Chapter 4: Letter from Home

"So how is life on Mars?" Jane asked. "I still have a really hard time imagining you welding. I just can't imagine you contorting yourself to weld in weird positions! I know the aches and pains I have when I get up in the morning. It isn't like you don't have some arthritis too. Good grief, it is not like we are in high school anymore or riding in the back of The Tank on top of a trunk. Goodness knows I am old enough now I need padding on my butt, though I guess I should be glad that at our age my butt doesn't carry around too much of its own padding. Jim tells me I have a cute butt, but I think he is just trying to stay in my good graces so I will keep having sex with him. By the way, how is the sex on Mars?"

"Anyway, getting back to what I was originally saying, the image of you welding is kind of funny. I can just see you contorting yourself and Tom operating a backhoe or some other such piece of equipment. And you are doing it all in space suits! It makes me laugh and sooner or later I am going to have to do a painting of this. Come to think of it, why don't you send me a few pictures of you two at work? Maybe I can get some inspiration and I will paint something just for you."

Jane went on, "What is living like up there? You told me how you had quarters on the transport ship that were the size of a closet. Do you at least get something the size of a bathroom now that you are living in the habitat? What is the food like up there? I read that you are growing food in the Martian soil. Probably most of all my question is: What does Mars smell like? I would really like to know. Anyway, send me a reply when you can. I miss you Daria. Even though we have lived most of our lives in different cities, we could always see each other and talk over the phone. Now we can only do these video letters. In some ways it seems kind of retro. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you. Say hello to Tom from both Jim and I. Bye." With that the screen froze with the image Jane used to tag her video letter.

Daria sat and stared at her monitor. Yeah, this was kind of retro. How long had it been since people wrote letters or even traded media of some sort – audio or video? Certainly it had been decades. Daria remembered writing and receiving letters in high school, especially rejection letters from publishers. Still, once she was in college she mostly communicated via email or made calls on her cell phone. Over time she switched to text messaging and video chatting. Now things back on earth were so integrated – at least in highly developed countries – you could send and receive messages, have conversations and even see people full-size using wrist bands or other small devices. For Daria this simply made communications more and more ephemeral. The people of their time would not leave a paper trail of their thoughts the way people had done up through the 20th century. The 21st century had already seen writing and printing on paper marginalized to the point where it was rather quaint. Why carry around heavy paper when you have a flexible device that looks like a sheet of paper and displays text, still pictures, and video? You can even have things displayed in front of you and all these devices understand you when you talk to them!

On Mars everyone used the electronics to the maximum, because who would want to pay to have heavy paper sent all the way from Earth? Yes there was some writing happening here, but instead of paper they used thin sheets of plastic and appropriate markers. But that writing was only temporary. The plastic sheets were recycled like everything else here. One day the plastic substituted for paper and the next it was a bottle with water in it. Of course for that matter the water was your urine yesterday. Good thing for distillation!

Daria jumped as Tom walked into their room and startled her.

"Did you get a letter from Jane?" Tom asked seeing Jane's image on the monitor.

Daria answered, "Yes. Yes I did. She has all kinds of questions and I need to answer her. We also need to record letters for the kids."

"Tell you what," Tom said. "I will go down the hall, grab a shower, and then we can go to the dining room and have some dinner. Let's talk about what we are going to tell the kids. Maybe that will help you think about what you want to say to Jane. You can decide whether we record something to send to the kids tonight or you do something for Jane."

"That's reasonable," Daria replied. With a half smirk she said, "Now go get clean Mr. Stinky. I don't want to go to dinner with a goat!"

"Ha ha," Tom replied. He leaned over, gave Daria a quick kiss and headed off to the community showers.

The next evening Daria sat in front of the monitor and said, "Monitor. Record video for Jane."

The monitor responded, "Recording will begin when you say start."

"Start," Daria commanded. "Hey Jane. Thanks for the letter. I really like hearing from you. It is such a shame that light is so slow that it takes 20 minutes for a message to reach you, probably more like 22 minutes by the time any message I send passes through the equipment and is actually delivered! Let me answer your questions about life here on Mars."

In total deadpan Daria started out, "The first thing you have to always remember is that Mars wants nothing more than to kill you. Here you have the opportunity to freeze, to suffocate, or to die a short but horrible death from decompression. That is assuming nothing falls on you or otherwise immolates you. Did I mention the radiation? Lacking a strong magnetic field the planet gets dosed with killer radiation if there is a big solar flare. Even without a solar flare we have to be constantly concerned about radiation exposure on the surface. That is why our habitat modules are covered with regolith – Martian soil. That shields us here. Even our vehicles have compartments where one can shelter from high radiation in an emergency. The new living tower we are building in the old lava tube will shield us from radiation through metal and rock."

