Below is what we will be working on during our next meeting (20 Feb 2013). Consider printing a copy of each submission so you can bring your editorial comments to the meeting.

Mars Station III – “Game On”
by Lisa Farr

“How do I get my proficiency levels signed off, so I can do something other than watch FIDo”? Jack’s voice held an edge of desperation. Watching the Facility Inspection Droid painting corridors was pure soul crushing boredom. He was going to go crazy if he had to do it much longer.
“Here’s the thing” William, his boss, tugged his bushy beard and glanced up from the electronics he was repairing. “We’re swamped. Everyone’s too busy to train you.”
“You brought me all the way to Mars from Earth because you’re shorthanded, but no-one has the time to certify me for the job I’m supposed to be doing?”
“Exactly!” William turned back to his repair. “Next seven sol you might get to shadow someone. In the meantime, watching FIDo’s the only job you’re allowed to do.”
A small droid rolled in, holding a paintbrush and a can of paint. Jack couldn’t help but be curious. “Why is the paint pink?”
“Our supplier mixed up the formula. Instead of regulation grey we got pink. It costs so much to ship anything between here and Earth we’re stuck with it. We’re trying to use it up on remote parts of the Station. Making lemonade as it were.”
FIDo scanned Jack, made an unimpressed whirring chirp, wheeled around on its miniature treads and headed out of the door. Jack sighed and followed.
They made their way to a remote corridor, half painted in grey and shocking pink. The robot rolled to where the grey started and resumed painting.
Jack gave up on staying awake, curling up in the middle of the hallway so FIDo wouldn’t get paint on him.
Jack had his vidset on when his roommate Gus came in. Gus pulled a coverall out of a laundry bag and threw it to Jack. “Here you go. Got the pink paint out of it. Good as new. I took the liberty of letting the hem out a little in the legs. With the lighter gravity you’re taller than on Earth. Nothing screams newbie like pants that’re too short.”
“Thanks!” Jack took the coveralls and inspected Gus’ handiwork. The paint was gone and the hem on the cuffs was professional and crisp.
Gus laughed. “Blue says I’ll make someone a nice little domestic partner someday.”
“Hey, do you know her friend Indra? Indy? I met her on the observation deck after dinner the other night. What’s her deal?”
Gus waved Jack off. “Scary smart. Definite attitude. Forget about it.”
“I got that impression” Jack looked down at Gus’ handiwork. “How much for my other coveralls? I’ve got three.”
“Five creds. Each. That’s the roommate discount. Don’t blab it around or everyone’ll want that price. Or, I have a vid unit that needs an upgrade and I’ve been in the wait queue for maintenance forever.”
“I’m on it! Tomorrow night okay?”
“Deal.” Gus rummaged around in the piles of junk by his bed and extracted the vid unit. Jack set it aside and resumed watching his set, glad to know tomorrow he’d have something more interesting to do than watch the damn FIDo.
“Did you fall asleep again?” William scanned Jack’s coverall for telltale pink. “No. “ Jack didn’t mention he’d sat on the floor, upgrading Gus’ vid unit, moving every
Mars Station III – “Game On”
time FIDo got to painting where he was sitting. “That’s progress! Keep up the good work!” William hunched over his repair, Jack headed back to his room.
Gus arrived after Jack had sat down and taken off his boots and socks. Jack held up the vid unit. “All upgraded. Try it out”
“That’s GREAT” Gus took the unit and broke into a wide smile. “Final Ultimate Fantasy Fighting 25 in 5-D just came out. Everyone’s been playing except me because my vid couldn’t handle it.” He lifted a stack of belongings off of a recliner, flopped down, and put the unit on. “This is AMAZING. Blows the doors off of Final Ultimate Fantasy Fighting 24.”
Gus’ hands were twitching, a sign that he was in the game, using brainwaves to direct his virtual actions. Jack turned away, picked up his own vid, and wished it had gaming capabilities. Maybe he could kludge something together with parts from the lab, IF he ever got to do anything of substance. That seemed to be unlikely anytime soon. Gus was immersed in the game. Jack crept out and went to the dining commons.
