© 2024, Dmitry Sushkov. A sci-fi story. Please keep a link when reposting.
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Relatives, a sci-fi story

Relatives Relatives

Robots, a true miracle of space engineering, built Igloa in the northern hemisphere of Mars in the area of ​​the Utopia Plain in 6 years. A recent impact crater successfully exposed deposits of ice, whose composition is more reminiscent of a frozen mudflow. Robots - autonomous modules in the form of dodecahedrons, capable of connecting into various structures, deepened the site by 5 meters, installed a shield frame inside, filled the gaps with polyurethane foam and covered everything on top with mined rock. Water is an excellent protection against space radiation. Ideally, of course, it would be good to go 10 meters deeper, but we are not going to live in the Igloo for the rest of our days. And water is also a source of oxygen and hydrogen, from which and from the carbon dioxide of the martian atmosphere, another miracle of engineering produces methane, fuel for the return trip home. Shield structures, two Sabatier reactors and three modular nuclear reactors arrived on the planet on the very first flight, two years before the robots. There was no point in sending robots if the first part of the plan failed. The rocket that delivered the robots will take us to Earth in another two years. Ours remains a reserve in case the first one fails, or for the next crew.

Our primary goal is to settle down. Among other things, we brought inflatable fuel tanks. They have yet to be installed. This is the weak point of our mission. If something goes wrong with them, we will have to stay for an extra two years. The containers must be carefully placed in inclined trenches, which the robots still have to dig, straighten them, connect pipelines, intercoolers, etc., etc. Delicate work for human hands. We also need to unload the interior of the Igloo, scientific equipment, atmospheric composition regulators from the ship, and finally settle in.

What's good is the food. Not haute cuisine, freeze-dried rations in bags. You inject hot water inside, which is in abundance, and here you have either naval pasta or borscht. I am sure that by the end of the term we will go mad with our diet, but we are definitely not in danger of starvation. Big pros: no need to wash dishes.

Oh yes, it was our commander Sarah who came up with the idea of ​​calling the home Igloo, she is from Canada. Speaks with a charming French accent and has some connection to the northern peoples. Everyone liked the name. And officially the base is called PUHUB-001. Is it really optimistic that there will be another 999? And in general, this northern glacier was chosen only because it is a glacier. There are more interesting places on Mars, for example, the Hellas Plain, a deep, huge ancient crater located much closer to the equator and adding extra 7 kilometers of atmosphere. Maybe we will build a dome there in the future. You can place a whole small country under it.

First of all, we covered the joints of the panel structures with sealant, and when it hardened, we inflated a bubble. A bubble is a crumpled film with a squib inside. When it is triggered, hot gas containing a vulcanizing agent is released. The film inflates to cover the entire volume of the room and hardens. It must smell terrible, but we're still in spacesuits. Having inserted the film into the sealing grooves of the airlock chambers and covering the walls with a layer of insulating foam, we inflated another bubble. We have a third one in reserve if something goes wrong. Now we can bring in the equipment and move in.

A day on Mars is almost equal to that on Earth; it’s easy to get used to. Five days have passed. We arranged the cabins and bunks. Well, like the cabins. Tensile plastic partitions and bunk beds. Not quite a luxury, but after the cramped conditions of the ship, especially its anti-radiation shelter, where we had to literally hang over each other’s heads, it became a holiday. Peter suggested noting. Peter is our engineer from Russia. In general, alcohol is strict in space. But the engineer’s friends claim that alcohol protects against radiation, and they brought the concentrate on board. You just need to add the right amount of water and a pinch of the essence of what you want to get, from fine wines to twenty-year-old cognac. The result, of course, did not justify itself, but the party was a success. Only Sarah drinks coffee like a harsh boss. She's not supposed to.

