Ants

Ants

Emerson was half awake in his greenhouse one Martian morning, when he felt something crawling on his eyelid. The fluttering of his rapid eyeball movement curtailed as his right eye complained itself in to something like being awake. His iris darted about to his forehead where the trespasser had vacated to, a place where his pupil couldn’t focus. He felt its six tiny legs peddaling over and between his eyebrow hairs, deftly, with the ease of an Olympic hurdler, in an impossible percussive meter; 3-2-3-1-1, 3-2-3-1-2, 3-2-3-1-1, 3-2-3-1-2.

Yep. It was a bug all right. What the fuck?

He slapped at his forehead and squashed it flat, snuffing out the tiny little spark of it’s life, but, ow! Not before it had bitten him. He scraped his hand off his brow to inspect his kill. Even though it was all smushed up, he could make out legs jutting out of what once was the main body of the creature’s segmented thorax and crooked feelers coming out of what was left of it’s head. It was an ant.

But, what the fuck? How did an ant end up here with him on the planet Mars? What the Hell. This was not the way to wake up in the morning, or whenever the Hell this was. There was no coffee sent with his rations. Mornings without coffee are the worst kind of hell. Emerson rubbed his eyes and rummaged through his equiptment for a microscope slide and a magnifying glass to make sure it was what he thought it was. Then he triple checked it with his microscope, taking pictures of it with his webcam, making sure to make several poses of it’s mangled little body with a pair of tweezers. He then sent the images through the sattelite uplink to Earth on it’s four minute voyage to Mission Control in Houston. What do you make of this?

About ten minutes later, Emerson received a reply. Processing, please stand by.

Great! They were processing. Wasn’t that fucking special! In the meantime, he had counted three more ants crawling around his habitat. He tried to catch them in his fingers, but ants, it turns out are surprisingly slippery little creatures. You either squash them or they end up crawling on your finger, and Emerson was stung on his knuckle figuring this out. He finally caught one with his tweezers and was able to imprison one in a petry dish. He took some more photos and sent them through the uplink. Look, there are more. This is a live one! Right after he sent it a message came in. Yep. It looks like some kind of ant. Need a live sample to identify it.

No shit sherlock. Tell Jodi Foster I made contact and go fuck yourself. This was America’s best and brightest. Emerson was not amused.

After about ten more minutes there was another reply. Good. Stand by. Then another reply came over the sattelite. Subject Identified as Solenopsis Invicta. Hybrid South American Fire Ant. Check your onions.

Emerson made his way to the 3’x10′ rows of sweet onions he so proudly cultivated in the delicate Martian dirt and combed through the pulby green knee high stalks. It didn’t take long to find the colony, a lightly perforated mound of soil about the size of a popcorn bucket. Out of the little tiny holes, hundreds of little workers went back and forth in slavish subservience to their Martian Queen. This wasn’t what Edgar Rice Burroughs had in mind, but still, it was the first city on Mars.

The story of these ants was altogether more impressive than Emerson’s. They survived much worse things to establish this colony on Mars. Their journey started in an Andean rain forest valley of Peru, on the edge of the Amazon river. Their habitat slash burned and bulldozed for farming, their home bombarded with chemical weapons, a small enclave of refugees made their way to a Costa Rica, thousands of miles away. There they faced a similar ordeal at a coffee plantation, before migrating to Honduras, where one of their queens and a small entourage of workers found their way to Mobile, Alabama with the dim-witted trophy wife of a NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab scientist. There, her spoiled brat five year old distracted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beagle Brigade with a slice of Carnival Cruise Lines’ peperoni pizza and a perfectly timed temper tantrum. There, it made it’s way with him to work in the back of his jeep, as part of his daily lunch where they hitched a ride on some onion bulbs and made they’re way 140 million miles in refrigerated hibernation to Mars. Here, within a matter of months, these vagrants built a small, vibrant metropolis with little more than the single minded will of their hive. By comparison to Emerson, the distance they travelled would have been to Proxima Centauri, 4.22 Light Years away.

How the first Martian city was born.

Let me tell you how the first Martian city was born. It was me and a shovel. Just the 750 cubic foot Zubrin Habitation Module (or HAB) and a hole in the ground. After locating the rocket-less Earth Return Vehicle Module (ERV), I exploded the inflatable geodesic greenhouse unit and secured it with spikes to the soil. Then after setting up the aqua drilling unit, I grabbed my Russian entrenching tool and began to dig. Then, I dug some more. When I was bored, I would dig, which is pretty much all the time when you are alone on Mars. When I wasn’t bored, I would also dig. When I was happy, probably from a good day of digging, I would dig. When I was sad, probably from a bad day of digging, I would dig. I would dig by day. I would dig by night. I would dig in the haze. I would dig in starlight. I dug so much, I began to think I was Shia Labeouf in the movie Holes.