The commons were uncrowded. Jack got his tray, ate alone and in silence. He contemplated his plate, picking up a forkful of mashed potatoes and dropping it, watching how the lower Mars gravity affected how it hit and flattened. The meatloaf looked like it had flecks of pink paint in it. He frowned.
Maybe he’d made a horrible mistake coming here. “Better than being on Earth”, he thought. He rubbed his brow, sighed, stood up and grabbed his tray. He put it and his half eaten dinner on the conveyor to the recycler system.
Looking out of the window, he saw it was close to sunset. He walked upstairs to the observation deck, hoping to run into Indy again, or anyone else for that matter. There was no one there. He watched the sun sink past the too close horizon, the shadow of the planet rapidly engulfing his view.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and wandered. The people he encountered were in a rush, or engrossed in what they were doing. He saw several people flopped in lounge chairs wearing vid units, hands moving. Playing the new game. Gus was still plugged in when he got back to his room. He got ready for bed, pulled the pillow over his head, and fell into a deep sleep.
He woke once in the middle of the night, and saw Gus still in his chair. Jack thought he might have fallen asleep there, but then his hands began moving.
A soft chime woke Jack. Gus wasn’t in the chair. The door to the bathroom opened and Gus stumbled out. He was wearing a rumpled slept-in coverall, eyes bloodshot, unshaved.
“Are you okay?” Jack asked. Gus looked terrible. “Called in sick. This game is AMAZING” Gus grunted as he flopped back into
the chair and pulled the vid unit back on. Jack showered and dressed for work. The dining commons lacked the usual
bustle and clatter. People were either eating as fast as possible or gathered in small groups, talking in low concerned voices. Jack ate his breakfast and wondered what was going on.
Doris, the lab admin and coordinator, inclined her head in his general direction as he entered the duty desk office. As usual she was too busy to chat. There was no one in
Mars Station III – “Game On”
the lab. Right on time, FIDo undocked itself from its charging station, grabbed a bucket of paint and the paintbrush from the cleaning bin, and rolled away.
Jack followed FIDo deep into the substructure of the Station, passing a number of labs and offices. Everyone he saw seemed harried, worried, or caught up in their work. He thought he caught a glimpse of Indy in one of the labs, had to jog to keep up with FIDo as it turned a corner and went downstairs.
At the end of his shift he ascended to the main level and grabbed a small meal from the sparsely populated dining commons. The sun had set. Jack noticed one bright star and, seeing it was actually two objects, realized it was the Earth and Moon. He rubbed his brow and headed back to his room.
Gus was plugged in and didn’t respond when he entered. Jack went straight to bed. He woke to find Gus still playing. He stepped across a heap of belongings on the floor, and shook Gus’ shoulder.
“Wha!?” Gus bellowed and waved his arms, almost smacking Jack.
Jack ducked and yelled “Gus! You’ve been playing that damn thing for three days! Isn’t it time you took a break?”
Gus’ mouth twisted into a snarl. “What are you, my mom? I got time off comin’. I’m taking it. Worth it. Leave me alone!” His face returned to slack, impassive.
Jack shook his head, picked his way to his side of the room. There was nothing he could do, short of removing the vid set by brute force. Jack clenched his fists in frustration, put on his coverall, and stalked out of the room to the dining commons.
The commons were empty, steam tables half filled. The available food looked warmed over, unappetizing. Jack grabbed a muffin that turned out to be stale, and washed it down with bitter coffee. He went to the duty desk.
Doris was at her station, muttering and typing. He walked into the lab. No one there. Again. He clenched his fists and strode back to the office. “Doris- “ he started. She stopped him with a raised finger, muttering and operating the computer with her other hand. “DORIS!” His tone edged on frantic. “Where is everybody? What’s going on?”
Doris didn’t take her eyes from the screen. “Sick. Vacation. Out. Not here.” “Everyone?” “Everyone. Except you.” Jack’s eyes narrowed. “If I’m the only one working today, what are you doing?”
He grabbed the corner of her display and pulled it toward him. She grabbed his wrist and glared at him, then let go and looked back at the screen. Jack recoiled in horror. Doris was playing Final Ultimate Fantasy Fighting 25 in 5-D.
