Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fuel Is Expensive (Fiction)

A recent article I read reminded me of a short story I wrote a few years ago. Fuel Is Expensive was originally published in 2006 in Tales of the Talisman Volume 2 Issue 3. Its set in the not too distant future on Mars. Image courtesy NASA.

Fuel Is Expensive
By Paul Lucas

The maser drill slipped from Sam's fingers as a thousand needles of pain sliced into her skull. She fell to her knees in a rusty cloud of Martian dust, hands clawing at her faceplate.

The words returned, so familiar now after a dozen similar attacks, whispered in her mind by a fearful voice she couldn't quite recall. Fuel is expensive, it rasped.

Jesus and Buddha, what did it mean?

"Sam?" Ken's voice in her ear, tinny with radio noise. "Sam! You okay?"

The pain ebbed, the words faded. "I...think so. It just hit me all of a sudden."

"Another migraine?"

"Yeah. A real bastard too."

"Mission Control's going to freak. Thirty billion dollars to get here and we're hurting for four dollar aspirin."

She narrowed her eyes at him, standing a dozen meters away in his bulky white EVA suit. "Thanks. Obvious irony is so much comfort right now."

"All part of the astronaut service, ma'am. But seriously, go back to the hab and lie down. EVA is dangerous enough without a brain bleed. I'll go grab Getch and meet you back there. He can look you over again."

Sam grimaced. Getch had examined her every time she'd suffered through her attacks, but always found nothing physically wrong with her. The prevailing theory was that she was having an allergic reaction to the microfine dust creeping into everything after a month on Mars' surface, but nothing had come of it so far.

Sam methodically packed away the maser permafrost drill and trundled back to the Surface Habitat Module, a grayish, inflatable dome twenty meters across, their base and living quarters since landing on the dark-soiled Chryse Planitia in Mars' Northern hemisphere three weeks ago. A hundred meters behind it squatted their lander, a bulky steely polyp against the pale blue-pink Martian sky.

She waved at Getch on the far hillrise, doing a routine check on the automated fuel plant. Drawing on the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere and treating it with the water they mined from the Martian permafrost, they were slowly stockpiling methane fuel to use on the return trip home.

Getch waved back but was busy with a conversation with Ken on a private channel. Talking about her, no doubt.

Getch and Ken were decent enough guys. She had slept with both of them at one time or another on the nine-month trip out, even though that was technically a big regulations no-no. But on a very cramped, very dull voyage out, there was simply not much else to do. It was easy enough to loop old monitor vids of them sleeping separately to Mission Control back Earthside to cover up first one liaison, then the other. Who exactly that fooled was a matter of debate. The people at MisCon weren't idiots, after all, and could probably easily see through the ruse. But no one had said anything yet.

She stripped out of the vacc suit. It was a much lighter model than previous NASA space suits, even though this first flight to Mars was expected to encounter much heavier radiation exposure than any other manned mission. A NASA gearhead had lectured to her about some new breakthrough layer that provided superior shielding, but it always mystified her how they managed to make it so thin that she could never see it.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe her suit's shielding was wearing away or breaking up, causing the migraines as a preliminary stage to radiation sickness. She should mention the possibility to Ken.

She grunted as the pain in her head returned.

Fuel is expensive.

The words were the strangest part of her attacks. Why did they flash through her mind every time? And who did that strange voice belong to, speaking them?

Thankfully, this migraine was proving to be much less severe than the last one.

Focusing through the dull ache, she shucked her vacuum suit's thermal layer and undersheath and put on her oversized sleeping shirt. She knew from the previous incidents that Getch would want a full physical from her and there was little sense in making things difficult by getting fully dressed and then undressed again.

The headache wasn't going away.

She really should check the vacc suit's shielding while she waited. Sam reached for the vacc suit maintenance tools beside the airlock.

A thousand rusty knives stabbed behind her eyes.

Fuel is expensive.

She screamed.

Then stopped in mid-yell, the pain suddenly gone.

Her hands felt warm and wet. She looked down. They dripped with crimson up to her elbows.

Blood? Oh, God, was she hemorrhaging?

She blinked again.

The blood vanished, her hands normal.

Fuel is expensive.

Her vision swirled as she suddenly realized the hab was gone. She stood trapped in a small, bookish apartment back on Earth. Tidy shelves, cramped furniture, and small paintings drowning on bare pastel walls.

