urgent matters at the time. In Uruk, urgent matters always abounded– such was the nature of planetary colonization. Thus, the pipe-line was never completed.

The team’s survey concluded enough water for three months remained. On proper rationing, Jenna estimated the time could be doubled. Two to Three days after that sixth month, people would begin dying of dehydration without either a solution, or the first of several, unlikely shipments from Earth. Mars and its people could rely on Earth’s hospitality, however.

That left one, worthwhile solution; several thousand kilometers of pipeline between Uruk and Mars’ North pole need be erected. Even if the project could finished in time, and there were considerable doubts, it would take almost every person in Uruk working nearly ’round the clock. The projections weren’t promising.

Sara Cline, elected and esteemed Mayor of Uruk, called a conferences. Every person in the city was required to attend, or view the broadcast piped across all channels of the city’s televisions. Cline stood before thousands of people, muster all the confidence she could, and with Jenna at her side for morale began to speak.

“It is with dire need that I come to you, Uruk. It has been brought to my attention that our water is running low. To preserve our stores, we must– regrettably– impose a ration limiting families to a thousand liters per week.” She waited for the griping to wane, then continued, “I know it will be difficult, but other matters demand our more immediate attention.” She glanced back at Jenna for courage. The public icon did her best to impart what she could. The crowd noticed, quieted. “We require every last body working to rectify the problem so we may never again be troubled by such matters.”

Jenna stepped up, ready to speak professionally on the plan’s logistics, but saw the concerned faces and sighed, “I’m not going to lie to you. Things aren’t looking good: In less than six months, we must begin and complete a pipeline spanning the distance between Uruk and the North Pole.” There was an audible murmur from the assembled few thousand people. “In order to do that, it will require every one of us working double-shifts.”

The crowd went silent again, but Jenna sensed their collective ire and anger. She did her best to rouse their passion in the proper manner. “One hundred years ago, people said we’d never reach the moon. Forty-five years ago, people said we could never survive on Mars. Today, I am saying we can, but only if we work together. This task should not be seen as insurmountable, but rather difficult, a challenge to be overcome. Our species has time and again proven its innate ability to not only survive, but to thrive. We overcome the difficult, make possible the impossible, all by virtue of our existence. Knowing that we must now turn our sights to the Pole and begin work should hone our focus. I, for one, set my sights there voluntarily, to toil as others will. I ask only that you join me.”

She went quiet, the room dead silent until applause began to rise to a crescendo. Whistles and hoots came with it. Someone said something about loving Jenna while tears formed in her eyes.

Six months to the day later, she and a team of tired, stinking workers stood in the newly constructed module of “Polar pump station-1.” The flick of a switch prompted the start of a water-flow. Minutes later, a radio echoed a confirmation of positive pressure at Uruk. The room exploded in cheers. Jenna smiled; such was the power of Humanity in the face of adversity.

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