Short Stories - Mars

 Copyright to Jonathan O'Donnell - Protected under UK and International Copyright Laws, any reproduction, copying or publishing without the Authors express consent is strictly prohibited.

Lilly and the Machines
(Written 2006)

The sun rose slowly on Mars to its low position over the Chasma Boreale, the only sounds breaking the silence of the cold harsh world were the oxygen machines pumping the water up from under the frozen crust. Each individual autonomous machine, converted some of the extracted water to oxygen and the rest was pumped by the machines directly onto the dusty pink surface. The hydrogen released by the conversion process was collected and used for the fuel cells of the gargantuan machines.
As the water flowed from the steel pipes it instantly turned to thundering steam, as the steam billowed hundreds of feet into the air much of it froze and fell as tiny snow onto the Martian surface. The pressure was too low to keep it in a liquid form and would be for some years to come. The flat desert was covered with machines that stretched for over twenty miles, it was a sight to be seen indeed. The Terra-forming of Mars had begun just five years earlier and there were now hundreds of farms all over the northern and southern hemispheres.
On a nearby hill stood a lonely red dust covered shelter, much like an old portable cabin, its stainless steel shell was still discernible under the dust. Small puffs of steam hissed from its thin chimney. The pressure door was scratched and dented and was in a similar condition to the rest of the shelter.
The door hissed, as the lock cycled. Stepping out onto the red dusty hill came Lilly. Lilly was only five-foot tall with her boots on, her silver pressure suit glowed orange in the low sun. Her large tinted visor a mirror of the Martian terrain like a pool of glimmering oil would reflect the sky. She stood for a moment, checking her equipment and her tool belt, satisfied she was ready to begin her work day. She set off with a slow run, towards the nearest massive machine. Lilly's pace increased as she began to bound across the surface, dust lifting and hanging in the air from the vacated boot prints that were now getting further and further apart. The low gravity enabled Lilly to cover great distances with huge bounding leaps. A difficult skill to master, one mistake could spell disaster for Lilly if she landed awkwardly on a stone or rock, her visor could easily shatter. Lilly covered the distance between her shelter and the first machine in under two minutes, a distance of over a mile.
Reaching the base of the huge machine, it loomed above her, towering up from the Martian surface over two hundred feet high. Lilly checked the base power connectors and the exhaust pipes for the water for any damage or blockages. Then she prepared for her long climb up the ladder to the control room. The climb was extremely difficult in a bulky pressure suit, but Lilly with five years on the job had become an expert.
At the top Lilly opened the thin metal door, turned on the lights and begun to complete her checks, reading from the screens and the dials the oxygen and water production levels, she entered the data onto a small  pad attached to her right wrist. Satisfied everything was in good order, she climbed out and hooked on her descender rope and she leapt off the tower. Her descent was slow but too fast and too far to jump without a rope. As she landed Lilly's boots sunk into the soft Martian soil, she flicked a switch on her waist belt and the rope floated neatly down on a mini parachute. As soon as it reached the ground it rewound and packed itself neatly back onto her belt pack. Satisfied all was in order she set off again, onward to the next mountainous machine.
Lilly had applied for this job because she had sought solitude; she no longer desired contact with other humans, especially men! The Northern Barren's appealed to her because they reminded her of the open plains of Siberia her childhood home, beautiful, serene and tranquil and above all very few human beings came this far north. Her job was not mentally challenging; she simply took care of her machines. Lilly had named them all; they had become like pets or children. Their very existence enabled Lilly's life. Their relationship was symbiotic.
Over the passing years Lilly had barely observed the world around her changing, the sky had become less pink, the air pressure had steadily increased and was becoming thicker with each passing year. Every morning the water molecules covered Lilly's hut and also her suit became a sink for the mist. There were even clouds beginning to form and float by, almost like on earth although still very infrequent. Even the water vents which used to pour forward steam, had slowed and become smaller and smaller and they reached far lower into the Martian sky. The puddles had begun to form under the exhaust ports and each day the puddles of water lasted that little while longer and instead of boiling off in the low pressure it now remained as icy reflective pink puddles that grew larger each day. The temperature was noticeably warmer, Lilly had turned her air conditioning to maximum to keep her cool on the long runs.
Lilly herself had changed. Wrinkles now decorated the corners of her eyes and mouth, her skin less taut over her frame, like a medal of experience her skin betrayed her true age. Lilly took longer to cover the distances between the great machines, her body also needed more recovery time, cuts healed more slowly, but still not bad for a woman of eighty. Her shack was now a dark rust colour, caked with decades of Martian dust and moisture mixing the dust into a clay like covering. The seals for the door no longer as efficient and now dust often invaded Lilly's tiny cabin during the famous Martian dust storms. Lilly frequently patched and repaired her home, she could have had a new one, she only need make a request, but like the machines and like her, they were all intrinsically linked and the thought of replacing the hut offended her loyalties.