“Oh cruft oh cruft oh cruft oh cruft” Jack couldn’t catch his breath. He ran to the Archives room, trying to remember the training and orientation videos he’d watched during his long trip from Earth. Most of the systems were automated, but required monitoring. How long until something critical quit working? What should he check first?
“Survival rule of three”, Jack muttered, “Three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food.” At the archive workstation he found specs for the air scrubbing and recycling systems. He jumped up,
Mars Station III – “Game On”
locating a binder containing hard copies of the station systems information. He scribbled notes from the screen before bolting through the door and down to the maintenance lab.
A glowing panel showed system status. He ran his finger down the column of figures. Nitrogen levels were high, but livable. He blew out a long breath. “Air scrubbers okay. We can breathe. How about environmental.” He referred to the binder and punched up the next readout.
“Oh CRUFT.” Jack stared at the screen. The solar grid was operating way below nominal efficiency. Dust had accumulated and blocked sunlight hitting the panels. Station power consumption had tripled in the past three days, everyone playing that damn game! Even with the fusion reactor at maximum output, the reserve batteries were being depleted. If they didn’t do something fast they’d overtax the grid with heating the Station. Everyone would freeze to death. He grabbed the binder and ran.
Jack pounded on the door of Commander Kelley’s office “Come in!” a voice bellowed. Jack walked in and saw a man sitting at a small reception desk, typing. Behind him was a closed door, flanked by UN and Martian flags with a ‘Commander Kelley’ nameplate alongside.
“”I need to see the Commander right away.”
“He’s not in his office.” The man at the desk swiveled in his chair to face Jack. “You’re the new maintenance crew, aren’t you?”
Jack was vibrating with anxiety. “Yes. Please, this is an emergency. How do I contact him?”
The man raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on.”
Jack’s voice cracked with stress. “Unless we take immediate drastic action, we’ll all freeze to death before tomorrow.”
The man blinked, then laughed so loud his chest and belly heaved. “That’s a good one! Did Watson put you up to this?”
“That’s the problem. Watson isn’t around. No one showed up at maintenance this morning. I’m the only one. Energy use has spiked, the solar panels are dirty, and the reserve batteries are running down. We’re about to lose support systems, starting with heat.”
The man regarded Jack. “You’re not joking, or you’re the best liar I’ve ever met.”
Jack tried to look credible, hoping it didn’t make him seem guilty. “I’m not lying. That’s why I have to tell Commander Kelley.”
This got an eyebrow raise. “What can he do about it?”
“He can order an immediate shutdown of all station computers. The increased power use is because everyone is playing that new game. Shutting off the computers will prevent the grid from imploding.”
The man looked thoughtful “The research labs will throw a fit. They have processes that have been running since this base started operation 50 years ago.”
Jack paused, frowned. “I’m sure they have a contingency plan for equipment failure or system upgrades. The most they’ll lose is since their last benchmark. Anyway, there aren’t many people working to notice.”
“Can you do this?” “Yes. But I need Commander Kelley’s’ go-ahead.” “I AM Commander Kelley. My admin called in sick today. You have a go.”
Mars Station III – “Game On”
Jack had only seen pictures of Commander Kelley. This man seemed familiar. The worst they could do was fire him, he’d rather be fired than frozen.
“May I use your computer?”
“Sure” Cmdr. Kelley vacated the small chair, motioning Jack to take over. Jack typed at the keyboard, cursed under his breath. “You wouldn’t happen to
know the main password for the Station systems? I haven’t been certified so I don’t have it.”
“No. Is that a problem?” “Could be. I might have to do this manually.”
“What does that mean?” Jack turned his seat around to face Cmdr. Kelley. “It means I go outside to the
main power switch and throw the circuit for the computers“ “Is that safe?” Cmdr. Kelley’s brow creased in concern.
“No. But it’ll work.” “If you’re going outside it’ll have to be fast, before the sun sets. I’ll show you
where the exo suits are and get you some backup. Let’s go.” Cmdr. Kelley unleashed rapid-fire orders into a COM link on his collar. Jack had to jog to keep up as they strode through the station.