The robots continue to dig trenches, they have another month to do this. The speed of work is limited by the design of the mechanisms and the available energy from nuclear reactors. Each produces up to 300 kW of peak power and heats the Igloo with waste heat. When the robots are finished, we can begin to go deeper into the ice, which is more than a hundred meters below us. For now, we decided to explore the crater in which we were located. Explore is certainly a strong word. Its diameter exceeds 20 kilometers. It doesn’t seem like much, but you can’t get around it on foot, and even on our rover you can’t just go around it. 300 square kilometers is no joke. Yes, for us it didn’t look like a crater at all. Mars is a small planet, and the distance to the horizon is a little more than three kilometers, so we don’t even see its edges.

By the way, many people are perplexed that impact craters are usually more or less round in shape, although the stones collide into the surface of a celestial body at different angles. Surprisingly, the angle of impact does not matter much. When falling, the kinetic energy of the asteroid turns into a huge amount of heat. The rocks melt, evaporate, and the shape of the crater is already determined by the parameters of the explosion. The bottom of ours is filled with water that melted during the explosion, which then froze, and is covered with sand and fragments of stones. I said that the crater is recent, but by cosmic standards it could be a thousand years or 100 thousand.

Me, Sarah and John, our geologist and part-time biologist and doctor, went out to explore. Everyone has seen photographs of Mars. It's a pretty dull place if you don't know what to look at. John knows. No, we certainly don't expect to find the skull of a Martian tyrannosaur. Even if such a thing lay on the surface, the bones would have long ago been worn away by the abrasive action of dust. The winds on Mars are weak, barely able to disturb the hair on the head of a person who dares to go out without a spacesuit, but they blow constantly for millions of years. We are looking for unusual stones, we have dosimeters and portable spectrographs with us. Only once, with a trained eye, did John see a pebble, sharpened in ancient times by streams of water, reminiscent of a river pebble, clearly thrown here by the fall of another asteroid. This only means that our crater is much more than a thousand years old. Our main interest here lies deep under our feet - the thickness of the ice.

We have two drilling rigs. One improvised one, consisting of nine robotic modules united in a drill, from it we expect only crushed rock, but a person in a spacesuit can easily descend into the resulting adit if desired. The second is located under the airlock on the bottom of the Igloo. It is capable of extracting ice cores 5 centimeters thick and lowering instruments into the hole.

The robots have finally finished digging trenches. We filled the bottom with insulating foam, laid the containers and lightly filled them with some gained fuel. The cryogenic liquids began to boil, the containers inflated and took on their working form. After we filled the trenches entirely with foam, the robots covered them with rock on top. You can start drilling.

The well under the Igloo is vertical, while the adit slopes to the north at an angle of 30°. But robots do things faster and go deeper at about the same speed.

To a depth of 50 meters there were mainly debris from the asteroid impact, and the temperature gradually increased. Examining the next core, which had already become much more transparent, John exclaimed: “Guys, there was life on Mars!”

There was clearly some kind of invertebrate frozen into the core. The age of the sample was definitely over a billion years, so there was no expectation of tissue or DNA preservation, it was like a fly in amber, just a form. But it was the form of a once-living soft creature resembling a mushroom or jellyfish. In principle, we were ready for such discoveries, for the sake of which the Igloo was built, but inspiration overwhelmed everyone.

Subsequently, unclear inclusions were encountered until the drill hit a stone. We began new drilling with a slight deviation to the side, and the improvised robotic drill continued to confidently dive deeper into the depths until it entered sedimentary rocks, probably the bottom of the former sea. The temperature reached -5°C, which was completely unexpected, indicating a heat source. The robots drilled about 10 meters more and fell into liquid water, which immediately boiled under the low pressure of the Martian atmosphere. Boiling water creates excess pressure, pushing the water out.

The terrible danger is that if water starts to come out of the adit, the Igloo will flood. The exits of the airlocks are located below the surface and we simply will not be able to go outside. Thermodynamics saved us. The water stopped somewhere in the middle, forming an ice plug. As it rises, the pressure in the liquid column increases. Having reached approximately one earth's atmosphere, the boiling in the lower layers ceased and the rise stopped, allowing the plug to freeze quietly.