Someone rasped her name from a nearby room.

Bright blood pooled across meticulously polished floorboards, a trail leading to the darkened doorway.

Pain again. Her teeth ground so hard she heard enamel cracking.


- - -

Getch with his shaggy mane of blond hair peered down at her as she blinked her eyes open, a steely-cold stethoscope lodged rudely between her breasts. "Sam?" he asked tentatively. "You okay?"

She slowly sat up, cradling her head, holding onto his arm for support. "What...what happened?"

Both men were still in their EVA suits, their helmets orphaned on the floor by the airlock. "You tell us. We found you passed out on the deck. Was it another attack?"

"Yeah. The worst one yet." She told them about it, even the vision of the blood-stained apartment, shivering as she described how real it all felt. Ken held her fingers for reassurance as Getch pulled off his EVA suit's outer armor to continue his examination. As before, he found nothing wrong with her physically.

"I'll have to run more extensive tests," he said. "But there's only so much we can do here. I'll have to consult with MisCon. Those hallucinations worry me. Maybe we can see if there might be some psychological treatment."

She grunted noncommittally. "But it didn't seem like a hallucination. It all seemed so real."

"I'm sure it did. The brain's perception of reality is pretty fluid, actually. You'd be surprised what it can be fooled into thinking is real."

For a moment, just a brief flash, the apartment she had seen earlier appeared behind Getch, its green pastel walls bright with blood. She blinked and shook her head, and it was gone. She cradled her head in her hands. "Maybe I should just get some sleep."

The mission's medic nodded. "That would probably be best, actually. I'm gonna relieve you of any further duties until we can find out what's happening."

Sam started to protest but Ken cut her off. "I think that's for the best, too. Until we know what's up with all this we can't have you risking yourself."

Outranked and outvoted. "I guess," she sighed. "Just let me know if you find anything."

"You'll be the first I tell," Getch said as the two men helped her to her bunk.

- - -

Fuel is expensive.

She woke in the darkened hab, pain lashing through her. A quick glance at the wall clock and the reddish-black glow outside the small viewport told her Mars was sliding into night. Both men slept on their bunks nearby, separated from hers by a partially-pulled curtain. The pain didn't seem so bad this time. She slowly unknotted herself and made her way to the hab's fresher to take some pills.

As soon as the recycled water in the tiny sink began running, it hit her again.
Fuel is expensive.

She blinked and blood suddenly splashed back onto her arms, redder than Martian sands. She staggered back, mouthing a scream that would not come. She was in the apartment again, the plastic handle of a large carving knife curled into her fingers.

An inferno hotter than the sun crashed through her skull. She thrashed about, her limbs thumping uselessly against the thin plastic walls.

And she remembered.

- - -

Cold stone walls framing colder metal bars. The stench of the scratchy brown toilet. Huddling for hours on a stiff bunk, hating her cell, but hating even more what lay beyond it.

Pushed around at mess. Beaten in the laundry. Humiliated in the showers. Day after day after day. How could she survive thirty more years?

Then two mysterious men came to see here. Impeccable gray suits, their voices as crisp as their attire.

"Sheila Polara?" one asked. "Geological researcher? Did a graduate thesis on primordial Earth geochemistry?"

She gaped, then nodded slowly.

"How would you like to get out of here?"

A flurry of paperwork later, and she was outside, stepping into a taxi. She bawled like a little girl, her relief at escaping those hellish walls that intense. Neither of her primly-suited escorts made any move to comfort her.

An expansive office, severe right angles everywhere. Except for the huge round man behind the fortress of a desk, smelling faintly of sour milk.

His voice was a baritone sing-song, talking to her of a new identity, of limited emancipation, of a historic space mission. She blinked at him, bewildered. But she did not care. It was not prison. She readily agreed.

Then the training. Long, long days and weeks of studying, exercising, and testing, broken occasionally by flight training, exhausting survival courses, technical seminars by the hundred. She met her crewmates, Kentaro Hale and Thomas Getch, coming from hopeless criminal situations similar to hers. The three of them were to go to Mars.

Insanity. Three convicted felons, the first humans on another planet?

The men in the suits were evasive in their explanations. But no longer cold, in pain, and hungry, she could think much more clearly than when they had first brought her from her cell. Over many weeks she eventually pieced together that it was all about the fuel.