Jack went through what he knew of the base power grid. If it were configured according to standard, the computing systems would be on a separate circuit from the air scrubbers and other life support. Each circuit should be labeled, plus he had the binder. His stomach lurched as he realized if he flipped the breaker for the air scrubbers by mistake, there might not be enough reserve power in the depleted batteries to bring them back online. He thought about how much time it would take before the Station ran out of air. Not enough time to evacuate everyone, especially the people plugged into the game and oblivious to danger.
Cmdr. Kelley was barging toward the exit hatch, talking into his COM link. Jack ran and grabbed his arm. He broke off mid-sentence and looked at Jack, eyebrows raised.
“What?” “Uh, there’s a chance, if I throw the wrong breaker, the air scrubbers will go
down and we won’t have enough reserve power to bring them up again. We might have to evacuate. I don’t know what to do about the people who are plugged in.”
“On it.” Cmdr. Kelley inclined his head toward Jack. “Medical and security are short staffed but operational. They’ve been informed. Try to throw the right switch, okay?” His grin was brief and grim.
The exo suit reminded Jack of a bike inner tube, and felt like wearing tight long johns. It was enough to keep him pressurized in the low-density atmosphere outside. There were two security personnel suiting up alongside him, a tall thin man with a shaved head, and a woman with broad hips and shoulders and short dark hair.
“I’m Kelso, “ the woman said as she checked Jack’s suit. “This is McAngus.” The tall man inclined his bald head.
Jack pulled on a facemask and secured his oxygen bottle. Kelso checked the seal and patted him on the back, turning to McAngus so they could check each other’s gear.
“Good to go?” Cmdr. Kelley appraised the trio. Jack grabbed the systems binder. “Good to go”
Mars Station III – “Game On”
“Winds have kicked up, temperature’s dropping. You’ll have to move fast. Good luck.” Cmdr. Kelley gave them a nod before stepping from the airlock into the station.
McAngus flipped a visor over his facemask. Kelso attached a rope to an anchor on the wall and handed the free end to Sgt McAngus. He hooked the line through his belt and knotted the end, then lifted the rope for Jack to grab.
Jack snapped his belt carabineer to the rope. He could hear the wind whipping against the airlock door.
Kelso took up the slack and looped the rope around her shoulders for tension. “Three tugs for trouble”
“Understood”
Kelso slapped the control to open the airlock door to the outside. They were blinded by a swirl of reddish dust.
Jack felt a tug on the line as McAngus moved forward. He shuffled his feet, not able to see where he was stepping. He could already smell dust seeping into his breathing mask. The wind was like nothing he had ever experienced, pelting him with sand and rocks. He hunched, grabbed the rope, put a hand on McAngus’ shoulder and tried not to stumble.
The main breaker was 100 meters from the airlock. Jack felt they’d been walking for hours. The cold was intense. He couldn’t imagine what the wind chill must be. He almost ran into the corner of a small building, unable to discern between it and McAngus’ tall shadow in front of him.
McAngus opened a door and guided Jack into the bunker. Automatic work lights glowed bluish green. Large archaic knife switches lined the wall. The metal on the switches was pitted. Jack brushed the dust away from his facemask and examined the switches. Each was labeled with a letter followed by numbers, useless unless you knew what systems were on which circuit. He opened the binder, hoping it would tell him which breaker was for the computer systems.
“Temperature dropping. Wind speed increasing. Work fast or we won’t make it back.” McAngus’ voice had an edge of strain to it.
“No pressure then” Jack flipped through pages of documentation He found the circuit connecting the computers, but there was nothing to relate that circuit to the labels underneath the switches. He was able to hear his own breathing, heartbeat. “I’m going to have to guess.”
“How many switches?” Cmdr. Kelley’s voice sounded stressed. Jack counted. “Four” “Feeling lucky?” “Not particularly.”
“Be lucky. We’re standing by to evacuate just in case.”
“Here goes.” Jack reached for a switch marked ‘C18’ and yanked. It was corroded and didn’t budge
“Jammed. Working on it” Jack took a second to calm himself. He pulled out a small screwdriver and chipped corrosion away from the bottom of the switch.