Robot modules do not contain a large number of scientific sensors, except perhaps temperature, they do not need it. And they are also not designed to work in water. The last data that the robots managed to transmit was +5°C.

It has long been assumed that pockets of liquid water may exist under the surface of Mars, but these are depths of a kilometer or more. No one expected to find caves filled with water literally under their feet.

He, our Chinese physicist, said we were just lucky. If the water contained a large amount of dissolved carbon dioxide, or there were reserves of gas hydrates in the caves, the release of pressure could lead to the release of a significant amount of gas and the displacement of water from the adit. It would still have frozen over time, but this would not have saved us.

He clearly likes Sarah and I don't like it. Not out of jealousy. I am also a psychologist on the crew, although no one knows about this, it’s better for people not to know about this. We have to live together for another two years plus the journey home, but on the way back we can at least take turns keeping watch. Romantic feelings can have an extremely negative impact on relationships in our small team. I'll watch. Sarah herself is smart. It is unlikely that she will enter into a relationship with a subordinate.

John believes that liquid water potentially poses a biological hazard to the crew. We need to take samples of the discharge from the adit. In a normal situation, this can be done using a sled lowered on a halyard, but now the descent is hampered by the cable through which the robots received electricity. If the adit was perfectly leveled, the cable could be stretched and run between the runners. But she walks sideways and the sleigh runs the risk of getting stuck or even capsize.

Chow is a petite Japanese girl. She will be able to turn around in the adit even in a spacesuit. Sarah listened to everyone's opinions and approved the operation. The winch, which had previously fed the cable, smoothly lowered the sleigh with Chow into the adit. The girl controlled the sleigh with her feet. Only once we had to stop to rearrange the runners. Having reached the ice plug, Chow cut the cable with a hatchet, which we pulled out by hand, collected samples, and the winch smoothly pulled it back.

“Look what I brought!” – she exclaimed, showing a container in which lay a frozen creature resembling a nudibranch. John was indescribably delighted, and it was hard to call all of us indifferent. However, where there is an animal, there are potentially dangerous microorganisms nearby. Now it is absolutely necessary to protect the crew as much as possible from the risk of infection. After thoroughly cleaning Chow's spacesuit with an anti-freeze disinfectant, John took her in the rover to our ship. There, in the airlock chamber, the suit was re-disinfected with ultraviolet lamps, after which the girl had to spend two weeks in quarantine.

Meanwhile, John began to examine the find. The creature was very primitive, it had no eyes, and it was essentially just a digestive system. But the most surprising thing is that it turned out to be pregnant, and the fetus was strikingly different in structure from the mother, having the rudiments of vague sensory organs and something that should have developed into a kind of tentacles. At the cellular level, the organism can be characterized as a eukaryote, however, the capabilities of our mobile laboratory are limited and we are not able to conduct a more detailed analysis. After John completed his research, the small creature's body was frozen in liquid nitrogen so that it could be brought back to Earth for closer study. One thing was certain: oases of life remained beneath the surface of Mars.

Repeated drilling this time reached sedimentary rocks. The cores revealed trace amounts of gas hydrates, which may explain periodic methane emissions on Mars. We had to stop at this place. If the temperature continues to rise, then we need to be prepared for the possibility that we may find a cave with water again. In this case, we need to be able to lower the devices into it, while preventing water from escaping outside. The pressure in the cave is approximately three Earth atmospheres, while in the Igloo it is only two-thirds.

The drilling strategy has changed. We no longer extract cores. The drill head drills and pushes the soil, the next segment contains instruments, and the drill core itself is hermetically sealed.

Chow's quarantine has come to an end. All this time, He maintained contact with her via radio, not letting the girl get bored. Looks like I'm wrong about him and Sarah. Apparently, it was Eastern politeness and a special attitude towards the authorities. Chow is fine. If local pathogens exist and survive disinfection, they are not dangerous to humans.