It was expensive.

She had traded prison for something far, far worse.

She told her companions, and they all balked. No more training, no more exercises, no more seminars, nothing. She quit. Better the mess and the laundry and the showers than this.

Then their new jailers broke out the needles. And the electrodes. And looked the other way when the beatings and the rapes began. A year-long ordeal of intense hypnotherapy and torture and mind control followed. They wanted perfect astronauts, and they were going to get them no matter what.

Starving, filthy, in agony in a frigid darkened cell, she repeated a mantra to herself over and over all through that year, concentrating as best she could through the drug-induced haze.

Rote memorization was used in schools for so long because it worked so well, wearing a groove in memory paths so deep that people could remember fifty years later things like Oliver Cromwell's middle name, the atomic weight of cesium, i before e except after c. The mantra whispered to herself a thousand, thousand times was a warning she only prayed would survive to whoever or whatever she became.

She didn't remember exactly when she had stopped being Sheila the convicted murderer and started being Sam the perfect astronaut mission specialist. All the horror from that year still cast too many shadows in her memory. Perhaps she would never know.

Fuel is expensive.

One final spike of pain, and the memories crashed to a stop. Darkness reclaimed her.

- - -

Again, she woke up on the examining table with Ken and Getch very worriedly looking down on her.

"Thank God," Ken said as she blinked her eyes open. "You okay Sam? You were out nearly two hours."

She looked at her two cremates, sighed heavily and hugged herself. Everything was so clear now, so lucid, as if it was the first time she had been truly awake in months. "I remember. My husband's name was Gray Valentin. Oh God, poor Gray..."

The men exchanged worried glances. "Um, you never mentioned being married, Sam," Ken said.

She got up and slowly pulled herself to the farside of the room. She looked out the tiny viewport at the fuel processor on the nearby hillock, illuminated by work lights. What she saw confirmed all her suspicions. Bastards.

"Fuel is expensive," she whispered. She had expected to be hit by a wave of agony, but nothing. "My own warning from a lifetime ago. But that's only half the sentence."

Ken walked over to her, laying his hands gently, almost fatherly, on her shoulders. "Sam, if you need to tell us anything..."

She sighed. "Five years ago--I think it was five years--I killed Gray. Stabbed him."


"We had this hideous fight when he finally blurted out all his sleeping around. We screamed each other hoarse for hours. Finally he slunk away to the bedroom, saying we'd talk more the next day. As soon as I heard him snoring I shuffled into the kitchen for a knife, then went into the bedroom. It slid in so easily. I only remember the first stab, but the police told me I did it twenty-eight more times. He woke up dying, begging for his life, but it was too late."

Ken and Getch stared at her, stunned. "Um, look, Sam, remember those hallucinations you were telling us about? Maybe they're getting worse. Maybe we can get MisCon to cut the mission short. Get you back Earthside at the earliest possible window."

She barked out a short, loud laugh. "NASA already knows all about the 'hallucinations,' Ken. Its why we're all here. Don't you remember?" Her laughter stopped. Of course he didn't. "We're never going back."

She looked over her shoulder and saw their uncomprehending expressions. For them it was too soon. The mission planners must have known their carefully-wrought psychological alterations couldn't last forever, but had time-tabled everything so that the mission would be over long before it became an issue. Getch and Ken would never have a breakthrough like hers until it was too late.

Her migraines were all too transparent a ploy now. A conditioned response. A primal distraction in case one of them began skirting the truth.

She abruptly changed the subject to tomorrow's schedule and the experiments they needed to run. Getch and Ken visibly relaxed, apparently relieved that her "episode" had passed. They were careful to avoid the subject of her odd behavior the rest of the night, but still looked at her with an odd mixture of concern and a little bit of fear.

When they settled in for sleep again, Getch sat at a chair beside her cot, in case she had a relapse. A sweet gesture. But not surprisingly, he was slumped and snoring within an hour.

Getch and Ken had been her friends on this long, long journey to Mars, even her lovers a few times. She knew they cared for her, and would probably do anything to help her. She owed them.

Sam quietly slipped out of her bunk to the equipment locker. There, she dug out the maser permafrost drill she had used earlier. She lugged it toward Getch snoozing in the chair.

