Life on Mars

Photo of a mandarin on a black background, with the caption, "Fresh food is the most precious thing here.

Life on Mars

Short story by Iris Carden

It’s one of those nights when both Phobos and Deimos are overhead.

This isn’t like Earth. Mars moons are only visible next to the equator. So in this habitat, they’re visible, but in the north and south habitats, the curvature of the planet gets in the way. These moons are close.

In my space suit, out on the planet’s surface, away from the habitat, there’s something magical about watching the two moons go about their business. Deimos slowly ambles across the night sky, taking 30 hours to do her orbit, while Phobos is always in a rush, with a seven hour orbit. So we don’t always see them together as they are tonight.

Our days, called “sols” are only about half an hour longer than an Earth day. That’s about the only thing that’s familiar about this place. Otherwise this alien world is alien in every conceivable way.

When I’d stopped at the Moon on the way here, someone at the colonists’ outfitters had convinced me to get some miniature fruit trees to grow in my quarters. That was the best investment I have ever made. Fresh food is the most valuable resource here. I look after my trees carefully. As well as food for my own use, I also use the fruit to trade for things others grow.

Howard, who shares an office with me grows hydroponic vegetables in his quarters. I trade my oranges and apples for his lettuce and tomatoes. I can’t believe that back on Earth, I’d let fresh food go off and throw it out.

Howard has an idea, and has invited me, and a few others in the office to be part of it. We’re each putting a part of our salary aside each month for this.

We’re going to build a small dome of our own out here in the nowhere. In the dome, we’re going to set up a bigger hydroponic system, and grow lots of fresh vegetables, and potted miniature fruit trees.

We’ve already checked. We can simply claim the land, just as settlers and squatters claimed new frontiers back on Earth a couple of centuries ago. (Of course they displaced indigenous people. We’re not doing that.) We have to buy our own supplies, and some we will need to buy from the Mars Corporation. The Corporation’s fine with us doing this as long as we pay for any resources we use, and our time working our little farm doesn’t affect our actual work. In fact, it’s even offered to loan us the money so we can get our crops up faster.

The Corporation always planned to introduce farming at some stage anyway, but that is planned for after the mining system (the reason we’re here after all) is established. So us starting up sooner, in our spare time, benefits Mars Corp as well. I think they’re hoping that enough ordinary workers will do this that they don’t need to worry about farming at all.

Soon, in this spot where I’m currently standing, there will be a hydroponic farm. We’d love to be able to just grow plants in the ground here, but our problem is that the “soil” isn’t actually soil, it’s regolith. It’s broken down rocks and some space dust. It’s got tons of minerals that are great for growing plants, and a few that are toxic to plants.

Our hydroponic system will provide some organic material we can add to the dirt to help make it suitable for eventually growing things, but it doesn’t overcome the problem that the chemical make-up of the dirt is actually dangerous to most plants. We’ll start adding organic matter while we operate our hydroponic system, and we’ll expand as quickly as we can, because we have a big market. People living almost entirely on freeze dried food love fresh fruit and vegetables.

Sarah, a chemist from the mining division is part of our group. She says the soil we create over time adding organic matter to the dirt, can eventually be processed to remove the toxins, but it won’t be cheap. Then we will need to get hold of some of the bacteria and microorganisms that help break down organic matter to feed soil, and we’re going to have to somehow import those from Earth. Some of that will be in the potting mix our fruit trees come in, so we could breed bacteria. We could do with earthworms once we get some soil going as well. It will be a big move when we are finally ready to make it. We need to keep reinvesting most of our profit back into this business for a while as we keep expanding.

On a planet where we mine for water, from a frozen aquifer under the soil, water for the farm is going to be a big ongoing expense. We have a plan for collecting condensation from inside the dome for recycling.

As I stand here, I can see both, the stark barren landscape that is here now, and the amazing hydro farm we’re going to have in the near future.

I came here for an admin job, but I realise I am going to become a part-time farmer, and a part of Martian history, all because I desperately want a fresh salad.

Now, I’m starting to wonder what would be involved in importing chickens and getting them established here. Eggs would be great with that salad.

The Mars Stories

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.

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