Although “happy” was a relative term here on Mars back then. It isn’t orange like in all those NASA photos. It was really drab depressing colors that reminded you of a toxic waste dump. The abundance of ferric oxide dust, sometimes a few feet deep, gives you that reddish impression from a distance, but up close the soil was mostly a puke butterscotch. Walking over to the ERV, which made rocket fuel, to refill the Methane tank on the drill, from time to time you would see more colors. This spot, roughly ¾ of a mile from my landing site, was an ancient river bed roughly 2 Million years ago. These are the round gray pebbles Pathfinder found, like you would see on Earth. Black titanium magnetite, feldspar, some greenish rocks containing chlorine, tan and brown hematite, and aluminum rich zeolites littered the area. This would later be a good area to excavate for gypsum to make a crude kind of concrete and the zeolites would be used for water purification. But for now, it was like everything else in the mission: everything was simple and redundant. That way nothing could go wrong, or so they said.

I spent my time in half hour shifts. First I would spend a half hour working. Then I would spend a half hour resting, and wishing I was dead, in my doghouse of a space capsule. I had to re-hydrate myself frequently with a machine that recycled my own piss into “water”. Then I would be digging my gigantic hole, again. Initially I tried to separate dust and rocks in to piles, but the dust devils that frequently scurry by made the dirt piles a waste of time. I quickly learned to re-purpose one of my three re-entry parachutes to keep them from destroying my work between breaks. Later, I realize I had so much parachute that I could use it for nearly everything. I would do this for all 24 hours, 37 minutes and 22 seconds of the Martian day. I did this every day. I dug a hole. I dug a a great big hole. I dug deep into excruciating despair. I thought I was digging my own grave. I thought I was digging a tunnel to hell. I thought it would never end and nothing would ever change.

Then one day, something different happened. I was putting my aching shoulder to the wheel, when suddenly, it started to…snow? I crawled out of my hole to see my drilling unit blasted slightly a kilter and a snowflake geyser spewing up a hundred feet up in the sky. Suddenly it was Christmas all around me as it swirled with the light Martian wind, making everything an ice cave blue. I laughed out loud with such boundless joy that I lost control of myself. I was dancing around like Gollum at Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, except I wasn’t nearly as sane. I was so excited, I started doing snow angels in the Martian sand. I don’t know how long it took me to compose myself as I realized I needed to cap the well. Still I couldn’t stop grinning, because now I wouldn’t be drinking my own piss anymore.

Initially, I took a piece of my never ending parachute cloth and covered the hole with some of the rocks from my pile. That stemmed the tide enough to where I could put together the capping unit, which consisted of a big aluminum flange from the retro rockets of my capsule and a series of pressure reducing PVC pipes that fit together with different densities of steel mesh. Then I removed the rocks and cut a hole in the parachute cloth. After inserting the pipe unit in the well, I bolted a big plastic collar over the flange, covered the flange in dirt, then rocks again. Finally, I bolted a valve to the top of the pressure reduction unit and closed it. After adding a hose, I then had running water.

When, I checked the chronograph on the drilling unit I was surprised to see that the bit had only been grinding for three days! It felt like three months, but the bore was exactly 37 meters deep, which was precisely what the Ground Penetrating Radar had predicted on the Martian Global Surveyor so many years ago.

Now, I could start farming. But first, I had to fill the hydroponic tanks of the greenhouse unit. At first sight, this wasn’t much more than an inflatable exploding tent with mylar windows, but there were some space age materials embeded all over this thing for insulation, heat, and power.. For example, there was a coating on the mylar of pencatene and silicon invented by Maxim Tabachnyk of Cambridge Universy that was 40% more efficient at producing Hydrogen from water than chlorophyll from plants. This made the unit an effective solar still and alllowed you to control the humidity. There was also artificial leaves from nano-proteins invented by Julian Melchiorri, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, that produced oxygen embeded in the cloth that made a beautiful mosaic. Together, they produced enough electricity to run a small fan at the base of the unit and some impellers for the hydroponic tanks. The floor of the greenshouse was also lined with a Silicon Boride-coated nanoshell material that turned 90% of captured light into heat invented by Sungho Jin, Zhaowei Liu, and Renkun Chen at the University of California San Diego. This way even if the plants died, you could breathe long enough to starve to death.