"Think of Mars being the Roman god of war. Killing is what he does. Oh, and just for good measure the lower gravity will reduce the strength of both your muscles and bones. So, you need to keep up with a specific exercise regimen so that you can return to Earth someday and not have all your bones break the moment you step out onto the surface. Once you understand these things life is not bad."

Tom entered the room, walked over to Daria and kissed her on the cheek. Then looking at the monitor he said, "Hi Jane! Doesn't she paint a rosy picture of our life here? Hope everything is great with you and Jim. Bye." Tom picked up something off of his night stand and left the room.

"Monitor, pan room," Daria ordered. An image of their quarters immediately filled the screen. "This is our home right now, Jane. We live in a 3 meter by 3 meter (10 ft. x 10 ft.) room. We have a bed, a couple of night stands, two chairs, a monitor and hangers for our clothing. We can move around the bed and sit in the chairs, but that is about it. We have a monitor and narrow worktop under the monitor opposite the foot of the bed. You have to keep the chairs pushed in to get by. This is luxury living compared to the MTV. Showers, sinks, and toilets are still down the hall. But, at least there is a modicum of privacy. As for sex, well we can talk about that over a bottle of good wine when Tom and I are back on Earth and we come to spend a month with you since we are homeless."

"You asked about the food. It is getting better. We have about a third of our people working in the agriculture and fabrication areas. The same people also manage the recycling systems. After our ship arrived we now number a hundred. Anyway, we are now producing enough food to cover over half of our needs. The rest – heavily but not exclusively meat – is sent from Earth in freeze dried form. Water is something we have plenty of here. So, rehydrating food is no big deal. Still, it doesn't match the fresh stuff. We eat in a common dining room. The kitchen staff does a great job cooking for us. I would say that if the food was all fresh, then the quality of the meals would be up there with the country club. I keep hearing that we are trying to become self-sufficient in food in the next 18 months. The key will be the success we have in starting up a meat cultivation operation. That would give us an endless supply of New York strip, pork loin, and chicken breast, maybe even a couple types of fish. I hope it works out. I would love to have some fresh meat again. Then the only issue remaining for us then is how to make eggs. We may yet have to import some chickens. Oh, and milk. We still need to figure out how create milk."

"I need to comment about your thoughts on welding. For the most part I have learned to control a swarm of welding robots. They actually lay down 99+% of the welding beads. It is rare that I have to go to a spot and actually do a weld myself. So far that happens about once per week and it takes at most an hour – most of which is spent coming, going, and setting up the welder. So far I have not had to contort myself. There are limits to what you can do in a surface suit, because it limits your mobility. By the way, we are out there in surface suits not spacesuits. Even though the atmospheric pressure is too low for people it is not a hard vacuum. Also, the heating requirements are far less. Therefore, surface suits are much lighter and you have much more mobility than in a full spacesuit. "

"Your last question was about the smell. That is a much harder question, since you can't breathe the Martian atmosphere and live! You do, however, get some of the Martian soil in your nose in the airlock when you come in from the outside. I would call the smell dusty, rusty, stuffy, and dead. In the airlock there is an exchange of atmosphere with breathable air when you come inside. There is some automatic cleaning. The fans whip up the Martian atmosphere to make the dust on our suits and shoes airborne. Then the atmosphere is sucked into centrifugal filters to remove the dust. Finally, the Martian atmosphere is exchanged for air. However, there remains a certain characteristic smell I have noticed once the green light goes on and we can remove our helmets. That smell is like the iron smell you get from water heavy in iron or like putting your nose by an old rusty car. You also notice that there is some residual dust in the air and can sometimes feel it in your nose. The gas exchange in the airlock is not perfect. There is still a higher carbon dioxide level than regular air and that is left over from the Martial atmosphere. So, the airlock is a little stuffy. Finally, there is no hint of organic compounds like you find in soil on Earth. This world is dead. So, if you want to get some idea of the smell of Mars, then take powdered rust, mix it with fine sand in a plastic bag. Evacuate the air and put a little dry ice in the bag. Let the dry ice evaporate, shake the bag vigorously, and then open the bag and sniff what comes out. Don't stick your nose in the bag! I don't want you accidentally killing yourself! Just hold it away from yourself a little bit and take in the fragrance. Then you will have an idea of the smell of Mars."

"Now I have something for you. You always talk about the paintings you are doing, but now I can't visit you and see them. How about showing them to me in your next letter? I would love to see what you are working on. Are you and Jim planning to travel anywhere together soon? What are your kids doing? I think I have brought you up-to-date on ours. Anyway, take care. Give my love to Jim, too. Bye"

Daria commanded, "Monitor, end and send." With that the letter was off to Jane.