“What’s your status” Cmdr. Kelley’s voice was clipped, crisp.
“Almost there.” Jack finished scraping away dust and ruined metal. He grabbed the switch handle and pulled as hard as he could. It broke free and swung away.
“Lights went off! Emergency lighting only.” Cmdr. Kelley shouted.
Mars Station III – “Game On”
“That’s good! That’s the one” Jack’s voice wavered as a small surge of elation hit him.
“Come on back.”
McAngus opened the door to outside. The wind was stronger. It took both of them to get the door closed again. The cold was incredible. Jack’s bones began to ache.
He tried to keep his mind off of the wind, his blindness in the dust, not being able to feel his hand on McAngus shoulder. Counting down each step, he thought of walking across scorching expanses of parking lot asphalt at the height of Arizona’s summer, reaching into his memory for warmth. He stumbled over something, his foot too cold to register pain. It was the edge of the airlock. Kelso slapped the switch and the airlock door snapped shut.
They unhooked themselves from the line and opened the door to the station. Warm air billowed in. McAngus and Kelso peeled off their masks and suits. Jack’s hands weren’t working. He felt sleepy, disoriented, and cold past shivering.
Kelso looked at him and yelled for a med tech “His lips are blue. Hypothermia. Check him out.”
Jack wanted to say he was okay, he just needed to sit down and rest for a minute. Instead his knees collapsed and he slumped to the floor.
Jack woke up floating in a tank of warm gelatin. He’d never felt so relaxed in his life. He drifted back to sleep.
Next time he woke he was in a bed. Gus was sitting nearby, reading a newsvid. He had dark circles under his eyes, but was showered and shaved. “Mornin’ sunshine. Or should I say afternoon.”
Jack had a splitting headache. He ran his hand over the growth of beard on his face. “How long have I been here?”
“Two sols” Gus set down the vid, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “They threw you in the tank as soon as you got back. You nearly froze to death. Yester sol they moved you here. You’ve been knocked out the whole time.”
Jack saw the lighting was back to normal, no emergency strobes. He could hear someone typing at a computer. “They got the lights back on!”
“Yeah” Gus looked uncomfortable. “We were on emergency power the first night, so we’d have enough power for heat. Once the batteries recharged Watson flipped the breaker back.”
Gus squirmed. “I’m so sorry Jack. When I asked you to fix my vid I had no idea how far I’d get sucked into that game. Final Ultimate Fantasy Fighting 25 has a new feature, 5-D. It changes your perception of time. I thought I was playing for a few minutes, not hours. Every time I unplugged all I could think of was getting back into it. Thanks for getting me out.” He motioned toward the newsvid. “Reports are coming in from everywhere of people dying, they’re so wrapped up in playing.”
Gus stood up. “I’ll let you rest. I owe you one. Oh, and I finished your coveralls” he motioned to a crisp pile of clothing on a dresser.
“Thanks” Jack gave a small wave as his friend left the room.
Mars Station III – “Game On”
Jack wasn’t sure what to expect at the dining commons. He had a purple frostbite mark on his cheek and limped from stubbing his toes on the airlock. He grabbed a tray and went to the food line. The steam tables were full, the cook making up for having slacked off.
The voices in the room changed from conversations to hushed muttering. Someone started clapping, someone else joined in. Soon everyone was standing and applauding. Jack’s face turned white, then bright crimson. “I don’t want to be a hero”, he thought. Then people were leading him to a large crowded table and pounding him on the back.
Indy didn’t turn around when he walked onto the observation deck to watch the sunset. “Suppose you’re pretty proud of yourself. Did you even TRY to do a proper shutdown? I lost a sol’s worth of readings.” she wheeled toward him, eyes flashing. She looked demonic in the reddish evening light. “My data is gone and I’ll never get it back.”
Jack, shocked, had hoped for a much warmer response. He rocked back on his heels, stammered. “I didn’t have the password.”
She made a knife-edge gesture with one of her long bony hands. “Not my problem you’re too useless to know how to do your job. Out of my way. I have to go salvage what’s left of my research.” She hurled herself past him and down the stairs.
Jack exhaled and watched the sun sink below a cloud of dust obscuring the horizon.