Lilly had not had a visitor for three years, not something that upset her at all; in fact if Lilly could she would put off visitors as often as possible. Lilly's last visitor had been her supervisor, he had just stopped by to check her production figures, a routine visit every five years. He had not stayed long, he had left after only a few hours. But for Lilly it was like a splinters under her nails, she had hated the visit; a man was in her cabin, in her way, breathing her air bringing his germs and stench. She had washed his mug ten times after he left and even then she put it away and never used it again. Lilly's supplies were delivered by an automated robot transport every month, she had little need to leave her metal home, with the exception of looking after her machines. She lived the life of a hermit and she did not see any reason to change; she was happy. 
Eighteen more years past by, and three more painful visits, the offers of new equipment, a bigger cabin or perhaps another person to keep her company were rejected politely but firmly. Lilly had barely noticed the world change completely, global warming had accelerated. The puddles of ice under the pumps had become flowing streams and lakes. Steam no longer poured from the vents, just beautiful crystal clear water. The oxygen, which had once billowed from the top of the towers, was hardly visible to the naked eye. Martian temperatures were climbing rapidly. Lilly had no need to put on a full pressure suit now, a newer thinner pressure suit had been delivered a few years before, however she still used the trusted old suit and scratched helmet. She trusted nothing new and left nothing to chance. Lilly was nearly a hundred, she had long ago lost count of her advancing years. Greying temples and the deepening wrinkles in her face her only visual reminder of her age, that is of course if Lilly had a mirror, which she did not. Only brief reflections in the the few shinning spots of her cabin which had not been covered in the Martian clay gave her any reminder at all of what she looked like.

One day, a few years past her hundredth birthday the automated robot with her supplies did not arrive. Unconcerned, Lilly continued with her job, she had always kept a large reserve of food and water. She waited for its arrival the next day. The next day’s sun rose, fell, and still no supplies. A month past by and still her automated friend did not arrive. Lilly considered the strange phenomenon and looked at the communication device attached to her cabin wall she shook her head. Convinced that nothing was seriously wrong, it would take a real emergency for her to use it that dreaded device. Another month passed without the robot, and another. Her supplies were dwindling, her food reserve now just a few tins.
She again looked at her wall; she was now seriously considered calling her supervisor. She did not of course; the thought made her feel sick, she almost vomited. The sight of another human being nauseated Lilly. She continued to service her machines, each day Lilly did her checks, new computers delivered some seven years earlier now automatically reported the production figures, part of her job had long gone. However, she still noted the figures and kept a log for her own satisfaction. 
Lilly had became trapped, knowing she could not continue without supplies for long, but she always had water, plenty of that now, it was everywhere, it had become almost impossible to reach some of her machines without getting waist deep in small lakes. 

Thirteen days after her food ran out, Lilly finally collapsed between pump eleven and pump twelve.
Days passed by, then weeks, then a month and then six and then two years. In the H20 Company head office a squirrelly little man tore off the report from the printer, he took it to his supervisor who tipped his glasses to the end of his nose looked down at the little man, then his eyes returned to the sheet. The figures were clear. Seven pumps had failed. One was a major event but seven was a disaster.
Two years after Lilly had collapsed; the investigation team zipped up the body bag and lifted her frail body onto the hover-copter.
‘Why was she still in her pressure suit?’ asked one white gloved medic to the other. ‘She dint know man, she dint need it anymore I guess’! The other one replied.

Enquiry Report 12-13-2087 - we N90011

This report details the untimely death of Pump Machine Manager Lilly Elizabeth Bettle.
We the judges of Olympus Mons Tribunal concluded that the robot delivery system had stopped by a newly formed river that had blocked its path to Ms Bettle's Cabin. Because of the limitations of the original design and programming of the autonomous delivery robots  it had simply dumped it's supplies as close to the cabin as it could reach. Because the Robot was not designed or programmed to report the block or to return with its load, it had followed an old programming protocol. 

The storage and supply facility itself was automatic, it to followed its programming, it kept loading the robot each month and each month the robot had dumped its load by the widening river. The last dump made was just two miles from Ms Bettle's Cabin, if Ms Bettle had investigated, food was there. However, critically it is clear  the dump was over a brow of a low hill. Just out of visible range from Ms Bettle's cabin.

Also clearly the Employee's mind and attitude were a significant cause of her death. Ms Bettle lived as a hermit, avoiding human contact and her many supervisors past and present found all contact with Ms Bettle to be brief, somewhat rude and they were not made welcome. Ms Bettle's antisocial attitude probably explains the failure to report the lack of supplies.
Northern Province - Olympus Mons Tribunal Decision.
Cause of Death: Natural Causes.
Case Closed.

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