From here everything was straight forward and by the book. The first tank was for growing algae and there was a pre packaged slurry in a frozen bag that went into it. After a few days there was a seperate packet containing frozen fertilized Pond Loach eggs. The other tank was for rice, soybeans, and Azolla specially designed to live in this environment. Azzola was the critical crop, because it was a nitogen fixer for the nutrient poor Martian soil. It could pull Nitrogen from the air and put it in the soil. All these things were the first stage of agriculture on Mars. This and vitamin supplements was the “Martian Diet” developed by some Japanese researchers and you could certainly tell by how bad it smelled. It was worse than piss water. 500 hundred days of drinking my own urine and now I had to eat this shit! I wanted to kill those motherfuckers.

But it did get better. After a few days, I had a nice tank of algae which made for a nice toilet. A few days later, there were fish swimming in it I could eat! Yep, you guessed it, all part of the plan. All of these M.R.E.s they sent with me are as Nitrogen rich as they come. That nitrogen gets metabolised by the algae, the algae feeds fish, the fish feed me. It’s all part of the circle of life. Although in this case, the circle is as big as this letter o. If you haven’t tried loach before, let me describe it to you. It tastes like a cross between chum salmon and a goldfish. But hey, it was fresh meat on Mars! And it really wasn’t like I was eating my own stool, either, because the zeolites and other carbonate rock made a nice fountain filter. I was taking bits of riverbead that was dead for 2 Million years and bringing it back to life on a miniature scale. How cool was that? The sound of the running water was very meditative to listen to and did wonders to lower my anxiety level, being alone on Mars and all. It was the only thing that kept me from going totally insane.

Now that my well was working, I could dedicate my methane/oxygen collector to the rock grinder and centrifuge that were provided with the HAB. While everything could run on battery or solar panel these two things, as well as my drilling rig, could run on Methane. If it wasn’t for all those Btu’s I am certain I wouldn’t be alive now. How long would it have taken to drill 37 meters on solar power here on Mars? That would have been a lot of piss drinking and I don’t think the HAB modules purifier would be efficient enough to keep me alive that long, because you lose a little percentage every time.

Luckily, the sand by ancient riverbed proved to be much more geologically rich than I had anticipated, so I didn’t have to grind up so many rocks at first. When I first ran the centrifuge all of the compounds with heavier with things like lead, iron, titanium, fell to the bottom but at the top rose a nice creamy layer of feldspar and basalt. The basalt was critical. While there were many ways scientists had theorized you could make concrete on Mars, the problem with making it was two-fold. One was the scarcity of water on the surface. That problem had been solved at least partially. The second however, was getting a binding agent for the cement to hold the aggregate together. This ultimately would take time intensive mining and/or processing for things that are rare, like gypsum, since limestone is non-existent here. But with an absorbing agent like Basalt, you could make something like pycrete, a kind of frozen concrete, to make the first igloo on Mars. It wasn’t that radical of an idea, really. It was name after Geoffrey Nathaniel Joseph Pyke who, faced with a shortage of steel and aluminum during World War II, suggested building an unsinkable British Aircraft Carrier out of ice. About 70 years later, a televison show called Mythbusters proved the concept by building a functional boat in Alaska. While the concept of an ice boat has some temporary drawbacks on Earth, a warm day on Mars is like a cold day in Antarctica, making it a practical building material.

It was really quite easy from there. Inside the paneling of both spacecraft sent on this mission were rolls of Geocells. Invented right after Hurricane Katrina, these were ultrasonically welded high density polyethylene strips that expanded to form a honeycombs you filled with dirt to form flood barriers. They were faster to deply and had much less seepage than sand bags, and when it was discovered by NASA that polyethylene performed well as an atmospheric disburser of deadly cosmic radiation, that was when the Geocell contractor, already in a benificial relationship with the U.S. Army Core of Engineers pitched the idea of repurposing it.

But that wasn’t the only thing that was repurposed. The eight rubber rings of the inflatable skirt underneath the heat shield of the HAB were inflatable composite lifting arches made by Goodyear. They were first used in Operation: Enduring Freedom for when a 70 ton Abrahms tank fell into a cellar or became submerged after collapsing a bridge. Now they were being used as the skeleton to suport a roof atop and bracketed by a geocell foundation in a hole that was the size of a backyard swimming pool. Again, the parachutes were repurposed, fastened to the arches, pressurized, and covered with soil. The first house on Mars was built in a little over a month. That was phase one.