Drilling continues slowly. We do not risk removing the barrel and preserve the head.

The intake device brought a core from a plug in the adit. Melting the ice, John discovered viable microorganisms. Most are similar to terrestrial bacteria, some resemble eukaryotes, that is, they have a nucleus. Their structure is noticeably different from those on Earth. If they have mitochondria, they look completely different. John believes that prokaryotes are related to those on earth, and that eukaryotes arose in different ways. When the temperature increased above +15°C, all cells died. Detailed analysis is only possible in a full-fledged laboratory.

The crew, not engaged in biological research, rides along the bottom of the crater in a rover in search of interesting things. They brought a bizarre formation resembling coral. But all their discoveries pale in comparison to the discovery of life. We ourselves, and everyone on Earth, are waiting for the results of the drilling. Now there is a conjunction of Mars with the Sun, when Mars and Earth are at opposite points relative to the star and are as far apart as possible. At such moments, communication with the Earth is off for two weeks, so the Earth will have to wait.

The drill entered the cave. The loosely attached drill segment fell off and fell deeper, as intended, revealing the equipment block. Since we were not ready for such research, we had little equipment: a radiation meter, two cameras and a multispectral illuminator, which Peter assembled with his own hands.

Surprisingly, there is a ghostly light in the cave. It looks like the luminescence of walls or organisms attached to them. The suspension raised by the penetration of the drill gradually dissipated and the water became clear. So far nothing has floated past the cameras.

Both cameras are sensitive to a wide spectrum, from ultraviolet to infrared or thermal. The illuminator can emit all wavelengths of light available to cameras. Water absorbs infrared radiation well, so the range of such illumination is limited to a few centimeters. Ultraviolet light penetrates water better, but it is harmful to microorganisms. In any case, we should try all this. The dosimeter shows minor background radiation, likely coming from the cave walls.

It was late at night. We stared at the monitor for an hour and were deadly tired. We told the computer to record any movement and went to bed.

In the morning, a sensation awaited us: a flat worm-like creature with a crown of tentacles, shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow, slowly swam past the camera, and behind it another one. John believes that for cave creatures such illumination can only be a call to reproduce. This also means that our worm must have some kind of vision.

No more movement all day. We turned on the infrared illumination at night. Its warmth seemed to attract the creature, which John recognized as a relative of the one he had dissected. About an hour later, two iridescent worms attacked it, but did not eat. The creature continued to bask peacefully for another couple of hours and swam away, possibly in search of food.

The next day the ultraviolet light was turned on. You can see well in it, but it clearly repels worms. When approaching the camera, they prefer to turn to the side, as if they feel a burn. We left visible light. Visibility is good, but the worms just don't come any closer. A bright light bulb blinds them and prevents them from seeing the colors of potential mating partners.

We left the infrared illumination and witnessed the drama. A pregnant creature floated into the warmth and a worm was “born”. It looks like it just gnawed through the body, and when it got out, it immediately began to eat the mother’s body. We took this for parasitism, which also occurs among earthly creatures, but a day later we saw childbirth, as a result of which two descendants were “born”, clearly belonging to the same species, and who immediately had breakfast. Everyone lost their appetite except John, who hypothesized that this was the local breeding cycle. Both worms and creatures belong to the same species with extremely pronounced sexual dimorphism.

Worms have a distinct midline, like fish, on which there are noticeable pigment spots. Based on them, the computer has learned to recognize individual specimens, but the females do not have clear individual differences, at least for the camera or our eyes. Perhaps they secrete some kind of chemical signal indicating their readiness to reproduce. Infrared illumination stimulates and attracts them, and over the year of observations we have gained a huge amount of video material. The computer shows that population size has increased over time as the proportion of male worms has increased.

We are witnessing the cases of aggression when two worms try to fertilize a female (we already know that males hatch after this), and a third one swims up and tries to drive away the weaker one.