Getch blearily fluttered his eyes open as she approached. "Sam, what--"

Sam pointed the drill and toggled the power switch. In a heartbeat Getch's face bubbled as his head was flooded with high-powered microwaves, his skull cracking open from the hideous steam pressure within. Before Ken could do more than stir at the disturbance she walked over and turned the drill on him.

She stared at their ruined bodies for many minutes before she collapsed to her knees, body-wrenching sobs ripping through her for the rest of the night.

At dawn, Sam scrubbed herself long and hard, damning the water rationing, donned her EVA suit, and went outside to lock down all the experiments. When she returned, she reprogrammed the three mission comsats in orbit to begin transmitting, in a non-stop broadband loop, the next fifteen minutes that would be recorded by the hab's internal cameras. She made sure Ken and Getch's corpses were clearly in view.

She was sure that many sites on Earth would pick up the transmissions. By the time NASA got the comsats back under control, hopefully not for weeks thanks to her hastily-hacked programs, the truth would be out.

"It was all about fuel," she said to the cameras. "Spacecraft fuel is very expensive, especially for a manned interplanetary mission. That's why a Mars mission was talked about for decades, but nothing was ever done. Hauling the fuel out of Earth's gravity well and then lugging it all the way to Mars and back would cost many billions of dollars no one wanted to spend."

"One plan was to manufacture methane fuel out of materials on-site. But every automated probe sent to test the feasibility of that failed miserably. A chemical quirk in the Martian environment no one had foreseen prevented it.

"But budget cuts were looming, and both the public and politicians sniveled for a return to Apollo-era glory. The answer: a high-publicity Mars mission. But let's to cut costs? The mission would have to carry all the fuel it would need to get out there and back. Tens of billions of dollars to haul hundreds of tons of exotic fuel on a hundred-million-mile round trip. That would break the back of the cash-strapped space program right there.

"But what if they could cut the fuel costs directly in half? Why not only supply just enough fuel to get there, but not to get back?

"Sounds good, right? Now all you have to do is sign up a crew for a one-way mission. You'd think that would be the hard part, but some wily budget genius found a way. Take people who would never be missed--say, prison lifers who happened to have the right technical backgrounds. Train them, give them new, PR-friendly IDs, and send them off.

"But of course its bad PR to have your crew morose and rebellious over their imminent deaths. So make the crew believe the lies. Through months and months of brain washing, drugs, hypnosis, torture. Drill it into their brains that they never committed any crimes, that the astronaut training program had been their life-long goals. From that moment on, to themselves and to the rest of the world, they were heroes.

"And because they were not coming back, other means of cutting the budget could be taken, like skimping on the radiation protection in EVA suits, then lying about some new non-existent breakthrough layer that we could ever find. Let your suicide crew believe that the fuel processing plant was not really just a pile of soldered-together pipes and an empty tank. Let them believe they would not die a long, lingering, painful death as the food and water and air ran out and that the people back Earthside would just cover it up with some invented system failure, then paint them as noble sacrifices to squeeze out more taxpayer dollars for the budget."

She brought the tip of the maser drill to her temple. Tears brimmed. She was thankful that she at least had given Getch and Ken the mercy of dying quickly and painlessly, when they still believed that they were heroes.

"After all, fuel is expensive..."

Her finger tensed on the toggle switch.

"...But martyrs are cheap."


Rob A said...

Creepy, quite the read

Definitely hard science fiction, not a terribly far fetched in the concept of a no return trip, though I'm sure there would be plenty of properly trained and motivated scientists up for the idea of a no return trip, granted they would want to have proper shielding etc for the trip, I for one would likely jump at the chance, it is after all (and rather disturbingly) a once in a lifetime opportunity and it would probably act as an encouragement for all the arsehole bureaucrats who keep messing with the funding.


PS - I swear I will review Shattered Sky

Paul Lucas said...

I posted a link to this story on Reddit and a couple commentators there said the same thing among people jumping at a chance to go to mars, even if it was a suicide mission. I'm not sure that would be a good idea.

You couldn't send anyone who was terminally ill, no matter how qualified or enthusiastic they may be. Any major health crisis in route or on the planet would jeopardize the mission or even grind it to a halt.

Healthy people who would volunteer to go on a suicide mission would be a different story though. Apparently there are a number of people who would at least consider it. Something to think about.

As for Shattered Sky, just relax and read it whenever. The important thing is that you enjoy it. Reviewing it is always welcome, but it is secondary to your reading enjoyment.