It is surprising that a little heat from a light bulb can so upset the fragile ecological balance of a poor ecosystem. The backlight had to be turned off. Now we turn on visible light for a second once a day to assess the immediate environment.

From the depths of the cave, something blinks in response to us. We are shocked, there cannot even be the rudiments of intelligence here. We turn on the light twice - the answer is also twice. We gave an SOS signal and in response there was also an SOS. No, this simply cannot be! However, the chance of finding life on Mars was also incredibly low.

John suggested the answer, as he is a biologist. Remember, he says, the angler fish in the dark depths of the earth’s oceans. The tip of its illicium glows due to luminescence, luring prey. We drilled in different directions and both times came across caves. There is probably a whole system of them, connected by ducts or passages. And evolution, if conditions allow, sooner or later gives birth to a predator, especially since our little friends are quite ready for carnivory, we saw this from the act of birth. An active predator would not survive here, the ecosystem is too poor, but an ambush predator would. Look, the males meet, shimmering with light signals, recognize others in the dark, in order to fertilize the female together. A predator moving between caves has learned to imitate light patterns to lure the worm to itself. If the signals are different in different caves, it should be able to imitate them all. In a purely instinctive response, the predator repeats the flashing of the light bulb in an attempt to attract prey.

To test his hypothesis, John signaled “hello, how are you” in Morse code. The answer, after an unusually long pause, came back completely distorted. Obviously, a predator is simply not able to repeat a long and complex pattern.

It would be interesting to look at the monster, but the video camera cannot swim. This is a task for the next expeditions. Here it is necessary to build a real tunnel with airlock chambers and complete biological protection. Miniature submarines capable of moving between caves and doing all the tests. Let earthly scientists think about this; we have done everything possible here.

In the meantime, we have current affairs. The fuel tanks are full, just need to pump their contents into the ship’s tanks, start the intercoolers and repeat the cycle, after which the fully fueled ship will be ready for launch. Coolants eat up a significant portion of our energy supply, but without them the fuel will simply boil out, even in the cold climate of Mars.

Seismographs recorded a small marsquake with an epicenter a thousand kilometers away, and sensors detected a methane release nearby. Reconnaissance found a fresh crack half a kilometer from Igloo. This is a warning sign. If such a crack were to occur under the containers, they could be damaged. The probability is small, but it exists. We conveyed to Earth that it was necessary to build a backup hub and reserve capacities.

Our journey has six months left. Chow teaches us Japanese in the evenings. He is the best to learn. Sometimes the two of them check the operation of the coolers on the ship, of course, not because there is no place for privacy in the Igloo. Coolers are very important.

We have a collection of movies from all times and peoples that we watch together. Peter tried several times to lure us into watching Kin-Dza-Dza, but we didn’t get a thing. Much better Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. I'm joking like a psychologist. Cinema helps pass the remaining time. Alas, orbital mechanics is an evil thing. Until they make engines that allow us to fly to Mars and back with constant acceleration, we are doomed to unnecessarily long expeditions.

We keep an eye on the cave. The population appears to have returned to normal. Either the switched off light bulb played a role, or the predator did the job.

John, with the help of Peter and He, improved the analysis of samples from the adit and is now almost sure that bacterial life came to Earth from Mars, and local pseudo-eukaryotes are the result of convergent evolution. He, and all of us, can’t wait to wait for the results of research in an earthly laboratory. The hypothesis is not new, but it has never been tested before.

There is a month left before departure. The refilled tanks released fuel to the ship, which is now ready for launch. The low gravity of Mars makes it possible to set off on the return journey without using a multi-stage scheme. The ship simply enters the parking orbit and at the right moment makes a Homan transition, sending us to Earth.

A new expedition is on its way to replace us, but we will miss it by a week. We will fly away, then they will arrive. No ceremonial transfers of the flag and command codes like in the movies. They have a new drilling rig with multiple sensors to explore the caves, without submarines so far.

Launch. Earth, we are flying home. We have gifts.

All translated stories

Cosmic Call

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